May is silent in the car on the way home from the school. And despite the long, torturous silence, without even May’s usual jazz station playing quietly in the background, Peter can’t find it in himself to try to speak, to defend his actions. He knows it will hurt her. He knows she hates it when he feels like he has to protect her. But that jerk deserved it.
Even if he gets a week of suspension and a note that goes on his school record because of his actions.
As they pull into the driveway, May turns off the car and pulls off her glasses. Peter watches her take a moment, pinching the bridge of her nose against the oncoming migraine.
Peter says nothing. He can take a grounding, he can take suspension, he can take anything. Anything but telling her the truth. That is too much.
“Peter, why? You’ve never been violent kid. So why did you punch Gene Thomas?”
“It doesn’t matter, May,” He concedes, pulling at the hem of his shirt. He can’t meet her eyes, knowing there would be so much sadness and disappointment there.
“Obviously it does, Peter. You hurt another kid, that matters; you are upset, that is important.” Her voice is firm, pushing and prodding at his emotions until he will eventually give in. Like he has every time since he had started living with May and Ben. From sneaking cookies before dinner to breaking a window to sneaking out late, he has always confessed.
“What did he do? What did he say? I know that you wouldn’t go around hitting someone for no reason.” May reaches out her hand, hovering over the bruises on Peter’s own face and his split lip. He can feel the warmth of her hand near his face, but she doesn’t make contact.
“You’re always protecting other kids, Peter. It’s never about what somebody does to you, but what they do to someone else. What was it?”
“May...” As Peter’s lower lip starts to tremble, he catches it between his teeth, ignoring the sting as it aggravates his split lip. He can feel tears beginning to well, threatening to fall from his lashes, but fights against the urge to be honest. “Please, don’t.”
“Just tell me, Peter. You know I won’t be mad. I just wish you could solve these problems with something other than fists.”
He and May have had this conversation before. Violence begets violence, and all that. She and Uncle Ben used to debate the ways to stand up to bullies, prompted by Peter’s own situation.
But Peter has learned that sometimes the right authority isn’t enough. People fall through the cracks or get ignored. And that’s not acceptable to Peter. Sometimes somebody has to step up. Sometimes somebody small has to make a stand.
‘With great power comes great responsibility,’ as Uncle Ben used to say. Peter has the ability to stand up for others, so he will. And he knows that May is thinking about it, too. About the times that she and Uncle Ben used to argue about Peter getting involved, both of them knowing that he was too good, too kind, too empathetic to stand to the side.
“Peter, please. I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s going on in there.” She gently taps his temple, mindful of the bruising, and pushes his hair off his forehead.
And Peter turns towards her, finding her eyes wet and wide. Because Peter is always open. He always talks to May. She’s the only person in his life who knows about his nightmares and goals and every accomplishment.
Except when he knows that it would hurt May more to tell the truth. May has been protecting him since his parents died. And Peter will try to return the favour. He will pay her back for everything she has done.
But now, under May’s confused and hurt gaze, he crumbles. “It was... It was about you.”
That gives her pause. “What?”
“He was saying things about you.” His voice is small, but he chokes the words out. He needs to get them out, to explain himself to her.
“I don’t get it.” Her brow furrows. “What about me?”
“He started going off about Tim. Tim came out in September, remember? Gene was talking about how wrong he was. How he was broken, perverted. You know, the usual homophobic bullshit.”
He can see the moment that May starts to piece it all together, the wheels turning in her mind as she connects the dots. She takes a sharp breath in.
But he soldiers on, the words tumbling from his lips. He doesn’t know if he can stop. Not until he’s done.
“So I stuck up for him. Told Gene how wrong he was about Tim. How there was nothing wrong with him because of who he loves. And Gene turned on me. He went off about how ‘Of course I defended Gene because I was just like him.’” Peter shrugs, avoiding May’s eyes again, and tugs down his shirt sleeves over his hands, hiding the bruising knuckles.
“That didn’t bug me, you know. Because whatever. I like who I like, which definitely isn’t Gene.” Peter wrinkles his nose in distaste. “And it doesn’t matter what he thinks about me. But then he started to talk about you.”
“Oh, Peter.” May’s sexuality wasn’t a secret. It never had been— Peter could remember going to Pride parades since he was small, sitting on his uncle’s shoulders as they walked through the streets of New York, a pink, purple, and blue flag wrapped around his aunt’s neck like a cape. There was another of blue, pink, and white one for Uncle Ben that still hung in the closet— but she wouldn’t want it used to hurt him.
“It just made me so mad, May. Who is he to say these things about you? He doesn’t even know you.” He knows his hands are still shaking with barely suppressed rage. Rage at the injustice of it all. That snots like Gene Thomas were still alive when kinder, nicer people like Uncle Ben were not. That people would use love against somebody. That people would hurt anyone at all.
It’s May’s hand on one of his that brings him back from the edge of that swirling pit of dark thoughts.
“I’m so sorry, Peter.” She sounds so sad, so beaten, downtrodden. And that hurts Peter, too.
“It isn’t your fault,” Peter insists, fighting against the guilt and relief that mingled in the pit of his stomach. Guilt because she is hurting now. Relief because the words aren’t stuck in his throat any more, threatening to break free.
“Maybe not, but I’m sorry nonetheless. I’m sorry that people are cruel. I’m sorry that they are ignorant, hateful, and down right mean. I’m sorry that they use anything that makes you a little different than them against you.” She threads her fingers through Peter’s, gripping tightly when he doesn’t pull away. “But not everyone is like that.”
“Is this another one of your ‘it gets better’ pep talks? Because I don’t think I can handle that right now,” he says, trying to inject a little humour into the dark mood inside May’s old Honda Civic.
“No.” She hesitates for a moment, “And yes. Because there will be people in your life that try to put you down. But there are also people that will lift you up, support you. Like me and you.”
She squeezes his hand, eyes still bright with unshed tears, but a soft smile on her face.
“And that’s good enough for now.”
“It’s not ‘good enough.’ It’s good,” Peter corrects his aunt.
“Yeah, Peter. It’s good.”