Chapter 6 - Alex
“Girl, you look like shit,” Gemma muttered as I slid into my desk beside her in first period French.
Nate’s proposition had kept me up well into the night, even after I returned home and slipped into bed. I’d stared at the ceiling for hours, trying to wrap my head around what he’d said and what the future might look like if we were more open about our friendship.
He’d made very clear that he wasn’t at all ashamed of me. I wasn’t going to waste time convincing myself that was a lie. I was good at reading people, even ones I didn’t know very well and Nate I knew plenty well. He wasn’t lying. He had no anxiety about the thought of his friends and the world at large knowing he was friends with me.
Unfortunately, liberation from that insecurity left me with the cold, hard knowledge that I was, in a sense, ashamed of him. Not of who he actually was, of course. With me he was sweet, smart, and funny. He was by far the greatest guy I knew.
It was the facade he presented to the world that had me worried. He was a jerk in real life. He cursed at teachers and slept in class and had everyone in the school so scared of him and his legendary rage the crowded hallways parted like the Red Sea when he walked down them.
I, on the other hand, took pride in staying off the grid. My teachers liked me. My classmates either liked me or didn’t think much of me at all. High school was just a stepping stone to somewhere better and I had to stay the course if I wanted to get where I was going.
How could I stay the course if everyone in school knew I was cavorting with the guy who threw punches with no more incentive than a wrong look? People would ask questions. Teachers would pay more attention to me and question my work. Rumor would fly and someone might bring it home to my father.
Why did he have to be so insistent? What was so wrong with what we had?
“Uh… hello?” Gemma craned across the aisle between our desks and waved her hand in front of my face. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, pushing her hand away and leaning over to pull my books out of my back, setting them on my desk. “Yeah, I’m good.”
I wasn’t, though. I was distracted. I didn’t absorb even a second of the French lecture, and I missed three entrances during concert band to the point where the conductor called me out, specifically.
“Do you need someone to help you count the rests, Ms. Winger?” he snapped, after drawing the whole band to a halt and glaring at me where I sat amidst the flute section.
“No, sir,” I mumbled, trying to fight the red hot flush that crept into my cheeks as everyone turned to look at me.
I forced myself to stay tuned for the rest of band, but I drifted back into deliberation through lunch. Gemma eventually gave up talking to me.
“I dunno what’s gotten into you,” she huffed, pulling out a textbook and slapping it on the desk. “But if you don’t want to talk about it I’ll just leave you to your daydreaming.”
Honestly, I did want to talk to her. She was smart and no-nonsense and she’d probably have some wisdom to offer. That’s the problem with secret friendships, I guess. They exist in a vacuum, so when things go wrong there’s no external force to bring back the equilibrium. The conflict just spins farther and farther out of control.
I was walking back to class after lunch, still lost in my head, when an office runner found me, holding a slip of blue paper in her hand.
“You need to go to the nurse’s office” she said, winded from her sprint down the hallway. Did she know the term ‘runner’ was just a word? She didn’t actually have to run.
“Thanks,” I said, taking the paper as a sour ball of dread settled in my stomach. I only ever got called to the nurse’s office when Tom had an incident. Everyone on the staff knew I was the only one who could calm him down during an episode.
Suddenly I was grateful to the runner for taking her job seriously, and I spun, backpack smacking me in the back as I sprinted to the nurse’s office to calm my hysterical brother.
Tommy wasn’t hysterical. He sat calmly on the exam table, holding an ice pack to his face. When he sat me his face lit up and he lifted his free hand to wave.
“Tom, what happened?” I asked, breathless, ignoring the adults scattered through the room.
“Nothing” Tom mumbled, brightness dimming somewhat as he slumped, looking at the floor.
“Where is he?” I growled. “Where is that jerk, Freddy? None of you believed me when--”
“Ms. Winger, please calm down.” The vice principal was in the room. That couldn’t be good. “Mr. Whitehouse’s mother just picked him up and is taking him to the emergency room.”
Oh, God. Tom was gentle as a lamb, but he was a big guy and he was a human being. There was always a chance he’d lash out if he was backed into a corner. I told him not to fight, though. I told him that’d make things worse.
“Tom,” I whispered, stepping close and taking his hands, looking for torn up knuckles or some other sign that he’d been in a fight. I found nothing. “What happened?”
“It’s okay, Aly!” Tom said brightly, tossing the ice pack aside and pulling me into his arms in a too-tight hug. I couldn’t breathe, but I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed right back, relieved that he wasn’t too badly hurt and bore no evidence of having hurt anyone himself.
“What happened?” I asked, turning to face the adults in the room. Tom’s in-school therapist stood by the door, the vice principal sat in a chair nearby, and the nurse lingered by her little cabinet of supplies.
“Well, Ms. Winger, that’s what we’d like to know,” the vice principal said, frowning at me. “Your brother doesn’t seem to want to talk. Nor do Mr. Whitehouse or any of his friends. We were hoping you could convince Tommy, here, to tell us what happened.”
Desire to stay under the radar forgotten, I glared at the adults in the room.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” I said. “I came to you five times this year, telling you Freddy was picking on Tom. You didn’t do anything to stop it. If my brother doesn’t want to talk about what happened, I’m not gonna manipulate him. Can I please call our mom to come pick us up?”
“The school day is barely halfway complete, Ms. Winger,” the administrator said, giving me a stern look.
“You dragged me out of class for this, didn’t you? Tommy’s not going back to class today and neither am I. Let me call my mom. If you don’t I’ll make sure to tell her all about my repeated attempts to get your help with this and about your refusal to let me call her after my brother was beat up on your watch.”
My mom wouldn’t care about either, but these people didn’t know that and didn’t need to. All three adults exchanged a look before the vice principal sighed and shrugged.
“You can use my phone, sweeetheart,” the nurse said, shooting me a small smile as she nodded toward the phone on the wall by her cabinet.
Momma didn’t work, so she was at the school to get us within twenty minutes. Tom and I had passed the time in silence. He just grinned and held the stupid ice pack to his face, and I sat on the edge of my chair, knee bouncing up and down in anticipation. I didn’t really care about my mom arriving, I just wanted to get Tommy away from these jerk adults and figure out what had happened.
“What happened?” Momma asked the vice principal as she signed the requisite paperwork, offering a pale look of concern in my brother’s direction.
“We don’t know, ma’am. Tom’s therapist found him and another student in a hallway during the lunch hour. There was clearly a fight and Mr. Whitehouse is on the way to the ER with his mother. I hope you understand, this is a matter of concern, and there will be a full investigation.
“I hope so,” Momma said absently, turning to leave the office and nodding her head to indicate Tom and I should follow her. I hoped the vice principal would see her behavior as some kind of icy power play and not what it really was -- disinterest.
“What happened, Tom?” she asked once we were safely on the road.
“Nothing,” Tom said, smiling out the window.
Momma just sighed and kept driving and I wanted to scream.
I spent the rest of the day trying to goad the truth out of my brother. I plied him with food, I took him out to the spot, I promised him a new lego set. Nothing worked. He just smiled, the bright effect offset by the crust of blood beneath his nose and the bruises working their way up the bridge and swelling by his eyes.
“It’s okay, Aly,” he kept saying, like that was somehow supposed to make me feel better. “Freddy won’t bother me anymore.”
What the hell did you do to him? I wanted to scream. Tom had enough accusation and distrust in his life, though. He didn’t need it from me, too.
Daddy showed as little interest in Tom’s appearance as Momma.
“What happened, Tom? Did you get in a fight?” he asked brusquely across the dinner table.
Tom just shook his head, grinning.
“You know what the Bible says, son. Turn the other cheek.”
“What, so he’s supposed to just let himself get beat up?” I asked in spite of myself, scowling at my father.
He glared right back, and I felt my courage whither under the powerful wash of disappointment emanating from him. My father never had to get angry. He just got disappointed, and it always felt like the whole universe agreed with him. Like god herself thought you had failed.
“Don’t argue with me, Alexandra,” he ordered, and I shut my mouth and lowered my gaze to my plate. “Tom, you know better than to fight.”
“I didn’t fight,” Tom said, frowning.
“The school said there will be an investigation,” Momma offered, setting her silverware down and taking a sip of wine. Glass number three if I wasn’t mistaken. “The boy he beat up is the son of a school board member. Freddy Whitehouse.”
“I didn’t beat anyone up,” Tom said, turning his frown to me, tears in his eyes.
“Jack and Millie Whitehouse are in my congregation,” Daddy said with a nod. ignoring my brother. “I’ll talk to them on Sunday. See if we can resolve this quietly.”
Tom was growing increasingly more upset, so I excused us from the dinner table and dragged him up to my room to color while I tried like hell to concentrate on my homework until bedtime.
I’d all but forgotten the stress of Nate’s proposal by the time the house went quiet that night. I scrambled out of bed as soon as my father’s weight shifted the floorboards on his walk to bed. Hastily, desperate to talk to my friend, I pulled on my dirty old shorts and ragged t-shirt, slipping my feet into sneakers and pulling my hair into a messy ponytail.
It was a rarity that Nate beat me to the spot, but there he was when I arrived, sprawled on the rock and staring at the sky. I leapt over the stream as he sat up, leaning back on his hands.
“’Sup, Al?!” he said, grinning brightly. The moon was waning, and every night it was harder to see him and easier to see the stars above.
“I had a crazy day,” I breathed, winded from my jog through the woods. I slipped up onto the rock beside him, flopping onto my back and gathering the scattered stars together in my mind, soaking up the steady peace they always offered.
“Wanna talk about it?” It wasn’t a question so much as a prompt.
“Tommy got in a fight!” I said without preamble, throwing my arms out to my sides as I stared at the sky, finally letting my the bottled-up stress and disbelief erupt. “Stupid Freddy Whitehouse cornered him and Tommy beat him so bad he had to go to the ER!”
There was a long pause, during which I took deep, steadying breaths to try to calm myself down. I’d always taken a tentative comfort in Tom’s gentle nature. He’d gotten so big in his teens, it started to scare me. Such a big guy with so little common sense and emotional maturity was a scary thing. I lived in fear of the day he snapped and hurt someone just because he didn’t know better. Now that day had come.
“I don’t think he’d do that, Al,” Nate said, the words low and calming. They washed like a warm breeze over my frazzled nerves, and my body reacted on its own. My breath calmed, my heart slowed, and the tremor of panic that gripped my muscles eased. My mind, however, knew better than my stupid body.
“You don’t even know him,” I moaned, rubbing my hands over my face. “He’s a big guy, Nate, and Freddy’s been tormenting him for years.”
“Tom wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Nate said, again so slow and easy even my soul went the way of my body, soothed by the gentle caress of his voice.
“You don’t know that,” I said, but my own voice was limpid and drained-- not even an ounce of fight. I wanted to believe he was right. So badly.
“Sure I do.” He sat up straight, clasping his hands in his lap as he leaned forward, studying the creek. “Me and Tom go way back, Alex. We took shop together freshman year. We’re friends.”
I lowered my hands from my face. Tom had taken shop for half a year in a well-intentioned but ill-fated attempt to see if he would handle hands-on learning better than classroom skills. He’d never mentioned Nate to me, which didn’t surprise me. He didn’t tell me about all his friends. What surprised me was that Nate hadn’t told me. He knew Tom was my brother.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, sitting up so I could read him better in the darkness.
He shrugged one shoulder, glancing at me before looking back at the water. When he spoke, there was a tinge of guilt in his voice. “I knew if I told you, you’d ask me not to talk to him,” he said. “I know that’s fucked up, I just…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “I like Tom. He’s a good guy. But I knew you didn’t want me in your actual life and I figured it’d be easier to keep it from you than to talk you out of forbidding me from interacting with him.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that was stupid, but clapped it right back shut, because it wasn’t stupid. He was dead on.
“So now you’re friends?” I asked, trying not to be annoyed. “How many secret friends have you got?”
His lips quirked up in a smile I could barely make out in the darkness. “Just the two of you.”
I chewed my lip, studying the side of his face as puzzle pieces slowly fell into place.
“Did Tom beat up Freddy?”
He set his jaw and didn’t answer, but he also didn’t pull away when I reached out and tugged his hand into my lap. I brushed my thumb over the raw skin on his knuckles and leaned into him, resting my head on his shoulder.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said. “Freddy will tell his dad, eventually.”
“I know,” he sighed. “I’ll tell the vice principal what happened, tomorrow. I just wanted a chance to talk to you, first. Once they find out they’ll suspend me, and once they suspend me my… I won’t be coming around here for a few nights. I didn’t want you sitting out here all pissed off without being here to defend myself.”
My heart clenched in my chest. “Why the hell did you do it?” I asked.
“I told you, I like Tom,” he said, tipping his head so it rested on mine. It was a platonic gesture. We’d sat like this a thousand times. For some reason, though, it felt different that night. The warm, comfortable energy that always wove itself around us had come alive. It sparked and danced in the air, prickling my skin wherever we touched.
“That’s it?” I asked, pulling away and looking up at him. “You’re gonna get in so much trouble,” I said with a groan, thumping my forehead against his shoulder before pulling back and glaring at him in the darkness.
“It’s not a big deal, Alex,” he said. “I get in fights all the time, you know that. Only difference is this one actually meant something. Freddy and his little minions aren’t gonna fuck with Tom anymore, and I don’t have to worry about you getting your little ass handed to you in a quest for justice.”
God, he made me so mad.
I scowled up at him, watching the hard lines of his face ease into a cocky grin. He knew he was pissing me off and he loved it.
“I would have been fine,” I growled through gritted teeth, nevermind that I was still holding his hand, cradling it in my lap like it was mine to hold and protect and cherish. And why was that so crazy? I could love him and want to hit him at the same time, couldn’t I?
“You would’ve gotten yourself into trouble,” he said, and I saw the same fierce mixture of love and annoyance in his eyes that coursed through my veins.
“You’re a chauvinist,” I sneered up at him, leaning closer and injecting as much vitriol into the words as I could muster.
“I wouldn’t have to be if you weren’t such an idiot,” he hissed back, bending to meet my fury so that we found ourselves nose to nose in the darkness.
That energy -- so familiar and yet so foreign in its intensity -- crackled in the scant centimeters of air between us. I felt more than saw Nate’s free hand shift, rising up to hover just beside my face. Each tiny hair on my body rose, as if pulled by a magnet toward his touch. His eyes were locked on mine, the whites glistening in the dim light, and his unspoken question roared with the rush of blood in my ears.
He gave me a choice, in that moment. In those long, tense seconds I stood before a fork in the road. Down one path lay a stable, happy life-- contentment and a long to-do list full of check marks. College, check. Career, check. White wedding, check. Babies, check. PTA meetings, soccer practice, grandbabies, world travel, check check check check. Dappled sunshine played on the packed dirt of that path and birds chirped cheerfully in the trees that lined its long, straight length.
Then there was the second path-- dark and narrow, winding its way through dense foliage that captured the moonlight, holding it hostage before it had a chance to hit the ground. Lightning and thunder cracked over the second path, and the ground was treacherous and muddy. It was beautiful and wild and dangerous. It sang to me-- a sad and powerful song that skipped straight past my ears and braided itself with my spine, sending shocks of pure, electric passion straight to the core of me. I couldn’t see the future down that path, but as I stared at the darkness my list of goals and to-dos fluttered to the ground beside me, forgotten.
I had a choice. He gave me a choice. So I suppose everything that came after was, in a sense, my fault. I could have gone down that first path. I could have lived the rest of my life in the light, with the reins grasped tight in my hand and both feet planted firmly on solid ground. I could have been content.
Instead, I closed my eyes, pulled in a breath that smelled like soap, sweat, and comfort, and surrendered myself to the darkness. At the time I could not even have fathomed what that darkness contained. I could not have foreseen the agony I would encounter on that path, nor could I comprehend the sheer magnitude of the passion and devotion that would carry me down it.
It was momentous. It was pivotal. My whole life came to a screeching halt in that split second when his hand came to rest against the side of my face and his lips brushed over mine.
My first kiss.
Even knowing what came next-- even knowing what wrenching, treacherous existence that kiss begat-- I would do it again. A thousand times over, I would go back to that moment and let him kiss me-- let him drag me down that dark and winding path.
See, the first path might be sunny and simple. The first path might make sense. But the second path? That’s where he is and that’s where he’ll always be-- strong and sure in the chaos, unflinching, matching every evil with ferocious good and every pain with steady comfort. I’d weather every storm, endure every agony, and live every moment of my life in darkness just for the warmth of his hand in mine and the feel of him standing beside me.
I guess that’s love.