They met in the coffee shop he frequented on his way home from class. He loved the quality of the drinks, appreciated the heavy, delicious aroma of espresso hanging in the air, and could tell how much care each barista put into making the drinks. It never got too busy, which suited his tastes just fine. Instead of the modern pop music most coffee shops played to attract younger customers, The Hideaway played a constant stream of soft jazz. It was a haven for older men who came to read in solitude, for middle-aged women who came to catch up with friends, or for young men like him, just trying to escape reality for a brief moment, to wind down from another hectic day.
The baristas knew him by face, but not by name. He would order the same drink every time and tell a quick joke to make the cashier smile before he went on his way. On occasion, he had enough time to sit and enjoy his coffee, take in the earthy tones the café was decorated in, and let the smooth melodies relax him. No one ever paid him any mind, and he was free to observe to his heart's content. It was the perfect place for him to relax and work on his research paper. Or, at least it would have been, if one of the new baristas hadn’t taken it upon himself to try to befriend the quiet brunet typing away and glaring at his laptop.
“You’ve been staring at that screen for the past week,” the voice was low and smooth, complementing the pale skin and blond hair he caught sight of out of the corner of his eye. “As far as I can tell, you haven’t gotten very far, either.” His eyes caught on the form fitting jeans, slowly drifting up the slender figure, taking in the black long sleeve shirt that had the shop’s logo printed on the chest. The eyes that peered back at him were a soft, warm brown, crinkled at the corners to betray the hint of a smile curling at the other man’s lips.
“Maybe some of us just like to take our time,” was his reply, though his track record spoke of dozens of deleted paragraphs and scrapped ideas, landing him right back on page one.
“Considering the assignment has been posted for almost a month now, I suppose that’s true,” he said, resting a hand on the edge of the table and leaning against it. The name tag pinned to the black shirt dubbed the man ‘Noah’, but even with that bit of information, he could not fathom how he could possibly know that. His confusion must have shown on his face, as the barista smiled crookedly, and answered his unasked question. “You see a lot of interesting things when you sit in the back of the lecture hall. Including people like you who try to hide along the aisles. It’s nice to finally be able to put a voice to the face that’s been haunting me. If you’d let me, I’d like to put a name to both.”
Never before had he met someone as bold as the man that stood before him, and he would learn quickly that his way of speaking wasn’t the only thing that was bold about him.
“Carlyle,” he said.
﴾ • ﴿
He was assaulted by the stench of alcohol as soon as he walked through the front door, and for a moment, he really hoped that guy hadn’t smelled it on his clothes. He could hear his mother cursing loudly in the living room, and he hesitated between slinking silently to his room and saving himself from an intense verbal lashing, or dealing with her right away to avoid a physical lashing later. He steeled himself and started down the hall toward the sound of the television.
What was left of his pleasant mood vanished entirely as he took in the sight of the bottles scattered about the coffee table. The blackout curtains over the windows had been drawn shut, and all of the lights were off. His mother Rosa was standing, but bent over the edge of the table, rubbing her knee. In her frustration, she swept her arm over the tabletop, smashing the glass bottles into each other and onto the carpet. Shards littered the surfaces and added more scratches to the polished wood.
Carlyle sighed to himself, heading off to find the vacuum cleaner and a wet paper towel to clean up the mess. When he returned, his mother had seated herself on the couch and was rubbing at her eyes and sniffling softly. He noticed the dried tear tracks when she finally looked at him.
“Oh, Car,” she said, “I wasn’t expecting you home for a while longer.” Her words were slightly slurred, and she had trouble keeping her eyes focused on him. “I was going to clean up before you had to see this.”
He couldn’t say anything to her; didn’t have anything to say. He only nodded and plugged in the vacuum. It took a good fifteen minutes of running the machine over the same section of carpet before he was confident that there wouldn’t be any lingering shards. He wiped down the coffee table with the damp towel and tied it off in a plastic grocery bag with practiced ease.
Bouts of depression like these happened at least once a month, when Rosa was reminded of her ex-husband, or was lucid enough to remember their financial state and decided she needed to keep drinking to make it all go away. It was at these times that physical confrontation was nearly inevitable. She would undoubtedly find something to scold him for.
Most of the time, she was somewhat aware of herself, and would try her best to put on the mask of a good mother. She would feign an interest in his studies and his interests, but would never remember anything he told her.
It hadn’t always been like this. His father had lived with them once. and his mother hadn’t been a complete alcoholic his whole life. He had some good memories, but it was like a dark haze had settled over him after a certain age. Life stopped being interesting and became painful.
“It’s Friday, right,” his mother’s voice drifted after him as he left for the kitchen. “You get your check today?” He winced and braced himself. He had tried to explain to her that the direct deposit he had set up wouldn’t be credited until the day after payday; it was always a Saturday, and the check couldn’t be cashed or transferred immediately. Rosa either never remembered, or would not accept that the money wasn’t available when she wanted it.
They had gone through this song and dance time after time for about a year now, since he had set up the deposit. It always ended with his mother screaming at him, accusing him of withholding what she claimed was hers. Trying to play it off without escalating her volatile mood, he called back to her as casually as he could manage.
“Nah, mom, you know I don’t get it until tomorrow.” He held his breath, pausing in the doorway to the kitchen to listen for a reaction. The seconds ticked by in silence. He could practically see her seething, blood rushing to her face in anger and fists clenching in the worn fabric of the couch. It wasn’t much longer until the imagined anger exploded in a cacophony of concrete expletives and the muffled sounds of soft objects hitting walls.
“You ungrateful brat,” she screamed, “how dare you lie to me!” Carlyle moved from his frozen position as the outburst continued. He disposed of the plastic bag in the trash can and replaced the vacuum where it belonged. As his mother’s rant continued from the other room, he managed to block out most of the things she was saying, conjuring an image of the boy from the coffee shop.
He could clearly picture the expressive brown eyes and the bright blond hair with the darker roots peeking out from under the dye. It wasn’t much, but the thought of having someone there to help him through this was comforting, even if he hadn’t known the guy for more than a few hours. At least it was something.
﴾ • ﴿
His Tuesday lecture started off like it always did. He settled into his usual spot by the aisle, headphones pressed into his ears and blasting his favorite A Perfect Circle song. With the isolating effect of the headphones, he couldn’t hear anything beyond the instrumentals of the song. He was slightly startled when the chair next to him shifted and bent slightly under the weight that was added to it.
Carlyle kept his eyes glued to his notebook, refusing to acknowledge the newcomer. He was shocked when he felt a hand reach over to pluck the earbud from his ear and even more so when the cord was stretched to fit to his unwanted companion’s ear. A soft hum of recognition, and perhaps appreciation, greeted him, and he finally lifted his head to catch sight of messy blond hair and a satisfied smile curving pale lips. He was hardly surprised to find the barista from the other day staring back at him.
“I wondered what kind of music could hold your attention for so long,” Noah paused and hummed along with the song, closing his eyes and tapping his fingers along the tabletop. “I’m more of a fan of their earlier stuff, but ‘By and Down’ is good, too. I would have pegged you as more of a Tool guy, though.” The peaceful smile curved sharply into a playful smirk and Carlyle couldn’t help but scoff.
“They do sound similar, don’t they,” he asked. Noah laughed; it was a bright sound that made Carlyle smile.
“Must be the guitarist.” They both burst out laughing, knowing full well Maynard James Keenan would not appreciate their little joke. They quickly controlled themselves as their peers turned to give them odd looks and it was all but forgotten as the professor walked in and took his place at the front of the hall.
Halfway through the lecture, half the class was asleep or dozing, and Carlyle was doodling in the margins of his notebook. A folded piece of paper landed by his hand, and he turned to look at Noah, who had his cheek resting in his palm, face turned away from Carlyle and a suspiciously innocent look covering his features. He rolled his eyes but indulged the twenty-odd-year-old child and unfolded the note.
System of a Down is way better, by the way.
He shook his head, reaching for the pencil he had set down and scribbled a retort.
Metallica beats everything. Nothing can compare.
When the professor’s attention was back on the whiteboard, he tossed the note in front of the other boy. He heard the short huff of a laugh, followed by the scratching of a pen. He was not disappointed when the note was returned seconds later.
I knew there was something I liked about you.
﴾ • ﴿
Noah invited him to his dorm a week later, bragging about his collection of PS3 games and promising junk food and a day away from work of any kind. Noah’s roommate Sam was on his way out when they got to the dorm, and Noah introduced them quickly before the younger boy was off, ‘keep your hands off of my games!’ echoed up from the stairwell after him.
Noah scoffed and let them into the room. It was bigger than Carlyle would have thought. The ceiling was at a good height, and there was plenty of room to fit the standard furniture and enough space to walk around and not feel cramped and claustrophobic. It was surprisingly neat for a pair of male college students. If he was honest with himself, he had been expecting much worse. The strong chemical scent of Lysol permeated the room, but there was still a gentle undercurrent of days old coffee and the smell of deep fried food.
Noah had his system set up on top of the small dresser, and just at a glance, Carlyle could tell the other boy had not over exaggerated his collection. Stacks of boxes were piled high on the floor next to the makeshift table. There was a beanbag chair in front of the display and a few cardboard boxes filled with chips, pretzels and sweets placed around the area.
He heard Noah laugh lightly behind him, and it was only then that he realized he was staring. It wasn’t often he could treat himself to a new game, or indulge in snacks like Noah obviously had, and it was kind of a culture shock.
Eventually, they settled down in front of the television screen and had found a game they were both competent at, and could enjoy. Hopefully.
“Gran Turismo, huh,” Noah mused. “I’ll warn you now. You’re not going to win.” Carlyle scoffed at the absurd display of confidence. He knew he would be rusty, but the PS2 in the back of his closet at home had seen plenty of game time in its prime.
“You sure?” He couldn’t help but engage in the competitive banter.
“Oh, I’m more than sure,” Noah said. He hunched forward over his controller as the countdown popped up on the split screen.
The first three races ended in nearly the same fashion, with Carlyle beating Noah by milliseconds. By the time the fourth was looking like it would end the same way, Noah leaned over dramatically and bumped his shoulder against Carlyle’s, startling him and throwing both of their cars off the virtual track. The timed race ticked by, Noah gathering his bearings faster than his companion, steering the car back on the road and crossing the finish line with seconds to spare, leaving Carlyle to be disqualified.
Noah whooped loudly in victory, laughing happily as Carlyle stared at the image on the screen. Noah punched his friend’s shoulder lightly to get his attention.
“Hey, no hard feelings, right? I mean, I told you that you wouldn’t win. I had to keep that promise somehow.” He seemed incredibly proud of himself, and Carlyle couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled from his chest, leaning over to knock Noah’s shoulder to mirror the earlier incident.
“Even if it’s through a cheap trick like that,” he asked.
“Of course! I always keep my word.”
“You are such a horrible person.”
“Takes one to know one.”
“Are you sure you’re an adult?”
“Nope. And I never claimed I was.” Noah turned toward Carlyle and stuck out his tongue, kicking his foot out to knock into Carlyle’s leg.
﴾ • ﴿
They started going out during the winter of their junior year, after they had been close friends for nearly a year and a half, and had grown quite comfortable around each other. Actually calling it a date brought a whole new atmosphere to an otherwise normal outing. As they sat across from each other at a booth in a pizza parlor that was a mutual favorite, heavy silence took the place of the usual easy-flowing conversation. Suddenly, things like the latest video game, a hated professor, or speculation on the ideas behind favored music seemed inadequate and inappropriate. It was a ridiculous notion, as they had seen the best, worst, and weirdest sides of each other since that first meeting in the coffee shop
Carlyle had even told Noah about his mother; of her illness and how he was left to take care of her constantly. He had explained to Noah his fear of introducing them, and why it was best if that never happened. Rosa was incredibly homophobic, and he was fearful of any response she might have to her only son bringing home a boyfriend. He had been relieved and elated when Noah assured him that he understood and accepted his reasoning.
As they waited for their order to be made, they both let their eyes wander about the restaurant. Every so often, their gazes would meet, and they would laugh self-consciously and look away quickly. Carlyle’s foot accidentally knocked into Noah’s under the table, and the other boy looked up at him, glaring playfully and kicking Carlyle’s shin lightly in retaliation. By the time their order was brought out, they were both laughing like they were the only ones in the world, lost in a moment that belonged solely to them as they chided each other and themselves on their own foolishness.
They split the bill on the way out and wandered around the small town aimlessly, talking about this and that. There was no hint of the awkward uneasiness from before, and the silences that they occasionally lapsed into were comfortable. It felt entirely natural when Noah reached between them to grab Carlyle’s hand, warming the chilled skin with his own.
﴾ • ﴿
Their first kiss was when it all blew up in his face. He had been so careful to not let his mother get a whiff of their relationship. He had kept his phone locked, said each of their dates had been inconspicuous study sessions, or workshops for their theses.
He had been confident, comfortable, and happy for once. Maybe that was when he had doomed himself. He also hadn’t been expecting his mother to be watching for him from behind the curtain draped over the living room window as Noah dropped him off in front of the house. The only thing he could focus on at that moment was the tiny world that existed between the two of them, the sensation of having Noah pressed against him and the prominent thought that finally, this is what I’ve been waiting for, and it’s really happening.
Carlyle refused to be daunted by his mother. He would not let her ruin his second relationship like she had the first. He became more bold and brazen in how he displayed his relationship in retaliation to her physical backlash. If the cuts, bruises and minor fractures hidden under his clothes far outnumbered the small, barely visible bite marks that were healing along his neck and collarbone, well, no one really needed to know that.
﴾ • ﴿
He had been about seven years old, almost eight, when his mother was finally diagnosed with an alcohol dependency disorder. It was at that point in time when his low-life father had decided he’d had enough, that he wanted nothing to do with either one of them. The night their divorce was granted was the first time Rosa hit her son, but it certainly would not be the last.
There was a long period of time when his mother was irrationally violent, inebriated nearly every day, and it had gotten to the point where her drinking was affecting her work. She was urged by a number of friends and co-workers to seek counseling, to which she finally agreed. By the time he started his sophomore year of high school, she was doing much better. It was by no means a miracle cure, and she still drank on often, but it never got as bad as it had been. Still, the damage had already been done.
She started to regress around the time he graduated. Suddenly, his decision to remain home to support her in her rehabilitation wasn’t looking so great. Over the course of the next two years, she had gotten consistently worse, lashing out verbally, mostly, but occasionally physically, and drinking more than ever. She wasn’t set off too easily, so it was typically bad grades or bad behavior that tipped the scales.
She had been suspended, and subsequently laid off from her position in the company she worked for. They were still getting child care settlements from Carlyle’s father, and those now served as a means of survival instead of the luxuries they had once provided. Her health was steadily declining, and she left the house on occasions few and far between. She had stopped responding to concerned calls from her friends and well-meaning co-workers, and relied on her son to take care of the house and all of the necessary shopping.
Their financial situation was constantly in a state of crisis, and every paycheck he received from his part time job seemed to go right to the credit card bill that was perpetually in the quadruple digits. It was astounding that they hadn’t been evicted yet. His grades had taken a hit due to his hectic schedule, which only served to fuel his mother’s rage.
Since his mother had caught them, her attacks became much more violent, spontaneous, and hateful. He could not go five minutes without worrying if she would throw another glass bottle at him for making too much noise. He was suffocating in his own home, walking on eggshells around the one person who was meant to love him unconditionally. Eventually, something had to give.
﴾ • ﴿
It was easy to slip the pills into the bottle she was currently working her way through. Whenever he had a moment of doubt, he conjured the image of the expression she wore when he came out to her, recalled the stern punishments she had carried out on him as a child. He stood at the counter in the kitchen, out of view of her perch in the living room. The gathered assortment of prescription medications sat in a moderate pile beside the cutting board. Most of them were painkillers for various parts of her body. One for the headaches, for the arthritis, for the joint pain in her knees. He had thrown in a few different sleep aids and a couple of his own anti-depressants for good measure.
He took up the Santoku knife from its slot in the wooden block. It was a familiar weight in his hand, and for a moment, he was filled with warmth as he remembered his mother, lucid and happy, teaching him how to use the knife and for what purpose. Her eyes had been warm that day, her smile bright and easy. He was eight years old. Rosa had not been a model mother up until that point, but she had been trying. She would help pick out his clothes, make his lunch for school and ask how his day had gone when he returned home. They had stayed in that happy state for about a month. He had tried his hardest to be perfect for her, to avoid making her angry and thus earning her wrath.
That day, she had decided to teach him how to make one of her favorite dishes. He remembered spilling vegetable oil over the counter and waiting for her to start screaming at him. She only smiled indulgently and tore off some paper towels from the roll, moving to wipe it up. It was with slippery fingers that he picked up the blue glass mixing bowl to clear the way. He heard the sound of it shattering before he felt the empty space between his fingers. The silence that followed weighed heavily on his mind, the tension palpable. He dared to look up at her, her own eyes focused on the broken pieces, uncomprehending confusion in her expression. As he returned his gaze to the mess of glass around his feet, he was wholly unprepared for the stinging, burning pain that erupted across his cheek. He stumbled back from the force of the slap, cutting his bare feet on the jagged shards, regarding his mother with wide eyes full of betrayal.
Rosa looked down at the scene she had created, glaring heatedly at her son for a moment before turning to storm out of the kitchen. Carlyle sat on the floor, shock and pain flooding his system. It was a good twenty minutes before his mother came back into the room, all traces of anger gone and a first aid kit clutched to her chest.
“Oh, Carlyle,” she tsked, speaking to him as if he were a willful child, “why did you have to go and break my favorite mixing bowl?” She cleared a spot on the floor beside the weeping boy and set to work bandaging his feet and hands.
Coming back to himself, he gripped the plastic handle of the knife harder, until the angled edges bit into the skin of his palm. With an air of frustration, he settled the blade of the knife over the pills, pressing down and crushing them into a fine powder. He had dozens of memories like that, where his mother would be seemingly lucid and approachable, and then suddenly become violent and irrationally angry.
One of his worst memories was when he had introduced her to his first boyfriend. She had been adamant that her only son could not be gay, that it was just a phase brought on by the transition into high school, and the friends she claimed were bad influences. She had pushed the shy, quiet boy out of the house, slamming the door in his face. Carlyle had been confined to his room for the remainder of the week; his mother had forbid him from going to school and had confiscated his books. She practically lived on pain medication and alcohol alone that week, and was not hesitant about dealing out physical blows if he so much as looked at her oddly.
When he returned to school after “The Incident”, the boy, who had been so kind to him before, refused to acknowledge his existence. A week later, that same boy he had thought to be the one was walking the halls hand-in-hand with the captain of the girls’ swim team.
It had broken his heart, and his mother had rubbed it in his face, saying it was his fault for indulging in such disgusting practices. To make everything worse, tales of his ‘psychotic mother’ had been spread all around the school, ostracizing him from his classmates and ruining any chances he may have had at making friends. Whispers always seemed to follow him down the halls now, gazes averted whenever he walked past or turned towards him with a nasty sneer and a hateful comment. It was awful and embarrassing, and he hated them all for it, but he hated his mother most of all. It had made him bitter towards everyone he came in contact with, and he went through the rest of his high school career alone.
She had already been through half of the bottle of vodka that day, so he didn’t have to worry about her detecting the crushed pills he was adding to it. In her current state, he was confident that she wouldn’t notice it had been moved while she had been sleeping. He scraped the powder mix from the cutting board and into the funnel, pouring it down the slim neck of the bottle and swirling the liquid around a bit for good measure. Silently, he made his way back into the living room, placing the bottle back on the coffee table and retreating to his room.
Carlyle didn’t have the courage to leave his room until a few hours had passed after he heard the muffled voices from the television. He had put his headphones in and lost himself in the music and his math homework. Her body was growing cold by the time he went out to wash the dishes from his dinner.
﴾ • ﴿
He picked a spot in front of a broken down windmill. He had trekked through the forest that was on the outskirts of the town, which he had spent many days exploring as a child, giving in at an early age to the desire to escape reality. He knew of the small clearing, and knew that many people had forgotten about it, or at least would have no inclination to go searching through there any time soon. It didn’t take him long to dig the grave, maybe an hour and a half at most. It was crude and wasn’t as deep as it should have been, but it would do the job.
No one would notice her absence. She rarely left the house as it was, and no one would doubt him when he told them that she had completely shut herself away in their home. No one would come knocking as long as he continued to pay the bills on time, but he would have to keep up appearances at the grocery store. If he switched to canned and packaged foods, they should last him longer than fresh produce, and he wouldn’t be wasting as much. No one would have to know.
He could feel the weight of the form beside him; not so much a physical burden, but the toll it took on his conscience was great indeed. He had covered her in a sheet, as he could not bear to look at her face, rendered calm and peaceful in death. She might have been beautiful once - all long, dark flowing locks of hair and bright, expressive eyes - but the drugs she had taken for decades now had brittled that beauty and made it something ghastly.
In old age, she’d had yellow teeth, ratty, greasy hair, a result of lack of care, and bruised and broken nails. It was something one might expect from an individual who has lived their life through nicotine, but Rosa had never touched the stuff, had never lit a single cigarette in her life. The drugs and alcohol were like chemo; dulled the pain but caused nightmarish side effects to her vanity.
He pulled himself out of the crude hole, taking a moment to catch his breath before leaning over and rolling the mass of cotton and dead weight into the pit. He stood, took up his shovel, and began the process of replacing the loose dirt. When he had finished, he took a moment to allow his sorrow and regret to consume him briefly, but it was done. There was absolutely no looking back now.
“I did love you, mom,” he whispered to the night sky. With that, he turned his back on the grave and walked into the woods.
﴾ • ﴿
The old water mill beside their river destination served as a cruel reminder of that night. It had been nearly two months already, but he could clearly recall the chill of her skin beneath the sheet, the exhaustion after digging the grave, and the constant fear of getting caught and having it all blow up in his face. The vividness of the memory startled him out of reality, and for a moment, the paranoia clouded his mind once more, doubts of his safety and security crept through the cracks of his mental defenses.
Noah stopped beside him, slipping his hand into Carlyle’s own and gently squeezing his fingers. The small comfort helped to ground him in reality, burying all of his fears and reservations. He tightened his hand around Noah’s, infinitely grateful for his support and love. His boyfriend pulled ahead, pausing when he realized Carlyle wasn’t following.
“Cal? Something wrong,” he asked. Carlyle breathed steadily for a moment before answering, truthfully, for the first time in a long time.
“Nothing,” he said, but he knew that Noah could detect the shakiness in his voice and see through the lie. He thought about his mother and the monster he had killed, and he thought about himself and the monster he had created. After a moment he replied, simply, "I'm going to be fine."﴾ fin ﴿