“Aspen?” A hand grasped my shoulder softly.
With wide eyes, I shoved the limb off and jumped back, startled. “Rafe,” I sighed, sliding my arms across my mouth to try to clean up. There was now a thin line of yellow-and-clear saliva staining my dark sweatshirt. I rubbed my other hand over my eyes, flinching when I accidentally touched a raw cut on top of my cheekbone. I diverted my gaze to the ground in an attempt to hide my face.
“Are you okay?” His face scrunched up and he took a step closer. Rafe slid a hand onto the middle of my back and rubbed gentle circles, warmth spreading through my stomach. I couldn’t tell if the motion was calming or upsetting my stomach even more.
“I’m fine,” I mumbled.
“What was that about?”
“It was nothing.” I pulled my arms closer to my body as I took a step away from him.
His hand dropped back to his side. “Really? Because it didn’t seem like nothing. Why was Devin chasing after you?”
“I must’ve forgotten something in the locker room and he wanted to give it back,” I muttered with a raspy voice, my throat on fire from the acidic aftertaste.
“Then why were you running away?” Concern laced his soft tone.
I bit my lip, not caring if I reopened the scab for the millionth time.
Rafe sighed, “Aspen, I actually really need to talk to you about something.”
“Uhm,” my voice cracked, “if it’s about what happened after our last game, it’s fine. I saw Devin’s story, so...”
“I wanted to apologize for that, too, but no. There’s something else I want to say.” There was a long pause. “Why won’t you look at me?” It was practically a whisper.
My heart felt like it was beating out of my chest and I picked at the skin around my fingernails.
Rafe bent his head down to see me, but I turned away, hoping that my hood covered enough.
“Do you have a black eye?! And your cheek’s bleeding…”
I didn’t respond.
He advanced farther in front of me to the point where I couldn’t move and he could see my face, even when I turned away.
“Come on.” He grabbed my hand, four of my fingers squished together between his.
He’s holding my hand.
It feels so nice…
His hand bled warmth into my own, forcing my palm to clam up. But I didn’t care, the feel of his skin against mine, of his fingers so close to intertwining with my own, it was electric.
“Where are we going?” Exhaustion dripped from my mouth; I didn’t have the energy to resist, to keep Rafe from seeing how bad my face really looked with Alex’s punch blooming into a deep red around my mouth and Devin’s a deep purple on my eye.
“My house.” Rafe’s answer was brief and offered no explanation.
“But you have practice.”
Rafe stopped in his tracks the second we were in front of his car and pursed his lips. “There are more important things than baseball.”
He let go of my hand and climbed into the driver’s seat. I looked down at my fingers; humid wind swept across the damp skin, prickles of cold tickling my hand. Tingles rippled through my nerves like something was missing, like the heat that had been encasing my hand was supposed to be there, like Rafe’s hand was meant to be there.
I slid silently into the passenger’s side, leaning my head against the window and letting my thoughts take over on the stiffly quiet ride, absent of music or radio.
Amelia’s comment from before had my nerves reeling. What could he possibly want to talk about that was so important even his ex had approached me?
My eyes hopped from tree to tree as the brown and green plants flashed by. The sun shone in through the window, illuminating the tip of my nose and lips while my hood cast a dark shadow over my eyes. The concrete that made up the road was cracked and split, the yellow lines almost completely faded. The gravel reminded me of myself. Broken and nearing the end of its use if it couldn’t be repaved. And just like the road, even when I covered things up, those cracks would always be there, hidden underneath.
“How did you get that cut on your eye?” Rafe broke the silence.
“I accidentally walked into the door when I was going to the bathroom last night. I was tired, so I didn’t feel like opening my eyes.”
I let myself believe Rafe took the bait, ignoring the low rumble of his voice saying, “The blood’s fresh.”
We pulled up to the side of the road in front of his house. Rafe left all the gear in his car and ushered me inside and toward the bathroom. He rushed past both of his parents, who had been watching a movie in the living room, not giving them a chance to say hello.
I threw him confused glances as we stood in the doorway to the cramped restroom. “You threw up, right?”
I nodded my head.
Rafe stepped past me and opened the bottom drawer under the sink, pulling out an unopened toothbrush package. “Here. Come into my room when you’re done.”
I looked into the mirror, watching Rafe’s reflection walk down the hall. I wanted to talk to him, too. I had so many things to ask Rafe, but now that I was here, it felt like it’d be impossible to get the words out of my mouth.
I grabbed the opened toothpaste out of the cabinet on the wall next to the mirror, squirting some onto the white bristles and mindlessly running it under the sink water. I sluggishly moved my arm back and forth, the brush moving around in my mouth. My heart felt like it was beating so slowly, I could drop dead at any second.
What am I even doing here?
I should just kill myself and spare myself the pain of seeing Rafe reject me for being gay.
I wish I was dead. That would be better for everyone…
Why do the people in my life keep hurting me? I don’t understand. I want to make it all stop.
I want to die. I want to kill myself. I should end it. Why do I have to keep enduring this shit? I should just kill myself.
I want to kill myself.
I want to die.
I want this to stop.
I want to die.
I need it to stop. I need everything to stop.
The best way to do that is to just fucking die.
In fact, I should already be dead.
And I needed this damn voice in my head to stop.
A burning sensation in my mouth shook me from my spiral. The minty toothpaste had been sitting on my tongue for too long and became uncomfortable. I spit the white foam into the sink and rinsed my mouth with water, setting the new toothbrush onto the counter so the bristles hung over the edge of the sink.
Limping out of the bathroom, I fiddled with my sleeves as I opened the door to Rafe’s room. I awkwardly stood in the doorway, assuming that he’d be uncomfortable being in the same room alone with me.
“Why are you just standing there?” Rafe sat at the top of his bed facing the footboard with his legs in a criss-cross position. Well, the imaginary footboard, since his parents had to remove it when he’d turned sixteen so his feet could fit onto the bed. “And close the door.”
I turned around hesitantly, grasping the handle and pushing it toward the frame until there was a subtle click.
“Have a seat.” Rafe leaned forward and patted the bed space in front of him.
I placed myself on the small bed, barely a foot between the two of us. We sat in similar positions, but unlike Rafe, whose back was straight, leaning forward aiming to see my expression, I was hunched over, my neck craned so that my face was parallel with the top of his comforter.
Rafe twisted his body toward his nightstand and grabbed what looked like a first aid kit. He pulled a cotton pad out and poured a small amount of disinfectant onto it.
He looked at my face, but I kept my gaze away from him. He gently grabbed my chin and held my face while pressing the pad to my cheek, probably expecting me to hiss or wince at the sting from the alcoholic solution. But I didn’t flinch. This was nothing compared to the things I was used to.
When he finished, Rafe tossed the white pad into his trash can and grabbed his nearly-empty box of band-aids and fished out a small one, pressing forward until his face was just inches from mine. I wanted to look, to see him up close. But I wouldn’t dare.
He stuck the plaster onto my cheekbone. “There.”
“Thanks,” I muttered.
“So…” I repeated.
Realization struck me. He doesn’t know… he doesn’t know I’m gay.
Maybe I could play it off… maybe he wouldn’t figure it out. If he didn’t know, maybe we could stay friends.
I quickly dodged the subject. “I, uhm, I got kicked out of my house.” I scratched the back of my head, trying to play down just how bad things were.
“Aspen,” Rafe said sternly, “You can’t make jokes about serious stuff like that with a straight face.” I didn’t know if there was a crack in my facade, but Rafe’s face instantly screwed up. “You’re not kidding?”
I shrugged. “Nah, but it’s not actually that bad. My parents are on a business trip and Alex wanted the house to himself so he could have his girlfriend stay over without worrying about having someone else there.” I kept my tone straight, willing it not to falter and give me away.
Sometimes it scared me how I felt no guilt lying—or embellishing the truth.
I knew Rafe was skeptical, but there was nothing I could do but keep going.
“When did he do that?”
“Where have you been staying?” His voice had risen slightly.
“At that motel downtown. The one at the corner of Weston and Remington.” I had the urge to scratch at my arms, but I was too close to Rafe and knew he would notice if I tried to ease my anxiety.
“That’s a really bad area, Aspen!”
I knew it was, but it was cheap, the cheapest I’d be able to find in Cedar Heights. “It’s not that bad, don’t exaggerate.”
“Why didn’t you just ask to stay here?! You know my parents would be fine with it!” He wasn’t shouting, but the intensity of his delivery meant he didn’t have to.
“It’s fine. I’m doing okay on my own. It’s only been a couple of days.”
Rafe sighed. “Is that why you look like you got hit by a car? Your dark circles make you look like you’re dying.”
Hah, I wish.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m just a little tired.”
“Do you have enough money?”
“Yeah, I’m making it work…”
“Making it work?” Rafe repeated in a dumbfounded tone. “What about food?”
“I ate some food yesterday…” The truth was, I couldn’t even tell if I was hungry or not. Pain was a stronger sensation than hunger, so whenever my stomach growled or hunger pains riddled my abdomen, the intense ache from my rib cage would take over, completely overwhelming the feeling. I was almost thankful that the pain was saving me money. Almost.
I had the plastic bottle that I’d bought on Friday, but I finished it that same day and never bothered to refill it. The sink water wasn’t exactly clean.
I kept my mouth shut, giving Rafe the hint that it had been an unhealthy number of days.
“Do you want to die of dehydration?!” He jumped off the bed and I followed his movement, still avoiding his eyes that I knew were trying to look into mine.
Okay. I sighed internally. I guess it’s time. If there was a chance I could still be friends with him—if there was a possibility that he wouldn’t find out, that things wouldn’t change between us—I had to take it.
I plastered on a fake smile, scrunching my eyes and letting out a small chuckle. I pulled my legs toward my chest as I tried to hide the amount of pain I was really in. “You believed that?” I laughed. “Of course I’ve eaten and drinken. Alex gave me a shit-ton of money. Honestly? I’m enjoying having a space for myself.” As if I wasn’t usually home alone, anyway. “And I’m only tired because I stayed up binge-watching a show last night,” I explained without stuttering or pausing.
Rafe clenched his jaw. “What show?” he tested me.
“Supernatural.” The lie slipped out with ease.
“And today? Have you eaten yet?”
“No, I slept in.” I smiled, flashing my deceiving dimples.
Rafe let out a long exhale, running a hand through his hair. “Okay, I’ll go grab something from the kitchen.”
I tried to get some last words out, “You really don’t have to—” but he’d already exited the room.
Several minutes later, he came back up with a plate and a bottle of water.
“Oh! You made eggs?” I faked my excitement. I actually couldn’t eat eggs anymore. An instance with Alex, his foot, and my stomach had made me all too acquainted with the shape of a toilet bowl. The smell and taste of bile eggs and piss water… need I say more? But I couldn’t say that out loud. Rafe went out of his way to do something nice for me, so I needed to accept it with a smile. Being friends with me was already hard enough. I didn’t need to add being picky to the list. “Wow, breakfast in bed. Feels like my birthday! Thanks!” I chuckled, taking a sip of water.
I leaned even farther into my legs, slowly picking at and eating the food.
My best friend hadn’t sat down yet. Instead, he loomed over me, staring intently and studying me. I fidgeted in place, trying to hide my discomfort. He suddenly bent down and leaned his face closer to mine. My head jolted up in surprise and Rafe’s eyes narrowed in on my neck.
“What’s wrong with your neck?” he asked grimly.
“My neck?” I furrowed my brows in confusion. Oh. He must’ve seen the bruise and scratches.
His jaw clenched tightly as he brought his hand to the hood of my sweatshirt. I flinched reflexively at the motion, and Rafe’s eyes went wide. “What the hell was that?”
I tried to laugh it off. “I had the chills.”
“I didn’t, Rafe. Stop overreacting.” I smiled and shook my head.
He brought his hand back up, and I made sure to stay still. His fingers grabbed the collar of my hoodie and tugged it lightly to the side. “Aspen…” It was a pained whisper.
“I got that from my gear. My new chest protector. It was too big so the top dug into my neck the whole game last week. It looks worse than it is,” I spoke with utmost confidence.
“I’ve never seen catcher’s gear leave shit like this. Can it really do something like that?” he questioned.
“Of course!” I chuckled. “It’s just part of breaking in the equipment.”
I adjusted my hoodie to make sure it covered the discolored skin as Rafe’s eyes bored into me.
“Rafe,” I started, deciding I should leave before he could get a better look at the well-defined purple fingerprints wrapped around my jugular and piece together what the bruise was really from. “Thanks for the food and everything, but I think I should get going. I have a lot of homework to catch up on.”
I didn’t want to go, but I just couldn’t help pushing him away. I couldn’t ask for help if the reason I needed help in the first place was because of a secret I’d have been willing to take to my grave.
“Don’t go!” he shouted, just as I was about to stand. I froze in place, moving back into my sitting position.
“You’re really not going to tell me?” Rafe placed himself in his desk chair, turning it around to face me. Rafe’s legs were spread apart and his forearms rested on his thighs with his hands tightly clasped together, a serious look on his face.
“What are you talking about?” I opened my eyes wider than normal and innocently took another bite of food. It made me look more awake and overall happier.
“Stop!” he clamored. “Just stop it already! I’m so sick and tired of you faking it! Of you faking everything!”
The smile immediately dropped from my face. I turned my head away from him and focused my eyes on a random spot on his comforter, placing the fork on my plate and setting it on the ground along with the bottle of water.
My mouth twitched a bit before my smile was back on. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re not making any sense.”
“Aspen! Stop lying for once!”
He hates me, doesn’t he…
He must know I’m gay. Is he mad because I’d kept it a secret? Angry that I’d hid it from him?
“I can’t fucking do this anymore,” Rafe gasped, completely exasperated. “I gave you space, Aspen. Did you really think I didn’t notice how you’ve changed? I gave you so much fucking space because I was scared that if I pried you would shut me out more than you already have!” His voice cracked at the last part.
I stared into his distraught eyes. I tilted my head and curled the ends of my mouth upward, squinting slightly to get faint smile lines to form around my eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, Rafe. Wouldn’t it be weirder if I didn’t change over time?” I felt a lump forming in my throat. I’d been playing this game for years; I couldn’t let all my hard work crumble, just like that.
“Aspen, what’s with all these lies? They’re just small things—simple white lies… but everything that comes out of your mouth is fake!”
“That’s not true—”
He cut me off. “It is! And you know it! Aspen, stop smiling. Stop it!”
I bit the inside of my swollen cheek, even though it felt like there wasn’t a lot of skin left. “Can you please stop yelling at me?” My voice came out in a soft whisper.
Rafe huffed, getting up from his seat.
There it was. Now he’d leave me too.
This was just like what happened on the field that day. Was this why he was acting like that? Because he knew? There was no reason for him to stay; I was a liar he’d put up with for long enough.
Rafe resumed his position at the top of his bed with his legs crossed like a pretzel.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. I’m just so frustrated.” Rafe’s words were gentle and apologetic. The worry in his tone was evident and it made me feel strange. “I realized when it started—whatever it is, but every time I mentioned something, it’s like you’d distance yourself from me. I knew that no matter how much I asked, you’d never tell me. And then the years kept passing... but shit, Aspen, it’s getting worse. I can’t just let it go anymore. I was scared that you would become completely closed off, but that happened anyway.”
My jaw clamped shut, the muscles in my face flexing. I wouldn’t cry… “I don’t get what you mean. I’m perfectly fine. Don’t tell me you’re saying all of this because I’m clumsy and gave myself a couple of bruises?” I tried to make my voice sound light-hearted.
Rafe continued breathlessly, “Aspen. We’ve been friends since we were four. I know that you’ve been hiding behind that smile of yours. People are bewitched by it, but that’s not the case for me.” Of course, it isn’t. You aren’t gay, I get it. But there’s no need to rub it in my face. “I can see it in your eyes… your smile never reaches your eyes.”
The whites of my eyes were now tinted red; they burned from struggling to keep myself together, from not allowing myself to let go.
“Your eyes are so big and alluring, they pull you in, force you to focus on them… so did you really think I wouldn’t notice? I can see right through you, Aspen Ace. I can see how dull your eyes have become… you can’t hide anything from me, your eyes show it all.”
Tears pooled in my eyes. What does he know? Rafe doesn’t have a clue.
“Aspen, look at me,” he demanded.
My gaze shifted slowly and with uncertainty. It bounced around the room, looking at anything but him.
“Aspen.” His voice was so comforting, I couldn’t help but bring my eyes level to his.
How long has it been since I looked Rafe in the eyes?
Ah. That’s right… They’re breathtaking—beautiful.
Was that why looking into them hurt so much more? Because I knew his brown eyes would never look at me the way mine looked at him?
“Can you please just tell me what’s going on?” Rafe pleaded.
Then I felt it. Warm liquid cascaded down my cheeks. My brows were knitted so tightly that my forehead hurt. My right hand rested on my abdomen, clutching my rib cage.
“Why are you crying?” Rafe’s voice sounded broken.
Why did he sound so hurt when I was the one in pain?
Rafe gradually lifted his hand toward my face. His thumb brushed across the bottom of my right eye, wiping my tears away.
I sucked in a breath; the wheeze sounded similar to a hiccup. I sniffled and tried to calm myself down, but I couldn’t get the tears to stop.
No one had ever asked me if I was okay. No one had noticed how hurt I was inside—and I’d assumed Rafe was the same. But no, he knew. Which meant that I’d hid it all for nothing… I didn’t want to hide how difficult things had been, but the reason for those hardships forced me to keep my pain a secret. But he knew… He knew and now he’d want to know why. It was only a matter of time before he found out, whether it be from my family, the people at school… or myself.
I want to die. I can’t keep doing this anymore.
I want this all to end.
I’ll do it for real this time. I won’t hold back. This time, I’ll make sure it works.
This time, I’ll make sure to stay dead.
I want to die… But can’t I have just one thing?
Is it okay for me to have this one thing before I do it? Before I kill myself?
I’m going to die. Everything will end. I’ve never gotten anything I wanted—so is it really okay? Just this once, can I?
I searched Rafe’s eyes one last time. My eyes jumped from his left to his right, over and over again. With every blink, salty water dripped into my mouth.
“I’m sorry, Rafe,” I whispered. “Just this once.” I sucked in a breath as I started to lean forward. “Just this once… and never again.” I crashed my lips onto his, basking in the soft feel of his plump lips with my eyes screwed shut, not wanting to look into his wide, startled eyes as I waited for him to push me off or punch me back into reality.