The first time was in his first year at boarding school, age ten. School was hard for him – the social aspect at least. Children can be mean to the point of cruelty and Edmund hardened himself to withstand it all.
But then there was William Massey. Where Edmund was all bristling sharp angles with an even sharper tongue, Will was soft and smiling. He dealt with bullies with a dignity that Edmund – knuckles bruised by previous interactions – could not help but admire.
So they became a team, partially out of need and survival, but also because of a string between them, invisible, but always taut.
And between sneaking out at night and stifled laughs and silent looks and the adrenaline that overcame the fear sometimes when being chased by bullies, Edmund began to understand what the older boys meant about ‘fancying someone.’ And when this realization came to him – as they stood panting in a broom closet as footsteps thundered past, grinning at each other – he was afraid Will could tell. He feared that he would be able to sense the way his chest fluttered a little differently when Will grabbed his hand to pull them out into the hall and sprinting off in the other direction.
He was afraid the other boys or teachers would tell as well – by the way his eyes lingered just a little too long on Will’s shining blond hair or his deep brown eyes.
Because, while he was not entirely sure on the specifics, he knew that this was bad, that he should not feel what he felt.
“Are you alright?” Will asked one day during gym class. “You’ve been acting a bit odd.”
Edmund felt panic rise in his chest but shoved it down with an eye-roll. “What do you mean?”
Will shrugged. “I dunno.” He looked at him with more intensity than Edmund thought he could handle. “You just…” He tipped his head to the side, then shrugged again. “I dunno.”
And Edmund tried to act normal, as not odd as he could. But the more he tried, the more he overanalyzed every action and word and look.
On his bad days, he was irritable.
On his good days, he thought – or, hoped – that Will felt something too.
His good days became few and far between.
One day, after provoking yet another fistfight with another boy, Edmund returned to his dorm from detention, where Will was waiting for him. They sat beside each other on the floor.
“Why’d you hit him?” Will asked finally.
Edmund shrugged. “I was angry.”
“No. Just angry.”
Will nodded and looked over at him. “That’s going to be a marvellous bruise,” he said, lightly touching the skin around Edmund’s left eye.
Edmund flinched at his touch.
“Sorry,” Will said quickly. “Did that hurt?”
“A bit.” It was an understatement. What hurt more than the growing bruise was the ache in his chest that had told him to flinch in the first place – an ache that combined his feelings for Will with the fear, frustration, and, frankly, disgust with himself. Inside him, Will had become associated with so many negative feelings, it was difficult to just see him as he used to, as the blond boy who was determined to not stoop to the bullies’ methods.
Will redirected his gaze to Edmund’s hands, which twiddled nervously in his lap. “Did you bloody your knuckles again?” he asked, reaching out to grab his wrist. “Or are they just bruised?”
Edmund pulled his hand away and quickly shot to his feet, turning away from Will. “Please don’t touch me,” he said, running a hand through his hair. His breathing was shaky and his hands a little sweaty. Every negative word he had heard associated with his feelings screamed in his brain.
“Ed, what –?” Will asked, laying a hand on his shoulder.
Edmund spun around, pushing Will’s hand aside. “I said, don’t touch me!” He pushed Will, but harder than he had intended, sending him sprawling onto the floor.
He expected Will to stay down, to look up at him with betrayal in his deep brown eyes. If he had done that, perhaps Edmund would have felt sorry quicker. Perhaps things would have gone differently.
But he didn’t.
Will, who had avoided every fight all year, clenched his jaw and sprung to his feet. “What is wrong with you?” he snapped, an edge to his voice that Edmund had never heard before. “I’m trying to help.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Since when? We’ve been friends all year, Ed. What’s changed?”
With the feelings for Will had come the actions – the little excuses to touch him, to be around him. Edmund was terrified he might do something out of line, something observable, something not allowed. So he did something he would get good at – self-sabotage. “Maybe I realized I don’t need you.”
“No wonder you have no other friends, do you chase everyone else away too?”
And then Edmund did the other thing he was good at: he punched Will, square in the jaw. Will stumbled back a few paces. He looked at Edmund, looking angry and betrayed and confused about why Edmund was doing this. “Well, congratulations,” he said, bringing his fingers to his lower lip to see if it was bleeding – it was. “You now officially have no friends.”
After he slammed the door behind him, Edmund sank onto the floor, tears pricking his eyes. He no longer had to worry about doing anything that wasn’t allowed, but at what cost?