The Smile Has Left Your Eyes

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Chapter Five

Aspen

I didn’t know what it meant at first. I didn’t understand it. But the older I got, the more I was able to recognize that feeling.

It wasn’t my gaze that shifted. No, I’d always looked at Rafe differently. The second I realized exactly what that meant, I wanted to make it go away.

I didn’t like the idea of being gay, of being attracted to guys. I tried everything that came to mind to change it, to reassure myself that it wasn’t the case. My family, friends, and the people in this city had drilled this ideology into my skull: Being homosexual was a sin.

Being gay was disgusting.

Unnatural.

Wrong.

I tried to brainwash the haunting revelation out of me. Video after video. I stared and studied the naked women, but there was nothing. No arousal, no attraction, nothing.

That was the last straw that made everything finally click. Of course, I felt nothing. The sexual aspect of women had nothing to do with me... and I wanted nothing to do with them.

I couldn’t be gay. I didn’t want to be gay...

Yet I was undeniably in love with my male best friend.

“Aspen!” The voice startled me and had me slamming my laptop shut. Rafe peeked his head into my room, his body still standing outside the door. “What are you doing? I called your name like five times. My dad’s here to pick me up. I’ll see you Monday!”

“R-right,” I stuttered as my best friend turned on his heel. I couldn’t help but watch him leave, my eyes raking over him from head to toe. “See you later…”

I couldn’t like Rafe like that. I shouldn’t.

But I did.

“What was that?” Alex knitted his brows together tightly with a mixed look of confusion and disgust on his face as he leaned against the short stretch of wall between our bedroom doors.

“What?”

“Why were you looking at Rafe like that?” he snarled, stomping into my room.

I turned my desk chair to face Alex. “L-like what?”

“Like you were checking him out.”

I held my breath, creating a long pause between us. “Hey, Alex,” I started, “can I tell you a secret?”

“What is it?” He placed himself on the edge of my bed.

“Promise you won’t tell mom or dad?”

“Just tell me what it is,” he huffed, crossing his arms over his chest.

“I—″ nerves stunted my voice. I’d never said the words out loud before: “I’m gay.”

Alex’s head snapped up to mine, his eyes staring daggers into me. “Gay? You can’t be gay. You’re not gay, Aspen.”

“I am, though…”

“Why would you think that?” Aggression slipped into his sharp tone. “You’re only in seventh grade. You’re too young to know.”

“I—like Rafe. Like, I think I have a crush on him…” My words were breathless.

“You’re not gay!” Alex’s voice rose as he spoke through clenched teeth.

The weird feeling I got when he denied my sexual orientation only made me more certain of it. “I’m gay, Alex.”

“My brother is not a fucking faggot!”

Hearing slurs was not uncommon in this household, but it somehow felt different when I realized the hurtful words were directed at me. “Why would you say that?” I yelled back.

Alex stood, his body looming over me, forcing me to tilt my head up to look at the guy a foot taller than me. His expression was something I’d never seen before. His eyes were filled with pure hatred and repulsion, his face contorting like he was about to explode. His disgust drained the color from his face, leaving his skin an uneven, ghostly white.

“If you are gay. Then you. Are. Not. My. Brother.” A crazed expression glinted his eyes as he harshly jabbed his finger into my shoulder. “I can’t believe you’re a filthy cocksucker! What, don’t tell me you wish you were a girl. Seriously? You want a pussy? Is that so you can whore yourself out like a little bitch?”

“No! That’s not it! I’m a guy, I don’t want to be a girl.” I tried to reason with him, but Alex was blinded, his mind closed off and no longer caring about the things I said.

“How the fuck did I get stuck with a fag?”

Alex’s body hunched over with one of his arms pushing against the armrest, holding him up, and simultaneously trapping me against the back of the chair. His face was inches from mine when he slapped me, my head snapping to the side.

My mouth hung open, the side of my face now pointing toward my brother. I turned my head to look at him and he slapped me again, harder. “Don’t look at me, you fucking bitch.”

My hand cradled my now-pink jaw. “Why—” I choked on my words. “Why would you hit me?”

He leaned back, removing his weight from the chair. This time, a closed fist came down on the top of my cheekbone, his knuckles making a small cut just under my eye. “Who said you could speak? A homo like you has no right to talk to me.”

I clamped my jaw shut, my eyes focusing on the carpet beneath me with furrowed brows.

“Are you about to cry? Seriously?” he laughed. “You really are a fucking pussy.” Alex cocked his head to the side, ticking his jaw. “I wonder if I can beat the fag out of you.”

A pang of fear struck me at his seriousness, at the sheer level of his hatred.

“Come’ere,” he growled, grabbing the collar of my shirt and yanking me off my chair. He dragged me out of my room, and I clawed at his hands, but he was fifteen and I was thirteen. He was taller and stronger than me, and no matter how much I struggled, I couldn’t get him to release his grip. Tears streamed down my face and I hiccuped, begging him to let go.

Alex pushed me inside of the spare, square-shaped room we had upstairs. The area was generally untouched, near-empty with nothing in it besides a couch lining the wall, a cheap-looking rug sprawled over the hardwood floor, and a glass coffee table collecting dust in the center. He slammed the door shut behind him and locked it.

He pulled me around, every movement jerking me in different directions. His unbudgeable grip treated me like a weightless rag doll. Fear coursed through my veins as Alex pushed me backward, his back to the door. He snarled and shoved me, sending me flying onto the table, shattering the glass on impact. I gasped, my breath hitching in my throat before oxygen could fill my lungs. My body froze, paralyzed with pain shooting through the nerves in my body.

The glass splintered into countless shards, digging into my skin and simultaneously ripping holes in my shirt.

A momentary flash of bewilderment and regret crossed Alex’s face, but those thoughts in his head vanished before the seed could take root. “Fuck! You broke the damn table!”

I shuddered. Why? Why was he doing this to me? What was so bad about being gay? It wasn’t wrong, and I didn’t deserve this.

But I could blame myself.

I was stupid. I was so stupid. It wasn’t like I was unaware of my family’s views on homosexuality, yet I went ahead and told Alex, anyway.

I didn’t think he’d simply accept me and tell me he loved me no matter who I was attracted to. But this...

Alex wasn’t a violent person. He had never been. So why?

My breathing became labored as I stared up at Alex’s face peering over mine with a semi-satisfied look. “You think this is bad? Just wait until our parents find out. I’m curious... what exactly do you think they’d do if they knew their son was a faggot?” Alex already knew the answer. He was toying with me.

I wanted to deny it, but deep down, I knew.

If this was Alex’s reaction, then my parents’ would be ten times worse.

My eyes went wide and I choked on a sob. “Please! Y-you can’t tell them! Please,” I begged as tears slid from the corners of my eyes and down the sides of my face and into my hair.

“Why the hell not?”

“I’m—I’m your brother!” I wanted him to realize that nothing had changed, I was still the same as before.

“I don’t care, Aspen,” he deadpanned. “It doesn’t matter if we’re related by blood. That changes nothing.”

My back uncontrollably twitched. A sharp pain shot up through my neck and I closed my eyes as tight as I could.

“Someone like you doesn’t deserve to have the same things I do. A fag like you doesn’t deserve to live a nice life. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t tell mom and dad right now.” There was a slight smirk on his stony face—disappointment mixed with intense amusement.

“Any-anything you want,” my voice came out in a raspy whisper. “I’ll do anything you want. Just—don’t tell anyone else. Please.”

“Anything, you say? Are you sure about that?” Alex sneered.

“Yes... Just don’t tell anyone.” My words were laced with defeat. I shivered from the pricking stings and throbs, my body hovering on the edge of unconsciousness.

Alex stepped over me and walked toward the door. “Make sure to clean this up when you’re done. If mom asks me what happened, I won’t lie for you.”

I gazed at the ceiling, random splotches of black with flashing green and purple littering my vision. My arms were sprawled out at my sides and my legs lay still, lifeless.

My brother placed his hand on the doorknob and turned it. Before he opened the door, he craned his head over his shoulder. “You have a deal.”

He upheld his side of the bargain. Alex kept my secret, and in exchange, he’d beat me up whenever he felt like it.

Alex rarely touched me when our parents were home, but they traveled frequently for work. Sometimes it was just a day trip, and occasionally, a full week.

Madelin and Garret Ace. Co-founders of a successful business enterprise focused on consumer travel satisfaction. White and devout in their faith. And unfortunately for me, homophobic. Well, not just homophobic. They hated anything that didn’t fit their definition of acceptable.

And I did not fit into that small box.

What I didn’t understand the most out of everything was why Alex tortured me. Why—how he could possibly enjoy it.

When I came out to him, his violent tendencies surfaced, like he’d been wrestling with anger, the emotion bubbling under his skin, just waiting to burst out. And it seemed like I was the perfect outlet.

He knew he could do whatever he wanted to me and I would never tell a soul. Hell, I’d do everything I could to hide it. Which also meant I had to do everything I could to cover for that monster.

***

I sprinted as fast as I could, trying to ignore the intense pain in my leg. Each step intensified the twinge tenfold, and it was getting harder and harder to ignore.

“Aspen, slide!” the third-base coach shouted through cupped hands.

I didn’t want to. It would make everything hurt so much more than it already did, but if I was called out here, then we wouldn’t score a run and we’d have to go into another extra-inning that I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle.

I ground my teeth as I dropped to the ground, sticking my left leg out and tucking my right leg under it. My foot slid across the flat home plate as the opposing team’s catcher caught the ball and slammed his glove onto my leg.

A loud shout came from the umpire, “Safe! That’s the game!”

I could hear the cheers coming from my teammates, coaches, and parents in the stands. We’d just won our first 15U tournament of the season.

They celebrated, but I couldn’t get up. I rolled to the side as the catcher removed the pressure from my leg. Noticing that I was still on the ground, the umpire threw his mask off to the side. He raised his hand in the air and called for my coach. The rowdy team went silent and my coaches rushed toward me. My mother and father trotted down the bleachers as fast as they could, running through the dugout to where I withered, clutching the lower half of my leg.

My breathing shallowed and I squished my body into a fetal position that somehow eased the pain.

“What happened?” my coach asked urgently, crouching down next to the lower half of my body, gently removing my hands.

I didn’t answer him.

He placed his hands where mine had been and I yelped in pain. He immediately retracted his arms.

My face pushed into the beige dirt and tears stung my eyes.

“Garret, we need to take him to the emergency room!” My mom touched my dad’s shoulder, her words scrambled.

“Okay, go get the car, I’ll try to pick him up,” came my dad’s gruff voice.

He scuffled one hand under my backside, scraping it on the hard rocks in the dirt, and used his other hand to grip the bottom of my thigh just above my knee.

“Agh!” I grunted as he lifted me off the ground, stumbling a bit while trying to find balance. It was the beginning of eighth grade and I’d just turned fourteen—I wasn’t as small as I used to be.

My dad panted, slowly making his way to the car my mom had pulled up to the front of the parking lot.

Rafe ran to catch up with my dad, fast-walking on the side where my head was. He had this look of fear in his eyes, his eyebrows knitted together so tightly they almost touched. There was a large frown on his face, which, for some reason, hurt more than my leg.

“What happened?!” If I weren’t squinting at the bright sun beating down on my face and could actually see, I’d think Rafe was crying.

“I must’ve hurt my leg when I tripped over my bag before the game,” I lied. “But it wasn’t this bad. I think it’s just because the catcher tagged me where I hurt it.” My mouth became dryer by the second, the fake words causing me to sweat.

My dad set me onto the cool leather seats of the car. I lay on my back and adjusted my position using my elbows and right foot to scoot myself back so I had more room for my legs.

“But you were limping before the game even started—” Rafe didn’t finish his sentence, the closing door interrupting him.

I waved at Rafe through the window as the engine roared, my mom driving away. He didn’t wave back, he simply looked at me, confused and worried.

My lips pursed, trying to silence the screams of pain aching to come out. I chewed on the corner of my lip, the small stinging momentarily distracting me from the real issue.

When we arrived, my mom parked as close to the entrance as she could. My dad opened the door and assisted me out, placing his arm under my left shoulder to help carry my weight. With the help of my dad, I limped into the waiting room where I took a seat in one of the numerous chairs while my parents went up to the front desk.

My parents hounded me with questions. I told them the same thing I’d told Rafe; I needed to be consistent.

My dad was completely unconvinced. He believed that the other team’s catcher had been playing dirty, which wasn’t the case, and I felt bad that I’d put some of the blame on him.

“Aspen Ace?” a nurse wearing magenta scrubs called. She didn’t look up as she scribbled something on her clipboard.

“Wait here for a second.” My mom tapped my shoulder gently, standing to confront the nurse and politely ask for a wheelchair.

She came back with one moments later. I placed my arms on the armrests of the plastic waiting chair, flexing my muscles to keep steady and using my right leg to stumble into the black cloth of the wheelchair.

She directed my parents to a room and told them to wait there while I got my leg X-rayed.

I sat on the grey edge of a long table, my leg resting on the shiny black material covering the center, a giant machine attached to the ceiling dropping down. She placed it in four different spots, taking several images each time. The nurse made sure that every portion of my leg was covered from my hip joint down to my foot.

When the X-ray tech finished, the nurse helped me back into the wheelchair and brought me to the room my parents were waiting in. I hoisted myself onto the dark-blue, almost turquoise bed in the corner and waited patiently for the doctor to come in.

Three knocks rang against the door before a woman with pitch-black hair poked her head into the room. “Hello!” She walked in and closed the door behind her, placing herself on a circular seat and swiveling toward me. “Hi, Aspen.” She reached out her hand for me to shake. “I’m Dr. Miller, it’s nice to meet you.” She paused. “Well, the circumstances aren’t exactly nice, but you get what I mean.” She gave me a large, straight-toothed smile.

“I took a look at your x-rays, and you have a closed simple fracture on your left tibia.” She turned the computer screen, showing my family an image of my X-ray. “As you can see here,” she pointed to the break, “the lower part of the bone has been broken off of the top portion. It’s a clean break. There aren’t any splintered fragments, and thankfully it didn’t breach the skin. I know that it hurts now, but if you wear a cast for six to twelve weeks, it’ll heal quite nicely and your leg will be good as new.” The doctor grinned, nodding while keeping eye contact.

“Could tripping over a bag cause something like this?” my dad asked, rubbing his stubbly chin.

“Depending on the way he fell, it’s possible,” the doctor explained.

I did fall. But not over a baseball bag.

My parents had gone on a date the previous night, leaving me alone with Alex. He didn’t usually go this far... but as time had passed, he’d continued to get more and more physical. At that point, I was simply the personal punching bag he used to let off steam.

I’d been standing next to the fridge looking for something to eat when Alex walked up to me and closed the door. He placed himself between me and the silver appliance. When I took a step back, he smiled.

He just smiled.

And then he told me not to move, to stay completely still, and that I would “get it” if I dodged. The next thing I knew, Alex had stomped on my shin. The impact made me fall into the island in the middle, giving me a nasty bruise at the bottom of my rib cage in a long, thick horizontal line. The bruise was darker near where the table made contact with the bone, while the rest spanned out into pinks and yellows, with spiderwebs of purple protruding out.

I was lucky I didn’t hurt my knee. That would’ve been much more difficult to recover from.

A year later and I still didn’t understand what I’d done to deserve this... but in the end, it wasn’t about what I understood. It was about how much I could take. The answer: not a lot more.

***

“What was it this time, Aspen?” His face was fuzzy and his voice blurred into the loud ringing in my head.

My breaths were labored and shallow. From the corners of my eyes, I saw the clear outline of the mask that covered my nose and mouth, aiding my attempt to breathe. There was a soft pillow under my head and curtains on both sides of the tall bed.

“Aspen! I need you to tell me what you took!” Dr. Amin shouted, trying to get my eyes to focus on him. But all I could see was the vague image of his curly black hair mixed into his dark skin, his white coat completely blending into the white curtain.

“Damnit!” he muttered as he lifted my eyelid and shined a bright light into it. I tried to close my eyes at the irritating handheld sun. “Aspen! I can’t treat you if you don’t tell me.”

I opened my mouth, but the words didn’t come out.

Did I want to tell him? Not really...

“Vicodin…” I whispered, my throat raspy and burning.

“And?” He knew me too well.

“Vodka…”

Dr. Amin left the room, returning and sticking a needle into my arm.

“How much?” He sighed. The clicking noise in the background from him adjusting the dosage of whatever he was giving me distracted me, prolonging the time before I answered.

“Five—maybe six. Possibly ten…”

“You’re lucky you’re still breathing right now! We had to pump your stomach! Again!”

Lucky wasn’t the exact word I would’ve used...

“How did I get here?” I asked, looking at his seemingly clearer face.

“A druggie saw you popping pills and wanted to steal them, but then you collapsed and were lying unconscious on the ground, so he brought you here.”

I was all too familiar with the clinic. It wasn’t my first trip here—whenever I thought Alex had broken or sprained something, or if I made an attempt and it hadn’t worked, I’d usually come here to get stitches or to make the pain disappear temporarily.

It was a free clinic that operated for people without healthcare. My family didn’t know about it, and the doctors I saw here regularly only knew my first name. They couldn’t do anything when I refused to give them more information.

The doctor sighed and placed a hand on my clothed arm. I wanted to flinch. It hurt. But he wouldn’t be able to see why, although he probably knew, since he quickly retracted his hand.

“You’ve been coming in here with these same issues for the past two years. If you just tell me what’s happening, I can help you. Seriously, Aspen. I can help.” What he wanted was to involve my parents so that I could be admitted to a hospital. He couldn’t do shit without their permission, since I was still a minor. “You’re only sixteen! You don’t need to deal with everything by yourself.”

No, thank you.

Even if I needed it, I was not about to spend my time in a psych ward where I’d be monitored twenty-four seven. I knew that if I went, they’d take away the only things that still made me happy.

I wouldn’t be able to play baseball.

I wouldn’t get to talk to Rafe.

… Yeah, kind of a short list, I know.

I wouldn’t have the privacy I needed to make myself feel... better...

I wouldn’t be able to release the hurt...

And worst of all, it would mean telling people, my parents, what happened—and why...

That wasn’t an option, and it never would be.

Even if I needed help, I didn’t want it.

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