I was a nervous wreck by the time Brad arrived several minutes later. Cautious with my optimism, but unsure how he would respond, I approached the door hesitantly and with regret I could’ve never imagined, and waited several long moments before I opened the door.
The first words out of his mouth were: “Is everything okay?”
I paused, only to ask, “Why?”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Metaphorically, I had. Confronting the past, even if it’s recent, can at times be incredibly disarming—to the point where, when looking at another person, they can see your every flaw, your every hurt, your every insecurity. It’s almost baffling to believe that such a thing could occur, yet at the same time, is impossible to ignore. So in looking at Brad, and seeing that he could see everything, all I could say was, “Come in.”
He stepped inside with the hesitancy of a cautious prey animal, slowly but surely easing into the room before closing the door behind him. As he came to stand inside, he paused; and while looking at me, waited for me to say anything further before asking, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just… tired, is all.”
“Why’d you have me come over then?”
“I—” I began. “I don’t—”
Brad’s frown instantly brought the reality of the situation home.
Sighing, I ran a hand through my close-cut hair, then closed my eyes before expelling a breath and then saying, “It’s a long story.”
“I don’t have class tomorrow,” he said. “I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to talk.”
I wasn’t exactly willing. I had, by presence alone, indicated that I wanted something from him, be it company or a friendly ear. Because of that, I couldn’t exactly refuse.
I settled onto my bed and gestured to the chair across from me before saying, “If you want to sit.”
Brad did, easing himself into the chair before leaning forward to examine me. “What’s on your mind?” he asked.
“Truth be told,” I said, “a lot of things.”
“I’m here to listen.”
“I just… don’t want to overwhelm you with my life story.”
“Why would you overwhelm me?”
“Because it’s not a good one, Brad.”
He frowned, but didn’t say anything. Rather, he studied me for several long moments, then expelled a breath that could’ve parted the sea. He then said, “Okay. I can understand that.”
Could he, though? I mean, could he really? I knew so little about him, and yet, at the same time, couldn’t doubt his intentions, or his past, or even his present. For all I knew, he could have a past like me.
Which would’ve made us two peas in a pod, I thought. The fruit not fallen far from the tree.
I leaned forward to study the expression on his face—to try and read just what it was he would think come time I began to reveal my truth for what it was. His gaze was set, his lips pursed, his eyes determined. Nothing about him made me feel as though I had anything to worry about, which was why, in looking at him, and in realizing that I had nothing to lose, I sighed and said, “I really don’t know how to begin.”
“Begin however you want,” he replied. “I’m here for you.”
The words were enough to make me tremble.
Somehow, though, I was able to fight the urge to display it through my body, and instead allowed it to cycle through my mind as I prepared myself for what would undoubtedly be a test of endurance I could have never anticipated.
“Dean?” Brad asked. “You okay?”
“I grew up in a toxic household, Brad.”
There it was: the bombshell, the explosion, the irradiated wasteland, the desolated fields. The gust, as it drifted out from the place of impact, was chaotic. Fire ruled the skies, lava what remained on the concrete streets. And worse yet: the world was burned asunder. Because as the last of the living beings on the godforsaken planet were made to suffer, I was left to wander—because the truth was: no one ever really got over their past. It just became easier to deal with.
While waiting for Brad to respond, and while slowly but surely losing my mind over the reality that this could be the deal-killer for our friendship, I tried, without success, to block out some of the more troubling aspects of my past, but found myself thinking of them regardless.
My father, with the gun—
My mother, with the words—
Myself as I tried not to cry, myself as I wished to die—
A torrent of emotions assaulted me at that moment—when, sitting there, I was made to bare my soul for the one person who could make or break everything I had come to anticipate was wholesome about him as a person, or even as a man.
He could rebuke you, my conscience offered, and make you feel like you’re nothing.
Or maybe, it also added, he could be your savior—an angel, or guardian, watching over your life.
I didn’t know what the case would be. For all I knew, he could turn and walk out. I wouldn’t blame him if he did, because as toxic as my backstory was, it was likely he didn’t want to get burned, even if in the metaphorical sense.
But Brad would not burn.
Somehow, I knew he wouldn’t—knew that, despite what I had just said, he would not turn to ash.
When he finally sighed, and when finally I was pulled from the darkest depths of my personal suffering, I lifted my eyes to face him, only to see a twisted dichotomy of emotions upon his face.
All he could say was, “I’m sorry, Dean.”
And that, in the end, rocked my world.
While waiting for the emotions to either lift me up or drag me down, I watched him for any signs of regret, only to find a sadness in his features that made me wonder whether or not he truly wanted to continue this conversation.
I said, “No.”
He asked, “What?”
And I replied, “I’m the one who should be sorry. I… was having a moment when you texted, and, well… I wanted—no… needed—someone to distract me.”
“The chaos. The pain.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Emotionally vomiting isn’t going to do any good,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest and grimacing as Brad leaned forward to rise. “Are you—”
“No. I’m not.”
I’m not sure he knew what I was going to ask—if he was going to leave—but as he stood, and as he came to sit on the bed beside me, I grimaced, unsure what to expect.
Don’t panic, I kept telling myself. He isn’t going to hurt you. If he made it this far, he’s not going to stop you now.
But I— I’d started. I don’t—
He set a hand between my shoulder blades, then said, “I’m here if you need anything.”
“Honestly,” I said, taking a slow, deep breath, “I’m not sure what I need.”
“Like I said: you can talk if you want.”
“There’s really nothing I can say that would make me feel better.”
“Do you want to go out?”
“Walking. Or, somewhere. Anywhere.”
“No. I… I don’t think I’m in the best state of mind to be going anywhere.”
“Have you thought about seeing a counselor?”
“I actually scheduled a doctor’s appointment,” I said, and laughed. “Can you believe it? I, Dean McAllen, scheduled a doctor’s appointment.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“My parents were terrified of letting me go for anything, even vaccines.”
“Were they… well… anti-vax or something?”
“They were something. I just don’t know what.”
“We could catch a cab,” he said, “and make our way to wherever it is you need to go when you need to.”
“We?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yeah. We.”
“You’d go with me?”
“You’d get lost without someone familiar with the cities.”
“I have my smartphone, Brad.”
“Still…” He paused. “I figure it’d probably be better if someone went with you, considering, well… everything you’ve gone through.”
“You’d do that for me?”
“Yeah. ’Course I would. I mean, you’re my friend. Why wouldn’t I help you?”
My friend, I thought, as the word cycled through my head, repeating endlessly and without regret.
I wasn’t sure what to say, or even how to feel, let alone act. For that, I simply nodded and said, “Yeah. Okay.”
“When’s your appointment?”
“In two days.”
“It’s not gonna conflict with your classes?”
“No. It won’t.”
“Okay. Let me figure out what we’re doing. Then we’ll arrange to go. Okay?”
Brad stood. “I’ll leave you be,” he said as he started for the door. “Unless you need me to stay here?”
“No, Brad. You’ve done enough.”
His smile was a piece of Heaven fallen to our godforsaken Earth.
And it made me realize that I was not truly alone.