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Some Baptize in Water, Some in Flames

Chapter Text

December 7th

When the Prius finally cleared the corner of their street, the first thing Lainie saw were the flashing police lights, strobes of blue and red cutting through the darkness and slicing right into her heart. The second thing she saw was the crime scene tape, garish and yellow and completely unreal. It blocked off access to their home—their home, which was supposed to be a safe haven for their children but was now a commotion of sheriff’s deputies, police officers, and a growing crowd of neighbors and reporters.

Lainie ignored them all. Matt had barely stopped the car before she was jumping out of the passenger side door and rushing forward, desperate to find her sons. Clay. Justin. They would be inside, shaken but whole. Stressed, maybe, but unharmed.

There was no acceptable alternative.

“Ma’am. Slow down. You can’t enter the premises.” A uniformed woman was pushing her shoulders, stopping her in her tracks.

“This is my house,” Lainie insisted. She kicked her high heels off impatiently. They were slowing her down and she needed to get up those steps as quickly as possible, to see her children’s faces and hold them in her arms. She would never let them go again.

“Let us in,” Matt barked, appearing beside her. Not waiting for a response, he grabbed Lainie’s elbow and propelled her up the stairs. The deputy, face terrifyingly sympathetic, didn’t impede them but followed in their wake to the front door, which was standing wide open. It was ominous, but it wasn’t as disquieting as the strong scent which hit Lainie full in the face when she stepped over the threshold.

Why does it smell like gasoline? Why? Why?

“Clay! Justin!” Lainie weaved her way through the maze of strangers in her house. (Don’t focus on them. Don’t focus on them.) She searched for two familiar brown heads of hair in this chaos, for the only two people who would allow her to finally inhale.

She didn’t find them.

What she found instead, when she entered the living room, froze her instantly, her bones snapping straight and her muscles seizing in place—a rigor mortis which prevented her from advancing any further. Matt bumped into her, his hand trembling for a second against her back, and then he edged around her. A soft gasp escaped his mouth.

There was blood (Whose blood? Oh God, whose blood?) staining their couch, little patches smeared on the seat cushion and a long streak on the side, as if someone had tried to pull themself up with a bloody hand. Evidence placards were scattered throughout the room. Lainie’s green vase was in pieces on the floor. And, finally, on the rug and expanding outward to the dark wood beyond was a large rust-red stain... a congealed puddle of blood.

Too much blood.

How could someone survive losing that much blood?

Lainie would have collapsed. She was halfway to doing so, but then Matt’s arms were encircling her, grabbing her firmly and preventing her from falling. She clutched at his sleeves.

A grim-faced officer approached them. “Matthew and Lainie Jensen?”

“Yes,” Matt said. “This is our residence. We have two children, teenage boys, and they were home tonight. Do you know where they are?”

Her husband’s composure further rattled Lainie. How was he not falling apart at the grisly sight before them?

“They’ve been transported to Mercy Hospital.”

“Are they okay?” Lainie curled her arms around her torso and dug her fingernails into her sides, leaning against her husband. “Please, you have to know something. Please.”

“I don't have any information, ma’am. Deputy Standall was the first officer on the scene, and he went with the ambulances to the hospital to get a statement. You can talk to him there. I’ll get an officer to escort you. Give me a minute. I’m very sorry, ma’am.”

He wouldn’t meet her eyes. Lainie nodded in confusion, incapable of a response. She tried to rationalize, to think logically. Clay and Justin... They had to be okay if they could give a statement. Right? Of course, yes. It would be fine. The boys would be waiting for them at the hospital.

Her gaze cruelly landed on a yellow crime scene marker. It was next to a bullet casing. Another casing lay a few feet away with yet another yellow marker. And... was that blood spatter?

She was wrong. She was so terribly wrong.

The officer would have let them know if their children were stable, if their injuries were only minor. No such assurances had been forthcoming because there must be some doubt, and the officer didn’t want to give false promises to a frantic mother and father.

“Matt,” Lainie choked out. “Matt, the boys.”

What came out of her next could only be described as an agonized, guttural scream.

The sound broke past Matt’s stoic barrier, hit him like a blow to the top of the head—sent him crumbling, pulling her down with him to the hard floor. She could feel him shaking, but no tears emerged. They couldn’t.

The shock was too intense.

How was it that just an hour ago they had been laughing at a fancy Italian restaurant, celebrating another successful year of marriage? Oblivious to the fact that, not twenty miles away, their sons were being terrorized by a specter from Justin’s past.

Seth. Lainie should have asked if they had caught the bastard, but it was hard to care at that moment. Not when she didn’t even know if she still had two living, breathing sons.

The noxious fumes in the air overwhelmed her. Bile rose in her throat. Lainie buried her face in Matt's shirt and wept.

Please, Clay.

Please, Justin.

Hold on. We’re coming.

Be okay. Be okay. Be okay.

Chapter Text

May

Two weeks after the spring dance, Justin met up with Clay after his last class, and they walked out of the high school together. As they headed for the Prius, Justin thought he saw a familiar car in the parking lot. There was nothing special about the make or model, but, even so, it reminded him of... Seth’s car.

Justin ignored it.

The next day, driving home with Clay, Justin kept an eye on the rearview mirror, searching for a black car. He wasn’t being paranoid. Seth had every reason to show up looking for him. Justin wasn’t stupid; after stealing from an entitled drug dealer for the second time, Justin knew he had to get away, far away, or risk Seth’s ire (and, most likely, his fists). Fleeing had always been the plan.

But then, Clay had asked him to stay. Please. I need you. That message had struck at some deep and damaged part of Justin, a part he didn’t like to admit existed at all. He remembered sending similar messages to Zach and Jess after Seth had kicked him out last winter. Neither had responded. He couldn’t do that to someone else, and especially not to Clay. Clay—who had taken him in and treated him with so much fucking gentleness, even though Justin had always treated him like shit.

And now the Jensens wanted to adopt him. Adopt him. Were they fucking crazy? Or did they have some kind of savior complex, like Clay did? Whatever the reason, Justin couldn’t throw the opportunity away. How often would someone like him get a break like this?

Probably never again.

Staying put, though, it was risky. Seth would come after him at some point. It was inevitable. Well, Seth could fucking wait. There were more pressing issues in Justin’s life. Tyler had nearly shot up their school; Clay was spiraling after the cover-up. Justin had hooked up with Jessica at the dance; Alex was suspicious (he’d probably already figured it out, which made him yet another person Justin had carelessly hurt). So, Seth... well, fuck Seth. Justin would deal with him later.

Unfortunately, it looked like Seth wasn’t keen on waiting. As Clay slowed the Prius to a stop at a yellow light (Justin would have barrelled right through that motherfucker), the same black car from the Liberty High parking lot pulled up behind them. It stayed on their tail, following them down every street, taking every turn they did. But when they reached home (no, not home!, the Jensens’ home), the black car didn’t stop. It leisurely continued down the road.

Justin relaxed. He stuffed Seth and the black car into the corner of his mind. A problem for another day. After dropping off their school crap, Justin wheedled Clay into coming over to Zach’s house with him. Justin spent the next hour lifting weights with Zach while Clay and May talked about... well, Justin had no idea what the hell they were talking about, except it was nerdy as fuck. It felt nice though, having his best friend and his almost-brother close to him, a safe cocoon sheltering him from the violence of his past.

The next day, a Thursday, Justin insisted on driving the Prius home. He half-listened to Clay’s pointless ramble about the English final coming up, and, occasionally, Justin threw a “mm-hmm” or a “yep” into the conversation so Clay wouldn’t ask him any in-depth questions about Return of the Native or Great Expectations. As he drove, Justin constantly checked the car’s mirrors, but no one followed them home.

Another day, another reprieve.

When Justin brought the car to a stop in front of the Jensens’ house, he gripped the steering wheel convulsively. Shit. The black car (it was Seth’s car – Justin was sure of it now) was parked across the street. The man in the driver’s seat was watching them intently. The man wasn’t Seth, but he looked like one of Seth’s cronies—like one of the many men who used to show up at his mom’s apartment to discuss “business”.

Justin got out of the car and hurried to the passenger side, not sure if he was trying to shield Clay from view of the vehicle’s menacing occupant or the other way around. Clay, oblivious, started up the steps. Once Clay reached the front door, Justin backtracked on the porch.

“I’m going for a walk,” he told Clay, playing it cool.

Clay unlocked the door and then looked back at him. “Why?”

“Because Victorian literature is giving me a headache, Jensen.”

Clay scowled. “You’re saying I’m giving you a headache?” He sounded hurt.

“No, dumbass. Don’t be so sensitive. It’s Harding and Dickens that I can’t stand.” Justin paused. “Hey, do you think people used to call Dickens a dick?”

Clay’s face scrunched. “You do know ‘dick’ wasn’t always a curse word, right? I mean it’s a nickname for Richard and historically—”

“Oh my god, Clay. I was joking.” Only Clay would take one of Justin’s stupid comments and turn it into a launching point for a boring-ass lecture.

Clay jingled his keys and then stepped inside. “Whatever. Have fun. Look both ways before crossing the street. And don’t get lost; I won’t come looking for you.”

Justin waited for Clay to move off further into the house and then he took out his own house key and locked the front door. He walked back down the steps and headed for the black car. The man in the driver’s seat, now that Justin saw him more clearly, wasn’t really all that intimidating. He had pale skin with an unkempt beard and mustache. He was thin and wiry and, judging by the sores on his face, he was a frequent user of crystal meth.

One of Seth’s people for sure. While the man might be slight of build, Justin knew how unpredictable and violent meth could make some junkies. Justin didn’t want to confront him, so he walked in front of the car, trying to appear like he was casually crossing to the opposite sidewalk.

As soon as he stepped up on the curb, his arm was caught in a vice-like grip and he was forcibly swung sideways and then up against the passenger side door of the car. Before he could react, a knife was at his throat and Seth’s sour breath was in his face.

“Where the fuck is your mother?” Seth leaned his full body weight against him, backing the cool edge of the knife away from Justin’s throat enough so that he could respond without cutting himself.

“I don’t fucking know. She took off.”

“Don’t fucking lie to me.”

“I’m not lying!”

“So you’re saying you didn’t come into my house and steal from me?”

There was no point in denying it. It would only piss Seth off more, and Justin really didn’t want to get his throat slit in middle-class suburbia; wouldn’t that be a fucking scandal? “Yeah, I did. And it was worth it to get Mom away from you. That’s why she took off. She knew you would blame her for what I stole.”

Seth grabbed his right wrist, forcing it up against the car door, cruelly twisting it to an unnatural angle. “So you’re crashing with another one of your rich friends, is that it? Always leeching off somebody.”

Justin squeezed his eyes shut, trying to breathe through the pain. “He’s not my friend. They’re my foster family. And my foster mother... She’s a lawyer. If you hurt me, she’ll be all over your ass, which would be bad for your business, wouldn’t it?”

Seth gave his wrist a sharp jerk. Justin bit his tongue to keep from crying out. Worse than the pain was the fear. Would Seth really snap his wrist? Justin wouldn’t be able to cover that up so easily. His mind skipped from one lousy excuse to another... What kind of accident could produce such an injury?

“I’ll give you your money back,” he blurted out. “With interest.”

Seth studied him and then finally released his wrist. Justin gasped, bones grinding back into place and liquid fire bursting up his nerve endings.

“$6000, in cash, by next week.”

What? Justin tried to focus and do some mental math. He had carefully counted the money he had stolen, $1050 the first time, $2300 the second. Seth was meticulous with his money, which meant he also knew exactly how much Justin had stolen. Well, what had Justin expected? Of course Seth was going to take advantage and jack up the price.

“I can’t get that much money.”

Seth adjusted his grip on the knife. Justin followed his movements nervously. “You’re telling me there’s nothing of value in that fancy house?”

Justin swallowed. “I’m their foster kid. They have security cameras and alarms. They lock their bedroom and office so I can’t get into them. Fuck, they even lock their fridge! And their son is an entitled asshole who snitches on everything I do. So, no, I can’t just pinch anything.”

It was a plausible story, one that would feed right into the ideas Seth had about people with money. He had always loathed Bryce and his family; he didn’t think they worked for their wealth—not like Seth worked for his. Well, it worked to Justin’s advantage if Seth believed the Jensens were the rich kind of assholes he hated so much.

No matter what, Justin couldn’t give Seth the idea that his foster family’s house was ripe for the picking or that the Jensens cared about him—there were a hundred different ways that could end in disaster. And if Seth threatened them, then that was it. Justin would have to run.

Seth’s hand strayed towards Justin’s wrist again. “Well, I guess you’ll have to get inventive then.”

Justin pressed his aching hand back against the door, desperate not to incur any more damage. It wasn’t broken. It was probably sprained. He’d like to leave it at that. “I know you used to give–, what did you call it?, ‘payment plans’ to your junkies. I’ll pay you $500 a week, starting in June. Please.” Seth loved to see him grovel. He wasn’t all that different than Bryce in that respect.

Seth’s hand backed off from Justin’s wrist, and he even lowered the knife from Justin’s throat. “Then the price goes up. $8000.”

“You do know I’m in fucking high school, right?”

“Yeah, and I also know that you passed your girlfriend off to your friend to get raped. So don’t pretend you’re above a little dirty work. Why don’t you whore your girlfriend out? I bet she could make you some good money. I tell you what, let me have a go at her, and I’ll knock $300 off the total.”

Justin saw red. He surged forward. Seth brought the knife back up reflexively, and Justin pushed his own neck into the blade. It hadn’t been Seth’s intention to cut him; the asshole even pulled the knife back as soon as he sensed Justin’s motion. Too late. The blade sliced into the skin of Justin’s neck, blood instantly beading along the cut.

The knife was dull, and, as a result, the cut was shallow. The pain didn’t register much, not past the muted roar in Justin’s head at Seth’s words about Jessica. It certainly didn’t overshadow the throbbing in his wrist.

Seeing the blood, Seth laughed and slammed Justin back against the car. Justin suddenly felt very small. Cowed. Powerless. He hated that feeling.

For a split second, Justin allowed himself to wish the impossible. A neighbor would look out their window, see what was happening, and call the cops. The police would show up and haul Seth away in handcuffs, allowing Justin to go back to his new life, his second chance at redemption.

That wasn’t reality. Reality was Justin, alone, scrambling for a solution to an unsolvable problem. All he could really do was buy himself some time.

“$500 a week. I’ll pay it all back,” Justin promised. “$8000.” He tried to sound contrite, to sound like he had actually stolen that much money, that Seth hadn’t inflated the price.

It was a promise he could never fulfill. He knew it, but he promised it anyway.

Seth gave the slightest incline of his head. “If you don’t pay, I’ll fuck you up.” He brought three fingers up to Justin’s forehead and jabbed. Justin’s head knocked back against the car, hard. Seth stared him down and then turned and spat onto the sidewalk.

 


 

After Seth and his sidekick drove off, Justin entered the Jensens’ house, weary and resigned. He had given Seth his cell phone number so that one of Seth’s lackeys could contact him to arrange a meeting spot. Fucking great.

Justin climbed the stairs up to the second floor. He held his wrist as stiffly as he could without resorting to cradling it in his other hand. Where was Clay? He needed him.

Clay was in their bedroom, rearranging his comics (there was apparently only one correct arrangement, one that Justin kept fucking up). When he saw Justin, he froze in mid-motion.

“Dude, what happened?”

“Huh?” Justin touched his neck self-consciously. His finger came back with a red smear. He must be fucking dazed. He should have taken care of it before coming up to seek comfort from Clay like a fucking child. He was pathetic. (Dead inside his body, but still fucking breathing.)

“Oh, I—I ran into a tree branch.”

Clay frowned. “Aren’t basketball players supposed to have good reflexes?”

“I got distracted.”

“By what? A squirrel?” Clay abandoned his comics project, stepped closer to him.

“No, by that hot neighbor down the street.”

“Mrs. McDaniel?”

“Yep. She’s got really big tits.”

“Justin, she’s married!”

“Doesn’t matter. Still a MILF.”

Clay paused and gave him that look—equal parts exasperation, fondness, and distaste.

“Stop talking.”

“What, Jensen? Are you saying you’ve never noticed? She’s always out jogging, and she never wears a sports bra.”

The slightest hint of a smile teased Clay’s lips. “Yeah, they are nice, aren’t they?”

They shared a grin. It was nice to know that Clay had a healthy sex drive after all, buried underneath his continuous loop of uptight anxiety.

“There’s antiseptic cream in the bathroom,” Clay said. He studied Justin’s throat speculatively.

“Shit, I’m good.”

“Fine, but at least wash the cut out with some water and put a band-aid on it.”

Clay pushed him out the door and toward the bathroom. He was worse than his parents sometimes—always needing to take care of someone.

“Look,” Clay said as he rummaged in the medicine cabinet. “You’ve already baptized our bedroom in sweat and puke. Do you really need to baptize it in blood, too?”

“It’s, like, three drops of blood.”

“I don’t care,” Clay said stubbornly. “New room rule: no bleeding.”

Despite Justin’s objections, Clay sat out antibacterial ointment, a first aid kit, and a washcloth. He then proceeded to supervise the whole operation. (“Not that band-aid! It’s the wrong shape. No, that one’s too big; Mom will freak out if she sees that on your neck. Just let me pick one out. Why are you trying to put it on one-handed? Jesus, stand still, and let me do it!”)

It was the first time anyone had ever treated Justin’s wounds with a kind hand and no expectation of repayment. It seemed wrong, somehow. If it were Bryce, Justin would know something (distasteful) would be owed down the line. With Clay... what could he possibly do to pay Clay back? Nothing seemed good enough, and, anyway, Clay did things because they were the right thing to do, not for what he could get in return. He was a decent person, like his parents were.

“Thanks, Clay. For doing this shit.” For caring.

Clay smoothed the band-aid out against Justin's throat. “It’s not a big deal.”

Yes, it is. To me, it is. “Do you guys have any Advil or Aleve or something?”

“Sure. But... does it really hurt that much?” Clay’s eyes went wide with concern.

“No. For... for my headache.” Justin needed something to take the edge off the pain in his wrist. It’d probably be two or three days until it healed; hopefully, it wouldn’t swell.

“Oh, I forgot. Too much Victorian prose, right?” Clay humored him with a smile.

“Exactly.”

Clay found him the Aleve and Justin went downstairs for a glass of water to wash it down. When he returned to their bedroom, he sat on his bed and watched Clay organize his comics.

“Hey, Clay?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you wanna play a game?”

“A video game? Uh, not really.”

“Okay. What about a card game? Poker?”

Clay glanced at him. “This is gonna sound pathetic, but I don’t actually know how to play.”

“I’ll teach you.” Justin really needed to get out of his headspace right now. He needed a distraction.

“Don’t you need more than two people?”

“Not for heads up poker.” To try to convince him, Justin resorted to flattery. “You’d be great at it. It requires strategy and thinking on your feet. So it’s a perfect fit for you.”

“You think so?” Clay puffed up with pride. “Okay, sure. Let me find my deck of cards.”

 


 

Afternoon stretched to evening. After playing poker with Clay, there was a fucking great dinner of ribs and baked potatoes. Then there was homework to do and finally a warm, clean bed. Instead of sleeping, Justin’s thoughts snagged on Seth.

His deal with that asshole—it was only a stall tactic. Justin would still have to run. He only had enough money left to last a few weeks of payments.

He could wean himself off heroin and switch to weed. That would save a few bucks.

Maybe after the semester ended, Justin could get a job. That might gain him an additional month.

The Jensens gave him an allowance, $20 a week for doing chores (Who even were these people?).

He’d have to crunch the numbers and do some math. Clay would be fucking proud... except not about the drugs or Seth or every fucking thing about Justin’s past. Every fucking part of who Justin was.

A useless junkie. A worthless whore.

Tears pricked the corners of his eyes. (“Hey, new kid! You crying? Not out here, man. You can’t let anyone see you weak—or you’re dead.”) He angrily blinked them away.

Justin didn’t want to leave the Jensens. To leave Clay. He didn't want to end up back on the streets—getting beaten, getting grabbed by his hair, getting pushed face-first onto a dirty mattress.

Cold and hungry. Alone. Slamming heroin.

Maybe I don’t have to. If I can find a way to pay Seth off.

If Seth doesn’t figure out that these people—Clay, Matt, Lainie—mean something to me.

If.

If.

If.

Justin didn’t want to toss the dice or hope for a little luck. The numbers had never come up favorably for him in the past. There was no reason to think they would now.

This time with the Jensens was a gift. He would enjoy every minute of the temporary lull—this blissful intermission between the fucked-up parts of his life.

Chapter Text

June

Zach locked up the field house, cursing himself for letting time get away from him. Alex was probably waiting. As he tossed his sports bag over his shoulder and hurried towards the school, he spotted Justin at a distance, talking to someone by the bleachers.

He shouldn’t have stopped. Because: Alex.

He did stop. Because: Justin.

His friend was passing over a wad of cash to what looked like a college-aged stoner. Great. Drug deal in progress. Zach hung back and watched. He didn’t see an exchange of product; he did see an exchange of heated words. Zach shouldn’t have cared (pothead Justin, drunk Justin—both were very familiar to him), but, all the same, it was disappointing. He had thought Justin was past all that. But what did he know, anyway?

Zach’s friendship with Justin was a little rocky at the moment. They were both trying to pick up where they had left off back in November, to fall back into the groove of being “best friends.” The problem was that Zach had realized that he and Justin, they had never really been best friends. It was Justin and Bryce who had been thick as thieves, with Zach hugging the periphery alongside the other boys. And Bryce had always overpowered the group, the rest of them falling in line like trained soldiers. No individuality. No authenticity. It was hard to call that friendship.

But—

When Bryce hadn't been around, Justin had been a different person. So had Zach. It was in those moments, when it was just the two of them, that their friendship had flourished, when they weren’t less, when they were more.

Justin sleeping over at Zach’s house... The two of them watching Marvel movies side by side in his bedroom and eating popcorn... May shyly peeping around the bedroom door... Justin inviting her to join them and talking with her for the rest of the movie because he knew Zach’s sister had a not-so-secret crush on him.

Going for drives in Zach’s car... “Do you want to invite Bryce?” “Fuck no!”... Walking on the beach, admiring the pretty girls—not in a crass way, not ogling, not harassing them like they would have done if Bryce was there.

Stopping at the ice cream shop by the pier... Justin acting uninterested until Zach bought two cones “by accident” and gave one to Justin... Talking about basketball scholarships and how they would choose the same college and be #1 (Zach) and #2 (Justin) in whatever basketball athletics program was stupid enough to admit them.

Those memories he had made with Justin were worth preserving. Worth fighting for. But it was hard. It required giving more of themselves to each other. It required asking questions, awkward questions—the kind Zach would rather avoid. Hey Justin, when you were homeless, did you sleep on the street? Did anyone ever try to mug you? What was juvie like? Did your mom really abandon you? All those years we were friends, did I miss something? Was something horrendous going on at your house and, if so, did I not see... or did I not care?

It was a two-way street. Justin surely had questions of his own, or at least Zach liked to imagine he did. The taboo topics: Zach’s summer romance with Hannah; the college scouts who were interested in him (but not in Justin); the deep-rooted grief over his father’s death; those 5 months of hell at Liberty High, when Zach had been surrounded by Monty and Bryce without Justin around as a buffer; the peaceful moments he had spent with Alex, learning about courage and selflessness and what it really meant to be a man.

And so, over the last two months, Zach had found it easier to be Justin’s personal trainer than his friend. They would lift weights and go for runs and talk about how the football team was going to destroy Bryce on the field in the fall. They would talk about nonsense and tease each other mercilessly, skipping over the emotionally heavy shit. Justin had Clay for that now. And Zach had Alex.

The four of them were all friends, but they had unconsciously split themselves into two separate bubbles. Zach wanted to bridge that divide, and whatever the fuck Justin was up to now—it was a chance for a first step, perhaps even an opening for a more serious conversation. So, although Alex would be annoyed at the delay, Zach waited for Justin to conclude his business and then rushed to catch up with him.

“Yo, Justin!”

Justin froze. Then he turned and his face lit up. “Oh, hey Zach.” They bumped fists. “What are you doing here?”

“Picking Alex up. He still can’t drive yet. So I volunteered to be his designated summer school driver. I thought I’d get a workout in first.”

“Oh, cool.”

Zach stared at Justin.

Justin stared unblinkingly back.

It got awkward fast.

As they started walking back to the school, Zach tried to be casual, “Hey, that guy you were with... What were you doing? Buying weed?”

“What’s it to you?” Justin picked up his pace.

Zach matched Justin’s strides. “Nothing, man. I don’t care. But... it was only weed, though, right? Not heroin?”

“Alex told you?” Justin didn’t seem surprised.

“Yeah, he told me.”

“Fucking Alex.” Justin shook his head and his eyes were slow to track and, for a moment, he looked profoundly trashed.

Drunk. Or high.

“Was it supposed to be a secret?” Zach grabbed Justin’s bicep, preventing him from moving forward. “When did I get to find out? At your funeral?”

Justin laughed. Zach didn’t see anything funny in what he had said.

Justin slapped him jovially on the arm. “Fuck, Dempsey. You gonna cry?”

“If you died, yeah, I’d cry.”

Justin sobered.

A taut silence stretched between them. Two beads of sweat trickled down the side of Zach’s face. An eagle screeched in the distance. A leaf landed in Justin’s hair. Automatically, Zach brushed it away.

“Look,” he said. “I need you around. For the basketball team, if nothing else.”

The tension broke, and Justin grinned. “Oh, that’s all I am to you, huh? Your point guard?”

“Damn straight.” Zach laughed, which made Justin laugh again. Joking around—that was always easy with Justin.

So was competition.

“Race you,” Justin shouted, and he was off. Zach, not missing a beat, shot after him, overtaking him within ten seconds.

With the sun beating down and the wind in his hair, Zach reveled in the simplicity of the moment. High school was supposed to be this way: Having a dumb race with his long-time friend, getting tackled to the ground by Justin when he finally caught up—grass stains on his shorts, dirt on his face. No pain. No drama.

Still, after parting ways with Justin, Zach felt he had let an opportunity slip away from him somehow. Justin hadn’t really admitted to buying weed. And if that hadn’t been a drug deal, then what exactly had Zach stumbled across?

 


 

Three weeks later, it was Zach who was waiting impatiently for Alex. He had the whole afternoon planned out. They would go to the beach and practice walking in the sand. Maybe they could try some exercises with weights (the uneven terrain would be a good test of Alex’s balance). Afterward, as a reward, Zach had carefully concealed two bags-worth of junk food in the backseat of his Audi, and he hoped it would perk Alex up. His friend was having a hard time of it these days, through no fault of his own.

Zach rushed forward when Alex exited his classroom. “Hey, Alex.”

“Hey, Zach.” Alex promptly passed over his bookbag for Zach to carry. They set off down the hallway, Alex’s cane clicking in a familiar rhythm.

“Do you wanna go to the beach? I have the whole afternoon planned out, so you’d better say yes.”

“Sure.” Alex looked down at the floor as they walked, his lips twisting in irritation. “I guess you wanna invite Justin?”

“No, why would I?”

“Because he’s your best friend,” Alex muttered out of the side of his mouth.

They had reached the front of the school. Zach held the door open for Alex and then walked out beside him. “He’s my friend, yeah. But you’re my best friend.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“Good.” Alex nodded. “Because fuck Justin.”

And there it was—the reason Alex had been so down lately. Justin and Jessica were now an item again, officially.

It sucked. Zach knew it wasn’t his place to comment. He also knew it was a complicated situation. All that baggage, all those yearning looks—well, it had to come to a head at some point. Justin – Jessica – Alex. Triangles were stable shapes, until they got turned upside down. And this particular triangle was teetering on a cliff’s edge.

Jessica was trying to heal, to find confidence in her body and make her own choices about who to trust with her heart. It seemed, despite everything, she still trusted it to Justin. And if she was able to forgive him for his part in what Bryce had done, well, no one else’s judgment mattered. Certainly not Zach’s.

Even so, Alex didn’t deserve to be collateral damage. This latest heartbreak was a step back for his self-confidence, and, because they were all so close, Alex now had to watch the girl he loved and the friend he had saved make out with each other. Publicly. Enthusiastically.

It wasn’t fair. And Zach... well, he cared about all three of them. He didn’t want any of them to be hurt. Didn’t want to see any of them break. He really hoped it worked itself out and soon.

Zach opened the passenger door of his Audi and held Alex's cane as he climbed in. He sternly reminded himself not to mention Justin or Jessica for the rest of the day.

Alex foiled his plan. They weren’t five minutes into their drive before Alex piped up. “What’s up with Justin, anyway?”

Zach gripped the steering wheel so hard that the color faded from his fingertips. “What do you mean?”

“Well, every Thursday, he skips lunch and disappears.”

“Only on Thursdays?”

“Yeah, which means I don’t get my sugar fix. I only endure math class for that one reason. It’s not worth it otherwise.”

Zach almost laughed at how pathetic Alex sounded. Ever since summer school had started, Justin had been trying to ply Alex with saturated fats and high fructose corn syrup in order to get back in his good graces. It was a losing battle; every ounce of goodwill he gained vanished the next time he kissed Jess in front of Alex.

Zach shook his head. “Tragic.”

“I know. It’s practically a crime.”

“Have your dad arrest him.”

“He would if I asked.”

“What would be the charge?”

“Intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Zach hummed neutrally, unsure if Alex was talking about losing access to candy or losing access to Jessica Davis. He fiddled idly with the radio dials on the dashboard, even though the radio wasn’t even on. “Hey, what do you think Justin’s doing—when he disappears? Smoking weed?”

“He never smells like weed when he comes back.”

“Dude, you’ve been smelling him?”

“No! It’s kind of a distinctive odor though. You know?”

“Yeah.” Last year, when Justin had basically been high 24/7, there had been a pungent aroma that lingered on his clothing. Zach didn’t know which was worse: the sometimes sweet, sometimes musky scent of the marijuana or the excessive amounts of Bryce’s cologne Justin used to try to cover it up.

Alex tapped the side of the car angrily.

Zach glanced at him nervously. Don’t break. Please don’t break.

“Do you think he goes for a quickie with Jessica out by the bleachers?”

Zach hesitated, but Alex just laughed and attempted a ridiculous one-eyed wink to lighten the mood. Well, at least Alex was making a decent effort to put it behind him. Good.

Zach grabbed his sunglasses off the dash, then grabbed Alex’s pair and threw them at him, which he caught easily. (Zach was more than a little proud at his quick reflexes.) “Justin probably ditches to call Clay. You know, to talk about secret brother things. They’re weird like that now.”

Alex put on his sunglasses and smoothed back his hair. “Only on Thursdays? Unlikely.”

Thursdays. When Zach had spotted Justin with that college kid a few weeks ago—that had been a Thursday. He distinctly remembered the day because May had her weekly violin lessons on Thursdays, and after Zach had tussled with Justin, May had made fun of the grass stains on Zach’s shorts when he had reached down to pick up her violin case.

So there was the answer. Justin must have moved his Thursday afternoon drug dealings to the lunch hour to avoid running into Zach. It made no sense. Justin had been an out and proud addict for most of high school — Why stop now?

“Let’s talk about something else,” Zach suggested. “What music have you been listening to lately?”

Alex cracked a smile. “I don’t need to tell you. I’ve got playlists.” Alex dug out his phone from his pocket.

The rest of the day was peaceful. Stress-free. Fun. Zach wanted to lock the memory of that afternoon in a snow globe and carry it around with him as a reminder so that when the days turned to shit, he wouldn’t forget there could be tranquility, too.

 


 

Zach: have you noticed justin being weird lately?

Clay: Yes

Clay: But no weirder than usual. Why?

Zach: no reason

Zach: he’s still clean, right? like no drugs?

Clay: He goes to his NA meeting every week. I’m sure he’s clean. Why?

Zach: no reason

Zach: hey, what were you doing on thursday at 11am?

Clay: Why???

Zach: i had a bet with alex. it doesn’t matter.

Clay: Don’t make bets about me. Thanks.

Zach: does justin owe somebody money?

Clay: Could you be more specific?

Zach: a skinny college kid?

Clay: No???? And what’s with the 20 questions???

Zach: just checking in. see you around

Chapter Text

June

The first person to text Clay was Zach.

Zach: have you noticed justin being weird lately?

After reading all of Zach’s texts (and becoming increasingly annoyed by Zach’s evasive answers), Clay sought out Justin. He found him in the backyard, stretched out shirtless and barefoot on the grass, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. Ants were crawling on his stomach, feasting on the remains of a melted popsicle. Yeah, not weird at all.

“Justin!” Clay nudged his leg with his shoe.

“What?”

“Why is Zach suggesting that you either a) are on drugs, b) owe someone money or c) are simply being ‘weird,’ according to Zach Dempsey’s scale of weirdness, whatever that is...?”

“The fuck, Jensen? I don’t know. Could you move? You’re blocking the sun.” Justin raised his foot and weakly pushed at Clay’s leg with his toes.

Clay didn’t budge. “I don’t wanna deal with any more of your shit. So, if something’s up, tell me right now.”

“Nothing’s up. Jesus.”

Clay purposefully moved so that his shadow fell across Justin’s entire body. Time passed, slow. Justin waited him out for five long minutes. He plucked a handful of grass from the lawn and sprinkled it on his stomach.

"What the fuck are you...? You know what? I don’t even care." Clay gave up and started back to the house. He could hear waterfalls in his ears, a low hum of static.

“Yo, Clay!” Justin roared. “Bring me some sunscreen!”

Clay ignored him.

 


 

The second person to text Clay was Alex.

Alex: justin’s being a jerk

Clay: I'm sorry. I can relate. What did he do?

Alex: he forgot to bring me snacks 4 times this week. fix him!

Clay threw a pillow across the room at Justin’s bed where Justin was hunched over a math worksheet. He was worrying his pencil between his teeth while punching numbers into his phone’s calculator.

“What, Clay?”

“Alex wants me to remind you to bring him snacks for lunch tomorrow. Although why he didn’t text you himself, I don’t know.” It was a lie; Clay knew why not. Alex had been giving Justin the cold shoulder ever since Justin had hooked up with Jess at the dance. Clay wisely pretended to be out of the loop, so he wouldn’t have to get involved.

“Shit.” Justin dropped his phone. “Yeah, I forgot.”

“How could you forget that? Alex gets so cranky otherwise.”

Justin shrugged and then tossed Clay’s pillow back sportively, which Clay took as an invitation for a pillow war from their opposing beds. Justin needed a break from algebra anyway.

Clay: Fixed.

Alex: ty


 

“I want to get a summer job,” Justin announced at the breakfast table one morning.

Clay warily glanced at his mother, who lowered her coffee cup tentatively.

“Well, you know that if you need money for something in particular... Clothing, shoes, school supplies–”

“Condoms,” Clay put in helpfully.

Justin kicked him from under the table.

His mom continued, ignoring Clay’s input, “We’ll provide anything you need, Justin. Is your allowance not enough?”

“No, Mrs. Jensen, it’s great. I just want–, I wanna be more responsible, and I thought a job would help with that.”

“A very admirable goal,” his dad acknowledged, not looking up from the research paper he was proofing for one of his graduate students.

“Okay,” she said. “We can talk about this more in the future, but for now, with your probation...” Clay could tell his mom was trying to deflate Justin as carefully as she could. “Until we can get your criminal record sealed, honey, I don’t think it’s realistic for you to get a summer job.”

“Oh.” Justin’s face fell. He put down his fork, abandoning his scrambled eggs.

Clay felt sorry for him. He shouldn’t have, but he did. “What about Ms. Henrick?”

“Who?” Justin asked.

“Crazy old neighbor down the street. She used to pay me to do odd jobs for her. She probably would still like someone to come and help her on the weekends.” He looked at his mother. “That’s not an official job. And she pays well. $100 a day, if you can put up with her quirks.”

Clay knew it was pushing things. There was that whole debate about the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law. Working for a neighbor—it was a reportable job in the eyes of the IRS and the courts, but if no one knew about it...

His mother raised her eyebrows and then smiled generously at Justin. “If she agrees, okay. But it has to stay between us. We’ll call it a monetary gift rather than a job.”

Ms. Henrick agreed, and the next day, Clay escorted Justin over for introductions. Jeannette Henrick was in her 70s. She always wore the same peach-colored blouse. Her glasses were thicker than windowpane. She smelled like cabbage, and her house was a hoarder’s paradise. Clay swore she was senile.

“Clay!” She crushed him to her chest. “Why didn’t you ever tell me you had a twin brother?” She enthusiastically pulled Justin’s head down for a kiss on the cheek.

“He’s not my twin brother,” Clay said, profoundly disturbed by the idea. “Justin’s my foster brother.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma'am.” Justin flashed his perfect smile at her, all teeth and good humor and boyish flirtation, one smile containing a hundred promises.

Ms. Henrick fell for it—hook, line, and sinker. Clay sighed.

“Aren’t you a charmer!” Ms. Henrick was delighted. She turned to Clay and winked. “Your secret is safe with me.”

“What secret?”

“Obviously you two were separated at birth. I know your parents put him in the foster system to protect him. Happens all the time.”

“Does it?” Clay questioned, rubbing his forehead. He felt a headache coming on.

“Let me introduce you to my cats, Clay,” Ms. Henrick said, pulling Justin through the winding maze of stacked up magazines and empty litter containers.

“His name’s Justin!” Clay shouted after them. “I’m Clay.” One of Ms. Henrick’s cats came out from behind her couch, hissing at him.

Clay hissed back.

 


 

July

The third person to approach Clay about Justin was Tony.

They were undergoing grievous torture—which is to say, they were hiking. The fucking mosquitos were having a field day with him. Tony watched him, lips curled in amusement, as he swatted the little fuckers away from his body.

“I told you to put on bug spray.”

“I did!” Clay protested. “Half a bottle of it!”

“Your blood must be hella sweet then."

“Which is why all the vampires love me.” Clay plopped down on a fallen tree trunk that stretched alongside the trail.

Tony came and sat beside him, offering him a water bottle from his backpack. Clay drank greedily.

“So,” Tony began, stretching the syllable out, “I have something to tell you, but you need to promise me that you’re not going to freak out.”

Clay choked and sprayed a mouthful of water onto Tony’s shirt.

Jesus, Clay!” Tony cursed. “Why are you freaking out when I haven’t even told you anything yet?”

Clay wiped his mouth. “Sorry. Excuse me for having flashbacks to all the times you’ve delivered 'news' to me in the past. It's usually life ruining.”

Tony grabbed the water bottle out of Clay’s hand. “Okay, shut up and listen. I do not want to get involved, but I figured I should tell you. Javi — my older brother, you remember — well, he says he saw who he thought was Justin at a pawnshop the other day. Pawning jewelry. Women’s jewelry.”

“Okay?”

“I hate to ask this, but is there any possibility that Justin is stealing from your parents? To buy drugs?”

“No, Tony! Geez.” Clay stood up, defensive, and stumbled over a tree root. “Justin doesn’t do shit like that." He paused and then realized the stupidity of what he had just said. "Not anymore,” he added weakly. I hope.

Tony rubbed his hands, his gaze direct and honest. “I have siblings, so I understand the instinct to put a halo around their heads...”

Tony sure was hilarious sometimes. “A halo?” Clay slapped another bug off the back of his neck. “Never in a million years would I imagine a halo on Justin’s head. Devil’s horns maybe.”

“Okay, okay. I just thought you should know. Maybe it wasn’t Justin. It’s not like Javi’s seen him all that often to know for sure.”

“Exactly right,” Clay said confidently. “It wasn’t him.”

 


 

Clay came down with the stomach flu from hell, so he completely missed Jessica’s text.

Jess: Miss you all! How’s it going? xoxo

Once he recovered, and checked his phone, he found two missed voicemails from Jess.

The first:

Hey, Clay. You never responded to my text. I hope everything’s okay. I’m sure it’s just because you’re busy—I sure am. Chicago’s nice. The crowds are insane, but all the bustle keeps me from getting hung up on my own problems, which is a perk, I guess.

Anyway, Justin keeps asking me about the temperature here and what it’s like in the winter and where all the bad neighborhoods are. Like, seriously, am I his travel guide or his girlfriend? I’d make a damn cute tour guide, so maybe it’s his lame attempt at roleplay? Which you probably don’t want to hear about. Sorry. Bye for now.

The second:

Hey, Clay! I went to the Art Institute of Chicago yesterday. Looking at all those paintings, it made me think of Hannah and how we used to interpret the artwork at Monet’s. There was one beautiful sketch I saw that reminded me of your drawings—you know, the ones you hang on your walls? Maybe one day you’ll be a famous artist, and your stuff will be hanging in an art museum. I can totally see it.

I’m rambling. Sorry. One last thing before this message gets too long... Justin asked me to pick out my favorite spot in Chicago and send him the address, so we could visit it together someday. What a romantic, right? Well, I’m calling bull. Square with me: What’s going on with him? I need all the deets when I get back. See you soon!

Clay texted Jessica (Sounds like you’re having a good time! I’m never going to be a famous artist, but thanks for stroking my ego. Justin’s fine, btw.), but he didn't act on anything she said. So, what? Was Justin planning on moving to Chicago after graduation? The thought vaguely irritated Clay, but his agitation quickly fizzled out. These last few weeks, he'd been finding it hard to care about much of anything.

When he wasn’t working or tutoring Justin, he stayed in bed for hours, his eyes closed—not sleeping, but merely existing. He wandered the house, going from room to room, not able to commit to any activity. Taking the trash out seemed like a marathon. Reading a comic was like translating Latin. He even tried jerking off, as a matter of course, but it didn’t feel all that great. In fact, it felt like a chore.

 


 

“Hey, Clay.” Justin poked his cheek. “Clay? Clay?”

Clay, with reluctance, tore his attention away from the wall. He was supposed to be researching potential colleges on his laptop, but the blank wall had seemed more appealing, and he had lost track of time.

“What, Justin? Stop poking me.”

“What do you want for Christmas?”

Clay stared. “It’s July! You know that ‘Christmas in July’ isn’t meant to be taken literally, right? We celebrate Christmas in December.”

Justin groaned. “Answer the fucking question. What do you want me to get you?” There was a trace of impatience in his tone. “I’m being serious.”

Clay shrugged. “Ask me in December.”

Justin gave Clay’s chair a little kick with his foot, spinning it 90 degrees. “Well, what do you want for your birthday, then?”

Clay fiddled with the keys on his laptop. “Ask me in October.”

Justin kicked his chair again. “Screw you.” He stormed out of the room.

“Asshole!” Clay called after him. Despite his apathy, a tendril of unease rippled down his spine. Justin usually wasn’t passive-aggressive; he tended towards straight in-your-face aggression.

There was something off with him.

If Clay turned and looked at it properly, he could probably figure it out.

But he was too tired to try to untangle Justin’s neuroses today. Too tired, in general.

He yawned and decided to go to bed, even though it was only 7:30.

 


 

Alex: wtf, justin freaked out in math today. went apeshit on teacher. fix this

Clay wanted to throw his phone against the wall. Why did everyone turn to him when they had an issue with Justin? Why was it his responsibility to monitor Justin's moods and behavior?

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Clay shot straight up in the air when a voice answered his silent question. “No, you’re not. But, Clay, that’s deep. Biblical.” Tyler Down was sitting on his bed. “I think you’ve got it backward though. You’re not Cain. You’re Abel. It’s Justin who’s gonna kill you. Maybe not physically, maybe not emotionally, but spiritually. It’s what they do—the jocks of the world. The bullies.”

Clay approached his bed as if it were a dying animal. “Tyler, how’d you–? I thought you were...”

“Locked up in the loony bin?”

“Well, I don’t think they call it that anymore. Mental health ward?”

Tyler gave him a strained half-smile. “They let me out. They knew there were some things I had to take care of out here.”

“What things?” Clay asked, wary.

“Well, Monty, for a start. Bryce. Jordan. Keith. Any names you want to add to the list? Justin, maybe?”

Clay backed up to his door and yelled, “Justin! Justin!”

There was a crash, feet pounding on the stairs. Then Justin, out of breath, came bounding into the room, almost knocking Clay over.

“What the fuck’s wrong?”

Justin didn’t react to the fact that Tyler fucking Down was sitting on Clay’s bed. Which meant... No! No. Fuck, no. Not again.

It was Hannah 2.0.

To be sure, Clay gestured at his bed. “I lost my... sock. Behind my bed. Can you get it?”

Justin stared at him like he had two heads. “That’s what you were screaming about? What, are you afraid there's a spider back there? You fucking pussy.” Justin dove onto Clay’s bed, digging along the side with his hands, feet flailing in midair on the opposite side.

Tyler blinked out of existence and reappeared on Justin’s bed.

Clay’s hands began to shake. His heart pounded in his chest, his blood surging powerfully. These past two months... when everyone had been texting Clay about Justin... Maybe the person they should have been worried about was him.

He was fucking losing his mind.

Justin huffed and bounced back off the bed. “No. Fucking. Socks.” He started to push past Clay but abruptly stopped and studied him critically. “You okay?”

“Yeah. I think–, I think I’m just having an off day.”

Justin instantly put him in a headlock and mussed his hair. Clay struggled to get free. It was impossible; Justin had put on a lot of muscle since getting out of juvie.

“Let’s play a video game,” Justin suggested after he released Clay.

“I don’t wanna play a game.”

“Yes, you do. Come on.”

Clay let Justin pull him downstairs to the den. He wasn’t in a particular rush to crush Justin’s chipper mood, and there was something nostalgically pleasant about it, spending time together—but doing nothing of importance.

Justin fired up a racing game, casting Clay furtive glances while he did so—probably checking on his mental state, but pretending not to. The game he had chosen wasn’t violent, wasn’t too complex, would allow for Clay’s (nonexistent) enthusiasm to mask his (considerable) shortfalls in skill.

It wouldn’t be unpleasant.

They would probably have fun.

“Here. Eat some jelly beans.” Justin pulled a handful out of his pocket.

“Uh, okay, thanks.” Clay picked a piece of string off one before popping it into his mouth. Strawberry (with a hint of lint). “You don’t have to hoard food, you know. The kitchen’s always open.”

“Nah. It’s too far. I like having stuff on me.”

“That’s—a little excessive.”

“It’s practical.”

They argued about it for a while. Despite the welcome distraction, Clay twitched, searching each corner of the room in turn.

No Tyler.

Everything was okay. Everything was normal.

Don’t lose your shit. That’s Justin’s domain.

And he’s holding it together perfectly well these days. You have no excuse.

Chapter Text

June

Justin was relieved when Seth made it clear that he wasn’t going to be the one to collect the $500 weekly payments. If Seth had been involved, each day leading up to the encounter with his mom’s psycho ex-boyfriend would have been a knife stab of anticipation. Instead, what actually went down... It was more like meeting with his probation officer. Or turning in his homework. A minor annoyance in an otherwise happy day.

Seth’s errand boy, Brently, was mellow and easygoing, probably because he was stoned off his gourd during all of their interactions. He let Justin choose the spot for their meetups—school, because it wouldn’t require Justin to sneak off someplace new. He let Justin choose the day—Thursday, because Clay always worked on Thursdays.

Heck, the college kid even kept a detailed ledger of what Justin owed Seth. (Justin kept his own records as a double check).

Brently was flexible, too. After Zach caught Justin by the bleachers, a quick text to Brently was all that was needed to change the meeting time. So, really, Justin couldn’t have asked for anyone better. Seth had much worse men in his rotating arsenal of employees. Justin had lucked out.

He was lucky in other ways, too.

The Jensens treated Justin as if he had always lived with them and had always been a member of their family. The longer Justin stayed in their home, the harder it became for him to resign himself to the idea of ever leaving. With Matt and Lainie, he had clothes, food, a bedroom door he could lock. He had people who cared if he showed up on time for dinner, who celebrated if he got a good grade on his math test, who gave him hugs for no fucking reason.

And Clay—he was quickly becoming the linchpin in Justin’s life. Essential. Indispensable. Holding all the broken pieces together. And to think that Clay used to be that “quiet (possibly gay) nerd” and nothing else to Justin. Nameless. Beneath his notice. Invisible.

Well, Clay Jensen was a fucking paragon. (Mr. Jensen had taught him that word). Justin wished he had gotten his head out of his ass and realized it sooner. It was just one more regret on a list that stretched a parsec. (Clay had taught him that term—thanks to an all-night Star Wars marathon). Justin knew he had a lot to make up for when it came to Clay, and so he gave him everything he had. He had never put so much effort into a relationship before... except maybe with Jess.

Jess. Her forgiveness had been another gift. Why she was even willing to look at him without spitting in his face, he didn’t know. He didn’t deserve a second chance. But, after the dance, when she kept coming back to him again and again, he found he couldn’t deny her—even though they both knew their relationship could never last, not under the strain of all that had come before.

Another thing that couldn’t last: Justin’s cash reserves. $500 a week quickly made a dent in the money he had stolen from Seth. Thanks to Clay—that had become the refrain of his very existence, thanks to Clay—Justin acquired a summer job.

Working for Ms. Henrick was hardly a job at all. The tasks she assigned him weren’t strenuous. Mostly they were bizarre—sorting her bazillion magazines into stacks by year or topic, taking her cats for walks (on actual fucking leashes), helping her wash her clothes by hand in a big tub in her basement. Clay called her crazy, but, even if she was, Justin didn’t mind. It made her more interesting.

Justin’s biggest challenge at his new job was persuading Ms. Henrick’s seven cats to accept him. They were immune to his smile, and his attempts to approach them resulted in more than a few gnarly scratches. Zach suggested Justin bring over a jar of catnip as a bribe. It worked, sporadically. The cats’ eagerness to get high struck a chord with him, though. They were his kin. He tried smoking a few grams of catnip to relate to them more. It didn’t do much for him. Still, stoner cats... Fucking awesome.

After several weeks of work, Ms. Henrick started paying Justin less for menial labor and more for his company. She let him lounge on her couch and play with her cats while she sat knitting in a rocking chair. They watched a week’s backlog of soap operas together. There were only two rules: 1) Pretend the soap operas were documentaries and 2) Don’t upset the felines. Justin internally gloated. Clay was the fucking crazy one, for letting this cozy job slip out of his hands.

(Ms. Henrick was probably just lonely.)

 


 

Clay and Alex... Justin worried about them sometimes. He consulted with Jess because he knew she shared his fears.

“Clay hides things from me,” he told her. “I don’t think he’s coping as well as he wants everyone to believe he is.” He was lying on Jessica’s bed, enjoying the two hours he had with her before her parents came home (he technically wasn’t allowed to be alone with her, but Mr. Davis didn't scare him). Justin ran his hands through her hair, ignoring the trashy reality show blaring in the background.

Jess snuggled closer to him, her arm snaking around his stomach, warm breath against his neck. “Yeah, I’ve noticed. It’s like he thinks he has to be the collected one. To be unbreakable.”

Justin ran his fingertips lightly along her arm. “He's got this big fucking hero complex, and I'm worried it's gonna run him into the ground. He takes care of everyone, even people he doesn’t like... but he doesn't look out for himself. Which is fucking stupid since he’s...“

“The best out of any of us?”

“Yeah,” Justin whispered. He chewed his bottom lip, guilt clawing up his throat like poisoned roots. “Alex, though, he doesn’t hide anything. I think he told me to go fuck myself eight times yesterday.”

It had been a new record.

Jessica tensed and pulled away. Her eyes were wet. “Sometimes Alex looks at me, and it’s like he’s waiting for me to say something. But I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

Justin grimaced. “Nothing seems good enough, does it?”

“No.”

Their shared shame twisted between them. And so they did what they always did—

“God, Jess, I wanna touch you. Is that okay?”

“Yes.” Her hand slid towards the waistband of his shorts. “Make me feel good, Justin.”

He did. Again; again; again.

Eventually, they would have to deal with their demons and the consequences of their actions. For now, they were content to lose themselves in each other, to be consumed by a drumbeat of sex, sex, sex.

 


 

July

Seth, without warning, increased the payment amount to $700 per week. After Brently delivered the news, Justin stumbled back to his classroom.

He slammed his backpack down on his chair and started pulling out notebooks, pencils, folders, pens, protractors. Frustrated, he dumped the bag upside down, sending the contents flying onto the floor. The other students in the room moved away and gave him a wide berth.

“Justin! Hey, Justin!” Alex’s hand was on his wrist. The touch made Justin stiffen.

Alex quickly let go. Justin felt every inch of the distance between them. Not the physical distance—the emotional rupture.

“Are you okay?” Alex leaned in and nudged him. “Throwing your crap all over the floor is a pretty dramatic way to look for a pencil. Seems more like something I would do.”

Justin hesitated. It was the wrong place to say anything. The wrong time. Justin charged forward anyway, “Look, I’m sorry. Me and Jess... I’m sorry for the way it happened. We never wanted to hurt you.”

Alex tilted his head up, defiant. “Saying that doesn’t stop it from hurting.”

“I know.”

There was a beat of silence as Alex struggled to reign in his emotions. He was getting noticeably more upset, despite the fact that he was trying to hide it. “The worst part is that I don’t hate you. Or Jess.” The barely submerged misery lined Alex’s face like scar tissue.

“I know.”

“Stop fucking saying, ‘I know!’ I’ve accepted that you’re a dick, Justin. I think you can’t help it sometimes. Stop tiptoeing around me. You and Jess—I can deal with it.”

Justin caught Alex’s wrist. He thought Alex would pull away, but he didn’t. “Does that mean... Can we be friends again?”

“Aren’t we already?”

“No,” Justin responded, surprised Alex could think they were. They were barely even on speaking terms. “Friendship should be... better than whatever we are.” He released Alex’s wrist and dropped to a squat to collect his scattered school supplies.

Alex stared down at him, then bent to help—even though it must have been hard for him with his leg, even though it was a concession. “I can’t just snap my fingers and forgive you,” he said. “It’s going to take some time. But—but I’m willing to try. Jess is worth trying for. And you... You...”

Alex handed him his history notebook and gave him the barest hint of a smile. The teacher called for everyone to settle down. Justin couldn’t help but wonder how Alex would have ended that sentence.

 


 

It had come down to the wire. Justin had $25 left to his name. Seth’s new demand, $200 extra a week, it was simply too much. Justin couldn’t keep up the payments. He had stretched it out as long as possible, longer than he had ever imagined he could have, but there was no saving it now.

Saturday afternoon, while dusting Ms. Henrick’s bedroom, Justin debated when he should take off: In the middle of the night while Clay was asleep? Or during the middle of the school day while Clay was at work?

He absentmindedly opened up Ms. Henrick’s jewelry box. He didn’t know much about stones and diamonds, gold and filigree, but he thought he was good at spotting value. All her pieces had to be worth over $10,000, easily. She never wore them; she wouldn’t miss them.

He could take a few items and pawn them. Then, later, he could pay off the loan and sneak them back into her jewelry box. Ms. Henrick would never have to know, not if he replaced them in a reasonable amount of time.

Justin picked up a diamond ring. He put it back. Reached again. Balked. Closed the jewelry box. Opened it.

He wasn’t a thief. (Seth Seth Seth). Okay, Justin wasn’t a thief when it came to nice old ladies. He wouldn’t stoop that low. He wouldn’t! But he stood frozen for ten minutes staring into the box.

Ms. Henrick came waddling into the room, three cats at her ankles, meowing impatiently.

“Clay, we need to feed the cats.” She touched his shoulder. “Clay, what’s wrong?”

Justin turned to Ms. Henrick and all the words came tumbling out. He figured she wouldn’t understand him or, if she did, she wouldn’t remember in an hour anyway. As she listened, she handed him three handkerchiefs in succession. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with them. (Blow his nose? Fuck that... He wasn’t gonna cry.)

“So, the mob’s after you, hmm? It’s just like on the TV.”

Justin laughed, taken aback. “What?”

“On the soaps, it’s always the mob or the mafia or the gangs coming after nice boys like you and your brother. Such a shame.” She reached into her jewelry box and removed two bracelets and three rings. She plopped them in Justin’s hands as if they were pebbles or seeds, not worth a penny. “Pay that mobster off. I’d give them all to you, but my daughter would notice.”

Justin accepted the gift, although it made him feel icky. “I’ll return them to you,” he promised her.

“I know you will, Justin. You’re a good boy.” It was the first time she had said his actual name. Justin wondered how much of her senility was only an act. Heck, maybe she thought the mob was after her, too.

Whatever her motives, she had bought him precious time. Those few pieces of jewelry—it would be enough to last him the rest of July and half of August.

The future had possibility again.

 


 

Jessica’s parents were out of town for the weekend, so Justin went over to her house to help her babysit her brothers. He fixed them spaghetti for dinner—not overcooked pasta drenched in ketchup but the real deal... homemade sauce, fresh spices, and parmesan cheese on top. Exactly the way Matt had taught him to do.

After they ate, Justin built a fort with Jess’s brothers, which turned into a raucous pillow fight—the three Davis children against Justin, alone. Finally, Jess got the kids settled watching Toy Story, and they slipped upstairs to her bedroom.

“You don’t have to go out the window tonight,” Jess said, beginning to undress. “Stay the night. Please?”

Justin stared at her, mesmerized, and then he moved forward to meet her soft lips. “C’mere.” He picked her up, her legs wrapping around him confidently.

He fucked into her slowly, used his body to make her feel good.

“I’ll stay,” he whispered later into the curve of her neck.

For once, it wasn’t a lie.

 


 

Thursday, July 19th

“Hey, kid, I hate to do this to you, but Seth wants you to know that next week, he needs the remaining $5500. All of it, in cash.”

The fuck?!

“$5500? I only owe him $4600.” Justin tried not to let his voice betray how rattled he was.

“Early payment penalty,” Brently said.

God, how had a fuckwad like Brently gotten into college? Justin was dumb, but even he wasn’t that dumb.

“Seth and I had a deal,” Justin protested through clenched teeth.

“Sorry, kid. Deal’s over. Seth’s having supply issues or something. He can’t make an exception for you.”

Brently pocketed the cash. “Oh, and he said if you don’t have it by next week, he’ll be stopping by your new crib to get payment. And I don’t think he was talking about a cash payment.” He sunk into a stupid fighting stance and gave a few pointed jabs at the air by Justin’s right ear. Then he patted Justin’s shirtsleeve sympathetically. “Between you and me, kid, I think you’re getting a beat down either way. I probably wouldn’t stick around.”

Brently smiled vacantly. After he left, Justin stared into the distance. He stared and he stared.

Dread—thick, black, corrosive—spread its tendrils into his heart.

So this was how it ended.

 


 

Friday, July 20th

“Mr. Foley? The answer to problem five, please.”

Justin scowled. “I don’t fucking know.” He had crumpled his homework page into a ball on his desk, which was probably why Mrs. Jefferson had called on him in the first place.

“Excuse me?” His teacher’s voice was ice.

Justin clenched the sides of his desk. Last night, he had dreamt he was trapped in a cage and being lowered into cold water by a sadistic silhouette (Seth). He had woken up right when the frigid liquid started to pour into his mouth and shoot up his nose.

Justin had to get out of this fucking town. A clock was ticking down the minutes, the seconds... There were a million things he wanted to do with the limited amount of time he had left.

Solving quadratic equations wasn’t one of them.

“This is all bullshit. Negative b plus-or-minus the square root of b-squared... Who fucking cares? What does it have to do with real life? How does it solve real fucking problems? Maybe you should teach us something that will actually help us!”

Justin pushed himself out of his chair and, in full view of Mrs. Jefferson and the entire class, threw his homework in the garbage can and walked out of the room. He kicked the nearest locker, stalked down the hallway and stopped to slam his hands flat against an empty classroom door. He did it five more times for good measure.

He heard Alex’s cane before he saw him.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Alex said indifferently. He leaned against the bank of lockers. “You owe me, by the way. I told Mrs. Jefferson that your dog died last night, which is why you’re upset. Her Doberman died two weeks ago... so I don’t think you’ll even get in trouble.”

Justin balled his hands into fists. “Fuck, Alex. That’s messed up.”

Alex raised one shoulder. “You should probably cry a little when you go back in. To help sell the story. I’ve gotten pretty good at fake crying.” He tapped his cane against Justin’s thigh. “Do you need any tips?”

Justin used the anchor of Alex’s voice to pull himself back together. “I’m good. Thanks for the offer. You’re a fucking paragon.”

“Paragon?” Alex echoed. “Did Clay teach you that word? It better not be an insult.” He turned his head, deliberately not looking at Justin. “Do you wanna come over to my house tonight? We could talk.”

Justin wasn't sure whether to laugh or break down crying. All summer long, he’d been trying to get to this point in his friendship with Alex. And only now that he had to leave... Fuck.

“I can’t,” Justin said. “NA meeting tonight.”

“Oh." Alex's face fell. "Why don’t you tell the Jensens my dog died? Maybe they’ll let you skip and come over.”

Justin couldn’t hold it back this time. He laughed. “Clay knows you don’t have a dog, Alex.”

“My goldfish then. I’m really torn up about it.”

This was why Justin had always liked Alex. For the stupid shit he said. For how sensitive he was to the pain of other people. For the undercurrent of danger in his actions.

Justin gestured for Alex to lead the way back to their classroom. “I’ll ask,” he promised as they matched strides.

Justin didn’t ask. He didn’t even have an NA meeting that night. His NA meetings were on Mondays.

Chapter Text

Saturday, July 21st

Justin was fucked.

He had $1683. He needed $5500. It was math so simple even Justin could do it: He had six days to come up with $3717.

Zach’s family was loaded, but Mrs. Dempsey kept the finances locked down tight. Tony would probably threaten to kick Justin’s ass if he came to him for money. Alex would ask a million annoying questions. Jess would be suspicious. Clay would... No fucking way. Clay was not an option. He had already given Justin everything. He gave and gave and gave, and Justin’s debt to him probably exceeded the national debt at this point.

Who was left? Ms. Henrick? Justin couldn’t ask her for any more jewelry to pawn. She wasn’t the “crazy neighbor” anymore, not to him. She was his friend. And given her mental deficiencies, was taking property from her considered elder abuse? (Lainie would know the answer.)

Bryce? “I heard you stayed at Zachy’s last night. C’mon, Justin. You’re not his bitch. You need something, you come to me. Here, take a few hundred. Rent’s almost due, right? I’ve got you covered.”

Yeah, fuck no. Bryce wasn’t even a last resort.

Richard? He had almost been stepfather #3. He earned a shit-ton of money advising people on what to do with their shit-tons of money (“investment banking”—fucking rich people and their self-important career titles). He had showered Justin with expensive toys and taught him how to play pool and fish for trout. Rickie had even given Justin the run of three bedrooms in his house, much to his mother’s dismay.

His mom hadn’t allowed them to live with the investment banker for long. She had become jealous of the bond he had formed with the kind, balding man. Apparently, it wasn’t okay for Rickie to hug Justin; only the contact of fists against flesh was acceptable to her. They had fled the mansion in the middle of the night, his mom muttering about how her now ex-fiancé was “the worst scum of the Earth.”

Rickie might still remember Justin. He might help. He might loan him the money ($3700 was chump change to him). He probably still lived in the same neighborhood Bryce did. Maybe...

”Between you and me, kid, I think you’re getting a beat down either way.”

Why was Justin deluding himself? He was so fucking stupid. Seth was out for his blood, money or no. There was no way that the Jensens would ignore him showing up to dinner beaten to a pulp. If they insisted on getting involved (they would) and if Seth hurt them...

Justin had to run. Case closed.

 


 

Justin spent the morning doing chores because he had to wait for Clay to leave the house before he could do anything else. He mowed the grass. He started a load of his laundry and, when that was finished, he threw in a load of Clay’s as well. He began to scrub their bathroom down, a chore he and Clay constantly tried to pass off to each other (Justin usually ended up stuck with it, because Clay claimed Justin was “the main reason it got so gross in the first place”).

Clay finally stumbled out of bed at 11 AM. After he left to go hang out with Tony, Justin rooted in the back of their bedroom closet for the cardboard box in which he had been stockpiling gifts. It had wasted some of his cash to buy them (no, not wasted; Seth was the waste). Justin had figured that if he was going to spend some of his dwindling cash on heroin, he might as well spend some of it on something worthwhile.

He set the box out on the floor and began sorting the presents. He grabbed a stack of index cards from their desk and began making labels so Clay would know when and to whom to give the gifts. He wrote out the names: Jess, Alex, Tony, Zach, Matt, Lainie. He wrote out the occasions: Christmas, Birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. The last two were a bit of a stretch. Matt and Lainie had never technically been his parents. It didn’t matter, because they certainly had already treated him like their son.

If he had to disappear, Justin wanted the people in his life to know that, yes, he had fucking planned ahead and, yes, he cared about them, and, yes, he was awesome at buying gifts... except when it came to Clay. He had no fucking idea what to buy him. He had been so desperate, he had even asked for gift suggestions. Clay had blown him off, preferring instead to have a staring contest with his bedroom wall. For three fucking hours. It had pissed Justin off. It wasn’t like he could ask him again later, not after he had tossed his phone and was halfway across the country.

After he finished labeling all his items, he turned to his next task. (It helped to have a to-do list; it kept him from spiraling.) Step number two: Pack his gym bag. He started with the essentials—bars of soap, a small (but warm) blanket, umbrella, hairbrush, water bottles, protein bars, gloves, trash bags...

Next, he began choosing the clothing he would pack. Everything he brought had to last him so he selected higher quality material rather than his personal favorites. Socks and underwear were the most critical, and, even though it would take up precious space, he decided to pack a backup pair of shoes. His sneakers had almost been stolen off his feet while he slept in a shelter in Oakland. It was best to plan for the worst.

Step number three: Decide how much cash he was going to take with him. He had to leave some money behind so Clay could repurchase some of Ms. Henrick’s pawned jewelry. He also needed to pay the Jensens back for the items he was taking with him when he left. And there were still bus tickets to purchase... He fucking hated math, especially when the sums came up negative and you knew the answer had to be positive.

 


 

The most important step was also the hardest: Say goodbye. He had decided to spread this one out over his remaining days.

Alex, first.

Justin had turned down Alex’s offer to come over to his house on Friday night. It was too risky. The two of them in Alex’s bedroom with the expectation of a “talk” hanging in the air... Justin knew he would have let something damning slip. Alex would have badgered him about it, and Justin would have felt guilty and confessed, and then Alex would have snitched to Clay.

So, on Saturday afternoon, he took Alex out for pizza, somewhere noisy and bustling (and cheap). They ate without speaking; Alex was too busy stuffing his face with as much dairy, gluten, and grease as was humanly possible. Next, they went out for ice cream, and it was a little quieter there (but not too quiet, thank fuck). They spent the time between mouthfuls making fun of their respective siblings. Finally, they went to the arcade and Alex kicked his ass in every game—except for the racing ones.

After he drove Alex back to his house, he walked him to the door.

“I hope you weren’t expecting a kiss goodnight,” Alex said flatly once they reached his porch.

“You wish, Standall.” The awkward silence that followed his words... Well, this one wasn’t too bad, not compared to the ones they’d shared in the past month. It still wasn’t preferable, certainly not for a goodbye.

“Hey, Alex, hold on a sec,” Justin said as Alex began to turn the doorknob. He turned back, eyebrows raised in a silent question.

Justin felt hollow—like Alex was looking right into his insides. What he wanted to say was, I have no fucking clue why anyone would choose me over you. You’re fucking great. And I’m glad you gave me a second chance. What he actually said didn’t have quite the same impact.

“The Jensens bought me a few shirts when I first moved in with them that don’t fit anymore. You’re pretty skinny. You want them?”

“Uh, no,” Alex said decidedly. “But thanks, I guess?”

Justin shrugged it off. “Okay.” Impulsively, he sprang forward and grabbed Alex into a hug. Alex stiffened. They’d never been the type of friends to hug, but Justin didn’t care. He reached his right hand up and touched Alex’s hair. It had been the first thing he had ever noticed about him. The skinny kid with the bleach blond hair. You’re interesting, Justin remembered himself thinking.

Alex clumsily stroked Justin’s back. “What the fuck is going on with you, Justin?” he asked into his ear.

Justin broke the embrace and deliberately stepped back. Alex had a thing about personal space. “Nothing.”

Alex frantically smoothed his hair back down. “Nothing? This... whatever this is, it’s concerning. I think I honestly prefer it when you’re being a dick.”

“Then I’ll go back to being a dick on Monday.” Justin pivoted on the porch and started back to the car. “See you in math class,” he called over his shoulder.

Alex stood at the door, watching. He was still standing there when Justin drove away.

 

Alex: we r friends now if i didn’t make it clear

Alex: asshole

 


 

Sunday, July 22nd

Justin went to the bus station on Sunday morning and bought an advance ticket to Oakland for Wednesday afternoon. He had already purchased his ticket for the Greyhound bus from Oakland to Chicago.

Chicago. Justin hadn’t put much thought into his final destination. All he knew was that California as a whole was probably a bad idea. He was violating his probation by leaving, so the farther he went, the better. When Jess had gone to visit her aunt in Chicago, she had given him the scoop on the “Windy City”, and it had seemed like the perfect destination (mostly because it would remind him of her).

Jess had said Chicago would be cold in the winter with heavy snowfalls. Justin had packed his bag with cold-as-shit weather in mind (he had always wanted to see snow). Jess had also said Chicago was dangerous, at least compared to Evergreen. Justin had lived with danger all his life; it wasn’t a concern.

At the bus station, while waiting to use the self-service kiosk, Justin saw a rack of postcards for sale. He bought one for Jessica. He wrote: Your favorite spot in Chicago? I’ll be there this summer. Every day. In case you visit your aunt again. Love, Sid

He would mail it next March, after he turned eighteen. He didn’t want Jess (or Clay or the Jensens) coming to find him until he couldn’t be legally dragged back to California.

 


 

Justin called Jess and asked her to go to the pier with him to watch the sunset. She told her parents she was driving over to Nina’s and then she picked him up.

They sat on the dock, Jessica leaning against his chest, Justin’s legs sandwiching her in close to his heart. They watched the water lapping the shore as the sun faded towards the horizon. Justin twirled a few strands of Jess’s hair around his index finger and let the curls spring free.

“It’s so beautiful,” Jess murmured. “All those colors.”

He pressed his lips against the top of her head. “Not as beautiful as you are.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s true, Jess.” He ran his fingers under the hem of her shirt and circled her belly button. “I wish we could stay out all night. The sunrise is better.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it’s not an ending.”

Before they left, Justin took a photo of Jessica in the glow of the setting sun.

 


 

When they came back to the Jensens’ house, they went up to Clay’s bedroom (“Clay, sock going on the door!”). They made love on his bed—slow, worshipful. Justin wanted to memorize every part of her: the fullness of her lips, the curves of her breasts, the taste of her on his tongue as he went down between her thighs, her soft legs wrapped around his back, her gasps as he rocked into her tight warmth—the trembling, the tensing, the climax.

“I love you, Jess.” Justin grasped at her like a lifeline.

Jess traced her thumb over his jaw. “I love you, too.”

 


 

Monday, July 23nd

Justin made Clay stop off at the Walplex before school, so he could buy Mrs. Jefferson flowers and a card. He had searched online for math jokes the night before and had picked the only two he actually understood (neither of which were that funny). He wrote them out on graph paper before class, stuck them in the I’m Sorry I Hurt You card, and sealed the envelope.

Mrs. Jefferson laughed uproariously when she read the jokes. She then tried to comfort him about his dead dog, which sent Alex into a fit of giggles from where he stood on the sidelines. Alex gloated over the success of his manufactured lie for the rest of the school day.

That night, Justin had his weekly NA meeting. He didn’t want to draw attention so he went to it. He even stood up and shared his “struggles” for the week—how he felt like he was betraying his family and his friends and, as a result, he wanted to shoot up. Everyone murmured understanding like fucking zombies and that was that.

 


 

Tuesday, July 24th

After school on Tuesday, Justin went over to Zach’s house. May wanted him to listen to the new song she had learned on her violin. He did. Five times. Classical music wasn’t Justin’s thing (it was too somber and also was boring as fuck), but May was, well, May. Plus, she was a prodigy on the violin (at least that was what Zach called her).

May eventually skipped off to her room to call her friend, so Justin and Zach crashed on the couch in his living room and played video games. It was familiar and routine, but it was somehow better. Everything was better when you knew it was the last time; you cherished it more.

After his character died onscreen, Justin threw his controller on the couch.

“Dempsey?”

“Yeah?”

“The 5th,” Justin said carefully. “Were you going to spend the day with your mom and May, or what?”

August 5th: The anniversary of Mr. Dempsey’s death.

Zach turned his head away from Justin for a long time. ’Fucking cry, man,’ Justin wanted to tell him. 'Why do you think I would care?' He waited it out instead, allowing Zach his private moment.

Finally, Zach cleared his throat, a little awkwardly. “May’s going to horse camp that week. I arranged it so she wouldn’t have to be here. She loves horses and her friends are going, and I think she’ll feel closer to Dad out there. He loved the outdoors, and he taught her how to ride. I think Mom’s secretly relieved. God forbid she has to deal with any potential emotional outbursts from her own daughter.”

Justin stretched his arm along the back of the couch so that his fingers were lined up with Zach’s head. “What about you? Are you gonna stay home?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“I was thinking we could go to the beach. You, me, Alex, Jess, Clay... I mean, only if you want. If you don’t wanna be alone.” He risked a quick glance at Zach’s face to gauge his reaction.

The hint of sorrow on Zach’s face slowly faded and was replaced by a small smile. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

“You could sleep over at my house after if you want.”

“Yeah, sounds good, man. Let’s do it.”

Justin wished he would be around to make it happen. But maybe the suggestion was enough. Maybe Zach would remember this conversation and seek out the others on August 5th, even if Justin wasn’t there. That’s what he would imagine him doing. It was unbearable to imagine the alternative.

Justin rubbed absently at the leather upholstery. He fucking needed to say more. He had said nothing to Zach the last time he had taken off. The only person he had given any kind of goodbye to had been Bryce, and wasn’t that fucked up?

“Zach, I’m-... I’m sorry for being such a shitty friend.”

“You’re not,” Zach said quickly, no thought behind the words.

“I was. Let’s be straight with each other.”

Zach bit his lip. “Well, okay, but then so was I. I’m sorry, too.”

They bumped fists.

Justin studied Zach’s face. “After I ran away last year, when I was in Oakland... I thought about this a lot. Hanging out with you. I missed it. I didn’t miss Bryce or Monty or Keith. Just you.”

“I missed you too, man. You have no idea.” Zach tossed him his controller. “Let’s go again.”

Justin sank back in a sideways slouch and threw his feet on Zach’s lap. “I’m gonna beat your ass, Dempsey.”

Zach pushed his feet off. “In your dreams, Foley.”

 


 

The hardest goodbyes Justin left for last. Sitting in his customary chair on Tuesday evening, watching his family (his almost family) as they ate dinner... What could he say? He knew what he owed them. He knew what they had given him—charity, acceptance, security. But each time his lips parted, his words got stuck like taffy on his tongue. He waited patiently for sounds to emerge. They never did.

No words then. Actions spoke louder than words. Justin washed the dishes after dinner. He took out the trash. He cleaned the front windows (Lainie had been complaining about the smudges on the glass for weeks). He put the copy of On the Road that Matt had loaned him back in his office, filled with post-it notes of Justin’s thoughts. Maybe they would make him laugh.

While Clay was in the shower, Justin placed a handwritten note in between the pages of one of Clay’s comic books. He was shit with words and it would probably give Clay an anxiety attack when he saw all the spelling and grammar mistakes, but if even one-tenth of the depth of what Justin felt for Clay had bled its way into the blue ink... then Justin had succeeded.

In trying to say goodbye, Justin knew he hadn’t said enough. Not to Jess or Alex or Zach. Not to Clay or his parents. Well, he hoped they would know anyway after he left, that he loved them.

 


 

Around midnight, Justin went to the bathroom, turned on the shower and sat under the cold spray. He didn’t wash his hair or his body; he simply let the water pelt his skin. His fingers itched for a hit. His mind turned inside out for it—crumbling, screaming. He decided to indulge the craving. What even was the point of fighting it off?

He climbed out of the shower, roughly dried himself off with a towel, and yanked his clothes back on. With reverence, he took out the heroin and the clean needles he had stashed behind the old hand towels the Jensens kept stuffed beneath the sink, next to the pipes.

This was a luxury that would soon be no more, getting to take his time, in the privacy and comfort of a guaranteed safe space. Using on the streets was more dangerous. Beyond dangerous—it could leave you vulnerable, make you a target. Speed and precision were key.

Not here. Not here. Justin took his time.

He would be running tomorrow for real, but, in a way, the soft prick of the needle against his skin—it too was running. Escaping. It was the one thing he had always been good at.

What had Coach Patrick liked to say? Play to your strengths.

 


 

Wednesday, July 25th

The alarm clock went off, the same way it did every other morning. Mechanically, Justin got ready for school. He went to the bathroom, undressed, and took a shower. After he was clean, he put on three pairs of socks and two pairs of underwater. Jeans were next. He slung on a t-shirt, layered a second t-shirt on top of the first, and struggled to fit a third on top of all that. He brushed his teeth and pocketed his toothbrush. He combed his hair with Clay’s brush.

Strangely, Justin felt calmer than he had in days, maybe weeks. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t anything. It was like he was watching his body from the outside as it went through the motions. He was numb... but peacefully numb. Because he knew he was doing the right thing.

He went back to the bedroom, floorboards creaking in all the familiar places. He approached the brown-haired lump, and he pulled the blanket down from Clay’s face. He shook his shoulder.

“I’m getting a ride to school today. You can sleep in.”

Clay mumbled incoherent confirmation and continued to drool on his pillow.

Bye, dumbass.

Justin picked up his backpack and gym bag and slipped out the front door. (Lockable doors: he would miss those.) Lainie had already left for work. Matt was probably in the kitchen. Justin would text him later and tell him he was going out for breakfast with the Standalls. What he really would be doing was walking to school. He would attend his first two classes and then ditch at lunchtime. From there, he’d walk to the bus station. Then: Oakland. Then: Chicago.

Back to living rough.

Justin set off down the sidewalk, but before he got too far down the street, he turned and looked back at the Jensens’ house. He could almost smell the lemon cleaner, hear the hum of the water heater, taste Matt’s pancakes and all the syrupy goodness on top. He could feel the warm embrace of the house and the people in it.

Goodbye.

One last lingering stare, and then Justin turned away.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, July 25th

A sharp knock at his door woke Clay from an unsettled sleep.

“Hey, kid. Don’t you have work this morning?”

Clay blinked at his father. “Erm-hum,” he answered while yawning.

“I’ll that as a yes,” his dad said, backing out of the door. A few seconds later, he popped his head back in. “By the way, I don’t know if it was you or Justin who cleaned the front windows last night, but they look excellent. Your mother was very pleased.”

Front windows?

Clay shuffled to the bathroom to splash water on his face. He noticed Justin’s toothbrush missing right away, but he didn’t think anything of it. At least not until he opened the medicine cabinet to get his deodorant and saw that Justin’s deodorant was missing, too, as was his razor. Was Justin planning to spend the night at Zach’s? Idiot. Justin’s court-mandated curfew was 9 PM. Clay’s parents had only reminded him of that fact three dozen times this summer.

 


 

Clay drained half his cup of coffee in one gulp, needing the caffeine to focus his attention. Something vague was nagging at him, but he didn’t know what it was yet. While he ate a piece of toast, he checked his phone. He had a whole slew of texts from the past few days that he had never bothered reading.

The last time he had checked his messages... Tyler had appeared. He had hung around for two long hours before disappearing. Clay didn’t consider himself superstitious, but he was a little gun-shy to repeat any actions that might make the deranged hallucination show up again.

Clay decided to risk it this morning. He didn’t want his friends to think he was a complete asshole.

saturday 9:53 p.m. Alex: justin is off the rails.

saturday 9:56 p.m. Alex: he hugged me

saturday 10:00 p.m. Alex: he touched my hair!!

saturday 10:03 p.m. Alex: talk 2 him

Clay groaned and nearly bit his tongue instead of his toast. When would Alex and Justin learn to work out their issues without using him as a mediator?

sunday 8:33 p.m. Jess: Can you call me? It’s about Justin.

Was this related to what Alex was complaining about? If so, why was Jess texting him? Clay wasn’t a relationship counselor. He was tempted to tell the three of them to just form a thruple and put everyone out of their misery. He grimaced, immediately regretting his last thought and how insensitive it had been. Tyler (not Tyler!) had him on edge. He needed to get a grip on himself.

Clay didn’t really have time to call Jess, not if she got chatty. He would call her after work. Maybe they could go to Monet’s and have a long conversation and catch up. He had been meaning to check in with her anyway.

tuesday 9:01 p.m. Zach: i think something’s going down with justin. hit me up

Clay hesitated. Although he and Zach were beginning to make progress towards being friends (an inevitability forced by their shared connection to Justin), there was an undercurrent of bitterness in their interactions they just couldn’t shake. Texting with Zach was stilted and awkward. But the fact that Zach tried at all to reach out meant something, and Clay didn’t want to be the one to screw it up.

Clay: I’m going to work, but I’ll call you later.

Anxiety pulled at the pit of Clay’s stomach. If he was going to trust anyone’s opinion on Justin, it was Zach’s. But... Why hadn’t Clay noticed anything wrong with his foster brother? Wasn’t that his duty? His responsibility?

Clay apathetically moved to the foyer and appraised the front windows. The light pierced through the glass and directly into his optic nerve, spiking his headache up two notches on the pain scale. Justin had done an excellent job of shining the windows to an irritating cleanliness. Slowly, deliberately, Clay pushed his palm print against the glass and ran it horizontally across the pane. Smudges appeared. He didn’t know why, but it instantly made him feel better.

 


 

Clay was opening the Crestmont’s new supply box of Milk Duds with a razor blade when his phone buzzed. He moved on to the Mike & Ike’s. His phone buzzed again.

Clay set the razor blade aside and pulled his phone out of his pocket.

Alex: 911 justin

Alex: 911 911

Clay tried not to overreact, even though his fingers went flying over his keyboard of their own accord.

Clay: Is this a real emergency?

Clay: Answer me!

Alex: justin is going to run

Clay: How do you know?

Clay tried not to get frustrated at the long pauses. He knew how difficult it was for Alex to type on his phone. Plus, he was supposedly in class right now, which meant he might be trying to type under his desk or from behind a propped up textbook. Clay’s impatience grew to an intolerable level anyway.

Clay: Alex?!

Alex: he’s wearing 3 shirts

Clay scrubbed his hand over his face, turning the words over and over in his mind, trying to figure out what picture they formed and why it had Alex so upset. Come on Alex... fucking type.

Alex: he has his gym bag

That fact required no contemplation. Clay knew exactly what Justin’s gym bag could mean.

Alex: he never came back from lunch

Clay choked on his own spit. Why hadn’t Alex led with that?

Clay stuffed his phone back in his pocket, abandoned the scattered stacks of candy boxes, and bolted to find Jerome, adrenaline and panic mixing into a fiery concoction that spread through his chest. Is this what it feels like to have a heart attack?

His coworker was sweeping up popcorn kernels in an empty theater. Clay skidded to a halt at the open door, leg muscles protesting the sudden exertion.

“Jerome!” Clay called down to him. “I have an emergency. I need to leave right now.”

“You’re gonna get written up,” Jerome said, not taking his attention away from his task.

“Family emergency. Cover for me. Please.”

“It had better be a real emergency.”

Clay desperately hoped it was not.

 


 

Clay thanked his past self for his foresight and pessimism. Not long after Justin had moved back into their house, Clay had furtively installed a tracking app on Justin’s phone, counting on the fact that Justin had never had such a fancy phone before and would assume the app came pre-installed and couldn’t be removed.

Clay had somehow known this day would come.

Once a runner...

Before pulling out of his parking space at the Crestmont, Clay checked the app. According to the GPS on his phone, Justin was walking down Locust Avenue. He hadn’t left the city limits yet. But Locust Avenue was the main road leading to the bus depot... so Alex was most likely right. Justin was running.

But why? What had Clay done? Had he said something that had royally pissed Justin off? Something terrible enough for him to flee? Had Tyler’s hallucination made Clay do something to Justin? Did he not remember?

Pulling out onto the main road, Clay did something he had never done before. He did a 40 in a 25 mph zone.

 


 

Clay took the quickest route that led to his wayward foster brother. (He kept imagining him half-dead in a ditch, a needle in his arm.)

The world was distorting on all sides, his heart pounding, pure panic.

Justin was abandoning him. Again.

After everything they‘d been through together. After everything Clay had given him.

He slammed his hands on the steering wheel and screamed. “Fuck!” It was satisfying to vent his frustrations, so he alternated between cussing Justin out and verbally berating himself for not catching on sooner to Justin’s plan.

Thank God for Alex.

When Clay finally spotted Justin’s form moving steadily down a road bordered by a ditch and an overgrown field, Clay blasted the car horn. Justin quickly looked back and appeared to do some cursing of his own before resolutely turning away. Clay sped up.

“Hey, Clay,” Justin greeted casually when Clay slowed the Prius down to a crawl and rolled down the passenger side window.

“You didn’t tell me you had a field trip today, you fucking asshole.”

Justin didn’t even look at him. He kept walking. Clay inched the Prius along, keeping pace with Justin. One perk of a small town: not much traffic on a Wednesday afternoon.

“Where are you going?”

Justin stubbornly didn’t answer. The gears in Clay’s mind, so long dormant, finally began to move. Jess’s voicemail, ”Justin keeps asking me about the temperature here...”.

“You’re going to Chicago,” Clay said, mostly for his own benefit. “Because you...” Think, Clay. Think. Justin had been adamant about finding a job. And Zach had texted him at the start of the summer... “Because you owe somebody money.”

Justin stopped walking.

The final pieces slotted into place in Clay’s mind. “You stole money from your mom’s ex-boyfriend. You told me about him one night... Seth, right?”

Justin glanced at him, hands nervously fiddling with the straps of his gym bag. He had dark circles under his eyes. Sweat was beading on his face (a joint consequence of the multiple t-shirts and the hot July sun). He looked like a stray animal dumped on the side of the road, pathetic and forlorn.

Fuck that. Justin wasn’t a stray. He had a home.

Clay pressed on the gas pedal and pulled the Prius off the road, blocking Justin’s path forward. He unbuckled his seatbelt and launched himself out of the car. Justin watched him approach. Clay was tempted to throttle him. By the next step forward, he was more inclined to hug him. When he finally reached him, though, Clay merely grabbed the strap of Justin’s gym bag and eased it over his head, letting the bag drop onto a clump of bright orange weeds.

“Take off those extra shirts,” he snapped. “You’re gonna get heatstroke.”

He sat down on the grass as Justin pulled off two sweat-drenched t-shirts and wiped his face. He then collapsed beside him, one foot away—close enough to finally settle Clay’s racing heart.

Justin kept his eyes firmly fixed on his knees, studiously avoiding Clay's gaze.

“Justin, tell me everything. And don’t leave anything out. I broke the law three times coming to find you... You owe me the truth.”

 


 

Justin took his time telling his story. Clay was dismayed to find out it stretched all the way back to May (fucking May and Clay had missed every single clue.) Anytime Justin started to clam up, all Clay had to do was throw out Jessica’s name. He wasn’t above stooping to that level.

Find the wound and press where it hurts.

When Justin finished, Clay pulled out his phone, fuming.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m calling Mom.”

“Like hell you are,” Justin protested, trying to grab for the phone.

“She’ll know how to handle this. You’re a minor. Seth’s an adult. Yeah, you stole from him, but it’s not like he can accuse you of stealing his drug money. And you said he cut your throat with a knife. That’s assault. We can get a restraining order.”

Justin laughed angrily. “Getting your parents involved... Seth will see it as a weakness... or as an opportunity. And a restraining order won’t fix anything! Seth will just get some junkie who owes him a couple hundred bucks to come and fuck with me instead.”

Clay ignored the words. “What was the amount you owe Seth again? Exactly?”

“$5500. But I have some of it. I need $3717 by tomorrow.”

Clay nodded curtly. “Well, that part’s easy. I have about $7000 in my bank account.”

Justin visibly deflated. “How the fuck?” he whispered.

Clay felt guilty. Because he had so rarely witnessed it, he sometimes forgot about how impoverished a background Justin had come from. To Justin, a $7000 bank balance was probably as unreal as when Bryce had told Clay he only had a quarter of a million in his trust fund. Clay had once again rubbed how privileged he was in Justin’s face.

He picked up a dirt clod and crushed it between his fingers. “I’ve been saving money since I was seven, and I’ve been working at the Crestmont for almost two years now. But, mostly, I’m lucky. I’ve never had to worry about paying my own rent. Or paying for food.”

Justin was silent for a long moment. Then he picked up a rock and threw it violently into the grassy field beyond. “I won’t steal from you.”

“It’s not stealing if I’m offering. And I’m not offering, by the way. That would imply you have a choice, and you don’t. So shut up about the money. But, I think you’re missing the bigger problem here. What’s gonna stop Seth from demanding more money once you pay this off? You’re playing into his game. He’s gonna keep threatening you until you have nothing left to give.”

“You think I don’t know that? But if I stop, he really will kill me. I’m not exaggerating, Clay.”

Justin rested his head in his hands. His posture was defeated, trapped. Clay swallowed and rubbed his forehead, his fingers coming away wet with a muddy brown glaze—perspiration mixed with dirt.

Justin was too close to this whole situation. He was still stuck in the mindset of a victim... learned helplessness or some such shit. Clay could understand where it came from, and, while he didn’t like it, he couldn’t fix it by tomorrow either.

So... for the short term, Clay would need to call the shots. He needed to make the decisions.

First things first. He had to make sure Justin wouldn’t take off again. Clay bumped Justin’s side with his elbow. “Come on. I’ll drive you to the bus station.”

Justin raised his head. “You’re gonna let me go?” His voice hovered somewhere between wary and bleak.

“Yes, but I hope you packed enough clothes for me too. Because I sure as hell didn’t plan on taking a one-way trip to Chicago when I left the house today.”

“What the fuck are you talking about, Jensen?”

“Does the ticket office accept credit cards?” Clay shot Justin a meaningful look. He hoped it wasn't too subtle.

Justin’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not coming with me!”

“Why not?”

“Because this has nothing to do with you. It’s my fucking mess!”

Clay flicked Justin’s shoulder. “Then it’s my mess, too. Did you forget that we’re about to be brothers?”

Justin opened his mouth. He closed it. Then he stared at Clay for so long that Clay wiped his chin, thinking it must be coated in grime or flesh-eating bugs. It wasn’t.

Clay mentally retread the words he had just said. Brother. Well, fuck. That was the first time Clay had ever addressed Justin as his brother. Up until then, he had always called him his roommate or, if he was feeling generous, his foster brother.

Clay pushed past the emotional weight of that slip of the tongue. There was too much vulnerability in it. “Did you really think my parents were just gonna see you were missing and say, ‘Oh well, so much for the adoption.’? My mom would have had every law enforcement agency out looking for you, dude. Amber alerts, helicopters, search parties—the whole deal. It would have been panic central at the Jensen household. How could you think about doing that to them after everything?”

“Because I can’t risk staying! You have no fucking idea what it’s like—to live how I did.”

“Then explain it to me!”

Justin clamped his lips shut. Clay waited him out. With Justin, sometimes you had to be patient. And persistent. “Justin? Explain. Please.”

“It’s the worst fear you can imagine,” Justin said quietly. “It’s being afraid to fall asleep because you know that while you’re dreaming about basketball or hot girls, your mom could be getting beaten to death by her asshole boyfriend in the next room.”

“Shit.” Clay let out a long breath. “But, Justin, you don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

Justin pounded his fist against the ground. “Yes, I do! Seth could hurt your parents, could hurt you, and it would be my fault.”

Clay flung his hands in the air, anger rising. “You leaving would hurt us, would hurt me, you idiot. So I’m not changing my mind. How much is the bus ticket to Chicago? If you’re going, I’m going too.”

Justin cringed. “Fucking no. You’re not coming. You don’t know the first thing about living on the streets. You’d trust all the wrong people. They would rob you and leave you for dead in an alley.”

“Then I guess you’ll have to teach me. And hey, while we’re there, maybe we can join a gang. I hear Chicago’s got a lot of those.”

Justin glared at him. Clay continued on glibly, “We can get matching tattoos, learn all the gang signs. I think I probably have it in me to go hardcore, full old school gangster. And when we both get arrested and thrown in prison, I’ll spend my time writing the next great American novel about our experiences. I’ll name it ‘From The Cali Suburbs To The Vice Lords: How My Idiot Brother Embroiled Me In Crime.’ ”

Justin rolled his eyes. “The Vice Lords is a black gang, Clay.”

“See? That’s why we need to stick together. I’m the brains, you’re the street smarts.”

Justin gave a quick, pained smile before his expression hardened. “For the last time, no. You’re staying here.”

“Then so are you! Either we both go or we both stay.”

Justin didn’t respond.

Clay nodded. “Okay, good, we’ve decided. We’re staying.”

Justin accepted this with silence, but he began compulsively rubbing his arms, like he had an itch he couldn’t scratch. Clay noted the odd motion but quickly got distracted, because his brain was lighting up with ideas, furiously making connections and racing forward to play out possible scenarios in his head. He felt more alive, more present than he had in weeks.

“I have an idea, but I need the rest of the day to work out the details. I definitely need to do a little research, and I might need to ask you some questions.” And make some phone calls.

“What's the idea?” Justin’s fingers stilled and he looked directly into Clay’s face. Their eyes locked, each of them, held by the other. The tentative hope in Justin’s eyes gave Clay pause. He had to deliver now. He had to close this chapter of Justin’s life for him. For good.

Clay shook his head, denying Justin an answer. “After all the stupid shit you tried to pull today, you don’t get to know. You’re benched. Let me tap in. Let me make the touchdown.” Clay expected Justin to make fun of his attempts to throw in random sports references, but Justin merely bit his lip worriedly.

“Two important questions,” Clay said, trying to recapture Justin’s attention. “Do you think Seth will come to collect the payment tomorrow? Or will he send that college kid?”

Justin shrugged. “Seth, probably. Brently said I’m owed a beat down, and Seth doesn’t like to delegate violence.”

Clay tried not to concentrate on that disturbing tidbit. “Okay, good. Question two: On a scale of 1 to 10, how dumb would you say Seth is?”

“What, like in general?”

“No, when it comes to getting his money.”

“I don’t know. 7?”

Clay could work with a 7. “Justin, I’ll fix this. I promise.”

Clay knew he couldn’t guarantee anything. How many times had he been on the other side of a promise like the one he was making now? Too many.

His mother, holding him still on her lap at the doctor’s office while the needle approached. “It won’t hurt, baby. Just a pinch. I promise.” It had hurt.

His father, the night before the first day of high school. “It won’t be that bad, Clay. You’re going to have the time of your life, I promise.” What Clay had experienced at Liberty High so far was nightmare fuel.

Hannah at the Crestmont, talking about visiting the Pantheon in Rome the summer after senior year. “We’ll do it, Helmet. I promise.” Not even Hannah’s ghost could follow him to Italy now.

Looking back, Clay wouldn’t have changed those assurances, wouldn’t have taken away that hope from his past self. The memory of the promise meant more than the awful reality that had followed it.

“I promise,” Clay repeated. He stood up and offered Justin his hand.

Justin’s assent was a whisper. “Okay.” He took Clay’s hand, and Clay hauled him upright.

“Good,” Clay said. “Now get in the damn car.”

“Can I drive?”

“Absolutely not.”

Justin wadded up his extra shirts. “Fuck, I’m soaked in sweat.”

“And you fucking smell, too. They probably wouldn’t have let you on the bus in the first place.”

Justin waited by the passenger side door as Clay walked around to the driver’s side. “You don’t seem to mind. You really want me stinking up your car?”

Clay sighed. “I’m used to how foul you are. Anyway, it’s our car.”

Justin tossed his backpack and gym bag into the back seat and climbed into the Prius. Clay blasted the stereo, to eliminate the need for further conversation, and slowly pulled onto the deserted road.

He did a U-turn to reorient them.

Then, he drove Justin home.

Chapter Text

Thursday, July 26

After Clay dropped him off at school with his “babysitter” (Alex) and left to go to the bank to retrieve the needed cash, Justin’s anxiety kicked into overdrive. He could no longer remember why he had thought this was a good idea. Trusting Clay had made sense yesterday afternoon. It had made sense last night. Today...

Trusting anyone was generally a bad idea. Justin knew better. But when it came to Clay, Justin seemed to be forever compromised—his faith in him an unshakeable, unbending thing. One word from Clay and he was ready to throw in the towel, to hand his life over to his foster brother’s safekeeping. It wasn’t logical. Clay was in way over his head. He had no idea what Seth was capable of, or how unpredictable he could be.

Should Justin intervene? He should... Shouldn’t he?

He shouldn’t let Clay touch this filthy, contaminated thing.

There had been a brutal baseline of anxiety in Justin’s stomach all morning, and a needle in his arm... would take the shitty feeling away.

“Stop fidgeting,” Alex grumbled as they settled into their seats. “Clay’s got a plan. It’ll work. I helped him with it.”

Great. Fucking great. Clay Jensen and Alex Standall versus a meth dealer with a hard-on for violence. It was laughable. But Justin had, through his silence, given his blanket go-ahead to their harebrained scheme, despite not having the faintest clue what it was. Clay had deliberately kept him out of the loop.

The previous afternoon, Clay had holed up in his bedroom to do research and (for some odd reason) to study his French flashcards. He had been insufferable, refusing to allow Justin to even go to the bathroom by himself. “You’re worse than Mr. Davis." Clay had been insulted. “Not true. I’m not going to check if you left the hand towel hanging at a perfect angle. Although... you did put the toilet seat down, didn’t you?”

After they had eaten dinner, Clay had convinced his parents that Justin was “dying for a Monopoly rematch.” The Jensens took Monopoly very seriously, and Justin was therefore stuck for two and a half hours counting his fake money and building little red hotels on his properties. He had struggled to keep pace with Lainie (who was a cutthroat player) while also being fair to Matt (who would trade you Boardwalk for $10—he was just a good guy like that).

Throughout the game, Justin had faintly heard Clay making phone calls up in his room. That, or he had been talking to himself. Or to “Hannah.”

Fuck.

Why exactly had Justin thought Clay could fix this situation for him? Clay’s solution three months ago had been to borrow a gun from Tyler and then go murder Bryce on his doorstep. Should Justin maybe pat Clay down when he showed up today at lunch? He had gotten rid of that gun, right?

Justin couldn’t sit still. He scrambled out of his chair and began pacing in front of Alex’s desk. Alex stonily watched him and then stood up with difficulty, leaving his cane behind and moving right into Justin’s path. His piercing stare made Justin uncomfortable.

“You find it, Standall?”

“Find what?”

“Whatever you’re looking for on my face.”

“Can you not be a dick today? Please?”

Justin nodded and ran his hand through his hair. It was curly and unruly; he hadn’t bothered styling it that morning.

“When I said goodbye to you at your house on Saturday... I—I didn’t... I wanted...” That thread of thought was going nowhere. He put the brakes on it and tried again. “How did you know I was leaving town? I could have been skipping class, but Clay said you were sure I was running. Why?”

Alex offered a small shrug. “There were a bunch of little signs, but I guess I just knew. I can’t explain it. When you didn’t come back from lunch, I felt like something was missing. Something that wasn’t coming back. There was this emptiness. This void. And then Clay... He was upset when he called me last night. Really upset. What were you thinking, Justin? It’s like you’re trying to win an award for the most consecutive fuck-ups in one year. You’ve got to stop doing shit like this.”

“Fuck, Alex. I was actually trying to do the right thing. I swear I was.”

“By running away again? It’s not as stupid as shooting yourself in the head, but it’s still fucking stupid.”

“I’m sorry, okay!” He was sorry. Sorry he’d brought Seth to the Jensens’ door. Sorry Alex was now involved. Sorry he hadn’t made a clean break yesterday. (Had he purposely sabotaged his own plan so someone would notice he was leaving and stop him? If so, he was sorry for that, too.)

“I understand why you did it,” Alex said softly. He was a little wobbly, but when he grabbed Justin’s shoulder, the movement was purposeful and in control. It was a rough grab, not at all affectionate—which was a relief. Justin didn’t want to be treated like glass; he wasn’t fragile.

“You wanted to protect Clay, right? Clay and his parents?”

“Yeah,” Justin said. That was still his greatest fear. If Seth touched Clay... Justin would commit murder. In cold blood. In front of witnesses. There would be no regrets. He’d do the prison time without a single complaint.

Alex let out an exasperated sigh. “You’re not always a dick, you know. Sometimes… sometimes you’re hopelessly kind.” He gave Justin’s shoulder a gentle shake, forcing Justin to look up into his face. “Don’t disappear again. None of us want that. I don’t want that. So... like... don’t.”

Justin nodded and leaned in, his stomach twisting, not with worry or anxiety but with something half-pleasant. The heavy thump of his pulse drowned out all logic. His defenses were down, and he couldn’t protect himself from the primal need washing over him. A need for connection. A need to act on a desire that had sparked in sophomore year and never flamed out.

Alex clearly sensed the change, because he visibly swallowed and chewed his lip. He looked like he was as unsure of what should happen next as Justin was. The room was full of expectation. One thought stilled Justin from acting impulsively. Jess. He averted his gaze, sure that he was only imagining the flicker of disappointment in Alex’s penetrating eyes.

A girl brushed past them on her way to her seat. Alex quickly removed his hand, and Justin felt off-kilter, but it was Alex who subsequently lost his balance. Justin reached for him reflexively and steadied him. “Jesus, Alex. Sit down before you fall down.”

“Then be useful, and fucking help me.”

Justin guided Alex back to his desk, pushing Alex’s cane closer to him with his foot, and then quietly sat in his own chair. He began to pick at the skin on his knuckles. He used to think he was a master at relationships, but now he wondered if he would ever get the hang of them. If he would ever break free from the sick cycles of betrayal and shame. If he would ever learn how to love people the way they deserved to be loved.

He pinched the skin between his thumb and index finger. Jessica... Alex... What Justin was doing wasn’t okay. Not like this. Not now. Maybe not ever.

Focus. Seth was today’s crisis. Everything else could wait.

 


 

At lunchtime, Justin walked with Alex to the back doors of the school. They were supposed to meet Clay on the pathway leading to the football field, and he was there, waiting for them. So was Jess, her hair pulled back into a ponytail. And Tony with two of his brothers, all decked out in leather. Zach, with a metal baseball bat in hand; Scott, with a wooden one across his shoulders.

“Heard you needed a protection detail, Foley,” Tony called.

A lump formed in Justin’s throat. Seeing his friends standing there, and knowing they had all come for him, it filled him with a feeling of such crushing unworthiness, he almost couldn’t breathe. It seemed impossible. Why would they come to his defense? Especially if they knew what he had done to get himself into this situation in the first place. But not a single one of them looked pissed off or fed-up. Well, maybe one person did...

“You asshole!” Jessica hit him twice before flinging her arms around him. When she pulled back, her eyes roamed to his lips and she began to move in for a kiss.

“Wait, Jess.” Justin gave what he hoped was a barely perceptible head roll in Alex’s direction. Not in front of Alex. Jess, face crinkling with understanding, stepped back. Alex resolutely stared down at the ground.

Justin struggled to find words that could communicate the full weight of his confusion—and of his gratitude. As usual, he failed. “What are you guys all doing here?”

Zach approached, twirling his bat in one hand with ease. “What, you asked Clay for help, but not me? I’m hurt, dude.”

Justin grinned, even though he felt more like hurling. “You don’t really ask Clay for help. He kinda forces it on you.”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Tony said, reaching up to ruffle Clay’s hair. Clay grimaced and obsessively tried to straighten it back out, even though it was so short as to make the action completely unnecessary.

Zach nudged Justin’s arm. “We’ve got to get better at this shit, man. Communicating. I think you were trying to tell me something on Tuesday, but you know I’m not that smart. You have to keep it simple and direct with me.”

“I wasn’t trying to tell you anything.” Justin sighed and drew away. “This– this is my shit to deal with.”

Tony cracked his knuckles. “Foley, hasn’t the past year taught you anything? We’ve got to deal with our problems together. I know I give you crap, and you deserve every bit of it, but you’re part of the group. You’re not excluded. Clay and I are ride or die and that includes you by extension.”

Justin looked at Clay. He was now studying the bleachers, on the lookout for Seth or Brently or anyone suspicious. He had a thick white envelope in his right hand. So Clay had brought the money... and he had brought their friends. Of course. Zach and Jessica might have shown up for Justin, but the rest of them were here because Clay had asked them. People would go the mile for Clay. He had that effect on people. He had that effect on Justin, too.

“Is this your plan?” Justin asked Clay as he came to stand beside him. “Intimidation?”

“No,” Clay said. “This is a safety net. I thought if we had an audience when we met with Seth, he’d be less likely to give you a beat-down.”

As long as he doesn’t distribute that beat-down among all of you instead, dummy.

“Justin,” Jess warned, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Is that him?”

Two men were approaching the bleachers. One was Seth. The other man Justin didn’t know. He was older, stocky and muscular. An enforcer. Justin nodded tersely. “That’s Seth. The ugly one.”

“They’re both ugly,” Tony’s brother Javi commented. “I could take ‘em.”

“So could I,” Scott said.

“Easy work,” Zach agreed.

“No one’s taking anyone,” Clay cautioned. “This isn’t going to be a brawl. It’s an exchange. We’re all going to approach, and then Justin and I are going up to do the talking. Alex, you stay here. You know what to do.”

“Yeah, I’m on it,” Alex said cryptically.

“Let’s do this,” Clay said. He looked questioningly at Justin. Clay was calling the shots here, but he was still seeking Justin’s confirmation to begin. Fuck me. I don’t know why I trust you, but I do. He clapped Clay on the back. “Lead the way.”

 


 

“You better have my money,” Seth said in greeting. “And who the fuck is this? Foster mommy’s bastard?”

“Charming,” Clay said, stepping forward. Justin held his arm out in alarm, preventing Clay from getting in front of him. He wanted to maintain three feet of space between Clay and Seth for this entire interaction—three feet that Clay already wanted to shrink. His foster brother had no fucking sense of self-preservation. He would face down ten lions if it came down to a question of justice. He’d also probably walk right into the barrel of a shotgun without a shred of fear.

“So this is the kid that doesn’t like you, huh? Snitches on everything you do? I knew you were lying.” Seth bared his teeth in derision, sweeping his hand towards Zach and the others. “And what’s with the teen gang back there? Too afraid to face me yourself? Had to hide behind all your little bitches?”

Justin smiled. “You mean like you’re hiding behind yours?” He indicated the muscular man at Seth’s side.

Seth’s associate lunged forward but stopped when Seth held up a hand. “You want me to teach him a lesson, boss?”

Justin’s heart pounded in apprehension. The man was a beast, corded biceps as large as Justin’s head and chest muscles bulging through his white tank top. His tattoos suggested an ex-military vibe and his right hand... Shit. Catching Clay’s gaze, Justin directed his eyes meaningfully sideways, so Clay would notice the brass knuckles.

Clay actually seemed pleased by the sight.

Fuck me. His breathing went rougher; it hitched harder.

This situation was growing lethally dangerous.

Justin gripped Clay’s wrist tightly in order to keep him where he wanted him. He was not going to let go until this whole thing was over.

“No, Shane. As fun as it would be to let you pound the little fucker to hamburger meat, we’re at a school.” Seth’s eyes were cold and hard as he refocused them on Justin. “You got my money? Yes or no?”

“Yes,” Clay replied. “But there are some things you should probably know first.”

“Oh, really? What’s that?”

“Well, first, my mom’s a lawyer, and she’s about to adopt Justin. She will demolish you in court if she finds out that you threatened her son. Second, my friend’s dad is a sheriff’s deputy. So, if you try to hurt either one of us, you’ll regret it.”

“I’m quaking in my boots, kid.” Seth was deceptively calm, but Justin knew his mood could turn in a heartbeat. Vague amusement could quickly become unrestrained fury.

Clay straightened. “The third thing is California Penal Code 518, which boiled down to its essence, states that a person is guilty of the crime of extortion when he uses force or threats to compel another person to give him money. And, interesting side note, it doesn’t even matter if you have a right to the money. So, for example, if someone stole your drug money and you threatened him to get it back... That’s extortion. And that’s a felony, by the way.”

Seth laughed unpleasantly. “You definitely came out of a lawyer’s cunt, that’s for sure. But if you think I’m afraid of a felony... Did Justin not tell you what I do for a living?”

“You’re a dealer of Methamphetamine.”

“Allegedly,” Seth corrected.

“Right, whatever. There’s also another little thing called usury, which is the crime of charging an unlawfully high rate of interest. Oh, and let’s not forget California Penal Code 273d, which makes it a crime to willfully cause any child to suffer or to inflict unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering on a child.”

Clay continued rattling off legal definitions like he was a fucking encyclopedia. Justin didn’t understand half of what he was saying. He doubted Seth did either. This was turning into a fucking disaster. From what Justin could see, Clay’s plan was either to bore Seth to death (unlikely) or to keep poking until Seth snapped and murdered them all in a violent rage.

Was Clay being purposefully reckless? Trying to impress Seth with his intelligence? Or... (Justin’s mouth went dry)... was Clay suicidal?

Jesus fuck.

He’d heard of suicide by cop, but suicide by deranged drug dealer was a new one. This conversation was certainly headed in that direction. Justin knew it would reveal his hand, but he took a possessive and protective stance in front of Clay anyway.

Seth glanced at him, eyes sharp. His lips curled menacingly. It was as if he was saying, I’ve found your weakness now. It was probably the only reason Seth was allowing Clay to continue to speak at all: To see Justin squirm.

No. No, fuck that. Fuck that.

“Clay,” Justin interrupted harshly. “Shut up already, and give him the fucking money.”

“You’d better listen to him,” Seth said. “As entertaining as this was, I have actual business to attend to. Any more stalling and I might have to show you how real men handle things. I’ll remove that silver spoon from your mouth and shove it up your ass.”

“I dare you to try,” Clay said calmly. Justin flinched, fighting off the urge to put his hand over Clay’s mouth to prevent him from saying anything else. Justin had once made a similar dare to his mom’s old boyfriend, Darnell... He had gotten a broken nose out of it.

“If you make a move on him,” Justin warned Seth, “I’ll–” Justin didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence, because Clay’s phone rang. The ringtone was one Justin had never heard before, and something shifted in Clay’s body language. He went from combative to conciliatory in the space of ten seconds.

“Okay,” Clay said. “So now that everything is clear, you can have your money.” He shook off Justin’s grip on his wrist and tossed the envelope. Seth caught it and opened the flap, mouth twisting with disdain. “What the fuck is this?” He removed a white bundle of index cards from inside. Justin recognized them—Clay’s French flashcards.

There was no money.

Clay had been bluffing all this time. This was going shit sideways and fast.

“We’re not giving you any money,” Clay said dismissively. ”You can have my French flashcards though. That top card I made especially for you. It’s pronounced, Va te faire enculer.

“Clay!” Justin grabbed the back of Clay’s shirt with both hands and jerked him backward. But because Clay could never keep his mouth shut, he didn’t stop, “Which means, ‘Go fuck yourself’ en français. Very impolitely, I should add.”

Terror hit Justin like an ice-cold wave. A line had been crossed, and he was unable to bring Clay back from it. There was no way to avoid violence now. Someone was gonna get hurt. Clay was gonna get hurt if Justin didn’t do something.

Seth threw the cards on the ground and stalked forward, hand reaching into his pocket, all his intensity aimed directly at Clay.

Justin didn’t think. He just reacted. He transferred his grip from Clay’s shirt to Clay’s arms and shoved him as hard as he could to the side, stepping into the intervening space to meet Seth’s rage. He made a fist with his right hand, thumb on the outside. From the corner of his eye, he noted that Shane was coming at him, too. Coming at him like a rabid dog.

Two against one.

Fuck.

But it’s nothing I haven’t faced before. At least I’ll go down swinging.

Immediately, Seth stopped short, rocking backward, warning Shane to back off with a sharp head jerk.

In an instant, it was chaos. Tony appeared, his arms around Clay, holding him back. And then Zach was there too, dragging Justin back from trying to smash Seth’s face in. Tony’s brothers rushed in and quickly make an effective barrier. Jess was behind them all, flanked by Scott. She held her phone up like she was recording video. And then—

“Nobody move!” Deputy Standall was running towards the bleachers, two other deputies at his heels. “What’s going on here?” he demanded once he reached them. Justin noted with satisfaction that his hand rested on his gun.

“I was talking to my girlfriend’s son,” Seth said casually. “He forgot to call her on her birthday. I was checking in, making sure he was okay. Nothing illegal about that.”

“Ex-girlfriend,” Justin snapped. “And Mom’s birthday is in January, you asshole.”

Mr. Standall approached Seth warily. “Keep your hands where I can see them, and turn around. I said, turn around!” When Seth refused, Alex’s father forced him up against the bleacher supports and began to search him.

“Where’s your warrant?”

“I received a report from a reputable individual who claims a man matching your description brought a weapon onto school property. I don’t need a warrant.”

“I don’t have a weapon, and I wasn’t threatening anyone.”

Mr. Standall raised Seth’s shirt, grunted in quiet outrage, and then pulled a knife holster off of Seth’s pants. Justin recognized the handle of the blade. It was the same knife Seth had cut his throat with back in May.

Clay and Tony came closer to observe as Deputy Standall read Seth his rights and cuffed him. “Oh,” Clay observed. “I forgot to tell you about Penal Code 626.10. Any person bringing a knife with a blade longer than 2.5 inches upon the grounds of any public or private school is guilty of a public offense. That blade is probably longer than 2.5 inches. Right, Deputy Standall?”

Mr. Standall tossed a stern look their way. Justin politely stomped on Clay’s foot.

“I read about it in a law book,” Clay rushed to say. “Totally randomly. The punishment is up to three years in state prison...” He withered a little under the deputy’s stare. “Maybe? I could be wrong. It was a few months ago... I’m not sure why I remember that fact.”

“This one’s clean, sir,” the female deputy said after patting down Shane.

“Are you sure?” Justin asked. “He had brass knuckles, which are illegal in California. Right, Clay?”

Clay nodded. “I didn’t look up that code, but, yes. Definitely illegal.”

Tony wandered under the bleachers and crouched down. “Looks like he tossed them.” He stood up and kicked an object with his boot. The third deputy came over to confirm. “I’ll get an evidence bag.”

“Can’t prove it was me,” Shane said.

“This whole thing is entrapment,” Seth spat. His face was red, his fury barely contained—his anger scorching, blowing out of him like an inferno. “My girlfriend’s brat set this whole thing up.”

“We’ll work that out at the station. You two okay to take them in? I need to have a word with my son.” The two deputies nodded and then carted Seth and Shane off the field. Seth resisted long enough to fix Clay and Justin with a menacing glare. “You’re both done.”

Fear shuddered through Justin’s body, but not for himself, and only for a brief moment because Clay was slapping his arm enthusiastically. His face was animated with pride, and he gave Justin an enthusiastic smile. ‘See? I fixed it, just like I promised you I would.’

It felt like too much to hope for—that this could truly be the end of Seth—but Justin gave hope a try anyway. He smiled at Clay and pinched Clay’s chin between his fingers. “You scare the shit out of me sometimes, you know that? You’re fucking insane.” Clay took it as a compliment. Justin hadn’t meant it that way, exactly, but, insane or not, Clay had prevented a vicious showdown, full of bruises and blood.

And Justin had, for the first time ever, faced Seth surrounded by a group of people who unconditionally had his back. It was hard to process—receiving support without asking for it.

Alex’s father motioned for everyone to gather around him. “I want all of you to clear out. Expect to hear from me in the future. You two...” He pointed at Clay and Justin. “I want you two to stay right here until I get back from talking to Alex.” Mr. Standall folded his arms and waited for Zach, Jess, Tony, Scott, and Tony’s brothers to reluctantly depart the field before pulling out his phone and marching off to the school.

Justin scuffed his foot in the dirt. Where he had felt fear, now there was only guilt. Alex had almost certainly been the “reputable individual” who had called his father about the weapons threat. He had also probably called Clay when his father arrived at the school field, prompting Clay to be brash and stupid in order to provoke Seth into a fight.

Alex would be in big trouble with his dad. Justin wished he could take the scolding in his place, but he knew he couldn’t, so he turned his attention to Clay instead. “That was your fucking plan? To get murdered by Seth?”

Clay reeled back, the exhilaration fading from his face.

Realizing that he had yelled at him, Justin continued, more kindly, “Last night, you asked me how long the blade was on Seth’s knife. I thought–, I didn’t think you would try something like this. I should have known. I should’ve protected you from yourself. Shit, Clay. What if Seth had brought a gun instead?”

Clay ignored the question, moved to the bleachers, climbed the stairs, and sat down. Justin gathered up the scattered French cards before following him. He straddled the uncomfortable metal and faced Clay, waiting.

“Well,” Clay began, “I was kinda hoping Seth would bring a gun. A gun on school property would have been much better than a knife. I had a hunch, based on what you told me about when he confronted you before, that he’d bring some kind of weapon. When I saw that other man, Shane, I was worried I was wrong. But a knife works okay. The best case would have been if you had let him hit me right when Mr. Standall was approaching. That would have sealed the deal. Thanks for screwing that up, by the way.”

Justin’s anger drifted away, replaced by weary sadness. “You getting hit... That’s never an acceptable way for things to go down. I don’t ever want you to get hit! Especially not because you think you’re helping me. That was a real asshole thing to do.” He paused, searching Clay’s eyes. “Promise me. Never again.”

Clay sighed. “I can’t promise that. And you can’t talk about what’s an asshole thing to do, considering you were about to run off yesterday.” Clay kicked Justin’s shoe. “I wasn’t being completely reckless, you know. You said Seth was a 7 on the dumbness scale. I assumed that meant he wouldn’t murder a student on school grounds while people were watching. But it also meant he probably would bring a weapon and maybe he’d be willing to throw a punch. Plus, I had Jessica take video of the whole encounter on her phone. So, if Seth didn’t break any laws, we could at least get a restraining order. I had a lot of contingency plans, Justin.”

“Contingency plans? You had one plan! To piss Seth off.”

“Well, yeah, but there were so many ways he could have responded that would have worked in our favor: assault; possession of a weapon at a school; extortion; harassment. I just had to get something to work with. Something for Alex’s father to witness. That’s what you do, Justin. You throw as many charges at a suspect as possible and hope one of them will stick. The knife charge is a good one because it doesn’t matter that he never pulled it out. It’s illegal to even have it at all. And with his past drug charges...”

“What past drug charges?” Justin asked.

“You said he was arrested before!”

“Yeah, on suspicion. But Seth has some bougie lawyer. They’ve never been able to prove anything. He assigns most of the dirty work to his crew.”

“Oh,” Clay murmured. Justin watched him, waiting for him to recover with a witty rejoinder or a contradiction. Instead, his face sank with disappointment and he gradually deflated. Justin hated seeing Clay that way.

“It’s okay though,” Justin soothed, pressing the French flashcards into Clay’s hands. “There’s no way Seth’s lawyer can talk him out of this one.” He spoke with conviction, not because it was true, but because he wanted Clay to believe it was true. “I owe you, Clay. Thank you.”

Clay hopped up to the next row of bleachers and stretched out, one arm over his face. “You’d do the same for me.”

“Yeah, I would.” Justin laid down on his own row. A steady silence descended. Justin made shadow shapes with his hands, trying to remember the pronunciation of the French curse words Clay had used earlier. Clay fell asleep. (He had been up most of the night—apparently memorizing penal codes like a complete nerd. A fucking amazing nerd.)

“Okay, boys,” Mr. Standall called up to them a short time later. Justin sat up and bumped Clay’s arm. Clay yawned and then sprang upright.

Deputy Standall motioned for them to come down off the bleachers. “I called your parents, and they’re going to meet us at your house. They were very intrigued by what I had to say. And by intrigued, I mean distraught. I think we’re going to have a very interesting chat once I get you home. What do you boys think?”

Justin glanced quickly at Clay. The horror on his face said it all. Oh shit.

Chapter Text

Thursday, July 26

Bill Standall had departed, and now it was the four of them. The four of them and a thrum of ill-concealed frustration and disapproval.

Matt was tapping his fingers against his leg while he stared over his glasses at the two boys who sat opposite them on the couch. Justin was hunched over his knees, like a toddler who had been caught red-handed and resigned himself to the ensuing time-out. Clay, by contrast, held his head high and his back ramrod straight, defiance in every muscle. He couldn’t have been more self-assured, not even if the Medal of Valor were about to be placed around his neck.

Lainie’s career often required her to maintain a calm and neutral demeanor in uncomfortable situations, but, when it came to her children, emotions reigned supreme. She was finding it difficult not to yell at them. I can’t believe the stunt you just pulled! It was stupid! Irresponsible! Reckless! You won’t be leaving this house ever again. For a minute, Lainie considered homeschooling Clay and Justin for their senior year. Then her thoughts strayed to the possibility of boarding school, far away from Evergreen County.

A heavy silence hung in the air. Lainie was typically the disciplinarian of their family, so the boys were waiting for her to speak. But when Matt got angry enough, he sometimes took the lead.

He was angry enough today.

“You two could have been killed!” The unexpected shout made both Clay and Justin flinch. They glanced at each other for reassurance. “Look at me when I’m speaking to you!” Two heads turned in his direction. “What were you thinking? Don’t answer that. It’s clear you weren’t thinking.”

“Dad,” Clay protested. “Seth had a dull blade, and we were on school property. We weren’t in any real danger and–”

Matt cut him off. “You think being on school grounds would have stopped him? A man who has a history of domestic violence and assault? What if he had a gun? You could have endangered the lives of your friends and everyone at your school.”

“Seth’s not a mass murderer,” Clay returned. “He’s a meth dealer dabbling in extortion. He wasn’t going to shoot up the school.”

Matt slammed his hands against the arms of his chair. “Do you realize how ridiculous you sound right now? You had no way of knowing what was in his head. It’s on the news all the time. Someone goes on a rampage and then the interviews come pouring in. ‘Never would have believed he could do it.’ ‘He seemed perfectly stable, right up until the point that he snapped.’” Matt turned to Justin. “You lived with him, and you knew full well that he was capable of violence. But there you two were... goading him into committing a crime.”

“It wasn’t Justin’s fault,” Clay said calmly. “He didn’t even know what I was going to do. So if you’re going to be upset, be upset at me.”

Justin quickly jumped into the conversation. “Clay didn’t know about my deal with Seth until yesterday. I kept it a secret. He had no idea about any of it. It’s my fault. All of it.”

Lainie pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled slowly. This exact scenario often unfolded when the boys got into trouble, and she had to deal with it on a regular basis. Any time the brunt of Lainie’s scolding fell on one son, the other began talking to redirect the attention onto himself. She didn’t even think they realized they were doing it. In other contexts, it was endearing. In this context, it was infuriating.

Matt pointed at Clay. “You’re grounded, young man.” His finger swung wildly to Justin. “And so are you. Put your phones on the table. Right this second!”

They complied—Justin with rapidity, Clay with deliberate slowness. Lainie put a hand on Matt’s arm to let him know she wanted to step in. He settled back in his chair and raised his eyebrow at her. His expression was clear: Lainie, don’t undermine me.

As if! Lainie was tempted to ask Bill Standall to return and escort their children to the Justice Center in handcuffs to scare them straight. Except Justin had already spent time in juvenile detention; she doubted he would be fazed by that course of action. And Clay would probably react with righteous indifference, or with pride. What could Lainie possibly say to her misguided and nearsighted kids that would knock some sense into them?

“Justin, Clay, you are both equally to blame. I’ve never been more disappointed in you two, especially after everything that happened this spring. You should know better. You are not adults. You are not the police. You do not try to handle situations like this on your own.”

She edged forward on her chair. “I’m a trained lawyer, and there are still intricacies and subtleties to criminal law that I don’t understand. You can’t look up a few penal codes on the internet and think you know what you’re doing. You can’t treat life like it’s a television drama or a watered-down school exercise.”

Clay rolled his eyes.

“Do not roll your eyes at your mother!” Her husband’s face was red and splotchy. He only ever became this irate when he was scared out of his mind. Lainie should probably take his blood pressure later. Why had no one warned them about the long-term health risks posed by parenting?

Justin fidgeted uncomfortably and bumped Clay’s leg in a wordless reprimand. “Okay, sorry,” Clay said. “I’m sorry, Mom.” Despite his words, Clay looked utterly unapologetic. “But can you give me a little credit? It worked out, didn’t it? Seth had a knife. On school property. That’s a felony. Maybe he’ll get three years in prison.”

Clay’s sincerity broke Lainie a little inside. “Oh, honey,” she said softly. “Are you really that naive?”

He gave her a hurt look, almost like he was offended she wasn’t congratulating him on his (non-existent) legal expertise. Even after the travesty of justice that had been the Bakers’ lawsuit... Even after Bryce’s revoltingly light sentence for sexual assault... Clay still believed in the inherent fairness of the law.

Lainie had once had that same optimism, had once put her faith in “the great equalizer” and the “scales of justice.” One summer interning at the DA’s office had swiftly ruined that fantasy for her. Now, she knew the truth: Wealthy clients got sweet deals. Judges were not impartial. Defending a guilty person was often straightforward and easy. Defending an innocent person was a grueling uphill battle.

She rubbed at her forehead and then broke the disappointing news. “If Seth has any kind of a decent lawyer—and there is every reason to believe he does—he or she will negotiate a plea bargain. It won’t ever go to trial. And possessing a knife on the property of a school is what we call a wobbler offense, which means the prosecutor can choose to charge it as a misdemeanor. If that happens, Seth would get a maximum of one year in county jail—not prison—and, again, any competent lawyer is going to negotiate it down to 6 months or less. With good behavior and because of overcrowding, it could realistically be 3 or 4 months of time served, at best.”

Justin wilted.

Clay screwed his face up in disgust and dug his fingers into the edge of the couch cushion. “He threatened Justin, Mom! He cut his throat. He...” Clay struggled with himself. “Seth hurt him, and it wasn’t the first time either!”

There was a harsh silence.

Justin’s face went completely blank and he inched away from Clay. Lainie’s heart clenched when she saw Clay’s face crumple with guilt. It had been a misstep for him to say those words. Justin’s abusive childhood was an open secret, but they all tacitly knew not to discuss it. Unless he willingly brought it up himself, it was taboo to insert it so cavalierly into a conversation.

Clay leaned to the side and when Justin didn’t object, he shifted closer to him to remove the distance until their arms were almost touching. A tentative smile and, just like that, Clay was forgiven. It never failed to surprise her—the resilience and tenacity of the bond her sons had forged in such a short time frame.

Other problems wouldn’t be so easily fixed...

A roughness crept into Lainie’s voice. “The circumstances are atrocious, but we only have Justin’s word about the assault and the extortion. I’m sorry to say it, Justin, but your criminal record and past drug use may diminish your credibility as a witness. And Seth did have a plausible reason for seeking you out, given his past relationship with your mother.

“Plus, as you were quick to point out, Clay, the blade of Seth’s knife—your supposed “smoking gun”—was dull. That calls into question its intent to be used as a weapon at all. The brass knuckles will, no doubt, be wiped clean, leaving no proof of who even brought them onto school property in the first place. No prosecutor is going to make a fuss about convicting Seth, or Shane, with facts like these.”

Clay picked a magazine off the coffee table and rolled it into a thin tube. Then he let it spring free. He started to roll it for a second time, but Justin snatched it out of his hands and put it back on the table.

“Justin, why didn’t you tell us someone was threatening you? Do you realize that it makes us look like lax and inattentive parents?” Matt removed his glasses with a hassled sigh. “Your social worker could remove you from our home if she found out. Your guardian ad litem could notify the court and delay the adoption proceedings. Is that what you want?” There was a hint of desperation, even accusation, in his question.

Justin shook his head morosely. “I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble. That’s why I was leaving. So I wouldn’t mess anything up.”

His miserable face made it hard for Lainie to remain angry. Justin always set her parenting compass, which she had well calibrated after 17 years of parenting Clay, spinning off-course. She didn’t know if she wanted Justin to be a bit more like Clay—confident in his wrongdoing—or if she wanted Clay to be a bit more like Justin—shamefaced and contrite. Which one was the healthier reaction?

Lainie, as gently as she could, asked him, “Do you not feel safe in our home?”

“No, I do! But being here... I’m the danger. I make your home unsafe.”

Matt tensed in his chair, clearly taken aback. “You make our home happier, kid. More lively. More full. You are never an inconvenience or a threat to us. You hear me? Not ever.”

Lainie wished there was a miracle cure for abused children, a way to instantly undo what had been done to them, a way for them to implicitly trust new adults once they were removed from their negative home environments. But the sad reality was that the imprints of trauma remained long past the originating incident, perhaps forever. And here those imprints were, influencing Justin's actions and reactions—both consciously and unconsciously.

As parents, she and Matt had to give Justin the space to become emotional, to lash out, to retreat behind his defenses, to do whatever he needed to make it okay for himself. He needed to learn how not to keep secrets, including secrets about how he had managed to survive. But, first, he had to feel safe with them at a visceral level, and it might take years of support and love to achieve that goal.

A long adjustment period was simply the stark truth—30-plus hours of foster care training had taught her that—but it didn’t change the fact that Lainie’s primary job was to make sure that both her children were protected from violence, of any kind.

She would not wait years to make that a reality. She would not wait months. Not days. Not even hours.

“We know this is hard for you, Justin. You’ve been treated a certain way for most of your life, and you’ve become accustomed to responding accordingly. But in this household, facing problems on your own isn’t acceptable. You have a support system now. We are the parents here. We worry about your safety, not the other way around.”

Lainie knew she was expressing the same sentiments as Matt. And how many times had she rehashed these same points with Justin in the last four months? But repetition was key. It was imperative that Justin understand. “Fear is a powerful motivator, especially when it comes to family. But it’s not an excuse to put yourself in harm’s way. It’s not an excuse to run away, thinking we can’t handle a threat to your welfare. Being our son means that we will look out for you. You don’t go to Clay when you have an issue. And Clay, you don’t go to Justin. You come to us.”

“Is that clear?” Matt asked, hammering in every word.

“Yes, sir,” Justin said.

“Clay? Is that clear to you?”

Clay opened his mouth and then shut it. “Yes,” he muttered through pursed lips.

“What happened today will not happen again. Correct?”

“Yes,” Clay said.

“Yes,” Justin echoed.

‘That’s settled then,” Lainie said. It wasn’t settled, not by a long shot, but this chastisement would lose its efficacy the longer it stretched on. She decided it was best to address more practical concerns. “Is there anyone else? Anyone else who has a reason to come after you? We don’t care if there’s a justification for it. We don’t care if you stole money or if you committed a crime—it doesn’t matter to us. Don’t try to protect our sensibilities. Nothing you’ve done will give us pause.”

There was a lag to Justin's facial expressions, like he was cycling through them and trying to find one to match Lainie’s. He did that a lot—blending in like a chameleon, sporting a protective coloration to hide from predators.

Being seen while being unseen.

“No, there’s no one else. It was only Seth.” Justin sat up straight, no longer slouched over, and the confident posture was an improvement—if it was genuine and not feigned (she could never tell with Justin).

Matt stood up with a grimace and crossed his arms. “We’re going to make some changes around here. First thing next week, I’ll hire a locksmith to come and install better locks on the doors and windows. We’re getting an alarm system. I’ll also get you both new phone numbers.”

Lainie raised herself from her chair. “And I’ll talk to Bill. We’ll get you boys a security detail, at least for the next few weeks. I’ll get everything in place for a restraining order for when Seth gets released, but, hopefully, it won’t be necessary. I’m going to make sure he’s reminded, daily, of the severe consequences that will befall anyone who messes with my children.”

She motioned for the boys to stand up. She reached for Clay first, drawing him into a tight hug. He didn’t complain but instead squeezed her back with a steady pressure. “Do not ever disregard your own safety like that again, Clay Matthew.” She pulled back and then kissed his cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Lainie didn’t even need to stretch out her arms to Justin. He closed the gap and hugged her of his own accord, with childlike enthusiasm. She rested her chin on his shoulder. “I don’t know how you managed to keep all of that inside you—all that fear and stress. No more, okay? We’ll make sure no one hurts you. Will you trust us?”

Justin stepped back and gave her a small smile, not in a defensive way, but in a careful way. “I trust you.”

Did he? She didn’t think he truly understood the lengths she and Matt would go for him. The way they would fight for him, and for Clay. For them and beside them.

Clay coughed and gave her a sideways look. “So, about being grounded... How long, exactly...? Because Tony was supposed to take me to this music store in Oakland and it wouldn’t be fair to him if I bailed...”

“And I may have promised Zach that we would go to the beach on August 5th,” Justin added.

Spending times with their friends, that was what Lainie wanted to hear about her children doing. Normal teenage activities. Not getting cut with knives. Not challenging a drug dealer to break the law. Not planning an impromptu one-way trip across the country.

She decided to take pity on them. “I suppose for this one time only, I’ll make your actions a wobbler offense and not charge you with the harshest sentence. Matt, do you agree?”

Matt considered the question for longer than was necessary in order to make an impression on the boys. “One week without your phones or the internet. No video games. No friends. It’s only because we’re glad you’re both okay.”

Clay yawned loudly.

“Dude, go take a nap,” Justin said.

“I will. You should go do your schoolwork.”

“I will! Later...”

“Why don’t you boys get something to eat first?” Matt suggested. “There are leftover pork chops and potatoes in the fridge. But no junk food! No one deserves any sugar today.”

They fled to the kitchen, bickering in low voices. Things were already back to the status quo with them. Lainie wouldn’t bounce back quite so quickly. She didn’t think her husband would either.

Matt regarded her for a minute and then enclosed her in a loose embrace. The tension in her body dissolved, bit by bit. “They’ll be okay, Lainie.”

She curled her fingers around his. “I know. I know they will.”

Chapter Text

August 5th

During the long drive to the beach, Justin tried his best to monitor Zach’s mood. At first, his friend had been distant, shrugging in response to any question. But the closer they got to the ocean, the more his shoulders relaxed and the freer he got with his smile.

Sandwiched between Justin and Alex, Zach had no choice but to endure their uninhibited gestures of affection (mainly Justin’s) and their good-natured teasing (mainly Alex’s). Whenever Justin faltered, Alex always seemed to know the exact right thing to say to get Zach to laugh. The three of them quickly became lost in their own little world—discussing cars, video games, sports, and music. Jess and Clay ignored them and had a “serious and mature intellectual discussion” in the front seats. Which sounded boring as fuck.

It was almost noon when they parked their car. The traffic had been slow moving and someone (not Justin) had stupidly allowed Clay to drive, which was a mistake of epic proportions and delayed their arrival even further. At least there was decent music. Alex had come prepared with a playlist. Some of the songs even had curse words. Justin immensely approved.

As they trekked through the sand to get closer to the water, Jess frequently stopped and pretended to inspect a stray pebble, judging its merit for admittance into her pet rock collection so that Alex could catch up and not feel like he was slowing them down. (He had refused to let Zach carry him. Then he had refused to let Zach and Justin do a two-man support carry. He was stubborn as fuck.)

Finally, they reached the ideal spot. Jess spread a blanket out on the sand and then whipped out a tube of sunscreen from her purse, forcing each of them, in turn, to remove their shirts and submit to her ministrations. She lingered longest on Zach, massaging the lotion into his tense muscles. Clay began to set out their lunch while Justin scanned the horizon, his gaze catching on the two sheriff’s deputies who were attentively watching their every move.

Lainie had made good on her promise to get them protection, and they now had a security detail anytime they left the house. It was creepy and annoying, especially while driving. They had to stay no more than two car lengths away from the patrol car at all times. At least it would only last for a few weeks.

“Do you think we’re supposed to feed them lunch?” Clay asked, noticing Justin’s inattention. “Because between you and Zach, I don’t think we’ll have any food to spare.”

“We aren’t a fucking food bank.” Justin hesitated. “But I guess we could offer then some drinks later?”

“Okay. Sounds good. Hey, will you help me?”

Justin stooped to open the cooler and distribute the sodas. That being done, he handed out the food while Clay supervised. (“No, that one is Zach’s. Jess hates mustard!” “The pickles are for Alex.” “I put extra mayo on yours.”)

Justin had put Clay in charge of making the sandwiches. He had put himself in charge of selecting the snacks. (It was too important a task to trust to anyone else.) He had convinced Clay to drive with him to a Chinese grocery store in Oakland so he could find haw flakes and white rabbit candy (Zach’s favorites). The rest of the junk food they had picked out at a convenience store on the return drive. Their assigned deputy had been a constant presence in the Prius’ rear-view mirror, and he had offered them snack suggestions, so Justin had bought him a Coke and Doritos. It was the least he could do for someone willing to protect him from Seth's goons.

Alex’s eyes went as wide as they could possibly go when he saw the family-sized bag of Sour Patch Kids Justin had bought him. He reached for it eagerly. Justin passed it over, his fingers brushing against Alex’s and tightening involuntarily at the contact. He tore them away before anyone noticed. Coach Patrick’s voice rang in his ears: ”Foul! That was illegal personal contact.”

“Geez, Alex,” Jess said as Alex dug into the bag of candy. “Slow down. Aren’t you going to share?”

“Nope.” But Alex subsequently dropped three of the sour candies into Zach’s outstretched hand. “Best friend privileges.” Alex deliberately looked at Justin when he said the words. His stare was a challenge that Justin did not understand. He already knew Alex and Zach were best friends. It didn’t bother him; he wasn’t possessive over either one of them.

He pretended to be insulted anyway. “I picked that bag out especially for you, Alex. What privileges do I get?”

“I won’t hit you with my cane.” Alex’s mouth curled into a wide grin, and Justin had no choice but to grin back.

“Fucking considerate of you,” he said, burning inside when Alex suddenly changed his mind and lobbed a piece of candy at him. Justin didn’t even like Sour Patch Kids but Alex had given it to him, so he held the lemon candy against his cheek and let the sour sensation spread across his tongue.

Zach popped the tab of his soda. “Thanks for this trip, guys. I would have gone stir-crazy at home with my mom.”

“You got it, dude,” Justin said. “Brothers before mothers.” He reached across the blanket to tap his Pepsi against Zach’s Sprite.

“No one says that, Justin,” Jess said, stealing his bag of potato chips.

“I do,” he retorted, grabbing Clay’s chips and helping himself. After a minute, Clay snatched them back with a scowl.

Jess popped a grape in her mouth. “So, how come Alex and I aren’t invited to the slumber party at Jensen Manor tonight?”

“Uh...” Justin looked at Zach and silently asked if it was okay. Zach nodded enthusiastically. “You can both come if you want. But I don’t know where you’ll sleep. Clay?”

“We’ll make it work. Justin can sleep on the floor.”

“Why me? You can sleep on the floor.” He gave Clay a playful shove.

“No, you can!”

Jess decided for them. “You’ll both sleep on the floor. Zach and Alex get the beds. I’ll take the couch in Mr. Jensen’s office.”

“Why does anyone have to sleep on the floor?” Zach protested. “I’ll share a bed with Alex. Justin and Clay can share the other one.”

Clay frowned at his sandwich. “Um... You do realize that our beds are really small, right?”

Zach shrugged. “That’s okay with me. Alex?”

“I’ll sleep with Zach.”

Everyone cracked up, doubly so when Alex flushed and amended, “I didn’t mean sexually!”

“Keep telling yourself that, Standall,” Justin said and winked at him. “It’s your loss. Zach’s got the moves.”

Zach laughed loudly; the sound vibrated into the empty spaces between them and surrounded each of them, in turn, with its warmth. “How would you know, Justin?”

“Because you’re good at literally everything else,” he said sincerely. “And you’re ripped like a fucking Greek god. Plus, I gave you all that advice last summer...“

“What advice?” Clay asked, oblivious. He was so fucking innocent sometimes.

Justin patted him on the arm. “I’ll show you tonight, bro. When we’re sharing a bed.”

“Okay, cool.”

Jess erupted into giggles. It was infectious, and soon they had all dissolved into uncontrollable laughter. Except for Clay, who, utterly confused, said, “I don’t get it. What did I say?”

 


 

As they ate, Zach, unprompted, volunteered stories about his dad. Some of them Justin had heard; most, he had not. His interactions with Mr. Dempsey had been very limited, but the man had always been kind and welcoming when Justin had stayed over at his house. Hearing about him now from Zach’s perspective... How he had taken Mandarin courses at the local community college after marrying Zach’s mom... How he used to compete with May to see who could name the most presidents in one breath... How he had signed Zach out sick from school for top-secret scuba diving lessons... The memories made Mr. Dempsey come to life for them, almost like he was actually there on the beach—the cherished sixth member of their group.

After a time, Zach appeared to be struggling to continue. So they took turns keeping the conversation going so it wouldn’t be awkward or heavy. Jess jumped in first and began to tell them about her trip to Chicago. She had hated the crowds, but she loved the architecture and the energy. She wanted to go to New York City next summer because the “East Coast is so much better than the West Coast.”

Alex complained about the battle that was being waged in his household: Carolyn Standall vs. Processed Food. They placed bets on how long it would be before Alex was allowed a Coke for dinner (Never: 4-1). He showed them how he could now balance on one foot for exactly one second, which apparently was progress worthy of applause.

Clay stopped nibbling at his sandwich and tossed the uneaten crust to Justin. He then shyly shared his plans for a self-illustrated comic book series, which no one teased him about (Justin would have punched anyone who had). Clay promised to include each one of them as a character, and he assured them that none of them would be a villain. (“No, Justin, not even you.”)

Zach talked about football season. Alex talked about music. Jess offered to paint everyone’s nails (only Alex accepted). Justin didn’t contribute much. He stayed quiet, content to simply enjoy the company.

He had almost given all of this away. How stupid he had been.

The magnitude of difference between the crushing fear of two weeks ago and the blissful happiness of today was... some fucking large number. Bazillion? Gazillion? Infinite.

By the time lunch was over, silence had crept in around the edges. Everyone looked at Justin expectantly. What was this? Sharing hour? A fucking NA meeting? He scratched his leg, wondering what to say.

He had often felt older, more hardened than his classmates. He wasn’t like them... He had just parroted everything Bryce said in order to try to fit in. Even when he was in Bryce’s inner circle, he was still an outsider—one wrong move away from being ousted by his best friend. But, secretly, this had been what he always wanted: being asked to share what he felt was important, being valued for exactly who he was.

So he told them about how Matt had bought back Ms. Henrick’s jewelry from the pawn shop and how, in punishment, Justin was now her unpaid cat-sitter for the rest of time. He explained how juvie was a lot like living on the streets, except that, in juvie, you were guaranteed a bed and three meals. No one tried to make you join a gang, but assholes would start fights with you to gain cred. And you still had to attend school. He tested the waters by casually calling himself Justin Jensen to see how everyone would react. No one commented, but Clay gave him an odd look.

They were responsibly disposing of their trash when Zach’s phone rang. He grabbed it in a hurry, dropping the candy wrapper he had been crumpling into a small ball. “It’s May.” He stood up and turned his back. “Hey, mei-mei.” They all watched as he moved off to talk to his sister in private. The weight of uncertainty pressed down, and they didn’t speak until Zach returned.

“Is she okay?” Jess asked.

“Yeah,” Zach replied with a tight smile. “She’s having fun at camp. She called to check up on me. On me. She’s just like Dad.” He folded down onto the blanket and curled forward, his face averted. He was clearly trying to pull himself together. Eventually, he rocked backwards into a squat, let go of his restraint, and full on sobbed in front of them.

It was the first time Justin had seen his friend show such unguarded emotion. It was disconcerting. Wrong. No. Not wrong. It was a privilege, a sign of trust. It was what a real man would do.

Alex quickly grasped Zach’s hand; Zach desperately clutched at it with both of his own. The remaining three of them moved forward in sync to comfort him. Jess rested her head on his shoulder. Justin reached his arm around Zach’s broad back and gripped his side in silent support. Clay, the odd one out, hesitated at the edge of their huddle, so Justin used his free hand to pull him closer until he too was kneeling at Zach’s side, knees against hips.

There had once been something fraught between nearly all of them at one time or another. Not today. Today, they were one unit.

A lone gull cried in the distance. Tears filled Justin’s eyes; he blinked them away. Through the blur, he saw Alex’s face glistening. He heard Jess sniffling. Clay had bowed his head.

Zach’s grief wasn’t their pain, but it hurt all of them anyway.

 


 

“Come on, Jensen,” Zach coached. “You got this!”

Justin sat with Jessica on the warm sand, watching as Clay, face scrunched with concentration, tried to throw the frisbee to Alex. It was goddamn typical for his athletically challenged foster brother... The frisbee soared off to the side and clonked a hot chick on the back of the head. She shrieked. Her boyfriend jumped up and glared at them.

“I’m so sorry!” Clay reddened. “It was an accident!”

Zach patted his back consolingly and then went to retrieve the frisbee, skillfully smoothing away any hard feelings on the part of the annoyed couple. Thanks to Zach’s charm, they narrowly avoided a beach brawl. Justin was glad. He didn’t much feel like fighting today.

Jess laughed. “A toddler probably has better coordination than Clay does.” The wind ruffled her hair and sent it flying into Justin’s face. He grimaced and removed a strand from his mouth.

“Probably? Definitely. I was thinking about sweet talking Coach Patrick into letting Clay join the basketball team, but that’s a fucking terrible idea. I don’t think my nerves could handle it.” He ran his hand up Jessica’s back, idling fiddling with the strap of her black bikini. He slid it down off her shoulder, and stroked her freckled skin. Jess tensed and then insistently pushed his hand away and adjusted the strap back to its former place.

“Jess?” Justin rubbed his neck. He had misstepped somehow.

She didn’t look at him. “This whole summer... Why didn’t you tell me what was going on with Seth? Is it because you think I’m fragile? Or that I couldn’t handle it?”

“Fragile? Jess, are you fucking kidding me? You’re a frickin’ warrior.” He didn’t know anyone who had her fighting spirit or her ferocious compassion. She volunteered with the National Sexual Assault Hotline. She took her brothers on mock dinner dates to teach them courtesy and respect. She mailed Mrs. Baker handwritten letters about how everyone was doing. Pictures were included.

Justin—by contrast—had done nothing constructive with his past. He’d turned to heroin. Dragged the Jensens into Seth’s crosshairs. Broken Alex’s heart. Put Clay’s life in danger. Mistake after fucking mistake.

“Then why?” There was no edge to Jess’s voice. She was simply curious.

There was a fine line to walk here because there were two ways this conversation could go. One way was a lie, but it wouldn’t hurt. The other way would hurt, but it was also brutally honest.

Justin had come to appreciate honesty. “I don’t know, Jess. I think maybe, when we hang out, we don’t talk enough? Instead, we...”

“Deflect? And then have sex?” Blunt, and to the point.

“Yeah.”

“You’re right,” she said as she dug her toes in the sand. “The sex is great, don’t get me wrong, but I use it as an escape.”

“I do, too.” There was a knot in his throat, but he forced himself to continue, “And... and I think sometimes when we’re together in that way, and you ask me to stop...” Jess stiffened. “I get it! I understand! You’re healing and it’s too much sometimes, but... I think it’s because of me specifically, right? I remind you of him?” He knew better than to say Bryce’s name.

“Justin,” she whispered, giving him a way out, if he wanted to take it.

He didn’t.

“Jess, it’s okay. Tell me.” He angled his body towards her, giving her his full attention.

Jess’s eyes held fear, like she had a desire to protect him from this one last, and painful, truth. “Sometimes when you touch me, I flashback to him. Your body becomes his. It’s not because I don’t trust you.” Her lips curled up faintly. “You’re careful with me. You check to make sure everything feels good, and I love that about you. But it’s–, I think... I guess you’ll always be connected to him in my mind. I forgive you, Justin; you know I do! Honestly though... I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to forget.”

The words silently punched him and made it hard to inhale. When he was able to speak, he said, “I know.” He had known. And now, hearing her say it, he knew he could never hurt her in that way again. “Jess, you deserve to be with someone who never makes you feel unsafe. Someone who doesn’t remind you of the worst thing that ever happened to you.”

“Thank you, for saying that. I’ve been avoiding facing it, and maybe... I think maybe I shouldn’t be with anyone, not intimately. Not for a while.” Her fingers grazed his. “I should take time for myself, find out who I am now. At the dance, I went back to you because I wanted to try to be the girl I used to be before my party. But she’s gone, and that’s okay. I don’t need her anymore. I’m tougher now. Stronger.”

Justin tugged at her hand until their palms were pressed together, his fingers wound with hers. “You are, and I’m proud of you. So fucking proud. I’m sorry that—I’m sorry that what we had got so fucked up.”

Jess looked at him, and there was no accusation in her brown eyes. Only love. “Our relationship isn’t right for you either, you know. These past months, you’ve made everything about me and what I want. Do you know how much pressure I felt not to break you? Not to take advantage? I think if I told you to go jump off a building... you would, wouldn’t you?”

“I would,” he said immediately.

“That’s really messed up.”

She was right. It was a pattern for him—feeling like he owed someone... conceding the power to them... attaching his sense of right and wrong to their desires. He had done the same thing with Bryce.

“We’ll always have our trauma,” Jess said quietly, “and we’ll never know for sure, if that’s all it was—if that’s the only reason we couldn’t let each other go.”

“Jess... Does this mean... Are we—?” Breaking up?

She tightened her grip on his hand. “Don’t say it. Not today. Let’s pretend for a little while longer. Let’s wait until school starts, so we can always call this summer our summer.”

“Okay.” Justin liked the idea of choosing their own ending. They weren’t Sid and Nancy. Their story was not happy, but it was not a tragedy. “So, end of summer?”

“End of summer,” Jessica agreed.

They sat and watched the waves crashing against the sand, scouring the beach but gently receding with a promise to return. Justin held Jess against him, the way you would hold a friend or a sibling—no passion but no shortage of tenderness.

It was high tide right now on the beach, but it wouldn’t last. Not many things did last in life. At his NA meetings, there was a saying: Ebb and flow—everything in flux. Well, here was his ebb and flow. In a few weeks, Justin’s relationship with Jessica would be going out with the tide. No promise to return. An eternal goodbye.

It wasn’t as devastating a thought as it once would have been.

 


 

Jess left him to go collect shells down at the water’s edge. She wanted to make May a seashell necklace—a “just because” gift. It was a nice idea. May deserved it. Maybe when Zach’s sister returned from horse camp, Justin could take her to the pier. They could have a contest to see who could eat the most cotton candy without getting sick. And maybe Alex could bring her to a music concert. Clay could tag along and have a debate with May about Marvel superheroes or some geeky shit like that.

May had more than one older brother these days to watch out for her.

Justin dusted off his hands and looked to where Zach and Alex were standing in the shallow ocean water. Alex’s cane lay on the sand, abandoned. Zach had his hand curved around Alex’s waist and each time a wave approached, he held Alex solidly against his chest so that he wouldn’t lose his balance.

Justin stared. He couldn’t help himself. It wasn’t right. (It wasn’t the right time.) There was no hope of anything happening. (There was potential, a dream of hopes that could be.) Alex’s subtle glances his way didn’t mean shit. (They meant everything.)

Something uncomfortable blossomed in his chest. It wasn’t jealousy, because they didn’t have that type of relationship, and Justin would never (not in a million years) take away this carefree moment between his two best friends. But, all the same, Justin wished that it was him out there in the water instead of Zach... or maybe he wished he was out there with Zach and Alex... out there in the water with Jess.

“Don’t disappear again.” Was that what he was doing now? Trying to disappear into Alex minutes after Jess had expressed a desire to end things? Alex deserved better than that. He wasn’t a rebound. Or an escape.

No more romantic entanglements. Justin should focus instead on the bonds that mattered the most. The ones that weren’t destructive.

He went to find Clay.

 


 

He wasn’t easy to find.

Justin finally resorted to asking his assigned deputy to call the other one on the radio. With the officer’s assistance, Justin was able to narrow down Clay’s location. Clay was sitting by himself way off down the beach, tracing patterns in the sand.

In social situations, Clay often pulled away from the excitement, away from the frenzied center of activity. Being a loner was just part of who he was—Justin didn’t mind it. He wouldn’t change it about him. But he felt uneasy about the way Clay was muttering angrily at the air. It made him think of that night at Bryce's, of Hannah's tapes, and Jess's tears.

“Who the fuck are you talking to?” Justin asked, despite knowing what the answer would be.

“No one,” Clay said, startling.

Justin nodded, accepting the lie.

Leave it alone. Don’t bug him.

Justin wanted a million things for his soon-to-be brother. He wanted him to smile more. He wanted him to stop moping in bed all day. He wanted him to skip work and take a pretty (and nerdy) girl out to the movies. He wanted him to stop worrying about everyone else for once and concentrate on his own happiness.

“Why aren’t you with the others?” Clay brought his knees up to his chest. “I don’t wanna bring your mood down.”

What was Justin supposed to do with that?

He didn’t know how to fix what was going on in Clay’s overactive brain. He had no solutions. He had no comforting words. But he could at least distract him. So he knelt, grabbed a handful of sand, and dumped it on Clay’s head.

“The fuck, Justin!” Clay brushed his hand through his hair.

“Come in the water with me.”

“Why?”

“Because it will be fun? Do we need a reason?” He scooped up more sand and sprinkled it over Clay’s legs.

“Ugh,” Clay said. He turned away from Justin. Then, in one fluid motion, he grabbed a fistful of sand, surged forward to grasp the band of Justin’s swim trunks, and opened his fist to let the gritty material fall down past the edge of the elastic. The sand instantly irritated body parts it was most definitely not meant to irritate.

“You little shit!” Justin tried to grab him, but Clay shot off towards the water, laughing. Well, Justin had wanted him to lighten up and relax...

He chased Clay into the water, tackling him under an oncoming wave right at the point where the slope of the beach dropped off sharply. For a long moment, they were just two weightless bodies in the immense, churning blue expanse. Justin shouted when he came up for air (“Fuck!”); Clay spluttered and choked, acting miffed. But, by the next wave, he was splashing Justin with relish and then trying to dunk him back under the water.

It reminded Justin of—

“I now baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, for the forgiveness of your sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Jessica had taken him to church with her a few times. (“My dad will love it if you show up; he’ll love it even more if you come to Christ.”) Religion vaguely annoyed Justin, but he had endured the church services in order to earn favor with Mr. Davis. One Sunday had hit him hard though. A former convict had given his testimony and been baptized in sanctified water as the congregation cried and shouted with joy. It had made an impression: the idea that you could let go of your past sins, die, and be reborn into eternal communion and fellowship.

Why not him, too?

Seth. Heroin.

Bryce. Juvie.

His time on the streets—

Getting on his knees.

Gagging so hard he retched.

Justin let his head be pushed under the next wave and imagined all those things washing away, replaced instead by family and friendship, acceptance and possibility. He opened his mouth to the salty water and let it flood his mouth without fear of drowning.

It would be so easy to let go. Peaceful, to die like this.

Unexpectedly, forgivingly, Clay’s hands pulled him up into the spray and the sunlight. Around them, the world shone bright and clear, the breeze caressing their faces.

Letting his fingers come to rest on the back of Clay’s neck and seeing his brother’s untroubled smile, Justin understood it now: why Clay had not let him leave a week ago. If the situation had been reversed, he would never have let Clay leave either. Would never have wanted that kind of life for him.

No more running. It was a vow Justin made to himself. To himself and to his friends. I want to be there for them, like they are for me. I can’t give back if I’m not recovering. He held the promise in his mind, soothing and warm, and it felt like reclaiming his body, like being remade.

Jessica, Alex, Zach, Clay — All four of them had survived their own private tragedies, and more than a few joint ones. Together, and apart, they were oriented towards the future. Towards something better.

Justin should follow their lead.

It was time to move forward.

End of Part One

Chapter Text

Part Two

August 18th, 2000

“When are you gonna get rid of it?” Andrew popped the cap off his beer with a cigarette lighter and then belched.

Amber had thought he would sweep her up in his arms. That he would smile or cry or stare at her in shocked awe. ”I’m gonna be a daddy?” Words said with excitement. Or hope. Or nervousness.

Instead, he acted like she had placed a trash bag in his lap.

“You fucking asshole. I’m not getting rid of it!” Her maternal instincts had kicked in the moment she saw those two little pink lines on the pregnancy test. She wanted this baby. It would be her second chance. She had thought it could be both of their second chances.

Andrew wasn’t having it. “Fuckin’ whatever. You know you can’t smoke or do lines if you’re gonna keep it, right? Good luck with that.” He walked away without another word.

Amber knew she had to change. She would give up the drugs and the booze and the cigarettes. She would try to find a better job. It might take time, but Andrew would warm up to the idea of a baby. It was different for fathers than it was for mothers. Amber already loved the child in her belly. Her boyfriend needed to see it. Once he saw their creation, he would fall in love, the same way she already had.

And baby makes three.

 


 

She was eight months pregnant when Andrew split. He took off in the middle of the night, no note, no phone call. Nothing. At first, Amber expected him to come back. She knew he would. He wouldn’t abandon their son (their son—it was a boy!).

Andrew never came back. Fuck him.

Amber was forced to go back to work at the diner, even though her doctor had advised bed rest, even though her feet were swollen, even though her back screamed in pain and she had to pee every twenty minutes. It was only for one month though. She only had to make it through one month. One month and then her baby would make everything okay again.

 


 

Justin Andrew Foley.

When the nurse placed him in her arms, Amber examined his fingertips with awe. She caressed his soft head of dark hair. Justin blinked up at her, and he was absolutely perfect. She hadn’t expected him to be so beautiful. He had his father’s eyes, which she hated. But he had her nose and, judging from his distressed cries, her outrage at the world.

He would do great things. He would go places.

She gave him her last name to remind him who had loved him the most. She gave him the middle name of Andrew to remind him that his father had once loved her. (Justin had been the reason Andrew had stopped loving her. She wouldn’t hold it against him. She would be a good mother.)

 


 

Amber’s image of what their life could be quickly shattered. By having Justin, she had expected an uptick in her welfare benefits, which would allow her to stay home with him. Instead, she discovered that she couldn’t afford to pay the rent and buy food, not unless she went back to work.

So she started back at her job and paid the neighbor’s 80-year-old mother to watch Justin. Most days, she came home to find her baby covered in poop and vomit and red with anger. ”I feel the same way,” she told him irritably as she cleaned him up.

Justin was very fussy. He screamed all the damn time and didn’t sleep enough. He bit her nipples and left them sore, cracked, and bleeding. She decided to stop breastfeeding—mainly so she could start smoking again. She needed something to help her cope. Her life had ceased to be her own.

Sterilizing bottles was a bitch. Infant formula was expensive. So were diapers. Amber had to find a second job to be able to afford them. The stress got to her and she found herself back on the corner, buying weed and crack. The drugs became such a comfort that she soon needed to get a third job to be able to afford stuff for the baby.

One day, she met Fernando in a crack den.

“You look stressed, lil’ mama. You ever try speedballing?”

She took Fernando back with her to her apartment, and he introduced her to a whole new bliss. She was flying high. Fucking paradise. Except... Justin was crying in the background.

“Justin,” she told Fernando, expecting him to do something about it because she didn’t think she could stand up.

“Just let him cry,” he whispered into her neck as he began to remove her clothes. It was like he was giving her permission. She liked having someone take the choice away from her.

Justin cried the entire time Fernando fucked her.

 


 

Between the drugs and the men, life became bearable. Shitty but bearable. Justin started walking, then talking, and finally (finally!) he stopped crying so much. Her first husband helped discipline him, making it clear that he wouldn’t put up with an unruly toddler. At first, Amber appreciated having someone strong in the household who could lay down the law. But “Lock Justin in the closet so we can fuck” quickly became “If he won’t shut up, I’ll shut him up.”

One evening, Justin complained about his stomach hurting. Amber lifted his t-shirt and immediately retched when she saw the red and purple bruises spread out like a dark nebula on his pale skin. Justin patted her hair. “Your tummy hurts too, mommy?”

She filed for divorce the next day.

 


 

The older Justin got, the sweeter he became. Handsome too. And independent. She was never prouder of him than when he was standing on his own two feet, fierce and mouthy. She still tried to take care of him, but he would shout at her that he could take care of himself. He wanted her to leave him alone to deal with his own shit. And he was only six years old. Her little man.

 


 

Amber’s first marriage ended in tears. So did her second marriage. So did every relationship in between. She never said it out loud, but she knew it was Justin’s fault. The men she liked didn’t want to deal with a child. They didn’t like having to divert any money towards his upkeep. They hated being reminded to lock up their drugs and their guns so that Justin didn’t think they were toys.

In the end, Amber would always choose her son over any man, so she let the men go when they had had enough. Sometimes she wished she could go with them. But then Justin would come and curl up with her on the couch and stroke her hair and call her the “best mommy in the world.” It made her cry. His love was the best drug of all.

 


 

Amber woke up to Justin’s terrified screams, to his little hands shaking her insistently.

“What’s wrong?” Her words were slurred and her mouth tasted of cotton balls. She pulled herself away from the noisy blackness and back into the grungy light shining through their filthy apartment windows.

Justin had crawled into her lap. “Your lips were blue, mommy. Were you dead?”

“No, baby. I was sleeping. That’s all. Just sleeping.”

“Why were you sleeping with a needle? Were you getting a shot?”

“I’m sorry I scared you, baby. It won’t happen again.” It shamed Amber to know her son had witnessed her in such a state. She had let things go too far. If she overdosed, what would happen to Justin? He would be thrown into the foster system with no one to look out for him.

Amber found a rehab program.

She only lasted thirteen days.

 


 

The week after Amber quit the drug rehab program, her boss found out. (Her bitch of a coworker had snitched.) She was fired on the spot, so she came home, took a Xanax, and then shot up. When she swam back to consciousness, Justin was watching cartoons with the neighbor’s little girl, two feet away from where she lay on the floor.

“You looked like a dead fish,” the girl said. “Why were you spitting bubbles out of your mouth?”

“Don’t say mean things about my mommy!” Justin cried. “Go home!” He pushed the bratty little girl off the couch. She left in tears.

Amber hugged her son. “You’re always looking out for me, baby. I love you so, so, so much.”

“I love you, mommy. Wanna watch cartoons with me?”

 


 

There was never enough money to go around. Justin was constantly nagging her for new clothes, for better toys, for unnecessary school supplies. She tried to provide them, even though she knew she was spoiling him. That was what mothers did though, right? They put their child first.

When Justin started first grade, the other kids made fun of his backpack. It had stains on it. It smelled. Justin begged Amber to buy him a new one. They couldn’t afford it, so she picked up extra shifts at work to earn the money. It was exhausting, but when she gave the new backpack to Justin, he ran around the apartment complex showing it off to all their neighbors. His giddiness was infectious. She would never sleep again if it meant seeing him that happy.

 


 

The next year, for Justin’s seventh birthday, Amber had no cash to buy him a gift. She didn’t even have any cash to pay the electricity bill. She called off sick at work and called Justin in sick at school. For his birthday present, she took him to the local park and chased him around the play equipment. She challenged him to see who could go the highest on the swings. She caught him at the end of the slide. (“Mom, I’m not a baby! People are staring. Don’t do that!”). She left him alone to play with some preschool children. A fellow mother shook her head when Amber sat beside her on the bench.

“Shouldn’t your boy be in school?”

“He’s off today.”

The woman’s eyes lingered on Amber’s threadbare shirt and she sniffed dismissively. She moved to a different bench when Amber pulled out a cigarette. Bitch.

“Mom, watch me!” Justin had climbed up onto the rail that bordered the highest slide and was about to jump off.

“Go, baby!” Amber called.

Justin launched himself off and landed on knees and outstretched wrists. He didn’t get up right away. Amber took a puff of her cigarette. A mother—the same judgmental one who had avoided her earlier—rushed over to Justin, fussing over him, asking him if he was okay. Justin milked it for all it was worth, fake crying and letting the woman give him a hug. He was already a ladies’ man. Already a flirt.

She hoped he didn’t turn out like his father.

 


 

Justin was eight when Amber met Richard. Richard was a revelation, a man who actually liked her child! He gave Justin extra attention and took him out on special dates and private trips to the beach. To top it all off, he was the richest man Amber had ever met. Things progressed quickly. He wanted them to move in with him. They did.

Rickie proposed to her a month later. He promised he would take care of her and Justin. He had set up a bank account and given her full access. She wouldn’t have to work anymore. She could do all the drugs she wanted. She could stop counting pennies.

Amber didn’t love Rickie, but she did love his money. And he loved Justin, which meant more than anything else. She gladly accepted his diamond ring and they went for a walk at the pier, Rickie holding Justin’s hand.

Life was looking up. At least it was until the day Amber came home from the mall and found Rickie lying next to a half-naked Justin in their bed. Rickie was stroking Justin’s arm and Amber immediately recognized the look in his eyes: Lust. He had never looked at her that way.

Rickie startled when he saw her watching them. “Oh, hey.” He hopped off the bed and came to give her a kiss, closing the bedroom door and leading her out to the kitchen. “I took Justin to the beach today. He had a blast.” Rickie nervously twisted his hands and laughed. “He was so tired afterwards, I let him fall asleep in his swim trunks. What did you get at the mall?”

Amber almost grabbed a steak knife right then and there. It would have felt good to plunge it into his chest. Fucking pedophile. Instead, she calmly showed Rickie her purchases. Later, she woke Justin up and dragged him back to his own lavish bedroom (one of three) and started packing her bags with the most valuable items Rickie had bought the two of them. They left the house that night for good.

Justin spent the following three weeks telling Amber how much he hated her.

“You only wanted to leave because he liked me more than he liked you!”

“I don’t wanna live in this fucking shelter! I wanna live with Rickie!”

“You’re the worst mom ever!”

Amber let him complain. She couldn’t tell Justin the truth. She didn’t want to explain to an 8-year-old boy that some acts would scar him so deeply on the inside, he would never again be the same. She didn’t want to lay out for him why it was better to be hungry and poor than to have everything you ever wanted—and have your innocence violated.

 


 

After Rickie, Amber didn’t intentionally seek out men who would hate her son (it wasn’t a requirement), but it did give her peace of mind when her boyfriends shouted at Justin and pushed him into the walls. Better to have them kick him out of the house than invite him into their bed. Better a whipping than a too-fond caress.

She was a good mother, so, of course, it hurt her when Justin was hurting. She hated listening to his cries of pain. She hated seeing his bruises. His blood made her queasy. At the same time, she secretly loved the way Justin would come crawling into her bed after he had misbehaved. He would curve into her chest and she would sing to him. If she wasn’t too high, she would get some gauze and dab at his wounds.

No one took care of her when her boyfriends got violent, but she would always take care of Justin.

 


 

I’m sorry I closed the door when he was hitting you. I’m sorry I pretended I didn’t hear.

I’m sorry I couldn’t afford groceries and we had to eat ketchup packets for dinner.

I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

But—

I can’t give him up. I love him more than I love you.

 


 

In no time at all, Justin became a teenager. He was growing tall and strong—no longer a child, no longer a baby she could rock to sleep at night. Too soon, he was big enough to fight back, and that was the day when she actually started to fear for him.

Justin deliberately started arguments with her boyfriends, calling them out for not paying rent. (Did Justin not realize that he had never paid her a cent of rent either?) He even stole cocaine from his stepfather. He deserved the beating that followed, even if Darnell did take it a bit too far. (Had it really been necessary to throw Justin out the window?)

Her husbands and boyfriends sometimes got physical with her too. Drugs and alcohol could change a person. It wasn’t their fault. It was the drugs. They still loved her. It was something Justin never understood. He would freak out when her boyfriend slapped her. It was only a slap! She could handle it.

What’s more, she could pay back what she was given. She didn’t hold anything back. She would throw things at Darnell or Aaron or Geordie—plates, glasses, beer bottles, anything. They sometimes even liked it when she got rough; it made the sex more interesting. But, more and more, Justin began stubbornly inserting himself into every fight, thinking he had to be her white knight. He didn’t realize that the men would hurt him a hell of a lot more than they would ever hurt her.

“If I see Justin back here again, I’ll beat that boy’s ass to a bloody mess.” Darnell had a baseball bat. He had a belt. He loved making her son cry. Took it as a challenge, when he wouldn’t.

So, to protect him, Amber sometimes locked Justin out of the house. Tried to give him a little tough love. ”If you don’t sit down and be quiet, you’ll be sleeping on the street tonight.” She didn’t want him to be taken away from her. Child Protective Services had shown up at their door too many times in the past asking about bruises. To get her son back, she had to prove she was a fit mother. In other words, she had to break up with the love of her life. She was a good mother, so she made the sacrifice. But she was tired of always coming second.

She had needs, too.

 


 

Justin’s friend Bryce was outlandishly rich. He bought Justin designer clothes, fancy furniture, and a bunch of random junk that soon cluttered up the apartment. Justin stayed over at Bryce’s house at least once a week, and sometimes he would return home with weed or prescription medications (and he called her an addict!). Amber didn’t like Justin using drugs, but he was almost an adult. She shouldn’t chastise him. She understood, even if it wasn’t what she wanted for him.

More than anything, it stung that Justin didn’t need her anymore. She was even a little jealous. Justin had everything she wanted. He was popular and well-loved at school. The girls flocked to him. He was going places. He had a shot at college.

He was also getting uppity, and entitled. He would come home, drunk. He would come home, wasted. Tell her to pay the bills and get her shit together. Throw a wad of cash on the table—fresh, crisp bills.

When he came home in high spirits after being named captain of the basketball team, she tried to cap his enthusiasm before it irritated Seth, who was lounging on the couch. “You’re getting too big for your britches, baby. Don’t forget where you came from.”

“From the trash?” Justin asked.

“No, baby, from me.”

“So, from the trash.” Justin stared at her without any emotion.

Heat rose in Amber’s cheeks. “Seth,” she said. “Did you hear what he called me?”

Seth shot up and struck Justin across the face and then chased him into his bedroom. Amber sat and listened to the thumps and crashes with satisfaction. She had never done that before.

 


 

She saw Justin less and less. That was okay. He could take care of himself. Always had.

 


 

One day, for no reason at all, Justin took off. No goodbyes. No phone calls. One minute, there. The next minute, gone. Justin had tossed her away. He had turned into his fucking father, just like she had feared he would.

Sometimes, Amber missed her son. Most of the time, she forgot he existed. It was easier that way. Besides, she didn’t need to worry. He was probably living it up, wherever he was.

When Justin did finally show up at her door, all he wanted was Seth’s money. Like an entitled prick, he stole the money and left her with $200 and a shitty situation. Once again, Amber had to leave the man she loved because Justin had taken the choice away from her. It had been 17 years, and nothing had changed. She gave and gave. Justin only took.

 


 

Seth eventually found her. Or, rather, Seth’s man, Shane, found her.

“Seth’s in jail thanks to your kid,” Shane informed her as he pinned her up against the wall. His arm against her chest was as immovable as a steel vice. “Justin owes him $10,000. Seth’s gonna give you one chance to pay off your kid’s debt. If you don’t pay, he’s gonna kill him. Do you wanna pay?”

“I’ll pay! Tell Seth I’ll pay!” She rushed to give Shane every drug she had in the apartment, every dollar in her wallet, even her crappy TV. It didn’t even scratch the surface, so Shane promised her he’d be back for the next payment in two weeks. Before he left, he gave her a bloody nose and, because she shouted obscenities at him, he cracked her front tooth too.

$10,000 was a heavy price to pay and Justin had abandoned her... But he was still her baby and she didn’t want him dead. She would pay for his life, over and over and over again, if necessary. She hadn’t gone through all the pain of raising him for nothing. You didn’t abort a 17-year-old, even if he had disappointed you.

 


 

Amber picked up four extra shifts at the restaurant. She begged on the street. She tried bribing her boyfriend Carl with blowjobs to get him to float her some cash. Eventually, Carl refused to give her money. (He still forced her to her knees anyway.)

No options left, she decided to try to find Justin. He probably was still staying with that rich friend of his... Bryce, was it? Paying off Seth was his mess, after all, and he needed to man up and help her out. So she went to the high school and followed Justin after school to see where he would go. He didn’t go to Bryce’s house, as she had expected. Instead, he drove home with a judgmental kid named Clay, who had a bitch for a mother and a university professor for a father.

Matt Jensen. Another rich man... another Rickie? Surely Justin wasn’t turning tricks in exchange for a place to stay? But, to her relief, Justin seemed to be whole. He seemed okay. He even seemed happy.

He had also been adopted.

The news infuriated her (no one had asked her permission)... but maybe it could be a good thing. She could work with it. There were plenty of valuable things in Justin’s new home. All she had to do was start coming around and gain their trust. It would be easy.

The Jensens did not make it easy. Justin did not make it easy. He refused to “steal” from his new parents. (Was it really stealing if they didn’t need it and you desperately did?) All Amber wanted to do was protect her child, but, from day one, Matt and Lainie Jensen treated her like a snake. They acted like they owned her son. Her son: the angry, screaming (ungrateful) infant she had labored for 18 hours to bring into the world.

Justin needed to understand the danger he was in with Seth. How could he be so calm about it? Prison didn’t last forever, and Seth knew how to hold a grudge.

 


 

It seemed like Justin’s new family would be a dead-end. (She had foolishly hoped that they would be a fountain of wealth.) But, then, a miracle! Matt Jensen offered to pay her $100 to see Justin every other week. Amber was no fool—there must be strings attached. There were: Follow a never-ending list of rules that the lawyer bitch had drawn up. Behave like their lap dog. Amber wanted to spit in their faces, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. She really needed the money: Justin’s life was on the line if she didn’t meet Seth’s demands. So she asked for $200 instead.

Matt accepted her price. Why? Because he loved her son. He seemed sincere about it, which was puzzling. He seemed protective, which was shocking.

Was it possible that there was one truly decent man in the world after all?

 


 

Amber enjoyed seeing Justin again—for all of ten minutes. He had drastically changed, and not in a good way. He had a brand new holier-than-thou attitude and a brand new callous disregard for her, courtesy of his brand new family who he cared about more than her. How could he possibly love them? He barely knew them. She had given him 16 years of devotion and, in 7 months time, the Jensens had become his entire world.

Justin didn’t feel like her baby anymore. He had turned into someone she didn’t recognize. A stranger. He had even changed his fucking name: Justin Jensen. (She cried in the bathtub for an hour the night after he dropped that bombshell on her.) Why had everything gotten so messed up between them?

 


 

On her fifth visit with Justin, he decided to lecture her about her parenting. (Had he become a father since she had seen him last? No. So what right did he have to say anything?)

The best part of his tirade: “I know you think you did your best, but you could have done more. You should have done more.” Such calm words. Justin delivered them like he was a lawyer. Or a professor. It was irritating as hell, but she tried to be graceful about it.

What more could Amber have done? She had made sure that her son had a place to live. That he had male role models in his life. That he wasn’t molested. That he wouldn’t be murdered. Why were all those actions forgotten and dismissed? They weren’t nothing.

It wasn’t a surprise when Justin told her that he didn’t want to see her anymore. She had been half-expecting it, almost from the first time she had seen the way he looked at Lainie and Matt... like he was starstruck by their money and the perks it provided him. Amber let him go. He had made his choice. He was Justin Jensen now—a spoiled rich kid with two parents, one brother, and zero regrets about leaving his real mother behind.

Amber had regrets. Primarily that the $1000 that Matt Jensen had paid her had been squandered on Seth. Seth, who, as it turned out, was only using her. Who would have gotten her killed in a drug deal gone wrong just to prove a point. She didn’t know what the point was, but she thought it was directed at Justin.

 


 

Amber made a final vow to her son. She would guarantee that Seth wouldn’t hurt him. She would guarantee that her ex-boyfriend could never return to Evergreen County. It would be her parting gift to her only child.

Seth always used to think she was too stoned, or too lazy, or too dumb to pay attention to what he was doing with his meth business. Amber wasn’t dumb. Before she had gotten pregnant... before she had had her first taste of heroin outside a seedy motel... before her mother had died and she had been thrown into foster care... She had once been on the college track. She had once read for fun. She had once known every element on the periodic table. It had been the drugs that had made a blur out of reality and ravaged her mind. It had been working three jobs with a demanding child at her heel that had sapped her energy.

When they were together, Amber had kept careful track of Seth’s meth labs. She had stashed the names of Seth’s suppliers between the pages of her long-forgotten books, the ones that she kept in plain sight in the living room. (Seth wasn’t much of a reader.) The contacts she had accumulated were mostly low-level suppliers, but they had suppliers too—disreputable men who knew men who knew men who were connected with the drug cartels. Amber could do quite a bit of damage if she put her mind to it.

So, in honor of her son, she called in an anonymous tip to the FBI field office in Oakland. Then one to the Oakland PD. Then one to the Evergreen County Sheriff’s Department. She reported nothing about Seth in particular. Just hints about where his meth labs were. Where his stash houses were. If the police didn’t pay attention (or if they didn’t care), the cartels certainly would get wind of it.

When Seth got out of jail at the end of December, it would be way too hot for him to cook anymore. At least in Northern California. He’d have to start over someplace new. He’d have to leave Justin alone.

She had saved her son’s life, and he would never even know the debt he owed her.

 


 

December 7th, 2018

Amber knew she was screwed the moment she opened her door to go to work and saw Seth standing there. His eyes were wild, his mouth a cruel slash. Before she could even say a word, Seth had forced his way into her apartment, kicked the door closed, and then slammed her up against the wall with a gun underneath her jaw.

”You stupid cunt.”

“They released you early?” Her question was a terrible greeting.

“This morning.” The gun dug in harsher. “Overcrowding. You were my first stop.”

“Seth,” she soothed, her head pounding in time with her heartbeat. “Put the gun away, baby. I missed you. I’m glad you’re back.”

She reached out to touch his face, but he slapped her hand away. “I know it was you, Amber. You think I trusted you enough to give you the locations of all my stash houses? As soon as I heard which places were raided, I knew exactly who had called in the tip.”

“Seth, please,” she whimpered. “I’m sorry.”

He gripped her throat, digging his fingers into her windpipe. Panic came, quick and furious. Her lungs burned. Her vision tinged white at the edges and then burst into blackness, into a color without depth or end, into the absence of color, the absence of life.

He’s gonna kill me. Desperately, Amber tried to strike out with her fingernails, to kick with her legs, but everything was prickling and her limbs were weightless.

“Shh, don’t struggle.” Seth’s voice. His beautiful voice. She tried to obey it, to make her body follow his command. “I’ll make it gentle, Am. I’ll make it easy.”

Amber didn’t want to cry as she died, but the tears were running down her cheeks anyway. Seth relaxed his hand ever so slightly, enough for her to take a shallow gasp. Her breath rattled as Seth stroked her throat with one hand while the other pressed the gun against her cheekbone.

No amount of pleading would sway Seth. No offers or excuses. Except... Maybe...

Justin.

He had Matt Jensen to protect him. And that lawyer, Lainie.

Amber had no one to protect her.

“It was Justin!” The words emerged out of her scratched throat like sharp needles. The taste of copper was thick in her mouth. Stop. Stop! Heedlessly, she forced more broken sounds out, “It was his idea to report you. He stole your money and he didn’t wanna pay it back. He wanted revenge.” Seth’s fingers went soft and light (loving?) and he trailed them along her windpipe.

“He forced me,” she spat, trying to sell the lie. “I didn’t wanna betray you, Seth. I love you! You know I do!”

“I believe you,” Seth murmured darkly. He leaned in and touched his lips to hers. Amber shuddered but she kissed him back, then parted her legs and ground her hips up against him.

Seth pulled back, unmoved by her performance. “You were a good fuck, Amber. Your cunt’s too good to kill, so I’ll let you pay another way.”

“Thank you. Thank you!” The relief was frantic and instantaneous. She was fully prepared to fuck him, to do whatever he wanted, anything, anything. As he stared down at her intently, she concentrated on breathing, on willing herself to go numb, on surrendering to his needs. He wouldn’t leave until he was satisfied.

But Seth didn’t try to undress her. Instead, he dragged her by the arm over to the kitchen table where her supplies were laid out: needles, powder, pills, herbs. His hands hovered over the items, indecisive. Finally, he seized the tabs of LSD that her friend (more than a friend?) had left at her apartment.

Amber hated LSD. She had never had a good acid trip. And Seth knew it.

Uncertainty crept in. “Seth?”

He released her arm, knelt beside her, and wrapped his thumb and forefinger around her jaw, forcing her mouth open. With his other hand, he placed an acid tab under her tongue. Then another. Then another. Another. He covered her mouth with his hand.

Four fucking tabs? It would be a living hell. (But it wouldn’t kill her.) It’s okay. It’s okay. Just fucking take it. She swallowed, her throat still aching from Seth’s earlier roughness. Solid, unyielding arms wrapped around her. Seth squeezed her body against his, tighter, tighter, until she relaxed into his chest. He was going to stay with her until the acid kicked in. Why?

“I’m going to do you a favor, Am,” he whispered into her hair. “You always wanted to get rid of Justin, right?”

Her stomach dropped into her bowels at the implication of those words. She was going to shit herself in terror. “No, no! I never wanted that.” She didn’t know what she was doing (What the fuck was she doing?), but her hands, of their own accord, curled into fists and struck backward at Seth, trying to land a blow. He chuckled and forced her to cross her arms in front of her body. She was in a cocoon—locked in a nightmare, no hope of escape.

“I’ll take care of him for you before I leave town.”

“No. No. Seth!” She began to cry—gulping inhales and shaky exhales. “Seth. Seth. Don’t hurt him.” Her eyes burned.

“Shh, don’t worry.” Seth rested his chin on her hair. “I’ll make it slow. I’ll make him feel it.” He kissed the crown of her head, so carefully, so gently. “I’ll make him suffer for you. That’s what you want, right?”

“That’s not–. I don’t want–” Each time she blinked, a fresh torrent of tears cascaded, her mascara melting on her cheeks. Each time she sniffed, a slow trickle of snot worked its way down to her lips, thick and heavy. “Seth, please.” Please.

“I’ll tell him you said goodbye. Then I’ll break every fucking bone in his body.”

What have I done? Her heart thudded. She began to drool. Her pleas turned to silent cries.

Eventually—minutes later, hours later, seconds later—she lost herself and the whirlwind began.

 


 

The ceiling light was made of rainbows. Beautiful. She wished she could eat the colors as they melted and floated down to her upturned face. But then the walls started collapsing on top of her and she covered her head as she was crushed by a thick wall of plaster and snow.

Justin was on the swings. “Higher, mommy. Higher!” She pushed him so high that he flew off into the sky, so fucking high, a beautiful little angel. “Bye, baby!”

***

She was a little girl spinning in ballet shoes. White room spinning, stomach churning, faster and faster. But, if that were true, shouldn’t she be standing up? She was flat on the ground, wiped out, and there were thousands of bugs crawling on her scalp. So, to get them off, she started ripping out her hair, a chunk at a time. She stared at her hands. Where had all that brown straw come from?

Amber turned her head and Justin was a decomposing body next to her on the floor, swarming with maggots. His eyes sockets were empty and accusing.

***

Amber stumbled into the bathroom. Someone was out to kill her, but she couldn’t remember why. In a panic, she climbed into the bathtub and spat her teeth into the drain. She tried to rip out the faucet to use as a weapon but it wouldn’t budge and it turned to rubber in her hand. The rubber sprouted fangs and a dozen red beady eyes. She scrambled out of the tub and crawled into the kitchen across a wasteland of sand. The floor shimmered and rolled and she almost fell off of it.

There was a little baby screaming. Screaming, so much fucking screaming. Amber tried rocking the infant (“Mommy's here, baby”); she tried giving him her breast; she sang him every lullaby that she remembered (“Shh, Justin, please!”).

But the wailing didn’t stop. Not even when Justin, all grown-up, popped into her field of vision—17-years-old, tall and proud, and covered in blood. Drowning in a river of blood. Justin’s lips were mouthing “Mom” but all Amber heard was a baby’s cry.

“Don’t take him!” she yelled. She didn’t know who she was shouting at. Seth? Had he been here?

No. It was death that surrounded Justin, blackness pouring down over his head like dirty oil. Well, you couldn’t argue with death. It was the Master. So Amber closed her eyes and let it consume her child.

***

Swirls. Shapes. Thunder. A baby shrieking. A mirror that sucked her into its reflection. Amber almost never found her way out, but when she did, Seth had Justin up against the wall. He was choking him. Her son kicked out and tore at Seth’s skin until, with a triumphant howl, Justin gouged out Seth’s eyeballs and presented them to her as a trophy.

Her champion.

Amber ate one. It crunched between her teeth. She pulled out half of it and saw that it was a roach, legs still kicking.

***

Amber was awake, hazy, drunk, digging her way towards the desk. Then, to the couch. Where the fuck had she put her phone?

It was hidden behind a cushion. Her fingers were shaking. Everything on the phone was in fucking Chinese. Or Latin. Come on, come on.

She dialed 9-1. Then she paused, index finger trembling over the last number. There was a demon in the window laughing at her, and her tongue was swelling in her mouth. She wanted to rip it out but it was glued on too tightly and it wouldn’t come out.

Why had she wanted to make a call?

Justin.

He was a baby screaming in her head. Incessantly.

Justin . . . . . . . . Matt.

Matt would take care of Justin. He was a good man.

Miraculously, the phone was still in her hand. It hadn’t got sucked into the hole in the ceiling. Matt’s number was her first contact. She dialed. It rang and rang and rang.

There was a smudge on the far wall. It held the secret to the universe and it beckoned Amber to come. She didn’t. Focus. This is important.

Voicemail. Fucking voicemail. “This is Matt Jensen, Professor at...”

Fuck. Amber almost hung up, but a little toddler was smiling up at her, making innocent spit bubbles while he babbled, “mama mama mama.”

She didn’t hang up.

“It’s Amber. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Seth. Seth, he’s fucking crazy. He’s going to... to... kill Justin! I’m sorry. He won’t hurt him. He’s–, he–, he, I don’t know... he might hurt him. Men are always so fucking violent. Digging their graves. And bugs... bugs crawling. Tell Justin— I saw his corpse. Justin? Justin, are you there? It’ll be okay. Baby? Are you there? It’s not my fault. I didn’t mean it.”

Amber dropped the phone. She curled into a ball and kissed the floorboards, her teeth touching the wood grain. She wanted to go back. She wanted to be young again. She wanted to be a mommy with a baby in her arms.

Justin had been so easy to protect when he was only hours old. So easy to love.

I was a good mother once.

Fire engulfed her.

When did I stop being a good mother?

Ice formed on her eyelids.

She vomited.

Was I ever a good mother?

Silence. The fucking baby had finally stopped crying.

Chapter Text

December 7th

Alex watched with amusement as Justin’s character died in a gory burst of pixelated blood.

“You suck,” Alex informed him. He had won three games in a row. Justin was actually a fairly decent player, but no one had Alex’s skills. It was a fact.

“I was distracted,” Justin protested, tossing his game controller to Clay, who was sandwiched between them on the Jensens’ loveseat.

“Distracted by what?”

“Clay kept fucking elbowing me.”

“Oh, come on, Justin, I did not!” Clay fiddled with the controller. “We should be studying anyway.”

“We will,” Justin said. “After dinner.”

Final exams were next week and Clay—despite being in the best position academically—was the most stressed out of any of them. Although there were only three days of cramming left, Alex wasn’t worried. He was sitting comfortably on decent averages in all of his classes. Zach and Justin, on the other hand, were teetering dangerously close to ‘C’ territory in several subjects, a fact that Clay found personally offensive—especially when it came to Justin.

“You’re up, Clay,” Justin insisted, leaning over Clay to push the buttons necessary to start up a new game on the Xbox. “I’m tired of getting my ass beat.” He gave Alex a warning look. “Go goddamn easy on my brother.”

“I’ll be gentle,” Alex promised, shooting Justin a grin.

“Good. That’s the way he likes it.”

“Oh my God!” Clay exclaimed. “I’m definitely not going to play now.” He tried to stand up, but Justin pulled him back down.

“Clay, please,” Justin pleaded, using the tone that he had honed and perfected over the last year. “One last game, I promise. Then I’ll be at the mercy of your study guide. Or whatever.”

Predictably, Clay caved like a house of cards. “Fine. One more game.” Justin’s eyes softened at the corners. He was smugly satisfied with himself, and rightly so. It was a neat trick and only Justin could pull it off with so little effort. Alex sometimes wished he could do the same, not with Clay, but with Justin—whisper a suggestion into his ear and have him suddenly attentive to no one else in the room.

They started playing and, because Clay severely lacked for skill on this particular game, Alex lined up some easy kills for him to let him believe he was doing better than he really was. Justin kept up a running string of enthusiastic praise for his brother, especially when he managed to do anything remotely goal-oriented, like not run his character into a wall. After Alex lost his first life (on purpose, to boost Clay’s confidence), Justin pompously announced, “Winner gets to kiss me.”

Alex almost walked his character directly into the line of fire (and not on purpose this time). He glanced to his right to see if Justin was actually serious about his offer or not. He found it hard to look away. Some people just demanded your attention.

Clay huffed. “You do realize that the threat of having to kiss you is an incentive for us to lose, right?”

Alex, with effort, refocused and navigated his character to the edge of the action so that he didn’t forfeit any chance of finding out if Justin would follow through on his promise.

Justin sulked and slouched back against the couch cushions. “How about, because you’re being an ass and there’s no way you’ll win, the loser has to kiss me?”

“I’m not kissing you,” Clay said firmly. He mashed random buttons on his controller and his character spun in a circle and then froze. “This game is rigged. Or this controller is broken or something.”

Alex, hands suddenly clammy, tightened his grip on his own controller, leaving a swatch of perspiration on the dark plastic. Should he let Clay win? Just to see? The bass drum of his heart made a low boom—a single climactic resonance that he felt in his chest, in his fingers, and... elsewhere.

Of course, it didn’t matter, because Justin was merely fucking around. He flirted with every fucking thing that moved (and at least half the things that didn’t). And, ever since Jessica, Justin had refused to commit to anyone. Flings were okay. A lot of casual sex. But no romance. No girlfriends.

Clay called Justin a sex addict. Jess thought he was hypersexual. Alex (secretly) disagreed with both of them. He thought Justin was just being Justin, falling into a familiar pattern as a way to cope with everything he had going on. (Seth. The arduous heroin detox. Amber Foley. High School. Life.) For Justin, relationship drama had been an unnecessary extra stressor. In August, definitely. In September, probably. In November, maybe.

It was December now. Justin was clean. He hadn’t hooked up with anyone in over a month. (He always informed Alex about his hookups—not as a brag, but, oddly, as if he were apologizing to him.) There had even been a change in his demeanor. There was a lightness to him now, a freer smile, a confidence that came from his new family. It was intriguing. And it was beginning to become an issue for Alex.

December had turned into a month of what-ifs. Like, for example: Hey, Justin, what if we went out for coffee, but not as friends? Or: What if I told you that you’re the first person I call after my doctor’s visit? It used to be Zach, but now it’s always you, first, and Zach, second. Or even: I never thought I would forgive you for what happened with Jess at the dance. But it doesn’t sting anymore and I want to move forward and, also, what if I told you I was bisexual...? What would you say?

His friendship with Justin had been hard won. Over the past few months, they had reforged it, brick by brick, with a grueling labor of love, and somewhere in the process, the rebuilding had accelerated. It hadn’t stopped where it could have, and Alex found that he wanted more. A crescendo. An escalation. A culmination. But also, paradoxically, he didn’t want anything to change.

He wanted what he had with Justin to remain constant—the conversations on Alex’s bed, both of them a little sleepy, a little wild; the prolonged fights that had no real heat to them; the random, stupid shit they did when they hung out together, the details of which they kept secret; the sorrowful silences made bearable only by the press of a firm shoulder against his own; the way that he wanted Justin differently than the way he wanted anybody else.

It wasn’t lust. Not entirely. Alex did fantasize about Justin being his first: their bodies moving together, the grounding comfort of lying tangled up in Justin’s familiar scent, the slow, deep kisses that could whisper, “It’s okay, it’s okay” in a way that words sometimes could not.

The idea of physical intimacy had its allure, but it wasn’t why Alex desired a progression. No, the real reasons were: I can’t imagine having to go a day without talking to you. You’re a fucking mess, but I’m hopelessly intrigued by your brokenness and I’m not scared of being hurt. Don’t run away again, you fucking dick. I hate you for making me feel this way. (I love the way you make me feel.)

The worst part of the situation was that Alex didn’t know if his feelings were reciprocated. With Justin, you could never fucking tell. He always played things hot and cold. And if Alex dared to test the boundaries, it could ruin everything.

“No fucking way!” Clay bumped Alex’s shoulder. “I won?” His voice was shocked and stunned.

Alex, unsettled, stared at the television screen as the words “GAME OVER” flashed tauntingly at him. Clay had decimated him.

“Sorry to burst your bubble, bro, but Alex let you win,” Justin said dismissively.

Alex had planned to let Clay win, but not that easily and, selfishly, not for Clay’s benefit. The real reason he had wanted to lose was further down the couch and currently studying his fingernails like he was king of the fucking world. Justin refused to meet his gaze, so Alex was almost relieved when his phone buzzed and he saw that it was his mom texting him.

“My mom’s coming to pick me up.”

“Oh,” Clay said, disappointed. “You can stay if you want. Study for the history exam with us.”

“I can’t,” Alex said. “I promised my mom that I’d have dinner with her. She’s off today, and Dad’s working. But I’ll do the study guide for chapters 5 through 10 for tomorrow.”

“Great,” Clay said with relish. “I appreciate not having to do the bulk of the work.” At these words, he gave Justin a deliberate stare, which Justin ignored.

Alex shifted forward on the couch, muscles stiff and slightly cramped. “Tell your parents I said happy anniversary. Even though marriage is completely pointless and artificial, sticking with one person for so long is an accomplishment, I guess.”

“Um, okay,” Clay said. “Yeah, for sure. I’ll tell them... except I’ll probably leave out that last part.” Clay offered his arm so that Alex could use it as a lever to pull himself upright.

Alex slowly started to walk to the front door, Clay trailing him in case he needed help after sitting in the same position for an extended period of time. Such a gesture would have annoyed him months ago; nowadays, he accepted it with magnanimity (in the same spirit in which it was given... Dr. Ellman would be proud).

“Alex!” Justin called, suddenly appearing at his side. “I’ll wait with you until your mom gets here.”

“Okay?” Alex leaned against the wall, watching as Clay disappeared. As they waited, and for want of anything better to look at, he studied Justin’s cheekbone... then the curve of his ear... the way his shirtsleeve was pulled up around his wrist... the dark wash of his jeans.

“Call me later?” Justin asked casually as he fiddled with a chip of paint on the door.

“Why?”

“I’ll need a break. Clay’s gonna drive me up the fucking wall. He prepared a study itinerary. I might die, Alex.”

“It’d be a tragic way to go,” Alex agreed. “Death by a thousand flashcards.” Justin laughed, and in that laugh, there was reward enough to risk a little awkwardness. “So... you’re saying that I don’t drive you up the wall?”

“Only in the best way,” Justin said haughtily. Then he grinned like it had been a joke. Which it probably was.

Unless it was flirting? It probably wasn’t.

Justin never paused where Alex wanted him to, never tried to sustain a note. Pull away and then push close. Dart to the side and then creep back. Justin could at least linger and try to form a fucking chord or something, make some kind of a harmony—perfect, diminished, augmented, major, minor. He’d take anything at this point.

Maybe Alex should just ask for what he wanted. Fuck gentleness. Fuck all this second-guessing. Fuck Justin for being such a temptation and fuck himself for being too weak to resist him. So, Alex blurted, “What would you do if you liked someone but they kept giving you mixed signals?”

He didn’t think he’d ever seen Justin so puzzled before, not even by trigonometry. “You’re asking me for dating advice?”

Alex shrugged. “A poor choice, I know. But you’re also the only choice for this question.”

Now Justin looked both thoroughly confused and vaguely annoyed. “Just make a move. Show her you’re interested and see how she reacts.”

“Okay.” He paused and then clarified: “What if it’s not a girl?”

Justin glanced at him sharply. “Girl, guy, it’s the same fucking thing.”

Alex pushed off from the wall, reckless. Should he take Justin’s advice? “Do you ever think... that you and me...?” That was as far as he got before his throat closed off.

“I don’t—.” Justin swallowed. “Alex, I don’t know what you’re asking. What the fuck are you asking?”

Alex reached out. Justin eyed him curiously, but he didn’t move away, so Alex skimmed his fingers down Justin’s forearm and then grasped at his hand. Pulse racing, embarrassed at his boldness, but not daring to stop, he applied a little pressure with his fingertips, seeking a response. Justin’s fingers parted and he linked them together with Alex’s and squeezed.

Alex’s stomach had turned to churning lava and he didn’t know if this meant for Justin what it meant for him, but he leaned forward anyway and Justin met him halfway and his uneven breath was a phantom touch ghosting over Alex’s lips.

Why didn’t I do this sooner?

Alex didn’t blink.

The tension built and vibrated and hovered between them. Then, as swiftly as it had formed, it fell apart.

Justin abruptly jerked back and he dropped Alex’s hand. “Don’t,” he whispered hoarsely. “Alex, stop.” His voice was stripped of its usual bravado. Even the way he said Alex’s name was all wrong—unfamiliar and distant. They had been about to meet, to share a different part of themselves with each other and now... there wasn’t even a bridge between them.

What the fuck did I do? Alex tried not to feel hurt, but it cut at him anyway. Of course Justin wouldn’t be interested in a fucking cripple with a traumatic brain injury, even if he wasn’t 100% straight. Which he clearly was. By holding his hand, Justin was only being kind. Or charitable. Or pitying. None of which Alex wanted.

Fuck my life.

He needed to backtrack his mistake because his friendship with Justin was more than enough. He didn’t want him to think that it wasn’t enough. He hurried to say, “I thought it was okay. I’m a dick. I’m sorry.”

“Shit.” Justin let out a little laugh. “You don’t need to be sorry. I did promise you a kiss.” He touched two fingers to his lips. “You can’t resist this mouth, right?”

“You threatened a kiss,” Alex reminded him. Then, harshly, he added, “And I can resist just fine.”

Everything was more intense around Justin—including pain.

Justin brought his hand up to Alex’s hair and smoothed it back. It was as intimate a gesture as had ever existed between them.

Was it an apology?

Or an offer to try again?

Nothing at all?

They stared stubbornly at each other. Then his mother’s car pulled up in front of the house, and Justin was the first to break. “You’re still coming over tomorrow, right?”

“Of course.” Alex reached for the door handle.

“Hey, do you want my jacket?”

“Would it mean something if I said yes?” Alex asked, glancing backward. He cursed himself for the swirl of hope that rose in his chest.

“Yeah, that you’re cold.” There was an edge to Justin’s voice that resisted interpretation.

Alex sighed. Asshole.

Justin’s voice was soft as he amended, “And it would mean that I care about you.”

Alex rolled his eyes. What a sweet and infuriating and noncommittal response (and wasn’t that Justin in a nutshell?). “I think I can brave the frigid California tundra without your pity.”

Justin, a flash of hurt in his eyes, moved forward. “Wait, Alex.”

Alex raised his eyebrows at him, irked. “What?”

Justin eliminated the space between them with a single step and grabbed Alex’s hand. “I wanna get it right. That’s why. That’s the only reason. You have no fucking idea how much I want–.” He shook himself. “I know it’s a lot to ask... but can you wait? For me to figure shit out?”

Alex wanted to shove Justin against the wall and say, You asshole. It already felt pretty fucking right to me. What is there to figure out? He wanted to curse at him and then stalk out the front door, slamming it behind him, fully dramatic. But, he took a deep breath and considered Justin’s final words: “Can you wait...?”

It hadn’t been a command (wait!), nor an expectation (will you wait?). Alex heard the question underneath the question: Am I worth waiting for? He recognized the uncertainty and insecurity wrapped up in those words; it was a mirror image of his own emotions. But... he had never thought that Justin, former fuckboy, could ever feel intimidated by a romantic relationship.

The silence weighed heavily in the air. To dispel it, Justin pulled out his brash smile, his conceited swagger, his ‘I’m a jock and a big deal so you have to pay attention to me.’ Alex hated that persona, but he also saw it for what it was: a mask to hide behind.

“I’ll make it worth the wait,” Justin said. His eyes flicked up and down Alex’s body suggestively.

Alex’s cheeks flushed against his will. Okay, maybe Justin wasn’t 100% straight. His offer, with its hint of exclusivity, made Alex shiver—and not from the cold.

“I’ll wait,” Alex said, and he ran his thumb over Justin’s knuckles and said nothing more.

Alex went home feeling like something had shifted. The afternoon had started with possibility mixed with uncertainty and it had ended with uncertainty mixed with possibility. Maybe when he called Justin later, it could settle on potentiality. And perhaps someday, no matter how long it took: actuality.

The evening, as it turned out, brought devastation instead.

 


 

“How’s your grandfather?” Clay asked quietly.

Tony blew out a long breath and looked up at the stars, subtly foreign in their arrangement compared to the sky back home. “He’s hanging in there. They said it could happen anytime. Tonight, tomorrow, next week. He’s a stubborn man so I’m betting on a month from now.”

“And you’re going to stay in Mexico until after Christmas either way?” Clay’s voice sounded so very far away and not because of the literal miles between them. Sorrow had a distancing effect, cutting off the bereaved from the people who were blissfully going about their ordinary lives.

“Yeah.” Tony felt a pull of emotion in his throat, but he forced it back because it was not yet the time for tears. “I mean, since they let me take my finals early, there’s no reason to rush back. Even if he passes tonight, I think I’ll stick around... to be with my family.”

“Fuck, Tony. I’m really sorry.”

“You don’t need to be.” Tony sighed. “It’s his time. You know what my abuelo said to me when he was awake earlier? He said he wasn’t afraid of death. That he had led a life excessive in happiness and love and, now, he was going to God with a boundless peace. Well... he said all that in Spanish, but you get the idea.”

“That’s really beautiful,” Clay said. He waited for a beat before continuing, “You know you can call me anytime, right?”

Tony felt the tension in his shoulders loosen a fraction. “So, if I call you in the middle of the examen de français, you’ll pick up?”

“Yes,” Clay said without hesitation. “I’ll talk to you in French. Madame Steinberg won’t mind. It can be the oral portion of my exam.” He paused. “And, hey, since you already took the French exam, how was it?”

Dios mío! Clay Jensen asking me to help him cheat. I never thought I’d see the day.”

Clay was quick to protest. “I’m not asking you to cheat, Tony! I was merely attempting to ascertain the level of difficulty. Which is clearly different from cheating.”

“Clearly.” With a dry laugh, Tony began to walk back up the stone path towards his grandfather’s house. “Okay, how about: C’était difficile pour moi. Which means it will be a piece of cake for you.”

“Okay, then... Great... Hey, I was looking over section 4 and...” Clay started rambling about irregular verb conjugations, which somehow led to a conversation about his parents’ anniversary dinner and that topic somehow prompted a rant about the eighteen annoying things Justin had done since Tony had left. It was so quintessentially Clay... insignificant and long-winded chatter aimed at taking Tony’s mind off his abuelo’s illness.

It was comforting and soothing, and he let Clay’s words wash over him. They were separated by over a thousand miles, but when Tony clutched his phone to his ear and closed his eyes, he could imagine that he was sitting right beside his friend in the cafeteria at Liberty High. An ordinary day, no grief on the horizon.

Eventually, it had to end. Clay announced that his pizza had arrived, which was okay since Tony needed to return to his family anyway. He went back inside the house to sit vigil with his grandfather, unaware that his two friends would be far, far closer to death that night than his dear abuelito.

 


 

It was supposed to be a perfect anniversary dinner—no kids, no interruptions, no distractions from work—but Matt and Lainie had no sooner ordered their food than Matt’s phone began to buzz. He wasn’t even going to check it, but Lainie, with a smile, asked softly, “Is it one of the boys?”

The possibility was a good enough reason to pull his phone out of his pocket to check. When he saw the name on the screen, he grimaced. “Fuck.” The word slipped out.

“Matt,” Lainie rebuked him, her lips curling in amusement. “We are in a five-star restaurant.”

“Wait until you see who’s calling before you chastise me.” He turned his phone screen around to show Lainie that his curse had been fully warranted: AMBER FOLEY.

Lainie’s face twisted. “I thought we were done with that woman.”

“We are,” Matt said, silencing his phone. “She’s not going to spoil our evening. The only person I want to worry about tonight is my beautiful wife.”

Lainie unconsciously twisted her wedding band. “I’m glad that you have your priorities straight.” She smiled, as much adoration in her eyes as on the day they were married. How lucky he was that this was his life. A career that he loved. His amazing wife. His two sons back home.

The incoming call from Amber had gone to voicemail so Matt put his phone back in his pocket without a second thought. Amber Foley could wait until another day.

It was a decision that would haunt him on many a sleepless night to come.

 


 

Justin plopped the pizza boxes down on the kitchen table. “How about whoever eats the most pizza gets to pick when we take a break?”

“No. Categorically, no.”

“Why not?”

Clay gawked at him. “Because you always eat the most pizza so it’s not a fair competition! And, even if it were, I’m the tutor, and I say we aren't taking any breaks.” Justin looked ready to complain (or, more likely, to whine), so Clay shut it down with: “No breaks. None. Not negotiable. Your grades will thank me later.”

The doorbell rang.

Clay sighed. “Did you forget to tip the delivery driver?”

“I tipped her $20.” Justin set a plate in front of Clay, but, typically, did not set one out for himself because, in Justin’s world, dishes and cutlery were unnecessary when you had two functional hands.

“$20?” Clay threw a napkin at his brother. “Let me guess... Because she was hot?”

“Really, Clay?” Justin looked thoroughly insulted. “No. She looked like a single mom, all tired and shit.”

“Oh.” How was Clay supposed to criticize that rationale? It was appropriate and reasonable. (Justin would still have to be the one to explain to their parents why they had spent over $30 on two pizzas.)

The doorbell rang again. The delivery driver had, no doubt, realized that Justin had tipped too much and was being honest about it. “It’s probably her. I’ll handle it.”

As Clay left the room, Justin shouted, “Don’t make her give the money back!”

Clay had no intention of doing so. Maybe he would even give her the $10 he had in his wallet and, maybe, he would hold that fact over Justin’s head to guilt him into focusing on the study guide.

When he opened the door, he wasn’t met by a tired, single mother. He was met by a gun barrel pointed directly at his face. There was a menacing click as the safety was released.

This had to be a cruel joke... or a nightmare. Seth was in fucking jail. He couldn’t be forcing his way into their house, flanked by two (equally intimidating) men, and Clay couldn’t be backing up and just letting it happen, and Justin couldn’t be eating pizza in the kitchen, completely unsuspecting.

Brutal, instinctual fear slammed into him, urging him to fight, to react, to do something. But his legs refused to move. He was frozen in place—even as his heart was frantically trying to beat its way out of his chest. If this wasn’t a dream... If this was reality and Seth was really here... Justin.

As if on cue, Justin came around the corner. “Clay, what–”

“Go out the back!” Clay shouted. “Justin, run!”

To his credit, Justin did run.

Except he ran in the wrong direction. Not out the back door, as Clay had instructed. Instead, he ran towards Clay.

And towards Seth.

Chapter Text

It was quiet.

A deathly silence had fallen over the room. Clay hated that he thought of it in those terms: a deathly silence. But could any words be more apropos?

They were about to be murdered (maybe), but everything was calm. Surreal. Hushed and quiescent. Clay could hear his own heartbeat and he could hear Justin breathing and those had become the only two sounds he cared about because they meant they were both alive.

For now.

His consciousness had narrowed to their two bodies and the signs of life inherent in them: his pulse, Justin’s respiration, the sweat on his right hand, the tremor in Justin’s left leg, the blink of an eye, a harsh swallow. Clay recognized that he was dissociating, watching the action rather than being an active participant in it. He was observing the scene that they were in as if it were the opening to a horror movie.

No, not a horror movie. A slasher film. You were ten minutes in and the characters had all been introduced. You knew that one of them was going to be brutally killed... but who would it be? And how would it happen? How grotesque and gory would it get? And, most importantly, could you stomach watching it?

The answers to those questions were easy. Clay couldn’t stomach it, and he already knew who the victim would be (Justin Justin Justin), and the method of violence didn’t really matter because any violence brought against his brother would be beyond bearing.

He wanted to turn this fucking movie off. He wanted to go back to eating pizza and studying for final exams with the most inattentive pupil in the state of California. And, afterward, he wanted to race Justin up to their bedroom and discover that he had carelessly tossed his dirty socks on Clay’s bed (again!). Clay wanted to complain about it for the rest of the evening until Justin called him a neat freak, but in such a way that it was a compliment and, therefore, Clay would have no choice but to forgive him.

None of that would be happening tonight. They were in deep shit. Seth had a gun. And Shane, the ex-Marine who was easily 250 pounds of pure muscle, didn’t need a gun; he was a weapon in his own right. Even better: The third man, who apparently was named Raymond, had two guns and was as massive as a professional bodybuilder.

Justin was an athlete, graceful and coordinated on his feet, and Clay considered himself scrappy but, fuck, they were only teenagers and they were hopelessly outmatched and even the best-designed plan couldn’t compete with a bullet. But, somehow, somehow, they had to get through this. Each minute of delay was a minute of hope—to come up with a strategy... for something to go wrong... for Seth or his two cronies to make a mistake.

There had been no such luck thus far.

When Justin had first come around the corner and seen the gun and who was holding it, Clay had been sure that his brother was going to barrel straight into Seth and get himself killed (a single gunshot to the brain and—just like that—gone). But it had turned out that Justin had merely been rushing forward in order to shove himself in front of Clay... or rather, in front of the gun. Predictable. And reckless.

Idiotic.

Each time Clay had tried to reverse their positions, Justin had moved in lockstep with him, blocking him like it was a fucking basketball game and Clay was on the opposing team. Seth hadn’t had much to say, other than, “Move.” He had directed them at gunpoint into the living room and Justin had manhandled Clay with a tight grip and said, “Just do what he says, okay?”

Shane, the impossible mountain of a man, had searched them and taken their phones. On the verge of a full-blown panic attack, Clay had foolishly let Justin’s compliant demeanor sway him, had foolishly let his brother steer him into taking the inner seat on the couch while Justin perched on the outside edge, closest to the danger, and closest to Seth.

And so, here they were, sitting huddled next to each other like it was an impromptu family meeting. At first, Justin had murmured nonsense to him... “It’s gonna be okay.” ... “Don’t lose your shit.” ... “I’ll figure this out.” ... But now he was tight-lipped and pale. Clay preferred him that way: His mantra had been more a method of self-soothing than anything, and it had been the opposite of reassuring.

Seth had immediately sent his man Raymond to raid the house of valuables, but Clay was under no illusions. This wasn’t a burglary. He wished it were. He wished that Seth were only here to recoup the money that he felt he was owed, but it was fucking stupid, fucking insane!, that someone would go to so much trouble for so little reward (the most valuable object in their home, after his mom’s scant jewelry, was probably a laptop computer).

This had to be payback. For the trick at the school or for the four months of jail time. Or for Justin’s brazen theft of Seth’s money. Or for some other unknown confrontation from their shared past or simply because Seth was unhinged and sadistic. But—one thing was for sure—it all centered on Justin.

Clay, with a detached and numb attention, studied Seth, who had his left leg up on the coffee table and his gun pointed at Justin’s head. The weapon had never wavered from its target. And, most disconcerting, Seth had not ceased salivating at his brother... like Justin was a baby antelope and Seth was a starving lion waiting to pounce and devour his prey—teeth mercilessly rending flesh.

In his gaze was something lecherous. Something foul.

Clay knew he would only make things worse by antagonizing Seth. The smart thing to do was play the part of the cooperating victim, as Justin was doing, to wait and pick their moment and then take initiative together... but Clay didn’t want to be smart. Not when Seth’s predatory leer was an assured promise that his brother’s imminent future would be nothing but torment and anguish.

So, with concerted effort, Clay forced his lethargic mind to ignite. He couldn’t be a ghostly observer of what was happening, split off and removed from his body. He needed to focus and engage, no matter how awful the reality was. He needed to transfer Seth’s gaze elsewhere, to himself if need be.

Everything depended on it.

As confidently as he could, he baited Seth: “Aren’t you supposed to be in jail? I distinctly remember an incident with a knife on school property, which I take full credit for, by the way. Did you stage a prison break, or what?”

Dark, colorless eyes, full of contempt and malice, shifted to him. “Is that your way of asking if the cops are after me? Sorry to disappoint, but it’s all legal. A few weeks early release for a model prisoner like me wasn’t hard to swing, not with the number of people they try to force into that shit-ass jail.” Seth spat dismissively on the floor. “They call it ‘overcrowding’... when really it’s nothing more than the overzealous prosecution of good citizens.”

Justin tugged irritably at Clay’s sleeve (as if that action would shut him up), but before Clay could think of what to say next, Justin, with a rising fire, added, “Our parents went out to pick up dinner. They’re gonna be back soon.” He leaned far forward, decreasing the distance between his head and the gun barrel. “So why don’t you finish grabbing shit you don’t own and get the fuck out? Before you get sent back to jail on the same day you got out.”

Clay, in alarm, put his hand out in front of Justin’s chest and pushed him firmly back against the couch. Justin, in a reflexive jerk, grabbed Clay’s wrist and lowered it down to the cushion, pinning it in place. Clay let him, even though it felt dangerous to yield any control.

Seth narrowed his eyes. “Your parents? Listen, you little punk, I saw your mom a few hours ago. It’d break her heart to hear you replaced her so easily. I mean, look at this place, it’s an upgrade, I get it. But she’s your blood.”

“You saw Mom?” There was genuine fear in Justin’s question, and Clay, with a sinking feeling, realized why.

“She wasn’t looking too good when I left her.” Seth smiled, deliberately letting the implication hang in the air. “And, as for this kid’s parents, they’re out for dinner at that Italian restaurant, Acquerello, right? They were awful dressed up when they left the house. Looked like they were going to make an evening of it. Maybe go for a fuck afterwards?”

Seth cocked his head, each one of his vicious taunts precisely hitting its mark. “I had Brently follow their car. It’d be a real shame if something were to happen to them...”

Son of a bitch. No member of his family was exempt from this asshole’s machinations. Justin’s resolute grip on his wrist and a mounting nausea were the only two things that kept him from launching himself at Seth. “If you hurt them, I–”

Justin interrupted him. “I’ll kill you.” His voice was cold and crisp, but his threat, devoid of the means of carrying it out, was terrifyingly empty. Clay knew it. Seth knew it. But...

Something had been nagging at him, unconsciously and steadily, and, in a sudden flash, it came to beautiful fruition in his mind. “My mom knows you’re out of jail,” he breathed, with a burst of hope. “As soon as you were released, she got a notification...”

Seth’s eyes flashed dangerously and the muscles in his arm flexed. It was restrained power, waiting to be released. “See, here’s the thing. Your mother told me all about those victim notification alerts, over and over again, as an incentive to make me stay away. But, you know, all that really did was make it easy for me to get in touch with the right person, introduce a little pay-off...”

He tapped his finger against the trigger of his gun. “There’s gonna be a paperwork shuffle, a computer glitch, so that the notification gets delayed. It won’t go out until Monday. Nobody’s coming to save you, kid.” Seth gave him an appraising glance. “But, if Justin cooperates, you don’t need to get hurt. The last thing I need is some rich fucker out for revenge because his latchkey kid got a nosebleed.”

Justin nodded stiffly, but Clay shook his head fervently. He did not like the singular “you” in you don’t need to get hurt.

He needed to say something, and fast. “My parents care about Justin just as much as they do me.”

It was the truth (and he hoped Justin knew it).

Seth laughed, and the sound was physically repulsive. “This worthless piece of shit? Unlikely. I’ll be doing them a favor.” He rounded on Justin. “You completely fucked up my operation. My stash houses were raided. Two of my suppliers got arrested.”

Justin opened his mouth, and then closed it, his expression familiar in its bewilderment. (Clay saw the same confusion at every single tutoring session.) “What?” Justin finally managed. “That’s–, I don’t know anything about your fucking stash houses. And, even if I did, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to call the cops.”

“Don’t play dumb,” Seth said. “You know what you did.”

“I actually don’t!” Justin snapped and then, casting a concerned look at Clay, he softened his tone. “But, whatever. I’ll do whatever. I’ll cooperate.” He shrank into himself and he instantly transformed into a pitiable child, all vulnerable and wretched in his acquiescence.

Goosebumps rose on Clay’s arms. What the fuck was wrong with him? Was this some kind of psychological regression? Some Stockholm Syndrome level shit?

Whatever it was, it pleased Seth to see it, and that was unacceptable.

“This is bullshit!” Clay drew the focus back to himself. “We don’t know anything about your stash houses or your suppliers. You know what we were doing before you showed up? Getting ready to study for our American History exam. Our high school final. We don’t care about your pathetic drug empire. And also... maybe it was me who did... whatever it is you’re pissed about.” Riled and frustrated, and not knowing what the fuck they were even talking about, Clay added, “In fact, it was me. It was definitely me.”

Seth’s jaw twitched. “You sure love to run your mouth, don’t you?”

Raymond stomped into the living room, a trash bag over his shoulder and a box in his arms. Clay could see the edge of his father’s laptop sticking out over the top of the box.

“I got everything worth getting, boss.”

Seth pointed at Justin. “Get up. You’re coming with us.”

Justin released Clay’s wrist and started to stand, meek and docile, bending as easily as a strand of grass in the wind. Clay seized his arm, and his fingers became a manacle to lock Justin in place. “He’s not going anywhere with you.” His pulse was pounding again, blood rushing through his veins in a frantic race to return to its source of oxygen, of life.

“Clay,” Justin hissed. “Let go.” He jerked his arm away. Clay grabbed it again, but Justin easily twisted it out of his grasp. “It’s—it’s fine, okay?” He spoke so faintly that Clay could barely hear him. If it’s fine, why the fuck won’t you look me in the eye when you say it?

Justin gave him a fist bump, like he would Zach or Scott, which, oddly, was the most infuriating thing of all. “I... I’ll see you later. We can study A Tale of Two Cities for the English final.”

Clay immediately understood. Fuck Justin for pulling out a literary reference at a time like this, one so completely shitty and poignant and misconceived. Charles Dickens’ novel wasn’t going to be on the English final, but they had read it earlier in the semester. Justin had written his essay (with considerable assistance from Clay) on Sydney Carton, the tragic character who switched places with a condemned man and met his death at the guillotine.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done...”

The message was clear. Justin was fully capable of fighting back but he wouldn’t... because he wanted to shield Clay from Seth's cruel attention, from his vengeful wrath. His final words were meant as comfort, as a goodbye. It was his march to the guillotine, his grand sacrifice—to passively leave with Seth, knowing full well what it meant for him.

“No,” Clay said in desperation. “You’re not Sydney Carton. Justin, Justin!”

Justin gave an apologetic shake of his head and said lowly, “Please, do this one thing for me. This one thing. Let me go,” and then, with resolution, he took a step forward. Clay tried to restrain him by grabbing his wrist, his elbow, his shirt, anything, but Justin whirled and struck his fist three times against Clay’s chest. Not as a warning, but with real force, such violent force that the impacts drove the breath out of his lungs and he tumbled backwards onto the couch cushions, stunned.

Justin had never hit him before—not purposefully, not in anger. Now he had hit him hard enough to bruise, hard enough that Clay had to choke back a cry of pain because it fucking stung, emotionally as much as physically. At that moment, his brother was a complete stranger. Fierce, wild eyes, hands clenched... and, shit, tears in his eyes. Fuck. No, not a stranger. Clay felt his skin prickle with cold recognition. Standing before him was Justin Foley, who had threatened to beat him up in the school parking lot... because he had wanted to protect Jessica.

Protect someone other than himself.

Clay hesitated and that hesitation cost him everything. Justin took advantage of it and quickly outpaced the reach of Clay’s arms, which, of course, was what he had intended all along. Shane, in two steps, blocked access to him and Clay, in abject terror, clutched at the coffee table.

No. You are not expendable, Justin... not to me!

Justin submissively let Seth grab his arm and steer him over to Raymond, who had (out of nowhere) produced a zip tie.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

“You’re gonna have to tie Clay up, too,” Justin said with resignation. “He’ll cause trouble otherwise.”

Seth secured Justin’s hands in front of him and, goddammit, now Shane was coming at Clay with another zip tie and all Clay could think was, I’ll fight for you, Justin, you fucking idiot. Even if you won’t.

He wasn’t going to submit to being tied to a piece of fucking furniture while his brother (his little brother) casually walked out of the house with a deranged man. There was only one way that scenario ended... Clay didn’t know the particulars, but he did know—with a terrifying certainty—that if Justin left with Seth... Clay would never see him again.

Not outside of a casket.

It was very simple then: He couldn’t let him leave.

He didn’t have time for a plan. He wasn’t strong. He wasn’t a fighter. But there were three of them and Justin was conceding defeat and, in less than a minute, Clay would have no chance at all. So, chest aching, breath ragged, he did what he had thought Justin had intended to do when he had first rounded the corner and seen Seth at the open front door: He charged the asshole who had his hands on his brother.

Of course, he didn’t get far because Shane rapidly intercepted him, cutting off his path to his true target. It wasn’t ideal but, fuck it, Clay charged him instead.

They’re not taking him. I don’t care if I get hurt.

I don’t care.

I don’t. I don’t.

Clay put his head down, dodged Shane, and, like a star linebacker, tackled Seth and sent his gun spinning to the floor. Seth hit the ground, hard, and was unable to get up. Clay grabbed the gun and he was now in control and no one wanted to challenge him after that impressive display of strength. It was over that cleanly and quickly, and everything was perfectly fine.

Or at least that was what Clay tried to do, what he envisioned happening in his mind—where everything was idyllic and choreographed in the hero’s favor. A comic book ending.

What actually happened was this: He moved forward three steps and crashed into Shane, but it was like hitting a concrete wall—painful for him, harmless to the wall. Two seconds later, Shane’s fist slammed into his nose. Blood spurted out, a thick river streaming down over his lips. He tried to wipe it away with his hand but new rivulets kept gushing and he had to ignore the red flood because a second punch was coming at his jaw. He jerked to the side to avoid it, and he did—but only barely.

With a bored, clinical precision, Shane struck him in the chest and then in the stomach. Clay went down, his ribs seeming to cave inward, even as pain exploded outward to his extremities.

Dimly, Clay heard Justin struggling. He was finally (finally!) fighting, but when Clay turned his head, he saw Seth kick his brother’s legs out from under him and go at him with an animalistic fury, and each and every strike of Seth’s fist was mirrored by a blow from Shane. He could feel—hear—feel a popping sensation in his chest, and the world became grainy and gritty, with a sepia filter.

There was no air.

There was no sound.

Just pain.

And a vertiginous whirl.

Nothing could compare to the piercing sense of disastrous failure. By making his move, all Clay had managed to do was get them both beaten to death—in tandem. They did almost everything together these days, and now, apparently, they were going to do this, too.

Another punch. A white-hot poker to his knee. Another. Starbursts through his skull. Another. Another.

Oh God, make it stop.

His organs felt like they were melting in his abdomen, and blood was pouring into his mouth from his nose. It was rust and copper and a sticky, clumping wetness. He reached for the couch to try to pull himself up but gravity was too powerful an adversary, and he left a long streak of blood as his slid back to the ground, unbalanced and quaking. (Stains on his mother’s couch. She would hate it. He would have to scrub at it for hours.)

After that point, even though he wanted to, even though he needed to, he could no longer raise himself up.

“Shane, stop,” Seth commanded. “Leave him to me.”

Clay turned his head and rested his cheek on the cold, hard floor and saw Justin restrained in a headlock, Raymond’s thick corded muscles wrapped around his neck. There was blood in his hair and on his forehead and his wrists were awkwardly pinned together. Trapped in the man’s arms, he looked like a small child—eyes wide, mouth pinched, dazed and, most likely, concussed.

“Real tough guy, huh?” Seth’s voice came from above him. “There was no reason to do that.”

Clay clenched his teeth as his left arm was wrenched behind his back. He tried to wriggle out of the hold, but he soon realized that he was more likely to dislocate his own shoulder than escape, so he went very, very still. Seth’s breath was hot by his ear.

“Justin pulled you into this mess, fucked up your life... like he did mine, like he did his mother’s. I was gonna give you a pass, but you just couldn’t leave it alone.”

“Fuck you,” he rasped, before inhaling sharply when Seth applied a steady backward pressure to his arm. The tendons and ligaments in his shoulder were straining, the bone grinding. He swallowed yet another mouthful of blood, worried that he would vomit and then be forced to swallow that back down, too.

“Seth! You don’t have to do this! Seth–!” Clay had never heard Justin sound that scared. Not even in a nightmare. “Don’t hurt him. He’s fucking harmless. Please, I’ll come with you!”

Seth shifted, releasing a little of the agonizing tension. “Remember that you asked for this, kid.”

“No, fuck, Seth. Wait!” Justin was sobbing and Clay didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was that he wanted to reassure his brother and, more critically, he didn’t want to pass out (because that would mean abandoning Justin).

“Wait, wait!”

The pressure on Clay’s arm tightened again, the harsh angle pulling at his shoulder socket. He picked his head up to try to see what was going on, which was a colossal mistake because he saw Seth’s boot raise up and then he knew exactly what was going to happen and why Justin was babbling out an incessant string of curses and pleas. The boot descended and, like a sledgehammer, it smashed into his extended arm. He didn’t know which was louder: the snap of bone or his resulting scream.

Chapter Text

November 2018

They were both lying on their backs on Justin’s bed with the laptop computer propped up on a pillow, half on Justin’s lap, half on Alex’s.

“I’m picking the next one,” Justin said, scrolling through the recommended videos. “I can’t believe you made me watch a 12-minute jam session.”

“It was epic,” Alex insisted, aggressively hooking his foot over Justin’s. “You just have the attention span of a two-year-old.”

Justin shook his head. “Not if it’s something interesting. Like sports. Or zombies.” He paused. “If you were playing the guitar, I might have paid attention.”

“Noted.” Alex turned his head and studied the poster on the wall. (What the fuck was so interesting about it?)

“Perfect,” Justin said with satisfaction, clicking on a video.

“How to Escape from Zip Ties?” Alex asked skeptically. “7.8 million views?! Who the fuck watches this crap?”

“It’s a survival skill,” Justin pointed out. “You never know what fucked-up shit Monty will come up with next.”

Alex rubbed his face distractedly. “So, what? Are you going to buy zip ties and have us all practice?”

“Why?” Justin teased. “Is that a kink for you?”

“I’ll try anything once... with the right person.” Alex idly touched Justin’s wrist and the contact felt like a snare... or an invitation. His eyes were painfully blue and when he yawned, the sound of it made Justin’s mind screech to a halt. He hadn’t gotten laid in weeks and he was at a high risk of embarrassing himself, or mortifying Alex, so he distracted himself by turning up the volume and focusing on the screen. “Shut up and watch.”

As the video played, Justin ever so slowly rested his head against Alex’s so that he could see the screen better. (He wouldn’t have done it otherwise; Alex had strict personal space boundaries.) Alex curled closer to him (to see the video better, obviously).

The room was dim and the sheets were cold, but the body pressed against his was warm and solid and pleasantly defenseless. Alex’s breathing was attuned to his, and, if he had wanted to, Justin could have done something dangerous. A slide of the hand, a shift of his hips, a soft press into the mattress... No.

Justin stayed still and let it be.

“He makes it look easy, but I’ll bet it fucking hurts,” Alex whispered sleepily as the man in the video harshly slammed his hands down onto his pelvic bone to break the zip tie.

“It would,” Justin whispered back. “But some things would hurt more, believe me. You could do it, Alex. If you had to.”

“Right,” Alex murmured. “Because I have such enviable upper body strength.”

“It’s not about upper body strength. It’s about, I don’t know, determination or willpower or some shit like that.”

“In that case,” Alex said, “You could definitely do it.”

The comment was subtly flattering, and it made Justin feel invincible. “Shit, I could break three of ‘em. Easy.”

“Sure. Might want to check your ego.”

“I could.” For you, I could.

 


 

Clay’s arm broke between the shoulder and the elbow and when it broke, Justin flinched as if it had been his arm instead. He had never heard Clay scream like that before. He had never heard anyone scream like that before. It was pure agony communicated through sound waves and it hit him everywhere at once—in his skull, his chest, his arms, his legs, every muscle fiber, every nerve ending.

There was nothing but that horrific sound because his vision had gone blurry with an onslaught of vicious, stinging tears. He kept blinking, over and over again, trying to clear them, and—although everything else was indistinct and hazy—Clay began to come into focus: the way his eyelids were squeezed tightly shut, the smear of blood from his nose to his chin, Seth’s boot on his lower back... the unnatural bend in his upper arm.

Shit shit shit.

Clay’s arm was fucked. It looked all wobbly, like jello, with a sharp protrusion where it was supposed to be completely straight. Seth still had backward pressure on it and Clay was panting, which was better than the screaming, but the small whimpers that he occasionally let slip made Justin want to die.

Or want to rip people apart. Three people. Seth, most of all.

But Raymond’s arms were like steel around his neck and the zip tie that locked his wrists together was pulled miserably tight. His ribs were aching and he could feel something sticky, which matted the hair at his temple. At some point, he must have been clobbered in the head, although he didn’t remember it happening. It was fucking inconvenient, though, because a head injury was going to make it difficult to walk in a straight line, let alone concentrate. He really needed to attend to his environment. Scan the playing field. Think logically, like Clay would. Usually would... because he certainly hadn’t done so today.

Clay had been so fucking stupid. He had never needed to get hurt. Justin had been prepared to forfeit his life to ensure it. And now... Clay... would Seth really kill him?

What would be the point? Justin’s misery—that would be the point.

Please. Please. Don’t hurt him.

Don’t hurt him again.

Seth held all the cards because he had his fucking hands on Clay. He had broken his arm and beaten him half to hell. He held everything and Justin had nothing, nothing but his voice. The skin on the inside of his mouth had been shredded by his teeth, and when he spoke, blood began dribbling down over his lips, but he could still form words and maybe salvage something out of this mess. (Clay was worth begging for.)

“I said I’d come with you. I still will! Whatever you wanna do... Do it to me, not him. Please, Seth. Please.” Clay was trying to shake his head, but Justin continued, “I won’t struggle. I’ll–” (What had Darnell, belt in hand, always instructed him to do before he came at him?) “I’ll take it like a man.”

Seth’s face contorted, changing from cold fury to cruel speculation. He twisted Clay’s arm and Clay made an ugly, tortured noise deep in his throat. “Give me a good reason,” Seth said.

What did Seth want? Money? “I’ll sell drugs for you. Or... Mom’s old fiancé, Richard... he’s... he’s a fucking millionaire. He’d let me into his house if I asked. I could rob him for you.”

Seth, without warning, snapped Clay’s index finger. Clay’s back arched and he tried to muffle his cry by turning his face into the hardwood floor, but Justin heard it with appalling clarity and he almost gagged.

“Seth, wait! Listen!”

Panic was driving him to consider wild offers and he would do them, any of them, if it came right down to it. “I’ll whore myself out. I saw it on the streets—young guys without mileage make good bank. I’ll give you the money.” Clay tried to clench his fingers into a fist, but Seth forced his hand open and began to push Clay’s middle finger back and back and back.

Justin’s eyes were burning. His voice was a rasp of emotion, which he knew Seth wouldn’t respond to, but he couldn’t be unemotional, not when his brother was literally broken and pointlessly suffering (he had suffered far, far too much already). “I’ll– I’ll kill myself! Right here. It can be suicide. Whatever you want. Just tell me what you want.”

The only thing worse than pain was facing pain alone, so, despite his hesitancy to do so, Justin let his gaze drift downward. Clay had turned his head again and his eyes were a plea that Justin couldn’t answer. Clay, fuck. I’m sorry... I’m sorry. Fucking pass out. Please. Make it easier on yourself.

Clay didn’t pass out. There was a sickening crunch and the middle finger broke too. Justin felt it and heard it and he tasted Clay’s blood in his mouth when Clay spit out a mouthful of red spittle, and when a single tear slid down the side of his brother’s nose, five tears of his own washed down over his cheek.

Seth tugged on Clay’s shoulders and forced him into a kneeling position. He sat slumped with his head bowed and his left arm dangling at the shoulder joint. Seth placed the gun muzzle against Clay's forehead. “Do I need to continue?”

Justin knocked his head back against Raymond’s chest, which only resulted in the man tightening his grip. The constriction on his windpipe increased but nothing would stop him from answering. “No, fuck, no! He gets it. I get it!”

“Okay, good, because this is a waste of my time.” Seth stood up, and Justin nearly bit his own tongue, the relief was so strong. Could this really be the end of it?

“You know,” Seth began ominously, “This was going to be a last resort, but I think it’s warranted...”

What?

Seth wiped his bloodstained hands on his jeans. “I thought of the perfect headline: 'Delinquent Boy Burns Down Foster Family’s Home, Killing Couple’s Only Son.’ Very poetic, don’t you think? That’ll teach them not to take in strays.”

No no no nononono. “Seth—”

“Shane, go get the gasoline out of the truck.”

“How many cans do you want, boss?” Shane, completely unperturbed by the suggestion of arson, picked up the box of the Jensens’ valuables.

“Bring ‘em all. Let’s light this place up.”

 


 

November 2016

It was halftime. They were losing by a wide margin.

Coach Patrick directed Justin to the bench and sat down beside him. “You’re playing too stiffly, son.”

“What do you mean?” Justin studied Zach’s hand as it tapped a nervous rhythm out further down the bench.

“Too much by the playbook.”

Justin grimaced and wiped the sweat off his forehead. “That’s what you tell us to do in practice.”

“This isn’t practice. This is the real deal. Once you get the lay of the land and see how the other players react, that’s when it’s time to go with your instincts. I’ve been watching you, son. You think on your feet, anticipate the threats. It’s an asset.”

“I guess,” Justin said doubtfully. It never seemed like an asset when he used it to get away from his mother’s boyfriends. It seemed more like a necessity. Or a burden.

“Play to your strengths. Do something unexpected. Mix it up.”

“Okay. I will, sir.”

Coach Patrick crossed his arms and looked him over impassively. It made Justin want to push himself, to give more. “Don’t tell me you will. Show me.”

Justin did, and between him and Zach, they led the team to victory. Narrowly, but a win was a win.

Coach Patrick clapped him on the back, not in celebration, but more in a ‘yes, we won, but there’s room for improvement’ kind of way. His words, though, were all praise. “Keep it up, son. The team really responded to you tonight. You have potential. Put in the work and you could be captain of the varsity team one day.”

It was a beautiful dream. Justin clung to it, especially on the nights when he came home to an empty apartment, an empty fridge, and a stack of bills on the table.

“Do something unexpected.” College would be unexpected. And a future—any future—would be too.

 


 

Seth had already made two major mistakes. He had been stupid enough to zip-tie Justin’s hands in front of him. And he had hurt Clay, which was the worst possible thing he could have done. Because it brought Justin closer to his roots: an untamed creature, savage and feral, determined to protect what was his.

Shane had emptied a two-gallon jug of gasoline in the den. He had given a second can to Seth before leaving out the front door for more. There were only two adversaries in the house now, Seth and Raymond, and Seth was... fuck!... He was pouring gasoline over Clay’s head, a torrential downpour streaming down his face, irritating his wounds and soaking his clothes. It was torture, plain and simple—a fucking mind game meant to heighten the anticipation and fear. And, after he was done playing with them, Seth would burn the house down. He was capable of it.

Justin was capable of things, too. There was something dark and monstrous lurking in him. It had been born the first time he had heard his mother take a fist while he hid his face in her dress and it had grown on a hundred terror-stricken nights and now it lay dormant, waiting to be unleashed.

With effort, he looked away from Clay because if he saw any more of his misery, Justin would break into worthless shards, helpless to save anyone. Pretend it’s water, he told himself firmly. Not gasoline.

If he wanted to make his move, it was this instant, this minute. Clay was the one who always made the well-crafted, detailed plans. But Justin didn’t make plans. He reacted. Trust your instincts.

He closed his eyes. He remembered Zach, lifting him off the ground in excitement when they had won the first basketball game of the season. Jess, telling him she forgave him for what was undeniably unforgivable. Lainie, hugging him every morning before she left for work. Matt, on the day of the adoption, giving him his grandfather’s watch, a gift which meant: You are now a part of this family’s legacy. Alex, against all hope, taking Justin’s hand and telling him he would wait for him. Clay. Clay... There were too many memories and they flashed by in quick succession—brighter, louder than all the others. Clay’s name was a siren in his mind.

He remembered it all. And he harnessed it. Love was stronger than pain. Than fear. These were the highest stakes he had ever played for and he wasn’t going to lose.

Mix it up.

Justin went limp and boneless, no longer holding up his own weight. Raymond, in surprise, loosened his grip, not much, but enough for Justin to lean forward and bite a chunk out of the man’s arm, right where there was a tattoo of a Celtic cross. He got a mouthful of warm blood and stringy flesh, which, under any other circumstance, would have been disgusting; in this one, it was invigorating.

“Fuck!” Raymond pulled his arm away from Justin’s teeth, making enough of a gap for Justin to drop down into a squat. He rebounded and darted forward in a half-crouch, between the chairs, over the coffee table. He paused to bring his hands up and drive them down to his hip bones. It hurt like a son of a bitch and it was a wasted effort because the zip tie did not break.

You could definitely do it,” Alex had said.

Justin lifted his arms as high as they would go and swung them down and out, the plastic digging into his skin until, at contact with the bone, his hands sprang apart.

He was free. Unfortunately, he had lost precious time. Raymond had recovered and was coming at him, gun in hand. Do something unexpected. The man expected him to go towards Clay or Seth and had already turned that way to cut him off. So Justin went the opposite direction, back towards the mantelpiece.

In a burst of inspiration, he grabbed Lainie’s green vase (so fucking ugly), and he jumped up on the arm of the couch to gain more momentum before springing straight down, slamming the vase onto Raymond’s head, the only place that wasn’t protected by a layer of muscle.

Justin expected the vase to break, but it didn’t. He expected Raymond to collapse, but he didn’t. Instead, he grunted and dropped to one knee. So Justin hit him again. The impact felt more likely to break his own fingers than anything (Clay’s delicate fingers, typing on his laptop, sketching on his bed, straightening Justin’s tie) and fire was shooting up the nerves of his arm (gasoline igniting, Clay screaming as he was burned alive). He ignored the dull vibrations in his hands and kept driving the vase down, like a hammer repeatedly striking a stubborn nail, until there was a rewarding crack.

It wasn’t the vase cracking.

It was Raymond’s skull.

Raymond staggered and sagged and then fell forward. It had been the best of luck and it quickly turned into the worst of luck because Justin had been counting on grabbing Raymond’s gun, but, as the man fell, it spun forward on the floor.

Don’t think! He had to be quick. The adrenaline was the only thing allowing him to move at all. It would wear off soon and then he would no longer have an advantage. He would be fucked. Clay would be fucked.

I can do this. I can do this!

The gun... Justin could still reach it. There was still time. Raymond was an obstacle in his path but the man was barely conscious and no longer a risk. Justin charged forward, one foot striking the prone figure, using it to propel himself closer to what could be their salvation. Four steps.

Three steps.

Two pops, somewhat muffled but also unbearably loud, split the air. Justin’s eardrums felt like they were exploding and he reeled and dropped the vase. It shattered on impact, pieces wobbling on the floor. Disoriented, Justin wobbled too. The realization came much too slowly: Gunfire.

Clay!

Justin took another step but, inexplicably, his legs quivered and gave out and he fell back on his calves, bracing himself with a shaking hand. Clay came into his line of sight and he was drenched in gasoline and a mess of blood—battered and under threat but... whole. He hadn’t been shot.

thank you thank you thank you

“Justin,” Clay mouthed, his face stricken. Why? Everything was okay. Justin’s ears were ringing, but the gun... it was right there. He tried to crawl forward to get it, but, fuck, his muscles failed him and he just couldn’t and he felt so goddamn helpless as Seth crouched down and picked the gun up, shaking his head with a grim smile.

Justin’s stomach burned like a motherfucker. It was a hot, wet sensation. He really couldn’t be bothered with it but he glanced down anyway because he needed to understand why his body wasn’t cooperating and why Clay was looking at him with so much grief and horror.

Oh. There were two holes in Justin’s shirt, weeping blood. No, not in his shirt. In his abdomen.

Seth had fucking shot him.

Chapter Text

Justin had been prepared to kill Seth. Blow his brains out. Impale him. Set him on fire. Whatever. Nothing would have been off the table; the bastard deserved it. But, once again, the universe had screwed him over. Because, despite his feelings on the matter, it was kinda hard to fight after taking two to the stomach.

Being shot was a fucking letdown. It didn’t feel real. Shouldn’t he be in excruciating pain? On a scale of one to ten, it was barely a three. Seeing Clay soaked in gasoline... That had been a solid ten.

Well, no sugar coating it: It was real. The pain hadn’t struck yet, but the weakness had. He was on his knees and his body had become a piece of shit, absolutely useless to him.

He had gambled it all and lost. As if to drive that point home, a steel-toe boot came up to his chest and pushed. Justin wasn’t a domino, for fuck’s sake, but after that slight tap, he fell flat on his back, just like a fucking domino. He had spent his adrenaline, and there was nothing left to keep him upright. He was going to die... and then Clay was going to die, because of him. And Seth was going to be the last face they both saw.

Screw that. He levered himself up onto his elbows, but Seth straddled him and pressed his knee and then his full weight down on his ribcage. Justin clawed at it in a frenzied panic but his attempt only motivated Seth to press down harder. It was usually such an easy thing, breathing, but when your chest couldn’t expand...

It was a vicious fight to inflate his lungs, to manage the smallest gasp. The world tinged black but then quickly burst back into blinding blues and yellows—a mixture of harsh, ugly color. Air rushed in and Justin gulped greedily, but it didn’t last, because the weight again descended, this time on his stomach. Seth twisted his knee into the wounds and, fuck, okay, being shot was real now, and it was a fucking ten out of ten on the pain scale.

Jagged glass shards were hacking at his nerves and severing his blood vessels.

Barbed wire was tearing into his skin, but slowly, one centimeter at a time.

A saw blade was grinding, grinding, grinding against his abdomen.

Hundreds of needles were piercing him everywhere inside.

And two dark eyes, a hell of a lot closer than he’d prefer them to be, were drinking in all his pain like it was the sweetest ecstasy—glorious heroin hitting the bloodstream.

Justin could hear again, but the voice he heard was not the one he wanted. “You stole my fun, you little fuck.” Seth nudged his gun against Justin’s lips. “It wasn’t supposed to be this easy.” His pupils were dilated and eager. “Open your fucking mouth.”

Justin wasn’t going to break, not now, not at the end. He kept his jaw clenched tight.

“Open it, or I’ll pull out my lighter.”

Clay.

Obediently, Justin parted his lips and Seth slid the gun barrel past his teeth and onto his tongue. There was the faint taste of gun oil, which clashed with the copper tang already coating his gums. Seth brought his right hand, slick with blood (Clay’s blood) and rubbed it over Justin’s quivering upper lip.

“Seeing you like this, you remind me of your mother.” He swept his hand along Justin’s cheek and wiped away the stray tears. “I was on top of her, too, and she begged me to spare her and kill you instead.” Callused, grimy fingers traced his cheekbone and then cradled his cheek.

Pinned as he was, Justin couldn’t recoil, so he had to accept the delicately tender touch. His body fiercely rejected the idea and he gagged, which was an entirely new agony as acid tore its way up his throat. He swallowed reflexively and bit down hard on the gun barrel.

“Shh, relax,” Seth murmured as he smoothed Justin’s hair back and rocked the gun in and out of his mouth. The metal scraped against his teeth and the clack clack clack of it vibrated through his skull.

Justin wondered if he could grab Seth’s hand and force him to pull the trigger. Fucking end it for himself, on his terms. He wouldn’t submit to this last, and ultimate, violation. Not from Seth. This was the man who had fucked his mother, who pounded into her one way and then pounded his fists against her in another. And... he had murdered her? Why hadn’t that registered? His mother was dead. Her mangled corpse was a smudge of red in a haze of grey, but Justin couldn’t connect with the loss. It meant nothing to him.

Seth rested his forehead on Justin’s and his warm breath battered Justin’s eyelashes. “Your death is a mercy compared to what his will be.”

Those words were all it took, and Justin broke.

A scream, low and angry and defeated, emerged without his consent. Fresh tears spilled over, a dozen, a hundred. Sorrow and guilt. Layers and layers of shame. He had been stripped to nothing, and he was afraid. He wanted Matt and Lainie. He wanted to go back in time, to Monet’s, and tell Clay, “I don’t want to be adopted.” He wanted the pain—not in his body, but in the deepest, most vulnerable part of him—to stop. He wanted to let go, to surrender to the nothingness and the numbness that was steadily encroaching.

I’m dying. Maybe... maybe that’s okay. He would never have to hurt again. Or face what he had done.

It’s over. It’s over.

“Justin!” He knew that voice. It was the voice he had wanted to hear.

It wasn’t over. Not yet. There would be no peace in death. Because Clay was alive, over there, somewhere to his left. He was alive.

Justin wanted... He wanted...

He wanted Clay to survive. That was all he really wanted.

His heart was hammering, faster, faster. His abdomen burned, hotter, hotter. But, it wasn’t really burning. The inferno raging in his stomach was nothing compared to what the lick of fire against skin would be—charred flesh and blackened bone... Clay’s impending ruin was a crisp and ghastly image.

Justin had once considered killing Clay to shut him up, but, now, he had a duty to protect him that went beyond anything. He had failed Jessica. He couldn’t fail his brother, too. Justin could defy death for him, if that was what it took.

I’m not leaving you behind, Clay.

Justin choked as his throat constricted, each short, desperate breath a chore. He fought for another breath, so he could fight for his brother. Blood was flooding his mouth, puddling in the back of his throat. He swallowed it. He still couldn’t breathe.

Why couldn’t he breathe?

Because you’re being fucking strangled!

When had Seth moved his hand? It tightened on Justin’s windpipe again, only to relax and trail down his body, lower and lower.

Seth was stupid. So fucking stupid. All he cared about was the pain and the humiliation, and dragging them out for as long as possible. He was jamming that fucking gun so deeply into Justin’s mouth, it was tearing the skin on his lips. But, if the gun was in his mouth, it couldn’t be used as a weapon against Clay.

The gun. Seth’s hands: One hand on the gun. One hand pulling at Justin’s jeans. (Don’t think about what he’s doing. It’s not happening to you.)

There had been two guns.

Delusion? Fantasy? A final wish before dying...?

Justin swung his left hand outward, scrabbling along the hardwood floor.

Nothing. Nothing.

He was prone and trapped, and he wanted to beg Seth to stop, stop, stop as an invasive hand slid under the waistband of his boxers and began to stroke him. The sensation was a welcome contrast to the scalding razor blades in his abdomen, and his body responded involuntarily. Seth grunted in disgust when he felt the erection, but he didn’t stop—smearing blood around the tip, and then down—and it was rough and degrading and not at all arousing (except it must be, right? — because Justin’s dick was hard and he was getting off on it. What the fuck was wrong with him? How could he be enjoying this?).

Shut down. Don’t... don’t think about it.

His fingers brushed against Seth’s boot. He had never been in so much pain (pleasure pain pleasure), but, at its heart, all pain was the same: It was something to be endured. He endured it, and he traced the outline of Seth’s boot to its inner edge.

(It hurt, it hurt, fuck, it hurt.)

He touched cold metal. A familiar shape. It was beautiful beneath his fingertips: The second gun.

He cried out—not because he was on the verge of a sickening (euphoric) release—but because he knew Seth would relish it. Anything to distract him, so that Justin could inch the gun out past Seth’s shoe without him noticing.

There was no groping hand. There was no metal on his tongue. There were no bullets wrecking his insides. There were only his fingertips and the faintest glimmer of hope as he worked the gun free.

I trust you, Clay. You stubborn motherfucker. I trust you to save yourself.

With a final effort that took everything he had, Justin sent the gun sliding across the floor to where he hoped his brother was waiting to receive it.

I love you. Don’t screw this up.

 


 

Clay’s left arm was dead weight. He had lost the sensation of it, and, more alarmingly, he had lost its function. The rest of his body was one continuous bruise, and it had staged a protest at the abuse and given out.

Shane stood stolidly at his side, idly twirling a cigarette lighter. All it would take was a flick of his thumb... Clay had seen Game of Thrones; he knew how grisly fire would be as a way to go. But he hadn’t fully comprehended the anticipatory terror of waiting for the flames—the acrid taste of gasoline on his lips, the dizzying effect of the fumes. Each time Shane’s hand paused on the lighter, Clay’s pulse spiked. The fear alone was going to kill him.

No, it wasn’t. Everything that had been done to him... it was bearable.

What was being done to Justin was not.

He had thought it couldn’t get any worse than seeing Justin get shot in front of him... the horrific, sharp pops; the confusion on Justin’s face as his legs collapsed; those two neat little circles of blossoming blood.

It could get worse.

Because Seth had climbed on top of Justin—like he wasn’t even a person, like he was an unfeeling object—and now he was suffocating him to the brink of unconsciousness. Clay, instinctually, held his breath. He could not breathe again until Justin could. But, when the breath came, it wasn’t a relief because Seth shifted his knee down to the gunshot wounds and began to coax out reluctant whimpers. Clay could not imagine the agony. Medieval torture in the modern era. A three-dimensional (interactive!) slasher film.

It couldn’t get worse. It couldn’t.

There was always something worse. The universe trended towards chaos and disorder, and Justin’s trajectory—despite his parents’ best efforts to redirect it—relentlessly trended towards adversity and tribulation.

With deliberate slowness, Seth forced his gun into Justin’s mouth. It wasn’t sexual, Clay wouldn’t let his mind go there... until Seth started caressing Justin while he did it, and it suddenly was sexual.

The tinge of lust that overshadowed the tableau reminded Clay of Bryce. He liked to dominate people, too.

Clay pitched forward and retched. Nothing came up but the blood he had swallowed earlier. His stomach heaved relentlessly anyway, and the strain pulled at his fucked-up ribs and jostled his broken arm.

He heard Shane mutter uneasily, “Shit’s fucked up.”

Clay didn’t want to look at his brother. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He had to. If Justin couldn’t escape what was being done to him, how could Clay pretend it wasn’t happening? It would be a betrayal, to not suffer through it with him.

He gritted his teeth and raised his head, and he shuddered to see it: The way Seth was grinding down on Justin; the gun he was rhythmically thrusting into his mouth; his smile as he cupped Justin’s cheek and then brought their foreheads intimately together. It was Clay’s own personal hell.

And who knew where it would end?

He vomited for the second time, his entire body seizing. Bloody saliva dribbled down his chin. Justin screamed wretchedly and then went completely still. He looked... He looked...

No. No.

“Justin!” Clay called his brother back, and Justin, who could never deny Clay anything, listened. His fingers twitched. He wheezed. He was conscious and aware, but, smothered under Seth, he had no agency.

Clay had refused death its claim on Justin but simultaneously granted Seth more time with him. Given the choice, Justin had made it clear that he preferred an escape, and Clay had taken that choice away. He had to do something to make it meaningful. He had to kill Seth. His murderous rage was an animal locked inside him, whining, frantically scratching and trying to claw its way out.

He sniffed back mucus and snot and attempted to rise, wishing he could mute the obscene background chorus—the slick sounds of the gun going in, and Justin gagging as he was forced to take it.

It was the most nauseating sound—and Seth’s hand was... and he wouldn’t stop, he wasn’t going to stop...

Hannah was there in front of him, beautiful brown hair, face scrunched adorably, her pristine dress sparkling. He reeled back. What the fuck?

“You didn’t help me,” she told him sternly. “This is your second chance. Wake up and do something. Not something reckless. Something smart.”

Jeff appeared at her side, an exasperated smile on his face. “You got this, Clay. You were too late to help me, but it’s not too late this time.”

Of fucking course. Of course he would have a psychotic break. The debilitating stress of prolonged trauma had snapped his mind.

“Exsanguination is a bitch,” Hannah said. “I don’t recommend it. Especially not for the boy who was my first kiss.”

“Justin’s a dick,” Jeff added. “But a good guy underneath all that.”

“He’s an angel,” Hannah countered. “But the kind of angel who should stay on Earth. I’ve got dibs on Heaven.”

Hannah and Jeff turned, in sync, to study the depraved scene. Justin’s hand was outstretched, and his fingers were curling and uncurling convulsively along the floor. Death throes? Clay wondered with detachment.

“Wake up!” Hannah shouted at him, popping out of existence and reappearing at his elbow. “Helmet!”

Justin was patting Seth’s boot. It wasn’t a random movement; it was purposeful. He was doing something. Even while he was dying, he was doing something. He hadn’t given up.

“Teamwork.” Jeff pretended to swing a baseball bat. “That’s how you win the game.”

Clay glanced at Shane. Focus. The man wasn’t playing with the cigarette lighter. He wasn’t taunting Clay with it. It was a nervous tick. Like when Justin chewed on his pencil during his practice math tests, or when Jeff had folded and unfolded the edges of his rough drafts while Clay marked them.

Shane seemed unnerved by Seth’s perverse actions... or perhaps he was just irritated by the delay. (Surely someone must have heard those gunshots?) And with his buddy, Raymond, unconscious on the floor...

“Do you hear that?” Clay asked. “Sirens?” He didn’t hear anything, but the power of suggestion could be an ally, the only one he had left. “Our neighbor probably called the cops. She’s the leader of the Neighborhood Watch.” Please take the bait.

Shane did. “Seth, stop tormenting the kid. We should get going.”

In response, Seth cleared his throat and spat on Justin’s face, thrusting into him with renewed vigor, with brutal force. (He would dislocate his jaw, he would knock his teeth out.)

Fucking whore.

Shane stepped away, moving towards the den and the front windows. It was perfect timing. Clay didn’t know where it had come from or how Justin had managed it, but, unless it was a hallucination (a distinct possibility), there was a gun under his brother’s hand. The next second, it was sliding towards Clay, off target by four feet.

Hannah had disappeared, and so had Jeff, but they had never been there at all. They were dead. They were fucking dead.

Clay hadn’t helped Hannah. He had been too late to help Jeff.

Hannah...

Jeff...

Not Justin, too.

He wasn’t going to another funeral.

Clay dove for the gun. Time slowed and action unfurled, frame by frame.

Check the safety. It was off.

Pray the first round was already in the chamber. There was no way he could rack the slide one-handed.

Move closer to Seth. Seth, who was so intent on the sadistic assault, he had blocked out everything around him.

Take a stance.

Aim. Don’t hit Justin!

Fire.

Clay shouldn’t have been able to do it, and, later, he would never understand how he had. He couldn’t steady the gun because his left arm was immovable. He was trembling from pain and out of his mind with grief, and there was still a loaded gun in Justin’s mouth, and Seth was so, so close to his brother that a misplaced shot could have been a disaster.

But, somehow, adrenaline and purpose prevailed. It was so fucking simple: His brother was in pain, Seth was causing it, and Clay held the means to make it stop.

When he fired, Clay tried to brace for the recoil, but he didn’t anticipate how intense the recoil would be without a second hand to steady the gun. He flinched, and the first shot missed entirely. It turned out to be a blessing because, at the sound, Seth straightened, pulling away from Justin, and there was now an increased margin of error.

Clay took a quick breath and fired twice more in rapid succession. The second shot struck Seth in the neck, the third in his chest. Clay had been aiming for his head, but... it was close enough.

There was a spray of arterial blood and Seth fell to the side, his hands scrambling up to try to stop the gushing flow.

Clay’s ears began to ring. It didn’t faze him. In his peripheral vision, he saw Justin remove the gun from his own mouth (thank god). Clay couldn’t pause to help. He was too intent on his next target: Shane.

He locked the gun sights on the bastard’s head. “Get the fuck out of here. Or I will kill you.” Shane glanced at Seth, who was clutching at his throat—blood surging around the edges of his fingers—and then he looked at Raymond, who was unconscious (or dead?) by the couch. He made his decision and backed out of the room, hands upraised in an over-exaggerated gesture of compliance.

Clay didn’t move until he heard the front door close. There was a high-pitched whine in his right ear, but the ringing was already decreasing in intensity.

There was no time.

Clay cautiously approached Seth. His bloodshot eyes were bulging and, despite the pressure he had on his neck, he was gasping like a fish drowning on dry land. Good. Clay didn’t know what he had hit—carotid artery, jugular vein, trachea—but it was vital, whatever it had been.

Seth didn’t react as Clay squatted down, so he engaged the safety on the gun and laid it aside so he could search Seth’s pockets. He flung away the cigarette lighter before pulling out Seth’s phone.

He scooted the gun with his foot and moved back towards Justin, using his only good hand to hit the emergency call button. He couldn’t waste a second. The lower half of Justin’s shirt was soaked crimson, and the blood had trickled down to his jeans, staining the denim fibers black.

“911, what is the address of the emergency?”

Clay rattled the address off and then dropped his hand to tug Justin’s shirt to the side so the two gunshot wounds were covered. It was probably stupid at this point, to worry about gasoline contaminating the wounds, but Clay did worry.

When he adjusted the shirt, it pulled upward and... what the fuck?, Justin’s jeans were unbuttoned and his zipper was down. When had Seth done that? Had Clay missed something? Or blocked it out?

Clay yearned to take up his gun (his gun; he had claimed it when he had fired it) and go stand over Seth and fire repeatedly at non-lethal areas. Make him suffer. But, fuck, no, he couldn’t because—

He brought the phone back up to his ear. “My brother’s been shot. Twice. At close range. I need an ambulance.”

“How old is your brother?”

“17.”

Clay knew what he had to do next. It was loathsome and appalling, but he didn’t have a choice. He firmly pressed his knee down on Justin’s stomach where he knew the nearest entry wound was, the same way that Seth had done. But, unlike Seth, he did it to stem the bleeding and not to inflict pain. The pain came as a package deal, and Justin jerked in an uncontrolled spasm and cried miserably. Did he realize it wasn’t Seth who was leaning over him?

“Justin, it’s me. It’s me. Seth–, he’s dead.” (He wasn’t dead. Clay could hear him gurgling.)

The dispatcher’s voice droned in his ear. She was way too fucking calm. “Is the shooter still there? Can you get yourself someplace safe?”

“What? Yes, he’s here, but–... I shot him!”

“Who did you shoot?”

How could she fucking ask that? Had she misunderstood? “Not my brother! I didn’t shoot my brother!”

“Okay. I need you to stay calm. Can you give me your name?”

Disoriented and fighting nausea, Clay focused on the most important detail: “I need an ambulance!”

“I have an officer already en route to that location, and an ambulance is on its way. I need you to tell me what’s going on.”

“I did! My brother’s been shot in the stomach. There’s a lot of blood. Please... Please hurry.”

“Is he breathing? Stay on the phone—”

Clay tossed the phone to the side. The woman couldn’t help him, and he needed his hand. He yanked the zipper up on Justin’s jeans and fumbled to work the button closed. He was wasting time, he knew it, but he couldn’t leave Justin exposed and vulnerable this way. It was such a little thing, but, somehow, after what had happened—it was everything.

His task accomplished, he surged forward and compressed the second wound. He didn’t know if he felt it or heard it, but there was a disconcerting squish.

“Fuck, Justin. Fuck. Fuck.” Justin’s stomach was distended and soft. He was bleeding internally. Which organs had been hit? Which ones would be survivable?

Justin started mumbling and Clay thought he was saying his name (Clay, Clay, Clay), over and over but, no, he was asking, “Okay? Okay? Okay?”

“Will you shut up?” Clay snapped. “I’m okay.”

Justin smiled and his teeth were coated in red. “Don’t lie. You look like shit.”

It wasn’t funny. It was the furthest thing from funny, but Clay laughed because if he didn’t, the only alternative was to sob. The movement tore at his chest, so he stopped abruptly and said, “You should see yourself. You look like roadkill.”

Justin blinked and tears leaked down over his face, forming a watercolor painting made entirely of reds—maroon fading into scarlet, carmine crisscrossed with burgundy. He grasped Clay’s wrist and tried to pull it away from his stomach. “You’re hurting me.” It was almost an accusation, as if he couldn’t understand why Clay would do such a thing.

“I know. I’m sorry. Fuck, I’m sorry.” He kept up the pressure, refusing to retreat. He didn’t care what Justin said; he wasn’t going to stop.

Justin’s fingers relaxed on his wrist and dropped away. “I’m going to die.”

“No, you’re not!” Clay shook his head. “It’s fine. You’re okay. It’s not even that much blood.”

He is dying. Where the fuck was the ambulance?

“Please...” Justin’s skin was clammy and pale, and his breathing was becoming increasingly labored—fast and shallow. “Please... don’t... leave me.”

Clay huffed in irritation, desperately trying to hold it together. “I’m not going anywhere. Where would I go?”

Justin shivered violently as he struggled for air, and Clay wished he could give it to him. But it wasn’t oxygen he really needed—it was the blood to carry it.

There was nothing for Clay to do but press down and watch his brother weep silently.

What was the average response time for an ambulance?

Five minutes?

Seven minutes?

The paramedics probably wouldn’t even enter the house until a deputy arrived to secure the scene.

What was the response time for the Sheriff’s Department?

Justin’s tears had stopped. It must have been too much work to produce them. All of his remaining energy was focused on breathing. But, no, he still had enough left in him to raise his hand towards Clay, seeking comfort.

Fuck.

Clay’s resistance shattered, and he released the critical pressure so that he could grab Justin’s fingers. He brought their joined hands back down on Justin’s stomach, clutching at the cold fingers even as he forced them downward. Fresh blood welled up, a new stream running around the older coagulated clumps.

Justin’s lips were trembling. They were blue. “Clay–... I’m... I’m scared.”

The admission was the crushing culmination of a night of brutality, and it was also the keenest anguish, and Clay began to cry (or had he already been crying?). “Don’t be scared. I’m here, okay? I’m here. I won’t leave you.”

Justin’s eyes were locked on Clay’s, but he was far, far away. His lips moved, but there was no sound.

“Breathe, Justin,” Clay pleaded. “Breathe.”

Clay’s nose started bleeding again, and the drops rained down along with his tears—a baptism for a brother already drowning.

Justin might be beyond hearing him, but he needed him to know because this could be the last opportunity Clay ever had to say it: “You’re a shitty brother, Justin, but you’re my brother—the only one I’ll ever have. Mom and Dad... they—they love you. You are their son, the same as me. And I—” Clay curled his shoulders, and his voice broke. “I love you.” Those three words didn’t feel like enough, so he repeated them, and he formed each syllable with the utmost care: “I love you.”

There was only quiet. Quiet. Quiet.

Then there was the slightest brush of a thumb against the underside of Clay’s wrist, and he knew he had been heard.

Justin’s eyes slowly closed, and there was a peace to it, but there was a fragility too. A rending. A separation.

It’s okay, Justin. Rest. Rest.

Clay wanted to follow him, to seek for himself the shoreline of death and dip his toes into its surf and see why Hannah had found it appealing. It was a selfish thought, and he cast it away. There could be no release for him. He had to stay rooted where he was. He had to be the rope that kept Justin from wading out too far into that eternal, accursed ocean. It was his responsibility. If their places were reversed, Justin would do it for him.

“Don’t die.” Clay gently squeezed his brother’s fingers. “You better fucking listen to me.”

Justin didn’t respond. He couldn’t. He had been too badly hurt, and he had lost too much blood. But he was still breathing, and each successive, rasping breath was the only response Clay needed to hear.

“I won’t leave you,” Clay promised. “I won’t leave.”

So don’t leave me.

Or, if you do leave... if you can’t hold on... take me with you.

Chapter Text

Bill Standall had wanted to be a small town deputy for a reason. It was safer. It was less stressful. It would allow him more “time with the family,” which roughly translated meant: more fruitless hours struggling to bond with his youngest son. He and Alex, in any conversation, worked at cross-purposes—misunderstanding piled upon misunderstanding. Bill didn’t give up trying. It was all about the attempt.

And, as for the job itself, well, there were a lot worse places to work in law enforcement than Evergreen County. Bill wasn’t blind; he knew it wasn’t idyllic. The county had its share of problems—a large meth operation, a fair amount of petty crime, a bunch of irresponsible teenagers (but what county didn’t have those?). All in all, it had seemed a decent place to settle down.

Unfortunately, the most rotten locale in the whole town turned out to be Liberty High School. The school where he sent his son. The school that had almost cost him his son. He still held his breath every time he drew his sidearm. He still hesitated before opening the door to his son’s bedroom, half-afraid of what he would find inside. Or rather, whom he wouldn’t find.

A quarter of an inch to the right and the bullet from Bill’s service weapon would have robbed him of his child. He was haunted by a parallel version of his son, by a son who had not flinched when he fired the gun.

He had been lucky with Alex.

The Bakers hadn’t been lucky. He had talked with them, the night their daughter had died. Hannah Baker, and all the adults who had failed to help her, haunted him.

The Atkins hadn’t been lucky. Bill had been the officer to make the notification after their son’s fatal car accident. It was never easy, informing a relative. But, when it was a child, and a child whom his son knew to boot, it was oppressive and weighty—a task that he had to carry home with him. Jeff Atkins haunted him.

Hannah Baker. Jeff Atkins. Bryce Walker. Jessica Davis. Tyler Down. Montgomery de la Cruz.

Bill was haunted by the teenagers of his town. He did not want to have to deal with them in a criminal capacity ever again. In his line of work, what he wanted didn’t factor into the equation. He was a deputy, and he had to answer the call of duty.

Tonight, duty called. It was an easy one. Report of suspicious activity.

Complainant: Jeannette Henrick, frequent flyer. The 75-year-old woman called the sheriff’s station at least once a week, paranoid that the mob was after her money. Or that some miscreant was prowling around her garden. If Bill was available, and if he had no other calls, he liked to deal with her himself. His own mother had suffered from dementia at the end, and he used the compassion and patience she had taught him to guide his dealings with Jeannette. He liked to think he had a gentle touch.

Tonight’s complaint: While out walking her cat, Jeannette had seen a man moving a questionable amount of gasoline into a neighbor’s residence. She was sure he was up to no good. It sounded like something she had seen on one of her soap operas rather than something she had actually observed in reality.

Therefore, Bill wasn’t in a rush. He stopped for a coffee. He pulled over a young man for a busted taillight. He wrote a ticket for a woman who had been texting while driving; a firm scolding accompanied the ticket, to dubious results. It was standard fare for a night’s work: reckless drivers, the allure of caffeine.

“Two adam one. We have a report of possible gunshots.” The dispatcher reported the address. Bill must have misheard the location.

“Two adam one copy. Repeat that address.”

It was the street where Jeannette Henrick lived. The street where the Jensens lived. The street where Alex spent an ever-increasing amount of his time.

Bill put on his siren. “Two adam one en route. Any further information?” His hands were sweating on the steering wheel.

“Woman reports hearing loud pops, which she dismissed as firecrackers. She heard additional rounds three minutes ago.”

Damn. It was probably nothing. A false alarm. Kids being kids. “Safe and sane” fireworks—nothing illegal. But his cop’s instincts weren’t in agreement with those hypotheticals. Instead, they were telling him to get to the reported location, and fast.

The dispatcher’s voice crackled on his radio: “Two adam one, we have a new report of a 17-year-old injured male with multiple GSWs to the abdomen.” The address she gave him... It was the Jensens’ house.

Oh, God.

“Two adam one, be advised: caller indicated possible armed person. No description. We are dispatching additional units. Ambo 17 and Ambo 13 are en route.”

“Two adam one copy. I’m two minutes out.”

A 17-year-old gunshot victim.

Alex was 18.

But the reported age was often an approximation.

Should Bill call his wife? Alex was supposed to be having dinner with her. But sometimes, after school, his son went over to Zach’s house. Sometimes he went over to Justin’s house. There was no reason to suspect that he would bail on his mother, but Alex would go to extraordinary lengths to escape Carolyn’s nutritious cooking.

Please, no. Please, not Alex. Dear Lord in Heaven, not my son.

Not again.

His prayers were answered: It wasn’t his son.

But it was someone’s son.

Someone’s sons—plural. Every parent’s worst nightmare, times two.

 


 

Bill entered the house without backup. He would have entered the house without his badge and gun, if necessary. He didn’t sprint to the door and barge in recklessly, but he didn’t approach the scene as cautiously as he had been trained to do. Not when it was this house. Not when it was these occupants. Not when it was his son’s friends.

Bill had seen very few grisly crime scenes in his career thus far. Hannah Baker’s had been the worst. This eclipsed it.

It was almost eerie, walking those familiar floors, treating those familiar rooms as possible death traps. He had spent many a pleasant evening with Matt and Lainie Jensen, comparing parenting notes, trapping their sons in various lies.

Now—

Sharp smells. Gruesome visuals. Blood spatter. Bullet casings. Unsecured weapons.

Two perps. Bill immediately noted their positions. He scanned for any additional threats. None.

Two victims. Justin Jensen. Clay Jensen.

Justin was on the floor, unconscious, with Clay applying pressure to his abdomen. Two GSWs. Bullets, once they were inside you, ricocheted and bounced. It was all about where they went. There were a lot of vital organs, a lot of important real estate in the abdominal cavity, and Bill, even from a distance, saw a disconcerting amount of blood.

Bill’s first instinct was to go to the kids.

His first priority had to be the perps. He cuffed perp #1—adult male, Hispanic, unconscious, steady pulse, bleeding head injury. One holstered handgun, secured. He approached perp #2—adult male, Caucasian, unconscious, weak and thready pulse, one GSW to the neck, one GSW to the chest. No weapons.

Bill recognized him. Seth Massey, the town’s (rather pathetic) version of a drug kingpin. He was supposed to be in the Evergreen County Jail. How the hell had he ended up here? He looked likely (likely to die). Bill cuffed him too.

“Dispatch, two adam one. I need two additional ambos to my location. And all available units. Two suspects secure.”

Bill hurried over to the victims. Not the victims; he knew these kids! Clay Jensen looked up at him and his eyes were filled with such palpable hope, it nearly bowled Bill over. It was misplaced and undeserved. Bill wasn’t a savior. These boys had somehow neutralized the threat themselves. The game plan now was to keep them alive and go into a holding pattern until the medical professionals could step up to the plate.

“Clay? Look at me, son. I’ve got two men cuffed. Are there any other men in the house?”

“What?” The kid blinked at him. “No. Yes. No.”

“Which is it?” Bill was instantly on the alert, sidearm clenched tightly in his hand.

“There was another man. Shane. But he took off. I heard the car pull away.”

Shane. Bill remembered him—the man who had gotten off scot-free for bringing brass knuckles to a high school. There was truly no justice in the criminal justice system. It was frustrating, but Bill was only a cog in the machine. If the machine was gunked up further down the line, no amount of good work on his part could save the final product.

“Dispatch, scene is secure.” Bill gave as much information as he could about the third perp for a BOLO. Cold. To the point. Do his job. Dispatch promptly informed him that another officer, Brunstein, would begin to canvass the neighborhood. They had the situation under control. EMS could enter the premises immediately upon arrival.

They were sorely needed.

Justin and Clay were covered in blood—their hair, their faces, their arms, their clothing. It seeped from one boy to the other, a continuous trail of red. Justin’s blood. Clay’s blood. Their blood. Bill could not tell whose blood was whose. But he could easily tell who had lost the most.

Justin was the primary concern.

Bill knelt down and touched the bruised throat. There was a pulse but it was tachycardic. He had a good airway, but his breathing was rapid and strained—the panting respiration of a frightened and maimed animal. The ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation) successfully completed, Bill pressed down on Justin’s abdomen, surrounding the two clasped hands with both of his own. Bill didn’t rattle easily but, as a father of two sons, seeing how desperately Clay was holding Justin’s hand, it was almost too much for him to handle.

Bill studied Justin’s ashen face. His skin was white as bone. It wasn’t a promising sight. They needed swift transport to a level 1 trauma center. Bill was trained to deal with active bleeding, but he couldn’t bring massive internal hemorrhage under control.

He looks likely.

No! Bill pushed the thought away. He wouldn’t think like a cop. He’d think like a father. Justin had turned his life around. He still had a basketball championship to bring home. He had to graduate from high school. Make Alex smile. Compliment Carolyn’s cooking. Bill liked this kid immensely. He’d pull through.

And his adoptive brother, Clay, was one of the finest young men Bill had ever had the pleasure to meet. A good friend. A crusader for justice, for true justice. And if this crime scene was any indication, he was also a fighter. No, more than a fighter—given these odds, he was David facing Goliath.

He had paid the price for it. Bruises mottled his skin from his chin to his hairline. His nose was swollen. His left arm was a twisted monstrosity. His clothes were soaking wet, as if from a torrential downpour. The liquid could have been water, but it smelled like gasoline. Ipso facto, it was gasoline.

“Clay, hey, look at me, look at me. Were you shot?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure!” The raw fear was nakedly visible on his face.

“Where else are you hurt?”

Clay choked back a sob. “I’m not hurt! It’s–... it’s only Justin.”

Oh, kid. If you’re not hurt, then a pitbull’s a turtle. Bill understood the sentiment behind the words. It was a mental triage: find the wound of greatest urgency and concentrate on it. Clay’s greatest wound was Justin.

The Jensens had done a good deed taking in such a troubled kid. Alex had said it had been Clay’s idea. Clay and Justin... these two were a surprising pair, unlikely friends, even unlikelier brothers—blood brothers, now, Bill thought sadly, as he stared at the red carnage in front of him.

Reinetta, his fellow deputy, composed and hard as nails, entered the house. Two paramedics were quick on her heels. They were experts at a visual triage. One went straight to Justin. The second went to Seth.

Clay grew distressed and he began to shout. “Don’t help him! What are you doing? Let him die!” The second paramedic didn’t even spare them a glance.

Clay looked to Bill, eyes full of pain and anger. “Why is she helping him?”

“She has to, kid. It’s her job. Stay focused here, all right?”

The paramedic who had knelt down beside them was a young man, efficient and no-nonsense—admirable qualities for his profession. He assessed Justin’s airway, checked for a pulse, fixed a non-rebreather mask around his head, cut his shirt and jeans away, and applied a pressure bandage in the amount of time it would have taken Bill to successfully complete the first step.

The paramedic threw questions at Clay while he worked, asking about the type of gun, how close the range had been, how long ago Justin had lost consciousness, if he had any known allergies. Clay was a trooper. He was beaten to hell and emotionally traumatized and possibly going into shock himself, but damn if he didn’t have a cool and steady demeanor when answering the barrage of questions.

The second team of paramedics arrived. One came to assist with Justin. Bill pried Clay away so that the newly arrived paramedic could take over direct pressure on the wounds. The kid had a lot of fight left in him, and, for fear of hurting him further, Bill eventually had to let him go. He promptly crawled back over to his brother and tentatively placed his hand on Justin’s forehead, stroking absently at the curl of hair that was matted down with blood.

Bill didn’t have the heart to separate them. It wasn’t doing any harm. It kept Clay calm. The paramedics didn’t object, so it was okay by him.

Medical jargon was being thrown around, but some of the words were crystal clear: “head trauma,” “no exit wounds,” “hypovolemic shock.” The last was said often and with considerable urgency, and it precipitated a controlled rush to get Justin onto a stretcher with a warm blanket and out to the waiting ambulance.

Clay tried to follow. The kid couldn’t even get his legs under him, but it didn’t stop him from putting up a valiant effort. “I have to go with him.”

“You can’t go with him.” Bill gently held onto Clay. “You need to get medical attention yourself.” Adrenaline could do surprising things to your pain perception, and although Clay had claimed he had not been shot, Bill started to check him over anyway, running his hands along his arms and legs, searching for bullet wounds.

He lifted Clay’s drenched shirt and his mouth hardened when he saw the garish array of purple and blue contusions forming on the kid’s chest and stomach. Christ, how is he still moving? How is he not passed out on the floor?

Bill heard an odd sound and, with alarm, he realized Clay was swirling his hand through the puddle of blood, occasionally patting it like it was the person to whom it had once belonged. A rather disturbing coping mechanism, and one that he could not allow. Bill had a duty to preserve the integrity of the crime scene.

He maneuvered Clay’s arm away from the evidence and resettled it in his lap, holding it there while he reached into his pocket. He handed Clay a pen to distract him. “I need you to hold this for me. Okay? It’s very important.”

Clay nodded and he stared numbly at the pen and at his shaking hand, which was dripping red onto the floor. He was trembling all over.

“I promised Justin I wouldn’t leave him.” Clay’s face was the very definition of misery.

“Well, then, he knows, son. He knows.” Bill removed his jacket and placed it around Clay’s shoulders. “The paramedics are going to take care of him. And Justin, he’ll remember what you said. He’d want you to look after yourself, wouldn’t he?”

Clay shook his head. “He’s a fucking idiot.”

How was that, in any way, a valid response to his question? Bill tilted Clay’s head to get a better look at his pupils. They were equal in size.

Clay took a shuddering breath. “My parents. Did you call them? Seth... Seth said that he had someone following them.”

“Where are they?”

“At Acq-, Acquerello? The... the Italian restaurant.”

Bill reported the information to dispatch, and he ran his free hand over Clay’s scalp, probing lightly for any hidden injuries. “We’ll get in contact with them. They’ll be okay. And so will you. It’s over. You’re safe now.”

“What about Justin?” Clay asked quietly. “Was I too late? Was that–” He gestured at the circle of red. “Too much blood?”

Bill’s eyes flicked to the (rather large) pool, and he mentally tried to judge the quantity. “You did everything right. Justin’s headed to the best trauma center in the state. They’ll take care of him.” Policing 101: Lies, reassurance, and other bullshit.

It was chaos. Officers were swarming the residence. The crime scene investigators had arrived. Seth and the other perp were being carried off on stretchers, escorted by deputies who would ride in the ambulances with them. An additional paramedic rushed over with an EMT to take care of Clay.

If the world were a fair and just place (it wasn’t), the second ambulance ride would have been Clay’s. This kid was in seriously bad shape. Bill didn’t care that the perps were in worse shape—they didn’t deserve priority after the damage they had wrought in this home.

Bill didn’t spook easily but seeing the EMT do an immobilizing splint on Clay’s broken arm... It made him queasy. It made Clay vomit, which sparked a round of questions about the gasoline.

“Did you swallow any gasoline?” Clay didn’t think he had.

“Did you taste gasoline in your mouth?” Clay knew that he had.

“Did you vomit before?” Yes, multiple times.

The paramedic did not seem to like that answer. “I know it’s hard to control it, but we don’t want you to vomit. We don’t want any gasoline possibly getting into your lungs, okay?”

Clay swallowed convulsively. The paramedic affixed an oxygen mask, but Clay combatively ripped it off. “I need to get to the hospital. My brother... Can you tell me... Do you know how he is?”

The paramedic replaced the oxygen mask. “Let’s focus on you right now.”

Clay started to hyperventilate.

“Your brother’s in good hands,” the EMT soothed. “I know all the doctors and nurses at Mercy. They’re the best of the best. I need you to slow your breathing and take deep breaths, okay? Can you take a breath and count to five?”

Clay seemed to be wavering on a tightrope, teetering between exhaustion and hyperactivity. The former won out and he curled forward and let the paramedics do their job. Bill stayed by his side, one hand resting on his back, as the paramedic checked him carefully for trauma.

When she finished, she glanced at Bill. “We need to follow decontamination protocol before we transport him. We’ll need to remove and double-bag his clothing and then rinse the gasoline off his body.”

Bill nodded and took that as his cue to move away and give his son’s friend some dignity and privacy. “I’ll be right over here, kid.”

He gave his report to the crime scene investigators and then flagged Reinetta. “I know the parents of these kids, Matthew and Lainie Jensen. I have their contact numbers. Deputies are headed to their last known location, but see if you can reach them. If you do, tell them to head straight to Mercy Hospital. I’m going to ride in the ambulance with the vic.”

“You got it. We have a witness outside, Jeannette Henrick, who managed to get the license plate on the vehicle.”

“They get out an APB?”

“Yes. He won’t get far. We’ll get him.”

“Good.” Bill had to wait for Clay to be ready for transport, so he allowed himself a minute of selfishness. He called his wife. The local news station was already outside the house reporting on the incident. Which meant it would soon be blowing up on social media. It was important that Alex hear about what had happened in a controlled environment, with his wife present to ensure that he didn’t come to any harm.

When it was time to go, Bill climbed into the ambulance next to the stretcher. He held Clay’s hand for the entire ride. The kid had a bruising strong grip, and he never stopped asking about his brother. Bill conjured up every affirming and hopeful statement that he could, the same way the nurses and doctors had done for him when Alex’s prognosis was so uncertain a year ago.

Bill didn’t believe what he said, but he could tell Clay believed him. It was a child’s comfort, but everyone needed such comfort at a time like this—regardless of whether or not it would turn out to be true in the end.

 


 

Lainie was browsing the dessert menu when Matt’s hand began to shake. The night had been wonderful so far—the ambience was romantic, the food was molto buono, his wife was enchanting. It was inexplicable, it made no sense, but... something was wrong. He had a crushing feeling of impending doom. Claustrophobia. Tension.

For no reason at all.

Matt pulled out his phone. His most recent text was from their next-door neighbor, Marissa.

I saw all the ambulances and police cars at your house. I'm hoping your family is okay. Please let me know if there is anything I can do.

Matt shot up, knocking his chair over backward. Ice instantly crystallized in his chest, and he broke out in a cold sweat.

“Matt?” Lainie dropped the menu.

He handed his phone to Lainie so she could read the text. “Call the boys. Right now, Lainie.”

Her face lost its color when she looked at the screen, and she immediately had the phone to her ear as she began to rush to the exit. Matt gave a passing waiter his credit card and he didn’t know what he said as an explanation (it wasn’t important). The restaurant could keep his damn credit card.

The car ride home was a blur. Trying to obey the rules of the road, listening helplessly as Lainie called Clay for the third time (no response), called Justin for the second time (no response), called the Sheriff’s Department (it was busy).

“Matt.” Lainie’s voice was full of panic. “You have over a dozen missed calls and seven voicemails.”

She started to listen to them. “Oh my god, Matt. Amber... she said that Seth is coming to the house. He's after Justin.”

Was this a nightmare? “Seth’s in jail!”

Marissa’s text: I saw all the ambulances and police cars at your house.

“Should I call the jail?” Lainie’s question was desperate, and it made her sound like a lost little girl. “No, I’ll call the Sheriff again. Seth’s in jail. He’s in jail. I would know if...”

Matt had to listen to a frustrating one-sided conversation, and, as he listened, images coalesced in his mind, unbidden: Two silver caskets. Two headstones. Olivia and Andy Baker offering their condolences.

“No, I’m not trying to make a report. I need information!”

“Yes, that’s my address, and my children are there.”

“17 and 18.”

“Please put someone else on the phone. Let me talk to your supervisor.”

“What do you mean you can’t release that information? They’re my children!”

“Is Bill Standall working tonight?”

“Please. Please. I’m begging you.”

“No, do not put me on hold!”

They were three minutes away when Matt heard the sirens—a cacophony of screeches and jarring, discordant pitches. The wails were like the sounds of a crying mother. Or a crying father.

They were two streets away when he saw the riotous carousel of lights—ominous strobes of red and blue.

Finally, they reached their street.

Lainie threw his phone at him and Matt had not even stopped the car before she threw herself out of the passenger side in a mad rush towards their home. Their home, which was cordoned off with crime scene tape.

 


 

Alex’s finger hovered over the call button. He retreated. Approached. Hovered. Twitched. “Fuck you, Justin.” Pressed call.

No answer.

It was the fourth time he had tried calling. Justin had told him to call, and then he couldn’t be bothered to pick up the phone. Maybe Clay had confiscated it until Justin could give an adequate answer as to how the Civil War was a turning point in American history from a military, social, economic, and political viewpoint? If that was the case, Justin would never get his phone back.

Alex would be stuck pining for eternity.

He hated that every minute he wasn’t with Justin, his thoughts wandered in his direction. He had zero control over it, and if it had been anyone else but Justin, he would have been annoyed on behalf of his neural pathways. Because there were more important and valid concerns in his life than a green-eyed, 5’11”, decently attractive, grade-A asshole. Especially one who was (definitely) interested in him but had put an (indefinite) moratorium on romantic relationships.

Alex composed a poignant text—a succinct love letter and a subtle fuck-you: this is stupid. i like you. i don’t care how fucked up u are. He added the alien emoji, which could have meant anything but Justin would know it meant ‘love, Alex’ because the emoji was tattooed on Alex’s forearm and Justin was always tracing it with his fingers.

Alex stared at the screen and then he deleted the text and placed his phone under his history textbook and scooted his laptop closer. No more distractions. Only studying.

And maybe a little music. Classical music for optimum focus.

It was a mistake. How was it possible that a cello, a fucking cello!, reminded him of Justin? If anything, Justin was a trumpet—loud and obnoxious, and incapable of being played sensitively. But, no. The cello was how Justin felt to Alex, and the bow running over the strings was a painful longing. A ceaseless ache, intimacy laid bare, the lie of Justin’s smile. Mournful but... beautiful.

His mom knocked on the door and entered his room without permission. Typical mom behavior to not appreciate the contradiction. She sat on his bed and, by the look on her face, he thought maybe she had found his stash of chocolate (or else the condoms in his sock drawer—not that he would have any chance to use them in the near future). “Honey, your dad called.”

“And...?”

His mom’s face was splotchy and her nose was red. Had she been crying? “Something happened, Alex, and your dad wanted you to hear it from me before misinformation starts spreading.” She paused, and it was awkward and weird. What the fuck was going on?

“Three men broke into the Jensens’ house tonight.”

Alex frowned. “A robbery? Seriously?” The idea was ludicrous. What did the Jensens have that was worth stealing? Clay’s comic books?

His mom didn’t seem capable of continuing. There was something loaded in the air, something intense and revolting. Alex didn’t like the way it clung to his skin. “I’m going over there tomorrow, so Clay and Justin can tell me–”

“Alex, honey. You can’t go over there.” Her posture changed, and her lips thinned. He knew what she was thinking: You’re fragile and must be handled with care.

He was a fucking adult. He didn’t need kid gloves. “What happened? Is Dad over there now? Because I tried calling...”

His mom’s voice was bleak. “Your friends were hurt. They’re at Mercy.” She lifted her hand to his hair before dropping it—a marionette with the strings abruptly cut.

“They’re okay though, right?” Alex wanted to pick up his phone and call Clay. Clay, who would actually respond, who would answer even if he was at the hospital, even if he had a few bruises or a sprained wrist or something completely fucking minor and treatable.

His mom shook her head helplessly. “Your dad couldn’t say much. Clay is stable.”

“Stable?” Stable was formal, clinical. It suggested injuries that weren’t minor. “What about Justin?” It was like Alex had slipped on ice. Limbs flailing, suspended in midair, unbalanced and out of control. “Mom, what about Justin? Tell me! Fucking tell me!”

She flinched. “Alex, you need to calm down.”

“Okay! Tell me. Please, Mom.”

The words tumbled out of her mouth, harsh and choppy. “Justin was severely hurt.”

“Hurt how?”

“I don’t know. Your dad couldn’t tell me anything concrete, not until Matt and Lainie allow the information to be released. But... it’s bad, Alex.”

“‘Bad,’” he echoed. “What does that even mean?”

In a rush, as if speed could possibly lessen the blow, she said, “Critical condition.”

Alex had once been in critical condition, and he had nearly died. He smashed his hand on the keyboard of his laptop so that the fucking cello would stop its lament. His gaze fell on his history textbook, which had stained and curled edges from the time Justin had spilled a bottle of coke on top of it. Alex seized the book and threw it across the room. The violence felt good, so he knocked his laptop onto the floor and shoved all his papers and notebooks after it.

“Alex! Alex!”

His mom moved away from him, hands covering her mouth, and she was openly crying now. Shame quickly snuffed out his rage. He had fractured apart and let his demons loose. It was justified, but it wasn’t acceptable. “I need to see them. Clay and Justin. I need to see them.”

“I know,” his mom said gently. “I’ll take you to the hospital. But I’m not driving you anywhere unless you’re calm and in control.”

“I am calm!” He wasn’t calm. Justin was... Justin was... Justin was supposed to sit beside Alex tomorrow and doodle in the margins of the history study guide while Clay quizzed them. He was supposed to mock his brother for memorizing the date of every Civil War battle when they wouldn't even be on the exam. He was supposed to share a bag of chips with Alex and maybe, maybe, brush his fingers (accidentally) against Alex's when he reached for another handful.

Those might-have-beens evaporated, replaced by critical condition. How could Alex be fucking calm? He couldn’t. But he could reach that hollow place inside him. The numb place. The place where the past was the past. Where whatever had happened had happened. Where the future didn’t matter.

Sluggish detachment seeped into the cracks where anger had been. He was fine with numbness. It was an old friend.

 


 

As his mom drove through the foggy, depressing night, Alex counted the streetlights and he cradled his phone in his hand. He knew he wouldn’t get a reply, but his fingers skimmed the keyboard anyway.

Alex: justin?

Alex: u asshole. txt me back

Alex: i’ll wait but i won’t wait 4 you if you die

Alex: don’t die

Alex: clay needs u

Alex: i’m at hospital. waiting

Alex: fuck this drama bullshit. i won’t cry for u

Alex: waiting

Alex: waiting

 


 

Jess had her history book strategically propped open on her lap, hiding the fact that she was painting her nails rather than studying. Her mom hadn’t noticed; she was too busy scolding Elijah and Jonah for catapulting their action figures at each other from opposite sides of the couch. Her dad hadn’t noticed either; he was too busy watching the local news and giving his commentary on “the degrading morals of American society.” It was the evening routine, and it was familiar and dull. At least she had plumberry nail polish to amuse her.

“We are receiving breaking news out of Evergreen County. Police are investigating a possible home invasion...”

Jess snorted. Whose television had been stolen now? And which window had they trustingly left wide open? She touched up her index finger, a creamy red with hints of plush pink.

“...report that shots were fired...”

Jess looked up at the TV.

“Behind me, there is plenty of police activity. Detectives are trying to collect whatever evidence...”

Jess dropped her brush and it left a (well-deserved) plumberry smear across the portrait of Robert E. Lee. She grabbed the bottle of polish before it could further desecrate her textbook.

“Sources are telling me that at least three individuals were transported by ambulance, but we don’t know, at this point...”

The camera panned, and the scene came into clearer view. She jumped off the sofa. “That’s Clay and Justin’s house!”

“Are you sure?” her mom asked, moving to the edge of her chair and squinting at the TV. “It’s hard to see. It’s too dark. It could be one of their neighbors.”

“Yes, I’m sure!” She looked at her dad. “Dad?”

He nodded brusquely. “Let me make some phone calls.” Jess appreciated that her dad didn’t dismiss her or give her senseless platitudes. He had evaluated the situation and trusted her input. He would seek reliable external information, and then he would confirm or deny what the news was reporting.

Jess swallowed. Her mouth was sickly sour. It couldn’t happen again. Junior year had already trampled her friends to pieces, a stampede of despondency that had ruined (and ended) lives. Senior year was supposed to be better, and it had been, thus far. It had even been fun. Was that only because they had been careening down a mountain, oblivious to the bramble patch at the bottom?

She visualized her favorite spot on the docks—the water lapping against the piers, the seagulls greeting the grey dawn, the breeze tickling her hair. She built it up, one wooden beam at a time. A place of safety.

A tiny hand touched her elbow. “Hey, Jess?”

The docks disappeared, replaced by two warm, brown eyes. They were as comforting as the imagined sunrise had been. “Yeah?”

Her little brother wrapped his arms around her waist. “Do you think there was a gunfight?”

“What?” Jonah piped up. “Cool!” He formed his little hands into a gun. “Bam-bam. You’re dead, ‘Lijah!”

“Stop it!” Jessica didn’t usually snap at her brothers, but some things should never be taken lightly. “This isn’t a game! Bullets kill people, Jonah, and then those people are gone. Forever. Like our dog, Pixie. You remember Pixie?”

Jonah dropped his hands. He looked like he was about to cry. “Sorry, Jessie.”

Jess kissed Elijah’s curly head and then she kissed Jonah’s adorable (though somewhat sticky) face, and she tried not to let her mind go where it wanted to go, which was to Hannah.

Her dad came back into the room. “I couldn’t reach Bill, but I talked to Carolyn Standall.” His face was unreadable, but something about his tone made a lump form in her throat.

“Daddy?”

“Jessica, get your coat. We’re going to the hospital.”

 


 

Zach was sorting his biology flashcards when Alex texted him. He stared blankly at the phone as text after text trickled in, each more horrible than the last.

“Zachary? I said no distractions this weekend.” His mom approached, frowning. “What is it?”

“Justin and Clay, they’re... they’re in the hospital?” He made it a question because it was a question. What happened?

“Justin? Why am I not surprised?” She scrubbed at a non-existent spot on the flawless dining room table. “What’s that boy gotten himself into now? And, what’s worse, he’s dragging his new brother into it.” She shook her head in distaste. “Lainie has her work cut out for her.”

“No, Mom. Alex says it was a break-in, and... someone hurt them. And it’s... it’s bad.” Zach grabbed his jacket and searched the pockets. Where the fuck had he put his keys?

His mom walked over to the counter, and he heard his keys jangle as she scooped them up. “You can’t leave the house. You need to concentrate on your exams. You have your scholarships to think about.”

How did his mother do it? How could she detach so easily? Alex wouldn’t text him It’s bad without a good reason. He knew Zach’s stance on sending ambiguous texts.

He held his hand out impatiently. “Is that what you did after you heard about Dad’s accident? You put the phone down and then finished your work for the day?”

“Zachary Shan-Yung Dempsey!”

Zach met her stare, and he didn’t budge an inch—physically or emotionally. “Alex and his mom are headed to the hospital. I’m going to meet them there.”

His mom reluctantly handed him his car keys. Ever since he had turned 18, she had relinquished some of the tight control she had previously held over his life. She respected his autonomy, but it didn’t stop her from giving her input on every decision he made. “I know you have good intentions, but if it is something serious, you’ll be getting in the way at the hospital. You should wait until the Jensens invite you. Their family needs privacy.”

“Privacy? They need support! Justin was here every day after Dad died, did you forget that? And Clay shows up for everybody, at any time, no questions asked.”

Zach was used to his mother treating his feelings as if they didn’t matter, but his friends didn’t do it. They respected them. Encouraged them. His brain was a veritable explosion of feelings, and he let them burst and spark.

“These are my best friends. If there’s even the slightest chance that I can help, then I’m going to the hospital. You can’t stop me.”

She didn’t stop him. Instead, she began stacking his flashcards into two neat piles so that she could make a path for her dishtowel. Zach left the house. He saw his mom through the front window, scrubbing away.

I hope my friends are in as good a shape as that fucking table. Given Alex’s texts, he doubted it, and it scared him. He tried to stave off panic by repeating one irrational thought, over and over: Clay wouldn’t let anything happen to Justin; Justin wouldn’t let anything happen to Clay. Clay wouldn’t let anything happen to Justin; Justin wouldn’t...

 


 

Mercy Hospital was simultaneously hope (it was where their children needed to be — its sole mission was the preservation of life) and the destroyer of hope (it was where their children could die — it had a built-in morgue).

Lainie didn’t wait for the ER receptionist to invite them to speak. “Our children were brought in by ambulance. Last name Jensen. Clay and Justin Jensen.”

She waited. Her already diced nerves felt like they were being shredded through a cheese grater. Matt took off his glasses, wiped them on his sleeve, put them on again.

What if...

What if one of them had been shot?

What if both of them had?

“Clay Jensen is in ER Bay 3. And Justin Jensen... due to his age, I’ll need to see ID.”

Numbly, Lainie passed her driver’s license over, as did Matt.

“OK, he’s been taken for emergency surgery.”

“Surgery? Do you know why?”

The receptionist was tight-lipped, kind but professionally distant. “Emergency laparotomy. I can direct you to the surgery waiting room. They will have the latest information for you there. First, I need some insurance information and signatures of consent.”

Matt slammed his fist on the desk. “For god’s sake, can’t the paperwork wait? These are our children!”

“I’m sorry, sir. Hospital policy.”

Lainie had never seen her husband so emotionally vulnerable in front of a stranger. He was railing and spiraling, devastated in his anger. “Do you have any idea what our living room looks like right now? A slaughterhouse! One that’s been doused in gasoline! Our kids aren’t here because they fell off their bicycles. It was...” He coughed, and Lainie could see tears sliding beneath his glasses. “... a violent crime.”

The receptionist gave them a pitying look. “I only need one parent or legal guardian for the paperwork. One of you can go ahead...”

Lainie looked at Matt. He looked at her. There was a beat of tense silence. Indecision. They couldn’t clone themselves and both go to both places.

Emergency laparotomy sounded a lot scarier than ER Bay 3. Lainie’s gut reaction, upon hearing which son was where, had been relief: Thank you. Thank you. She would hate herself for it later and question if she was even fit to be a mother. Was this her Sophie's choice moment?

It wasn’t! They were both her children. It wasn’t an either/or situation. She could be glad that Clay was not in emergency surgery, while still being devastated that Justin was. It was just—

She had carried Clay inside her belly for nine months. She had given birth to him, heard his very first gasp for air and his very first cry. They had been linked by an umbilical cord that, once cut, had left its invisible ties. She had witnessed, and cherished, every milestone of his life. For 18 years, he had been her raison d'être.

Justin was a new addition to the family. Lainie had known him for nine months in total and had been his legal mother for three. He was her son. She loved him, adored him, but, God help her, her motherly instinct was: Clay first, Justin second. It was deplorable. Oh, she knew how deplorable it was, especially with Amber Foley’s missed voicemail stuck on an endless loop inside her head.

Baby? Are you there? It’s not my fault. I didn’t mean it.

Baby? Are you there? It’s not my fault. I didn’t mean it.

Why hadn’t Matt answered the damn phone? Why had Lainie encouraged him to ignore it?

She needed to see her baby. Clay. How could she say it?

Matt decided for her, and his decision aligned with what her heart cruelly wanted. He put his hand on her shoulder. "I'll do the paperwork and then go to Justin. You go to Clay."

When she heard the words said out loud, a semi-truck slammed into her and she couldn’t breathe. Maybe it was overcompensation for her initial dark impulse, or maybe it was a fierce, protective love, but, suddenly, she wanted the reverse: She wanted to go to Justin, not to Clay.

Those bullet casings... the blood... had it been Justin’s blood?... emergency surgery.

Justin needed her more.

“Matt, I should... I should–, Oh, god, I can't choose to be with one, and not the other.”

Matt pulled her into a hug, crinkling her dress, and she buried her face in his suit jacket and pounded her fist against his chest—self-recrimination directed outward.

After a minute, Matt jerked back. “God, what are we doing? We can’t stand here like this! Justin’s in surgery. Clay isn’t. If he's conscious, he needs his mother.”

He needs his father, too. But they couldn’t be in two places at once. There was no correct solution to this dilemma. They could only make a choice and commit to it.

"Matt, text or call me as soon as you hear anything."

“I will. As soon as you see Clay, text me how he is. Don't make me wait, Lainie. And... tell him I love him.”

“I will.” Lainie could sense her husband’s terror. He carried it in every pore. His eyes had lost their lights. He’s bracing for the worst.

Her fingers, of their own volition, sought her wedding ring. Her ring—December 7th. It was still their wedding anniversary. Would it also become the anniversary of their son's death? She would kill Seth. She would kill the thing that had attacked her children. She knew the law: 'There shall be no defense of diminished capacity, diminished responsibility, or irresistible impulse.' But what jury would convict a distressed mother for taking a monster out of the world?

As a nurse led her through the ER, images of Justin and Clay blurred in front of her. They were three steps ahead, five steps ahead, ten steps ahead and receding, receding into the far distance.

”Not too far, boys! Please, don’t stray too far.”

Their fates weren’t interconnected, but, to her, Justin and Clay felt tethered together, enmeshed and inseparable. Losing one would mean losing part of the other. Maybe that was why she couldn’t choose, or why she could choose. Because there wasn’t really any choice.

It wasn’t: one or the other.

It was: not one without the other.

 


 

Bill Standall was standing like a sentinel at the foot of the hospital bed, talking to a fellow deputy. Lainie could tell he wanted to speak to her, but she waved him off. Not yet. Ever since Matt had handed her his phone at Acquerello, all she had needed was to find her two children, alive. At long last, she had found one, alive.

But he was also alone. Halved. Splintered. And terribly, terribly hurt.

Lainie had to look away. She couldn't help herself. Another weakness. Another failure.

Clay asked, “Is Justin dead?”

That snapped her out of it. She closed the distance between them and carefully sat on the edge of the hospital bed. “No. No. Your dad is with him.”

Where was it safe to touch? She settled her hand on his cheek and rubbed a half circle like she had done when he was a little boy. She ignored the dampness against her skin, and she looked into his sleepy, drug-glazed eyes. "Justin’s alive. I promise you.”

He was alive. She had decreed it to be so. A dismissal with prejudice—a case that could not be brought back to court.

Clay grimaced, whether out of pain or disbelief, she didn't know. "Well, if he dies, we should bury him next to Hannah. Next to the girl he helped kill. Or beside Jeff." He smiled. "They should reserve one corner of the graveyard for jocks who were obsessed with getting me laid. I could visit them at the same time. And Seth... if he dies, let's put him there too. It'd be fucking perfect. Did you see my fingers?"

Lainie had seen them. She had seen everything. His splinted arm. His swollen nose. His blackened face. Wires and IV lines. Oxygen tubing. Machines that hissed and whirred and beeped.

"Ow, fuck. They're broken. Seth broke them. It was not fun. Do you want to see what he did?” Clay started pulling backward on his taped fingers. She grabbed his arm to stop the demonstration.

“Clay, don’t-, don’t mess with them. Leave them there.”

“Why are you crying, Mom?” He played with the loose strands of her hair. “Justin was crying, too. I was hurting him, and he was crying. He wouldn’t stop crying. Or bleeding. I didn’t know how to make him stop.” He laughed. “If he dies, he'll stop.” He kept laughing, and his laugh bordered on hysterical.

Lainie leaned forward to embrace him—the urge to soothe overwhelming any impulse not to cause pain—but Clay rejected the touch and firmly pushed her back. He started rambling about color palettes: the light-dark contrast of a black gun against pale skin, the hue and tint of Justin’s blood as it deoxygenated (from bright red to blackish-red), the science behind combustion and why it caused flames to transition from red to orange to yellow to white.

She listened and, as she listened, she clutched the handrail, her shoulders quaking. The tears came easily because so many others had already paved the way.

Dear God, what has been done to my children?

Chapter Text

Lainie would never forget the names of the men who had invaded her home.

Raymond Martínez. He was at Mercy Hospital. He had a cracked skull and a severe concussion, but he would recover. Probability of neurologic complications: 11%. Lainie didn’t care about his prognosis. His brain could rot in his skull.

Shane Cooper. He had fled, but he had been swiftly apprehended. Lainie knew some excellent prosecutors who would throw the book at him. First-degree burglary. Two counts of aggravated robbery. Battery with a six-year enhancement for great bodily injury. Accessory to torture. Accessory to attempted first-degree murder. Shane could rot in prison.

And then there was—

Seth Massey.

Seth Massey. He died at 11:18 p.m. Lainie cried when she heard the news, which seemed an injustice: to have to cry for her sons’ would-be murderer. Her tears weren’t for Seth; they were for Clay. Her 18-year-old child, who felt things so deeply, had taken a life. It would change the way he saw himself and the way he perceived himself to be treated and valued by others.

Lainie’s remorse over Seth’s death was fleeting. It ceased as soon as she heard Clay tell the detectives, “Seth was going to take his time with Justin. And then... and then he was going to set me on fire.”

Seth could rot in Hell. Good riddance.

 


 

Alex’s head was white noise. His mouth was sandpaper. His heart beat out a stale rhythm. Every time dread or anxiety surfaced, he barricaded it deep, deep down.

His stomach was cramping and churning. It was Hannah all over again.

“Did you find anything?” His mom’s voice came as if from underwater. She appeared at his side, carrying what looked like half of the gift shop in her hands.

He held up his gift: two connected teddy bears holding an oversized heart between them. “Clay and Justin.” He caressed the plush fur; it reminded him of Justin’s hair after a shower—unruly and curly and whisper soft. “The cuter one’s Clay, obviously.”

His mom smiled, but it didn’t register as a smile. It was too sad. “Do you want to buy two sets? One for each of them?”

Alex contemplated the bears. How much force would it take to tear the stitches and rip them apart?

“No,” he said firmly. “They can share this one. They share everything else.” Mostly because Justin doesn’t know any better.

Clay had once caught Justin using his toothbrush, and he had, understandably, flipped his lid and obsessively labeled everything in their bathroom according to ownership. (“It’s a fucking toothbrush, Alex. I don’t get what Clay’s deal is. I just grab the first one I see.”)

Justin had retaliated by deliberately falling asleep on Clay’s bed for the next week. Alex didn’t know why Clay hadn’t seen the simple solution: Wait until Justin was sleeping. Then, shove him off the bed. Clay had instead chosen to leave Justin stranded without a ride after summer school. It had been a Friday, and he had subsequently freaked out when Justin hadn’t come home. The Sheriff had been called. It had been a disaster. (Justin had turned up two days later. No one knew where he had been.)

Sometimes, they brought out the worst in each other. But, mostly, they were the relationship equivalent of a ham and pineapple pizza. Or chicken and waffles. Or a chili chocolate bar. They shouldn’t have worked, but there was a stroke of genius in the combination.

Milk and cacao—that was another excellent pairing, and his mother detested it. Which was why Alex wondered if she had been replaced by a changeling imposter when most of her pile of goodies turned out to be milk chocolate: M&Ms, Peanut Butter Cups, Milky Ways, Hershey Bars. And also... Sour Patch Kids?

“Uh, Mom, doesn’t sugar stress our cells and weaken our immune system?”

Her lips flattened into a thin line. “Hershey Bars are Lainie’s favorite. I’ve been trying to get her to switch to dark chocolate, but it’s a losing battle. And, as for the rest, I think your friends need a bit of a pick-me-up.” She touched his elbow. “The Sour Patch Kids are for you. As a special treat.”

Alex tried to generate enough enthusiasm to show the slightest bit of appreciation. He couldn’t manage it. The Jensens kept their pantry well stocked with candy. Justin always included Sour Patch Kids on the grocery list, and he only ever opened the bag when Alex came over to visit. Even then, he wouldn’t eat any unless Alex gave him one, which Alex did because he liked the face Justin made when he chewed something sour—like he wanted to chase the taste out of his mouth by sucking on something else. Alex had more than a few ideas of what that could be, and while some of his fantasies were dirty, the pervading one was rather tame: a blueberry lollipop that would color Justin lips a greenish-blue that would complement his eyes.

Blue. Justin had been wearing a blue shirt when they had parted ways. With blue jeans. Alex had liked them. They were probably ruined now. Was Justin’s body ruined, too? Had he been in pain? Dumb stupid fucking question. Of course he had; he’d been shot! Had he seen Clay get hurt? Had he been unable to help him? For Justin, that would have been the worst pain.

Alex’s mind was spiraling, so he focused on the yellow box of candy. He would give up Sour Patch Kids if it meant Justin and Clay could continue breathing. He’d give up solid food. He’d go back to using his cane. He’d go back to being bedridden. He’d...

He wished he could barter someone for Clay and Justin’s lives; that would be productive. Instead, he was stuck here, stuck buying overpriced teddy bears and engaging in inane conversation. “It’s scary that you know what Mrs. Jensen’s favorite candy bar is. You two spend a freakish amount of time together.”

“So do you and Justin.” She pulled him in for what had to be her hundredth hug of the night. Once satisfied, she selected three dozen balloons and two dozen flower arrangements to be reserved for delivery once Clay and Justin were assigned hospital rooms.

The cashier rang up the purchases, and Alex clenched his fists until his nails dug into his palms. “Is this what it was like? For you and Dad – the night I shot myself? And the nights after... when I was comatose?”

His mom drooped and wilted in front of him, and Alex hated to think of the innumerable tears she must have cried for his sake while he had been blissfully unaware.

“Oh, honey. It was so much worse. Indescribable.”

“I’m sorry.” He had fucked her up. His dad, too. And the wheel was coming around to show him what the other side felt like.

It was—

Evisceration.

Vivisection.

And heartbreak.

All at once.

 


 

The ER doctor assured Lainie that Clay wouldn’t feel any pain while they performed the fracture reduction. They had injected anesthesia directly into his upper arm for a hematoma block.

She wanted to strangle the man for that false promise. If her son wasn’t supposed to feel any pain, then why did he screw his eyes shut and clench his teeth for the entire five-minute procedure? Why did he groan and yell at the radiographer to “stop fucking torturing me” when she twisted his hand flat for the third time to get the “proper angle” for the x-ray? And why couldn’t the incompetent doctor manipulate the bone back to its original position without all the accompanying crunching and grinding? It was like nails on a chalkboard. Lainie wanted to slither out of her skin, and she wasn’t the one who had to feel the pressure and flexion.

She didn’t know how to make it better. She couldn’t trade places with her son, and Clay didn’t want her to touch him, or talk to him. He coped with the discomfort by pushing his head against his shoulder or, alternatively, trying to hit the radiographer. When they finally finished resetting his bone, Clay looked at it speculatively and proclaimed, “My arm tastes like gasoline.”

“Okay,” she murmured. “That’s okay. Don’t worry about it. We’ll wash it off.”

While Dr. Reily explained to her that Clay needed a consult with an orthopedic surgeon and that surgery, from his perspective, was almost a guarantee, Clay idly picked at his fingernails, which were caked with dried blood. He kept flicking crimson specks off with his thumb. She had to intercede when he randomly stuck his fingers in his mouth. “It’s Justin’s blood,” he said, as if that statement made the action any more acceptable.

She was besieged by nauseating vertigo, but she quickly rallied and told him sternly, “Do not put your fingers in your mouth.” She had not said such a thing to him since he was a toddler; she had thought she would not have to say such a thing again until she had grandchildren. This night was full of harrowing surprises.

The doctor was annoyed at the interruptions, and he steadily directed the conversation back to chest x-rays and CT scans, which were the next items on the medical to-do list.

Not to be outdone, Clay pulled out his nasal cannula, and the nurse had to wage a three-minute war with him to get him to keep it where it belonged. Lainie, struggling to listen to the doctor and help the nurse at the same time, eventually grabbed her son’s free hand and slid her fingers through his and held it against her chest, ignoring his feeble protests. Clay finally gave up and asked, “Is the pizza cold? Interchange the hypothesis and the conclusion, and if the converse is true, then... I’ll bet Justin is cold. Dead people are cold.”

Lainie wanted to scream. She wanted to go huddle in the corner and put her hands over her ears and silence the cruel, cruel world outside her head. She couldn’t. She had to be strong for her family, even if her son’s non-sequiturs were as disturbing as his bruises and broken bones. Calmly, she said, “Justin is in surgery. He is not dead.”

“Good. ‘Cuz I’m gonna fucking kill him.”

“Is this normal?” Lainie asked the doctor in a lowered voice. “How he’s acting?”

He shrugged. “We’ve got him on morphine and ketamine. Everyone responds differently. I’m not concerned about it. What I am concerned about is aspiration pneumonia.”

Pneumonia, yet another potential complication. Dr. Reily, insufferably pedantic, recited the textbook symptoms to look out (dyspnea, tachypnea, putrid expectoration) and then launched into a not-at-all subtle lecture about why ingesting gasoline and then vomiting was the absolute worst thing her son could have done.

She extricated her fingers from Clay’s and backed the doctor against the wall, tempted to smack him or to stab him with his own penlight. “My son didn’t guzzle gasoline for recreational purposes. A deranged lunatic threatened to burn him alive, and that same lunatic also shot my youngest son, who is in emergency surgery. I haven’t heard any news, and I’m a wreck right now. If you had any idea of the magnitude of suffering my child has endured, you would maybe show a hint of sensitivity about his mental health.”

“It’s been a hectic night,” Dr. Reily said blandly. “I’m sorry if I am coming off as blunt. Your son is fortunate. It could have been much worse. What we–” He broke off and gave her a significant nod. Lainie turned around. Clay had removed his oxygen tubing and was attempting to climb out of the bed.

Lainie nipped that in the bud with a shout. “Clay Matthew! Sit your butt back down in that bed!”

Clay swatted at the air, but he obeyed her.

The doctor’s phone rang. He pointedly ignored it, which Lainie appreciated, but then he suggested that they “gently restrain” Clay to make him less disruptive. Lainie told him to shove that suggestion up his ass, and he promptly left.

She would file a complaint; she would request a new doctor; she would storm the Medical Board; she would... collapse into the hospital chair and stare at Clay’s IV catheter. As long as the best doctors are with Justin, I’ll put up with this clown.

“Mom?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Bleeding to death, it wasn’t that bad. At the end.” Clay’s eyes drooped shut. “I’d prefer it.” He drifted off to sleep, but not before mumbling, “It’s better than fire.”

Lainie sat on the edge of the hospital bed. She was thankful for a reprieve, for a chance to watch Clay lie still, to see him safe and sane and, God help her, quiet. No one was hurting him now, including himself.

She closed her eyes and conjured up happier memories: Justin’s flustered half-smile when she had made him a cake to celebrate his one-month “Gotcha Day”; the boys bickering for an entire evening over who owned the much-coveted gray fleece hoodie – five games of rock-paper-scissors later and they had agreed to share custody; Clay’s satisfied, carefree laugh when he had bankrupted Justin in their last family Monopoly tournament.

The most precious memory: Yesterday evening. The four of them in the den, ostensibly watching TV. In reality, she was editing legal briefs, Clay was sketching in his notebook, Matt was planning his next lecture, and Justin was reading a comic book. But they had all been together, occupying the same space as a family. Heedless of what awaited them on the morrow.

A hand tugged at her wrist. What had that been? Three minutes of sleep?

“I’m sorry about your couch, Mom. It’s stained. I’m gonna make Justin sleep there.”

The smells of bleach and disinfectant were clogging Lainie’s sinuses, and her head was pounding. “We’ll get rid of the couch. No one has to sleep there.”

God, how could I not have realized... We’re going to have to move. I can’t bring my sons back into that house again. It had been marred by violence. Her once beautiful home was no longer beautiful.

 


 

Jess clasped her hands and bowed her head. She tried to compose a poignant prayer, but the only thing that came to her mind was: Are you a greedy god? You’ve been taking my friends, one by one. You need to stop. She lifted her head and stared up at the wooden cross on the wall.

The hospital chapel was quiet and deserted. It was why she had sought its refuge. She hadn’t really come to pray. She had wanted to get away. Away from Alex’s empty eyes, away from Zach’s foot tapping a never-ending beat out on the floor, away from Sheri asking for the 19th time if anyone needed anything.

Jess had stuck it out in the waiting room for two hours, chipping at her plumberry nail polish, waiting in solidarity with her friends. But then Cyrus and Tyler had begun whispering about how an anonymous user had posted a picture of a gun across all their social media platforms, accompanied by, ‘RIP Jensen Brothers’. The posts were being flagged and removed, but they kept popping back up.

Jess knew it was Monty. It had to be Monty. She couldn’t deal with hearing about that fucking asshole, not while Justin was in surgery, fighting for his life, not while Clay was “pretty beat up” and “undergoing tests.”

Jess had needed to cry, and she had needed to cry in solitude. It was cathartic, wringing the despair out of her heart and turning it into physical tears. When she had exhausted that avenue, she turned to prayer. It eluded her.

A familiar presence slid into the pew beside her. He pressed some tissues into her hand.

Jess sniffed. “This new mascara is the worst. It’s supposed to be waterproof. Do I look like a raccoon? Be honest, Dad.”

He studied her. “You do. But you’re the most beautiful raccoon I’ve ever seen.” He put one hand on her back, and his low baritone was gentle and soothing. “Do you want to be alone?”

“No.” Her friends’ reactions were destroying to watch, but her father offered her instant comfort. “I’m glad you’re here with me. I know you don’t like Justin...”

A complex emotion flashed in his eyes. “I don’t like what he did. There’s a difference.”

She dabbed at her cheeks with the tissue. It came away smudged with black. “Love the sinner, but hate the sin?”

“Justin hurt you, and that I can’t abide. But I recognize he’s been hurt, too, and not just tonight. A bad start in life doesn’t seal our fate. I love him, Jessica, as a fellow brother in Christ. I wish only the best for him.” He tucked her against him.

Jess couldn’t comprehend the senselessness of what had happened. A botched robbery, two gunshots... Why had it even escalated to violence? Three men against two teenagers, it was overkill.

Had Justin resisted?

Had Clay?

Her friends were stupid, especially when they were together. Exponential stupidity; they couldn’t stay out of trouble. But they weren’t dumb enough to be blasé about a gun or to put each other’s lives in danger with reckless action.

“It’s too cruel.” Jess didn’t know whether she was speaking to her dad or to God. “Justin was happy with the Jensens. The adoption... it made him peaceful, which is something he never really was. But three months, that’s all he gets? Three months of happiness, and then this?”

Her dad settled back. “Baby girl, it’s all too brief. 17 years of life is too brief. Like your friend Hannah. The Bakers had their little girl for 17 years, and now they’ll have more than 17 years of grieving for her. Matt and Lainie... I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do believe in the power of prayer.”

Jess hunted for pious words, but they crawled into the shadows, and she didn’t have the fortitude to drag them out. “I tried to pray, Daddy, but I didn’t know what to say. Other than I love Justin, and I love Clay, and I want God to take care of them. I know sometimes that means He calls people home, but I don’t want him to separate them. They belong together.” She touched her father’s gold cross and sent the petition to God.

“I think that’s a perfect start,” her dad said. “How about I continue?”

“Yes.”

“Heavenly Father, you created us from nothing, and you have the power to recreate us. I lift up Clay and Justin and put them in your hands. Keep them near to you and grant them healing and strength. Guide the surgeon’s hands tonight, dear Lord...”

 


 

Matt had studied every inch of the surgery waiting room. He knew where there was a dent in the tiled floor: exactly 3.25 feet from the spiky leaf of the artificial potted plant. He knew precisely which areas of the off-white walls needed a touch-up; there were fourteen spots in total that needed fresh paint. He knew which chair was the least comfortable; he had tried them all. Above everything else, he was intimately familiar with the clock on the wall—if he studied it, its hands seemed to be stuck in place, but, if he looked away, it instantly skipped forward by a quarter of an hour.

He was in limbo. The nurse liaison had spoken to him when he had first arrived. “Your son has two penetrating gunshot wounds. The surgeon is Dr. Changtai. She has made an incision into the abdomen, and she is going to manually explore each organ to locate and repair any damage. Your son is doing fine. His vitals are stable. I’ll update you again in two hours.”

It had been almost three hours. He had heard nothing.

Lainie’s updates on Clay continued throughout the night: Broken nose. Two broken fingers. Broken humerus—the orthopedic surgeon would meet with them to discuss surgical options. Three fractured ribs. The ER doctor was concerned about aspiration pneumonia. Clay was being admitted for overnight observation. He had been transferred to his new room, #458.

Matt asked and asked, but Clay was unavailable to talk. Why? Because he was doing a breathing treatment... because he was getting lab work done... because he was trying to sleep. When Matt pressed, Lainie finally admitted that Clay’s emotional state was “not good.” Matt suspected this was the real reason he was being refused contact. Lainie was trying to protect him from the truth. “Not good” sounded like a euphemism for “mentally unstable.”

His wife was probably equally frustrated with his reports. He could tell her nothing about Justin’s status because he knew nothing. He didn’t know if a long surgery was a good or a bad sign. His conclusion: It was a good sign. If Justin died on the operating table, there would be no point in postponing the notification.

By request, Lainie had sent him a single picture of Clay, for “proof of life” and “his eyes only.” Clay’s face was swollen and he had oxygen tubing threaded under his nose, but he was smiling and giving the peace sign. He looked, as Justin would have phrased it, like he was “high as fuck.” Not to mention, “beaten to a pulp.”

It was hard to connect the shocking photo with his brilliant, sarcastic son—the one who, at five, had worn Lord of the Rings pajamas to bed for eight months straight; who, at seven, had built his own army of robots and lined them up by size in front of his bed every night; who, at nine, had insisted they have a funeral for a squirrel Matt had hit on the road; who, at eleven, had recited Nietzsche and admirably refuted the philosopher’s claim that suffering was inevitable and ought to be revered.

Matt despised Nietzsche. His children’s suffering was only that: suffering. It hadn’t made them stronger. It didn’t have a meaning. It wouldn’t enrich their lives. It had been brought about by an evil man.

Seth Massey had shot Matt’s youngest son twice and had, in turn, been shot twice by his oldest. There was a poetic parallel in there, if Matt cared to examine it. Or a tragic irony. Seth had entered his house to murder his child and had instead been murdered by his other child. It was tragic not because Seth had died. It was tragic because Clay had been forced to kill. Justifiable homicide. Lainie had assured him that there was no situation in which either Justin or Clay could be held legally responsible for anything they had done. Only his wife would think to assure him of facts like that at a time like this.

They all had their coping mechanisms. Lainie’s was the safe distance of the law. He didn’t know what his was. Someone else could glimpse it, perhaps, if they made a study of him, but Matt felt less like he was coping and more like he was falling apart.

He had a routine to keep himself in one piece.

Listen to Amber’s voicemail.

Walk to the water cooler and stare at it. Berate himself for having put his phone on silent at the restaurant. Ask himself: What kind of father am I that I missed that my children were in mortal danger?

Pace the width of the room, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one steps. Remove his wallet and look at the family photo they had had professionally done after the adoption. Cover Justin's image with his thumb.

Turn around and walk the sixteen, seventeen, eighteen steps to the patient-tracking monitor on the wall. See that the indication by Justin’s number had not changed: Surgery in progress. Walk back to the row of chairs.

Compare and contrast: He and Lainie contentedly eating Orecchiette alla barese and drinking white wine while two of the most important people in his life, his children, were being tortured and tormented and shot by three sadistic men.

Pull up Amber’s voicemail. Rinse and repeat.

Except, this time, Matt was halted in his tracks by a concerned voice.

“Matt. Oh, Matt.” Carolyn Standall enveloped him in a careful hug. He hadn’t realized how much he had craved human contact. It was like a dam breaking. He instantly pressed his face into Carolyn’s neck and selfishly clung to her. She rubbed his back and held him. It was what Matt wished he could do for his wife, for Clay, for Justin, but the privilege had been denied him. He was a worthless father. A useless husband.

“What are you doing here?”

“Bill told me that Lainie’s sister hasn’t been able to find a babysitter. So I’m here to sit with you, if you’d like.” Carolyn searched his face; for what, he didn’t know. “I can’t imagine what I would have done last year if it had been Alex and Peter. No parent should be alone at a time like this. Bill is with Lainie. I’m here to be with you.”

Matt opened his mouth to argue, to claim that it wasn’t needed. But it was needed, and he accepted it with humility.

They sat down, and Carolyn squeezed his hand. “Do you want to tell me what information Lainie’s given you about Clay’s condition? I can break it down for you, from a nurse’s perspective. From a recovery perspective.”

Information. Facts. Those were his coping mechanism. “Thank you. Thank you.”

 


 

The hospital’s bright lights had given Zach a headache in the first hour. In the second hour, he had bitten his nails down to the quick. In the third hour, he had expended his nervous energy by walking laps around the room. He could easily have run a marathon or bench pressed 200 pounds. The one thing he couldn’t do was sit still and spin his wheels.

Critical condition: Vital signs are abnormal.

Zach was well acquainted with death and how insidiously it crept in and snatched people away. A year ago, he had been in this same hospital, this same room, waiting to hear if Alex would survive. Two summers ago, he had gotten the news about his father’s car accident. At least there had been no agonizing wait for his dad; he had been dead on arrival.

Critical condition: There are major complications.

What had Zach’s parting words with Justin been? “See you tomorrow.”? Or: “I'll bring snacks for the study session.”? Or had he said nothing? He had probably said nothing. A parting fist bump to Justin. And a nod to Clay? He didn’t even remember.

Which was why he had hugged every single one of his friends when they had arrived at the hospital. He had even hugged Tyler Down. And Mr. Davis. And a random passing nurse who might have been caring for Clay but couldn’t say so because of HIPPA rules. Alex had told him it was creepy, so he had stopped.

Critical condition: Death may be imminent.

Zach looked up when the elevator dinged. Mr. Standall exited, looking somber, and denial shot through him—a four-seam fastball, traveling at 100 mph (no no no). Jessica jumped up and helped Alex stand. Sheri and Mr. Davis joined them. Strength in numbers.

Mr. Standall saw them there and his expression rearranged itself into something less downtrodden, and more distant. “Relax. I’m not here with bad news.”

Enormous relief spread through them—relief to still be waiting, to still not know anything definitive.

“Lainie wanted to thank you all for being here, but it’s getting late, and she wanted to impress on you that you’re better off going home. It could be some time before we hear anything about Justin, and Clay’s been transferred out of the ER to an inpatient care unit.”

“I’m staying,” Jess said.

“Me too.”

“Same.”

“Yeah.”

“I thought as much.” Mr. Standall crossed his arms, but he didn’t look upset. He had been expecting it.

“Can we see Clay?” Sheri was disarming and sweetly potent. Zach didn’t know how anyone could refuse her. “We know it’s past visiting hours, but only for five minutes?”

“Mom could sneak us in,” Alex added. “She works here. We should get perks.”

Mr. Standall was immovable. “Clay’s on some strong pain medications, and he’s had some sedation. He’s a little loopy.”

“Loopy?” Jess laughed softly. “Is he proposing marriage to his nurse? Or singing? We should record it. Clay could put it on Youtube and get, like, 10 million views. It could help pay for whatever Ivy League college he chooses.”

Zach cracked a smile; he couldn’t help it. “I’ll bet he’s spilling all of Justin’s secrets. I’d like to hear what dirt he has on him. Clay knows more about him than I do, which is insulting." Or humbling.

“He does have an unfair advantage,” Jess pointed out. “Since they share a bedroom.”

“You two are tripping,” Sheri said. “I’ve seen Clay high. He’s probably rambling about cosmic rays or transcendental apperception. Or maybe reciting the digits of Pi. Something intellectual, but totally cute and adorable.”

“Look, kids,” Mr. Standall interrupted, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Clay’s not that kind of loopy. It’s not something anyone would find funny.”

“Oh.” Jess shifted uneasily.

“You mean he’s FUBAR,” Alex said.

“He’s what?” Zach’s instinct was to stabilize Alex’s balance because he seemed unsteady, but maybe that was just Zach.

“FUBAR. Fucked up beyond all recognition.”

Mr. Standall frowned. “I wouldn’t put it that way, either. Clay’s... well, he’s just a little sad.”

“Emotionally wounded,” Mr. Davis rephrased, with an understanding nod.

“Right. Lainie wants him to have some privacy. We can revisit the idea tomorrow. Late in the day tomorrow.”

Zach swallowed three times, his mouth was so fucking dry. Was he the only one to notice that they weren’t being told everything? There were hidden horrors shadowing Mr. Standall’s face and lurking in his sparse words.

Zach put one arm around Alex and the other around Jessica, as much for his own support as theirs.

“Can you let Clay know that we’re here for him?” Sheri asked hesitantly. “He doesn’t have to see us, or feel any obligation, but tell him we’re thinking about him.”

Jess put her free arm around Sheri. “We’ll be here for him, no matter what. He doesn’t have to be okay. He can be sad or ‘emotionally wounded.’ We don’t judge. We’ll take him however he is.”

They had an unspoken, mutual agreement. No one was too broken, too unstable, too FUBAR-ed for their group. Especially not the person who had united them and molded their disparate parts into a cohesive whole.

Mr. Standall craned his neck and scanned the periphery. Unconsciously, Zach did the same. The waiting room was mostly empty. Tyler and Cyrus had departed to try to pin down Monty’s IP address. Scott and most of the basketball team had stopped by en masse to donate blood but, finding out that it wasn’t feasible, had departed to track down Monty, in the flesh. There were a few other people, but Zach didn’t know them, and they were probably here for other patients.

Mr. Standall waved them closer and they formed up into a huddle. “The Sheriff’s Department is going to make an official statement in the morning, but the Jensens have given me the go-ahead to share a few confidential details with you. It’s not to be shared outside of this group. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, sir.”

They were all rapt with attention. Zach was curious to hear the information, but he recognized that it was a morbid curiosity, which didn’t sit right with him. Whatever had happened, it had happened to his friends, not some nameless strangers on the news.

Mr. Standall’s gaze landed on Alex, and it remained there as he spoke. “I know most of you were involved in that debacle with Seth Massey at the school this past summer.”

Seth?

“Some things unfortunately slipped through the cracks, and he was released from jail today. He brought two men with him to... to cause problems for Justin. It seems he felt he had a score to settle. There was a struggle, and Clay intervened.”

A score to settle?

“Seth was shot. He died forty-five minutes ago.”

There was an uncomfortable silence that seeped outward like fog. They were all appalled. And bewildered. And no one wanted to be the person to break the tension.

“Clay is the one who killed him?” Sheri finally asked.

“Yes.”

“That poor boy.” Mr. Davis raised his hands in supplication.

Sheri opened her mouth, closed it, and braced herself on her knees. “Shit.”

Alex overturned three hospital chairs and stalked off to the far wall, which he began to punch, repeatedly. Mr. Standall rushed over to talk him down.

Jess’s father wrapped his arms around her and led her down the hospital corridor. She was mumbling something about Seth, but Zach didn’t catch it.

Zach stood paralyzed. His brain was five steps behind. And then it registered: Seth had shot Justin. “Meth Seth”—that was what Bryce and Justin had used to call him. Like he was a joke. A leech. A man whose bark was worse than his bite. “He’s harmless,” Bryce had claimed, and Zach had believed him.

A “harmless” man didn’t try to fucking murder you. Or pummel your brother for getting in the way. Or stalk you at school. Or turn your house into a crime scene.

Had Seth always been that violent? Jesus. What kind of psycho had Justin lived with during his sophomore and junior years?

Zach frantically searched his memories.

Sophomore year. There had been bruises on Justin’s skin at basketball practice. It hadn’t been frequent, but it hadn’t been rare either. Justin had said they were from hot and “kinky" sex, the type a “mama’s boy” like Zach wouldn’t understand. It had sounded too much like bragging and Bryce had made such a big production out of Justin’s sexual conquests that Zach had quickly learned to ignore the vivid marks. Even though they were in weird places. Even though Justin would complain about them and wince when doing a layup. Even though Bryce would tell Justin to stop being a pussy and stand up for himself.

Junior year. Justin had asked to crash at Zach’s house multiple times a week. He had done that pre-Seth too, and he had consistently framed it as an innocent personality clash with his mom’s boyfriends. He had never called it abuse (if he had, Zach would have done something; he didn’t know what, but something). Instead, Justin had acted immature about it, sulking and making shit jokes, occasionally groveling. Zach had hated the requests to sleep over because they put him in an uncomfortable position with his mother and, besides, Bryce had first claim on Justin anyway. Bryce didn’t like to share. Zach knew the rule: Bryce had to be the most important person in Justin’s life, and if Zach pushed the boundaries, the teasing and taunting would increase tenfold, at Zach’s expense.

Last summer. Justin had been intimidated by Seth. Scared enough that he had tried to run away. But Justin’s explanation for it had been rather dull: “It’s Clay, man. I couldn’t let Seth fuck with him, too. How is that fair?” It was the same subdued way that Justin had used to talk about his mother’s boyfriends, so vaguely as to not talk about them at all.

Justin had anticipated tonight’s events. Foreseen them. Why had none of the rest of them taken it as seriously as Lainie Jensen had? Why had Zach never forced Justin to talk about it? Simply because Justin didn’t like being backed into a conversation? Well, tough shit. Zach should have made him talk.

He had been so fucking oblivious.

He had taken a page from his mother’s book of wisdom: brush anything sordid under the rug and then make sure your visitors remove their shoes. Well, here were the real consequences of that policy: broken bones, emergency surgery, “no news is good news,” his friends splintering apart like rotten wood.

His friends. Who needed him the most?

Zach searched for Alex. He was kicking the wall, his anguish running rampant. Mr. Standall clearly didn’t know how to deal with him; he looked harried and flustered.

Zach walked over to them. “Stop, Alex,” he said. And Alex stopped.

Mr. Standall looked at Zach suspiciously, as if waiting for the explanation of the magic trick. Friendship wasn’t a trick that could be explained.

“I’ll stay with Alex, sir. I know you’re busy. I’ll take care of him.”

Mr. Standall gave him a grateful nod, told Alex he loved him, and then disappeared back into the hospital elevator.

“What did the wall do to you?” Zach asked. “Don’t be a dick.”

Alex turned to the side and slid down to the floor, so Zach collapsed beside him in a controlled fall, angling himself so that he was shielding him. Not invading his space, but guarding it.

Alex had been apathetic and detached for most of the evening. It wasn’t right; it hadn’t felt like Alex. His angry outburst and attempted destruction of hospital property... that was more like Alex. The renegade tears coursing over his cheeks... that was Alex.

“Fuck Justin!”

The profanity... that was Alex, too.

Alex beat his fists against the linoleum. “So, what? His life wasn’t pitiable enough, he had to go and get himself shot by that asshole and make us worry like this? And fuck Clay, for always having to be the savior. He’d pound in the nails at his own crucifixion if we let him. And fuck you, too, Zach. For being so fucking calm.” Alex knocked his head against the wall. “Fuck Seth, most of all. Justin deserves better than this shit.”

“Yeah, he does.” We all do. “You can’t go around punching shit, though. You’ll break your hand. How does that help anything?” Are you trying to commiserate with Clay?

“Shut up, shut up. You don’t get it.” Alex looked furiously away from him.

Zach knew to be patient. It was good for Alex, to get this out. Some people weren’t meant to conceal their rage, or fear, or sorrow. “Just so you know, I’m not calm. I’m freaking out, dude.”

“You could have fooled me, Zach. You act like you don’t give a fuck!”

Alex’s emotions were often sharp and volatile, and their haphazard expression was a veneer he used to cover up something fragile. He was a lot like Justin in that way; veiled pain was a language they both spoke. Maybe it was why they were drawn to each other.

Maybe it was why Zach had failed them. He didn’t read concealed messages very well. He had been taught that stoicism was a strength of character. When you saw it, you respected it, and you didn’t try to wear it down. He had also been taught that vulnerability was disgraceful. When you saw it, you turned away.

Zach didn’t turn away. He sat with Alex, legs inches apart, and he tried to let the cracks loosen, to allow the rawness to spill over. His eyes stubbornly remained dry.

I am my mother’s son.

An hour passed. Alex stared at the ceiling. Zach thought about Justin and what he would say to him when he saw him next. No one bothered them.

Eventually, Alex wavered. “I like Justin.” There was a gritty defiance to his tone, but also a self-consciousness.

“I like him, too?” Zach ventured.

Alex scowled at him. “As more than a friend. Keep up, Zach.”

Was Zach supposed to be surprised? “I know, dude.” So does Clay. And Jess. “It’s cool. More than cool. It’s actually pretty awesome.”

Alex brought his hand up to the scars on his head and scrubbed at them. “I told him tonight, which proves that the universe hates me.”

Zach grabbed Alex’s hand and lowered it, gently, and held it, tight. “No, it’s good. It means that Justin was happy, before... before it happened.”

He liked to imagine Justin happy. He liked to imagine Alex at peace. Was it wrong for him to have his spirits lifted by the idea of his two best friends—who had been so starved for affection—finding fulfillment and solace in each other? Probably, given the circumstances.

“No,” Alex said, and he sounded miles away, adrift on a foreign sea. “Justin wasn’t happy. He was reticent. He acted interested, he flirted with me, like he always does, but then... he wanted to wait, indefinitely.” He looked at Zach. “Was I stupid for thinking...?”

It wasn’t an important question, not right now. He knew it, and Alex knew it. It was, however, a nice distraction, a puzzle that Alex was handing to him to solve. A Gordian knot to unravel—intricate and messy and enigmatic, like Alex and Justin themselves were. Zach grasped at the tangles, seeking an answer.

He thought of how they would play basketball one-on-one and Justin would fumble the ball whenever Alex, who was on the bleachers with Clay, looked at him for more than two seconds at a time. Or how Justin would flick his chips to Alex during lunch and grin whenever Alex tossed one back. Or how Justin would smoothly cross an invisible line and cuddle up to Alex—even lay his head in Alex’s lap—but at a glance from Jessica, he would shrink away. Almost in shame.

Zach knew what it was like, to live with shame. To want to keep something pure and protected. Alex and Justin... It would be an emotional minefield: dating your ex-girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend. There had already been explosions, and casualties.

“It’s Justin,” Zach concluded. “He doesn’t want to fuck you up.”

“I’m already fucked up.”

“Which is why he’s reticent, dude.”

“That’s circular reasoning, Zach. A logical fallacy.”

“Justin isn’t logical. He touches a hot burner once, and then he avoids the stove. Forever.” Or he doesn’t remove his hand at all and is surprised when his skin starts melting.

“Not by design,” Alex said defensively. “It’s a survival skill. It was ingrained in him because of assholes like Seth.”

Zach wasn’t sure that Alex was right. But he wouldn’t contradict him. “Justin is good at surviving. That’s one thing I know for sure. He’ll survive, if only to give a final ‘screw you’ to Seth.”

“No.” Alex shook his head vehemently. “He won’t survive out of spite. He’ll survive for Clay. If he dies, he’d hurt Clay. Justin wouldn’t hurt him.”

Zach let go of Alex’s hand and folded his arms on top of his knees. Justin had hurt Clay, though. Many times. Before Hannah. After Hannah. Pre-adoption. Post-adoption. Clay and Justin quarreled on the daily and traded barbs and insults like their lives depended on it. They picked at each other's metaphorical scabs. Five minutes later, they swapped spit. Or hugged it out. Their relationship was intense and complicated. Weird. Incomprehensible, really.

Zach didn’t understand it, but it was meaningful to Justin. He was fiercely overprotective. If someone so much as breathed a bad word in Clay’s direction, Justin went on the warpath. He even ditched plans with Zach to study with his brother, which was an extreme act of love. And although Justin had returned to Evergreen County for Jessica, he had stayed for Clay.

So, if anyone could talk Justin off a ledge, it was Clay.

Dying was a jump off a ledge. The ultimate ledge. It was dangerous to think of it in that manner, because death, in this case, wasn’t a choice. It had been for Hannah. But, for Justin, it wasn’t about having something to live for. It wasn’t about resolve. It was about bullet trajectories and blood loss and the extent of physical trauma. It was about luck.

It was nicer to think of it as a choice. Because Justin had very rarely ever been lucky.

None of them had. Except in one respect: from the wreckage of junior year, they had coalesced around one another. No one was isolated in their double strand or solely reliant on a single linkage that, upon breaking, would cut their connection to the group.

Alex was wrong, and, this time, Zach would contradict him. “Justin will pull through for you,” he told Alex. “And me. And Jess.”

Zach continued to resolutely list them off. “Scott. Tony. Sheri.”

“The Jensens,” Alex added, and he reached for Zach’s hand. Zach gave it to him.

“Coach Patrick.”

“Clay,” Alex repeated doggedly.

“Yes,” Zach agreed. For Clay, most of all.

But not for Clay, only.

 


 

As the ketamine wore off, Clay became more coherent, enough to make an official statement to the detectives. He also became less erratic, enough to be trusted not to self-sabotage his medical care. But what remained was a shell. Clay was there in the room with her, but, in many ways, he wasn’t there at all. She knew where he was—three floors down in the operating room, bracketed to his brother in spirit, even whilst physically apart.

Clay looked older than Lainie had ever seen him, as if this one night had stolen five years from him, had taken away her obstinate, overstressed teenager and replaced him with a withdrawn, traumatized soldier.

“Mom?” His voice was hoarse.

“Yes?”

“Can I see Justin?” His pain—his root pain, a pain brought about by absence—multiplied hers.

Her throat constricted. “I hope you can visit him. Soon.”

“Can I stay with him?”

“Probably not.” Carolyn would pull some strings for them, but Clay technically wasn’t allowed to leave this floor. If they planned and organized an escape, it couldn’t be for long.

Clay’s face crumpled, and he gasped and kept gasping—horrible, thick inhales—and Lainie didn’t know if he was laughing again or if he was crying. She didn’t even know which one she would have preferred, until she heard Clay’s words, and then she knew.

“Please don’t let him die. Please, Mom. Please. I can’t do it again. I can’t–, I can’t...” His pleas came out of him like a deluge, followed by wave after wave of harsh, crackling sobs. A tsunami of emotion. How could Lainie hold it back with her two weak hands?

Her child was scared and defenseless, twelve years younger, betrayed by the world for the very first time and coming to her to fix it. She was galvanized to action. She put her hand on his head. He didn’t reject her, as he’d done earlier, so she stroked the short strands of his hair.

“Shh, I’m here. We’ll get through this. We will.”

A mother knew how to respond. A mother always knew. She climbed into the hospital bed and Clay curled into her. His sling was an awkward barrier, but she carefully readjusted until they fit. He tangled his knuckles in the folds of her dress. She let him be a little boy again, even though she had no magic fix this time—no popsicles, no band-aids, no promised trips to the planetarium. She was unable to do anything but stay in his grief with him. There was a chasm in him, and she could not fill it.

Only one person could. And he wasn’t there.

 


 

“Jensen family?”

“Yes.” Matt stood stiffly. He had been waiting for this moment for an eternity, and now that it had come, he wanted to push it away and delay it further. Carolyn gave him an encouraging smile.

The nurse beckoned him to follow her. “You can come with me to the Consultation Room. A surgeon will speak with you.”

It was the longest walk of Matt’s life, followed by the longest two-minute wait. The Consultation Room was formless and cold. The only detail that snagged his attention were the tissue boxes strategically placed around the room—stark reminders that one potential outcome of this talk could be bereavement.

The surgeon’s face betrayed nothing when she entered the room. For hours and hours, Matt had been balancing on a fulcrum, tilting between something irreparably sad and something sad, but mendable. And now this was the moment for the lever to decide, right or left. Yesterday, I had two children. Today, I have... How many?

“The surgery went well. Justin did fine.”

Two children.

Matt’s vision was blurry with a wet and deep relief, and the world, which had been askew, righted itself with a soaring joy. He shook Dr. Changtai’s hand. It was hard to let go. This woman had given him back his child. His exhilaration was somewhat tempered by her next words.

“I’m going to be direct with you, Mr. Jensen. These are life-threatening injuries, and while I’m cautiously optimistic, you do need to be prepared. That said, we’ll do everything we can to give Justin the best chance of a good recovery. Okay?”

“I understand.” He would not dwell on be prepared. He would cling to cautiously optimistic.

“Let’s sit.” Dr. Changtai leaned forward. “Justin came in with stage 4 hypovolemic shock, which means he lost nearly 40% of his blood volume. It was a critical situation, but he’s had a massive blood transfusion, and we think we’ve got it under control. My main concern is ongoing bleeding. We’re going to closely monitor him, and, if needed, we’ll have to perform another exploratory laparotomy.”

“That’s the operation you just performed?”

“Yes. So, what we did is we cut into his belly to locate the source of the bleeding. We explored his organs, one by one, and if we saw an injury, we fixed it. I have a diagram that shows the damage we found. You can see that one bullet ruptured his spleen, which is what caused the majority of the blood loss. That same bullet also tore through his stomach, here and here, and the second bullet perforated the small bowel, here.”

“Oh God.” Having to see with his own eyes the sheer amount of damage kicked his imagination into overdrive. Bullets ripping through flesh. Fists driving down. Veins. Arteries. Clay’s ribs. Justin’s stomach. Blood on a hardwood floor. His children, in pain. His children, crying. Unprotected, unsafe.

Dr. Changtai withdrew the paper and flipped it over so it was a blank canvas. “I know this is difficult to hear. Do you need a minute?”

Matt took his all-too-real imaginings and shoved them into a dark pit. “No. It’s–, it’s worse than I feared, but it’s not–, it’s not insurmountable.” The only thing insurmountable would have been brain death. “Please continue.”

“Okay. We did a procedure called a splenectomy, which is a fancy term that means we removed his spleen. We also removed the damaged portions of his small intestine. Unfortunately, the holes in his intestine and stomach caused stomach acid and intestinal bacteria to spill out into the abdominal cavity. If we can get bleeding under control, secondary infection will be the biggest risk going forward. We’re going to administer a strong course of antibiotics and keep him isolated to minimize exposure.”

Matt buried his face in his hand and raked his beard. The information was all so bleak, but it also wasn’t bleak at all, compared to the alternative.

“I know I’m throwing a lot of information at you at once. It is important to say that Justin’s fit, he’s healthy, and he has age on his side. These next 24 hours will be telling. If he does well, I anticipate a good prognosis. We’ll be going over all this in more detail in the coming days, but do you have any immediate questions?”

He had a thousand questions. Most of them had answers he might not wish to know. “His spleen.” An entire organ had been removed from his son’s body. “Can he survive without his spleen?”

“There will be some unique health challenges, which we’ll go over with you, but people do very well without their spleens. Justin’s life expectancy can be unchanged.”

Matt had to reach for a tissue. There were other things to mourn for in this room, besides death. "And the bullets? Did you get those...?"

Dr. Changtai seemed genuinely sympathetic, and apologetic. “We left the bullets inside. It actually poses too much of a risk, in most cases, to try to remove them.”

He wiped the moisture from his face. “I guess... the last thing... My son is a recovering heroin addict. Will that affect anything?”

“We have that noted in his file, and we will assign a special team member to his care team to handle the issue. But, initially, given the severity of his injuries, I’m afraid it is simply not realistic to avoid opioids for pain management. We need his pain under control so we can get him up and moving as soon as possible.”

Matt nodded mechanically. They had battled as a family for Justin’s sobriety. Reintroducing narcotics was an unpleasant regression, but they could overcome it, with grace, as a family. “I didn’t mean to imply... His injuries, of course, take precedence. I just wanted to be sure I mentioned it.”

“I appreciate that. Any further questions?”

“No.” Everything that had come before felt like a fever dream, barely recollected, indistinct, and ghoulish. He was exhausted to his core, his bones brittle and ancient.

“Justin is going to stay in the PACU until we can get him transferred to the ICU. He’s a minor, so we will allow one parent to sit with him. Would you like to go through and see your son?”

Matt leapt up, instantly recharged and giddy in his exuberance.

“More than anything.”

 


 

It seemed impossible. The last time Matt had seen Justin, he had been so animated. Energetic. Easy to smile, quick to laugh. A presence of light in any room.

He was motionless now. Small and confined. Diminished.

Matt stepped up to the hospital bed. The machinery, the wires and tape, the electrodes—none of it was scary. The beeping monitor gave evidence of his son’s strong and steady heartbeat. The bag of blood hanging on the IV pole was replenishing what Justin had lost. The tube in his mouth was precautionary. Justin could breathe on his own; the ventilator was simply giving his overtaxed respiratory system a rest.

The nurse provided him with gloves and a mask. “I know it looks intimidating, but it’s okay to touch him and talk to him. It actually helps with blood pressure and heart rate, to have a family member present.”

“Okay, thank you.”

Most of Justin’s injuries were concealed, so Matt latched onto the few he could see: stitches in his lips and a cut on his forehead. Indentations on his wrists. Bruises on his throat. It was too much, as it was, and yet, it failed to communicate the pain, the immense pain, Matt knew Justin had suffered.

He put his hand on his son’s forehead. I should’ve been there to protect you. I should’ve stepped into the path of those bullets.

This was no place for remorse. Remorse was a luxury for the future, for a time when both his sons were on the mend.

“You’ve put up the biggest fight of your life, kid, but I need you to keep fighting. Keep holding on, do you hear me? For me and your mother, for your brother.” Matt brushed his gloved hand up to Justin’s hair. It hadn’t been thoroughly washed; it had blood in it, but not much, only a tiny amount.

Matt knew what would be weighing on Justin’s heart if he were conscious, so Matt addressed it, as if he were: “Clay’s safe. You don’t need to worry about him. He’s doing well, and he’s been asking about you.”

He settled close, careful not to dislodge the tangled array of multi-colored tubes and wires. He lightly rested his fingers on Justin’s neck so he could feel the thrum of his pulse. He watched his son breathe. No sight on the planet could match it.

Matt had passed through the dark night, and here was the dawn—a restored hope.

He kissed Justin’s temple. He could feel the warmth of his skin through the fabric of the mask. Warm, alive.

“You are loved. Come back to us, kid. Come home.”

Chapter Text

The waiting had been miserable, but when they finally got the news about Justin’s surgery, and its successful outcome, the long hours vanished as if they had never existed at all. It was a post-game adrenaline rush, and they had won Championships. Jess danced with Sheri, a slow-dance of sisterly love and serene joy—arms locked around each other, rocking back and forth.

Zach was vocal in his celebration and Lainie’s sister, Rebecca, matched his enthusiasm, and exceeded it, which was impressive and bonded them instantly. When hospital security threatened to escort them from the building for excessive noise, it only made Zach’s happiness sharper, brighter, sweeter, because Justin would have found it hilarious to know it had happened on his behalf. Zach would tell him about it. He would tell him about Alex, too.

About how Alex had smiled, and had kept smiling, when he had heard the news, and he had even laughed, which transformed his whole face, his whole essence into something youthful and attractive. Zach took a picture with his phone, so he could show it to Justin later. Maybe he would tell him, “You’re an idiot, dude. This is how you make Alex feel. You won’t hurt him.” Or maybe he would keep it as a memento for the day Justin and Alex finally figured their shit out. Or maybe he would ask Clay to intercede and talk to Justin (and, therefore, also bear the brunt of any potential backlash). Endless possibilities. It was nice to have possibilities.

Carolyn brought them hospital blankets and they arranged the chairs to form makeshift beds. Jess stayed by Sheri, their voices rising and falling, rising and falling, in starts and stops, before tapering off into silence. Zach stayed by Alex, and they didn’t speak, but occasionally Alex’s leg would bump his, so Zach would bump back. They slept in spurts, and when they gave up sleep, Carolyn insisted that they get breakfast in the cafeteria.

Zach ate two plates, but, afterwards, he couldn’t remember what he had eaten or what the taste of it had been. It sat uncomfortably in his stomach. Jess and Sheri ate off each other's trays, picking and nibbling until everything was half-eaten. Alex didn’t eat anything. Zach didn’t comment because Carolyn commented enough for them both.

By late Saturday morning, none of them knew what to do with themselves.

Alex sat on the floor behind the vending machines, listening to music. Zach asked him what he was listening to, so Alex gave him one earbud. Zach heard the lyrics:

“Sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought
Of ever returning you
Would they be angry
If I thought of joining you?”

He immediately confiscated Alex’s earbuds and made him take a walk with him. Jess and Sheri went for a walk by themselves and subsequently got lost, so Alex had to give them directions by phone.

When they returned, they found Mr. Davis—who had stood at parade rest all night—snoozing in a chair with his hands steepled on his stomach. Alex went to talk to his mother, probably to pester her for information. Zach texted May. She had been sending him memes all morning, as well as a slew of cryptic photos (their mom’s green baking bowl, a block of tofu, May’s hands sprinkled with flour dust).

They were back to waiting, but it was the boring sort: waiting in line at the supermarket, waiting for math class to end, waiting in a traffic jam. It was not frantic. Not like before.

Justin was in the ICU, and they wouldn’t be allowed to visit him until he was released to a regular room, which could be in a few days or in a few weeks. Clay had tests in the morning, and they might be allowed to visit him, but only in the afternoon, and only if he wished. Clay might not wish it—it was very uncertain. They decided to stay on the off-chance that he would.

Scott showed up and informed them that the mission to kick Monty’s ass had not been a success; Monty had stayed hidden in his house, like a coward. Members of the basketball team began to trickle back in, too, wearing stickers from the local blood bank. They looked to Zach for guidance, and Zach didn’t know what to tell them because it wasn’t like they could do basketball drills in the middle of the hospital waiting room. Or joke around. Or play video games. Thankfully, they settled down and entertained themselves, without being too rowdy or foul-mouthed.

“Zach!”

“May?” He thought he had fallen asleep, even though he was standing, but that idea was dispelled when a flesh-and-blood May heaved against him. The force of her hug took him back a step, and he compensated by lifting her up and kissing her hair. He laughed. Then, he panicked. Shit shit shit. “You snuck out?”

“No, silly. If I had snuck out, I would have been here twelve hours ago, with coffee and sticky rice cakes. I did try, but Mom caught me. She’s the one who drove me here.”

Did the floor evaporate? Where was the ground? “She did what?”

May ignored the question, and Zach put it aside because May was wide-eyed and pale and clinging to his arm. “How are Clay and Justin?”

“They’re good, May. They’re okay.” I hope. Zach wanted to pick her up and twirl her around, which would have been okay at home, but she was pissy about that stuff in public, and he didn’t want to embarrass her. “Did...” He trailed off, because, yes, that really was his mom dragging a wheeled cart into the waiting area, and, yes, it was really piled high with their patterned dishware and with tins and plates of steaming home-cooked food.

May pulled him over and, wow, his mom must have been up all night preparing such a feast. Dumplings and beef noodles. Asparagus and lasagna. Spring rolls. Biscuits and gravy. Black sesame rice balls.

Before Zach could speak, his mom cut him off. “Security prohibited me from entering the hospital until they searched me, so I am very annoyed right now. I had to appeal to Alex’s father to get permission to bring this inside. I forgot to bring napkins because I didn’t remember until we were halfway here how slovenly some of your friends are. We’ll have to use the hospital’s. Show May where the cafeteria is.”

Zach stared at her. “You cooked all this?”

“You need to eat. Good food.”

“Yeah, but you said...” Zach was thoroughly confused.

“I stand by what I said. It’s shameful, Zachary.” She looked around the waiting room. “All these people. Crowding around, partaking in this poor family’s grief. It’ll be a burden on them—having to devote time to people’s sympathy, to their curiosity. The Jensens should be spending every minute focused on their children’s welfare, and each interruption steals away a precious second. Do you understand?”

Strangely, Zach did. After all, Mrs. Jensen had asked for privacy, and there was something about this tragedy that felt secret, felt delicate, felt not for them. But Zach firmly believed that they could honor the request for privacy and still stay—be supportive without being intrusive. He could see his mom’s point, though, and he recognized that it came out of respect for Matt and Lainie, and, by extension, Justin and Clay. It was a gesture of compassion, expressed through restraint and inaction.

His mom nodded curtly, and the crinkles by her eyes grew more pronounced, which meant turmoil. “I read some of the news reports. It’s a terrible thing. I kept thinking... You were going to be at the Jensens’ house today, and if those men had delayed their plans, I could have lost you. The idea is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable, Zachary.”

Her voice was cold and level and monotone, but she was giving him something. She was budging, for his sake. “I need you to know: When I got the call about your father, I did not just continue working. I couldn’t move for ten minutes, and, when I finally could, I broke my mug. I threw it against the wall.”

“Mom.” Zach didn’t know what to say, because he knew how much pride she took in repressing her emotions and in shouldering the burdens of the family without ever making them appear to be burdens. She bowed her head, and he bowed his, lower. In that motion, there was a different kind of respect and pride. Heritage and tradition. Culture and family.

Zach wanted to reveal something to her, something personal, because he thought she might be receptive to it, but she gave him a push and told him to close his mouth and find her a better spot to serve the food. Their location was too heavily trafficked and they must not impede the hospital’s primary function. Zach did as she asked. Their moment had ended, but it had been an important moment.

May was taking drink orders, whipping around from person to person, a fiery dynamo. His mom’s quiet resilience and her no-nonsense instructions helped balance the high energy, and it was a contrast that he ordinarily failed to appreciate.

They had a glorious spread, and the food was much better than the hospital’s (even Alex ate some, which spoke to its merit). Though his mom did not say it, in so many words, he heard it, I love you, when she stacked the empty dishes and then stayed at the hospital with them, to wait it out.

 


 

Lainie checked her phone, and she tapped her finger against the screen, counting the seconds. Nothing. Matt had been sending her pictures and video every ten minutes, but he was two minutes late. It was important to her that he stick to the schedule, even if every picture looked exactly the same: Justin sleeping in a rat’s nest of tubes and wires. (She wouldn’t use the word ‘unconscious.’ Justin was sleeping. Only sleeping.)

Lainie was stuck in the Imagery Center, but Matt’s visual updates almost made her feel like she was in the ICU with Justin. Almost. In reality, she wasn’t with either of her children. Clay was getting his CT scan, and she had not been allowed to go with him. Bill Standall was her welcome shadow, and as she paced, he paced with her.

Lainie was used to making things happen, to burning through cases with a driving purpose. She wasn’t used to being told, “No.” She wasn’t used to relying on someone else’s expertise. This last night had revealed that she also wasn’t used to having two children compete for prioritization in her heart. She had work she needed to do emotionally. Although she had walked through legal fire for Justin and they had formed a secure attachment, it wasn’t enough. Clearly, it wasn’t enough.

Should she go to an adoption therapist? She had worked hard to create a safe space, to separate Justin’s life now from his life before. Had that created a barrier between them? Maybe integration was the better course.

Should she take an extended trip with Justin? Yes. Only with Justin, a mother-son vacation, somewhere she had never taken Clay.

Should she tell Justin she loved him more often than she did? It was better to show it. Did she show it, enough? She thought she did. Justin was very physically affectionate, more so than Clay.

Did Clay get enough attention? They had devoted so much time to Justin’s issues and given him a touch more attentiveness to make up for the challenges he’d faced. Did Clay feel slighted?

Her steps slowed, her confidence wavering.

Bill interrupted her internal debate. “Lainie, I didn’t get a chance to say it to you earlier, but your boys—they did a hell of a thing last night.”

She stared at him blankly. He continued, “Taking down three armed and dangerous men, one of whom was ex-military, I’ve never seen the like, and I’ve been around some tough SOBs. You and Matt should be proud.”

Of all the things to say to her... “Proud? That’s the last thing I feel.”

Bill raised his hands in apology. “Maybe I phrased that wrong. I only meant that your boys protected each other. If it had been one of them, home alone... It’s a testament to their devotion that they’re both alive and safe.”

Lainie had been so caught up in the aftermath of what had happened that she hadn’t really stopped to consider the miracle of what hadn’t happened. By all rights, she should have been making arrangements at a funeral home. My sons, they died together. In the cruelest of ways. Is there a two-for-one discount? It was unthinkable. It could very well have happened. Yes, she should take pride in her children.

She tugged her lips upwards, an effortful action; it had been so easy yesterday morning when she had sent the boys off to school.

Yesterday morning might as well have been a decade ago.

“Clay and Justin... they put me and Matt to shame. How close they are... the depth of it... what they’ll do for each other... it’s not what I imagined when we decided to adopt Justin. I never anticipated what it would become. Or how much we would fail by comparison.”

Bill shook his head. “All parents feel like they don’t measure up. God knows, with Alex and what happened last year, it had me twisting in the wind. Lainie, you’ve done right by your boys. The glitch at the jail, it’s not on you.”

She hadn’t even been thinking of that failure. She was now. “You’ll make sure there’s an investigation? I don’t believe for a second that it was bad luck, Bill. I was assured that I would get the victim notification alert before Seth was due to be released. Days before. It had to be a bribe, or institutional corruption.”

“I won’t let it go unpunished. Somebody at the jail is going to face criminal charges and more than one person is going to lose their job. I promise you.” He hesitated. “Can we sit?”

Had she made him uncomfortable? She hadn’t meant to accuse him, specifically. None of it had been under his purview.

They sat, and the atmosphere shifted into something more formal. Bill’s tone became cautious and neutral. “I know a lot is going on—medically, legally, emotionally—but there’s something else about Justin we need to discuss. I wanted to wait, but the hospital’s breathing down my neck about it, and I don’t know how much longer I can hold them off.”

“What is it?” Lainie was well past the thresholds of propriety and courtesy. “Bill, spit it out, please. I appreciate the consideration, but it can’t get any worse for me at this point.”

Why had she said that? All it did was leave the door wide open for her to be proven wrong.

Bill didn’t quite meet her eyes, although he tried. “The hospital is requesting your consent to do a sexual assault examination kit on Justin.”

“Why? Why would they–?” She tried to rationalize the request. “Is it standard procedure after a trauma? Are they just being thorough?”

Bill hesitated again, and Lainie wanted to slap him. Didn’t he realize he was making this harder for her? “They found semen in his boxers. They think it’s his, Justin’s, but...”

Semen?

It didn’t mean anything. Lainie refused to let it mean anything. There were a million explanations, and most of them were perfectly innocent. “That’s– It doesn’t– Could it have been from earlier in the evening? You know how often teenage boys...” She snapped her mouth shut, hushing her next words.

It was a natural bodily function (what parent didn’t know their children did it?), but it felt insensitive to discuss her son’s masturbatory activities in this sterile setting, while he was lying unconscious in the ICU. Unconscious. Not sleeping. Because he had been the victim of a crime. Victimized.

Bill lowered his head. “I wish I could say it was a possibility, that it was self-pleasure, but the staff doesn’t think so. There are some lacerations and abrasions in the genital region, on the penis, and they think something happened. Given his age, they were obligated to inform law enforcement, and we’re obligated to inform a parent. Mandated reporting.”

“I know!” she snapped. “I know about mandated reporting! It’s–... it can’t be what they’re thinking.” She felt like she had plunged into the frigid waters of the Idaho lake that bordered the farm where Matt had grown up. Matt had dared her to jump into it when he had taken her to meet his parents for the first time, and the cold had paralyzed her lungs and shocked her nerves. Unable to inhale, teeth chattering to the point of breaking... that was how she felt now.

She wrapped her arms protectively around her torso. “Clay didn’t mention–, I don’t think he would have left something like that out. He was so uninhibited earlier, and then he gave such a detailed report to the detectives. The hospital’s wrong. They’re wrong. Clay would know...”

But even if he did know, would he say anything? Was it possible he could hold on to that secret while drugged to the gills?

Bill put his hand on her shoulder, and she understood now why Clay had not wanted her to touch him earlier. The internal pain was too acute. Assuaging it with physical contact seemed an affront.

Bill tacitly removed his hand and leaned back in his chair. “It’s possible Clay didn’t see. A lot was going on. I know it’s the last thing on your mind, but the more evidence we have preserved, the more charges we can throw at Shane and Raymond. You don’t have to approve all the procedures in the kit. Some are quite invasive, and with Justin being unconscious and unable to consent... we know it’s a delicate issue. There is a narrow window for evidence collection, so the sooner, the better.” Bill sighed. “I’m sorry to lay this on you, on top of everything else. The timing is terrible.”

Lainie cycled through the emotions at her disposal; anger was the most accessible. “God, Bill! You think there’s good timing for something like this? To imply that someone...” She dug her fingers into her temples. “I’m sorry. I’m frazzled. What procedures are they requesting be done?”

“That’s completely up to you and Matt. Ideally, a nurse would take some swabs. Take some pictures. Collect skin and hair samples. Bag Justin’s underwear and turn it over to the detectives as potential evidence.”

As parents, how could they allow it? As parents, how could they refuse it?

“Lacerations and abrasions?” she repeated weakly.

“Yes.” Bill crossed his arms, and his voice hardened. “And irritation to the urethra.”

“To the urethra? How is that possible?” Her heart was exposed, and she felt like it was spewing blood—Justin’s blood—and, by so doing, showing how defective its chambers and valves were.

He gave her an appraising look. “It’s probably best not to speculate.”

I can speculate as much as I damn well please.

“How?”

“Lainie, it’s not necessary to fixate on—”

“Tell me!”

“If an object, or a finger, was inserted up into—”

“Stop! Okay, stop.” Lainie had never felt so strained, so stretched, so defeated by life. She was approaching the ends of her ability to stay standing. Matt was usually the one to help her find her footing. “I’ll need to talk to Matt.”

“Of course.”

“And I should speak privately to Clay.” God, did she have to worry about him, too? Why would Justin have been singled out? Had one of the men...? Or multiple men...?

Her family was passing through the nine circles of Hell. Clay and Justin had gone first. She and Matt were trailing behind. What three-headed beast awaited them at the center? Could she slay it before it devoured her sons?

Or had they already been devoured?

 


 

Mr. Standall came and went throughout the afternoon, but the report was always the same: Clay was doing well, but he wasn’t prepared to see them; Justin was doing well, but his condition couldn’t be upgraded yet. When pressed for more information, Mr. Standall only said, “It was an ordeal, and it’s taking its toll, but they’ll be back on their feet soon.”

Zach had once made a study of Alex’s father during the days they had spent by Alex’s bedside, and, as a result, he noticed a tremor in Mr. Standall’s bearing. It was outwardly subtle—a double stitch coming loose on a baseball, no disruption to the integrity of the red thread. But it spoke to something shell-shocked inside and—because Mr. Standall wasn’t easy to spook—it set off an earthquake in Zach’s mind.

You’re lying to us. Justin and Clay won’t be back on their feet soon. This was Alex, re-learning how to swallow and then forgetting how to chew a day later. This was Tyler, avoiding the bathrooms at school and pissing in a bucket in the janitor’s closet while someone stood guard for him. This was Zach’s mom, throwing a mug at the wall when she heard about his dad, but taking a year to confide in him about it.

Jess. Alex. Justin. Clay. Why was everything in his friends’ lives an angry struggle? Why couldn’t the pain be more evenly spread—shared among them all equally and at the same time? Instead, each anvil insisted on dropping on one person, straight down, thwap!, not cracking his friends, but shattering them. It was so much easier to fix cracks than it was to piece shards back together.

Zach would have to learn pottery. Or welding. Or stock up on a shit-ton of epoxy and glue. He’d done it before, for Alex. He could do it again, for Clay and Justin.

Zach’s mom, in her own way, had tried to do it for him and May. She hadn’t been effective at it after his dad had died, but today, she was amazing.

If his mom felt like an uninvited guest, she sure didn’t show it. She spent the afternoon talking to Rebecca and Carolyn, and the three of them generated lists of practical matters that would need attention in the days and weeks to come: contacting a crime scene cleanup company, consulting the Jensens’ home insurance policy, putting together self-care boxes for Matt and Lainie, disposing of any perishable food in the Jensens’ fridge, taking care of Lainie’s house plants, getting the mail, providing meals, and—most importantly—figuring out how Rebecca would accommodate four more people in her cramped house until the Jensens could find permanent housing. (Staying with the Standalls was repeatedly offered up as an option.)

Zach hated to think of it—the Jensens moving. He knew what their house meant to Justin; home for him had been a tenuous construction before the Jensens had welcomed him into their family. It was also Clay’s childhood home. It seemed unfair to him to abandon years of good memories because of one bad night.

Was it possible to rehabilitate a house? Zach could knock down a few walls. Rearrange the furniture. Repaint. Even redecorate... if May and Jess helped him.

Shit. What the hell was he thinking? It wasn’t his place to consider it, or to try to reclaim the space for them. Jess still slept in her bedroom after what Bryce had done to her, and Alex still used his bathroom after he had shot himself there, but those were their decisions. Their choices. If the Jensens thought they should move, then they should move. Maybe it had been Clay’s idea.

The crime at their house—it had been violent, and prolonged. The Sheriff’s Department had revealed the timeline of events: The three men who had broken into the Jensens’ house had been there for nearly thirty minutes before the 911 call. A half hour was a long time. Zach had a vivid imagination, but not vivid enough to fill thirty minutes.

It didn’t help that the local news had pounced on the story. They were, predictably, sensationalizing the event. And spinning falsehoods. According to them, the town had nothing to fear because it hadn’t been a random attack. It had been a “personal vendetta against the troubled adopted son.” They were making it sound like it was Justin’s fault and they were heaping praise on the unnamed family member who had single-handedly taken down three nefarious men. The Jensens were being called heroic, charitable, naive, irresponsible, commendable... Everyone had an opinion.

It was a shitshow, and it bothered all of them, but no one more than Alex. He screamed at a medical worker for saying Seth’s name. He threw his phone at a bald guy who steadfastly refused to change the TV channel; a special segment — Evergreen’s Grisly Home Invasion: An Inside Look — was airing, and the asshole thought it was fascinating. Zach hurried Alex out into the hospital corridor, and Alex opened his box of Sour Patch Kids and tossed the candy pieces, one by one, into the trash can. His aim was shit, so Zach stood by the trash can and caught them instead.

May came to the rescue and provided a much-needed distraction. She had brought five decks of cards from home, so they split up into groups to play Crazy Eights, War, Poker, and Hearts. May humored Jamarcus by playing Go Fish, which was way too juvenile for her but the right speed for him. No one won. No one lost. They weren’t keeping score. They were simply trudging through the hours.

Eventually, his friends started to get restless. Zach again felt a pressure to set the tone. To lead. To direct the emotional traffic. He was out of his depth, but his mother’s example provided an inspiration.

“Hey, listen up! Everybody shut up for a second!” He had their attention, but it didn’t feel stirring, like it did at a game. It felt nerve-racking, like it did in class when he had to give a presentation. “Look, we’re not doing anyone any good playing cards or sitting with our thumbs up our asses. So, the new game plan is: We’re going to study for final exams.” He was met with disbelieving stares, so he added: “What happened isn’t an excuse to slack off. We’re not going to exploit Clay and Justin and use them as the reason we tanked our finals. It’s disrespectful.”

Russell threw his cards at him. “Very funny, Dempsey.”

Zach stood his ground. “I’m serious, actually. Clay’s been tutoring me, and Alex, and Sheri, and he tried to help you Jamarcus, even though you’re a fucking dick to him all the time. So, we’re going to study, in honor of Clay.”

He focused on his teammates since they were the harder sell. “Justin could be out for the season, but he’s still co-captain. That won’t change, no matter what happens. He wouldn’t want any of you lazy assholes getting kicked off the team because you couldn’t make the grades. No one’s getting lower than a B, okay? In honor of Justin.”

Scott nodded enthusiastically. The rest of them either nodded reluctantly or shrugged their shoulders. Jess came to Zach’s side to offer support. “We’ll be the substitute tutors. Sheri’s awesome at math. I’m acing English. Alex is decent in history. Scott...”

“I’ve got an A in bio.” He flexed his biceps and stuck his tongue out because he was Scott, and Scott did weird shit like that.

Russell tackled him to the floor (which was a natural response... except it was gross, given that they were in a hospital). “Yeah, ‘cuz you have all that practical experience. Human anatomy, am I right?”

Zach ignored their antics. “Pick your weakest subject area, find someone who’s good at it to help you, and then swap. Or go study in a corner by yourself. Or go home and study, if that’s what works for you. Let’s make this time count for something.”

Zach was surprised when they did as he asked. Scott recruited Ibrahim to go round up their textbooks. Mr. Davis went home to get Jess’s laptop and bookbag. Alex claimed he didn’t need to study, so Zach told him to take a nap instead. (Alex promptly agreed to study; Zach would have preferred Alex take a nap—his impulse control was shot.)

As Zach arranged the chairs into circular groupings, he saw his mom watching him with approval, the barest hint of a smile on her face.

 


 

Lainie deposited the bag of personal items on the bed and helped Clay sort through them. She had made a thorough list for her sister, and Rebecca had run by the house to retrieve the requested items. Justin’s blue hoodie was at the bottom of the pile. Lainie picked it up and held it to her face. She took in his scent, and it helped, a little. She offered it to Clay, hoping it would soothe him in a way that she could not.

“What?” he scoffed. “Aunt Becky couldn’t find one of mine?” He narrowed his eyes at it. “I bet that isn’t even clean. Did she find it on the floor? Justin’s fucking disgusting.”

“She did bring yours.” Lainie nodded to where it lay on top of the stack of pants and underwear. Clay’s scowl deepened, and he reached for Justin’s hoodie, accepting it from her hands with a veneration that surpassed her own.

Lainie had requested that Rebecca spray the hoodie with Justin’s cologne before bringing it to the hospital. Clay wouldn’t appreciate it, if he knew. But she was haunted by the image of him sticking Justin’s blood in his mouth and she wanted to give him something to ground him, something that reminded him of his brother, but was more... hygienic.

They wore slightly different sizes, but it wasn’t rare to see Justin in the same shirt that Clay had worn earlier in the week, to Clay’s (rather dramatic) dismay. But, equally as often, Clay was caught in something of Justin’s, although he would claim that the article of clothing, in fact, belonged to him. It was a private game for her and Matt—guessing who really owned what, placing bets, and then checking the size tag to crown the winner. Lainie had a near perfect record.

“Here, let me help you.” Lainie held the sleeve of the hoodie until Clay’s fingers poked through and she draped the other end around his shoulder. “Do you want to put your other arm through? We can remove the sling.”

“Fuck, no.” Clay took a deep, rattling breath. “Doing this was painful enough.”

“Okay.” She zipped the hoodie up for him and her hand lingered. “Clay...” She couldn’t ask this of him. How cruel a mother was she? “Can we go over what happened at the house again, just you and me?”

“God, Mom, seriously?” His eyes flashed. “I already told you everything. You’re supposed to be on my side. Stop badgering me.”

“Clay, I am on your side. Always.” She wished she could coddle him. But she could not let herself be dissuaded. This conversation had to happen, and the longer she let it go, the more daunting it would become. “When we went over everything, with the lawyer and the deputy here, you might not have felt comfortable revealing some of the details? And all of the details, no matter how small, could be important.”

He reddened and his fury built up to critical mass before he shoved it in her direction. She felt the force of it and did not flinch. “What are you talking about, Mom? I gave you every gory detail. That asshole Shane broke my ribs, and then Seth broke my arm, and he did my fingers, too, just for kicks. Oh, wait, no, actually, he did it for Justin’s viewing pleasure, which was great, five out of five stars, I’m sure. They brought out the gasoline, and I was opposed to the idea, but, hey, what I wanted didn’t matter, and I got to take a refreshing shower. Which I’ll never be able to wash off. And Justin–”

Clay broke off and curled his legs up towards his chest. The motion was choppy and uncoordinated. Slow and painful. “I don’t want to talk about it! I don’t want to rehash it. I know you’re gonna make me go over it with the lawyers and probably my therapist, ad nauseam. I’m sick of this shit.”

He sniffed the sleeve of the hoodie (she had been right; it did comfort him). Clay pulled it with his teeth until it covered his hand. “Can’t I... Can’t I at least wait until I know Justin’s okay?”

There were only two questions. Two simple (frightful) questions. She would have to be blunt, to get it out as fast as possible: “Clay, did any of the men sexually assault you?”

His answer was quick and dismissive. “What? No.”

She wasn’t reassured because there was a distancing effect in his denial, and she saw the slightest tinge of panic in his expression. It confirmed what Lainie had already known, in her heart, even though her brain had filed a motion to suppress the evidence. “Did one of them assault Justin?”

“Why?” He shifted and fidgeted. “Why would you ask that?”

“The hospital staff found semen in his boxers.”

Clay blanched. “Justin’s...?”

“Yes, most likely.”

Clay pitched forward, and Lainie grabbed the emesis basin, but Clay ripped it out of her hands and slammed it into his water pitcher. It clattered to the floor and the basin followed, spinning like a tilt-a-whirl, around and around, a metallic clangor that went on and on.

Clay dry heaved, and it was all the worse because of his broken ribs. He clawed at the handrail, levering himself upright.

“It wasn’t his fault, Mom. He didn’t want it, he didn’t want it!”

“Clay Matthew,” she whispered, horrified. He had to know she would never believe otherwise. “Of course it wasn’t his fault.” She raised the bed, and Clay settled back, but he wouldn’t look at her. “You need to tell me what happened.”

“I can’t! I can’t say anything. He wouldn’t want me to tell you.”

She gripped his jaw, uncompromising. “You need to trust me with this, so I can make the best decisions for Justin’s care. Otherwise, I’m going to have to make assumptions and take the most thorough course of action. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Lainie had resigned him to it, but she could tell he resented her. She could ponder that later: Why he felt he had to conceal this one terrible detail, but not any of the others.

“Seth,” Clay choked out. “He... he tortured him, Mom. He was—he was on top of him and he was, I don’t know, assaulting his mouth with his gun, and I didn’t see it, but Justin’s jeans were unbuttoned, so maybe he forced him to...”

There were tears on Clay’s eyelashes, little beads of moisture desperately clinging—until he scrubbed them away. “He was in so much pain, and Seth was trying to make it worse. He was touching him, and Justin was screaming, and Seth was enjoying it. Not sexually, but, like, in a dominance kind of way? Fuck, I don’t know! Seth was only getting started when I shot him. He could have– fuck, he could have done anything, if I hadn’t–” Clay’s voice dropped until it was barely anything, and when he looked at her, she saw what it cost him, to confess this. “I should have helped Justin sooner. Killed Seth sooner.”

Her son was treading into a treacherous maelstrom of what-ifs, so she tried to wrench him back, but gently, with consideration and care. “No. You did everything right.”

“How can you say that, Mom? You don’t fucking know.”

“I know, because I know you. To your bones, I know you. You did all the right things because you survived. And so did your brother. You watched over him when nobody else could.”

Clay was breathing so harshly that he couldn’t speak, and Lainie was fully prepared for it to devolve into a panic attack, but she waited him out, and he recovered. “I fixed Justin’s pants, after, but I wasn’t trying to hide anything. I wanted to protect him. That’s all. Just protect him.”

“You did protect him, Clay. And that’s what I’m trying to do, too. There could be medical concerns and legal implications, and I need to make sure I understand: Seth forced Justin to perform oral sex?”

“No! Well, yes, with his gun, but it was only the gun.”

“Simulated oral sex?” she clarified.

“I guess.” He bit his lip, and Lainie bit hers, and the image of Justin with his stitched lips came to her mind. God, was that how...?

Clay grimaced. “It felt like... it felt like I was watching Seth rape him, even if that’s not what it was. Does what Seth did even count as sexual assault?”

Lainie would have to look up the statute. She was reasonably certain it counted as Lewd and Lascivious Acts with a Minor By Force or Fear. And even if it hadn’t been rape, per se, the effects of it were certainly akin to rape. As for the other part... She was loath to dive into the minutiae of the law, but Clay was asking, and she owed it to him to be honest. “If Seth intentionally touched Justin in order to sexually arouse or gratify him, it was definitely sexual assault.” She took a breath, knowing that Clay’s forthcoming answer would solidify what Bill had told her, and make it undeniably real. “Is that what you think Seth did?”

“I have to say it?” Clay yanked the zipper of his hoodie all the way down. “Yes, he might have... jerked him off. After he fucking shot him! While Justin was bleeding to death!”

Lainie blinked and blinked and watched the shimmers. She could think of nothing to say. Some things, there were no words for.

What Seth had done—

It was too much. Too much. It hurt her. It hurt. It hurt to think of it, and it hurt all the more that it had happened after Justin had been shot—his spleen ruptured, his stomach torn open, scared for his brother and himself, pinned down, and forced to orgasm.

She could not accept it. She could not. Yet, she had to accept it, because it had happened, to Justin. And it had happened, to Clay. It was torture for her to think of it, but it had been more than torture for them to experience it.

Clay held up his hand and studied it, as if searching for blood, and perhaps he saw it—the stain of memory. Lainie held Clay’s shaking hand in hers, validating his pain. Too late, she realized it was her hand that was shaking more, and not his, and they were united in a staccato trembling until Clay’s grip steadied them both. It was humbling, to be comforted when she was the one who was supposed to be the comforter.

“Do you see why this was pointless?” Clay snatched his hand away. “Seth’s dead. He can’t pay for what he did. There’s no justice. There’s never any justice.”

Lainie couldn’t disagree. The only legal recourse left was one she did not wish to consider. “It was only Seth who did anything? Shane or Raymond didn’t... participate?”

“Only Seth.”

Small mercies. “Okay.”

Clay struggled to pull the hoodie off, so Lainie assisted him, and when it was done, Clay tossed it into the bag, as if he couldn’t stand to look at it. “God,” he fumed. “I hate that you made me tell you! Justin’s going to hate me. He’ll never forgive me.”

Lainie couldn’t fathom how he had come to such a conclusion. “He’ll understand, if you tell him why. You can put it on me, and on the hospital.” She paused and then misjudged what he needed, or wanted, to hear: “Justin will forgive you. He adores you, Clay.”

“Adores me? What are we, three years old? The only thing Justin adores is being a complete asshole. It’s his defining trait.”

“Clay...”

“He was going to leave with Seth. I left that part out, to protect you, but, yeah, Justin wanted to go with him. Wanted to spend some nice, private bonding time with that psycho, rather than fight back with me. We would probably have found his body three years later, dismembered and strewn across five states.”

Lainie wasn’t surprised by the revelation. She knew how Justin and Clay were with each other. “Justin was trying to look out for you.” And that’s why you’re angry.

“Well, he didn’t do a very good job.” He indicated his face with a sweep of his hand. “Do I fucking look okay?” He prodded his swollen nose. “I hate him. I fucking hate him. We should never have adopted him.”

Lainie gasped—a single catch of air—and Clay recoiled. “Fuck.” He unleashed the longest string of curse words she had ever heard, and they were quite inventive and creative (and probably courtesy of his brother), and then he was back to a muted and restrained form of crying. She let his tears come and did not try to direct their flow. He was having trouble regulating his emotions. Trauma was the predominant factor, but sleep deprivation and pain meds were synergistically contributing.

Clay grabbed at the bag and pulled the hoodie out, for the second time, and buried his face in it. Snot and sweat and drool... the hoodie had been clean before, but it certainly was not clean now. Maybe it was better that way. Sometimes, things should be dirty and ugly. Not erased or painted over. Allowed to exist in their raw form.

“Will you leave me alone?” Clay asked wretchedly.

She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t leave him. She didn’t want him to feel like there was anything shameful in what he had expressed, that he was less worthy of connection for her having heard it. “I’m going to stay with you.”

He raised his head defiantly. “I want to be alone! You have no idea, Mom! No idea what it was like for us. I couldn’t get away from Seth, or get Justin away from him, and it’s like I’m still back there, trapped. I... I need space. No one will give me a single fucking moment by myself.” He glared at her, and, for a horrible drawn-out second, she imagined him with a gun in his hand. “What part of leave me alone did you not understand? Get the fuck out!”

She left him alone. He had been intruded upon, by her. He had been coerced into talking, by her. She needed to give him back his sense of personal power. She also needed to run to the restroom so she could retch for ten minutes straight.

She thought about Clay, who had vomited gasoline mixed with blood, and about Justin, who could have been shot through the mouth if Seth’s finger had twitched on the trigger. Her oldest child, who had only ever previously broken one bone—a minor break, jumping off the porch, pretending to be Superman—had had seven bones broken in one night. Her youngest child, who had survived a childhood filled with abuse and neglect, had been forcibly held down and assaulted, twice over, by his former abuser.

Gasoline and fracture reductions. Laparotomies and rape kits.

Counseling and therapy seemed such paltry things, to contend with so much hurt.

 


 

Thirty minutes. Lainie gave Clay thirty minutes, then she wiped her tears with toilet paper, splashed cold water on her face, and emerged from her refuge. She returned to her son’s room and knocked on the door, waiting for permission. He didn’t shout at her to leave. All he said was: “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean what I said.”

“I know.” She didn’t enter the room. “Can I come in and sit with you?”

“Yes.”

Lainie approached slowly, and she gave Clay her phone, showed him the latest picture of Justin that Matt had sent.

“I wish...” Clay touched the screen. “I wish we had adopted Justin as a baby.”

Oh, honey. It was a balm to her bruised soul: hearing something unexpected that wasn’t gruesome or vile, but that was tender and warm and without taint. “That’s a beautiful thought.” It was beautiful. But Lainie wouldn’t say she wished it, too, because Justin’s past was a part of him, and she loved every part of him. She loved him exactly as he had come to them, and exactly as he was. “Why don’t we... Why don’t we record messages for your brother? And send them to your dad?”

Clay’s smile started off listless, but it worked its way towards something resembling affection. “He’d like that. Justin loves to have people fawn over him. Do you know what cynosure means?”

“No. Tell me.”

“It’s the constellation Ursa Minor. But... it also means, like, a person that attracts attention. Like, no matter what, if you look for them, they’re there. Easy to spot. A focal point.”

Matt and Clay were the astronomers of the family, but Lainie had absorbed enough knowledge over the years by passively listening to them. “The North Star?”

“Yeah. Polaris.”

She retrieved the water pitcher from the floor, and her phone buzzed with an incoming message. She had to hold herself back from rushing over to see it. “Well, you and Justin are my two North Stars.”

Clay held up her phone so she could see the new photo; Matt had tried a different angle this time, so it was novel and exciting. And dreary, because it would be the last one they would receive for a while. It cut Lainie apart, to know what was about to happen to Justin, and to not know if it was the correct decision.

Clay scrolled back and forth through the photos. “In your message, do not call Justin your ‘North Star.’ That’s saccharine. And cliché. He’ll never wake up, out of secondhand embarrassment.”

Lainie looked from Justin, on her phone, to Clay, in his bed. “A binary star system, then. Twin stars, orbiting so closely they appear as one.” She submitted it to him for approval. “How’s that?” My twin stars.

“God, Mom. That’s even worse. Justin and I aren’t gravitationally bound.” Clay pondered the idea, and when he spoke, he sounded more like Clay, more like her son. “If we were, we’d probably explode into twin supernovae and turn into black holes. Which is actually an appropriate metaphor for our lives. Maybe you should call Justin your ‘supermassive black hole.’ Alex would get that joke.” He glanced at her. “Is Alex still here?”

“He is. Do you want to see him?”

“Yeah.” He ran his hand through his hair, patting and smoothing it at the sides.

Lainie dug through the bag and handed him his comb. “Anyone else?”

“Jess. Zach, I guess. Sheri?”

“She’s here.” It was encouraging, that he wanted to engage with his friends. It was buoying, that his intellectual spark had returned, even if it was sputtering and confused and nihilistic.

“Just them. But... not for too long.”

“Scratch your eyebrow, and I’ll run interference and invent a medical test to get them to leave.” And if you start ranting, or sobbing, or injuring yourself, or any combination thereof, I’ll usher them out and blame it on the hard drugs.

 


 

Bill stood, shoulder to shoulder, with Matt. They were outside the drawn curtain, outside the glass divider, while the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner administered the kit.

Matt talked, because he seemed to need to talk, and Bill listened and gave his input only when there was a lull.

Silence was the enemy, here.

“We are extremely conflicted about doing this.” Matt’s voice was raspy, and thick as tar. “Authorizing an examination without Justin’s consent... We don’t want it to feel like another violation. We’re his parents, for god’s sake. We’re not like that... that animal.”

Bill deliberately adjusted his badge, to remind Matt that he had a professional perspective that was biased, but he also touched Matt’s arm, to remind him that he had a parental bias, too, and it was in agreement. “I think it’s the right call. Justin can’t speak for himself, so you have to advocate for him. You can withdraw consent for the kit to be used as evidence when Justin regains consciousness, according to his wishes.” Bill made sure to say when, not if, and to emphasize the word in the sentence.

Matt put his hands in his pockets. He removed them almost immediately. Stroked his beard. Looked down the hall. Looked up at the fluorescent lights. “We’re not–, we’re not doing it for legal purposes. Not primarily; we’re not sure that’s a viable route. It’s more... we can’t be sure how far the assault went, and we don’t want to miss anything, not with all of Justin’s other medical issues. Lainie thought post-exposure prophylaxis would be a good idea, so we’re doing that as well. There’s only a 72-hour window for it to be started after possible exposure to HIV, and the medical report says there were bleeding wounds... down there, and Justin had that other man’s blood in his mouth after he bit him, so we’re–” Matt gave him a pleading look—a father asking a father. “It’s better to be cautious, don’t you think?”

“I do.” For the Jensens, the world was upside down, dark and twisted. Bill didn’t know how to restore its rightful arrangement for them. All he could do was shore up the foundations, pile up the sandbags, and ride out the storm. “I’ve been where you are. Not in the same way, but in the same way. When it’s your kid, in situations like these, it’s always hell. We’re here for you, me and Carolyn, whatever we can do for your family.”

Bill thought his hollow words might come off poorly, because, in a way, they were useless bullshit. The best thing Bill could have done was beyond him: Turn back time, and arrive at the Jensens’ house thirty minutes earlier than he had. Fifty, to be safe.

“You’ve been a godsend, Bill. Having it be you, and not a stranger, it means everything.” Matt held out his hand, and Bill took it with both of his, folding one hand over, one hand under, which wasn’t the way he normally shook hands. He preferred a crushing, aggressive grip, to assert his authority, but, today, something softer was warranted.

“They’re taking him off the ventilator, later tonight.”

“That’s a good step,” Bill said. “Encouraging.”

“It is. Justin hasn’t developed a fever, and I know it’s early, but with the risk of infection... it shows that his body is strong. That he’s strong.”

Bill chuckled. “Don’t I know it. I’ve seen Justin on the basketball court. And I’ve seen Clay tutor Alex, and that takes a strength of will that I certainly don’t possess. Your boys are fierce. Up for any challenge.”

Matt rocked back on his heels. “Clay’s surgery is scheduled for Monday. Monday? Yeah, Monday, which is... two days from now? They’ve worked him in quickly, which is good because we don’t want the bone to start healing wrong and have to be re-broken.”

“No, definitely not.” There’s been more than enough fractures. Enough for five lifetimes.

Matt froze, and he brought his hand up to his head. “I never even thought... You really should have Carolyn take Alex home. Being here, it must be hard on him. Could bring back unpleasant memories.”

Of course Matt would think of Bill’s child, even while his own children were in dire straits. He was a considerate man. It was why Bill never minded that Alex spent so much time at the Jensens’ house; he knew his kid would be well looked after. And, although it was unspoken, Bill thought he knew something about his son, and about Matt’s son. About them, together. Maybe nothing would come of it, but if something did, it was one more thing to unite them, as fathers.

“I’d have to put Alex in handcuffs to get him to leave the hospital. And then I’d have to lock him in his room to get him to stay there. He’s very fond of your boys, you know.”

The clouds parted, very briefly, and there was something light in the air, a trusting camaraderie between them. “Is he perhaps fond of one, differently than the other?”

Bill kept himself from cracking a smile. Matt was also a discerning man. “I wouldn’t claim to know.”

“Me neither.”

“I wouldn’t be opposed.”

“Nor would I.”

Their conversation rambled onwards, directionless and nonspecific. Bill prayed that it bolstered Matt. That it made what was happening on the other side of that curtain less visceral, less lurid.

He doubted it. If it were Alex, Bill would be at the shooting range, pretending that every target was the perpetrator. Or he’d be at the jail, dispensing his own form of justice.

Or he’d be creating a cemetery in his mind, and digging three graves.

Chapter Text

Saturday, December 8th

Jess sat her gift down on the table by the door. It was already overflowing with flowers and balloons and piles and piles of cards. Her friends followed suit, and Lainie came over to greet them. She reminded Jess of Mrs. Baker—weary and trampled—but, unlike Mrs. Baker, there was a suggestion of shriveled petals that, with the proper care, could be nursed back to health.

When did I become such an optimist? Or so flowery?

“Hey, Clay.”

“Hey, Jess.” Clay removed the ice pack from his nose and Jess selfishly wished he had kept it there. Put it back. I don’t want to see the evidence. I don’t want to think of you being beaten... of your bones cracking... of gunshots...

Clay attempted a smile. “It’s not as bad as it looks, really.”

It looked pretty bad to Jess. “Don’t, Clay. Don’t downplay what they did to you. Just—don’t.”

Clay gave a small shrug. His eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. His skin was a kaleidoscope of blues and purples and blacks and reds. She followed the twists and whorls, the lumps and fissures, trying to pinpoint a meaning. It was abstract and intangible. Her best interpretation of this painting: a scarred boy, experiencing ambiguous emotions.

How many times would Clay throw himself between the cruel world and the people he loved? He always made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal. It was a big deal. Jess was tired of seeing him bruised and run-down. She didn’t want Clay to habituate himself to it, or come to expect it. (Justin was not a role model to whom Clay should aspire, not in this respect.)

Clay sat up straighter, and Jess noticed with a pang that there was a blue hoodie in his lap; she thought it might be Justin’s and that, more than anything, brought home to her the tragedy of what had happened. An entire piece of Clay was missing, a vital piece, and without it... No, that wasn’t right. Justin was the one who had lost an organ, who had lost a critical component. Why was she mixing them up?

Jess wouldn’t have believed it possible a year ago, that Clay and Justin, of all people, could form a constructive unit. They had diametrically opposed personalities (complementary personalities?). Their ideologies clashed (or were they merging?). They were two derailing trains crashing into each other (surprisingly, not a train wreck, but a beautiful collision).

What Jess was witnessing now, though, this wasn’t fusion.

This was fission. The splitting apart. The schism.

“I’m okay,” Clay said, with a stubborn tilt to his jaw.

“‘Okay’ is subjective.” Jess walked to his bed, at a leisurely pace, lest she spook him. “You’re probably in a lot of pain. Do you want a hug, or no?” He didn’t answer, so she didn’t hug him. She had somehow known that he couldn’t handle physical stimuli right now, which was why she had asked, so that the others would know, too. Her friends would get the message without it being awkward.

Correction: Those of her friends who weren’t completely oblivious would get the message.

Zach hurried over and offered a fist bump, Jess had no idea why. Clay associated the gesture with bro culture, and he was extremely dismissive of it as a means of bonding. Of course, Justin never cared what Clay thought, and he would fist bump, high five, hug, or wrestle Clay whenever he was in the mood, and, because it was Justin, Clay begrudgingly put up with it.

With Zach...

Clay stared at him with apprehension. Then, something softened, and, with a shaky grin, Clay tapped his knuckles against Zach’s. It was an odd moment between them, but Jess saw Justin in it because Justin linked Zach to Clay and Clay to Zach. She thought it might be Zach’s way of saying, I’m going to look after you until Justin can step back up to the plate. Or, maybe, Thank you for saving my best friend. To Clay, it probably meant: I appreciate you on your own merits, but you’re not a substitute for Justin, and I’m only deigning to do this because Justin would complain about it if he knew I didn’t, and I’m not uptight, not about physical contact, even if I do still have reservations about our friendship and... In Jess’s mind, Clay always had a lot to say, on any subject.

Clay half-heartedly gestured at his sling. “There goes my sports scholarship, right?”

“Yeah, man,” Zach said. “I wasn’t going to mention it to the recruiters, but since you brought it up, we’ll have to come up with some sort of cover story.”

“I’m right-handed, so I’m good. I can still throw a ball.”

Alex unceremoniously dropped his teddy bears on Clay’s blanket. “At least you’ll get out of PE. If you milk the recovery time, you could get excused for second semester.”

“I plan to.” Clay accepted Sheri’s gift (a well-worn copy of All the Pretty Horses), and he thumbed the earmarked pages. “Justin and I can take AP Studio Art instead.”

“Terrifying.” Jess laughed, but it came out shrill and high-pitched. So fake. She would be the worst actress. “Justin with a paintbrush? No. Just no. I think we should make him take Creative Writing. Poetry, specifically.”

“Hilarious,” Clay said, although he didn’t sound like he thought it was funny. His voice was strangled, and every sentence petered off at the second word, like he was trying to appear casual but giving up the effort as soon as the air passed his lips. “He could say stupid shit in iambic pentameter. Or annoy me in dactylic hexameter.”

“Uh, sure. I mean... were you, uh–” Zach’s brows furrowed, and if you didn’t know him, it might come off as dumb jock, but Jess knew it was really anxious friend. They were all nervous and on edge, blindfolded and trying to navigate a labyrinth. They knew not to mention Seth or allude to any of last night’s events, but idle chatter didn’t seem the way to go either.

One wrong word...

A live grenade was in the room with them, and they all had their fingers on its firing pin.

“My brain’s scrambled,” Clay admitted quietly. “I keep thinking in chunks and everything’s loud, with no continuation or closure. I feel–” Clay paused, and maybe it was because he didn’t actually know how he felt. Or maybe because he felt too much.

“Are you overwhelmed by your existence?” Alex asked, with a remarkable lack of tact.

Jess pierced Alex with her most withering glare (to let him know that they would talk later).

“Yes.” Clay seemed to relax into the sentiment and wrap it around himself, which Jess did not think was a good psychological safety blanket. Rigidly, Clay inspected his fingernails, and he did so with a bizarre mixture of satisfaction and antipathy. “Actually, no, not exactly. It’s more like... survivor’s guilt.”

Jess swallowed around the lump in her throat. Was Clay talking about Justin, or about Seth?

She wanted to reach out and shake him. She wanted to shout: “Justin’s not dead! And he’s not going to die! We’re glad you killed Seth! Why would you feel guilty?” Here was her new interpretation of the painting that was her friend: a bereft boy, grieving someone who is still alive.

Jess found her calm center and sat in the chair by Clay’s bed. “We’re glad that you’re okay. What can we do to help you?”

Clay looked beseechingly at Alex. “Talk to your mom.”

“Sure. About what?”

“They’re holding me hostage until tomorrow for ‘observation’, even though I don’t have any symptoms of pneumonia and they’re not doing any more tests.” Clay pushed himself back against his sheets, and Jess went to work sorting his pillows, trying to help him find a more comfortable position. “You know how Justin has a fuck-ton of abandonment issues?”

“Clearly,” Sheri said.

“Understatement,” Jess agreed.

“Does he?” Zach asked, his thumb on his chin.

With a grunt, Clay grabbed Alex’s teddy bears, and he traced the red heart that connected them. “The thing is, I may have promised Justin that I wouldn’t leave him, and he was bleeding all over me at the time, so it’s kind of a blood oath.” He looked at each of them, in turn. “Four pints of blood, that has to be sacrosanct. Did you know that if you lose too much blood, your heart can’t maintain blood pressure or circulation, and your organs start to fail?”

Sheri, startled, knocked over Clay’s glass of water and hurried to wipe it up. Alex’s leg buckled, and Zach supported him, before maneuvering him to the edge of the bed.

“Honey.” Lainie shook her head sharply.

“What, Mom? They know Justin got shot. People bleed when they get shot. It’s not a big secret.”

Lainie took the ice pack from Clay and went to place it on the sink. There was a tense silence before she turned around and said, “Let’s not talk about any of the details, okay?”

“What, now you want me to keep quiet? That’s great. Just great.” There was a standoff, mother against son.

Zach was the first to wave a white flag. “It’s all right, Mrs. Jensen. We don’t mind if Clay wants to talk about it.” Zach went over to her, and she disappeared into his embrace. Clay watched them with a tight mouth, like he wanted to step between them and force them to opposite corners of the room.

Alex scooted up the bed so that he was closer to Clay. “My mom’s been trying, Clay. Everything she can. But the reporters are fucking vultures, and they’re swarming outside, trying to cash in on the story. The hospital has to stick to protocol to avoid scrutiny. Plus, they're always pretty strict about visitors in the ICU, especially with isolation precautions. The only way they’ll let you see Justin before you’re released is if...”

“If what?” Clay asked, and a bright hope came into his faded eyes.

“If he’s actively dying,” Alex finished, and he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.

“Fuck. Fuck.” Clay took deliberate slow breaths. “I’ll wait, then. Fuck.” He glanced at Zach. “I’m sorry. I’m not really good company right now.”

“We didn’t come for the scintillating conversation.” Sheri handed him the tissue box from his bedside table. “We're all wiped out. We've been studying all afternoon.”

“Oh.” Clay pulled out four tissues and began to fold and twist them. He made it look easy, using one hand, but Alex, who intimately understood how frustrating it was to lose dexterity, assisted with a helpful finger, where instructed. “Final exams? I guess I forgot about those.”

“Well, you don’t have to stress,” Sheri assured him. “The school’s giving you and Justin an exemption. You get to pass your classes with your standing grades.”

Zach released Lainie, but he stayed by her side with his arm around her shoulders. “Justin’s lucky. There wasn’t a chance in hell that he’d pass the English final. He didn’t even read the last two books.” Zach’s cheeks colored and he brought his hand up to cover his eyes. “Which I wasn’t supposed to tell you, Clay. Don’t tell him I told you.”

Lucky? Jess wished she could kick Zach from across the room. God, my friends are all idiots. How hard is it to think before opening your mouth?

Clay didn’t seem bothered by the comment; Jess didn’t even think he heard it. “Cool. Did you get that math guide I sent you? My history notes are on my school drive, if you want them. I can give you my log-in.” Clay finished his tissue creation, a flimsy origami rose, which he handed to Sheri.

She cradled it in her palm, and then she methodically unfolded the tissues and handed them back to Clay. It was a counterintuitive move, but it was brilliant. Clay liked to help people, and he liked to restore broken things. As he remade the flower for Sheri, his face became studiously smooth and placid. But, when he had finished, his face went back to being stormy and he turned his destructive attention to the stuffed bears.

Jess studied him sadly. He doesn’t want us to be here. She felt stupid for not realizing sooner that this whole visit was Clay’s way of taking care of them. Did he see it as an obligation? Though Jess didn’t celebrate the idea, she understood it. Should she offer to leave? Or would that draw attention to the reason why?

“Did you hear about Seth?” Clay asked. “How he died?”

“Yeah,” Sheri said, as if it were a perfectly innocuous question. “We heard.”

“You did good, man.” Zach gave him a swift nod of approval.

Jess winced. Was it really appropriate to congratulate Clay for giving Seth a one-way ticket to damnation?

Clay peered at her, intently serious. “The news reports—they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Justin didn’t provoke the attack, or let it happen. He didn’t passively sit there and watch while I got pummeled.”

What, like he did at my party, is that what you’re implying? Jess was ticked off that Clay had directed the comment specifically to her, but she gave him a pass. He was so visibly addled and disjointed, stranded in his own private universe. She wondered why Lainie had allowed Clay to watch the news, or browse the Internet, or check social media. But Jess gave her a pass, too, because when could anyone ever stop Clay from doing something once he had set his mind to it? He was hard to dissuade. (Justin could have stopped him—by pouting. Or Tony—by cracking a self-deprecating joke.)

“We know.” Alex put his hand over Clay’s, to prevent him from pulling out any more tufts of fur from the plush bears. At the rate Clay was going, Alex’s gift would be delivered to Justin severely mutilated, and hairless.

Clay closed his eyes and his muscles tensed up.

They waited.

As if rousing himself from a daze, or a memory, Clay opened his eyes. “I did kill Seth, but Justin was the one who got me the gun. He took it from Seth... I don’t fucking know how.” Seconds passed, seconds that were filled with a yawning emptiness. “There was this other guy... Justin pounded his skull in with my mom’s vase. And the third asshole, he just ran off. The news has it fucked up. I didn’t take them all down. I didn’t do anything heroic. Not really.”

“You definitely did,” Jess said immediately. “You saved Justin’s life.”

“My dad was impressed,” Alex said. “And he’s hard to impress. He thinks the town should put you up for a Citizen Honors Award.”

“You were a badass,” Zach confirmed. “MVP of the year. Co-MVPs. You and Justin.”

Sheri smiled and her voice was quiet. “You know that paradox you told me about? ‘What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?’ You’re the unstoppable force, Clay, and the immovable object... moved. I don’t know anyone braver than you.” Sheri’s face fell slightly when Clay didn’t acknowledge her words of praise.

“You’ll tell people?” Clay asked insistently. “About Justin?”

Jess gave Sheri’s arm a quick squeeze before reassuring Clay. “Yeah, of course. We’ll tell everyone.”

The silence stretched, and it was alive and clumsy. Alex, who tended to escalate matters to the point of no return, asked: “Did he suffer?”

“Alex!” Jess snapped, appalled.

“I didn’t mean Justin!” Alex tried to backtrack, “I meant Seth!” But it was too late. The grenade had gone off.

The blast radius was contained, but it vaporized Clay, who was directly at its center. He started pulling furiously, frantically at his eyebrow, until the veins stood out on his arm. Lainie firmly pushed his hand down. And then, quick as a lightning flash, Clay was gone. He was just gone. His body, vacated. His eyes, sunken and bottomless. His muscles, frozen and locked up. Unable to speak, unwilling to interact. It was a catatonic stupor.

Embodied trauma.

Jess watched anxiously, unsure what to do. Should she try to be with Clay in the place where he was? Let herself be pulled into his experience? Her heart twisted and shied away from the prospect, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because Lainie starting babbling something about an important medical test, which necessitated their immediate departure.

They filed to the door. Zach practically carried Alex (and Alex, who had been sufficiently chastised by Clay’s reaction, did not complain). Jess was the last one, so she turned back to say, “I’m sorry.” For what, she wasn’t sure.

Lainie waved her consolation away. “We appreciate you stopping by. Clay hasn’t slept since Thursday night. He’ll be better, once he gets some rest.”

And once he sees Justin. Jess smiled, and her eyes burned. “If I get less than 7 hours of sleep, I’m cranky and moody. Total meltdown mode. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for Clay.”

It wasn’t fully true. Jess knew long nights, and the terror of the dark, and the rubber-band snap when the world, which had previously been predictable and cozy and secure, became instantly unsafe and not to be trusted. Clay’s trauma had layers, some known to her, some unknown. He was experiencing pain that wasn’t part of her repertoire. She had no point of reference for it, and that would make it difficult for her to help. Not impossible, but difficult.

“I need to...” Lainie gestured helplessly back at the room. Clay had curled into a fetal position, with his broken arm trapped underneath him and his other hand over his ear. Lainie abruptly spun on her heel and hurried to the bed and she folded herself over her son, and there they remained. In arduous stillness. There was no sound to the scene, and it was all the more sorrowful for sound’s lack.

Jess watched for a suspended minute. Her final interpretation of Clay: Blackness, yearning for color.

I hope you find your color, Clay. Maybe Justin knows where it’s gone.

Jess felt like a trespasser in a sacred space, so she forced herself away. Away from her friend. Away from the hospital. Away from tragedy. Away, away.

 


 

Dear Clay,

Yes. I am totally starting this email off like an old-fashioned love letter.

I’m happy that you’re alive (beyond measure! Isn’t that what Jane Austin would write?). I know that you’re not okay, and that’s alright. You looked amazing. Well, not amazing, physically, but it’s nothing time won’t remedy, and you’re still cuter than 99.99% of the kids at school. You’re handling this way better than I would have. And you're totally a hero. You were one long before this happened. Justin would agree.

I may be wrong, but I feel like you weren’t ready to see us at the hospital today. It’s okay if you thought you were, but then it became too much. Maybe you did it for our benefit. If so, that was really dumb (and sweet, but mostly dumb). You shouldn’t worry about us. Be with your family, and let them take care of you. Don’t let Justin steal the spotlight. ;)

We won’t come back to the hospital until you ask for us, or until Justin does. Call, text, email me. Send me a letter by carrier pigeon. I’ll be around.

We didn’t tell Tony about what happened. We thought we should leave that decision up to you. His whole family’s out of town and you know how he feels about social media, so you have some leeway. If he knew what was going on, he’d walk, drive, or hitchhike his way up from Mexico to be here with you. He’s going to kick all our asses when he finds out we didn’t tell him ASAP. Even so, we leave it up to you.

Hot chocolate doesn’t really cure everything, but crying and screaming might help. I recommend them. Pain is pain, but it’s more acute when you resist feeling it.

Please stay off social media.

I’m including a whole bunch of baby animal pics. There will be more to come. Daily. Maybe twice daily. Block my email address if it gets annoying.

Which baby animal do you think Justin is? I think you’re the lion cub.

Xoxo,
Jess

 


 

Sunday, December 9th

Clay had to be wheeled to the hospital entrance for his official release, which was ridiculous because all he did was get out of the wheelchair, thank the patient transporter (the sarcasm was fully deserved), and re-enter the hospital to go to the ICU.

Once there, a nurse washed his hand for him using a 6-step cleansing technique. He supervised as Clay’s mom washed hers, and he critiqued her “rotational rubbing”, which might have been funny, except it wasn’t, at all. Justin was at a high risk of peritonitis, whatever the fuck that was, and, complicating matters, he had lost his spleen, which apparently played an important role in the immune system. The doctors didn’t want Justin to get an infection; it could kill him, if he did.

Clay asked the nurse to wash his hand again, because, fuck, he hadn’t gone to all that trouble keeping Justin alive just to kill him with a stray microbe.

When they reached the sliding glass partition and Clay glimpsed Justin’s bed, he stopped short, robbed of his forward momentum. He gripped his mom’s arm, repulsed. For two days, it had been the only thing he had wanted—to sit beside Justin, to yell at him, to hold his hand, to tell him about the avalanche of cards and balloons that were pouring into the hospital—but screw those plans. He had no desire to be near Justin, or to touch him, or even to look at him. Not when he was lifeless and cold and his color was ebbing away and he was gasping and panting and silent.

“Clay, we’re in the ICU. Justin is okay, and you’re safe.” His mother’s voice was stressed. “Can you tell me where we are?”

“The ICU.” It came back to him. He could see the white walls of the hospital. He could smell (gasoline). He could taste (Justin’s blood). He could feel (primal terror).

A nurse offered him a glass of water, and his dad was in front of him, a question in his eyes: ‘Are you okay to do this?’ Clay stumbled past him to Justin’s bed—attracted, a magnetic pull—and Seth’s ghost dogged his steps and then slid into his mind and took up residence, staring out at Justin through Clay’s eyes.

White. Blue. Black. Brown. Yellow. There was a missing color, a primary color, and Clay’s brain painted it in for him: red red red. He saw every drop of blood—gushing outward, dripping down, congealing upward, sliding sideways.

No — There was hardly any red. There was some. But not an overabundance of it.

Justin was clean, purified. A cadaver? When Clay touched Justin’s hand, it wasn’t cold. The pink tint to his cheeks was blood, but it was under the skin, where it belonged, where it was meant to be. The hospital blankets were immaculately tucked around him, a form-fitting mold. They were constricting, which Clay didn’t like, so he pulled them loose.

He looked at his brother, and it was only him who looked. Seth is dead. I killed him. He has no power over us. If Clay made it an invocation, and if he repeated it like a mantra, over and over again, he could make it concrete. Incontrovertible. Seth is dead. I killed him.

His dad came to stand beside him, and Clay was a little more complete, a little less whittled away. “Mom said he was awake, during the night?”

“A few times. Momentarily.”

“What did he say?”

“Not much.” His dad took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “He’s been restless.”

His mom adjusted Justin’s oxygen tubing, sighed and readjusted it behind his ear, clicked her tongue, adjusted it for the third time, and stroked Justin’s cheek with the back of her hand. “He’s warm, Matt.”

“He has a slight fever.”

“A fever?” Clay brushed two fingers against Justin’s forehead to confirm the warmth and then quickly removed them.

“They’re managing it.”

His mom made a small, disconsolate sound, but tried to disguise it by clearing her throat. She wasn’t very convincing. “Managing it how?”

“Blood draws every two hours. Stronger antibiotics. It’s under control. He’s fine. He’s okay. He’s fine.”

Clay stared at the black thread crisscrossing Justin’s lips. Seth had been vicious with the gun. He would have shoved it down Justin’s throat, if he could have. He would have made him choke on it.

Something dark and irrational inside Clay whispered at him to pluck the stitches out. If there were no stitches, Justin’s lips would scar and every time Clay looked at him, he would remember what Seth had done.

It was an attractive thought.

Fuck. No, it wasn’t.

If the wounds didn’t heal, every time Justin looked in the mirror, he would remember, too. Clay didn’t want him to remember. Selective amnesia—that’s what Clay would get his brother for Christmas.

He picked up the washcloth that was hanging on the handrail and ran it across Justin’s forehead. He hated to pamper him; Justin could damn well wake up and mop his own brow. Clay didn’t stop because he needed to do something, even if it was pointless, even if it wouldn’t help. “Don’t lie to us. You said he was restless. What did he say?”

His dad’s jaw twitched, but he relented. “He was calling out for you. Just your name, kiddo. I think he’s confused.”

Well, fuck. Clay dropped the washcloth. “He’s not confused! He probably thinks I’m dead. Did you play the message I recorded for him?”

His dad took a long time to answer. “I did, but it only made it worse. He ripped his IV out.” Every line, every crease on his dad’s face told Clay everything he needed to know about what the long hours with Justin had been like. “It gave the nurses quite a bit of excitement.”

“Jesus, Justin.” A needle-prick of fury pinched under his skin, and he wanted to hit Justin on the chest, the same way Justin had hit him after submitting to Seth, after fucking bowing down and capitulating. His fingers curled into a fist, and he could feel them convulsing against his will.

Aghast, Clay backed away from the bed and toward his dad.

He let his dad fuss over him—let him inspect his face, inspect his sling, inspect his fingers. It was too bad that he couldn’t inspect Clay’s psyche; it was the most damaged part of all. His dad put his arm around his shoulders, the lightest pressure possible. It still hurt. Everything hurt. Breathing hurt.

“God, kid, this moment is surreal. I feel like Odysseus reunited with Telemachus after two grueling decades.”

It was such a stupid professorial thing to say, and such a stupid dad thing to say, and it made Clay homesick. It struck him, then, that he could have lost his dad—if you could call it loss when you were the person who died. The thought was intolerable, so he rested his head on his dad’s shoulder, to confirm that he was there. “Don’t be melodramatic, Dad. You saw me on Friday.”

“You were a different person on Friday.”

Why am I different? Because I killed someone? Because my bones are in an altered arrangement? Because I was a person, then, and now I’m a hollowed-out automaton?

English IV. Character Analysis. Clay Jensen: Protagonist or antagonist? What were his motivations, exactly, when he picked up that gun? Split into groups, and discuss.

Clay swayed and he must have dozed off a little because his mom, who had been grilling a nurse for information, was suddenly peppering Justin with kisses. A minute later, she was crying into his hair. Clay was seized by a strong urge to jerk her back. It didn’t seem like a stable thing to do, and he was trying so fucking hard to maintain a semblance of control.

Even though he was depleted—of strength and of rationality—the weight of brotherhood remained, and it was a heavy, heavy weight.

“Mom, don’t– don’t lean over him. Please.”

It was as if an exposed wire touched wet pavement.

His mom jumped back, and then she took three more hurried steps, and his dad opened his arms to her and they were two statuettes, Wrecked Mother meeting Distraught Father. They melded and united into a single statue. Crooked bodies, frail skin, angular lines. If Clay could have sketched and captured his parents as they were now, he would have named his artwork, Overwhelmed by Existence, and dedicated it to Alex.

He hoped his dad hadn’t hovered over Justin. Or one of the doctors. Or one of the critical care nurses. Or the respiratory therapist. Or the phlebotomist. There were too many fucking people in the ICU. They hadn’t even been here ten minutes and already four medical personnel had come by, checking some machine or another.

If one of them touched Justin’s face, Clay would jab a scalpel into their neck. (Were there scalpels in the ICU? There certainly wouldn’t be a gun.)

“Sit with your brother, Clay.” It wasn’t an order. His dad said it like he would say, “Come sit down at the dinner table.” Nevertheless, it felt like a command, and Clay was in no condition to resist.

He sat down, waiting. I killed Seth. But he hadn’t killed him alone. Justin had found the means to save them. That gun, that kill, belonged equally to them both. We killed Seth, together.

“Why does he have a tube up his nose?”

His dad kissed his mother’s forehead and held her head against his. “It’s a nasogastric tube. It’s just there to drain off the blood and secretions. And it’s how they’ll be feeding him, at first.”

Right. Because one of the bullets had torn through Justin’s stomach. “It looks uncomfortable.”

“It might be, but compared to the other–” His dad cut himself off and simply said, “He’s on pain medications.”

“The same as I was?”

“No. Much stronger than morphine.”

And heroin. Justin was back on narcotics. Fucking great. He’d probably hate it. Or love it. (justin would love it. he would get addicted, again. he would go back to using heroin, in secret. his tolerance would be down, and he would overdose on their bathroom floor. clay would find him, blue and hypoxic. justin wouldn’t come back. seth would win.)

“Justin?” Clay folded the washcloth and held it to Justin’s forehead, prepared to whip it away at the slightest sign of it being unwanted. “I know Dad’s been telling you that I’m okay, but that’s bullshit. I’m not okay. You know those spiked medieval weapons in Dark Souls? Morning stars? Well, that’s what my ribs feel like, miniature morning stars. The doctors are making me do these deep-breathing exercises, which massively suck, and, newsflash, you’re going to have to do them, too, to prevent pneumonia. So, look forward to that, when you wake up.”

“Honey.” His mom was wringing her hands. “Maybe you shouldn’t talk about anything that might upset him.”

“What won’t upset him? Life is upsetting.” Justin wouldn’t wake up if Clay sugarcoated the situation, or if he made it sound like there had been a resolution (game over, we won!), or if he offered peace and healing kumbaya-type shit. He had to offer purpose: Come back and suffer with me. Justin would respond to pain—to Clay’s pain, above all. He would come back for it. Clay could use that to his advantage and if that made him the worst brother in history, fine, he would accept the title. As long as he still had a brother, he didn’t care.

Thankfully, his dad agreed. “Lainie, I think the most important thing is that Justin hears Clay. And that Clay stays close. Believe me.” His dad rested his hand lightly on Justin’s covered leg. “He needs this.”

“Okay.” His mom gave him a faint smile. “Carry on.”

Periodically, Clay wiped the washcloth over Justin’s face, or pressed it against the ligature marks on his wrists, but, mostly, he just talked to him. “My hand keeps going numb, which might mean nerve damage, which is fucking great. Oh, and I have to get plates and screws in my arm, which might sound cool because I’ll have a robotic arm, right? Well, it’s not cool, because they’re going to drill the screws into my bone like I’m a piece of plywood. It looks painful and it’s going to take, like, 6 weeks to heal, and...”

Clay told Justin about every single procedure and test and about the barbaric drug they had given him in the ER (it had either been a hallucinogen or truth serum). He wouldn’t—couldn’t—talk about Justin’s injuries, so he stuck to his own. He had a lot of grievances against the hospital staff, so he told Justin about those, too.

They had to step out multiple times so that the doctor could check Justin’s incisions or the nurses could do something deemed too sensitive for their eyes. Each time they returned, Clay easily picked up where he had left off.

He had become adept at one-sided conversation after sharing a bedroom with Justin. Talking to his brother was often like speaking to a brick wall, or shouting into a fortified nuclear waste facility. Sometimes, though, if Justin was in the right frame of mind for it, they could have a stimulating discussion. Something substantive and meaningful. A dialogue rather than a monologue.

Clay wanted a dialogue. He was tired of soliloquies.

“I can’t sit here with you forever. I have surgery in the morning, and they won’t let me stay overnight.”

No response. Fuck you, Justin.

Love was a burdensome thing. Nothing matched its potency and ferocity. It had no stipulations, and here was the proof: Justin, without blinking, had given his complete, unconditional surrender to Seth. He would have acquiesced to anything, anything, so that Clay would not be harmed. It had nearly been a fatal mistake. Was that what love was? A fatal mistake?

I hate that I made you care about me. It could have killed you.

It would have killed me—to watch you die.

In those last horrific moments, with Justin’s blood cascading around him, if Clay could have switched their places—died so that Justin could live—he would have done it. And if he could have chosen to die with Justin, rather than watch him die but survive himself, he would have welcomed it. Love for his brother had eclipsed his fear of death.

I hate you.

Slowly, Clay ran his thumb up and down each one of Justin’s fingers, a touch that wouldn’t distress, that wouldn’t be re-wounding. It wasn’t something Seth had done; it was what Clay had done while he had waited for the paramedics to arrive.

“I’m not going to plead with you. Stay sleeping until graduation, for all I care.”

Justin didn’t stir. You fucking asshole.

Clay was used to loving people without bounds—a possessive, dutiful love, borne out of an altruistic impulse. But he wasn’t used to his love being reciprocated, or for its reciprocation to surpass what he had first given. Justin could have run. He could have escaped Seth and saved himself. Clay’s presence had condemned Justin, made him hesitate, made him stay. Love was a wretched, hateful thing, a wildfire burning out of control, and they had both been set alight.

“Justin.” Clay shifted over and sat on the edge of the bed, narrowing the gap between them. He latched on to his brother’s arm, wishing he could yank him back from wherever he was. Maybe he could, with the right appeal, “I’m fucking worried about you. Please wake up. I need you.”

There was a change in Justin’s fingers first, the smallest indication of a real response.

A twitch.

It could have been a reflex, except Justin’s eyes rolled wildly beneath his eyelids, and he began mumbling, one word, only one word: “Clay?”

“I’m here.”

Justin opened his eyes, mere slits, and he shrank back. In fear.

Fear was not okay.

“Hey, hey, it’s me. You’re safe, it’s just me. Seth’s dead. He’s dead, Justin.” Clay dug his nails into Justin’s arm, not enough to draw blood or cause unreasonable pain, but enough to leave imprints, and enough to say, This is real. I’m real. If it didn’t hurt, it wasn’t reality, and Justin wouldn’t know.

“You’re not... on fire?”

Fuck, is that the nightmare you were mired in? “No! We’re in the hospital. It’s against the fire code.”

When Justin finally focused on Clay’s face, the panic receded. “The gun... You got it?”

“Yeah, I got it. And I used it.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah.”

Justin tugged Clay’s sleeve. “Are you okay?”

Fuck all that shit Clay had said earlier. “I’m okay.” Now that I know you are—I’m okay. A brittle crust of anger broke away, leaving behind a wellspring of fine-spun sentiment. His chest was full of warm, soft feelings, and it was slushy and oversweet, but he didn’t mind it. He didn’t mind.

Justin licked his cracked lips, and it was obviously difficult for him to speak after being intubated, after the internal damage to his tongue and cheeks.

“Can he have water?” His dad, with regret, shook his head, so Clay said, “Don’t talk, Justin.”

When did Justin ever listen to him? “I heard you.” Justin’s voice was hoarse, and it crackled like ground glass. “You called me a shitty brother.”

Clay scowled. “That’s what you’re gonna focus on? Out of everything I said?”

The tears in Justin’s eyes made the light refract so that his irises were a different color—foreign and familiar, both. “No, I... I heard you. And I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, you idiot!” Clay felt a tightening in his throat, like he was going to cry. (He wasn’t.) He remembered the sharp pop-pop of the gun and Justin’s stunned face as his legs gave out. The audible knife-twist of Justin screaming from underneath Seth. The exact time (11:18 p.m.) that Seth had died.

“I’m not sorry. I’d do it again—I’d do anything.”

His instinct was to reach out and touch Justin’s face... to erase something perverted and replace it with something kind... to let Justin know that he wasn’t to blame, for any of it... but, no, no, that wasn’t how it worked, Justin would flinch, he would draw away, he would push him off. Clay had to maintain a calculated distance, he had to stay far back, he had to—

Justin launched himself at him, and Clay automatically moved to meet him.

Trembling arms wrapped around his back as Justin nestled his face into the crook of Clay’s neck, his fingers burrowing past fabric to pinch skin. He radiated heat (a tolerable simmer, not a searing boil) and slick perspiration soaked Clay’s clothes with a gross wetness (but it wasn’t gasoline, so, whatever, it was all right).

“I got you. I got you.”

Justin clutched at him, without reservation or restraint, and it was a full-frontal attack of aggressive affection.

It was also the most painful hug of Clay’s life. His sling offered no protection, and the crush of Justin’s body against his was a screwdriver being stabbed between his ribs and a machete hacking at the nerve endings of his arm, but—as intense as the pain was—it held no import. To not embrace would have hurt more.

It wasn’t a hardship—to hug his brother.

It was a privilege.

Even if he couldn’t breathe, even if another bone broke from the force of it, Clay would let Justin cling to him for as long as he needed. He raked his fingers through the greasy hair at the back of Justin’s head, and he pressed his body closer, supporting Justin without confining him, loose enough to say, You’re free to let go whenever you want, but firm enough to say, I need this, too.

The hunched-over position must have been agonizing, but Justin gave no indication it hurt him, and his cheek pushed against Clay’s collarbone with a desperation Clay understood.

“I love you. You have no fucking idea, Clay. You don’t know.”

I killed someone for you, you think I don’t know? Clay slid his fingers down to Justin’s neck and squeezed. I know. I know.

Justin’s words were muffled and delivered in broken syllables, but they reverberated through Clay’s chest and he caught them and reassembled them. “After Seth—” Justin shivered against him, as if he were freezing instead of burning with fever. “I wanted to die, but I held on—for you, over anyone, I held on.”

Tears of relief welled up, unbidden, and Clay freed them. He allowed them to streak down, unhindered. Justin had a merciless way of ripping through every single one of his emotional defenses.

“Thank you, for actually listening to me.” He pressed his thumb into the base of Justin’s skull, a gentle rebuke. “You should have listened sooner. You were so fucking stupid. You should have run.”

“And left you?” Justin gripped him tighter, which maybe was a rebuke of his own.

Clay pulled at Justin’s hair because it was a mess and it was filthy, but it wasn’t damp with blood and it wasn’t red. They could wash it. Clay could run a comb through it, and Justin could tell him to fuck off.

Clay had never said ‘I love you’ to Hannah; it was his eternal regret. And he knew what it was like to say those words to Justin and not hear them said back—the long silence that preceded death. But Justin had not died, and they had a second chance. Clay could not waste it, or be stingy with his love, not when it would provide the deepest comfort, not when it was an affirmation of what they had been through together.

He should have said it so many times before.

“You’re my brother. My brother. How can you say I don’t know? You have to know I love you, no matter what stupid shit you do.” He let his hand drift down to Justin’s back and, with painstaking control, he formed a fist and rested it there. Not in anger, never in anger, not against the person whom he had come to implicitly trust. Not against his brother, who had rendered him grief-stricken—but who had come back to suffer by his side.

“I love you.”

More than anyone else. I didn’t know it, until you were almost gone. Clay wanted to build on this feeling, nurture it, see what it could become. They had the rest of their lives, to be brothers. The rest of their long, long lives...

Memories tumbled down: good memories, memories of home and family, of his mom and dad and Justin. Those memories had not been corrupted or overshadowed. For his own solace, Clay whispered a promise, “Seth won’t ever hurt you again.”

Justin relaxed, and his hold lost its desperate urgency. He was still crying, so Clay shushed him, and they synchronized their breathing.

Nothing more needed to be said. Their tears had been a release and a recalibration, and their embrace was the finalization of an oath. A blood covenant.

I would die for you. I almost did. You can’t ever question it.

If Clay could have sketched that hug, that reunion with his brother, he would have called his drawing, Pure Necessity, and he would have colored it all in red. No dedication, no exhibition. It would have been for Justin, only.

Some things you didn’t share with anyone, except for the person who had been there with you, in the flames.

 


 

Clay didn’t know how long it lasted, how long Justin clung to him, how long he smoothed careful circles along Justin’s back, how long they breathed in unison, but no one separated them or forced them apart, not until Clay felt a shift, a slackness. A lack of attunement. With one arm, he could no longer support Justin’s weight, and he thought something was wrong. “Dad!”

His dad was there, and he helped lay Justin back down.

Oh. Nothing was wrong.

“He fell asleep on me. On me, literally.” It should have been aggravating.

It wasn’t aggravating.

There was something so deeply vulnerable—trusting—in the act, that Clay was only grateful—to know he was still a safe haven for his brother, after what Seth had done.

His dad arranged the wires and IV lines back into place and tucked the blanket around Justin. “He’s been in and out of consciousness. That was the longest he’s been awake so far.” His dad ruffled his hair. “I guess you were sufficient incentive. Worth sticking around for.”

Clay didn’t comment on the double meaning inherent in those sentences. He reached down and realigned Justin’s neck so he could breathe easier. With a frustrated sigh, he dabbed his sleeve against the moisture on Justin’s face and then he wiped his own face and fell back into the chair by the bed. His limbs were lead-heavy.

His mom touched his shoulder. “I’m jealous. I didn’t even get a hello.”

Clay knew he should respond, or apologize, but exhaustion was dragging him under, by degrees. He curled forward and rested his head on the stiff hospital linen. He flipped Justin’s hand over, and put two fingers on his wrist, at his pulse point. The heartbeat thumped safe, safe, so Clay allowed his eyes to slide shut. He was dimly aware of a blanket being draped over him, of a pillow being slipped under his head. The bubbling of the oxygen humidifier was hypnotic. Lulling.

“Don’t go anywhere,” he instructed Justin. “I’ll be here.”

Justin’s breathing was peaceful, and not precarious, so Clay gave up the fight and succumbed to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sunday, December 9th

Lainie stayed with Justin overnight so that Matt could go to her sister’s house with Clay in preparation for his early morning surgery. After the near stress implosion of the last few days, the swap had been sorely needed. Both she and Matt had desired a reconnection with their other child, she, with Justin, and Matt, with Clay.

It had set her mind at ease, to see Clay leave the hospital without protest. A few hours spent sleeping beside his brother had restored something in him. Nothing extraordinary or grandiose, but something slight—a flickering ember, a fragile foothold.

Healing wasn’t a light switch that could be flipped from ‘off’ to ‘on’, she knew that. It would a long journey, for their entire family, and they wouldn’t always be able to walk the same path, but she thought that, maybe, Clay had set for himself the intention to heal. Or given himself permission to consider it.

It was a start.

Justin would also have to make his start, but Lainie’s first wish for him was to sustain consciousness for longer than ten minutes. He hadn’t yet achieved it. He had drifted into a peaceful slumber while Clay was there, but as the night wore on, his sleep became agitated. His temperature kept spiking, and he would repeatedly startle awake and ask, like a broken record, if Clay was okay. Before she could convince him that he was, by sheer preponderance of the evidence, he would doze off and leave her helplessly talking to the air.

One time, he asked her if the police had found his mother’s body. He was too fevered and too close to delirium for a full discussion along those lines, so Lainie simply told him his mother was alive, she was well, and he shouldn’t worry. Justin didn’t need to know that Amber Foley was currently in the Evergreen County Jail facing multiple drug charges, or that she had been the one to antagonize Seth and send him in the direction of their family.

Lainie’s anger towards Amber burned white-hot, but each flare was tempered by contrition. Lainie had misjudged the woman who had shown up at their door in September. She should have kicked her out, she should have gotten a restraining order, she should have kept better tabs on her. Should have. Should have.

It was a bitter pill to swallow... The memory of how she and Matt had willingly allowed Justin to visit with Amber, how they had offered Amber monetary assistance for rehab, how they had silently thanked her for respecting Justin’s decision to cease communication.

Under the guise of protecting him, Amber Foley had lined her own son up for slaughter.

How could a mother do such a thing?

How? How?

Selfishness was truly the antithesis of love.

 


 

Monday, December 10th

Lainie didn’t want to leave Justin alone, not to go to the bathroom or to make a phone call or to grab a cup of coffee. She needed to stay close. She had a persistent, but vague, apprehension that something was wrong.

Terribly, terribly wrong.

Dismissing it as a product of her exhaustion, she contented herself with brushing Justin’s hair back from his forehead. The dark tousles were damp with sweat, but she didn’t quite know where else to place her hands. He had been okay with Clay touching him, but she didn’t want to presume that it was acceptable for her to do so.

By dawn, Lainie’s stomach was in turmoil. Justin was less lucid than ever, and he mumbled things that made no sense to her. He called her Clay, which she thought was somewhat sweet, until she realized he actually thought she was Clay. He started slurring his words and shaking with chills. She didn’t immediately connect his behavior to a medical emergency, not until the doctors and nurses came swarming, not until he had a seizure that lasted five minutes.

There was a rapid-fire exchange of medical terminology.

In an instant, it was back to life and death.

Justin’s temperature had skyrocketed. His blood pressure had tanked. He had an elevated white blood cell count. He wasn’t passing urine. It might be secondary peritonitis, and if it was, the longer it went untreated, the more adverse its effects would be.

What the doctor didn’t need to tell her: The fatality rate was upwards of 30%.

Lainie had already researched every single potential medical condition and every possible prognosis, in order to torment herself and bring her closer to her children in their suffering. She therefore knew to request a fluid analysis of Justin’s abdomen before the doctor even had the chance to recommend it. They were on the same page.

Fluid analysis. The words sounded so innocuous. She hadn’t realized the procedure would be so awful, so traumatizing. It was important that Justin not move during the extraction but they couldn’t sedate him because, pending the results, he might need emergency surgery.

They made an attempt.

It was a dismal failure.

Lainie didn’t know what incited Justin’s violent reaction. Was it the injection of the numbing agent into his abdomen? The touch of the technician’s hand on his bare skin? The nurse who jerked his arm down when he started to panic?

It didn’t matter.

He thrashed and kicked, almost as if he were having another febrile seizure. Except, this time, it wasn’t a seizure. It was an instinctual fight response.

Lainie tried everything in her arsenal to calm Justin for the second attempt: repeating to him that he was safe and she was there with him; sweeping her thumb over his knuckles, as Clay had done; scolding him (“Justin Andrew, you need to listen to me and do as you’re told.”). He looked right past her, eyes clouded with disorientation, arms flailing, desperate to land a blow. He never stopped battling them, and they had to stop.

She faced yet another horrendous medical decision—restrain Justin so they could do the procedure or wait and pray that the mental fogginess would clear, enough so he could be made aware that no one was trying to maliciously hold him down.

She held extended deliberations in her head.

No resolution; it was a deadlocked jury.

The fluid analysis had to be done, there was no question of it not being done, but Lainie refused, she refused, to use a full-body strap restraint. She decided to delay the procedure by three hours. Surely they could wait three hours. Clay’s surgery was outpatient; he could be back to the hospital by then.

Her self-confidence as a mother had been wrested from her, and it was her utmost shame: She had become overly reliant on one son to comfort the other. That wasn’t how parenting was supposed to work.

The doctors started a new course of treatment, under the presumption that Justin had peritonitis, even though they couldn’t diagnose it. Surgery would be needed if their suspicions proved correct. Lainie called Carolyn to ask for her advice, and she nearly tore her hair out in the interval, but she stayed strong and stuck to her convictions. Justin’s welfare had been entrusted to her. She’d be damned if she added an ounce more hurt to his already overflowing cup.

Clay’s surgery went well, exactly as anticipated. The relief was short-lived. He was still woozy from anesthesia when she saw him, and she hated that the first thing she had to do was break the news of Justin’s deteriorating condition.

His input was succinct and full of reproach. “What the fuck, Mom? You should have done the procedure. Tie him down, if that’s what it takes.”

Lainie wondered if he would be quite so hasty to say those words if he were the person tasked with tying Justin down. She thought not.

As the technician prepared the supplies for the third attempt, Lainie explained to Justin, for the third time, exactly what was going to happen. “Nobody is trying to hurt you. This will be over quickly.”

Clay snorted and he gently pushed her to the side and knelt down to Justin’s eye level. “It’s going to hurt, but you can take it. I know you can. Alex would say, ‘Pain is a symptom of being alive.’ So, think of Alex, and, if you have to, dig your nails into my arm. It’s only fair—I did it to you.”

Clay spent the entire procedure flicking Justin on the forehead with his index finger (as a distraction?) and making subdued threats (as a disincentive?). Dead serious, he told Justin, “We will leave you at the hospital, by yourself, if you don’t stay absolutely still. Do not move.”

It was a strategy Lainie would never have considered, and the harshness of it shocked her, but as the technician inserted the long, thin needle into Justin’s abdomen, her son remained completely motionless and did not resist. Clay, in the space of two breaths, had intuitively known what to do, and he hadn’t had any qualms about doing it.

When it was over, Clay patted Justin’s cheek. “You did good. I’ll make sure no one else stabs you with a needle. Get some rest.”

Clay stood up. Lainie didn’t comment on the bloody scratches Justin had left on his arm. Matt didn’t either, but he led their son to the sink and washed the cuts and wrapped them with an excessive amount of gauze and tape. Clay returned to Justin, and they stared at each other.

That was all they did. Stare.

She didn’t know if it was a comfort thing or mutual zoning out that just happened to coincide with eye contact. When it came to her children, Lainie had long since stopped questioning it. In their family, she sometimes felt like she and Matt were on the shoreline, mere bystanders, and Justin and Clay were on a harrowing adventure, far out at sea, moored to each other—in parallel contact, subject to the same unidirectional forces.

The results came back. Justin did not have postoperative peritonitis. He did have an opportunistic infection and a mild case of sepsis.

Although it was serious, it was most likely treatable.

He didn’t need surgery. He needed fluids and a different course of broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Lainie had made the right decision.

 


 

Tuesday, December 11th

Justin couldn’t take it anymore.

Everything hurt. And he was so fucking cold. His stomach was on fire, but the rest of him was frozen in ice. Why wouldn’t they let him die?

Pain means I’m alive. Who had said that to him?

A dark shape was tearing and clawing at him, pushing him down onto the bed. He felt wrong, and dirty. He was being suffocated and drowned, overpowered and used. He was sick of being controlled, but no matter how hard he bucked, he couldn’t break free. Caged by a heavy body. Trapped by a threat. Submit, or your brother will go up in flames. Justin let the restraining hands have their way.

His jeans were being unbuttoned. Skin against skin. It was rough and dry, but then it was slick, and the slickness was blood. He gagged on the hard metal in his mouth, spit running down his chin, but that only made it better for whoever was fucking with him. Justin’s muscles clenched, his release spilling.

Warmth. Ecstasy.

He wasn’t himself. He was Jessica. He was Clay. The person on top of him had his face. Justin was the dark shape. He was hurting them. His girlfriend. His brother.

He was enjoying it. He had been made to like it. He choked on the shame of it.

“Fucking needy whore,” Seth whispered, and he continued to stroke, and the overstimulation was the most exquisite kind of agony.

Justin couldn’t move, paralyzed by self-loathing. He saw his brother. Half of his face was gone, ruined and burned past recognition. His blackened skin flaked off at the edges. “You let me die,” Clay said. “Because of you, I’m dead.”

“Wake up!”

What?

“Justin, I already feel shit enough. If you punch me, I swear to God–”

Dead people don’t talk.

“Yes, Justin, clearly if I’m talking, I’m not dead. Jesus– Don’t pull that tube out.” An exaggerated huff.

Justin was free. The weight disappeared. The voice speaking to him, somewhere in the distance... The comforting presence... He tried to remember what it signified, what it meant to him. There was only one person in his life capable of so much righteous indignation. “Fuck me.”

“Dude, dial it back. This is a Catholic hospital.”

A smooth hand, not calloused like Seth’s, was on his forehead. He knew it. It was Clay’s hand and Clay’s voice, and he was saying something so fucking stupid, but it felt nice to listen to it.

“Mom’s putting antibiotic cream on your lips. Don’t freak out on her.”

There was a blurry outline. Blonde hair, not brown like his mother’s. Kind eyes, not cold like his mother’s. Lainie. Even at Justin’s worst, at his most unlovable, she was always patient. Understanding. Accepting. There was a touch, soft and careful, against his mouth. Nothing was being shoved between his lips. It didn’t feel like he was bleeding.

“We’re glad you’re back with us, kid. You gave us quite a scare.” Matt. His words weren’t an accusation. He was smiling, and it was a fond smile, which was fucked up, after what Justin had done. Matt’s hand came toward him, and Justin braced himself to be hit, but the hand remained gentle, and it stopped.

Justin reached for the sleeve of Matt’s sweater, and he pulled at a loose thread. “I’m sorry.” He wanted to ask how he could fix it, how he could make amends. He wanted to ask: ‘Clay... Did I break him?’ But his tongue was numb in his mouth, and, besides, Clay wasn’t a fucking beer bottle. He was shatterproof glass. He was strong, so fucking strong, like his parents. Justin was weak, so fucking weak, like his mother.

“Don’t apologize,” Matt said in a low rumble. “Just get better.”

The outstretched hand disappeared. Clay stopped talking. Lainie faded from view. Justin was terrified. Terrified that if he wasn’t compliant, or if he said something wrong, it might make them leave, make them abandon him. He didn’t want to go back to that black place, where he was alone and they were all dead. That black place, where Seth lurked. But he was so tired, and, when he blinked, it felt like glue was sticking his eyelids closed. He fought and forced them back open.

“Go to sleep,” Clay said, and his hand skimmed over Justin’s eyelids to shut them.

There was a firm pressure on his jaw, brutal and possessive.

He hated it, he hated it, he hated it. He was back in that place of ash and smoke. A familiar voice was at his ear, and in his head. “I’m here, brother.” It wasn’t comforting. “You know you can always come to me.”

Justin didn’t dream of Seth.

He dreamt of Bryce.

 


 

Thursday, December 13th

72 hours.

It felt like five months, rather than three days, and it made up in spades for all the hours Lainie had not spent nursing Justin through illnesses as a child. He transitioned to and from awareness with dizzying speed. He cussed Seth out and raved about fire. He sweated through his sheets every few hours. The nurses strategically placed ice packs (and later cooling blankets) around his body during the worst throes of the fever. It didn’t appear to help, not from Lainie’s perspective.

She hated to be that parent, but she insisted that every person who came into contact with Justin wash their hands in front of her. It was one of the only things she could do. She couldn’t defeat Justin’s infection for him. She couldn’t alleviate his suffering, or assuage Clay’s anxieties.

The hospital had granted an exemption to the ‘parents only’ rule for visiting overnight, which was a blessing. Clay was the only person able to provide any comfort when Justin was at his most inconsolable. He held his brother’s palm to his chest to help him establish a rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. He massaged his wrists, with little strokes towards the knuckles, never lingering in one spot for too long. He read him the book Justin had neglected to finish for the English final.

Justin needed 24/7 oversight, and, while the medical staff were exemplary, Lainie trusted the task to no one but her family, especially after Justin started to self-harm. He tried to gag himself with his hand. He tore at his incisions and slammed his arms against the railings. He repeatedly tried to get a hold of his nasogastric tube so that he could remove it, by violent force.

They had to weigh Justin’s physical safety against his mental health. Matt endorsed the no-restraints plan, and Lainie suspected there was a story, a nightmare tale, behind his acquiescence. He had been rather tight-lipped about those first nights in the ICU.

Clay was, once again, the indispensable link that made it possible to forgo using a restraining device. Only a chastisement from him would quell Justin’s self-directed violence, and the more heartless the reprimand, the quicker Justin would settle. Lainie tried to pretend that it was tough love, but, inwardly, she was more than a little disturbed by the power imbalance Clay was creating, even if it was feigned.

She almost lost her self-control when Clay suggested to Justin that they would disown him if he didn’t stop grinding his teeth. They would do no such thing, ever, and she was fully prepared to pull Clay to the side for a stern lecture. Until she saw the blood dribble out of Justin’s mouth and... good god, he might have bitten his own tongue off if Clay hadn’t stopped him.

Lainie didn’t know what it said about Justin, that he responded to manipulation more cooperatively than he did to compassion, or what it said about Clay, that he knew it and was willing to play into it. What did it say about her, as a mother, that she was grateful her son was willing to do what she could not?

At least Clay made it clear that he found the domineering act distasteful. He always followed his cruel words with the gentlest physical care. Hot, cold. Push, pull. Lainie hoped the behavioral extremes did not come back to haunt them when Justin recovered.

“He won’t remember any of this, Mom,” Clay assured her. “And even if he does, he’ll be glad that his arms aren’t broken and that he still has a tongue.”

They were muddling through it the best they could, as a family. She and Matt slept in snatches and their energy reserves asymptotically approached zero. Clay, who bore the brunt of the strain, never wearied or complained. When it was hectic, he was in his element, persistent and indefatigable. And when it was tranquil, Clay would sit in the corner, pull out his sketchbook and draw. Lainie would sit with him and lightly caress his arm, but if she tried to glance at his artwork, he would angle it away from her. He was taciturn and brooding, more so than usual, and she didn’t know how much of it was attributable to pain and how much to mental strife.

She worried about Clay, and how he was coping, as much as she worried about Justin’s physical health. Clay barely ate and he barely slept and he had multiple panic attacks, sometimes one after another, sometimes for 30 minutes at a stretch. Nothing she or Matt said could convince him to take a break and go lie down in the ICU’s family rest area. Maybe it was for the best; separation would have caused further emotional havoc.

Justin, in his own way, tried to help. Coming in and out of hazy fever-dreams, he would spend hours petting his brother’s hair, and Clay allowed it, which he never would have done if Justin weren’t so critically ill. Lainie noticed that Clay surreptitiously leaned into the touch, which was likely why Justin continued.

They were both tirelessly persistent. And they didn’t stew in failed attempts at comfort; they were resourceful, they tried something new.

Occasionally, Clay cried for no particular reason, and those would be the times when Justin would gain a modicum of clarity, enough to say something of interest so that Clay would put aside his sadness for another hour. And if Justin reached out, he never tried to grab Clay’s broken arm, but only his good one, although how he kept it straight in his addled brain, she didn’t know.

Justin asked for his mother many times, so they took turns retelling Justin’s favorite memories of her, taking extreme care not to blemish her character. Lainie knew he wasn’t addressing her when he lovingly called her Mom, but that title still sent twin feelings of warmth and despair to war within her chest. When Justin called Clay ‘Bryce,’ Clay was disgruntled, but all he said was: “I know you didn’t do it on purpose. Call me ‘Alex’ or ‘Zach’ if you can’t remember who I am.”

Hours later, Justin sat up, uncoordinated and weak, but with a sense of desperate purpose. He looked directly at Clay. “I know who you are...” It took him two minutes to finish his thought. “Bro.”

“‘Bro?’ Seriously?” Clay crossed his arms and fell back in his chair to sulk. “You act drunk when you’re sick.”

Lainie laughed. Matt laughed and hugged her. And then they laughed and hugged again.

It marked the turning point. Justin’s fever dropped out of the danger zone. His numbers started to improve. The doctor hinted at the possibility of transferring him out of the ICU by the weekend. As steep as the descent had been, the ascent was equally rapid.

It was a mother’s foolish fancy, to think that Clay had pulled Justin through it. But was it really such a stretch to ascribe one more miracle to their love? There was a bone-deep trust between them. It had not been fractured, even if so many other things had.

 


 

Friday, December 14th

Matt spent his morning watching Justin sleep and pondering how Clay was faring at his appointment.

He had to constantly fight against the irrational urge to check Justin’s temperature. The nurses were doing that, every hour, and they had a hell of a lot more accurate measuring devices than he did.

Justin twisted in his sheets, hands casting about in confusion. Matt watched him to see if it would pass, and, when it didn’t, he said, “Wake up, Justin. It’s safe to come back.”

Justin woke, saw Matt, and jerked back—his expression hyper-alert, his muscles tense, and his hand raised and trembling. He tried to cover it up by reaching behind him to touch his pillow, but Matt had seen, and his heart slammed in his chest like a piston. Justin’s fear lingered for ten endless seconds, and Matt waited for it to dissipate before he spoke.

“Hey, kid. I missed you.”

Justin blinked at him dazedly. “Where did I go?”

“I’m not sure, but you’ve been gone awhile.” Matt scooted the chair back, thinking that his proximity might be intimidating. He rested his arms on the chair and remained still and non-threatening, by deliberate design. He hadn’t had to be this careful in his affection with Justin since August, since the adoption. They were back to square one. That was okay. They could start again.

Justin grabbed a handful of the sheets. “I thought–, I didn’t think– You look like Seth, a little. Your hair and the beard... It’s different, but... not different enough?” His shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry.”

The idea made Matt sick: that, even for a split second, he had reminded Justin of the depraved bastard who had hurt him. “Don’t apologize. Thank you for telling me.” Justin still looked miserable, so Matt pulled out his reading glasses and put them on. “Better?”

Justin tilted his head and he let out something that was a cross between a laugh and a cough. “Yeah, better. More academic.” He paused, and then, with fondness, said, “Clay should get glasses.”

“Why?”

“To match how smart he is.”

Matt smiled. After all the stress and regret and worry, it was nice to have a lighthearted moment. Maybe Matt was deceiving himself, to think it was genuine, but he was desperate for a return to something familiar, and easy, with his son. He wanted his exuberant and unapologetically loud kid back. “I don’t disagree, but Clay’s smart either way. Like you are.”

Justin licked his lips and rubbed at his throat, so Matt asked, “How do you feel?”

“Fine,” Justin said.

It probably wasn’t a lie. He was on strong opiates, and Matt knew how high functioning he had been on heroin. But he did have a troubling tendency to dissemble with Matt, and with Lainie, and with adults in general. They couldn’t be lulled into a false sense of normalcy, not after such horrific trauma. They couldn’t become complacent, with either of their children.

Clay was all over the map, emotionally, but Matt thought he could identify borders and territories, areas that would need special attention in the weeks to come. Justin didn’t have a map. Matt didn’t even know where to begin with him.

Justin fingered the tape that was holding his NG tube in place. “Where’s Clay?”

“Lainie took him to a follow-up with the orthopedic surgeon. He’ll be back later.”

Justin fiddled with the buttons on the hospital bed. “When?”

“A few hours.” Matt noticed the smallest tremor in Justin’s hand. “He’ll be back.” He reached down for the bag by his chair. “In the meantime, I have some gifts for you.”

Matt presented them to Justin: the basketball his teammates had signed for him, the stuffed bears from Alex, the postcard from Jessica, and the framed family photo that Lainie had requested be brought from the house. “You can’t take anything out of the plastic,” he warned.

“Why not?” Justin touched the plastic that surrounded the basketball, and he rested his hand on it as if were going to dribble the ball. He didn’t seem as cheered as Matt had expected him to be.

“Your immune system’s down for the count. We’re going to need to be extra vigilant for a little while and take some precautions.” Matt propped the photo up on the bedside table, and he pulled out the final present. “Clay sketched something for you. He said that it’s personal and private. For you only—not for me or Lainie.”

Justin took the Manila envelope, and his entire demeanor changed when he read the words on the outside: For my little brother. He rolled his eyes, but there was a slight curve at the corner of his mouth. “Clay knows I hate it when he calls me his little brother.”

“I think that’s why he wrote it.”

Justin raised his eyebrow. “To annoy me?”

“No. He probably did it to make you smile. And you did smile, so it worked.”

Justin indicated the flap on the envelope. “Can I–?”

“Yes. Clay was very fastidious.”

“He was what?”

“Cautious. There was plenty of hand washing. And antibacterial wipes. You can open it.” Matt watched curiously as Justin removed the drawing, but he didn’t try to peek.

Justin gazed at the thick sheet with a complicated expression on his face, his eyes scanning back and forth, taking in every detail. Then he slid the drawing back into its envelope, placed it under his pillow, and began to cry—soundlessly. It was carefully controlled. He didn’t hide his tears or brush them away, and his crying lasted for a very long time.

It seemed to Matt like a release of positive emotions. A renewal. A spring rain, with warm droplets.

“I don’t even know why I cried,” Justin told him afterwards. “I mean, it was the shit. But it wasn’t Picasso, or anything.”

Matt remembered how Clay had labored over his drawing, pouring out the nameless emotions that lurked in the innermost recesses of his soul. He had done it for an audience of one, and his artwork had been well received. “It can be cathartic, to see the beauty that comes from pain.”

Justin shook his head. “I didn’t think it was beautiful.”

“Interesting. Can you elaborate?” Matt realized he was treating his son like one of his college students. Well, fatherhood occasionally wasn’t all that different from pedagogy.

“Clay... I don’t know, he sketched the truth? Like, it was ugly. It was really fucking ugly, but he captured the feeling of what happened?”

“Okay.” Not having seen Clay’s drawing, Matt didn’t quite understand what Justin meant. Help me understand, kid. “You know, when we’re struggling, it can be a tremendous relief to talk to someone and share the weight. Family takes care of one another, and I’ve got broad shoulders. Which is my way of saying: If you want to talk, I’m here to listen.”

Matt could tell Justin was working himself up to say something, and he was having difficulty with it.

So, Matt waited patiently.

For ten minutes, he waited.

He didn’t do anything but sit, so that Justin would know his entire attention was available for when the words came.

Justin averted his eyes before he spoke. “Do you still want me? As your son?”

Matt was gutted. That was not what he had been expecting. “You are my son. And I’ll always want you.” He felt like he was taking advantage of Justin’s vulnerable state, but it was so rare for him to be this open and expressive. “Why would you ask that?”

“Seth.” Justin gestured vaguely. “Your family.” His words, and all they implied, elicited a pain comparable to a root canal. Your family. Like Justin wasn’t a part of it, like it didn’t include him. Matt had wanted a map. Well, here was the faint outline of a map.

“What happened to Clay is not your fault,” he said firmly. “What happened to you is not your fault. The only people who are to blame are Seth and Raymond and Shane. They hurt our family, our family — you, me, Clay, and Lainie. And we’re going to put the responsibility where it belongs: with those three men. You’ve done nothing wrong. Nothing. I don’t want you thinking it, not for a second.”

Matt would repeat it to him every day. As many times as was needed until Justin internalized it. “It’s okay to feel guilty. I feel guilty, for not protecting you and your brother. Lainie feels guilty. Clay does, too. That’s a natural response to a traumatic event. We’re all going to feel that way for a bit. You can feel guilty, but you are not guilty. Don’t misidentify that you are what you are feeling. Emotions are not reality.”

Justin offered no acknowledgment to Matt’s words, but he wasn’t tuning him out. He seemed to be dissecting something in his mind, figuring something out for himself. And he wasn’t bolting. Not that there were that many possible escape routes for him, in a closed ward, tethered as he was to IVs and heart monitors and drainage tubes.

Matt continued, “You have endured far more than any person should ever have to endure. It didn’t change who you are, or how much I love you. Just like what Clay endured hasn’t changed my love for him. I’m proud of you both for getting through that night in whatever ways you could. It took a lot of courage and fortitude.”

Justin pressed his hand over his eyes. “I love you, too.” He turned his head and curled to the side, in a way that made it abundantly clear he was done talking.

Why had Justin not looked reassured or satisfied by the answer Matt had given him? Why had he looked... resigned? Or discouraged? Matt didn’t know how to interpret such an odd reaction. He was back to having no map. Uncharted terrain.

It made him uneasy. Had he said the wrong thing? Maybe Justin’s tears earlier hadn’t been happy, or cleansing. Maybe they had been silent despair.

How could Matt not know? He had watched it happen. How could he not know?

 


 

Clay had been left in charge while his parents spoke privately to the doctor. He had only intended to rest his head on his arm, and he wasn’t sleeping on the job, he wasn’t! His eyes had closed of their own accord, his body overwhelmed with sedation. Benzos were supposed to relax him, supposed to calm his anxiety; in reality, they just made him brain dead—and tranquilized him into oblivion.

When something bumped his eyebrow, he shot straight up and his vision sparked black and white. “Ow, fuck! Justin, you poked me in the eye!”

Justin met his gaze evenly. “You poked yourself.” His finger strayed to Clay’s cheek and, with uncharacteristic delicacy, traced a bruise. “Your face is fucked.”

“It was fine until you jabbed it!” Clay tried not to tense up as Justin ran his fingers over his nose because he knew if he flinched, it might come off as blame. It didn’t take a genius to guess that Justin felt responsible for the bruises, and for Clay’s arm, and for his fingers, and for the gasoline, which was stupid, and Clay should say so, but he didn’t want to talk about that night yet, and he doubted Justin did either.

“You’re still pretty,” Justin concluded and retracted his hand.

Clay was mildly offended, he didn’t know why. Maybe because even with his sleep-squashed hair and stitched lips, Justin looked like the featured male model for a Mercy Health Services advertisement.

“Since you’re so vain, you’ll be glad to know that they didn’t touch your face.”

Justin huffed out a laugh. “No. Seth just touched everything else. Lucky me.”

Fuck fuck fuck. Clay’s thoughts stuttered to a halt. His hourly bout of nausea clamped down, and, to conquer it, he shifted his arm so that it popped and cracked. Pins and needles... a tingling loss of sensation... and then, voilà, no puking.

Had Justin intended his comment as an opening? Was he trying to confide in him? If so, it was a critical moment, and everything depended on what Clay said next. He usually had no shortage of words. Where the fuck were they? He tried to grab them but they slithered into a shadowed alcove and coiled into a concentric circle. He couldn’t find a free end.

Justin acted indifferent, and Clay kept silent. It felt too much like admitting defeat. But maybe they both needed time to process. Time to prepare their armor and choose their weapons. They could wage war against each other’s demons another day.

Justin yawned. “My mouth is so fucking dry.”

Clay picked up the Styrofoam cup with the bendy straw and offered it to him. “You can rinse your mouth out, but you have to spit. You can’t swallow.”

“Dirty.” Justin winked at him.

Clay was tempted to pour the water out on his brother’s head. How could Justin make a joke like that? He sure as fuck didn’t find it funny.

With infinite patience, he held the cup while Justin sipped, and waited for him to swirl the water around before handing him the puke basin.

“You get to graduate to ice chips soon.”

“Yay. When are they gonna take the tube out of my dick?”

“As soon as you stop falling asleep every 15 minutes.”

Justin’s hand menacingly approached his arm, and Clay swatted it away. His magnanimity could only go so far. “My arm is broken. It won’t be improved by you touching it. And if this is your screwed-up way of punishing yourself, please stop.”

Justin studied him, his face a puzzled scrunch. “Where’s your cast?”

“They don’t cast a break this far up the arm. Gravity does the work.”

“Oh. Does it hurt?”

“What the fuck do you think?”

“I don’t know. Fucking tell me.”

Clay realized they were close to a fight, over nothing. He didn’t want to fight, not here, and especially not with Justin. “It doesn’t hurt that much.” Not compared to my ribs. Or your... everything. “Does your stomach hurt?”

“Nah.”

Was that regret Clay saw flicker across Justin’s face?

It had been, he was sure of it.

Why the fuck would he regret not being in excruciating pain?

Justin sure as hell hadn’t enjoyed the prolonged agony when the doctors were scrambling to figure out the correct dosage of opioids for a former heroin addict. They had far undershot with their initial guess, and Justin had pleaded with them to kill him, or to let him kill himself in order to make it stop. Clay’s pain had subsequently ramped up from ‘tolerable’ to ‘very distressing’. There should be a special notch on the pain scale for My brother finds suicide preferable to his current level of pain. Fucking fix it for him. Right. Fucking. Now.

Justin lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I feel like I just did two grams of heroin.”

“Uh,” Clay said. “You kinda did.” They would have to break it to him at some point. And, of all the things his parents had to tell Justin, this seemed the least likely to send him into a tailspin.

Justin propped himself up on his elbows. “They have me on heroin?!”

“No, not heroin. More like—heroin’s synthetic cousin, five times removed.” And 100 times as potent. “It’s... Jesus– don’t–”

Justin pinched off his IV line with his thumb and index finger.

“First, it’s not in your IV, and, second, you didn’t relapse. Using pain medication after surgery doesn’t count against your clean time. You don’t have to turn in your 90-day key tag, in case you care.”

Justin’s lips twitched, and he leaned back against his pillows, challengingly nonchalant. “I don’t care.”

Clay had figured as much. You’d better care, he thought savagely. “Do you wanna stop talking? I know your mouth...”

“What about it?” Justin asked, like he was daring Clay to say it.

Clay wouldn’t say it, not unless Justin did. “It must be sore, right?”

“It’s not. And I like talking to you. You’re my only entertainment.” Justin looked at him with something raw in his face. “But you should go home. You don’t have to stay at the hospital all the damn time.”

“You want me to leave?” It was hard to breathe. The ceiling was collapsing, and his body was blurring at the edges. Don’t freak out. Don’t fucking freak out. The last thing he wanted was to have a panic attack in front of Justin.

“No. Stay, if you want.” Justin gave him a hesitant half-smile, but he quickly tamped it down. “It’s just—those chairs look really uncomfortable, and I know everything must hurt. I’ve had broken ribs before.” Justin’s voice was a rough-soft rasp. “I wish there was some way I could help you.”

“You do,” Clay said immediately. “You do help.”

The truth was that Clay hated the hospital. He grew claustrophobic after a few hours cooped up in Justin’s tiny room, and he disliked all the small talk he had to make with the medical staff. Every time he looked at Justin, he was confronted with the proof of what Seth had done. But if Clay left, he regretted it instantly, disturbed by a jarring absence, and it only took twenty minutes for his separation anxiety to become incapacitating. His desire to reconnect turned into a dense ball of rage and paranoia, to the detriment of the people around him.

It was better to stay with Justin, and be miserable, than to be apart, and be unhinged. “I’m not leaving,” Clay said decisively. “I’ll leave the hospital when you do.”

Justin winced. “Could you, uh... not.

Clay realized that his hand was on Justin’s abdomen, and he was pressing down, hard. Right where one of the bullet wounds was. “Shit.” The scariest thing was that he didn’t remember doing it. There was no memory of him moving his arm. He jerked it back, his face burning with embarrassment. Justin didn’t need this kind of crap from him. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” He wiped furiously at his eyes.

Somehow, out of the two of them, he was the bigger mess.

“It’s okay. Don’t make it weird.” Justin handed Clay the napkin that was sitting by his cup. “Here, I drew this for you.”

If it was a distraction, it worked. The napkin was covered, corner to corner, with a black ink design, and Clay was touched by the gesture, even if Justin had no artistic ability whatsoever. He flipped the napkin around, then turned it sideways. “What is this? A bike tire? A jungle gym? A malformed robot?” He narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “A representation of how you feel about me?”

Justin frowned. “Are you fucking serious?”

Clay shook his head. “I–, um, I like it. It’s good. I just... don’t understand?”

Justin smirked. “I’m messing with you. I don’t know what it is. I was bored, and Lainie had a napkin. She gave me her fancy fountain pen.”

“So, it’s a scribble? You can’t say you drew it for me if you were just doodling random shit.”

“I worked hard on it,” Justin insisted as his head drooped down against his shoulder. “I—”

He was worse than a narcoleptic. Clay considered wadding up the napkin and trying to make a basket into the trash can. Except, with Justin now sleeping (he fucking slept all the time), Clay was bored, so he opened the napkin to create his own design. Written inside, in precisely formed characters—atypical of Justin’s messy penmanship—was a note.

 

I was shit scared when Seth hurt you. And I’m scared now. Did Shane do anything to you? After I got shot? I couldn’t see. I couldn’t turn my head b/c of the gun; and there’s this blank; this missing time; when I didn’t see what happened to you. I don’t know how to talk about this. I’m really, really fucking sorry. Are we okay? ~ J

 

Clay cleared his throat and swallowed against the lump that was lodged there. At times, he thought he knew Justin better than anyone. Some days, he didn’t know him at all.

He went to the nurses station to ask for a pen. He wrote a reply, and, for some reason, he thought of Zach and the compliments bag in Communications class.

 

We’re okay. Things are fucked up, but we’re okay. Nothing happened to me, not in the way you mean. I saw what happened to you. I didn’t look away... I didn’t look away because I didn’t want you to be alone in it. I was there with you. We can talk about it. We can talk about anything.

You’re the only person who understands, what it was like that night. No one else does, or will.

I’m scared too.

Please learn how to use a semicolon. ; It’s my only tattoo. Plus, it’s a basic life skill. ~ C

 

Clay put his hand in his pocket, considering. Slowly, he removed Justin’s 90-day key tag and ran his thumb over it. He had known exactly where it was in their bedroom—under Justin’s bed, in a shoebox, behind his gym bag. It was where Justin hoarded food and also where he placed anything he considered valuable. Clay had felt a little guilty for revealing the location to his aunt, but now he was glad he had.

He neatly folded the napkin over the red key tag and slid it next to Justin’s hand and then, so as not to wake him, he gingerly moved Justin’s fingers over, one by one, until they rested on top of where the key tag was.

Quietly, Clay said, “We’re okay. And you’re getting your 6-month key tag. I’ll take you out to dinner, when you get it.” He drew an imaginary semicolon in the air above Justin’s wrist.

What had happened to them was a pause, not a full stop. Life would continue on the other side.

Maybe. It was probably going to be a long pause. That’s what scares me.

Clay watched Justin drool. He no longer looked like a model, unless it was for an advertisement for adult bibs. He was going to get his gown all wet. The idiot.

What the fuck scares you, Justin?

Other than losing me?

To amuse himself, Clay arranged tissues under Justin’s chin, until he had emptied the box.

He pulled out his phone and made a call. It was the fifth time he had called. Nobody answered, so he left a message. For the fifth time. He knew he shouldn't, but he couldn't help himself.

There were too many things that needed to be said.

The words scampered out of the darkness of his mind, begging to be voiced. Unlike with Justin, they came easily.

 


 

Saturday, December 15th

Lainie waited until Justin was fully cognizant before she began to prepare him for his statement to the detectives. After hearing his version of events, she bent the rules a little, and she coached him on how to frame his actions against Raymond. It was bad form as a lawyer, but it was her prerogative as a mother.

“You did the right thing, but don’t say you were trying to smash Raymond’s skull in so that you could ‘take him out’. Say you were trying to stop him from hurting you and your brother, and he was coming at you with a gun. The vase was your only means of self-defense. And after Raymond passed out, you didn’t hit him again.”

“I didn’t.”

“Good. Say that. Make it very clear.”

Lainie didn’t know how to broach the subject of the sexual assault, so she addressed it indirectly. “The detectives might ask you what happened after Seth shot you. Are you okay with speaking about that?” She knew Justin might wish to keep it a secret, like Clay had tried to do, but every instinct in her wanted to pry it out of him, so that she could take the burden of it and help carry it.

“Did Clay tell you? About what Seth did with the gun? And... after?”

The questions were vague enough that had Lainie not already known about what had happened, she would have assumed he was talking about being shot. “He didn’t initially. He wouldn’t have said anything at all, but there was physical evidence that made us concerned.”

“Physical evidence,” Justin repeated woodenly.

“In your mouth, and on your genitals.”

Justin played disinterestedly with his phone, his face blank, and then he glanced her way, completely cavalier. “Jizz or blood?”

His tone was emotionless, and Lainie tried to match it. “Both. Clay didn’t include any of the details in his official statement, and you don’t have to either, unless it feels right to you, or if you want to pursue charges. I’m always straight with you on how the legal system works, and I will say that it’s very unlikely that Shane could be charged as an accomplice. California law does not allow a person to be charged for witnessing a sex crime unless the person who was assaulted is under 14. From what you remember, did Shane encourage or urge Seth on while he was... hurting you?”

“No.”

“If you want to make a case and fight, I will fight with you.”

“I don’t.” To Lainie’s surprise, Justin began to talk, unprompted, about the assault. He spoke in a chillingly calm voice.

Seth had been the only one to touch him. There hadn’t been anything put inside his mouth, other than the gun. Seth had given him a handjob, he had ejaculated, and Seth had not stopped after he had. Things had continued until there was a gunshot. Seth had finally stopped messing with him, and there were two more gunshots. The end.

It took everything Lainie had not to weep while she listened to the intricate blow-by-blow of it, especially when Justin revealed how his urethra had been injured. He didn’t appear upset by any of it, which made it all the more upsetting for her to hear.

There was such a stark contrast between Clay’s recounting and Justin’s recounting of the same events. Clay had been, at first, guarded and then extremely emotional; Justin was controlled and matter-of-fact. He described the assault with clinical precision—as if he had been an observer to it, as if he had fully detached from his body while it had occurred.

Lainie would have liked to believe he was so candid because he felt comfortable and safe with her. But it didn’t seem like a gesture of trust on his part so much as a dissociative process. It probably stemmed from his childhood, a coping mechanism he had developed in response to repeated maltreatment by someone he was dependent upon for his care.

Such neglect had made him more vulnerable to further abuse and more likely to engage in destructive behaviors.

And it had also made him more likely to react to trauma in a sedate and detached manner.

Lainie gave him the dignity of listening to his words without reacting.

It was difficult.

The only way she managed to not externalize her own distress was by imagining herself in the courtroom on an unrelated case. (An unrelated case! This would be the case that would follow her to the end of her days.)

When Justin finished speaking, she thoroughly went over the paperwork from the sexual assault examination kit, and she explained all the procedures they had consented to on his behalf.

“These results will remain confidential, and they do not have to be reported to law enforcement. It’s your decision. I’m sorry we did the kit without your consent. It’s okay to feel however you feel about it, without fear of hurting me, or your dad, or anyone else. You can be upset.”

It was the first moment that Justin showed any real emotion. He sat up, his fists clenched white. It scared Lainie to see, not because he was angry (he had every right to be angry, about so many things) but because of where the aggressive anger was directed: at himself.

“It wasn’t rape,” he said bitterly. “Or ‘sexual assault’. Seth didn’t get off on it. I did. I was the one who got off. So, you didn’t need to do any of that. Or stick swabs up there. I don’t know why Clay didn’t tell you everything, but Seth didn’t rape me. He was just trying to hurt me. Humiliate me. But it didn’t hurt, and it was—whatever. It wasn’t that bad.”

It wasn’t that bad?

The words rang in Lainie’s head like a storm siren, and they wouldn’t stop.

She felt... What did she feel? It wasn’t sadness. It wasn’t revulsion. It was the dreadful in-between.

She struggled to maintain her neutral expression. This wasn’t about her. This was about Justin, and the harm that had been done to him. He needed to tell her his story as he saw it, and she needed to listen without judgment or restriction.

“Seth wasn’t interested in me, in that way. I don’t want you to think... He didn’t molest me when I was living with my mom. God, this is so fuc– messed up. I don’t want you to think...”

“I don’t think anything.”

He looked her in the face, eye to eye. There was something very young about his posture and his voice. “It wasn’t that bad. I didn’t feel anything after Seth shot me. Clay’s the one—the one that he tortured. Clay had to feel everything. But me... It wasn’t that bad. For me, it wasn’t bad.”

The silence was heavy, and loaded.

Lainie knew that Justin had been conscious during Seth’s assault. And Justin had to know it, too; he had just described the mechanics of it in graphic detail. Was he trying to minimize the trauma, and repress it? Or was he thinking of her—trying to make it better for her by making it sound like he had not suffered? Either possibility twisted her heart, and it took some time for the painful constriction to become manageable. It was a delicate balance to maintain: letting Justin choose his own narrative, but not letting him compartmentalize the pain or dismiss it as unworthy of attention.

She let tears form in her eyes—tears for her child, whom life had treated so poorly. She let Justin see them so that he would know that she hurt for him, even if he couldn’t hurt for himself. “It was bad, Justin. What Seth did, it was sexual assault. Legally, without a doubt, it was sexual assault.”

She decided to push him a little, because Justin was clearly wrestling with a misplaced shame, and she wanted to help. She wanted to set the groundwork for healing. “You might not have felt anything that happened physically, but is it possible that you might have been frightened, or confused? Maybe you felt powerless or not in control of your own body?”

He shrugged, and she hesitated. He had claimed it wasn’t sexual assault, simply because... God, what a damaging misconception. “I want you to listen to me.” He stiffened, but she forged ahead. “An erection is a physical response to stimulation. You wouldn’t have had any control over it. And the touch... it might have felt good, chemically. That doesn’t mean you wanted it. Or that you found it pleasurable. An orgasm doesn’t change the fact that it was an assault.”

Justin snapped his head up. “It didn’t feel good! Seth hurt Clay. It wouldn’t have felt good for him to...” He cringed away from her. “Please don’t say that it felt good. Please.”

“Okay, I’m sorry.” Lainie knew words could sometimes be invisible bullets, whether you meant them to be or not, and it devastated her that she might have wounded him further. There were already so many invisible bullets under his skin that needed to be dug out. There were also two metal bullets that could never be removed. They would remain a part of him forever.

Slowly, Justin’s features hardened and he retreated behind his walls. His favorite persona emerged. The one that smiled and laughed and told you exactly what you wanted to hear. “It’s fine, Lainie. Really, it is. It’s just– I didn’t feel anything. I got shot, and then I woke up here. Can we not... not talk about it?”

“Of course.” There was so much more Lainie had wanted to say, but she had to respect his boundaries. It could wait. She had pushed Clay, by medical necessity, and it had made her a fellow perpetrator in Clay’s eyes. There would be no more coercion, not from her.

She had to give Justin and Clay a choice of what to say, and when to say it, and she had to stop when they wanted to stop. Always.

“If it’s okay, Matt and I would like to keep you on the PEP medication for HIV.” She raised a finger to preempt his next objection, and she clarified: “Simply because of the blood you got in your mouth. It’s a 28-day dosage.”

He nodded. “Sure.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“No.”

“If you do want to talk, about anything, you can come to me. Or to Matt. Aunt Becky. Coach Patrick. Any of your therapists.” She wanted to add, Please don’t go to Clay. It was the most likely avenue for him, and she feared it would be the exclusive one he would utilize. Clay, too, would likely gravitate towards Justin. She didn’t think it would be productive for the two of them to sit in an echo chamber with their trauma between them. But, despite her reservations, she’d rather her sons talk to each other than talk to no one at all. Sometimes the best person to talk to was the person with whom you felt the safest.

Or the person who could say: me, too.

“Lainie?”

“Yes?”

“The drug charges my mom is facing... Is there any way you can help her? Like you helped me?”

There was very little she’d like to do less, but it was the first thing Justin had asked of her, and she couldn’t say no. She had, after all, requested the wellness check that had led to Amber’s arrest. “I’ll see what I can do.” The bare minimum, that was what she could do. Push for felony probation... a short jail term... and a restraining order, in perpetuity, to shield her sons from any further interaction with that deplorable woman.

If only such a thing were possible.

She gave Justin as stern a look as she could handle. (It wasn’t very stern.) “You are still not allowed to see her until you turn 18. Matt and I are sticking to that rule. No exceptions.”

“I don’t wanna see her. Nothing’s changed for me.”

It should have given Lainie a sense of relief, to hear the conviction in his voice. All it did was deepen her oppressive sadness. It was one thing for her to know what Amber Foley had done, and it was quite another for Justin to know it. Would there ever be an end to the damage she had caused her son? The damage she had caused Lainie’s sons?

Justin began to listen to music, so Lainie pulled out her laptop. Insurance was already causing a hassle about “unnecessary medical tests,” which they were refusing to cover. They would cover them. She didn’t back down, and they had no idea of the whirlwind headed their way.

She worked diligently, but her attention was divided. She was able to pinpoint the exact moment the physical pain of Justin’s injuries came to an apex because he started biting his knuckles. Lainie knew Justin wouldn’t ask for the rapid-release Fentanyl for breakthrough pain. He derisively called it “China White,” which was one of its street names.

“Justin, if you’re worried about using opioids, I promise you, we won’t let it get out of control. We’re going to wean you off the hard stuff before you’re released, and you’ll never have free access to whatever drug they use to step you down. We know you’re not trying to get high. It’s okay to take medication when you’re in pain.”

“I don’t want it.” He looked queasy, and his lips were pressed flat.

She set her laptop aside. “How about if we ask for some naproxen? Or some acetaminophen? Aleve. Tylenol.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“Why?”

“I just don’t.” He flashed her a smile, crooked and untroubled. “My pain’s a 0. No pain.”

Oh, Justin.

She put her hand by his, offering without words and without expectation. Justin accepted, but he was tentative about it. She wondered if he was merely humoring her or if he, perhaps, viewed her as a (mediocre) stand-in for Clay.

Lainie shifted closer. “You can squeeze as hard as you’d like. I’ve never told you about my arm wrestling days in college. I used to beat all the boys, and I can still take your dad down. Don’t hold back for my sake.”

Justin gripped her hand with his full strength, and she gripped his back, equally tight. She helped him ride out the pain, the pressure on her hand cresting in waves—sometimes feather-light, sometimes a death grip. When his eyes slipped closed, she thought he’d fallen asleep, but he opened them slowly, his lashes fluttering.

“Thank you.” He relaxed, and the tension in his muscles sank away.

Lainie never let go of his hand.

 


 

Justin shut himself in the bathroom, relieved to have an excuse to be alone. His nurse had taken the catheter out, which had sucked. Partly because, while the catheter was in, he could pretend it was the reason why his dick hurt.

It wasn’t.

He pushed the IV pole against the toilet and stared at his reflection in the mirror. The cuts Seth had left on his lips were healing, and the stitches were already dissolving. They wouldn’t scar. He slid off the hospital gown to look at his stomach. It looked like Frankenstein’s monster—completely fucking nasty. It would scar. At least he could hide the damage under a shirt.

Clay couldn’t. The marks of abuse on his body were visible to everyone. Whenever Justin saw Clay’s bruised face or his splinted fingers or his arm brace (which was all the fucking time), he thought, I did that. God, it made him sick.

He turned on the tap and unlocked his phone. There was only one person he wanted to call. It was another betrayal—to Jess, to Clay.

There’s something wrong with me.

Justin had his number memorized. If he hadn’t changed it.

It rang and rang.

He wouldn’t pick up.

If he did pick up, he would hang up as soon as he heard Justin’s voice. A creeping panic took root in Justin’s chest at the thought.

“Hello?”

I’m fucking poison. Justin let out a shaky breath, an addict finding release.

“Justin?” There was a self-satisfied sigh on the other end of the line. “I know it’s you.”

“Hey, Bryce.”

“Why the fuck are you calling me? My parents aren’t going to pay your hospital bills.”

Justin could feel the venom in Bryce’s voice—he wished he could inject it straight into his veins. “I don’t need anything from you.” Lie. Lie. Lie. “You heard what happened?”

“Yeah, what a shit show. Meth Seth, huh? What the fuck did you do to piss him off?”

“I stole his drug money.” Hadn’t that mistake been the genesis of it all?

“No shit.” Bryce tsked. “You were kind of asking for it, then, weren’t you?”

Finally, someone who would tell him the truth. “Yeah, I was, but I... I almost got my entire family killed.”

Bryce laughed. He fucking laughed. “What family? It’s too bad that Jensen was there.”

Justin jerked back against the wall, hard enough to crack his head. But he was willing to play along if it made Bryce keep talking. “I know, right? Clay really fucked it up for me. Could have been a quick out.”

“A quick out?” Bryce scoffed. “What, are you a fucking pussy like Standall now? Since when do you roll over?” Justin could hear ice cubes clinking. He pictured Bryce lounging in his black leather chair, feet up on the table, sipping his father’s expensive whiskey out of a monogrammed glass. He was probably staring smugly at a $2 million piece of modern art that Mr. Walker had bought just to let people know that he had $2 million to blow.

“It wasn’t quick.” Justin realized that his statement made no sense, and he corrected, “Seth... He wouldn’t have made it quick.”

“Well, would you have wanted it to be?” Bryce always knew him best.

“No.”

“I figured,” Bryce said. “What is it with that Jensen kid and trying to save everyone? I guess this time, he didn’t want to lose his only chance of getting laid. You really shouldn’t string him along, Justin. You’ve got to tell him sooner or later that you’re not gonna give up the goods.” He laughed again, and it was laced with cold delight. “Except that would get you kicked out, wouldn’t it? I see the dilemma. Rock and a hard place, brother. I get it.”

Justin shouldn’t let Bryce talk shit about Clay, or about Alex. But, for so long, Bryce’s love and approval had been his most coveted addiction. His drug of choice. And he had never been good at resisting temptation.

Bryce took a drink, savoring the pause. He was in control of the conversation, and he knew it. “What was it like, getting shot?” It was an asshole thing to ask, but Bryce wasn’t being deliberately cruel. His was a child’s cruelty: dropping a writhing caterpillar onto a swarm of fire ants, to see what would happen—a fun amusement, until you got bored.

What had getting shot been like? It had been a hundred different things. Justin settled on: “Disappointing.” He waited, hoping Bryce would ask him for more details. I’ll tell you everything. More than I would ever tell Clay. Like how Clay’s blood had been on Seth’s hand, and Justin’s blood had joined it, and their mingled blood had acted as lube when Seth stroked him off. I enjoyed it, Bryce. It felt good. Ask me. Ask me.

Bryce made a disinterested sound. He obviously wasn’t going to throw him a crumb. He was bored. Or Justin had ceased to be amusing.

Someone called Bryce’s name in the background. Was he hosting a party? He fucking was. With his new Hillcrest friends. They were all pathetic losers—they’d have to be, to hang out with Bryce. “Look, Justy, I gotta–”

Justin clutched the phone to his ear. “Don’t hang up. Please.” Why had he said please? He hated the desperate stench of neediness on him. I’m fucking disgusting. Lainie and Matt didn’t know. Clay didn’t know. But Bryce understood. “Please, Bryce.”

“It was good to hear from you, Justin. But, burned bridges, and all that. Don’t call me again.” There was a click.

“Fuck you,” Justin said to the dead connection. Maybe I should have let Clay kill you. No. Fuck. I should have done it myself.

There was a knock on the door. Justin jumped, an incomprehensible fear shooting through him. He had developed a problem with sharp sounds. Each one was the snap of Clay’s bone.

“Everything okay in there, kid?”

“Yeah, just give me a minute.”

“Are you nauseated? We have medications we can try.”

Justin was nauseated. Sick with the recollection of his brother’s pain. And his own filth. “No, I’m good. Really, I’m good.” He didn’t hear footsteps retreating, which meant Matt was on the other side, waiting for him to come out, worrying about him.

Fuck. Justin couldn’t stand it. The Jensens made it seem so easy, being loved. It wasn’t easy. He wanted his old pain back—the familiar, comfortable misery of his old life. A time when people hadn’t depended on him. Or needed him. Or cared if he was okay.

Matt and Lainie and Clay, they had each told him that they didn’t blame him. How could they not blame him? How could they not see that what Seth had done—it was of Justin’s own making? He hadn’t chosen it, or deserved it, but he had earned it. He had fucked up, and he had been ready to pay the penalty.

Clay had paid instead.

His brother, a goddamned martyr. Justin had bullied him, had entertained the idea of killing him, but, what the hell, Clay had invited him into his family and thrown himself right into Seth’s path to save him. Clay Jensen: Absurdly kind. Reckless as fuck. An animal cornered, but unwilling to die. Fastidious.

Justin was—

No good for anybody. Worthless piece of shit. Fucking needy whore.

Seth’s voice was taunting him from beyond the grave.

Justin knew that the taunts weren’t true. Matt and Lainie would take any version of him, with open arms. They would also take every monster he brought to their door. Every disruption to their lives. Every abuse. And they would ask for more, demand more, because they loved him.

It was fucked up. Justin had made them into victims. His victims. And they didn’t even see the violation in it. Didn’t see how loving him had hurt them. It wasn’t fair. It gave Justin too much power. Made him like Bryce. Like Seth.

So, maybe Justin didn’t deserve to suffer, but he did deserve to suffer more, and for longer, than the rest of his family. He wasn’t refusing pain meds because he was mentally resilient, like Matt claimed, or because he was worried about relapsing, like Lainie believed.

He wanted it to hurt.

He couldn’t face the idea of the pain ending. Once it tapered off, he would have no choice but to square up with himself. To see Clay, and remember. To see their house, and remember. To live every second, knowing what he had done.

Dying was easy, by comparison, because it had an end. Pain was also easy. It ravaged your body, but it asked nothing of you.

Shame had no end. Shame was forever.

Chapter Text

Tony: how did final exams go?

Clay: Straight A’s. Somehow, Justin passed.

Tony: miracle. got plans for winter break?

Clay: We’re going to my grandparents’ farm. Bad reception. Might be out of touch for a while. How’s your abuelo?

Tony: hanging on. stubborn bastard.

Clay: I’m glad you have more time with him. I hope he goes peacefully.

Tony: don’t stress about it. enjoy your break

Tony: & don’t kill Justin.

Clay: Tempting, but I’m stuck with him.

Tony: for better, for worse

Clay: Until death do us part 💀

Tony: i suggest a divorce

Clay: I marry for life 💍

Tony: i don’t doubt it

Tony: do something fun & crazy over break, for me

Clay: Only fun things, I promise

 


 

Sunday, December 16th

Clay had thought it would make things easier, to finally know why Seth had come after them with such rabid fury, such maniacal brutality.

Knowing didn’t make anything easier.

The explanation left Clay numb. And the numbness quickly turned into a dense seething ball at the back of his mind, which hummed and crackled.

Seth’s stash houses had been raided by the DEA and FBI based on an “anonymous” tip. As a result, the cartels may, or may not, have put out a hit on Seth, and Amber may, or may not, have decided to direct Seth’s wrath towards Justin. It was fucking senseless, unwarranted, imbecilic, non compos mentis.

Seth was sick in the head. He had been willing to burn their house down; to torture them to death, in parallel; to rape Justin and make his final breaths as anguished as possible...

Because of Justin’s mom?

Justin had shrugged when he had heard the news, like, yeah, that makes sense. No wonder his brother had once been a public shitbag and a private wreck, after a childhood like his. If Justin wouldn’t be angry about it, Clay would be angry for them both.

His anger started with himself.

He had been the person to open the door to Amber when she had come searching for Justin. Clay should have said, “Justin Foley? Yeah, I know him. I hate him. He doesn’t live here.” And then he should have slammed the door in Amber’s face. It wouldn’t have required much acting; all of those things had been true at some point.

Instead, he had offered her a Coke.

He felt sleazy.

He needed to get clean.

He stripped and showered quickly. The water pressure in the motel was shitty—heck, everything in the motel was shitty, except for one important detail: it was located directly across the street from Mercy Hospital. That fact made up for its other faults. It meant Clay could come and go without ever being too far away from Justin, in case things took a bad turn. He could avoid going to Aunt Becky’s house, where his cousins climbed all over him and pestered him with a million questions. And he could take showers on demand... if his dad was there to help him remove the brace and to make a waterproof shield for his arm and to uncap the bottles for him and... It was a lengthy process.

He did it several times a day.

Gasoline clung to him, ready for ignition, and no matter how many showers he took, no matter how hard he scrubbed, the fumes lingered. He fully knew it was irrational, but if he was soaked in water, and dripping wet, then he knew he couldn’t burn.

There was a trick to taking the shower so that it didn’t overwhelm him. He couldn’t stand directly under the spray; the feeling of the water pouring down over his body was an instant trigger. He had to keep his eyes closed and turn his head, keep his mouth shut tight, so the gasoline—the water—wouldn’t get into his stomach or lungs. He couldn’t look down; if he did, he saw red-tinged spatters.

A car seat stained scarlet.

Bloody bathwater.

An expanding gelatinous pool of platelets and plasma.

Jeff was dying. Hannah was dying. Justin was dying. They bled, and bled, and bled.

Clay struggled—to get to Jeff in time, to tell Hannah he loved her, to become a vice for Justin’s bleeding, broken body and hold him together.

He had saved Justin.

One out of three was a failing grade.

There was blood on his hands. Wasn’t that what people said when you killed someone? Well, Seth’s blood had slid right off, like oil over water, and it was Hannah’s blood that coated his hands, and Jeff’s.

How could I have saved Justin, but not them?

How could Hannah have stayed hidden, cowering in the closet, while Jessica was being assaulted by Bryce? How could Justin have sat on the other side of the door, horror-stricken but acquiescent?

How could I have done the same? I fucking sat there, frozen. Why didn’t I tackle Seth after he shot Justin? Before he was on top of him. Before he brutalized him.

Clay tried to shut his brain off, to appreciate the simple luxury of being able to shower with a locked door and without an audience. Showering was private, a sacred ritual, but not for his brother. Justin couldn’t take a shower unassisted; he had to have a nurse help him with the entire process. It had to be fucking with his head, but he had laughed at Clay’s concern, reminding him that he had been in juvie, where there were group showers; he had lived on the street, where there were no showers and people pissed and fucked right next to you; he adapted, he was used to transitions, he didn’t care, it wasn’t a big deal.

Clay didn’t understand his indifferent attitude. Justin was medically fragile, but, in other respects, he was acting like they had spilled a glass of orange juice and should wipe it up and toss the evidence in the trash. Clay had asked his mom about it, and she had said that an apparent lack of a reaction was a reaction, and not a healthy one. It seemed healthier than what Clay was working with.

His life had become blood and death, needles and hospitals. Horrific images assailed him, an ever-present waking torment, and he balanced them out by designing his own graphic revenge fantasies to play alongside them. When he shaved, his hand clenched around the razor’s handle, with a savage compulsion, and when he ate, his fingers sought out the sharpest implement in reach. Sleeping was the worst — the terror of thick, black smoke engulfing him — the fear of being buried alive on top of Justin’s corpse.

He wanted to go home, but he didn’t know where home was anymore. He wanted to embrace Justin every time he saw him, to confirm his brother was still alive and not merely a phantasm he had concocted and projected into the real world—but touching Justin was not quite permissible (it was not forbidden, either; it was just... prickly and complicated). He wanted to talk to someone, no, not to someone, to Justin, but Justin wouldn’t talk. He would listen, laid-back and sympathetic—in an overly generous, lofty way—and when Clay grew ill at ease by the imbalance in their conversation, Justin would begin to make crass jokes.

Clay, would you relax? I’m not upset you told Lainie. But you could’ve told her Seth didn’t ass-rape me. It would’ve saved a swab or two—I know you’re all about that environmental shit.

How was it possible to want to hug someone and smack them at the exact same instant?

They had almost died together, but god-fucking-forbid they try to have an actual mature, sincere conversation about it.

Clay missed being crazy enough to hear Hannah’s voice. She would understand. She wouldn’t pick him apart or examine his every action under a magnifying glass, like his mom did. She wouldn’t search his pockets and remove the razors, the forks and knives, the paperclips, the scissors, like his dad did. She wouldn’t try to merge the scrawny, nerdy Clay Jensen she had known with this mockery: a heroic Clay Jensen, defender of the downtrodden.

What a joke.

If such a thing as a soul existed, two gallons of gasoline and four pints of Justin’s blood had defiled his. There was a dark beauty to violence, and Clay had not savored it properly. He wished he could kill Seth again, and take his time.

Make Seth suffer. The way Justin had suffered. The way Hannah had. And Jess, and Alex.

The thought fascinated him. (It horrified him.) Seth’s coffin was imprinted on his brain, an antique white exterior, with gold crosses and silver finish. A crowd of mourners, with his name on their lips, a cursed name.

Clay Jensen. Murderer.

He was burning, withering within himself, a thousand little deaths. He did not go gently, he raged. He screamed and screamed, but no one could hear him.

Why could no one hear him? It wasn’t subtle—a spark, a flash, an ember. It was an inferno—self-immolation in a public space.

His overall survival had been reduced to one-minute intervals. One more minute, and one more minute, and one more minute.

This minute consisted of turning off the water and stepping out of the shower without falling on his ass. Moving, in general, was a piss-poor idea, and his body never let him forget it. He halted at the sink, planted his hand on its edge, and confronted the face in the mirror. Instead of seeing bruises, he saw rotting flesh. Grave dirt. A cracked skull.

He didn’t know why he did it—to make himself feel more miserable or to make himself feel better, to try to feel closer to Justin or to make them feel separate, to replicate the elation of having survived that night or to relive the depravity of it—but he palmed his dick and jacked off, thinking of Hannah.

He didn’t bother being careful. There was too much friction, and not enough lotion, and his mind rebelled against his hypothetical partner—masturbating to the memory of a dead girl had to be a new low—but he forced himself to enjoy it.

His hand was as insubstantial as a hologram. It didn’t belong to him, a hand, disembodied, but the strokes were hard, and efficient, so it must be a part of him, right?

Please. No more.

Be still, he told himself. It’s almost over.

Pleasure, which burnt into ash.

When he finished, he vomited into the sink. Then, slowly, he got dressed, slipped his razor into the pocket of his hoodie, and went to meet his dad.

 


 

Matt entered the family waiting area, in search of his eldest son. Clay was ensconced in the couch, inexpertly twirling an extra fine point pen between his fingers. Where had he gotten it? He hadn’t had it earlier. Matt sat beside him with a worn-down sigh, and he checked his position to ensure that adequate physical space existed between them.

Oh, how he missed the typical challenges of teenage boys. Doors slammed with a flourish. Blatant lies. Empty milk containers in the fridge. Missed curfews. Raucous behavior at two in the morning, which there never seemed to be a reasonable explanation for.

Matt was now faced with two uncommunicative, touch-averse teenagers. He and Lainie were trying to respect their sons’ boundaries and navigate their sensory defensiveness with sensitivity. But Matt dared to skirt the perimeter more than Lainie would, hoping that one, or both, of his children would eventually respond to his attempts to reach out.

“How did the consult go?” Clay asked, with a grudging reluctance.

The consult. Matt had never imagined a day would come when he would be tasked with convincing his son to use a schedule II controlled substance. Or that he would have to hire a professional to make a compelling case for its necessity. “The addiction specialist really knows her stuff. Your mom was very impressed with her, as she should be—we’re paying top-dollar.”

Clay trailed the pen against his leg, methodical and precise. “Don’t tell Justin you’re paying for her out-of-pocket. He’ll go cold turkey, which, to be honest, I think is a good idea. He’s getting a taste of what that crap is like again, and he’s not gonna wanna quit. He’s gonna keep craving it, and you and Mom will be the bad guys who cut him off when his prescription ends. There’ll be massive family drama, as if we weren’t a thriving petri dish of drama already, and Justin will decide we’re not enough for him. He’ll cut us out and disappear, and his entire life will be spent chasing the dragon. Chasing the perfect high.” Clay spoke like he was narrating a story with a foregone conclusion. “He’ll overdose and die, and it’ll be like we never adopted him at all.”

Matt shook his head, baffled, his shoulders and heart heavy. What really weighed on him was the knowledge that Clay wasn’t exaggerating; to him, the anxiety was real, and wrapped up in his anxiety was a fear of traumatic abandonment. He had witnessed Justin at the brink of death, and he must have thought, however briefly, that it was the end.

Clay had lost two good friends, Jeff Atkins and Hannah Baker, in the space of a few months, and, although Justin had defied the odds and survived his injuries, it was probably starting to feel like a discomfiting pattern. The art of losing isn’t hard to master: Matt wasn’t sure he agreed with Elizabeth Bishop, fine poet though she was, on that point.

He remained calm, hoping to transfer his peaceful energy to his son. “I think that’s an extreme, and rather despondent, interpretation of the situation. While not entirely baseless, it has a critical flaw: You’re working off the wrong trend line. Justin has a support structure, a good one. Addiction is a family disease, and our family is tenacious and self-protective, I don’t need to tell you that. There’s no reason to think catastrophically. Your mom hammered out a thirty-page attack plan with the addiction specialist. It’ll probably be eighty pages by tomorrow morning.”

Clay looked at him, his expression solemn, and he tipped his chin in a weak nod. “I don’t want Justin to be in pain. It’s just—I’d rather he be alive, later.”

“Believe me, none of us want Justin’s life to be altered in a negative way because of these decisions. But the doctors aren’t satisfied with his progress. He needed to be doing laps around this hospital days ago, to help prevent blood clots.”

Clay sat up, instantly defensive. “He’s trying, Dad. He made it to the end of the hallway yesterday.”

“We know that, kid. We know. It’s not about pushing through it or toughing it out. He physically can’t do what he needs to do. The kind of pain he’s in... this isn’t minor stuff, and it’s putting a great deal of stress on his body—overburdening his sympathetic nervous system. We’re worried it could mask some serious complications, should they arise. Acute pain is a medical emergency, and it’s not conducive to healing.” Matt reached the unfortunate conclusion: “Which is why we need to use opioids. Does that make sense?”

“Just because it makes sense doesn’t mean I like it.”

“Duly noted.” Matt handed Clay the water bottle he had brought from the cafeteria and he pulled out the rabbit-shaped pill case from his pocket. “We’re not trying to be Justin’s drug-pusher. And we’re not trying to push you, either, with yours... although you do need to take them, right now. No arguments.”

“Real subtle, Dad.” Clay took his pills and then slumped against the couch arm, and everything about him—his battered form, his hooded eyes, his dolorous spirit—pleaded for an answer, some sign it was all going to be okay.

Matt couldn’t tell him it would be okay. He feared those words would have the exact opposite effect of what he intended. They could imply stop feeling the way you’re feeling or they could minimize where they were now, as a family, in a profound state of not okay. It was hard to witness his children’s pain without trying everything he could to fix it double-quick, but allowing them to feel genuine negative emotions was the healthiest, most meaningful courtesy he could give them.

It didn’t mean he couldn’t also offer hope and encouragement. “We want to get you boys home as soon as possible. Before Christmas, at the very latest. Get back to a family routine, just the four of us.”

“Home,” Clay echoed blandly. “Where is ‘home’? We’re displaced, Dad. The dispossessed.”

“Not true,” Matt said, with strong fervor. “I know it’s trite to say, but as long as we have each other, we always have a home.”

Matt couldn’t fault Clay his disorientation and confusion. He understood it. He had returned to their house to pick up Clay’s antidepressant medication and—although the crime scene cleanup company had done a bang-up job and every piece of physical evidence had been removed—it was chilling, and stomach-turning, to stand in the spot where his children had been terrorized. The place where, had circumstance taken a half-step to the left or to the right, they would have died.

All the warmth that he and Lainie had cultivated over the past decade... all their well-worn and loved possessions... all the laughter that had echoed in those halls... all the nooks and nicks and stains and clutter... It was still their residence, but disarranged, and skewed, with too much sadness.

The floorboards, especially, were saturated with pain, and the living room, which had once been the center point of family discussions and scoldings and game nights, was now desolate—devoid of its (bloodstained) furniture, with a prominent bullet hole in the wall.

It was futile to hold onto your feathered nest once the tempest had blown through and desecrated it. Matt chose to see it as an opportunity. At this point in their lives, most couples with two kids on the verge of college would be looking to downsize. He and Lainie had opted instead for an upgrade. They were searching for a house with three bedrooms, and an office. “You know, kiddo, we would welcome your feedback on this moving decision. You can help us choose where we’re going to live. It can be a fresh start. You and Justin can finally have separate bedrooms.”

Clay slammed his hand against the couch cushion with a fiery passion, and he gave Matt a look that could have decapitated someone, it was that sharp.

Matt cleared his throat. “What I meant was: You and Justin can have a bigger bedroom, with more square footage, and we could have a spare room for guests or a rec room, maybe. I know you hate it when Justin invites the basketball team over and packs them all into your bedroom, you seem to get squashed in the middle, which isn’t fair to you and has to be tiresome. If we had another room, Justin could entertain his friends without making you an honorary member of the basketball team, or subjecting you to excessive ‘bro-bonding.’”

His comment didn’t garner the reaction he’d expected. Clay only raised his shoulder impassively. Matt tried again. “One day, the extra room could be a playroom, or a nursery... far, far in the future, though, please. I have a feeling my grandchildren are going to be quite the little terrors. Beautiful, and gifted—no question—but with full devilment engaged.”

Matt had been expecting an eye roll or at least the classic ‘you cause me daily mortification’ face. He received a potpourri of wild emotions—anger and heartache and consideration and grief—swapping each other out so fast, it was hard for Matt to keep track.

“Justin wants ten kids,” Clay said at last.

“I know. Your mother would love it. She’s tickled by the idea.”

Clay gave him a guarded look. “I’m not having more than two. Maybe none at all.”

Matt smiled. “And she’d love that, every bit as much. As would I.” He kept his tone scrupulously impartial. “Clay, we don’t have to move, you know. We could rearrange the living room, spruce it up, change the feel of it. Carolyn and Bill have offered their time. Mr. Davis worked construction in the past and he’s more than willing to help out. Your friends have all expressed interest. May Dempsey sent me a design plan for furnishings, bless her heart. I wouldn’t–”

“No,” Clay said, with urgency, hurt splayed across his face. “We’re moving.” In a rush of breath, he continued, “Let’s pack everything up and move to New York. You, me, Mom, and Justin.”

“New York?”

“Or Portland. Italy. Antarctica. A bramble patch. Anywhere. But not there. I can’t go back—I can’t, Dad.”

“You don’t have to go back,” Matt assured him. He hadn’t meant to pressure his son, he had only wanted to test the waters. Justin had stated his firm preference for staying in their house, but, after Clay had publicly made his opinions known, Justin had backpedaled with contrived eagerness. Matt wished there was a way to compromise, to make it a democratic decision. But it had to be unanimous. As long as the violence that had occurred in their house held sway over someone, they could not return.

Clay bounced his legs, hyperkinetic, like he was once again a toddler in his car seat, overly excited about the upcoming trip to the park.

Matt took a chance and ventured, “Do you want to talk? About anything that’s bothering you?”

“Nope,” Clay said, batting the suggestion away with a jittery hand. “Everything’s fine.”

Matt resisted the urge to sigh in frustration. How could two siblings be so completely different and yet so much alike?

“If everything is fine, why have you been trying to gouge the flesh out of your thigh with that pen? It’s not a chisel, you know.” Matt didn’t think Clay’s actions were intentional, more aimless and thoughtless than anything else, but Matt’s mind automatically jumped into emergency mode. Careless inattention could escalate to actual, purposeful self-injury. “Give me the pen.”

Clay’s hand stilled. “It’s a pen, Dad. A stupid fucking pen. Do you think I’m going to stab someone with it?”

“Are you?” Matt asked patiently.

“No?”

Had Clay made his reply a question, or had Matt interpreted it as one? “I think you should let me have it.”

“It’s not sharp! You couldn’t even kill a spider with it. I know... I tried. Stop overreacting.”

Any object could be lethal, given enough force. (Why had he just thought the word lethal in relation to his child?) With a higher volume than was strictly necessary, he snapped, “Clay, give me the goddamn pen!”

“Jesus, okay.” Clay relinquished it. “Knock yourself out.” He launched into an expletive-laden diatribe, which Matt permitted without censure. Justin and Clay could cuss up a storm if it relieved some of their stress, if it allowed them to direct their emotions outward rather than bury them inside.

There was a certain poetry to profanity. Justin’s cursing was often remarkably emotive and expressive while Clay’s was resplendent with creativity and had layers of complexity. Matt took pride in his sons’ oratorical prowess—the spice they brought to speaking. Parenting was about the little things, sometimes. Especially now, when their moment-to-moment joint mood as a family was set to the level of their most suffering member.

Clay abruptly ceased his rant and he tipped his head back and to the side, appearing perfectly content to stew in an awkward silence. Matt wasn’t content with brooding, so he asked, “Have you been having any more hallucinations?” He didn’t know how they would deal with it, on top of everything else, if the answer was yes, but he didn’t want Clay to lie and say no merely to appease him.

“A few times,” Clay admitted, with unusual frankness. “It’s not important.”

“It’s important to me,” Matt said sternly. “Don’t you think that’s something, as your father, I would need to know?”

“No, because it’s not ongoing.” Clay spoke casually, as if this were a family breakfast and the topics of the day were academics, athletics, and Alien Killer Robots. “And I haven’t seen Hannah, or Jeff, or Tyler, in case you were curious.”

Matt could see slight dampness at the corner of Clay’s eye—a single line, a lazily dripping icicle—and it was a visual contradiction of his son’s glib words. “I’m not curious, Clay. I’m concerned.” He didn’t want to overstep by demanding, so he casually asked, “What have you been seeing?”

There was a moment of strained agitation. Then, like he was confiding something, Clay said, “Justin.” He said nothing else.

“Justin?” Matt straightened up. He glanced around the room, unsettled and spooked. “You see him here?”

Clay didn’t really give any indication it was true, but his eyes darted to a spot on the floor, and quickly away.

“What is he doing?” Matt asked, aiming for an unobtrusive tone but landing more in the ballpark of alarmed. He didn’t know why it mattered, but it seemed very important to pinpoint his hallucinatory son’s behavior. “When you see him, what’s he up to?”

“Bleeding,” Clay said darkly. “And he’s not doing shit about it, either.” He chewed on his thumb, tearing at a scab, on a quest for blood of his own. Matt hated it, the self-directed aggression. He wished he could erase the impulse entirely.

It was difficult to formulate a response. “Well, the real Justin—he’s not bleeding now. I know that for a fact. He’s playing a fierce game of Uno with your mom. And, let me tell you, your mother is slaying it.”

Finally, Matt got his eye roll.

Clay flicked his thumb out of his mouth. “Okay, first, please don’t try to use slang. You only embarrass yourself. And second, no game of Uno between two people can be classified as ‘fierce.’”

“Then we should go join them,” Matt suggested. “A game with four people is better than two. We could make it a competition.”

“You say that like there’s any real strategy to Uno.”

“There is when your mother plays it. Which is why she always wins.”

Clay sniffed. “She wins because I get bored, you’re a pushover, and Justin spends the entire game trying to make me draw cards or lose a turn.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Matt settled back and, from his new vantage point, he spotted a large dent in the couch and, next to it, cracks in the leather and several black ink stains. Had his son damaged hospital property? There had been no witnesses, and Clay retained the presumption of innocence, but the sight did prompt Matt to steer the conversation back to rougher waters. “Have you told your therapist about your hallucinations?”

“Which therapist?” Clay scoffed. “Dr. Ellman? Dr. Rickenbacher? Or our new trained trauma counselor? I can’t believe you’re having them do hospital rounds.”

“Ah.” Matt stared at the top of his son's bowed head. “Your mother does tend to go overboard.”

“Overboard?” Clay gave him a look. “She dives into the Marianas Trench and drags us all with her. I thought you used to agree with me about talk therapy. Didn’t you say it was the verbal equivalent of a hamster running on a squeaky wheel? And, even if it’s not, why would I want to talk about any of this shit with a stranger?”

Matt held up his hands. “You haven’t exactly been talking to us, kid, and we thought it might be easier with someone else, someone professionally certified, someone with whom you can speak candidly. Since the summer, I’ve changed my stance on therapy. I’ve seen how it’s helped you and Justin. I’ve seen the progress, and I’ll never again call it a ‘squeaky wheel’. What I’m getting at, Clay, is we’ve been noticing some erratic behavior from you. You’ve been anxious and–”

“Unstable?” Clay broke in. “Belligerent? Apoplectic?”

Matt made an unsuccessful attempt to relax the tension that had gathered in his shoulder blades. “No, don’t put words in my mouth. As erudite as they were, I don’t appreciate it. I was talking more about the change in your sleeping habits, the jumpiness, the social withdrawal... Maybe you’ve been having some intrusive memories that are causing you to react in a way you don’t intend? Stop me if you have a different viewpoint.”

“I don’t,” Clay said reluctantly.

Matt appreciated his candor and he hoped it was a sign Clay was reaching out for help he knew he needed, and not an indication he had just grown tired of fighting them about it. He and Lainie were trying to be proactive this time around, in a way they hadn’t been after Hannah’s death. Dr. Ellman had already diagnosed Clay with Acute Stress Disorder, and Dr. Rickenbacher suspected Justin had one of several, as of yet undetermined, dissociative or depersonalization disorders. Matt did not want his sons’ issues to turn into chronic maladaptive coping, to evolve into PTSD in the months to come, but that was where they were heading if they didn’t pump the breaks.

Matt didn't want to raise Clay’s defenses, or push him beyond what he was comfortable discussing, but he did want to be clear and honest. “You’ve been affected, as any person would be, after going through something highly traumatic. Healing the brain is a lot more complex than plates and screws or stitches and sutures. We don’t want this hanging over you and Justin your entire lives. We want you to heal, in a healthy way, but if it’s too much—or too much, too fast—you need to let us know.”

“It’s too much, too fast.”

“Okay,” Matt conceded. “I’ll talk to your mother. We can scale it back, but we do need to keep at it.” He well knew that Clay was an adult and could choose for himself whether or not to participate in therapy, but Matt hoped by speaking authoritatively, he had made it sound less like a choice and more like an imperative.

“What does Justin think?” Clay asked. “With his– what is it now? four therapists?”

Matt shook his head. “I can’t tell you what he's told me in confidence.”

“Bullshit, Dad, you're saying that because he hasn’t told you anything.”

“Don’t be smart.”

Clay raised an eyebrow. “Well, am I wrong?”

Matt hid his frown. “Justin hasn’t expressed any reservations about therapy.”

“Of course he hasn’t,” Clay muttered cryptically.

“What does that mean?”

Clay’s jaw twitched. “Justin will do whatever you tell him to do because a part of him thinks you’ll toss him out on the street if he doesn’t behave.”

Matt rubbed his forehead, astounded by the very idea. “That’s quite an off-the-wall statement. Justin knows it’s not true.”

The silence that followed was vicious, and stiff, and patronizing.

“He told you that?”

“No, Dad,” Clay answered unhappily. “He didn’t have to tell me. When he had his fever, and he was acting batshit crazy, you and Mom were completely helpless. Not me. How do you think I was able to get him to listen? The best way to get Justin to do what you want is by treating him like garbage.”

“Clay,” Matt chastised.

“What, Dad? It’s true. I treated Justin like garbage, and he listened.” Clay made a fist and tucked his thumb inside. “He called me Bryce. Bryce! Like I’m a monster, a fucking monster, someone who controlled him, used him—”

“Hey!”

Clay shut his mouth, his lips pinched white. He looked furious, but he also looked hurt. His face swiftly transformed into one giant non-reaction, complete sangfroid, and the worst part was, he made it seem natural. Jesus, not you, too, kiddo. The effortless way Clay had just dematerialized and disappeared—in plain sight, no less... It reminded Matt of Justin.

With as much authority as he could muster, and as much delicacy as was appropriate, Matt shifted over on the couch, but still left a foot of space between them. “You are not a monster; you’ve done nothing monstrous. You were in hell, and everything you did that night, and everything you’ve done since, has come from love. And, as for Justin, no human being ever responds better when you mistreat them or strip away their personhood. Your brother listened to you because it was you. He knew who you were; he wouldn’t have listened to anyone else. You didn’t treat him like garbage. Where is this coming from? What is this really about?”

Clay picked at his broken fingers, none too gently, so Matt reached out for them and held them loosely, unsure how tender they were to the touch. After a near-eternity of crushing quiet, Clay spoke. “Seth’s funeral was yesterday.”

Matt took a moment to digest the words. “How do you feel about it?”

“I guess—I guess I didn’t realize there would be a funeral, or that people would come. Hundreds of people. That’s more than came to Hannah’s memorial, or to Jeff’s service.” Clay’s face struggled, his voice growing fainter. “Seth had a sister, and two brothers, and his mom... She was sobbing at the graveyard service. There are pictures and videos of it—the funeral—online.”

Matt released a long, weary breath. “You shouldn’t be looking at that stuff, Clay, but your mom and I... we suspected you were. I appreciate you talking to me about it.”

Clay hunched forward like he was protecting himself, or like he wished to find somewhere private and secluded to curl up (and sleep, hopefully, not die). “I only ever saw Seth through Justin, through Justin’s eyes. But he had a fucking life. He bought his mom a house, with his methamphetamine profits, so, yay, I guess, for drugs subsidizing the housing industry. Did you know Seth paid all his mom’s bills?”

“I didn’t.”

“He used to visit her every week, too, and bring her flowers. Take her dog for a walk. Chat with the neighbors. Seth. Fucking Seth! And their family statement, did you read it? ‘We are shocked and devastated by the passing of Seth, our beloved son, brother, friend, and uncle.’ What fucking bullcrap. They wouldn’t be saying shit like that if they were there, if they saw what he did to me and Justin!”

Matt, who was every bit as angry as his son was, felt ill-equipped to offer wise counsel, but he would try anyway. He hadn’t helped his children in their darkest hour; he could goddamn help them now.

“It’s a hard truth, son. People who commit violent crimes have families, significant others, friends, people who care about them. They can do charitable deeds and be kind to the people they love. Even be responsible citizens, in some respects. It’s not all or nothing.”

Clay pulled against Matt’s grip on his hand, but Matt didn't register the resistance, not until Clay twisted his whole body away. “Fuck, Dad, you don’t get it. Hannah was beautiful, sweet, considerate–” Clay looked away with an odd twist to his mouth. “Stimulating... but she dies, and this town can’t wait to drag her name through the mud. Seth dies, and his family puts him on a pedestal.”

Matt considered his son for a moment before replying. “I’d say that our town, our community, is certainly not praising any of Seth’s actions. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

“No, they’re too busy singing my praises. For killing someone. Society is fucked up.”

“It is fucked up,” Matt said. “I won’t disagree. But, Clay, if Alex’s father had shot Seth, it would have been his duty, as a deputy. Should society hold him culpable for doing his duty? For preventing a heinous crime?”

“Well... no.” A cloud passed across the sun, and the shadows in the room sculpted Clay’s face into something striking, and saturnine. “But, ‘Evergreen teen hailed as hero’? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like trying to paint blackness by using only white.”

For all he felt like he was skidding on ice with this conversation, Matt had a ready response, which came from the heart. “The media is making such a fuss because you’re a high-school student... you didn’t have any special training, you faced tremendous adversity, and you handled yourself with maturity and resourcefulness. It’s not heroic because someone died. It’s heroic because you saved two lives. And Justin saved two lives, which I know isn’t being talked about as much as it should. But we know it, as a family.”

Matt watched the rise and fall of Clay’s chest, a gift so precious and rare, and so nearly ripped away. “You saved my sons, between the two of you. You restored to me the world—the world entire, with all its wonders. From my perspective, Seth... he killed himself. He came into our house intending to murder your brother. He would have murdered you, too. That was his choice. His decision. But you didn’t have a choice. It was taken away from you, Clay. You were forced to act, in self-defense. An unwilling participant.”

Clay screwed up his face. “So, what, I get a pass? Tyler didn’t fire a single shot, but he got 300 hours of community service. I killed someone, and there’s nothing – no repercussions. I get a meeting with the mayor, if I want it. Photos. TV interviews.”

“There’s a profound difference,” Matt reminded him. “Tyler could have hurt someone. None of us can know, for sure, but it’s likely that he intended to do so. With you and Justin, the prosecutors declined to pursue charges for a reason. Seth’s death was ruled a justifiable homicide. Justifiable—without evil or criminal intent. A killing for which there is no blame.”

“But... I’m glad I killed him.” Clay paused, and then, in an artificial way, added, “Even if it wasn’t justified, I would have been glad. If he had tried to leave and I had the gun in my hand, I still would have shot him. I had to, Dad.”

Clay’s delivery was insincere, almost theatrical, and Matt wasn’t deceived by it. He was used to Clay and Justin’s little subterfuges, and he suspected the root pain that gnawed at his son was being kept tightly locked down and wouldn’t be shared with him. Or with Lainie.

(Clay might tell Justin. Justin probably already knew.)

Matt would just have to cover all the bases. “It’s okay to feel glad. And it’s okay to feel the opposite. Or to feel both ways at once. Or to vacillate between an assortment of conflicting emotions. We have an ingrained aversion against killing another human being, and, even if it’s justified, it’s a hard thing. A hard thing. I can’t begin to imagine what’s going through your head—it has to be confusing, it has to shake up your sense of moral grounding.”

Clay made no reply. Instead, he pulled out his phone and sent a text, and Matt waited patiently, knowing the text was to Justin, and also knowing the action was a sign Clay was getting antsy.

His children had developed a compulsive reluctance to be separated, one from the other.

Clay waited for a response, seemed satisfied by it (although it just looked like a mishmash of emojis to Matt), and put his phone away. With more genuine, raw emotion, he said, “When I fired the gun, all I was thinking about was making Seth stop. I just wanted him to stop. I didn’t care about anything else.”

“Yes,” Matt said cautiously, “in the moment, you didn’t think because there wasn’t time. But it’s hitting you now, and if you’re not careful, if you get too analytical or too self-critical, you could lead yourself down a dangerous road. The court of law is one thing and the court of public opinion is another, but the most important standard you have to live up to is your own. There was nothing monstrous or blameworthy in what you did. The drive to protect family is the most powerful instinct in existence, and it’s almost always the universally recognized standard of justice and goodness.”

Clay nodded distractedly, still occupying an in-between space, trying to tease order from disorder and re-conceptualize his view of the world. “Should I give a statement about Seth? To the press?”

“No,” Matt said firmly. “You do not need to do that. We can release one for you, if you want, or have our lawyer do it. Your only job right now is healing. You do your job, and we’ll do ours. Let us protect you for once.”

“My job...?” Clay appeared bewildered by the idea that he might have needs of his own, or a life outside of Justin’s convalescence.

“Healing is going to take time, but your mother and I will be here with you. Small steps, okay? Small steps. As long as we’re moving forward, we don’t need to worry about the pace. And Justin—his recovery is not on you. You can’t fix this for him. The best thing you can do for him is to concentrate on your own healing. Let us—the parents, need I remind you—do the heavy lifting. We’ll give the same dedication to your brother as we do to you. And more, if he needs it.”

Clay took his words as a challenge. “I’m going to fix it for him,” he said with unerring determination.

Matt had expected it, and he wanted to reprimand his son or try to dissuade him, but then he wondered if he wasn’t getting it wrong, if this wasn’t what Clay needed. He thought of how Clay acted when he took care of Justin, and how Justin acted when he tended to Clay... it wasn’t a lessening, it was a mutual soothing of pain, a buildup of scar tissue.

Clay touched his fingers to his face and he stroked them over a particularly vivid contusion. Something about the way he did it was off-putting, but Matt didn’t know why, because Clay did it gently, almost lovingly. Like a caress, or... surely not... he wouldn’t think it... why was he was thinking it?

“Dad,” Clay said evenly, as he fondled his face, “I don’t think you can understand—actually, I know you won’t– but I feel like... like I’m handcuffed to Justin. There’s no key, and I kind of hate it, but I kinda don’t and I– I can’t be okay, if he’s not okay.” He laughed, a cold laugh, without humor. “And, according to Justin, he’s great. So, problem solved. I’m great.”

A cold chill crept up Matt’s spine.

While there could be strength and self-healing to be found in helping to heal another person, it could turn into something twisted. Become an excuse not to heal. Or an obsession. How preposterous had his life become, that he was tempted to say to Clay: ‘You are not shackled to your brother. You’re distinct individuals. Autonomous. Self-sufficient.’

In place of those words, he said, “The fact that someone else survived the same event as you does not mean you need to have a conjoint response.”

“We don’t,” Clay said, with savage cheerfulness. “Believe me, we don’t.” He stood up and began to wander around the room, frenetically, in a manner reminiscent of a skittish animal.

Matt felt slightly disappointed at the results of their conversation, but, realistically, what had he been expecting? An exorcism of emotion? A restoration of harmony? He scraped his hand across his beard, and, despite the painful burn of exhaustion (none of them had ever caught up on their sleep), he forced a zealousness he didn’t feel into his voice. “Let’s go back and play Uno. Between you, me, and Justin, we could take your mom down. It might be a fair fight.”

Clay grabbed onto a nearby chair, to keep from tipping over. “Okay, but maybe– maybe we could play Egyptian Rat Screw instead? It’s Justin’s favorite.”

“It is indeed.”

“Probably because it’s so violent.”

“I don’t think that’s the reason,” Matt said, with a frown. “It’s fast-paced and dynamic—not violent.”

Clay made a noncommittal sound, but he had nothing more to say, and they walked in silence back to Justin’s hospital room.

 


 

When they crossed the threshold, Clay settled and calmed, perceptibly, as if he was using Justin’s existence as a barricade against his anxiety. The change was enough that Matt might have trusted him with a blunt object again. (Sharp objects were still out of the question.)

Seeing his brother, Justin threw his Uno cards down with childlike glee, as if Matt had arrived bearing his release papers or NBA courtside tickets. Clay bonked him on the head in greeting, and Justin flicked a card, off-angle, at Clay as his answering ‘hello’. It was a nice reminder: Matt’s sons were still teenagers—disillusioned and brokenhearted—but teenagers nonetheless.

Egyptian Rat Screw turned out to be an excellent suggestion. The game was a healthy outlet for Clay’s pent-up aggression and a re-grounding for Justin’s traumatic dissociation, and while it was true that slapping each other's hands was an odd form of bonding, it was also a chance for some safe and positive touch. Physicality that was decidedly non-violent and did not include bloodshed.

Lainie won two games, Matt, zero, and Clay, three. Justin, sedate and drowsy, had a delayed reaction time and didn't win any. But he perked up after a call from Jessica and became feisty and competitive, which prompted a re-match.

Twenty minutes into the sixth game, the boys were bickering over the rules and whether or not Justin had cheated by making an invalid slap. Lainie acted as judge, to no one’s satisfaction, and there was a degree of merriment to it, restrained though it was.

It didn’t last.

In a moment of forgetfulness, Matt reached across Justin for a dropped card, and Justin stiffened, wariness written in every movement. His chest heaved—three quick, rattled jerks—and he shied away, not deliberately, but it was noticeable.

In his haste to move backward, Matt hit the bed railing with his elbow, and, at the unexpected sound, Clay startled, made a noise like he was choking, and threw his cards on the floor. He stomped off to get ice chips—an explosion of 'notice-me' energy to deflect attention away from Justin.

Justin didn’t let the attention slide away. His hand shot out and caught Matt’s elbow. He held onto it by what must have been sheer force of will, but it was obviously a struggle, and he looked like he was about to be sick. Matt thought of words like passivity and compliance, and, with a sinking heart, he gently extracted himself from Justin’s grip and invented an excuse to step out of the room. His flimsy excuse fooled no one, but he was neither so oblivious nor so cruel as to force his son to endure his presence, not when it clearly caused him great anxiety.

Lainie stayed where she was, talking to Justin about obscure variants of poker she had played in college, and trying to restore equilibrium.

Matt paced the hallway, with a colossal boulder on his chest, and a corrosive ball of lead in his stomach.

His son, his son, was afraid of him.

His other son thought himself a monster.

Matt spun, in a mad whirl, intending to bash his fist against the wall, but he slowed the velocity right before impact so his fist only made a muffled thunk. He contemplated the merits of continuing, found none, but decided to persevere. He thumped the wall again and again, picturing Seth’s face with a burning clarity.

Goddamn that bastard, that slimy, perverted reprobate. He was under the sod—six feet under, to be precise—but he had left behind a loop of suffering, with no redemptive value, except perhaps, perhaps, a love intensified.

Their family had already possessed enough love. They hadn’t needed help from a sadistic low-life.

Matt braced himself against the wall with his forearms, a cruel shudder running through him, which wasn’t a sob. It was pain made physical. Vicarious pain: Clay’s pain, and Justin’s pain. The most grievous hurt possible for a parent.

A hand touched his shoulder, tentative, and Matt jerked, out of surprise, and found his son standing there, watching him. How long had he been watching? Matt’s behavior wasn’t exactly a reassuring picture, or a model of stellar coping strategies.

“Dad?” Clay’s voice was thick and uncertain.

“Go back to your brother,” Matt said hoarsely. “I’m– I think I’m going to spend some time in the waiting area, make some phone calls. I’ll probably sleep in there tonight.”

Clay didn’t leave. He studied him thoughtfully. “It’s going to be okay,” he said.

At those words, Matt felt like he had been pushed off a cliff, plunging towards the merciless ground, and the edges of his control started to slip. He hated to need Clay, because he was the child, and Matt was the parent, but his eyes blurred as Clay leaned in and patted his back, silent comfort, the way Matt had done when his son was little, as they curled up in an armchair to read books together.

Clay spoke, steady and strong. “Come back to the room with me. It’s okay. Just– just don’t lean over Justin. And don’t touch his face.” It was advice, with an underlying note of severity to it. A warning. Clay paused, pursing his lips as if he was extensively debating something in his mind. “And, for me, don’t make loud noises, if you can help it. But, I guess... Do you want to hug me?”

Matt searched Clay’s face to make sure he was really okay with it, and then he wrapped his arms around his son, and they stood embracing in the middle of the corridor, with nurses and visitors and patients parting around them like a stream flowing around a rock.

Chapter Text

Tuesday, December 18th

Hospitals sucked. Reason #1: They were boring.

He and Clay were idly passing a Mercy Hospital stress ball back and forth while watching some kids program about strangely attractive ponies when Lainie poked her head in the door. “You have a visitor. Are you up for it?”

Justin looked at Clay, seeking permission. If Clay didn’t want to be bothered, then they wouldn’t be bothered.

Clay stood up. “I’m stiff anyway. I’m going to take a walk. I’ll be back.”

Justin tossed him the ball, and, wonder of all wonders, Clay actually caught it, which was nice because if it had landed on the floor, Justin would never have been allowed to touch it again. Clay stuck it in the pocket of his hoodie, for later. Justin tracked his progress out of the room. Clay’s feet were dragging, like he had lead anchors around them, like he didn’t really want to leave, even though he had been the one to suggest it.

Justin was glad to see him go. Clay needed a break, from the constant noise of their surroundings. A vacation, from being plastered to Justin’s side for too long in too-cramped conditions. A rest. Clay had been supervising every single medical test and physical therapy session, acting like a consulting doctor and giving his blunt input on Justin’s lack of progress. One moment, he was agitated and high-strung, like he had guzzled five Redbulls; the next moment, he was huddled in the corner of the room, scrolling through his phone with a scowl.

Clay needed a babysitter, preferably one who was 420 friendly. Right now, his babysitter was Matt, who probably hadn't been a stoner in college, but who was definitely the best father on the planet, so Clay would be fine. Justin didn't need to worry.

Lainie promptly returned, trailed by his mysterious visitor. Justin hoped it would be Bryce, felt relief when it was not, and bitter disappointment, too. It lasted only an instant and was followed by a thrill of excitement because Zach was a million times better than Bryce.

“Dude!”

Justin didn’t have time to comment on his friend’s stupid attire before Zach cannonballed into him and practically lifted him out of the bed.

Zach’s enthusiasm was almost too much, and Justin would have said so, except he had basically done the same thing to Clay when he had first woken up—grabbing onto him like he’d never held onto anything in his life—and Clay, who complained about everything, had accepted the crushing hug without protest and tightened his hold.

“Stop it. I’m okay.” Justin shoved him off, the way they always did with each other, playfully, and he crinkled the plastic from Zach’s isolation gown into a feeble fist. “Take this off.”

Zach said something, but it was garbled. Justin reached up and it was a stretch but he was able to pull down the medical mask with his finger. “I can’t understand anything you’re saying.”

“Justin, what the fuck.” Zach readjusted his mask, and he sounded like an alien, the syllables all smooshing into a string of nonsense. He looked like a surgeon, very professional and respectable—Mrs. Dempsey would probably sob with pride if she could see Zach now.

“I’ll give you two some time to catch up.” Lainie stepped out of the room, offering a charade of privacy. Justin knew she was standing outside the door, not eavesdropping, but diligently listening in case he needed something. She wouldn’t waver from her position, not unless Clay had a mental health crisis (which, these days, had low odds).

Zach gave Justin a once-over and he shuffled from side to side like he was doing a basketball drill. It shouldn’t have felt so reassuring, to see the nervous way Zach held his hands and the distressed tilt to his chin, but it was, because this, Justin could fix. He hooked his finger in the mask and pulled it down again. “Why the fuck are you wearing this? I had shit luck, but I’ve maxed out how many times I can almost die in one week. I’m fucking invincible.”

Justin wasn’t invincible. He was one infection away from joining Seth in Hell.

Zach backed away like Justin had the plague, and he raised his eyebrows at him, not giving up any ground. “Lainie scared the shit out of me, man. She talked to me for ten minutes about antibiotic-resistant bacteria and something about, wait– I took notes on my phone, ‘Overwhelming post spleen–eck–toh–me sepsis.’ I don’t know if I spelled that right or exactly what it means, but, yeah, totally freaked me out. And she said a whole bunch of other stuff, while I was washing my hands, but all I wrote was: can rapidly become fatal.” Zach turned his phone around for emphasis and held it out at arm’s length.

Justin rolled his eyes. “Yeah, Lainie’s intense. So is Matt.” And Clay’s on a level all by himself. “But it’s fine. Just don’t sneeze on me. Or cough in my general direction.”

Zach untied the mask, and he smiled, lopsided, and there was an ache in Justin, a rubber band snapping against his wrist, because he had seen Zach cry a grand total of three times since he had known him, and, fuck, those streaks on Zach’s face couldn’t be anything else. Justin wanted to sink into the bed, to disappear into a miry hole with bugs and worms and whatever else lived in dark, slimy places, but instead, he felt a warmth, a pep-rally warmth, a post-game warmth. It came from Zach and his bright smile, and his freely given emotions.

He caught himself smiling back, even as his chest was clenching at the thought of Bryce bumping into Zach and taunting him: “Justy called me after it happened. Like a little bitch... He’ll always come crawling back to me. I guess I give him something you never could.” It seemed pathetic, now, to have called Bryce, when he could have called Zach or Alex. When he could have sat with Clay and counted the specks on the ceiling, passing the bleak hours of nothingness together. Those unfilled minutes held a glimmer of interest when he spent them with Clay, and there was no reason why that should be so. Except it was so.

My Little Pony?” Zach asked, with a confused gesture toward the TV. “Doesn’t seem like your taste.”

“It’s not. It’s so not. But– it’s harmless, y’know? No blood and guts.” He felt compelled to add, “Clay doesn’t need to see any more of that shit.”

“Ah, right. Okay.” Zach took a single hesitant step forward, and Justin shut the TV off. “I rehearsed what I was gonna say to you, and I wrote, like, four rough drafts, but now that I’m here, I forget everything. It’s just like with math—I’m good until I sit down to take the test. So, off the top of my head, the best I’ve got is: It’s fucked up, what happened to you. It’s just fucked up. I’m glad you’re okay. I love you, dude.”

Smoothly, Justin said, “I don’t have anything to say to you that I haven’t said before.”

“Oh come on, there must be at least one heartfelt thing you want to say.”

“Nope.”

“Harsh, bro.” Zach pivoted on his foot, in mock outrage. “I’m leaving.” He turned back and smiled, and his smile grew when Justin mimicked it. He collapsed into the chair vacated by Clay.

Justin threw an ice cube at him and Zach caught it, by reflex. Justin waited and composed a rough draft of his own before he said, “Thank you, seriously. For the basketball and the cards and all the stuff you’ve been sending Clay. Hey, don’t–, don’t fucking pretend it wasn’t you. I know your handwriting. A Lord of the Rings gift basket? And Alien Killer Robot t-shirts with one sleeve cut-off? A brand new sketchbook? C’mon. Admit it.”

“Okay, guilty. But May helped me put the stuff together, and a lot of it was her idea, so I can’t take full credit. I was trying to be, like, a surrogate brother to Clay since I didn’t know what condition you were in, and I figured that was what you would want me to do. It’s pretty corny, though, right?”

“Yes,” Justin agreed. “But I love you for it. The way to my heart, and all that.”

“The way to your heart is through... Clay?”

Justin pointed at him, daring him to make fun. “Yes, exactly.”

Because when he hurts, I hurt in a way I didn’t think was possible. Because the doctor said if I had lost a cup more blood than I did, there would have been no saving me. Clay held the blood inside me with his fucking hand and knee, and he didn’t just tell me to breathe—he reminded me why I should.

Zach shook his head with a laugh. “I’d say that was corny, but I have May, so I understand. How is Clay?”

“Hurt. But, you know, he’s good. He’s kind of like you, he gets clobbered, and he keeps charging forward, like a fucking beast.” If Justin had answered honestly, he would have said, I have no fucking idea. Clay might be self-destructing. But I think it helps when I’m with him.

Zach narrowed his eyes. “Square with me, you’re really not in solitary confinement?”

“Solitary confinement? Who told you that?” Is that what you think? That I should be in jail? Justin gritted his teeth. No, that’s only what I think. He couldn’t confuse what was happening. No one would take the bait with him and accuse him outright. No one except Bryce. “It’s called isolation, and it’s not a big deal. Clay doesn’t wear a mask. He’s been all over me, and he puked on me, once, but the only person who freaked out was him. I’m seriously fine. The nurses fucking love me. They give me anything I want.”

“Anything?”

“Okay, not anything. Actually, they mostly give me shit I don’t want.”

Zach drummed his fingers on the armrests of the chair. “What do you need that they won’t give you? Because I’ve got connections to the outside world, an all-access pass to the hospital, thanks to Alex’s mom, and free time to kill. You name it, I’ll get it for you.”

Fuck, Zach was the best friend. “I need three things.”

“Wait.” Zach fiddled with his phone, ready to take notes. “Okay. Go.”

Justin held up his fingers and ticked the items off. “Pot, booze, and someone cute to feed me ice chips.”

Zach paused, his face crestfallen. “Way to make me feel useless.” He put his phone away. “I can’t help you with the first two, I don’t think, not without losing visiting privileges. And I’ll feed you ice chips, but you should text Alex instead. He’s cute, and he’d be willing.”

“You think?” Justin looked down, doubtful and wondering.

“I know.”

“How do you know?” Despite the queasiness dancing around inside him, he was curious to hear Zach’s answer.

“Well, it’s actually– uh, I– I probably shouldn’t... You know what, screw it. Alex might have had feelings, a lot of feelings, after what happened, which kind of exploded all over the place. Namely, on me.” Zach hit him on the shoulder, without noticing that he had made a contact foul and broken the imaginary quarantine bubble. “Feelings about you! And what he’d like to have with you.”

Justin was enveloped by the memory of Alex’s hand reaching for his in the dusky glow of the lights of home, of that tantalizing offer, Do you ever think... that you and me...? He reigned himself in before the hope ran wild. “Alex told you? About us?”

“What was there to tell?” Zach asked incredulously. “You two weren’t exactly on the down low about anything. Listen, if you want to make your move, I’ve got your back. I say, go for it. You’re kinda rocking the hospital gown, and this lighting is harsh, but totally romantic. It’s got that whole ‘take me as I am’ vibe. You could have your first date at the ice machine, and, if you get lucky, Alex will hold your IV pole for you while you take a leisurely stroll back to your room.”

Justin flipped Zach off, with a laugh, but fuck if he didn’t want to cling to the idea. Hey, Alex, I almost died. Forget everything I said that night. Let’s fucking do this thing. He hadn’t wanted to risk hurting Alex, but subsequent events had put things into perspective. To have died without kissing Alex, it would have been tragic. He could have had it, that night. Their lips could have collided—clumsy at first, because it was Alex, but then perfect, and unrushed. A question, and a silent answer, two years overdue. Maybe...

No.

Maybe...

No.

Regret was Justin’s constant companion. Not regret about Alex, and the chance he hadn’t seized. Regret about Clay, and what he had brought upon him. He had risked Clay’s life, and, though he had fought to reclaim it, its ripped shreds belonged to him. He and Clay were knotted together and tangled up—connected by their blood and the violence they had committed in each other’s names.

Justin knew what was going on—he’d had way too many counseling and therapy sessions, and he’d heard the words over and over: Trauma bonding. Unhealthy attachments. Codependency.

Justin loved Clay. It wasn’t because of trauma, it wasn’t out of necessity. He wasn’t manipulating him. He loved him.

But you could love someone and abuse them. It was ugly, but it was true. Justin’s mother had also taught him that someone could abuse you because they loved you. Everything his mom had done, and not done, she had done to protect him, including, by her twisted logic, selling him out to Seth.

Justin didn’t want the critical line between love and abuse to blur for him, but it already had. It had blurred when he was with Jess. It was blurring with the Jensens.

It could blur with Alex.

Unless...

He had always wondered about what type of person he could have been if he had grown up without his mom and steered clear of Bryce. If Justin had cared less, cared more, cared differently about other people... he might have been a worthier person. Was it too late? Was it still possible for someone like him to break free from the cycle of emotional violence?

Or, when everything was peeled away, was he only a monster, shaped by monsters? Drawn to destruction: rapists and abusers, heroin and oxy.

He was drawn to good people, too. The Jensens. Clay.

Zach. Jessica.

Alex.

“Alex hasn’t come to the hospital to visit,” Justin pointed out to Zach, as if that statement washed away all possibilities.

“Did you ask him to come?”

“No, but it’s—it doesn’t matter.” Justin thought about Alex — Alex with his foot on the gas pedal, and an empty road, and the speed picking up, faster and faster, 80 to 90, 90 to 100. “Shit, I don’t know, man, should I?”

Zach waved his hand, as if everything was straightforward. “Alex comes every day and sits in the waiting room for hours, but he won’t come up to your room until you ask for him. He’s sensitive about stuff like that, because of last year, when he was in the hospital. And... this is kind of awkward... but Clay might have threatened to kill Alex if he said anything stupid to you, which could be a factor.”

Justin’s spirits, which had been lifted by Zach’s presence sank back down into the mud. “Clay did what?”

“I think it was a joke. I mean, it definitely was a joke. Probably. It was over text, so it’s hard to tell.” Zach weakly finished, “Definitely a joke.”

Justin hated anyone (except himself) talking shit about his brother, but the semi-ominous implication behind Zach’s words rattled him, and he was a beat late coming to Clay’s defense. “What the fuck are you saying, Dempsey? Of course it was a joke.”

“Yeah, sorry.” Zach grimaced. “I didn’t mean it like that. Clay has a shit sense of humor. Alex gets it. He does, too, sometimes.”

Clay had his dad’s sense of humor, intellectual and nerdy. Not this. Not aggressive. Not cruel. Clay was bleeding beneath his skin, and something hard and mean was coming out of him. Justin had always known it existed; Clay had never been as innocent as he appeared, even before Hannah. Justin had found it intriguing: a harsh bite, an uncultivated suggestion of violence, tightly leashed. But Clay’s banked fury had only ever been directed at deserving targets: him, primarily, then Bryce, and, to great results, at Seth.

Clay’s defensive radar had since gone haywire. He was acting like every person had a personal motive to hurt or attack them. He wouldn’t sleep until sleep defeated him, and when he was awake, he scanned the room for threats that didn’t exist. He was annoyingly obsessed with Justin’s pain medications, lecturing him for taking them and for refusing them, in equal measure. And that morning, Clay had snapped at a nurse. More than snapped—he had gone off on her, the same way he had once gone off on the foreign exchange students at school.

Lainie had come to the rescue and taken Clay away for the rest of the nurse’s shift. At least that had been the plan. Justin didn’t know what had gone down, exactly, but, thirty minutes later, he had a new nurse, and Clay had returned, clingy and spoiling for a fight. So, they had fought. About the angle of the bed. While Justin held Clay’s hand. Because he had looked about to break his remaining fingers. Out of spite.

It was fucking crazy. All because the nice nurse with the polka-dot hairband had said to Clay, “The whole town’s proud of what you did. You’re an upstanding young man.” Stupid words to kick off a mental breakdown. Justin understood the root issue: Clay had killed someone and that was usually wrong, but, fuck, he hadn’t killed anyone who mattered. The bastard had tried to kill them first. Clay should get the Nobel Peace Prize, or some shit. The world was better off with Seth gone.

They would have to talk about it. Justin really didn’t want to talk, but he could talk, if Clay asked it of him. If it was what he needed.

“I’m gonna text Alex,” he decided.

 

Justin: i fukcing miss u. 👽 clay is bossy af
Justin: and he's sad af
Justin: come cheer him up & feed me ice chips!!!!!!!!
Justin: u gotta alex
Justin: but hmu first i need smth

 

Zach, evidently pleased with himself for playing matchmaker, asked Justin what physical therapy exercises they were doing, and when that topic fizzled, he began to chat about May and basketball, and then, for the longest time, about Alex. Zach was more talkative than usual, or else he felt pressured to fill up the spaces of silence.

Justin found it difficult to focus; the drugs they were pumping into his system occasionally gave him a feeling of euphoric relaxation, which Zach didn’t pick up on. Clay would have noticed, immediately, and left him alone in it. To bask in it, like it was something surrendered, like it was a special gift—from Clay, with love.

Justin knew he shouldn’t compare them—Zach and Clay—but he preferred Zach’s method. He didn’t like getting abandoned in the haze of an opioid high. It was cool like slush, and thick like syrup, and so, so fucking good. But it also blunted the pain, and Justin didn’t want bluntness. He wanted something sharp and scorching, something ruthless and punishing. Because the worst part of the meds was the afterglow, which reminded him of sex, of his body finding satisfaction, of Seth pinning him in place.

He’d rather have the pain.

An hour passed and it seemed like no time at all, but Zach’s stomach started gurgling, so Justin told him to go get dinner with Alex and enjoy his winter break. Who the fuck wanted to hang out in the hospital after final exams were over? Zach agreed, without protest. Maybe he sensed that Clay wasn’t the only one who was clingy and that Justin would never admit it.

He wondered what Clay was doing right now. Taking his fourth shower of the day? Looking at dodgy news articles on his phone and trying to make himself feel bad about something he shouldn’t? Threatening Alex?

Justin stared at Clay’s empty water cup. Fuck, he missed him. The missing was a pain, stormy and deep, irritating and lovely. It was like Seth had branded some small bit of Clay into him—and distance made the burn mark sting. It was a suffocating thing, a terrible tug, but he wanted it desperately, in all its neediness.

Zach gave him a quick fist bump and stood to leave. “So, you can’t eat anything, right?”

“Only ice chips. They’re feeding me a liquid diet through my nose ‘cause my stomach can’t digest anything.”

“Oh,” Zach said faintly, his eyes wide. “So the tube goes...”

“Through my throat—esophagus?—whatever, to the bottom of my stomach. Super gross, I know. Why?”

Zach squinted at him. “You said the nurses give you anything you want. If you don’t get food, what exactly do they give you? Sponge baths? A handy?”

Justin knew it was a joke, and a distant part of him even knew the joke was funny, but his body found it not funny, and he started to gag. His abdomen burned and there was...

Downward pressure, and a feeling of wrongness, of unreality. Jagged fingernails were scraping the skin off his dick, up and down, twist, up and down, twist, and every slide was tinged with pain, but his dick began to take an interest. Seth’s thumb rammed into his slit, hard and sudden—a saw-toothed nail—and Justin was close, so close...

He was about to puke, and he knew it was going to hurt, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

He emptied the contents of his stomach: liquid protein and clotted clumps that looked like coffee grounds. The mess came out of his mouth and shot up the tube in his nose, and then the tube started bunching up in his throat due to the force of the contractions, and it looped into his mouth, and he couldn’t have something in his mouth, he couldn’t, he fucking couldn’t, so he ripped off the tape and yanked the tube out of his nose.

All 26 inches of it.

It came out bloody.

Zach was calling for Lainie, a frantic plea, and she came running, the nurse fast on her heels. Cold sweat broke out on Justin’s skin, and his breathing was too quick, each inhale tearing through him, each exhale trying to shake him apart.

His body had, once again, betrayed him. Done something repulsive, against his will. At least he hadn’t been forced to take pleasure in it. Forced. Who was he kidding? Maybe he would have liked this, too, if Seth had been leering down at him. Maybe he would have gotten off, fast and hard.

Blood and cum.

He concentrated on the pain, the sweet, sweet pain, and he dug the palms of his hands into his eyes. Stop, he told himself, roughly. Don’t you dare cry. It’s not you. It’s not you. He didn’t want to ruin Zach’s visit by doing something dumb like crying.

Lainie’s hand lightly stroked his shoulder, in silent support. “Is there any possibility of not putting the NG tube back in? He’s been doing really well with the ice chips.”

Justin looked up hopefully.

The nurse, Angela, gave them a flat, grim smile. “I’ll have to ask the doctor. In the meantime, let’s stay calm and relaxed, and I’ll get you a wet washcloth and a new hospital gown.”

Justin coughed, and some horror-show mixture of blood and mucus and thick saliva dripped from his mouth and nose. Zach handed him tissue after tissue, and it was difficult for Justin to look him in the eye when he felt so crummy and icky.

Filthy.

Zach bit his lower lip. “I’m sorry, dude. I didn’t know what to do. I hope it wasn’t anything I said.”

Justin adopted a casual posture, trying not to tremble. “Jesus, no, Zach, it wasn’t you. It’s fine.” Things had been fine, before all the ugliness came pouring out of him, and now they weren’t fine, but what the fuck else could he say? “It happens. But, can you go?”

“Sure, yeah.” Zach accepted the dismissal. He gave Justin a searching look, but his grin didn’t falter as their knuckles met for what had to be history’s longest fist bump. He promised to send pictures of May’s Christmas concert, which Justin was ticked off to have missed, and then Zach left, and Justin texted Clay: Come back.

Lainie dribbled a miniature mountain of hand sanitizer on his hands, gave him a toothbrush and toothpaste, and then set to work disinfecting his phone.

Clay came back, and the first thing he did was glare around the room like he wanted to smash something. Justin wanted to smash everything, rack up a $1 million hospital bill and gain a reputation as the delinquent in room 422, but he didn’t want to wound Matt, or Lainie, or Clay, and that was what violence would do, wound them further, so he disconnected from his emotions and sat, quietly.

Matt and Lainie stepped out while Clay helped him put on a fresh hospital gown. Justin sat on the edge of the bed, and Clay bumped their legs together, and there wasn’t much space between them, so Justin counted it as a victory that he was okay with this, that his body was okay with it, and he was grateful Clay didn’t comment, on anything, until they’d broken apart.

Angela—in her fifties, with turquoise eyeshadow and seven grandkids and a love for crocheted cats—returned, shaking her head.

“I’m sorry. The nasogastric tube needs to be reinserted. Dr. Changtai strongly suggested you try some anti-nausea medication. Vomiting can dislodge the tube, so even if you hadn’t pulled it out, we would have had to replace it anyway.”

Justin wanted to slice open his own skin and crawl out of it, but Clay probably wanted that, too. Alex had, at some point. And Hannah. He wasn’t special.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Bryce would have said. “You did this to yourself, didn’t you?”

Angela set out her supplies and lubricated the NG tube with gel, and the visual made Justin want to vomit again. She threaded the tube up his nose and down his throat, advancing it inch by inch while telling him to “swallow, you’re doing good, keep swallowing.”

It was humiliating, almost as bad as what Seth had done with the gun. Lainie’s eyes were pitying and sad, as if Justin were some abused puppy in a cage, and Matt looked away, on purpose, either because he didn’t want to intrude, or because he was disgusted.

He was probably disgusted.

It was Clay’s stare that hit the hardest. His eyes were dark and uncompromising, taking in everything and leaving nothing to the imagination. It had never fully hit Justin until that moment that Clay had watched what had happened with Seth, fucking watched, and he remembered the handwritten note, Clay’s words: I didn’t look away because I didn’t want you to be alone in it. It was such a Clay Jensen thing to do, to decide for other people how they should feel about shit that happened to them.

Sometimes you wanted to be alone when people did revolting things to you. You wanted to keep it to yourself. A private shame. Private. There was no such thing as a compassionate voyeur.

Angela gave him a thumbs up, like she hadn’t just reenacted a sanitized version of Seth’s actions for his entire family. “I’m going to suction out your stomach and collect some gastric contents for lab analysis, to make sure we don’t have a serious bleed. It’ll be a discomfort, but it shouldn’t hurt.”

She started the machine, and the whirring vibrations made his teeth chatter. It was one more awful thing to happen in a week of awful things.

Clay hurried over and pulled out his phone, “hey, hold this for a sec?” Justin did, more out of a habit of listening to Clay than any real understanding of why. Clay pulled up a saved video on Youtube, Best Sports Fails Compilation, and then he cupped his hand around the side of Justin’s face, shielding him from viewing the nasty gunk that was being suctioned out of his stomach, which had been well and truly butchered by Seth’s bullet.

“Don’t try to look, okay?” Clay leaned down to watch the video with him and he wasn’t supposed to be leaning like that, with his ribs, but he hid the pain well, and he clicked his tongue at Justin. “This is you, playing basketball, whenever Alex is around.”

You fucker. Justin caught Clay’s wrist with his free hand and he wrapped his fingers around it, a way to say thank you without having to say it. Clay always knew how to make things easier. The exact right way to clear their collective vision of blood and gore.

When the devil machine had finished its work and Angela had left, Justin tugged Clay closer, inviting him to sit on the bed, and the mattress dipped as Clay sat, their hips pressed together. Clay tilted his head back to rest against the pillow, but his eyes stubbornly remained open.

Justin asked him, “Will you sleep?”

Clay blinked rapidly, an air of misery about him, and then he slid off the bed, swaying slightly, and sank back into his chair. Why had he pulled away? Justin felt oddly defensive about it and vaguely hurt.

There was no need to pull away.

He tried to catch Clay’s gaze, but Clay evaded him and shut down any attempts to connect. For the first time, he and Clay were out of sync, and Justin thought the fault was probably his. Did Clay think he would puke on him, too? Or was it about Seth, and the poisonous stain he had left on Justin’s skin? Or was Justin getting too dependent, too needy... too much?

He rephrased his question: “Can you sleep?”

“I can’t sleep,” Clay answered in a clipped tone.

“Okay.” Justin scanned Clay’s face. He knew each and every bruise by heart, their varied shades and hues—some darker than others, some inflamed and tender, some nearly healed. The deepest wounds didn’t leave bruises at all and couldn’t be bandaged.

Clay had received a complete mindfuck courtesy of Seth, and Justin had gift-wrapped it for him. To: Clay, Merry Christmas, From: Justin. He had been looking forward to celebrating Christmas as a Jensen—because, apparently, it was fucking legendary—but now that he had given his brother a gift worse than shit, he almost preferred the idea of being back in a homeless shelter, fighting for a donated meal.

Lainie accidentally knocked her foot against the table leg, and Clay winced, clutching his stomach. Justin let out a sympathetic hiss, in commiseration, and he tried to avoid the memory of Seth’s boot striking Clay’s outstretched arm. It was unavoidable. He could hear the bone snapping, and Clay screaming. Clay had never stopped screaming.

It was muted, but he was screaming now.

Broken bones grew back stronger—a doctor at the free clinic in Oakland had told him that when he was a kid. Complete bullshit. The orthopedic doctor had told Clay that his fingers would take 6 weeks to heal. He had said the same about his arm: 6 weeks. And the broken ribs... 6 weeks. The medical profession was a crock. They pulled answers out of their ass, spinning cotton candy lies around a bitter truth: Certain things, once broken, would never heal. Other things would heal, but heal weaker... and break again.

Dr. Changtai, at least, had given it to him straight: “I like to tell my patients with major gunshot wounds, it will take at least a year to get back to where you were before.” A year. In a year, Clay would be in college. Justin would be... where?

Clay stifled a yawn into his sleeve, and something delicate rose in Justin’s chest at the sight. He might not like being needed, and he knew he could never make up for the harm he had caused, but he did want to take care of Clay and make sure he was okay. To make sure no one messed with him while he healed, if it took 6 weeks or 6 months or 6 years.

The body needed sleep to heal.

Justin followed his intuition and made a small sound of pain, totally fake, but, instantly, Clay sat up straight and looked directly at him.

I know how to get you to sleep.

“Let’s watch more videos,” Justin suggested. “I get to pick. Bring your chair closer.”

“No,” Clay stated.

“Yes,” Justin replied.

“Okay,” Clay mumbled.

It was the shortest battle of wills they had ever had.

Justin took an extra pillow and casually laid it beside him. He brought up an old Oakland Raiders football game on Youtube, two glorious hours of the second best sport ever created. Matt smiled knowingly at him from across the room.

Clay dozed off in ten minutes, his head sinking onto the pillow by Justin’s side, his lips slightly parted.

He woke up two hours later, screaming.

Chapter Text

The first words out of Alex’s mouth: “You don’t look as bad as Clay does.”

“I’m right here,” Clay said, offended.

“Well, you look like a frickin’ angel,” Justin fired back at Alex. “With a shit bedside manner.”

“Your hair’s sticking up everywhere,” Alex said dismissively. “Do they not let you brush it?”

“Who do I hafta look good for? I’m not looking for a date.” Justin waited until Alex went over to Clay before trying to flatten his hair down with his hand.

“It’s fine, honey,” Lainie reassured him.

“You’ll only make it worse,” Matt commented. “I hear messy’s in these days, anyway.”

Justin glanced at Alex, who gave him a secret smile, full of mischief, and Justin decided to leave his hair alone. He crossed his arms and watched with satisfaction as Alex presented a stack of comic books to Clay, exactly as requested.

“This is my order from Cape and Cowl Comics.” Clay flipped through the issues. “I was going to pick them up after final exams. How’d you know?”

Clay’s eyes flicked his way, so Justin examined his hospital bracelet, but he had to look back so he could savor the sight of Alex trying to give a fumbled half-hug to Clay. His brother’s sling was a reminder to others, please handle with care, but he didn’t really have to wear it, except to make his arm feel less vulnerable since it wasn’t protected by a cast. It worked as a good deterrent for most people, which Justin appreciated, because no one was as good as he was at navigating Clay’s bruises and his fuck-ton of fractured bones.

Alex did a decent job, needing very little direction, and Clay seemed fine with it, although both of them kept giving Justin strange sidelong looks, like they were only doing it for his benefit and had a mutual desire to please him.

Justin was pleased, and he credited himself with an assist for setting up the hug—the fast break pass that led to a layup and a field goal. The idea of Clay threatening Alex—it was completely ridiculous. They were practically best friends. Zach had read the defense wrong, which wasn’t like him.

Alex stepped up to the bed. “Hey,” he greeted.

“Hey.” Justin sat up straighter, fighting to stay on brand, even though there was a chaotic demolition going on inside him. It felt like it had been a million years since they had last seen each other.

“I would’ve come sooner, to visit, but I thought maybe you needed some time?”

“Yeah, I did.” Justin had been preparing what to say to Alex for the last hour. It had sounded better in his head: “Not that... yeah. It helped, to, like, sleep, you know? And sit with Clay, and there’s been a lot of tests, and stuff.” Five points for effort, zero for execution. He looked down at his gown and folded it into little hills and valleys. He was acutely aware of the sore emptiness of his stomach, and the ugly tube taped to his cheek, and the memory of Seth’s callused fingers wandering, stroking, writhing beneath his clothing.

Shame crept up like a thorny vine, drawing thin lines of blood.

Alex’s hand twitched upwards, and without asking, without hesitation, he combed his fingers through Justin’s hair, like they belonged there, or something. Geez, Alex, be fuckin’ forward, why don’tcha?

It was a bold move.

Justin liked a little danger (or he had liked it, before things had turned to shit), and Alex skimming the tips of his fingers over his scalp was a lightning crackle which hotwired his nerves. He would have been content for Alex to do nothing else, but, of course, Clay had to cough and make it awkward as hell.

Alex quickly withdrew his hand, knocked the basketball off the side table, reddened, and started pushing random buttons on the bed. Matt and Lainie exchanged fretful glances. Clay stared blankly, like he wasn’t aware of how masterfully he had just screwed Justin over.

“I got your texts,” Justin told Alex, trying to regain traction.

“You can't hold any of them against me. I was emotionally compromised. By final exams.” Alex accidentally turned off the lights, then cycled them through their brightness settings: from harsh and headache inducing to sleepy-soft and dim. (What was he doing, setting the mood?)

“They were fucking poetry,” Justin insisted. “But, like, actually good. Not like the crap we read in English class.”

“Yeah, I’m trying out all the possible career paths. Poet, race car driver, astrophysicist.”

“Philosopher,” Clay suggested.

“Indie rock artist,” Justin said.

“Nurse for troubled bad boys?” Alex quipped, without missing a beat. He drew an imaginary line on his face, from under his nose to the arch of his cheekbone. “I like the tube. It’s hot. And it shouldn’t be, which is so unfair.”

Hot? What the fuck had gotten into Alex? Was he—was he actually trying to flirt with him? Here? Now? (Why did Justin sense Zach’s handiwork?)

“I know, right?” Clay smiled, and his smile held. “Only Justin can make medical devices look like fashion accessories.”

It was the best thing to happen so far that day: seeing Clay smile. Justin had begun to think he had forgotten how. “Does that mean you wanna borrow it? It’d look good on you, too, bro.”

“Ugh, Justin.” Clay began to lose his color, shade by shade, around the purple-blue-black borders of his bruises. “Keep the tube in your stomach. Don’t hack it up again. Please.” He let out a cough that sounded more like a scream, the scream of a bird shot by an arrow, a thing wounded, but not dead. “Please.” Clay cradled his sling in close, and he was briefly small and hurt and unprotected, and Justin’s world narrowed to that hurt, and he felt guilty to have been the cause of it.

“Yeah, duh. I wasn’t gonna share anyway.” He felt like he should hold his hand over his NG tube so Clay wouldn’t have to see it again. He also had a heavy urge to grab Clay and throw an arm around him or put him in a headlock or wrestle him down to the floor in a tangle of knees and elbows, but all those options were off the table, so he grabbed Alex’s gift instead, the two bears sitting in their safe little plastic bubble.

“I liked the bears. So, what?” He looked at Alex and pointed at the teddy bear with the least amount of fur missing. “You and...” He pointed at the more disfigured bear. “Me?”

“You wish.” Alex shook his head. “You and Clay.”

“Oh.” Justin peeked at Clay, mindful of his feelings. No one had told him, but he knew Clay had been the one to pull out the bear’s fur—it was exactly the kind of anxious shit he would do. It didn’t matter. It was art, of the destructive variety, so, unlike most art, it was actually good. “That makes more sense.”

“I mean,” Alex said in a rush, “it could be you and me. There are different interpretations.”

“Nope. No take backs. It’s me and Clay.”

Clay looked smugly satisfied. Or gruffly annoyed. Or unjustifiably angry. Any expression on his face could be confused for another, but Justin could suss Clay out, easy, if he cared to make the effort. He made the effort, and it was like this: Clay liked the comparison, but he hated the bears and if he had a pair of scissors, he would cut them in two, right through the heart which connected them, and he’d throw his bear in the trash can... but then he’d regret it and throw Justin’s in, too, to keep it company.

Clay was an open book, and Justin was a scholar. Literary analysis: A+

Matt and Lainie retreated to the table to discuss something on Lainie’s laptop, insurance forms probably, or real estate listings. Which left just the three of them.

Three was a good number.

Alex idly rolled up one sleeve of his cardigan, and his tattoo was right there, on the other side of his arm, and if he lifted his hand and scratched his nose, Justin would be able to see it. Alex didn’t scratch his nose, but he did twist his arm, without being subtle about it, and Justin was stuck—like bubblegum on a desk—staring at the alien emoji. It was exactly the way he remembered it, the ink so familiar he could have drawn it from memory.

A restless longing erupted inside him, and he was too fucking exhausted to hold it in. He wanted to walk over to Alex—it was only a few steps—latch onto him and imprint the feel of him to sense memory. One hand could encircle his tattoo, the other hand could encircle Alex and draw him near.

Justin’s heart was beating about two hundred beats per minute—

Alex jerked his sleeve down, like the attention was scalding him, and Justin felt dirty for having gawked at him, until Alex looked at him shyly, as though he hadn’t expected the admiration, but as if... he had liked it?

“I heard you got to keep the two bullets as souvenirs.” Alex gestured at his stomach. “Inside your body.”

Justin almost laughed but stopped when Clay wheeled on Alex, livid. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Damn. Clay was as frothed up as an attack dog over a stupid comment, and Justin might have approved a year ago, might even have been amused to see Clay Jensen try to shred someone to ribbons on his behalf.

He wasn’t amused.

“Clay, chill.” Justin laughed, loudly, to pour water over Clay’s anger and to make it clear: No fucks given. Alex liked to push his buttons and Justin liked it when he did, because he hated feeling fragile, and it was nice to have someone around who would give voice to the freaking weird shit that went along with being shot. “When I get out of here, let’s buy a metal detector and try to find the bullets.”

Alex’s grin crept across his face. “I’ll get you one for Christmas.”

“And we can make bets, and whoever guesses closest to where they are gets—I don’t know—something nice. What’s nice?”

“A romantic dinner with Clay?” Alex’s idea was genius because no suggestion would irritate Clay more.

“Yes.” Justin winked at Clay, who had already mellowed out. “He has to be home by 11, though. For curfew. And if it’s you, you have to walk him up to the door. With flowers.”

“And if it’s you, you have to walk him up to your bedroom. With chocolate.”

“Not on the first date,” Justin said. “That’s a little fast.”

Clay grumbled, but it was his affectionate ‘I’m only pretending to hate you’ grumble. “There are good ideas... and then there are the ones you two come up with. If you buy a metal detector, I’m confiscating it, and Tony and I will take it to the pier and find lost valuables as a community service project.”

“So, you’re saying...” Alex began.

“...you want your date to be with Tony?” Justin finished, with a smirk.

Clay turned his grumble into an overdrawn sigh. “I don’t know which one of you is the worst influence, I really don’t. Here’s an idea: Go on a romantic date, with each other, and leave me out of it. Also, don’t include me in any bets, and don’t talk about me. I’ll be over there, ignoring you. Okay? Thanks.”

Clay marched off and he settled into the window ledge with his comic books, and, despite his obvious irritation, he was lighter and less grouchy. Justin had known Alex would cheer him up. It was what he did.

Alex held up his phone. “I made you a playlist. Zach said your throat is scratched, and you might not want to talk. Do you want to listen to music? It’s not emo, or upbeat, or dad rock. Nothing mainstream. You’ll like it.”

“Yeah, okay.” Justin really didn’t want to spend his time with Alex listening to a playlist while Alex sat in a chair, bored, but it was better than listening to random music, alone, without anyone to keep him company.

“Move over,” Alex told him, and he couldn’t be thinking of... fuck, but he was, Alex was climbing onto the hospital bed, expertly weaving around the IV lines and tubes, and Justin shifted over as far as possible to make room, which wasn’t really necessary because Alex was thin and slight of frame and he immediately turned on his side to take up less space. Justin maneuvered himself, carefully, to lie partially on his side because if Alex was there, it would be rude not to look at him.

Justin looked.

There was no harm, in looking.

Something tickled his nose, an inviting scent. It was Alex. He was close enough that Justin could smell his body wash—green apples and cherry blossoms—and, faintly, a fragrance of ginger and spring onions, from the restaurant he’d gone to with Zach for dinner.

fucking christ shit jesus fuck. Justin hadn’t showered in two days. (What was the point? Hot water wouldn’t wash away the fact of it. The shame of it.) He hoped he didn’t smell like hospital and stale sweat. Or like feeding tubes.

Alex unwrapped a pair of earbuds and set the phone on the pillow next to him. “I’m kinda pissed, y’know. The last time I saw you, you asked me to wait for you, and then I was at the hospital, waiting to see if you would die. It was like the universe was giving me a final fuck-you cherry on top of grapefruit sorbet, which is not an acceptable substitute for ice cream, no matter what my mom says.”

“Nah, you’re looking at it wrong.” Not serious, but not teasing, either, Justin said quietly, “The universe managed to get you into my bed. Maybe that was the grand plan.”

Alex’s cheeks didn’t redden at all, this time. Instead, he aggressively rubbed at his eyes. “Don’t make it a joke.”

“I didn’t– that’s–” Justin was at a loss for words, and he faltered, “Whatever.”

“You... you’re—you’re just—a lot, okay? And I thought for sure you were gone.” Alex threw him an earbud, shoved the other one into his own ear and started the playlist.

It felt like time flowed backward. So many evenings, they had lain just like this, in Justin’s bed, in Alex’s bed, trying to do anything but their schoolwork: roasting stupid people in viral videos, Clay interrupting them with his “sophisticated” opinions; sitting next to each other and not talking, letting the silence breathe around them, because Alex had gotten into a fight with his parents or Justin was wiped out from a hard practice; exchanging tips on where to find the best porn, a smooth method of revealing what they both might like, hypothetically; eating junk food and throwing it at Clay, who eventually learned to throw it back; making plans for the future, a future where they still hung out, as friends, because what else would they be?

The minutes sped past, song after song unfolding between them, and Justin felt drunk, but not on hydrocodone, and he felt the pain in his abdomen, but it was only a twinge, and for five, ten, thirty minutes, he didn’t mind that the ache was dull instead of sharp.

Lainie came over and set a fresh cup of ice chips on his tray. Alex stopped the music. “We’re going to the cafeteria for some dinner. Will you be okay here?”

Even if he could have eaten, Justin didn’t have an appetite and he didn’t mind the sight of food, but there was a rule against food in isolation, so his family left periodically throughout the day, in shifts, for meals and showers.

“Yes. I’ve got Alex.”

“I’m responsible,” Alex promised.

“Text me if you need me. And look after your brother.” Lainie seemed like she wanted to say something else, to give him a warning or a lecture, but she held back, and, two weeks ago, Justin would have gotten a kiss—today, all he got was an eye crinkle.

Matt, who had probably told Clay he was in charge (as if), joined her. Two weeks ago, Justin would have gotten at least a pat on the arm—today, he got a hand pausing in mid-air and then a weird-ass wave.

Justin was off-limits: no touching allowed. Even Clay couldn’t sit beside him without getting squeamish.

Had there been a family meeting about it?

The lack of contact made him feel diseased, and repellent.

(He was a little boy getting locked in the closet for wetting his pants, and he tried, he tried to be good, he tried to hold it in, but his mom forgot about him, and he buried his head in his hands as he wet his pants again. Mommy would be mad. She would let Aaron give him a whipping.

She never let him out.

He was hungry and scared, so he broke the door open, and Aaron was standing there, red as a tomato, and stinking drunk. He got a whipping. A nasty little boy—peeing in the closet. Who was going to clean it up?

Justin cleaned it up, snot running down his chin. Mommy appeared and looked at him, her eyes empty, and then Aaron made it very clear what he thought about little boys who cried.)

Matt and Lainie left, and Justin checked in with Clay by doing a visual inspection. He had his nose buried in a comic, and it was a fucking miracle he wasn’t obsessively checking his phone. He had his headphones on, so he might have been listening to music, but the headphones might have been for show. A deflection, so they wouldn’t bother him. Or a smokescreen, so they could feel like they didn’t have a chaperone. Clay was a good wingman.

Alex started the playlist again, and Justin popped his earbud out, tired of listening to music. “Why’d you include that last song? The rest, I get, they were top shit, but classical music? Really, Standall?”

Alex let the headphone wires drop across his neck. They looked like a noose. Justin repositioned them, onto the bed. “It’s called Après un Rêve, for the cello. I was listening to it when I heard the news. But it made me think of you, even before my mom told me what happened.”

Justin had to ask, even though he couldn’t unknow the answer if he didn’t like it: “Why did it make you think of me? It sounded like a funeral.”

Alex propped his head on his knuckles, flustered. “It’s not a dirge, it’s a love song. Or a dream of lost love... alright, I guess it’s sad.” He grabbed a tissue and folded it around an ice chip. “It fits, though. I know you said Clay is sad, and he looks it, but... I think you’re sadder.”

He brought the chip to Justin’s lips and the contact was light as a butterfly’s wings, a cool rustling, and when Justin opened his mouth, Alex set the chip down on his tongue, flawlessly avoiding any sore areas, and Justin’s heart thudded, in time to the muffled electronic beat that came from the earbuds. He hadn’t really expected Alex to feed him ice chips—it had been a stupid joke—and he had thought Alex would be sarcastic about it, or turn it into a game. The reality of it actually happening was like a whispered secret.

The ice on his tongue began to dissolve, slowly, like too-frozen ice cream.

Impatient, Justin crunched it between his teeth, and, at the sound, he thought of Clay’s fingers being bent backwards. “Why would I be sad? I survived a gunfight. I got to skip final exams. Clay was fucking badass. And Seth is dead.”

Alex made a hoarse noise, frustration or disbelief. “You don’t have to pretend with me, Justin—not with me. You got shot. You don’t fucking bounce back from that in one week. I would know.”

Justin wiped his mouth, to buy himself time, because his body had become one hard line of tension. “Look, I’m sorry it was that way for you, but as far as shitty days go, this doesn’t even make my top 50. I dealt with it. It’s over. And Clay rocked that shit. We’re good.”

Alex shook his head, as if Justin were hopeless, and maybe he was. “Okay, you dealt with it, but... it’s not over. You’re in the hospital with fucking bullets in your stomach, and Clay looks like he went two rounds with Rocky Balboa, and someone keeps vandalizing your house with graffiti. Dad spends every night patrolling your neighborhood, and Zach has repainted, like, five times already. And your mom — shit, I meant Lainie — Lainie calls my mom every night and I swear they spend ten minutes crying together.”

The thought of Lainie crying—her shoulders quaking, and little whimpers of sound, and sadness etched into her beautiful face—it punched the air right out of Justin’s lungs. Had she cried because of Clay? He understood the impulse.

Lainie was definitely stressed out. The paperwork was a never-ending hassle for her. And she had missed two weeks of work. And they couldn’t afford to rent a house or an apartment, not until they sold their old house, which still had a mortgage on it and needed repairs, and there were hospital bills and therapy bills and clean-up-the-blood bills, and if they stayed at Alex’s house, they would have to install special medical equipment for him, and it was probably expensive, and the finances were tight.

Justin had always cost too much money, it was the story of his life. Lainie never held it against him; she never even discussed it with him or told him what the damage was. Instead, she smiled at him, all the time, but when she thought he and Clay weren’t looking, her smiles disappeared.

Fuck, he wished he could get high, really, really fucking high—stick a needle in his arm, down a bottle of oxy, maybe try huffing gasoline and see what that was like.

Or, he could pick a fight.

“Screw you, Alex. You may have cheered Clay up, but you’re being a major buzzkill with me. Who the fuck asked you — you think I don’t know everything’s fucked?”

Alex looked at him with something that was like sympathy but was not sympathy. It was more like patient understanding. “I’m not gonna lie to make you feel better. I know you probably want to get shitfaced right now or get so blazed you can’t stand upright, but it’s better to talk to people. I’m not saying it has to be me or anything. It could be Clay, or Zach, or that kooky neighbor of yours, fuck, even my dad offered—any time, he said. I don’t recommend him, personally, but if that works for you, I’d be willing to share. The Jensens are probably better, though, at feelings and communication and shit, and I bet they don’t turn everything into a sports metaphor.”

Alex rolled up his sleeve, deliberately, like he had something to prove, like he had something he wanted to say by the action, but Justin refused to look at the tattoo. He was too pissed at Alex, for not following the script, and for seeing right through him, and he wasn’t going to say shit to him, if he kept it up.

Alex stared at him, and he didn’t relent. “You gotta find someone you can let it out with. Don’t go back to using heroin or take off to Oakland or start hooking up with random people just to feel something that isn’t pain. I know I’m a hypocrite to say all this, but I’m still gonna say it, and, also, just in case your family hasn’t told you... you smell really bad and your lips are chapped, so maybe put on some fucking chapstick, and you should tape your tube higher up on your cheek so it doesn’t chafe—it’ll fit behind your ear easier. Try brushing your hair, too. It’s causing me problems like that, and I’m not embarrassed, but that’s the last thing you need from me right now. And fucking tell Clay you’re sad, so he doesn’t feel like he’s the only one.”

“Wow,” Justin said dryly. “You done?”

Alex thought about it. “Yes.”

“Good, ‘cause I really need to teach you how to do pillow talk.”

Alex exhaled through his teeth. “I know I’m being an ass, but it’s bullshit, Justin, for you to be okay, after this. I saw it in Clay, you know. The first time we visited, while you were in the ICU, I said something really fucking stupid, and Clay– fuck, Justin, I can’t get it out of my head, the way he reacted. He was thinking about you, and it was like he was carrying your pain with him until you woke up and took it back, and I saw it, and I know I sound like I’m on Molly, but I’m not, and I just feel like... you’re fucked up inside, and you’re kinda freaking me out, with how blasé you’re acting.”

Justin was a pretty good liar when he needed to be, and he considered the lies he could tell to convince Alex. But when Alex gave him another ice chip, he got ambushed by Alex’s eyes, which were bluer than Clay’s—sunshine blue, peculiar blue, blue drop heroin—and he said, “I wanted to die.” It was sudden and honest. He hadn’t meant to say it.

“Oh.” Alex stilled beside him, and he let the tissue fall through the air, fluttering down to land between them. “Because—because of the pain?”

“No. Because of Clay.” He hated that his voice was a ruined scrape. But it would have been raw even without the tube, which shifted uncomfortably in his throat whenever he spoke, raw even without the injuries in his mouth, which stung at the slightest motion of his tongue. Everything about him was ruined and raw. Seth hurting Clay had been the worst punch he had ever taken. “I thought I killed him, and he– he was willing to get himself killed, to save me. I was so fucking scared, Alex.”

Alex’s knuckles bumped against his, firm and purposeful. “He’s Clay. Of course he was gonna fight for you. And you didn’t kill him. He’s right over there.” He swept his thumb across Justin’s hand, and the motion was delicate and familiar and soothing—the touch of someone taking care of him... Clay’s touch. Clay had begged him not to quit, not to die, and the physical link to his brother had kept him grounded, given him purpose, anchored him to life.

“I thought...” Alex began, and he looked broken, filled with grief and regret. “I thought I killed Hannah.”

“You didn’t.” Justin circled his hand around the bones of Alex’s wrist, tracing the veins and ridges, wanting to give comfort back.

“I know,” Alex murmured, timid, but not evasive. “I don’t blame myself, not anymore. You can’t either, for any of this.”

Alex opened his hand invitingly, and Justin glided his fingers down. Alex’s fingers were cold, so he gripped them, trying to warm them. He had always hated being cold—the streets were cold, juvie was cold, the hospital was cold. “I wish I was here, those months you were recovering. I... I didn’t even know what happened to you. I wish I was here.”

Alex snorted out a dry laugh. “No, you don’t. I was in a coma, which is ennui, personified. And then I wasn’t, but I couldn’t talk or move. All I could do was blink. And then I could move but I was so fucking angry, with everyone, all the time, and I couldn’t control it. It was like– I wanted to believe I was stuck and broken, like nothing I could do would be of any use to anybody... until that day, when you shot up on Clay’s bed—do you remember?—and I pulled you to the edge, and I realized Dr. Ellman was right. I was clinging to a defeatist attitude. I wasn’t stuck. I could help someone. I could help you.”

Justin burrowed down into the sheets, and he wrapped himself in Alex’s voice and clutched it to him. It was potato-chip crisp, with maple syrup flowing around the vowels.

“I guess it’s natural when you like someone, to reinterpret the past in a biased way, with them in mind, but when I think about my turning point, it was you. I mean—it was you being a dick and almost overdosing, ‘cause that’s the kind of shit you do, but... saving you... it showed me I could push myself. And, yeah, it sucked, and it wasn’t easy, but I got better.”

Alex paused and corrected himself, “I’m getting better. It takes time, but you’ll get better, too. You just can’t be the one stopping yourself. You can’t put up roadblocks. The Jensens aren’t going to turn you away—they practically threw love at you the second you entered their house, isn’t that what you told me? And you are a Jensen now, so it’s doubly true, and it’s also kind of perfect, because you’re just like them. With the love throwing.”

Alex interlaced their fingers, clumsy and inelegant, none of that fake perfection shit, and he was tentative when he asked, “Do you still wanna die?” He had the same expression as when he played a slow tune on his guitar—soft focus, intense concentration.

“No.” It wasn’t a lie; Justin would never lie about that. “I have people to live for... Clay, and you, and Zach... all of you guys. And I have my... my...”

He closed his eyes, picturing his mom’s dark chocolate hair, which she used to let him braid into a bun, and her wrecked posture, from years and years of backbreaking double shifts, and her reluctant smile, the one she used to give him whenever he pulled the needles out of her arms. Strawberry-jam lipstick and creamy-white skin, swirls of cigarette smoke and sweet bedtime lullabies sung as a rasp... With an apology, he dissolved her image, chunk by chunk. “And I have my parents. Not—not my mom, but Matt and Lainie. You know.”

He swallowed thickly and felt the tube bump against the back of his throat. He opened his eyes, and Alex was still there, still willing, so he grabbed at his hand, like he was in danger of being pulled away. “I want to be alive, I’ve always wanted to be alive, but I felt like—sometimes I still feel like... I deserved to die.”

Alex’s eyes darkened, and he studied him intently, like Justin was a vending machine and Alex only had a dollar. “I get it,” he finally said. “Seth came to the house for you, and Clay got hurt. That’s why, isn’t it?”

The pain in Justin’s ribs, in his hand and arm, was momentarily all-consuming. “Seth fucked with Clay, he really fucked with him, Alex. I should’ve fought harder. He’s my goddamn family, and maybe I didn’t know what that meant before, but I do now, and... I should’ve fought harder for him.” He should have torn Seth limb from limb, with his teeth if necessary, for even thinking of laying a hand on his brother. “I should’ve killed Seth, so that Clay didn’t have to.”

There was mist in Alex’s eyes. Blue sea mist. Tumultuous, like the ocean. “You almost died. How could you have fought harder than that?” Alex squeezed his fingers, and his grip was warm and pleasant—no longer so cold and lonesome. “Clay will be okay. We’ll help him.”

Alex thought he was seeing the truth, but Justin was frosted glass, he was rain-spattered window panes. Hidden, concealed. He was afraid of being seen clearly, seen in his entirety; at the tiniest glimpse, Alex might designate him too much to handle or no longer desire to touch him. “You don’t know everything. More happened that night than they’re reporting on the news.”

He was careening toward a dangerous edge, and warning bells were blaring, screaming at him to shut this thing down before he wrecked himself in a fiery crash of his own making. “If you ask me, I’ll tell you. I don’t want anyone else to know, but if you ask...”

Alex could pluck the words from him easily. Justin was undefended, and he didn’t know why he was risking it, but he would allow Alex a glimpse.

Alex’s mouth turned down, the beginning of a frown. “I won’t ask.” He inched closer, as if he were trying to peer into Justin and see him as he was: small, naked, and ashamed. “You can tell me, if you want. But I won’t ask.”

Justin hesitated, as if delaying the words would make them any less cowardly. “I don’t want to tell you.”

“Don’t tell me, then,” Alex said, as if it were simple. As if it were Justin’s choice. “It’s okay.”

Justin waited for a minute, a long minute, two minutes. The lack of stimulation was agony, but he didn’t want to cross a line. “Is this... am I too much in your space?” In his mind was a question he wasn’t asking.

Alex heard it and answered, “You could be more in my space, I don’t mind—not when it’s you. Besides, I’m the one who took over half your bed.”

Justin shifted his hips and tucked himself closer to Alex, until they were nearly flush, and, not ten seconds later, Justin felt Alex against his thigh, his body responding to the closeness, but it wasn’t provocative, or meant to be, and neither of them acknowledged it.

It felt so fucking good, the solid, intense presence of someone next to him, someone who wouldn’t swerve, or recede, or balk, and if this were a couple of weeks ago and he was next to Alex like this, cuddled close and feeling his clear interest, it would have been enough to get Justin hard—he was seventeen, for Christ’s sake, and horny—but he didn’t want that now, he wanted that part of his body to remain cold, and it did.

Being next to Alex was a hazy twilight.

Numb contentment.

Safe.

Justin had to offer something in exchange for the unearned privilege. “Clay did what he had to do, and I... It just—it just was what it was. Seth–” The name tasted like gunmetal and copper, and the rest of the words caught in his throat, but he forced them to his lips and though he tried to release them, there was a soft strangulation. “Seth...” He couldn’t continue, fuck him, why couldn’t he just spit it out?

“Shh,” Alex said, although Justin had already fallen silent. “I don’t need to know. I didn’t mean to pressure you. I’m not that much of an asshole. Keep it to yourself, it won’t change anything between us. Whatever it is, whatever happened, I’m sorry it hurt you, and that’s all I’ll say, okay? I’m sorry.”

It was like breaking a stranglehold.

Alex was giving him what Bryce wouldn’t, what Clay couldn’t. He cared to know, but he could tolerate not knowing. He could see it hurt, without trying to steal the hurt away. Justin’s breath stuttered out of him, a heavy emptiness tipping over and toppling within him, and he reached out his hand. “Can I...?” He didn’t even know what he was asking.

“Yes.” Alex’s gaze was expectant, hopeful.

Justin ran a single finger across Alex’s eyebrow, curious to see his reaction, and he felt a different sort of helplessness when Alex relaxed into him, vulnerable and receptive.

When did I realize you weren’t just interesting? Was it when you helped that tone-deaf freshman tune his guitar, even though Bryce made fun of you for it? Or when you took off Zach’s shoes and covered him with a blanket after he passed out on the couch at the pool house? Or that time when I was too stoned to walk and you gave me a ride in your car and we parked, as if you knew I didn’t want to go home, and you told me your entire life story?

There were still so many things he didn’t know about Alex.

“I don’t wanna go backward.” Alex’s voice was low, and gloriously sad, and terribly, recklessly alive. “Don’t fucking die, inside, like I did. Don’t shut down.” Alex put his hand over Justin’s. “Don’t.” Justin’s fingers prickled with electricity, and his agonized mind became hushed when Alex whispered a final, “Don’t.”

Justin had asked Alex to wait. He didn’t want to fucking wait. He had forgotten why it was a bad idea to start anything with Alex, or why it was more important than ever to stay away from him. Justin wanted to forget, he wanted to indulge. He knew it was wrong, but he wanted.

I want you to have all of me.

What would it be like to kiss Alex? Would it hurt to kiss him? Would it be like kissing Jess? They were leaning conveniently close, and it seemed a natural next step, if Alex was willing. He watched the small particles of dust dance in the space between them, and Alex licked his bottom lip, and Justin had an irrepressible thirst. He and Clay were two abysses—making each other darker—but Alex was a yellow-gold sunrise chasing away the blood-drenched night.

He looked at Alex. He looked at Alex and thought, Jess.

Alex grazed the backs of his fingers against Justin’s neck, and Justin wondered if the bruises were still visible there, if that was why Alex did it, to cover the marks. And then he wondered what it would feel like to have Alex drag his fingers over his tattoo, Vires et Honestas, Strength and Honor—qualities Clay possessed, but Justin never had.

“I know what I want.” Alex’s hand remained where it was, a warm brush of bare skin.

“I’m not worth it,” Justin warned. To the point. No bullshit.

“You are to me.” Alex worried his lip, and his face grew distant and insecure. “I might not be enough. I know you have girls lining up to be with you, and I– I’m damaged.”

“Fuck, Alex, you’re not damaged. Life’s been shit to you, but you’re still kind and funny and you give people second chances, which is not how the world works, believe me. I... I fucking suck at relationships. Really, really suck. I shouldn’t be involved with anyone, like ever.”

He watched Alex’s lips seal into a thin line—stubborn and annoyed—the way he got when things weren’t going the way he liked. “I would agree with you, but it’s kinda against my self-interest. Fuck the universe. We could work, we could fit.” Alex tilted forward, and there was an automatic adjustment, a subtle shifting, and it was true: their bodies had already discovered how well they fit together.

The new position quickly set off a bear trap in Justin’s abdomen—his wounds stretching and tearing—and the blistering pain made him think of fire and of thick congealed blood. He reluctantly pulled back, and when he saw Alex’s face fall, he felt a fierce sort of protectiveness. He had thought it was uniquely for Clay, but it extended to Alex, too, in a different way, but every bit as strong: “I don’t wanna be the thing that makes your life harder. I don’t wanna fuck up your recovery, and I could, trust me.”

Alex spoke haltingly, his eyes locked on Justin’s cheek. “I don’t know how to explain to you... You’re a mess, but I’m a mess, and I know you’re not easy, Justin. I shouldn’t find that attractive, I guess, but I do. I want it to be on your terms, but if that’s the only reason... Why should we wait?”

What little self-restraint Justin had fizzled instantly, and, fuck, he must have lost his mind, he must have, because he said, “I have no fucking idea.” He didn’t know, not with Alex there, so willing and attainable, bringing him the closest to oblivion he could get and still be sober. He had been made to feel small and Alex made him feel large and he wanted to take back some of the power Seth had stolen from him... and if that was true, wasn’t this an extremely shit decision, and wasn’t it unfair to Alex?

His eyes roamed upwards, to Alex’s uneven curls and the wild disarray of them against his pillow. “Are you ever gonna bleach your hair again?”

“I don’t know.” Alex scrunched his nose. “Why? Did you... Did you like it better that way?”

“I like it however it is.” He blew on it lightly so the strands would lift and fall in a different way across Alex’s forehead.

The tips of Alex’s ears turned red and he smiled and pressed his face against the pillow, and it made Justin feel confident, and triumphant, and in control, the way he had used to feel with girls.

It was a physical impossibility to kiss Alex. Part of him wanted to say screw it and kiss him anyway, fuck the hospital and fuck the risk, but Lainie would be upset, Matt would be upset—not because he was kissing a boy, not because he was kissing Alex, but because he was swapping germs, and the wrong germ could be a death sentence.

Since he couldn’t have it, Justin let himself imagine it: drawing Alex into him, fingers knotted in his hair, brushing their noses together, exploring his warm skin with hands and lips, leaving Alex, all of Alex, flushed and glistening. Justin would plan it, make it right and special, and it would be loving and gentle, and there would never be any pain, and he would ask for nothing in return. Someday. There was a strange feeling abuzz in his heart and he did not know what it was, except it felt like happiness. How could he allow himself such a feeling, while Clay was so desperately unhappy?

Clay.

His heart kicked up in pace. How long had it been since he had checked on Clay? He rolled onto his back and turned his head, and it was okay, Clay was okay, he hadn’t moved, he was engrossed in his comic, nothing was wrong. Justin turned back and froze, the heady fog of happiness evaporating into a winter drizzle, because Alex had sat up, and he was close, way too fucking close, practically on top of him, staring down.

It was Alex.

Alex. Not Seth. Seth, who had demanded Justin open his mouth with a deceptively gentle touch. Who had tortured him with pain and tortured him with pleasure, until Justin no longer knew the difference between the two.

It wasn’t Seth.

But Justin’s mind, like his body, was out of his control, and he was trapped on the floor of the living room, he was fucking trapped, being forced to take whatever was given to him. He wanted to fight back, or scream, or maybe even beg, but he couldn’t, for Clay’s sake, and when Alex touched him, the slightest pressure on his chest, everything Alex about Alex began fading away, replaced by a man who wanted to break him open and kill his brother.

“Justin, snap the fuck out of it!” A hand tapped his cheek, insistent. Justin was hyper-focused on the point of contact, and he reminded himself to relax, not to resist, and he almost opened his mouth, by reflex, to ease the way.

stop. fucking. touching. me. He couldn’t speak because there was a suffocating weight on top of his ribcage. The spill of blood from the bullet wounds was a hot gush over his belly button and down his sides. He dreaded what came next, I don’t want it. I don’t want it.

Fingertips trailing. Spiked nails.

Fear and arousal, and a shameful, sticky wetness.

Violent thrusts. Overstimulation.

Pain — Clay — pain — Clay — pain.

And then Seth said,

Seth said,

“I’ll do the same thing to that little fuck. After you die—I’ll pretend he’s you.”

Justin slammed his hand against his nose and mouth because he was not going to throw up on Alex and he was not getting a damn tube shoved down his throat again while Clay watched.

He took a watery breath and tried to push Alex back, and, immediately, Alex began to move back.

Too late.

“Get the fuck off him!” Clay’s yell was brimming with fury and bloodlust, and that brought the world back into focus with a dizzying jolt.

Justin sprang up, just in time to see Clay wrench Alex off the bed and slam him to the floor.

Chapter Text

“Get the fuck off him!” Clay’s yell was brimming with fury and bloodlust and that brought the world back into focus with a dizzying jolt.

Justin sprang up, just in time to see Clay wrench Alex off the bed and slam him to the floor. Alex hit, hard, letting out a shocked exclamation that made Justin’s vision swim red, heat raging behind his eyes, but he couldn’t get angry and lash out because it was Clay, his broken-edged brother, who had done it.

“What the fuck, Clay!” Alex shoved at Clay’s chest to create space between them and then he kicked against the floor and slid himself backwards, scrambling to get his feet under him. He twisted and tripped, and ended up on his knees.

Justin’s pulse thundered when Clay stood up menacingly, but—thank fuck—he hadn’t completely lost it and he didn’t pursue Alex. Instead, he planted himself in front of Justin, darkly protective, with a stance as clear a threat as any words. He looked ready to throw a punch, or to lunge at Alex, or to kill whoever came up on them.

It was a slow struggle, but Alex got to his feet, his fists clenched. He wasn’t visibly hurt, but he was cross, with Justin, or with Clay, or with both of them.

Justin tried to maneuver off the bed so he could intervene and secure his brother before he did something crazy, but a mallet slammed into his stomach, and he fell back with a harsh grunt, his vision blackening, vertigo contributing its own wild churn. He was so fucking sick of his body, of the way it constantly failed him, but frustration quickly turned into a spike of fear because Clay seized the cup of ice chips and raised it high, territorial and aggressive, and Alex was just standing there, annoyed, but unfazed.

“Alex, back the fuck up! Alex!” It was insane, fucking insane, to even think it, that Clay would do anything to Alex, and it was a fucking cup, a damn cup, not a gun or a knife, but Justin remembered sitting at the table eating dinner when his stepfather, Darnell, had slapped his mom and, without pause, Justin had taken his plate, food and all, and slammed it right into Darnell’s face. It had left wicked bruises.

And then, with a chintzy thrift-store vase, in awful desperation, he had pounded a man’s skull into his brain. The fucker still had seizures...

Anything could be a weapon. Anything.

“Clay, for fuck’s sake, calm down. Seth’s dead.” Justin could feel Clay’s viciousness, his thinly concealed rage, and he knew Clay wasn’t in the hospital, and he wasn’t seeing Alex. He was back at the house, and he was seeing Seth. It was fight or flight: Justin was the runner, but Clay made a fist and charged. He didn’t falter, he didn’t waver, not when he had a goal and a purpose.

Clay’s arm was shaking and ice was rattling onto the floor, over the rim of the cup, falling like vengeful hail.

“Alex, back up,” Justin said, half a command, half a plea. “I’m serious, get the fuck away from him!”

Alex looked at him, disbelieving.

“If you touch him, I will kill you.” Clay’s fingers tightened around the glass. “You don’t fucking touch him.

Alex’s eyes widened in alarm, finally catching on, but he still didn’t move. “It’s me, Clay! I’m not going anywhere near him. Or you. I’m sorry, okay? Fuck. Fuck!”

Clay advanced a step. Alex jerked with surprise, but he stayed where he was, refusing to budge.

This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t be fucking happening—

Why the fuck wouldn’t Alex ever back down from a threat? Why did Clay have to love people so forcefully and dial everything up to maximum insanity?

Fatigue from so many days of lying still had sucked away Justin’s stamina, but there was always a reserve to draw upon when it came to Alex’s safety, to Clay’s perfectionist ideals. He refused to add another atrocity to his list of forever regrets.

It was his body. His. It would do what he wanted it to do.

Justin rolled onto his knees, old instincts primed and ready, high adrenaline flowing through him. He was unsteady and light-headed, but he was not locked in place, he was not bound. His body was powerful and free, and when his feet hit the floor, his legs quivered but did not bend. Clay’s arm had already begun to swing, arcing forward with an unnervingly violent trajectory, and Alex’s hand flew up to protect his face.

Jesus Christ, Clay. Images came in a rush, images of Alex’s face bloody and swollen, discolored and splashed with tears, just like Clay’s... and because of Clay.

No. He’d rather get shot again.

Justin intercepted the blow with his arm, and the strike spearheaded its way through his bone. The real agony came from his stomach as a thousand pieces of shrapnel shifted inside him at the abrupt motion. He used the pain as fuel and, with confidence, he knocked the cup out of Clay’s hand and tackled his brother backwards in a reverse hug, trying to land Clay’s butt on the bed, without hurting his arm or his ribs, which was fucking impossible, but he did his best.

Clay didn’t resist, not even an indication of effort—the cup’s crash to the floor must have brought him back to himself, or maybe he had realized it was Justin who was holding him and known it was safe. He still looked like he was going to crumble apart, which made Justin feel like he was disintegrating, too, so he rested his head on Clay’s shoulder and brought his fingers to the nape of Clay’s neck, massaging the tense muscles with broad sweeps of his thumb, a solid pressure to keep him from tumbling back into a sea of blood, back into the devouring dark.

He held his brother close and murmured, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Clay was shivering, and Justin tried to steady him, to make him feel more secure, to be the anchor for them both. He wanted to ground him with the same solidness Clay always gave him—the firmest foundation of his whole goddamn dysfunctional life.

He locked Clay protectively against his chest and it wasn’t enough, but he hugged him, and it was too much, but he hugged him, as if the force of the compression would take all the scattered pieces and fit them back together, solder them in place. Clay seemed to have forgotten how to do self-repair, and Justin was a piss-poor excuse for a mechanic, but he had to try. He had to try. Clay folded into him, sliding his arm around Justin’s midsection, releasing some of his weight, taking on some of Justin’s balance.

Alex’s patience expired. It usually had a short fuse. “What the fuck is your problem, Clay? You were going to smash my face in... for what? I didn’t do anything, I wouldn’t have hurt him! You fucking know that. And you– you could have told me to stop, Justin!”

Justin wanted to snap, I did! Hadn’t he?

No, he hadn’t. It had all been inside his head.

Clay was pale, as pale as cocaine, which made his bruises more hideous by contrast. “I didn’t– I wouldn’t have– I’m... fuck, I’m sorry, Alex. I’m sorry.”

Alex accepted the apology with a shrug, utterly unaffected, but the tension remained, clogging up the air.

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” Justin said furiously. Clay brought his fist up to his head, and Justin coaxed it back down and held it hostage, unsure of what his intentions were. Clay’s breathing had escalated from I’m one mile into this three-mile run and ridiculously out of shape to I’m being asphyxiated and my lungs don’t fucking work. Justin knew that feeling: he knew what dying felt like.

Someone had been with him,

and he had never been alone.

Justin squeezed Clay’s shoulder, not for comfort, but to gauge his reaction. He could feel how tight the muscles were, vibrating with energy that had no outlet, like every part of him was bursting to move, revving up and waiting for the green light. Justin squeezed again, and he was ready, in case Clay reacted badly, poised to deflect any potential swings or strikes or even a harsh uppercut, though he doubted Clay could manage it.

His brother clearly wanted to be the most dominant predator in the room, but Justin saw the truth and Clay wasn’t a threat, he was only hurt—hurt beyond the ability to know what to do with it.

He hooked an arm around Clay’s waist and grabbed the loop of his pants and half-pulled, half-steered him further back onto the bed so there was a greater distance between him and Alex. Clay bent forward over his legs, his spine contorted, his head sagging down, and it might have seemed like defeat to someone else, but Justin knew—at one wrong word—Clay would go back into berserk mode.

You and me, we’re not fit to be around other people.

“Alex, you need to go.” Justin trailed his fingers up and down Clay’s spine, all casual, skipping from one vertebra to the next like it was something they often did for each other, when, really, he worried it would only make Clay cringe. Make him think of Seth, of physical evidence, of Justin getting off to the man who had hurt them.

Clay would never say it, and Justin would never admit it bothered him, but he could think it in the privacy of his own head: Clay wouldn’t have gotten hard. With self-discipline and steely resolve, he wouldn’t have let it happen, wouldn't have blown his load while bleeding out and choking on a gun barrel.

“You’re kicking me out?” Alex’s tone was petulant, and he stomped the floor like he was using his foot as a substitute for his cane. “I don’t know what I did or what the fuck your damage is, but it doesn’t fucking matter! I’ll get you another cup of ice chips, and you can throw it at me. Clay can throw it at me. Throw it at your nurse, I don’t care. Break some shit, yell and scream, pull the tube out of your nose. You think any of this bothers me? I’ve done worse. Get angry, it’s fine with me.”

“Alex– shut up–, fuck–, please shut the fuck up.” Justin couldn’t pay attention to anything but Clay because he was straining forward like he wanted to throw himself on the floor, and he had wrapped his good hand around Justin’s IV line, so if he went down, Justin was going with him (or else there would be a spurt of blood, and Clay would massively freak out and maybe try to kill Alex with the IV pole).

“I think... I think he’s having a panic attack. I don’t– I don’t know what to do.” Justin couldn’t help the note of appeal in his voice when he looked at Alex. “Can you help? Do you know–”

Alex stepped forward. He was unafraid. Alex should have been afraid.

Why wasn’t Justin afraid for him? Because Alex knew. He knew about losing control, about anger, about the kind of volatility that made you hurt the people you wanted to hurt the least.

“Clay,” Alex said steadily. “Listen to me, what do you hear?”

“What?” Clay snapped.

“Name something you hear.” Alex stood near Clay, but to the side, not directly facing him, not towering over him.

“Beeping,” Clay said, and he gulped a desperate breath. “Just beeping. Nonstop beeping. And I hear Justin. He never shuts up either.” Justin wasn’t saying anything, but, whatever, maybe Clay could hear his heart beating, it was as loud as a game buzzer, or two gunshots splitting the air—lub-dub, pop-pop.

Justin could hear Clay’s heart beating, too: a rabbit’s heartbeat, a rabbit terrorized, pursued by a wild dog.

“Okay,” Alex said. “The beeping’s from the telemetry machines and the infusion pumps and the call-button alarms because we’re in a hospital. And Justin talks a lot of crap, that’s normal, too.”

Clay’s shoulders were stiff with misery, but he was listening to Alex, which was encouraging, and he was counting and releasing each breath, the way their stupid family counselor told them to do whenever they got in a shouting match with each other, which was practically every other therapy session.

Clay jerked Justin’s IV line, and it was already stretched to its limit, so Alex redirected his attention with another question. “What do you smell?”

“Gasoline,” Clay said pitifully. “It won’t wash off. I can’t ever get it to wash off.”

“Gasoline?” Alex repeated, after a shocked pause. Justin shook his head, sharp. Don’t ask. Alex didn’t need to know the gruesome details. Like how Clay had almost been turned into a literal burning man. Flambéed in their living room. Charred into fine ash.

Justin hefted his legs over the side of the bed, ignoring the pinpricks, ignoring how the position pulled at his stitches. He needed to get a better view of his brother.

Clay turned towards him. His pupils were blown, the blue eaten away.

“What are you talking about, Clay? There’s no gasoline.” He uncurled Clay’s fingers from his IV line and navigated his hand up to his hair so he could feel for himself. “See? You’re dry.” He brought Clay’s hand back down to rest on his jeans and he re-curled his fingers for him. “Everything’s dry.” Working off of Alex’s example, he prodded Clay, “What do you feel?”

“Denim,” Clay answered slowly. “And–” He raised his hand, and it convulsed and spasmed. “Blood. Your blood. It’s like clotted syrup.”

“Jesus, Clay, no.” He was irritated at his inability to provide comfort, at his failure to become a substitute in this fucked-up game, taking over the offense and the defense. He wasn’t enough, useless, no good, and they were getting it wrong, not doing something right. Maybe he should call Lainie.

Or change tactics.

How did he even know Clay was having a panic attack? He had only seen it happen once before, on the anniversary of Hannah's death, and Matt had ushered him away while Lainie dealt with it. Shouldn’t there be more panic, if it was a panic attack? Shouldn’t it be: YOU ARE IN DANGER, RUN. Clay’s behavior was smaller, and contained; it was more: retreat. endure. survive.

It was funny, how familiar something could look when you had never seen it outside of yourself.

Justin took Clay’s hand, imparting as much strength as he could through the contact. “Clay, look at me. Look at me, and nothing else. I know you’re scared right now, but I’ll keep you safe. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

Clay blinked sluggishly and, in the space between blinks, Justin could see the horrors that prowled on the other side of his eyelids; they were the twins to his own: caked blood and thick fumes; gasoline and gun oil creeping like tentacles down their throats; bones breaking one, two, three, four, five, six, seven; pulses pounding, fear rising. Death waiting for the two of them. Death, denied.

And something stronger than all those things, something that made you fight to survive: my brother, by choice, and brother, chosen.

Survival had once been about self-preservation to Justin. Not anymore. Love was survival.

“Don’t fight it, Clay. Let it hit hard. Let that shit flow through you, and then shove it away. You’re in control, okay? Nothing bad happened to you. All that shit... it happened to someone else, and we just know the details. That’s it. We’re safe. We’re fine. It didn’t happen to us.” Fuck, what was Justin doing to his brother, trying to turn him into a mirror image of himself? He didn’t want Clay to be like him, but he didn’t want him to be like this either—angry and defensive, caged-in and ready to bite, locked into an exhausted, hopeless fear.

Clay was bouncing his foot, sending persistent shudders through them both, but he was leaving the vicinity of disturbed and approaching uneasy. Justin could see faint flickers of defiance, the unshakable determination that made Clay who he was, made him walk into the line of fire and try to right every wrong within earshot, and, at times, made him pick fights for dramatic reasons, just to prove he could.

“You got this,” Justin said, because of course Clay did. “Turn everything off, lock it away. Throw it into a fucking steel vault and seal it off. If stuff pounds against the walls, that’s okay—who the fuck cares?—you’re the only one with the key. And then... just go away somewhere. Someplace safe.”

He hesitated. It was presumptuous of him, to guess the places Clay thought safe, but he took a chance: “Go to the roof of the Crestmont... Tony’s mustang... Our bedroom. You know how, at night, before we turn the lights out, Dad always takes his shower and the hot water heater makes that rumbling sound like a motorcycle and for, like, twenty minutes, everything’s really quiet? And then the neighbor’s dog starts barking because Ms. Henrick takes her cats out for a walk so they can see the moon... Our sheets, they smell like lavender, from the fabric softener Mom buys, and they’re always clean, and warm. And you’ve got all your drawings on the walls and they’re fucking amazing, way better than any of that shit hanging at Monet’s, which is good because they’re the last things we see before we go to sleep... other than each other, I guess. Go back there, Clay. Back to where it’s safe.”

Clay breathed, not a full breath, or a breath without pain, but an orderly inhale—rigid and disciplined, like Clay was. He curled his hand possessively around Justin’s knee and tracked his eyes away until he was staring fixedly at a point on the wall. There was fear sweat beading at his temples, so Justin used the palm of his hand as a towel and wiped it off and then smeared the grime into his hospital gown. He did it five times, until there was no moisture at all, nothing to remind Clay of gasoline.

He finished with a long, smoothing sweep from Clay’s forehead to the nape of his neck, for no particular reason, except he vaguely remembered his mother doing that for him when he was little. “You did good, okay? You’re alright. Take it easy, and stay away from here for a while. Everything’s okay.”

Clay, eyes glassed-over, didn’t react to his touch. He had removed himself, and it was not a smooth removal—he had not mastered it yet—but it was effective. He had checked out. He was not there with them, anymore.

With them. Shit.

With a snap of his head, Justin turned his attention back to Alex, who had a puzzling curl to his lips, a softness to his eyes. The way Alex was looking at Justin... fuck, he was looking at him the way Matt and Lainie sometimes did, the way they had done the day of his adoption. Like he wasn’t an inconvenience. Like he wasn’t just a temporary amusement. Like he didn’t have any debts towards them.

Like he was wanted.

Worthy.

How fucking awkward was it going to be to ask Alex to leave again? They were better when they worked together, when they helped each other, but Clay was too overloaded in his head. He needed isolation—not from germs, but from people. The non-stop beeping was already driving him crazy, and his own thoughts were probably noise enough for him.

Justin wished he could silence the world for Clay and replace it with the snow-cold sound of nothing at all. Give him peace.

As if reading his mind, Alex went over to the window ledge and returned with Clay’s noise-canceling headphones. He stepped up to them and brushed his hand along Clay’s good arm. “You were there for me, Clay, a year ago, and I think I was a dick to you, more often than I was kind, and, yeah, you were sorta a dick to me just now, but... FML forever, okay? It’s my turn, and I’m here for you. Even if you throw ice at me, or have a meltdown, or get over-protective of Justin—which I kinda understand—but, really, he needs protection from himself more than anything.”

With transparent compassion, Alex slowly placed Clay’s headphones over his ears, giving him plenty of time to stop the action or refuse it. But Clay was no longer processing the real world. He was gazing at something a galaxy away, a waking dream.

Alex stayed there, quiet and still, his hand on Clay’s arm. He was more than entitled to a little bitterness after what had gone down, but there wasn’t even a trace of accusation.

Only friendship and love.

“I’ll go.” Alex pulled back. “I think he needs you to be here with him. Not me. Not us. Just you. You’re his safe place.” He turned and retreated quickly and he was almost at the door and it was almost too late.

“Alex, hold up a sec.”

“Yeah?”

“You givin’ me your phone, or what?” Justin held it up and shook it, and the earbuds dangled down, swinging in mid-air, nothing but two disentangled, divided wires. He could still hear the music, indistinctly—synthesizer riffs and broken beats.

Alex came to retrieve it, and Justin thought he played it okay when they made the hand-off, but there was a heat burning in his cheeks. He should be embarrassed, shouldn’t he? For freaking out on Alex, over nothing. For thinking of that when Alex had barely pressed up against him. Everything had been going so well, but Seth had corrupted it, and Justin could still feel hands on him, unwanted hands in unwanted places, and it was the pain that could not be endured—the pain of being touched as a conquest, the wretchedness of being held down for someone’s sadistic enjoyment.

It was Jess’s pain.

She had thought of Bryce, sometimes, when Justin had made love to her. She’d had boundaries. She’d had triggers. It hadn’t been her fault.

But there was a fundamental difference between her and him: A despicable act of cowardice, and also, what was the term? Masochism.

Alex had already dismissed what had happened, like he was okay with it, but Justin sure as fuck wasn’t. He felt like such an asshole. He had splintered, become cut off, and detached, from his body, and his involuntary reaction—the mistrust in it, the fear—must have turned Alex off. It must have.

Well, two fucking tears in a bucket, it wasn’t an excuse for Justin to act shitty, to hurt Alex and push him away, for the billionth time. They were still friends, and he didn’t want him to leave if they were on bad terms.

He was trying to change, to be better. I’m trying, he attempted to say, with his eyes. He started to ask, with his lips and teeth and tongue, Call me later? But that was what he had asked Alex the last time he had seen him. Alex had called and called, and Justin had never answered. He had been too busy dying on the living room floor.

The unanswered phone call felt like a broken promise.

So, Justin asked, “Can I call you later?”

“I won’t sit around waiting for you to call,” Alex said, hugging his arms against his chest.

Justin tried to sound like he didn’t care — what right did he have to care? — and he muttered, “Cool, whatever. Gotta keep it player, I get it–”

Alex cut him off, “Let’s not wait.” The sudden fire in his eyes was a dangerous dare, different from his typical edged sarcasm. “We don’t have to rush it, but let’s not wait.” He cockily raised his eyebrow, and it was completely unlike Alex, and also exactly like him.

“Waiting was a stupid idea. I’ve kinda had a thing for you, since forever.”

“Same. You have no idea what you do to me. It’s unlawful, really.” Alex paused and then winced, like he was having his stomach thing again. “Try not to die, okay?”

“I will—I mean, I won’t, shit, you know what I mean.” He offered an apologetic grimace and absentmindedly patted Clay’s hand where it rested on his knee. “Alex... That day when you pulled me off Clay’s bed, with the heroin? I remember. I’ll always remember. And I heard what you said.”

Alex nodded, his hand clutching at the back of his neck. “Call me whenever. I mean it, whenever. I’ll pick up, I’ll be there. Not waiting. I’ll just... be there. Differently, though, than before. If you want...?”

“I do,” Justin said, as quickly as he could, as if the acceptance hadn’t been hard won. He didn’t want to screw things up with too much talking, or too much thinking. He wished he had thought to hug Alex in all the chaos.

Alex relaxed, and as soon as their eyes met, he smiled. “Yeah? You won’t spin me out? I can’t take you changing the way you feel about me every single day.”

Alex would hold him to a high standard, wouldn’t take shitty excuses, or any of his bullshit. It would be a challenge, and maybe that had been the issue with his past relationships: He had coasted through them, without putting in the work.

Let’s not wait. The timing was weird, but, given their lives, when would it ever be right? Even if there was a better-than-good chance it could go sideways, if Justin tilted into the turns, it wouldn’t matter so much, would it? He wanted to follow this thing through, regardless of where it took them.

“I’ll call,” Justin promised. It was a yes. A commitment, his first one since Jessica. “We can figure it out, plan our first date. It has to be fucking epic.”

“As long as it’s with you, I don’t need epic. Quiet’s good. Better, actually. And you can even invite Clay, if you need moral support.”

“Funny.”

“Tell Clay I hope he feels better. Call me.” Alex left, with a backward glance that lingered, and there was a slight swooping in Justin’s stomach, which was not nausea. He wanted to rest in the aftershocks of rekindled hope, but reality beckoned, oppressive and stifling... and meaningful.

Alex was a world of wishes, a temporary shelter.

Clay was permanent, home.

Justin flopped backwards onto the bed, and the impact felt like impaling himself on red-hot pokers. His body was crashing, scolding him for all the abuse he had just put it through. He embraced the pain and waited for his brother to return. Clay hadn’t gone far; he kept surfacing every few minutes, disoriented, to check to see if Justin was still there. Dumbass. Where else would I be?

Eventually, Clay scooted over and he placed his hand on Justin’s abdomen, an unambiguous gesture, which, for them, had come to mean, I love you, although if Justin was being cynical and thinking of Bryce, it could also mean, I saved you, so you owe me. It was Clay, though, so it would always mean: I love you.

The position of Clay over him was similar to what Alex had done, to what Seth had done, but because it was Clay, Justin didn’t slide back into the past. Clay invaded him in a way that felt like a refuge, and a shield.

“I don’t wanna be like this,” Clay said, in a low, miserable murmur. “I think I’m gonna hurt someone.”

Justin blew out an unconcerned spit bubble. “Alex knew you wouldn’t hurt him. That’s why he didn’t move.”

He didn’t know who he was trying to convince, himself or Clay. The truth was, Alex didn’t shrink away from potential violence—he even incited it, on occasion—and there had been something sinister in the way Clay had raised that cup of ice... sinister in its concentration of narrowed and hostile willpower. And all in defense of him. Justin had never wanted to inspire that kind of reaction in Clay, but, at the same time, it was kind of the shit to be thought worthy of it, and he strangely appreciated it.

For want of something to do, and to give them both a distraction, he removed Clay’s headphones for him and laid them on the bed, keeping them within reach in case they were needed again.

Clay chewed at the corner of his mouth. “I don’t feel the same anymore, Justin. Seth did something to me, inside, where they can’t see. And– I– I think I’m losing my shit.”

“You’re not,” Justin said forcefully. “You’re the same, Clay. I know who you are.” He looked at his stomach, at the hand Clay had used to save him—the finger that had pulled the trigger, the palm that had applied the pressure to staunch the bleeding. “You’re a good person, and Seth couldn’t touch you, he never could. Maybe you need help, but, so what, there’s nothing wrong with that, and it doesn’t make you crazy, or dangerous. Don’t say dumb things. You’re top shit, okay? Top shit.”

“I’m top shit?” Clay repeated it like it was the stupidest thing he had ever heard and he looked at him, in a very Clay way. “You need to widen your vocabulary.”

“You’re top shit,” Justin said again because he liked to annoy him, and he figured Clay could use some annoying right now. “You’re too hard on yourself, no one expects you to be a fucking saint. It’s okay to let it out, you have every reason, just, maybe– I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but don’t try to kill people, maybe?”

“I killed someone,” Clay said, and he sounded shocked about it. Like he’d gotten drunk and blacked out and it was the next evening and the memory had slammed back into him like a punch.

Yeah, dipshit, I know.

Justin shrugged. “Seth deserved it. He fucking doused you in gasoline. He would’ve set you on fire.” And so much worse, Clay, you don’t even know. He would’ve made you pay, in place of me. “Look– it wasn’t only you who killed him. Any blood on your hands is blood on mine. And I say: Seth was a prick and a cock and when I’m better, we should go piss on his grave.”

“And get arrested for grave desecration? Sounds great.” Clay gave him a fleeting smile and then, solemnly, he asked, “Am I freaking you out?”

“Why would you freak me out?”

“Um, I don’t know, maybe because I attacked Alex, and everyone pisses me off, and I know how easy it is to kill someone now and I could draw a diagram of how to do it or publish a graphic novel, ‘Murder: Step By Step,’ which everyone in this stupid fucking town would buy, and... I liked it. I liked killing him. The feeling of power and knowing because of me, because of what I did, Seth will never abuse another woman, or hurt another kid, and he won’t come after us. He can’t, because I stopped him. I liked it–”

“No,” Justin said.

“No?”

“Just, no.” Justin shifted Clay’s hand to a different spot on his stomach, with no real intent, just as a reassurance for him. “You didn’t turn into a serial killer, or develop a murder lust, and I’m pretty sure you didn’t get bitten by a zombie, so you’re not gonna start tearing people’s throats out, okay? You haven’t changed at all—you’re as dumb as ever—and I’m not freaked.”

There was a tightening as Clay dug his fingers into Justin’s stomach and although the action was unconscious and unintentional, it felt like safety. He didn’t know anyone else who could communicate through pain the way they did. He dug his fingers into Clay’s hand, repaying the favor, leaving little crescent marks behind.

Clay’s pupils were no longer dilated, and his eyes were back to their usual blue—a peaceful color, soothing, like the ocean. “The way you’re feeling,” Justin said slowly, “it’s because you’re not taking care of yourself. You don’t sleep enough, hardly at all, really, and you– you need to be alone sometimes, right?”

Clay nodded absently and stared at Justin’s stomach with single-mindedness, like it was spewing out blood and he was trying to calculate, using math and shit, the necessary force to make it stop.

Justin used Clay’s arm to work himself back upright, so Clay didn’t work himself back into a tizzy. “You don’t do well when you’re constantly surrounded by people ‘cause you’re an... an introvert? I’m not wired that way, but you are, which is fucking awesome, and it’s why you need a break sometimes, to recharge and relax. You need to take your anxiety meds, and you need to sleep, and you need alone time—not ‘alone time’ in that way—but alone time to read or draw or play those boring MMO grindfests, whatever it is you like to do.”

“Maybe...” Clay didn’t sound like he believed him, but he did take his eyes off Justin’s stomach, which was a start.

“Not maybe. Yes.” Justin gathered him into a hug, taking special care with all the painful places, and he breathed audibly so Clay would match the rhythm and take the deep inhales he needed to keep moisture and fluid from building up in his lungs. They kept perfect time, and, for Justin, it was a starved embrace, but he could sense Clay’s reluctance to prolong the contact, so he released him, and he didn’t allow himself to be hurt by it. He hung back, not touching, and gave Clay stern instructions like Lainie would. “Don’t stop breathing like that. Count to five each time you inhale.”

After their impromptu respiratory therapy session, Justin ran his hand over Clay’s hair because it was sticky with sweat and plastered against his forehead. Maybe it didn’t matter, maybe it would draw attention to the dampness rather than make it less offensive, but he toweled Clay’s hair off with the edge of his sheets. It was gross, but it was Clay’s grossness so it wasn’t any worse than his own, and, besides, Justin had a high threshold for it. He had grown up in moldy, pest-ridden apartments, sweated through countless sheets during detox, made his home next to dumpsters in Oakland, and once, in the city, after days without food or sleep, he had wandered into a drug den and traded sex for heroin.

He had hated it and he had vowed never to do it again... until a man lurking outside a packed homeless shelter had offered him a job where he could “get tips” and “a place to stay, rent-free.” Justin had accepted: the job was sex, the rent was his body, and, just like that, he was whoring himself out to get high, or to sleep in a motel room with a locked door, or even to be looked at with kindness and pity and told, You’re way too young for this, kid. I can tell you're not 18. Do you need help? He had needed help. He had admitted it, and that well-dressed businessman had bought him dinner and a t-shirt and brought him up to a hotel room and let him shave and shower. But he had fucked him after, and he hadn’t been gentle, and the words he had spat at him while he fucked him had made it clear—he wasn’t really offering help; it was all just a sick sexual fantasy, and Justin was just a pretty whore.

At least he had paid well.

Seth hadn’t known it, but he hadn’t been at all wrong when he’d called Justin a needy whore. And Bryce hadn’t been too far off the mark either when he’d called Justin a white trash piece of shit. He wasn’t always, but, sometimes, he had been.

The Jensens had wanted him anyway.

Unsure, Justin asked, “Do you wanna be alone?”

“I am alone,” Clay said, disagreeably.

Justin didn’t know if that was some philosophical bullshit or if Clay had forgotten how to count—he was pretty sure two people didn’t count as being alone. Maybe it was code for get the fuck out of here. Well, shit, Justin couldn’t leave his own hospital room. His nurse, Mike, adored him, but he had a sixth sense for rule breaking, and Lainie might have instructed him to hide a tracking device on Justin’s IV pole.

“Do you want to go be alone, like, somewhere else?”

“Where would we go?” Clay asked dryly. “The bathroom?”

We. Justin liked Clay’s definition of alone—for them, it could mean two people... if the two people were them.

“Hey, swing your legs onto the bed.” Clay did so mechanically and Justin began to untie Clay’s shoelaces, a difficult task because Lainie had tripled-knotted them and they were stubbornly tight.

Clay watched him struggle, and—big fucking surprise—he couldn’t resist giving his commentary. “Dude, they’re shoes. You’re not defusing a bomb.”

Justin gave him the finger. “I know how to tie a tie, and how to unknot a knot.”

He was saved from looking like an idiot and proving his words untrue when a phlebotomist bustled into the room, greedy for yet another vial of his blood. Justin tried to convince her to take Clay’s blood instead—they were brothers, it had to be good enough—but his pleading eyes were a no-go with her. They were effective enough to win her over to his fan club and he sweet-talked her into giving Clay a sticker, which irritated Clay and made him say smart, ill-tempered things, and, in no time, Rashida came to adore Clay, too.

Rashida cleaned up the ice chips for them, and Justin finished removing Clay’s shoes, by brute force, and tossed them onto the nearest chair. Clay was wearing mismatched socks, which was a glaring distress sign because he was such a freak for, not cleanliness, exactly, but order and structure.

Clay began picking at the quicks of his nails and it was probably because he couldn’t get the blood off, and Justin swore he could see it, too—red fingertips and splintered bones.

He wanted to say, I’m sorry.

But he had said it too many times already.

He wanted to demand, Why won’t you fucking blame me? I want you to blame me!

But he already knew why Clay wouldn’t.

He wanted to ask, How can you stand to touch me at all, knowing...?

But he was too afraid.

Clay swung his legs over to the floor and started to edge himself off the bed, his bones creaking and cracking, and Justin decided to say the stupidest thing of all. “Stay here with me. On the bed.” He said it too loud, too quick.

Clay froze and, for a split second, he actually looked ready to take him up on the offer. Then he resolutely shook his head, no.

Justin registered his request sounded a fuck lot like neediness on his part, and to say more would cement it.

What the fuck, he said more, “It’s because of Seth, isn’t it? Why you won’t– why you’re acting weird... It’s because you saw–” He could practically taste the gun oil again, and he could feel Seth smearing Clay’s blood all over his face, before his hand drifted down, to smear it elsewhere.

Clay glanced at him sharply—no, not at him, at a particular part of him—and, just like that, Justin was overtaken and reduced to nothing. He hated being so easily affected by what Clay thought of him; it had once been Bryce whose opinion reigned supreme, and now it was Clay.

“I don’t–” Clay started, and then paused. He cleared his throat, and after a tortured silence said, “I don’t wanna make it worse.”

“Make what worse?” Justin meant to say it lightly, but it came out wrong—broken and scared, like he was a little boy again, a little boy who shouldn’t have cried after his mom’s boyfriend forced him over his knee.

“Well...” Clay began, “With Dad, and then Zach, and now Alex... It’s like you’re flashing back to– back to that night. Or, other times, you act like we’re disgusted to touch you. Or to look at you.” His head snapped up, and he grimaced. “Fuck, I don’t mean you are disgusting. No one thinks that, except for you, and you shouldn’t! Because we would never—and if you feel that way, about yourself, it’s not okay. You can’t internalize that shit.”

Clay pulled his legs back onto the bed and crossed them beneath him. “I’m not trying to be weird, Justin, it’s just– you tremble or flinch, sometimes, if we get too close to you.”

I do? Justin shook his head in firm denial. “I don’t.”

“You kinda do. We all see it. We don’t talk about it, but we see it.” There was a heavy hesitation. Justin didn’t like it. Clay rarely hesitated when speaking to him. He usually had fifty million complaints, and he didn’t do anything by halves.

Apprehensive, Justin looked into Clay’s eyes, and there was nothing there but the most maddening sincerity.

“When you got sick with Zach and you yanked your tube out, I– fuck, I wanted to fix it for you, but I couldn’t. I was helpless—just like I was with Seth, and I don’t want you to have to relive any of it... or to think about it, if you’d rather pretend it didn’t happen.” Clay rubbed at his face and he kept rubbing at it, and it was fucking nasty—the way he was doing it. A distressing suspicion spread its roots in Justin’s mind. He wanted to slap Clay’s hand down and snap, Stop doing that! Because what the actual fuck?

Thankfully, Clay stopped himself, shifting guiltily with a lingering red tint to his cheeks. “I know you want to leave it all behind, and that’s cool, that’s your choice, but sometimes you aren’t given a choice and your head keeps forcing you back there. And I’m sorry—I’m sorry you’re suffering for it, suffering because of us. I know my being close bothers you, and—and I’m trying to keep the lines demarcated, use an extra degree of conservatism, like, personal space-wise.” He lowered his head and his voice was thin and brittle as he said quietly, “I don’t wanna hurt you, too.”

Fuck.

It was the blow that came not as a fist, but as a kindness. Such sweet kindness, piercing deep, like two 9mm bullets. The back of Justin’s throat ached, like it had been ground down with sandpaper. He tasted blood, and he couldn’t be sure if the taste was old or new.

Stuck in this tiny room, with Clay as his cellmate, he had somehow built up miles and miles of walls and wrapped his body in barbed wire. Clay had never once been rejecting him, but Justin had made himself feel rejected.

“Shit, Clay, I–” His voice caught. “I’m such a fucking idiot.” He touched his fingers to his face, and they felt like a muzzle.

Clay recoiled as if he’d been struck, and Justin tensed automatically, but Clay’s reaction, it wasn’t because of him, it was just because Clay was sitting weird and sometimes his bone snapped out of place, which made the muscles spasm involuntarily. Justin must have really jolted Clay’s arm when he grabbed him earlier. “Do you need meds? What’s your pain?”

“Negative 5,” Clay said with a pointed look. “That’s what you would say, right?”

If Justin rolled his eyes a little, he didn’t really mean it. “Don’t be a jerk. When you’re in pain, my pain’s, like, 1000 out of 10.”

Clay narrowed his eyes. “Why do you have to say things like that? It makes me suspect your motives. Also, by the way, mathematically, that makes no sense. The scale goes from 0 to 10.”

“5000 out of 10, then.” Justin unpeeled Clay’s sticker, a pink and purple unicorn with stars for insides, and stuck it on Clay’s forehead for him. “You have to wear this until we go home.”

Clay snorted, unimpressed, and ungrateful. He flicked Justin on the forehead, without overthinking it, and it felt like going back to being brothers, instead of hospital inmates, or soldiers in a trench.

“Seriously, do you need the good drugs? Lainie left your pills, and I can dispense them because I’m in charge.”

Clay let out a sad exhale, a fragment of sound. “No, I’m good. My arm... it’s more numb than painful most of the time.”

There were so many hidden fears in that statement, so many layers of anxiety. “It’s gonna heal, Clay. You’ll get full function back... don’t fucking make that face, you will! Our parents will take you to every specialist across the country to make sure of it.”

Justin hovered his hand over Clay’s neck, fearful his touch wouldn’t be welcome. “Can I... Can I try to fix it?”

“No.” It was a flat refusal. Clay scowled at his knees, willing to suffer just to be stubborn as shit.

Justin didn’t give up. “The fuck do you mean no? Let me try, okay?” He dropped his hand and pinched the skin of Clay’s neck. “I can help.” He pinched harder.

They stared each other down.

Justin won.

“Fine.” Clay eyed him warily. “But don’t– don’t wrench it. The pressure has to be applied straight down.” Clay clamped his jaw shut, bracing himself for the inevitable pain.

Justin thought he could do a better job than the doctors did; most of them were clinically indifferent to the tortures they inflicted on the daily. He had a tender touch, everyone said so—in the bedroom, mostly—but it wasn’t exclusive to sex. Tenderness was multi-purpose, even if it wasn’t one-size-fits-all. Justin knew Clay’s size, he’d have to, by now.

He gave a bolstering smile and placed one hand on the side of Clay’s arm, gingerly, for support, the other on top of his shoulder. “Start tapping your hand on your leg, like you’re playing the drums, and take a breath—shallow, so your ribs don’t hurt—and then pant, like women do when they’re giving birth.”

Clay shot him a death glare, but, with minimal complaining, he did as instructed.

Justin pushed slowly on the shoulder, feeling out the tension, shaping the muscles and guiding the bone, and with open trust, Clay relaxed and let his arm dangle, and Justin pressed down steadily at various angles until gravity pulled the bone back into alignment with a pop. Clay jerked violently and let out a string of curses, his voice strained, and there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot Justin could do other than try to keep Clay’s shoulder stationary as best he could and talk him through the pain.

It had to fucking suck and he wished it were his arm instead, but he couldn’t take the pain onto himself and Clay wouldn’t let him, even if he could, so he refused to let the guilt consume him, and he touched his fingers softly to Clay’s arm and asked, cautiously, “Is it any better?”

Clay frowned and adjusted his sling. His hand twitched. “It’s,” he said, like that was a complete sentence.

Shit. Justin shouldn’t have tried to do anything. He had fucked it up even more, by trying. “I’m sorry.”

“S’okay.” Clay blew out a long breath, and the lines in his face became less pronounced, and then he actually looked relieved. “It’s better,” he sighed. “A lot, actually. Thank you.”

“Really?”

“The orthopedic doctor—he acts like my arm is silly putty, with no nerve endings, and I hate it, but no one in their office seems to care. I thought you’d be just as bad, to be honest, but... I guess, sometimes, you do all right. Sometimes. Maybe you should be a doctor, or a pediatrician, you’d make big bucks.”

“Nah.” Justin gave a one-sided shrug, not willing to pat himself on the back about it when Clay’s arm wouldn’t even be broken in the first place if it weren’t for him. But he worked those words over in his mind, like a scab, and there was no blood, only a bright splash of blue, which disappeared, gone too soon, gone fuck knew where.

They sat there for a minute, and Clay obstinately peeled the unicorn sticker off his forehead and he stuck it on the back of Justin’s hand and slapped it down. Harshly, with a broad grin. “You have to wear this till Christmas.”

Asshole. But the slap felt better than a hug from Bryce, or a kiss from his mother.

There was a terrific racket in the hallway, a dropped tray or someone running equipment into the wall. To him, it was terrific—he hated the quiet. To Clay, it was probably terrifying—he preferred dead air. He watched Clay to see if his mood would flip again, if his temper would be re-ignited by the sound. Being around him was extreme emotional whiplash.

Clay watched him back, closely, with cold disengagement. “Nothing is solid anymore, or reliable. Except... except for you.”

No one had ever called Justin reliable before. He didn’t know if he liked it.

(Reliance was a good word. It didn’t feel like neediness.)

Justin smiled. Clay did not. So Justin poked him on the cheek. “You don’t always have to keep your shit together, you know. I can be strong for you, too, if you need to fuck things up. Or be a fuck-up.”

He scooted back up the bed and arranged his pillows to make them as cushy as possible, but compacted enough to be supportive for broken ribs. He linked his pinky finger around Clay’s and tugged lightly, easily resistible, not enough to pull him, but enough of a tug for him to understand the offer. “Sit with me. I want you to, it makes me feel, I don’t know, more okay, or something, and I fucked up if I made you think... I’m comfortable with you. You’re the only person I am comfortable with.”

Clay blinked at him. “Why?”

There were a hundred answers to that question, but most of them felt too personal to say out loud.

“Because.” What a stellar fucking follow-up.

“I don’t need your pity,” Clay said, somewhere between cranky and wrung out. “So, if you’re doing this for my benefit–”

“I’m not!” Wanting to help my brother isn’t pity. “We can–” Fuck, Justin was going to regret this. “We can talk.”

“Really talk?” Clay asked, eyes deep and considering, as if searching for a lie.

“Yes.”

“As in: I say words, and then you say words, and when I listen, you don’t stop talking?”

Justin groaned. “Isn’t that what talking means? You need to brush up on your basic vocabulary.”

“I’m serious, Justin. I can’t hold an entire conversation with myself. It’s narcissistic, and I’m not– I’m not narcissistic... am I?”

“No, you’re not.” Justin had no idea what narcissistic meant, but if Clay was worried about it, and it was something bad, then obviously he wasn’t narcissistic. Simple. “You are a control freak, though, and bossy and self-righteous and kind of an ass...”

“Oh my god, shut up. And, yes. I want to talk. Scoot over.” Clay climbed up to join him, and Justin lifted the sheets so he could slide underneath. Clay leaned ever-so-slowly back onto the propped pile of pillows—he must be viciously sore—and then he squashed himself awkwardly against the railing, keeping his elbows tucked in and his legs glued together, stiff and compact, like he was a corpse in a coffin. The bed didn’t quite fit both of them, but Clay was being ridiculous about it. Justin wasn’t asking him to pop his cherry, for fuck’s sake.

“Would you fucking relax?”

Clay’s face became a burning scowl, and Justin had a moment of doubt, and it was set to the pulse of BryceBryceBryceBryce. “Clay, would you... You’d tell me – right? – you’d stop me if you—if you didn’t like something I did? You wouldn’t just accept it, because we’re brothers?”

“You don’t have any influence on me, Justin. If you decided to drive the Prius off a cliff, I wouldn’t sit in the passenger seat.”

I would, if you were driving.

Clay sighed. “You’re not going to lose me, okay? I’m not your car keys. I commit, but that doesn’t mean I won’t tell you when you’re being an ass. You get my opinion, whether you want it or not.”

“Good.” Justin hooked his foot over Clay’s socks, one red, one grey. “Then relax, wouldja? I’m not gonna flashback to Seth. There’s nothing about you that reminds me of him.” To prove it, he sprawled out, as if it were a king-size bed, but he stayed attuned to Clay’s body language and moved like a sloth, all slow and measured, checking and rechecking, and triple checking, for any sign of discomfort, for any boundaries he shouldn’t cross.

He didn’t want to be like Seth, or like Bryce.

Clay shifted an inch to the right, and he had a mid-life crisis about it but he finally eased the rest of the way over and allowed their thighs and elbows to meet and they were close, but not too close; the exact right distance away from each other, yet barely apart.

“This okay?” Clay plucked at the sleeve of Justin’s hospital gown. “Be honest.”

Justin dug his teeth into his lip, fully expecting his body to decide to fuck with him. Seconds passed, and then a minute. He hummed his acknowledgment and relaxed a fraction, but when he felt Clay’s breath ghost over the exposed skin of his neck, faint nausea rolled in his stomach—his tongue was weighted down, his jaw ached, his jeans were ripped open—and he wanted to cry.

Not Clay, too.

Clay gazed at him with worried eyes, looking as desperate and sickened as Justin felt. It’s okay. Calm down. It’s okay. Calm the fuck down. He repeated the words over and over and he tried not to tense up or flinch or pull away because this felt like a test, and if he failed it, Clay might leave and he didn’t want him to leave. He wanted to be touched, kindly, and Seth had made him untouchable, and he wasn’t terrified of his fucking family, even if his body sometimes needed a break.

A time-out.

His heart was pounding, and his breath was hitching in his chest, and Clay knew, and it hurt, for Clay to know—for him to know everything, everything wrong and twisted about him.

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” Clay tapped him on the stomach, once, twice (“Breathe, Justin”) and then elbowed him in the ribs, and he did it again, which was rude, and it stole Justin’s focus away from everything but how fucking annoying his brother was... and it was a primal reassurance, a comfort no one else could provide, and it was okay. Okay, for real.

“You’re such a shit.” Justin draped the blankets around them, so they wouldn’t get cold. “Uhh, I’m so goddamn tired. But, gimme a minute, we can still talk. Unless... you wanna take a nap?”

“No, Justin. I do not want to take a nap.” Clay let out an indignant sniff. “And, if you want to read my new comics, you have to at least try to miss my face if you feel like you’re gonna puke again.” Clay gave him a holier-than-thou look, which was unwarranted because Clay had vomited all over him multiple times in the past few days, usually after staring at him like a creep for ten minutes. Justin didn’t like what that implied.

“If I do start to puke, will you pull my tube out for me?”

Clay huffed. “I wouldn’t touch it if I had five pairs of gloves on. Fucking disgusting.”

Justin smiled and bumped his head back against his pillow because he knew Clay would. He wouldn’t hesitate, and he would get it over with quickly, but he would still be gentle about it. Aggressively gentle. And then he would complain about it for months afterward, but never in a way that made Justin feel less.

He settled in, content that Clay was near, that Clay wanted to be near. Unlike with Alex, there was nothing tentative or first-date fragile in the space between them. He could smell Clay’s tea tree aftershave and his dank perspiration and a strong whiff of sandalwood shampoo and dirty socks, with a hint of peppermint toothpaste—scents he spent so much time alongside it was impressive he could notice them at all.

They were the scents of home.

While Justin liked their house and he wanted to go back for Clay and Matt and Lainie because he thought they loved it and that meant he loved it too, home had never really been a place to him. It still wasn’t. But it had come to mean people, a person, this person, whose bony elbow was a familiar poke in his side and whose smell was mildly objectionable, but wonderfully so, because it matched his own.

He had been wrong. Alex wasn’t his first commitment since Jessica, and Jess had never really been a commitment at all. If she had, Justin would have protected her, would have told her the truth, would have prioritized her safety and wellbeing over receiving handouts from an entitled rapist asshole, who had never been Justin’s family, although he liked to claim he was.

He guessed it was sad—so fucking sad—that it had taken him 17 years to learn how to have a meaningful and committed relationship with someone.

But it also felt right, that his first ever commitment was to Clay.

Chapter Text

It was just a talk—they could handle it.

Of course, talking was never just talking with Clay.

Sometimes it was like being on trial, Justin’s words stockpiled as ammunition to be used against him later. Sometimes it was like being in class and having none of the correct answers. Other times, it was like messing around with Zach, no-foul teasing, lighthearted ribbing. But, these days, more often than not, it was like having a discussion with a mirror.

A very chatty mirror.

“I don’t—I don’t know how to start.”

Clay picked up the stress ball from the table and passed it to him. “You don’t know how to put words together syntactically or...”

“No, dumbass.” Justin bounced the ball off Clay’s head and caught it. “I don’t know where to start. What do you want to talk about?”

A small part of him hoped Clay would give him an out, call it a day, close his eyes and take a nap, but, instead, Clay skipped the shallows and dived straight off the deep end: “Did Seth ever do that kind of shit to you before?”

Justin squeezed the stress ball, tighter, tighter, imagining it was Seth’s skull. “What? Fuck my mouth with a deadly weapon?”

“Jesus, Justin.” Clay made a face. “Why does everything have to be a joke with you?”

A joke? How could it be a joke when it had actually happened? “The fuck do you mean then?” he asked, trying not to be snippy about it.

“Uh, anything like that...”

Clay wasn’t usually so vague, which meant he was trying to tread carefully, to ask without asking. No coarse, provocative language, but plenty of hard-hitting, personal questions. Justin wished he’d just push and be direct. “Are you asking me if he ever tried to have sex with me?”

“Have sex?” Clay gave him a look that was hard to decipher, it was almost scolding, definitely disapproving. “Are you for real? I meant: Did he ever abuse you? Sexually abuse you.”

“No, not him. Seth—that’s what he had my mom for, and she liked it.”

“Oh,” Clay said.

“Yeah, oh.” Not him. Justin hadn’t meant to be so careless in his phrasing, but he had said it, and he was not going to try to take it back. Clay didn’t seem to notice; it was yet another example of how seriously off his game he was. Normally, he’d be all over that shit.

Clay hugged a pillow against his chest, the way he was supposed to do when he coughed, the way he wasn’t supposed to do while wearing his sling (it was a lose-lose situation). After a minute of hopeless adjustment, he let the pillow fall disconsolately. “Was that what it was like for you growing up? Being terrified all the time, not knowing why it was happening, feeling like you were gonna piss yourself out of fear?”

Justin wanted to reach over and hug Clay, in a different way than they had hugged before. Protective this time, and not clingy. He also wanted to put his hand over Clay’s mouth and beg him, please don’t tell me what it was like for you that night, please don’t, I can’t–. “No,” he said loudly, coolly, tossing the ball back into Clay’s lap, falling into an instinctive rhythm. “It was never like that.”

He hoped their conversation wasn’t going to turn into Twenty Questions. Every question seemed to be taking a physical toll, and Clay had already been treated like a human piñata.

No such luck.

“How’d you get Seth’s gun?”

“I don’t remember.”

Clay narrowed his eyes. “You don’t remember, or you don’t wanna say?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Do you remember the ambulance ride?” Clay tossed the ball up and over, Justin bumped it mid-air with his index finger, sending it right back down to Clay’s waiting hand. Alley-oop.

“I guess I... I just remember you sitting with me, telling me not to die, holding my hand, and then—nothing.”

Clay hunched in on himself, fragile emotions hemorrhaging out of him, black and blue. “Do you ever think... about what Seth would’ve done to you if you’d gone with him?”

“Nope.”

“I do.” Clay jabbed his finger into the stress ball, using so much force that he punctured the surface and ripped a humongous hole.

Justin snatched it away. “Dude, this is our only toy, why you gotta fuck it up?”

He flipped it around, inspecting the damage. Oh, what the hell. It was only a dumb ball. He plucked some of the white foam rubber from the center with his thumb and middle finger, fucking it up even further. His destructive action seemed to satisfy Clay, which satisfied Justin.

There was a natural follow-up question. Justin asked it: “Do you ever think about what Seth would’ve done to you after he—finished with me?”

“Yes,” Clay admitted. “But at that point, I don’t think I would’ve even cared anymore. I would’ve just wanted it to be over.” He blinked his eyes, and there was a single tear. Lonely, without friends. Justin watched it slide down. “With you gone, it would’ve just felt like... like I was already dead.”

Tape 12.

There was a raging fire licking at Justin’s skin, a white-hot sizzle, so he spun the ball on his chest, trying to hide his trembling hand. “I’m really fucking sorry. My shit-ass life, the people I’ve pissed off... I made you a part of it.”

Clay studied him critically, his face twisted and unhappy. “You didn’t make me a part of it. I chose to be part of it. And it was a good choice, given that you’re such a self-sacrificial asshole. Not fighting back, offering to kill yourself, or to– to whore yourself out, what the fuck was that? Seth could’ve flipped you over and ra–” Clay bit the word off. “And you would’ve let him do it! It was like you expected me to passively sit there and watch you barter your life away! Why the fuck would you give Seth exactly what he wanted?”

“You know why. C’mon, Clay, you know.” Clay was frowning and shaking his head, like this was some convoluted SAT practice question. “I did it for you! Okay? For you.

“No,” Clay said coldly. “You didn’t.”

One minute. That was all Justin ever got. One minute, before he smelled burnt flesh, before he heard bones snapping. “You’ve gotta believe me, man, I would’ve said no, about the adoption, if I had known Seth—”

“Don’t you dare fucking say it,” Clay said, gentle and angry. A tone which said, shut up, but an underlying waver which said, please i need you. “Don’t act like my life matters more than yours. Don’t act like we’d be better off without you. You’re a jerk—for even thinking it. Mom and Dad would’ve offered to take you in, no matter what, even if Amber was still around, even if Seth threatened them first. It would’ve made them twice as committed, believe me. And I know the legal paperwork says August, but they adopted you that very first week. So did I, okay? So, stop. Stop. It fucking hurt, what you did.”

Justin swallowed, hard and dry. His throat might be permanently fucked—the tube threaded into his stomach was a thorny vine, a penetration that never ended. His mouth might be permanently fucked—the nicks on his tongue were tiny splinters, embedded deep. But there didn’t seem to be any action, any mistake, that would permanently fuck up his relationship with Clay. No burned bridges. No end of the line.

Which was why the answer to all the unanswered questions was a name, four letters.

How had he gotten the gun from Seth? Because Clay had needed him to. How wasn’t important.

Had his childhood ever been that bad? No. Because he had never had someone he so desperately wanted to protect. Someone whose life was used against him to bring him to heel.

Why had he offered to kill himself? Because he would’ve done anything so that Clay could’ve walked out of their house, safe. Splashed himself with gasoline, lit his clothes on fire, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, got on his knees, for all three men, any combination, any request.

The only hiccup: Seth hadn’t been willing to deal.

“Listen,” Clay said, his voice softer. “I know you feel guilty, so I’ll say it, one time only, because I think you need to hear it: I forgive you. Forgiven, okay? Done. But it wasn’t your fault, and I’m not gonna blame you, I won’t, Justin, I won’t. That night was the worst fucking night of my life, but if I could go back, I’d do it again. I’d still charge Shane and get the shit beat out of me... my arm, my fingers, the gasoline, all of it, because it’ll never hurt less, but it could’ve hurt a whole fucking lot more than it did.”

The words battered at Justin, an invasion of sound, filled with something important. “How could it have hurt more?” he asked quietly.

“If you had left with Seth! If he had tortured you while you were alone and scared and then dumped your body somewhere, like you didn’t matter, like you didn’t mean anything to our family. Like you didn’t mean anything to me!”

Clay fell quiet but he wasn’t silent: he was fuming, gnashing his teeth, huffing out pockets of air, suffering from a severe lack of sleep and an equally severe lack of people to kill.

He was a complete mess, but at least he was honest about it. Justin lied about telling lies. He heard Alex’s voice in his head, encouraging him, You’d probably feel better if you admitted you’re a mess, too.

“Clay...” His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He unstuck it. “I wanna tell you something, but I don’t want you to make it into this big thing, me telling you.”

“Okay,” Clay said, becoming still, fixing him with a benevolent look, full of unspecific curiosity. “You can tell me anything, you know that.”

You say that now...

“Growing up,” Justin told him, focusing on the framed family photo sitting on the far table, “it was never as bad as that night, because you got hurt and that was hell for me, man, but some nights, when I was little, it was bad. Not all of my mom’s boyfriends were as violent as Seth, but some... some were worse. It got—rough, sometimes. No one ever knew. Or cared.”

He paused, picking his way through it. “Even if my mom saw... it was like she wasn’t even there. She wouldn’t intervene, she wouldn’t call the cops. Maybe because she was afraid, maybe because she didn’t want me put into foster care, like she was, maybe because she couldn’t, I don’t know.” Clay sat patiently, waiting for him to continue. “But, with Seth... it’s selfish and shitty, but, having you there, it was the first time anyone ever helped me. The first time anyone ever—felt my pain.”

“I felt it,” Clay confirmed, turning his head away, clearly struggling to hold himself together, like breaking apart was an indulgence he couldn’t afford. “A lot of people would’ve helped you, though, not just me. Then and now. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I do.” Pushing past the discomfort, and gaining courage from the fact that Clay was no longer looking at him, Justin let the words emerge, as an offering: “Seth never fucked with me, that was the truth, but when I was on the streets... I did some real stupid shit for money.”

He steeled himself for Clay’s reaction, a lost, queasy feeling wiping away everything else, because this wasn’t how he usually did things. He buried shit like this, way deep; he didn’t share it.

Clay was slow on the uptake. “What does that mean? You stole stuff?”

“No, more like... I sold stuff.”

“Drugs?”

“Not drugs.” Jesus, Clay, don’t make me say it. The confession settled in, torturously slow, and Justin knew the exact moment that realization hit because Clay became as twitchy as an addict who had just gotten mad sketched out doing lines at a crackhouse.

“It was my choice,” Justin said in a rush, because he thought that was probably important—for Clay to know it was consensual, “and I don’t wanna talk about it, not here, but you deserve to know: I... I did things, with guys, a lot of guys, and it wasn’t– it wasn’t always clean, or safe. Or vanilla. So the thing with the gun in my mouth, it’s not—it’s not gonna keep me up at night, okay?”

“Fuck, Justin,” Clay whispered, bringing his fist to his cheek, licking his lips, slowly blinking his eyes, acting like he was trying to process it, but also acting like it was something he couldn’t ever process. “That’s—fuck. How does that make it any better?” He looked rattled—betrayed, but Clay always came through when he thought someone else was in crisis and he calmed, his voice becoming studiously steady, that special level spot on the seesaw where you could sit without getting flung up and thrown back down.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry that you felt you had to do something like that to survive, that you thought you couldn’t talk to me about it... and I’m glad you told me, I really am, but, Jesus, you don’t owe me anything. I wanna hear about your past, I wanna know you, actually know you—because we’ve missed out on so much of each other’s lives and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do—but that doesn’t mean you have to talk about traumatic stuff like it’s some kind of obligation. You never have to tell me anything that hurts you to tell.”

“I do, though.”

“No,” Clay rebuked, “you don’t. Why do you think you have to? Not–” His voice wavered. “Not because I asked you to talk, right? Not because...” Something tricky played in Clay’s eyes. “It wasn’t an order—I wasn’t trying to force you to do anything! I’m not Bryce!”

“I–I know.” Justin trusted Clay, and if Clay said to do something, then it seemed a good thing to do. Why was he getting so worked up about it, when usually he blew his lid about Justin not listening to him?

“I push, sometimes, but it’s only because I want to help. And Seth... the—the whole ‘thing’ with the gun...” Clay choked in a breath, a greedy inhalation, the kind you did after a violent hand closed off your throat. “Selling yourself on the street doesn’t make what he did okay. At all. Not in the slightest. It was fucked up. Just. Fucked up. He– he shoved that gun into your mouth after he shot you with it. And then he pinned you down and assaulted you—in a puddle of your own blood! You’ve got to realize how fucked up that is. Please tell me you do.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t fucked up.” Justin couldn’t think of a goddamn thing to say, other than that.

Clay flicked his eyes downward, to Justin’s lap, to the sheets covering his lap, to what was under the sheets, under his skin. “I wish I could change it,” he said.

“It’s over, you can’t change it.”

Clay leaned to the side, tucked the top of Justin’s gown back up around his shoulder, seemed to remember himself, moved back, then hovered his hand an inch above Justin’s arm, like he was uncertain of what to do. Justin nudged him with his foot and told him what to do. Clay agonized over it for a few moments longer and then he gracelessly dropped his hand on Justin’s stomach and left it there, and it was a stupid comfort—knowing someone wanted to be close to you, wanted to touch you.

The simple brush of a hand was the warmest type of high.

Justin folded his hand around Clay’s, confidently, responsively, his thumb stroking slowly back and forth, making triangles and figure eights. He didn’t speak for a long time, just held on.

Regret kicked in. Then, swiftly after it, self-loathing came pounding at the door. Why the fuck did I pile this on Clay, on top of everything else? He’s one block away from collapsing like a Jenga tower.

He breathed out harshly, feeling Clay’s hand sink down, keeping even pace with his breathing. Maybe that’s what I want. Maybe I want to see Clay’s tower come to ruin. Like mine did.

It wouldn’t take much to jerk that final support out from under him.

Justin slid his hand under Clay’s index finger, gripping it lightly, and even though it was the shittiest possible thing he could’ve done to his injured brother, he pulled back. He expected to be met with resistance, or hysterics, but there was nothing, so Justin stopped well shy of a 90° angle and laid Clay’s finger back down flat.

Pulled it back, let it fall, over and over.

It was a challenge, expressed in the only way he knew how: This is who I am. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.)

Clay shook his head, in his annoyed way, and pursed his lips, unaffected, as if to say: Have at it, I won’t stop you.

The memories this must evoke...

The trust Clay was showing him...

Needing a final confirmation that it wasn’t such a terrible thing to do, that he really could stop himself, that he wasn’t just an abused kid turning into an adult abuser—Justin bent Clay’s finger back a bit further, to a more extreme angle, but still lovingly, still carefully. Never to the point of pain.

Clay let out a frustrated exhale and circled his hand around and under and squeezed Justin’s wrist. “You didn’t break my fingers. Seth did, and he only did it to mess with you. Don’t let him. I know you would destroy yourself, literally destroy yourself, before you let me get hurt. You proved it, you more than proved it. Stop tormenting yourself.”

Easy words. It was hard to follow through—especially when his feelings towards Clay and anyone who tried to hurt him essentially amounted to: I’d rather chop off my arm with a butter knife than watch someone give you a paper cut. There was an English IV vocab term that described that kind of statement, wasn’t there? Hyper-bowl? Well, it wasn’t fucking hyperbole. It was actual, honest truth.

“What do you keep looking at on your phone?” Justin asked, because there was another side to this they hadn’t even scratched the surface of.

Clay fidgeted, which meant Justin was on the right track. “Oh, uh, just texts, messages, you know, from friends.”

“What friends?”

“People at school.”

“Dude, seriously?”

“You sure you wanna know?” Clay asked, a grim warning in his tone.

“If something’s bothering you, or someone is fucking with you, then yeah, I wanna know.” Justin picked up the phone, entered Clay’s passcode, hesitated, and then handed it to Clay.

Clay scrolled through it one-handed and then presented it back to him. A photo popped up. A smiling man. Black scorpion tattoo. Brown beard. Pinprick pupils—gateways which led straight to hell.

Justin went cold as he stared at it. “Seth’s obituary?”

“No, it’s—it’s his guest book. At the funeral home website. Look at all the comments. 238 condolences. No, wait, now there are 243.” Clay ever-so-slowly leaned his head on Justin’s shoulder. It was a warm weight—the fireplace at home, sunlight in the backyard.

Justin skimmed through some of the comments. “Damn, these messages...” He read a few aloud,

gonna miss the hugs & kisses.

don’t know where I’ll get my biker coffee, rip my dude.

Clay might be a genius, but he knew fuck-all about life.

“Clay, these aren’t condolences. None of ‘em. This is street slang, and these messages, they’re from users—a bunch of junkies who don’t mean shit. Did you really think Seth knew this many people named Tina and Chrissy? That’s code for meth. They don’t care that Seth is dead, they miss the product, and that’s it. And soon, someone else will be slinging, and they’ll forget all about him.”

“Really?” Clay asked, his voice almost comical in its bewilderment. “I didn’t think meth heads would...”

What, have phones? Know how to spell?

You don’t have to be poor and homeless to crave an escape, and news spreads fast when it comes to product.

Justin choked out a tired laugh. There was something so appallingly pure about his brother.

Innocent. Sheltered.

Soft.

But, out of the two of them, Clay was also the only one who had killed a man.

Justin sobered, wondering, not for the first time, just how bad all this must be for Clay. He cared about shitty people and their shitty feelings, people he didn’t know, people who didn’t deserve his devotion, who wouldn’t ever thank him for it... but he was also so dead certain about what was right and wrong, what was good and bad, people were either placed on pedestals or they were scum, there were no extenuating circumstances, no shades of grey. How the fuck his brain didn’t shear in half from the cognitive dissonance was a giant mystery.

“Well, what about this, Justin?” Clay touched the screen, switching tabs.

“Who’s this?” Justin asked, to humor him. This was going to be exhausting, he could already tell.

“Seth’s mom.”

She was a slight woman, frail and thin, with short hair, which curled into some fuck-ugly cotton ball thingy on top. She bore little resemblance to Seth, but her nose had the same slant, her eyes the same dark coloration. Clay pressed play on the video, and when the woman spoke, the cadence was familiar.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better child. Seth did some bad things; he had a short temper, but he never would have killed nobody. I don’t want to believe him capable of what they said he did, but I know it’s real, and I’m sorry for the hurt he caused this family—the Jensens. I bear no ill will, I don’t, I really don’t. I forgive the man who murdered my son.” There was scattered clapping and some appreciative murmurs and then the video cut off.

“She forgives me,” Clay huffed. “Isn’t that great?”

Justin tried to find it in him to be compassionate, but he wearied of the effort at once. “I’m sorry, dude, Seth’s mom—that’s tough shit for her. But maybe if she’d done a better job of raising her son, he wouldn’t have been such an asshole, and she wouldn’t have lost him.”

Clay sighed against his neck. “You’re going to say that, out of anyone?”

Justin rested his cheek against the crown of Clay’s head, the bristles prickly and scratchy. He tried to find the words that would make this better, make it okay for Clay. He wanted to show that he wasn’t empty, that it wasn’t just hard metal against his lips, cutting off sound. “I’m just saying—you don’t know that she’s a good person, or that she’s even sad. You don’t think my mom would be crying for the cameras if I had died? Looking for pity and a handout? C’mon, Clay—it’s an act!”

“No,” Clay said in a strained, weak voice. “It’s not an act. She quit her job when she heard the news. She collapsed at the graveyard service, and her sons had to carry her back to her car.” Clay grabbed the phone. “Do you wanna see?”

“No!” Feeling increasingly unbalanced, Justin stole the phone away and placed it, screen down, on his tray. “You’ve got to stop this, Clay. You think so hard sometimes, you hurt yourself. Don’t fucking hurt yourself, not over this.”

Clay was complicating things, as he tended to do.

It wasn’t complicated.

“Seth was gonna end up dead, sooner or later. After what my mom did, the cartels would’ve killed him. He wasn’t smart enough to keep a low profile. He wouldn’t have stayed gone.”

Clay snorted. “So, what, I just hastened the inevitable?”

“Exactly.”

“I pulled the trigger. I did. Me. And everybody knows it.” Clay sat up and harshly scratched his cheek, leaving red marks behind, his eyes looking somewhere beyond Justin, and then his gaze fell to Justin’s mouth, and the motion of his fingers turned into a restless caress and the longer it went on, the more grossly pornographic it became.

There was a floaty feeling, like Justin wasn’t real, like his body was a possession, which didn’t belong to him. Profoundly disturbed, perfectly aware of what Clay was doing, but not why, Justin pried Clay’s fingers away, pinching the flesh. “Focus, man. Don’t disconnect.”

Focus. Focus. He said the words to Clay, but he meant them entirely for himself.

“I need to take a shower,” Clay announced randomly, except... wait, no, it wasn’t random, and what the fucking fuck, something clicked into place, he didn’t know how, he just knew, and Justin seized the stress ball and lobbed it at the wall, making Clay jump. The ball rebounded and rolled under the bed.

“You don’t need to take a shower!” Bile burned the back of his throat, blood welling up along his gum line. He couldn’t handle this, couldn’t carry this fucking shit, couldn’t stand to see Clay bring physical violence against himself and then turn it into something sexual.

All of the shame, all of the perversion, the fact that Justin had taken pleasure from Seth’s hand, everything, it should fall on him and him alone. Not Clay. Never Clay.

“Bryce.” Justin could taste vomit in his mouth, which seemed appropriate when saying that name. “I called him.” Bringing this up was like tearing at a scab, trying to make it bleed again. He could probably turn it into a fight if he chose the right words. No, not a fight. Justin would let Clay chew him out, give him an appropriate target for his anxiety, for his confused rage. To guarantee it and get the ball rolling, he said, “I miss him.”

Clay stiffened, his jaw clenching. His face soured, red and blotchy, and he looked like he wanted to push Justin off the bed—if he could get his arms to work properly. But then his shoulders slumped, like he was being crushed by the weight of the entire hospital, and he only looked sad, and Christ, that hurt more.

“You don’t miss him,” Clay said with a weary kind of sympathy. “You miss how he used to treat you.”

“He treated me like a brother,” Justin said recklessly. That had to land. Had to supremely piss Clay off. He waited, ready to take whatever would be slung back.

Nothing. Nada. No dice.

Clay yawned, taking the comment in stride, and his tone was so calm—so mild—so tolerant. “You were refusing pain meds, you couldn’t leave the hospital, and calling Bryce—it was the only self-destructive path you had left, right?”

Justin gave a half-assed shrug, annoyed that Clay could see who he was and just—not care. His plan had spectacularly fizzled. He lowered his head, squeezed his eyes shut, breathed through the disappointment.

Why do I always try to smash my favorite things against the wall?

Why can’t I fucking love someone, and let it be only that—love?

And above everything else, his life circled back to a single question: Why does everyone I love get hurt... because of me?

“Hey!”

Justin cracked his eyes open. Coming back to himself was like trying to make out a tree in the fog.

“What did Bryce say to you?” Clay demanded, suddenly as vicious as a feral cat caught in a cage—claws out, spine arched, hissing and spitting.

“Nothing,” Justin lied, attempting to turn Clay back into something domesticated—more cuddly, less spit-fiery. “He was throwing a party—he couldn’t talk.”

There was a cutting glare, icy and brutal. “Do you want me to kill him, too? Because I will.”

Justin gritted his teeth. There was a tiny seed of resentment, which bloomed, and then died, at its root. “I never wanted you to kill anyone for me.”

“Well, tough. I love you—take some fucking responsibility for it.” Clay’s voice became quiet, but intense. Clay did everything with intensity. “Don’t call him again. If you do, I’ll pull that tube out of your nose and make you reinsert it. It’ll be fun to see how many tries it takes before you get it into your stomach and not your lungs.”

“Jesus,” Justin laughed. “You are cranky.” Fuck him, but he liked this side of Clay: riled up, with the temperament of an angry porcupine. “You gotta come up with some more believable threats, man. Hustling’s about nuance—subtlety.”

“Fine.” Clay raised his chin defiantly. “If you call him again, I’ll change the passcode on your phone. So, if you want phone privileges... the next time you feel like shit, reach out to someone who actually cares about you.” Like me went unspoken. But Justin heard it, clear, when Clay gripped his elbow, hard. His nails dug in, five sharp reminders, and there was a flash of something dark in his eyes, something jealous, something possessive.

As if Clay had the right.

Fuck, might as well be honest—Clay did have the right.

Justin had given him permission by not challenging it. He even enjoyed the idea of it: Clay bruising his arm, a bruise from his brother, in the shape of fingerprints. Maybe it would take away something Seth had left behind.

Maybe that was why Clay had done it. They knew each other too well.

Too well, or not at all.

“I can’t call Bryce.” Justin might as well tell Clay, because, one way or another, he’d tell him eventually. “He hung up on me. He cut me off.” His heart was hammering, he could hear it in his ears. He tried to act indifferent about it, but Clay could probably see the bitter truth. “Fuck, I hate that I called him, that I’m like this. I want to be someone else. Someone better.”

“I like who you are now. So.” Clay smiled at him, sad and lopsided. His mood of the minute: depressed sincerity.

They sat in heavy silence, and Clay’s smile faded into a cold grimace (could he stick to one fucking emotion for longer than three minutes?). He released Justin’s elbow, fingers uncurling with a crunch, formed a fist. Slammed it against his thigh. A cut-off mutter: “shut. the fuck. up!”

“Fine,” Justin said, not understanding, missing the pressure of Clay’s hand and the way it had incrementally tightened—it hadn’t been enough, hadn’t hurt nearly enough. “I will.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Clay said with a wild snap of his head. “You can talk! Say anything—I’ll listen.”

Justin nodded uneasily, a creeping feeling in his gut. Fucking great.

He picked up Clay’s phone. They needed a distraction, something to clear the air. He went back to Seth’s guestbook to type a comment and turned it around for Clay’s approval.

“Justin,” Clay said, shocked. “You can’t post that!”

“Too late. I already did.”

“Aw man, you did? And you used my phone?”

“Would you chill? Nobody reads these things.” Justin paused. “Except for you.”

“That’s seriously messed up, Justin.”

“But funny.”

“No, it’s not funny, it’s messed up.”

Justin shook his head. At least Clay’s outrage was more in line with his usual over-the-top spastic behavior, instead of skirting the pathological. He started to close the tabs on Clay’s phone, one by one, deleting all the dumb shit Clay had been obsessing over. Justin didn’t care about any of it, he wasn’t even paying attention, but, almost by chance—

Three words. Three fucking words, and he was thrown into the passenger seat of his own body. His ribcage refused to expand. His teeth throbbed. The phone began to shake in his hand.

“Oh, shit, shit. Shit, Justin.” Clay broke into an apologetic ramble, and there was something off about it, but Justin wasn’t listening. He couldn’t. Couldn’t make himself.

Clay’s search terms, typed into Google, clear, cold, black font: orgasm during rape.

He didn’t know which word pissed him off more.

No, he did know.

He furiously mashed his thumb on the black X, closing the tab, but behind it was an article, What Science Says About Arousal During Rape. He closed that too, vision blurring, but behind it was another tab and another. Tab after tab. “What the fuck, Clay...”

“I was doing research,” Clay said sheepishly.

Research? Why would you research this kind of–?” Justin nearly bit his tongue in half, his heart beating itself to death in his chest. “Did Shane touch you? Did he? Clay, did he fucking touch you?”

“No! But you—”

“I didn’t get fucking raped!”

Clay tilted his head. His mouth opened and closed. “Wait... are you serious?”

Every bone in Justin’s body screamed for him to bail out, to run—and keep running—but there was nowhere for him to go. “What the fuck is it with you and exposing other people’s secrets? Were you going to write a report and present it to the whole school? Over the loudspeakers? Huh?”

“You’re hurt,” Clay said, his voice thin, “so I’m gonna give you a pass for saying that. You know I wouldn’t. I swear to you, I swear, I won’t tell anyone what happened. Ever. I just– I was looking for information because... because I knew you wouldn’t! I wanted you to see that you’re not the only one, okay? It happens, a lot more than people talk about. In your case, you were kinda even—primed for it.”

Clay’s eyes skittered away, but purposefully, like he was secretly consulting notecards in the recesses of his brain. “You were in a heightened state of physical arousal from the adrenaline. And when you’re injured, the body releases endorphins—those are the same chemicals that are released during sex! Feel good chemicals. Do you get it? You couldn’t control feeling pain, from being shot, just like you couldn’t control feeling pleasure when he– when there was– like, stimulation of nerve–”

Justin grabbed the bed rail, pulling himself upright as his stomach curdled. He pinched his nasogastric tube, pulling it out by two inches, but stopped when his gag reflex began to fight with him.

Clay immediately stopped talking.

Justin hunched over the railing, his forehead on the hard metal, his shoulders shaking, trying to endure the rollercoaster of nausea and the chills that came along with the ride. He was so damn cold. And sick of being sick.

The world spun, in slow loops. He gagged, but nothing came up.

A weight dropped across his shoulders and he recoiled, but it was only Clay’s hoodie. It smelled like their bedroom, like Clay (how in fuck’s name had he managed to remove it one-handed?), and, oddly, like Justin’s cologne. He pulled the material close, the cold dropping off him like dead leaves, the block of jagged ice in his throat beginning to melt.

The nausea subsided.

He collapsed onto his side, feeling like a wrung-out towel, feeling used. “I just– I– this is what I can’t control, Clay. Fuck, it makes me sick.” And, perhaps on purpose, he gagged a little.

Clay looked pained. Then he shook his head and smiled, disappointed.

(But he didn’t push.)

Some things, it was just too soon to discuss.

Directly continued in the next chapter...

Chapter Text

Justin turned his face into the hoodie because it made things better somehow, safer, and only then did he realize— “Dude, this is my hoodie.”

Clay blinked down at the sleeve. “Oh,” he said, like he hadn’t known, like he hadn’t been wearing it for days. “Mom brought it for me from the house. She probably didn’t know whose it was.”

Sure, bro.

“It’s cool,” Justin reassured him. “I like to share.” Then he thought, What’s mine is yours, and he wished he hadn’t said anything.

When the pause became too long, he relented: “You can have it, if you want. My hoodie.”

“No, it’s yours. I was just borrowing it. But...” Clay pointed at his nose and made a circular motion. “You really can’t leave your tube sticking out like that. If your nurse comes in and sees it...”

They both knew what that meant.

“Fucking Seth,” Justin growled. That damn motherfucker, he would have found it so amusing to know he had shot Justin through the stomach. He had always been pissy about groceries, who was eating them, who was paying for them. (It had never been Seth, that was for sure.) Well, thanks to him, Justin’s body now had to relearn how to process and digest solid food, which meant he was dropping pounds, and fast.

(But better his body than Clay’s.)

“Can I try to fix it?” Clay asked, reversing Justin’s question from earlier. He held his hand open, fingers apart, not presuming.

“Yes,” Justin rapidly agreed. “Yes. But, c’mon, do it fast, before I get into trouble.”

Clay went from hesitant and unsure to frenzied and determined in about a millisecond. “Okay. Close your eyes. Or—keep them open, whatever you want.”

Justin closed them, and he walked through the steps in his mind: setting out his supplies (spoon, cotton ball, lighter, needle), pulling back the syringe, finding a vein, mellowing out... complete and utter blackout. Missing minutes, missing hours. No high was ever as good as shooting up. Smoking a gram of good tar was shit compared to the bliss of IV smack. The repeated rush was powerful, mind-blowing, almost like an—

There was a slide, up his nose and then down, and Justin could taste that nasty lubricant, feel it coating his throat, which made him think of other things shooting down his throat, and broken glass digging into his knees in Oakland, and then: hard metal, spit, sweat, bloody pre-cum dripping down his shaft.

The ceiling of their living room. Chipped paint.

The sound of his brother retching.

Justin was always going to be back there, with Seth forcing him down, his body folding down on top of him, his grimy hand fidgeting between their aligned hips. Seth had held him in place, but—there was no getting around it—he hadn’t forced him to do anything else. Justin had done it willingly, for Clay, and then willingly, for himself. He had opened his mouth, lain still, allowed Seth to unzip his jeans, gotten hard, came.

It hadn’t been about chemicals. Or about stimulation.

How could he explain it to Clay?

That as much as he had pleaded for Seth to stop and for his body to finish. please finish, a different part of him had been crying, please don’t stop, i can’t take the pain. this is better. this is better. He had never gotten off so fast in his life.

When it had ended, when his dick was soft and Seth had continued to jerk him off, that was when the real agony had set in. Not during.

Before and after.

Which made it torture—torture and sex... but not rape.

“I think it’s in. Look at me a moment.”

Justin obeyed without thinking, opening his eyes, locking them on Clay’s, his muscles seizing painfully.

“Did it go down okay?” Clay asked and then winced and amended, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” Justin said, not okay.

“I’d understand if you weren’t.”

“Nah, I’m good. Really. You did awesome.”

“Did I scratch your throat? ‘Cause I tried not to, but it wouldn’t—hey, are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes!” It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It has to be fine.

Clay lifted his hand like he was going to try to readjust the tube, but he aborted the motion at the last second, reversed direction, and jammed his fingers against Justin’s lips.

It was a terrifying sensation.

Justin slapped Clay’s hand away, and it took extreme physical effort not to punch him. “The fuck’d you do that for?”

The movement felt like a power play, an attempt to assert control, and it gave Justin a black, empty feeling.

“Shit. I–I don’t know.” Clay looked at him with regret, and also like he was legitimately going to bawl about it, which threw Justin off, and his rankling anger vanished into a ragged hole in his chest. He’d clearly trampled on Clay’s delicate feelings. His fucking brother—so damn sensitive.

There were so many layers, so much meaning behind what Clay had done, and why did it have to be about power at all?

Why couldn’t it be about... what was Clay all about?

Not dominance, but empathy.

He swirled his tongue against the roof of his mouth and looked at the ceiling for guidance, but it held no answer. Fuck me.

He made a permissive gesture because what the fuck was he supposed to say: Touch my lips if it makes you feel better. You are such a freak. Clay complied wordlessly, like he couldn’t stop himself, and this time, when his fingers grazed Justin’s lips, it was the barest press, the lightest sensation, the most careful of touches.

Justin submitted to it. It was always easier to submit and get it over with.

Clay’s fingernails weren’t trimmed. The feel of them was pain and shame. Whore flashed in his mind, like a pop-up ad on his phone, whore whore whore. Justin hated it, and he liked it—the debasement of it was perfect... awful... perfectly awful?

Dammit, stop. Stop. At least Clay wasn’t doing it with his broken fingers. He was so fucking confused.

If it continued much longer... He might... With Clay right there...

Justin grabbed Clay’s wrist and removed his hand, not roughly, but he wasn’t capable of being gentle. Dirty blood sloshed through his veins, and fear trickled alongside it. Do I like being abused? Did I miss it?

Or am I just a junkie for pain?

Clay twitched beside him. “Did I fuck up? I did, didn’t I?”

“No,” Justin replied, stiff and uncomfortable. “But could you, um...” It devastated him, a little, the fact that he had to say it, to admit his weakness to Clay, and draw lines between them: “I hate that, okay?” His hands dropped to his sides and flexed unconsciously. “Look—it’s fine, but can you– will you... fuck, I’m sorry, but... please don’t do that again. I don’t wanna be touched there. Not there—you got it?”

“Yeah, for sure.”

Justin felt Clay shudder, a hint of something squeamish in his reaction. “Don’t leave,” Justin said desperately, realizing how much of a fuck off that had probably come across as. His body was actively communicating its own personal rejection—a fine quiver in his muscles—and Clay was picking up on it.

The words felt like they were wrenched from inside him: “Please. I don’t want you to go. I don’t wanna be alone right now.”

“Okay.” Clay scooted over on the bed, as far away as possible. “I’ll just—give you a break?” He wedged a pillow between them.

It was pathetic, how much it hurt. Sodden bandages, stained underwear, a home he had made unsafe, and this was what bothered him?

Justin remembered how his mother had used to rock him when he was little, how, gradually, she had stopped doing it, preferring instead to fuck her boyfriends and shut the door in his face, how jealous Justin had been, how deeply and fiercely he had wanted her attention, and how, after a point, she had stopped noticing him at all.

The Jensens never treated him that way, and Justin knew, he knew Clay didn’t judge him, didn’t hold anything against him, he had fucking seen it all, knew how obscene it had been, how wretched and bloody, so it wasn’t a secret, not even close, and Clay probably thought he was ‘respecting his space’ or some shit like that, and, fuck, he was still here, he hadn’t left, he was staring at him with more loving concern than any one person could handle...

Clay was even trying to make it seem okay—like, yeah, no biggie, people climax after a violent handjob on the daily, particularly while they’re being murdered; here’s my works cited—but it had been a fundamental betrayal, what his body had done, what his mind had craved, and the only thing worse than an accusation, or revulsion, might be understanding.

Especially from his opinionated, high-on-his-horse brother.

Justin didn’t want Clay to sink into filth with him, just to keep him company.

There was a bone-jarring hiccup, a sound that didn’t even remotely resemble language. “I’m sorry,” Clay whispered. “Fuck, I... I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Justin asked, irritated. “Come on, don’t be. I just said it was fine.”

“No, not about that. I–I wasn’t fast enough with Seth. I was right there, but it was like... like I was paralyzed. Shane had the lighter, and I thought he would ignite the gasoline if I moved, but—I don’t know. He probably wouldn’t have; he wasn’t like Seth, he wasn’t that sadistic. You were choking, screaming, and I knew Seth was killing you, but I still couldn’t move. There was all that blood, I... I watched it soak through your shirt and drip on the floor, like it was paint, like it was nothing. I fucking sat there while he assaulted you, just like Hannah did when Bryce raped Jessica. Just like you did, after Bryce threw you out of the room, and, God, I hated you. I’m such a hypocrite.”

Justin really needed a drink. A bong hit. A cigarette. Anything. “Those situations aren’t even remotely the same, dude. If you had tried to move before I got you the gun, Seth would’ve killed you. Instantly. And then we’d both have been dead.”

“You don’t know that,” Clay countered. “You don’t know what would’ve happened.”

Justin wanted to grab Clay and shake him. Through touch, not words, he was at his best. But to Clay, words were important. Even the most obvious facts had to be stated outright. “You’re right, I don’t. Nobody does. But I know what did happen: you saved me. Again. That’s all I need to know. You survived, I survived, and now we’ve gotta move on. Don’t research it, don’t second guess everything. It’s like, if you hear something tragic on the news, it’s sad, for about five minutes, and then, it’s whatever. It’s like that. You make it, whatever. You leave it alone.”

“So...” Clay regarded him doubtfully, “you leave it alone and you don’t spend any time resolving the situation, the root issue, and when all that repressed crap starts messing with your head, you go get high, and who cares about the method, right? As long as it fucks you up. Crack, hash, oxy, heroin... sex.”

“I guess.” Damn, what kind of drugs did they have him on, that he would agree so easily? Or was it just Clay? Clay, who made Justin hold open the door when he should be securing the deadbolt.

“You can’t do that, Justin. You can’t hide from what happened. I want you to be okay. I want you to feel it, and deal with it. You need to fucking face it.”

“I will. I am.

Justin didn’t understand Clay’s bitter laugh at those words.

“I think you don’t even realize...” Clay looked at him, and the light of his eyes stood out vivid against the smattering of dark marks. “It’s okay, we’ll figure it out. I’ll help you, but, like... I’ve been here, I know you, and I’m scared it’s gonna be too much and you’re gonna try to escape again, and I know what escape might appeal to you.”

Clay tried to take a breath, then groaned, that special crackling sound of somebody with a broken rib breathing too deep.

“Fuck, Justin, I don’t want you to overdose! You’re my best friend, and I don’t want to lose you after surviving this... for surviving to be the actual thing that breaks us. How messed up would that be?”

“Super messed up.” Justin curled his knees up to his chest, to feel serrated knives slashing up his abdomen, to feel how much life sucked, to feel alive. “You should’ve told me you were so worried about it. I was such an ass about the meds, I didn’t know, I didn’t get why you were acting like my probation officer. Maybe I appear like I’m chill about everything, but I’m not chill! It’s just... easier. Being numb isn’t that bad, you know. It’s better than being angry.” He thought of Seth. “Or being cruel.”

Clay, who had been every kind of angry in the past week, mulled it over. Then he nodded, in dreary acceptance.

“What about you?” Justin asked softly. “You’re... you’re hallucinating again, aren't you?”

“Yes.”

“Hannah?”

“No. You. A bloodier, more obnoxious version of you.”

“Well, tell me to fuck off, then.” Getting no reaction, Justin sucked on his back teeth. “Sorry—stupid advice. I know it’s not a joke.”

Clay brought his hand up to his head and knocked it against his skull. “My mind is screwed up, it’s not working right, and that means I can’t pay attention to what’s going on with you. I can’t count your pills, check your messages, and babysit you 24/7.” He gave Justin a severe look before grabbing the pillow that separated them, tossing it down the bed.

“How can I, if I can’t even control my own brain? It’s like I’m being haunted by other people’s pain, by how they died, by how they might die, and I’m—I’m completely powerless. I can’t change anything, it always turns to shit. No matter what I do, I can never fix anybody. And I know you don’t understand... but I just feel so fucking bad. For not helping Hannah. Skye. Alex. For not saving Jeff. For Seth’s mom. His brothers. Those stupid people leaving comments on his obituary.” Clay broke off to press his face into his hand, and his final words came out thready, a pre-sob sort of sound. “But I feel bad—I feel bad for you, most of all.”

Justin was tempted to snap, Well, who asked you to? but then he saw Clay blinking his eyes, watery blue, and sniffing back snot, his lower lip wobbling dangerously. He was trying to stop a dam bursting, like he wanted to man up or like he was personally offended by the idea of tears or he thought Justin would be, and it was shit, fucking shit, and it hit Justin like a cement block.

He hooked his arm around Clay and rubbed small circles with his thumb, deep pressure, bone-deep security, a tactile reminder of what was real.

What they had with each other, it was no hallucination.

“Clay... If you wanna cry, just cry, alright?”

It was awkward, at first, like waiting for an inflated balloon to pop, shaky inhales, tears hastily smeared away, over and over, and then, finally, Clay allowed his joints to loosen, his muscles to relax. The pain ripped out of him like torn stitches, like broken bones shearing through skin, like arteries gushing blood.

It was a reflex, to feel the need to look away and give Clay privacy. But that was what Justin would have wanted: to keep private shit private. Clay didn’t operate that way. He had watched Justin get cornered, beaten, shot, smothered, groped, fucked into bloody shreds, and he had stood witness and suffered through it all—in order to make Justin feel less alone.

Is that what Clay would want for himself?

And if so, shouldn’t Justin meet Clay in the space where he felt loved and seen, the space where he felt less alone?

He brushed his finger over Clay’s cheekbone and caught the tear that was rolling down, and Clay turned his head to look at him, vulnerable and scared, and trusting him to see it. He took Clay’s face in his hands, resting one thumb so that it bisected a creeping bruise, the other so it covered a needle-thin scar.

“Let it out. I know it feels shitty, crying always does, but you need to get it out of your system.”

Like everything else he did, Clay fully committed. His grief was violent, like a fistfight, or an earthquake, or a street riot—but Justin wasn’t afraid of it. His brother was crying the way he probably should have done a week ago, and should have done every day since. The way someone should cry when the world had fucked them over simply for trying to do a brave, kind thing.

Moisture pooled on the tops of Justin’s fingers and although the tissue box was there on the bed, it felt important to wipe the tears away himself, to trace the skin under Clay’s eyes and catch them as they fell. He had been at least partially responsible for their creation and he should show Clay he had been fast enough with the gun, he had been frickin’ hardcore, and he didn’t have to shrink away and cry in a place where the pain folded back in on itself. A place where no one heard and no one cared.

Justin heard. Justin fucking cared.

There was no one he cared about more.

He didn’t know how—it was one of those unspoken things that came easily with Clay—but he sensed when the eye contact became too much, too upsetting and invasive, so he pulled Clay against his chest, forehead-to-sternum, concealed but safely connected.

It should have been deeply uncomfortable, or threatening, the weight of a body pressing against his, but it was an easy closeness, because Clay didn’t let his hand stray anywhere and there was never a knee digging bullets into his stomach. Justin’s IV line snagged on Clay’s sling, and he considered disentangling them to fix it, but Clay instinctually twisted sideways, achingly gentle in his positioning, and nestled into him, as if making up for every time he had held himself back.

“You’re good, you’re good.” Justin rocked him a little, placing one hand on his back, low, and curling his other hand around Clay’s ear, to block out the world for him. They would never do this sober, or with an audience, and Clay would probably classify it as cringeworthy later, but, so what?

There were all these soft places in his brother begging to be destroyed, and some of them had already been corrupted—black mold, flesh-eating bacteria, battery acid chewing at the edges. Justin wanted to safeguard the places that were left, shield them, and try to keep them pure.

It was a Jensen thing to do.

Clay seemed like he was crying forever, and Justin held him for the longest time, and he felt a pang deep in his fucking heart, but he didn’t need to break and cry himself, because Clay had already broken for him.

It wasn’t much, but there was something freeing in it, something sweetly overwhelming: the comfort of being able to comfort someone else.

Like an engine sputtering, Clay’s emotions ground to a halt, and, in anticipation of any bumbling self-consciousness, Justin pulled Clay’s head forward until their foreheads rested together.

“Shh, take a slow breath. You’re okay. You’re okay, man.” Clay sucked in air, which wasn’t slow, but it was a breath. He was still breathing. They both were. “You’re alive, that’s all that fucking matters to me. You’re alive, and he’s dead. But that’s me. You—you can feel however you want to feel about it. If you feel bad... just, feel bad. You don’t need anybody’s permission.”

“Thank you,” Clay said, a bit stilted, a bit awkward, a bit Jensen-y. “Sorry if that was. Weird.”

“It wasn’t weird.” Justin thumbed Clay’s ears, to try to make it less awkward for him. “And you don’t have to thank me. You’re my brother.” It was the first thing he had said that felt instantly right to say, truer than any other words he knew. “You caring about people—that’s what makes you... you. I don’t want that to change, I don’t ever want that for you. Everything else, the mental stuff, the hallucinations, your nightmares, you don’t have to face any of it alone. We’ll get it sorted.”

He ran his fingers over Clay’s broken nose, as tenderly and carefully as Clay had touched his lips. He thought of Seth’s mom, her lofty, counterfeit claim, I forgive the man who murdered my son, the way the crowd had applauded.

“You’re not a murderer,” Justin said with steady confidence. “You’re a protector, you save people—that means you’re a good person and you deserve good things. The best things. Anyone who says differently, well, fuck ‘em. You chose to trust me, and I– I don’t take that lightly. So, if you can’t trust yourself, trust me. You didn’t murder anyone, you haven’t caused anybody more pain, you always leave people better off than they were before. By, like, a bazillion percent.” He kept his eyes rapt on Clay’s, chipping away, breaking down Clay’s seemingly impenetrable resolve. “And, dude, you really shouldn’t try to fix people, that’s outside anyone’s skill set. People can’t be fixed, okay? We’re not robots.”

The mattress creaked as Clay moved away, and it was disorienting, a kind of emotional withdrawal, worse than the heroin shakes. It made Justin feel weak as fuck, so he reached out to wipe the last of the tear tracks from Clay’s cheeks. He decided he could break one rule, one time—Matt had said tears killed bacteria anyway—and he put his finger to his mouth to taste the salty residue: a transfer from bruised cheeks to bruised lips.

It tasted miserable.

But never had someone else’s tears felt so much like his own.

“I tasted your blood,” Clay said, slumping back against the propped pillows. “In the ER.”

“Okay,” Justin said, accepting it. “That’s fucking weird.”

“Yeah, I know. But, in my defense, I was really high at the time. And you were in surgery, getting blood transfusions from complete strangers, so you can’t really judge...”

“Well, fuck, I wasn’t using it. No point in it going to waste. That shit’s gold. They told me: $150 per pint.”

Clay laughed, surprised and amused. Justin laughed, too, after a moment, simply because he had done that—made Clay laugh. “Seth, he... he kinda slathered my face in your blood.”

“Cool,” Clay said with a slight nod. “I mean, fair enough. You needed it more than I did.”

“Hah. Yeah, I kinda did. Here.” He thrust two tissues at Clay. “You sound shit when you’re crying, and I’m not gonna wipe your nose.”

Clay took it and blew his nose, noisily. “Why are you—why are you smiling like that? It’s... different.”

Justin took Clay’s wadded up tissue and shot it into the nearby trash can, making a basket. “Because I’m sad.”

Alex had told him to say it out loud, and he didn’t feel it, exactly—sadness—but maybe the feeling would sneak up on him if he said it, or maybe it had been there all along, kept too tightly contained, and he needed to coax it out. He felt Clay’s sadness like a second skin, but, for himself, he only felt detached and numb—gone.

“I’d say that makes no sense, but coming from you, it makes perfect sense.”

They were both beaten down, too exhausted to keep any walls up with each other, but it wasn’t a bad thing. The talking—it had helped. It was somewhere to start from and because Clay liked to talk everything to death, it was probably only the first in a series of painful conversations. They might as well commit and submerge themselves completely. “You know this new trauma counselor?” Justin asked.

“Dr. Lee? Yeah, I met her. She seems nice enough, although I’ll probably change my mind after she Hannibal Lecters us. By the way, you owe me—candy—a lot of Christmas candy, because I convinced Mom to give you a reprieve on therapy until you get released... But wait for it... It’s gonna happen.”

“Do you think,” Justin began, placing another tissue into Clay's outstretched and demanding hand, “I don’t know—maybe we could see her together?”

“What, like joint sessions?”

“Yeah. I figured, it might be easier?”

Clay frowned, before using the tissue to remove a streak of gunk from underneath Justin’s nose. “If you’re agreeing to therapy with me, it must be bad.”

“I guess it is?”

“You don’t know?”

Unconsciously, Justin’s gaze drifted to his IV drip. He knew the exact minute he could ask for something stronger to help with breakthrough pain so that it seemed believable and not manipulative; Matt, especially, was easy to fool.

And his pills... Justin had already worked out the medical-grade equivalent to a quarter gram of heroin.

“When this kind of shit happens, it feels normal to me. The violence, and moving homes, and worrying about money—it’s how I lived for so long that I think I got desensitized to it. I don’t feel like I need therapy, because I just feel... like me. Normal.”

Clay coughed slightly. “Not to be an ass, but you really don’t act normal about—almost anything.”

“Okay, but to me, it is. Having a family, it’s felt like a vacation, and not how things are supposed to be. It feels like—it feels like all this violence is inside me, like I bring it with me wherever I go.”

Justin picked up his 3-month key tag from where it sat on his tray, and he remembered all the times his mom had gotten clean. She had never been great at sobriety, especially after a bad breakup. Clay was right to be worried. The wrong cutting agent could fuck you up, could kill you, but in the depths of a craving, it had never mattered: Justin had once used toilet water from a public restroom to shoot up, after some fucker had done his business with him on a piss-stained mattress and paid him in smack. It had only been his second time shooting up, and, already, it had owned him.

“I want to say... that I won’t ever relapse, that I won’t go back to the needle, but I—I don’t think I can say that. If there was a dealer in the hospital right now, and I could score... I probably would. This shit’s heavy, y’know?”

“I get it. Really.” Clay pulled their shared hoodie over to his side, pillowing his head on it. “And I know it was difficult for you to admit that, so thank you for telling me.” He tapped his fingers agitatedly against his cheek. “I haven’t told you everything about how I’ve been coping. Or not coping, I guess. Some of it is pretty fucked up.”

I think I have some idea, dude. You tried to kill Alex with a cup of ice. You’re talking to your hallucinations. And the shower thing...

“Look, I understand if you wanna talk to someone without me there–”

“No,” Clay said hurriedly. “No. Of course not. I want to do it with you. We went through it together, it’d be nice to do this together, too. And, hey, at least it won’t be boring if you’re there.”

“Okay.” Justin picked idly at the unkempt cuticles of his nails. As much as it felt like he was giving up his self-sufficiency, as much as he thought it was a waste of time, he had to talk about shit. Refusing to face the past, wishing for it to wash away, making it whatever... that was like being on the streets, giving his body for his next bag of dope.

Turning tricks had given Justin money for heroin, and then the heroin had numbed the pain of the tricks.

Around and around and around, like the carousel on the pier—

Until Clay had found him, and taken him home.

Break the cycle.

Justin was still stuck—in his mother’s apartment, in a dirty alleyway, Bryce’s pool house.

Clay was still stuck—obsessing over the dead, berating himself for his schizo brain, trying to appoint himself as everybody’s personal savior.

Break the cycle.

Justin hated therapy. He only went for Matt and Lainie, because it was important to them and made them feel like they were doing enough as parents, but... being scrutinized, being picked apart, having everything he said and did connected back to his childhood and the ways he had “coped to survive”... it was like getting his teeth drilled by the Jensens’ overzealous dentist.

Eight cavities—a fucking nightmare.

Clay agreed with him. He thought therapy was “non-reproducible” and full of “moronic quick fixes and pretty phrases,” and he took every opportunity to say so to their parents. He was probably five steps away from passing on it entirely. He was eighteen. He could, if he wanted.

Justin didn’t want him to. Mental illness was some scary shit.

Hannah... Alex...

Willpower could be spent, and when it was, that was when you were finished.

His mom had stopped trying, by degrees, and then, one day, she had tumbled off the cliff of giving a shit—and that was it for her.

In Oakland, Justin had said no, time and again, to shady men on street corners, but after he gave the first yes and the second yes was stolen from him, voluntarily giving the third had been a transaction, an exchange of product, and nothing more. When a random john subtracted the cost of the condoms he had bought from the total he gave Justin, it was a dick move, but it had seemed fair.

Economical. Whatever, dude. Justin just went and got high.

What would his friends think, what would his family think, if they knew the truth? The whole truth, not the shell of a half-baked lie.

Justin should be keeping his mouth shut, but he also needed to be true to the process, face his shit, own it, and show accountability. It was hard—because there were parts of himself he didn’t want to share with anyone. Not a stranger, not Zach or Alex, definitely not Matt or Lainie.

But there was nothing in his life Clay could not share in.

Although why he would want to, Justin was still trying to figure out.

“Together?” Justin offered.

“Yeah, together.”

Justin forced himself to smile, to make it seem less intimidating. “We could mess with the therapist.”

“That’s kinda mean...” But there was a glint of mischief in Clay’s eyes that meant yes.

“I just meant—if it ever gets too much, we can talk about stupid stuff, but make it sound like it’s not stupid? Like the time I stole your bike. That was pretty traumatic for you.”

“I still have nightmares about it,” Clay said, almost joking, almost teasing. But not quite. “I’ll come up with a hand signal. For when it gets to be too much.”

Justin didn’t think they needed a signal. He figured they would just know.

He settled back, cupping his hands over his face. “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Clay agreed.

They turned on their sides, equally miserable. Everything was so raw, so rough. There had once been a time when they could hardly stand to look at each other, except in hatred—and now, they could barely stand to look away, for fear of being left brotherless, as they had been for 17 years.

Justin’s skin was hypersensitive, his body shunning any more contact, and rather than risk an aggressive reaction, he told Clay the truth, “don’t touch me,” a bare whisper, and Clay, low and earnest, just said, “okay,” breathing into the space between them, offering support by not retreating and not drawing attention to it.

It was just them, in a deserted hospital, an empty world. Empty thoughts, empty minds. Clay stared. Justin stared back. The intense scrutiny would have been unsettling if he wasn’t so used to it by now. Clay made staring an Olympic event.

Lainie’s voice interrupted them. “What the hell happened in here?”

Justin had no idea how Lainie knew anything had happened, other than the fact that Alex was gone and he and Clay had shrunk their prison down to the size of a hospital bed.

“Clay had a meltdown,” Justin said at the same time as Clay said, “Justin freaked out on Alex.”

“Dude!”

“Dude!”

Lainie sighed as she approached the bed. “Are you boys okay?”

“Yeah, we’re okay.” Justin turned and offered a smile for them both. He thought Clay had maybe run out of smiles.

“I’m not okay,” Clay complained. “These hospital beds are uncomfortable. And Justin’s a blanket hog.”

It was an offensive statement. Justin tucked the blankets up around Clay, giving him way more than his fair share, slotting a thin sheet between his sling and his ribs as a cushion, re-propping his pillows, noticing as he did so that Matt was hanging back by the door, arms folded across his chest. Reluctant, or unwilling, to approach.

“You two were at dinner for a suspiciously long time,” Clay said, snuggling into the blanket cocoon Justin had made for him.

“Well, we didn’t want to get your hopes up, but—before dinner—we had a meeting with your care team, Justin. It’s encouraging news. Your blood work looks good, your vitals have been stable, no signs of internal bleeding. We know you boys have been having a hard time of it here in the hospital, and we thought it might be best if we asked about home care services. So... how would you feel about getting out of here tomorrow?”

“Really?” Justin pushed himself into a sitting position, hardly daring to hope.

“Dr. Changtai is going to order your release in the morning. With the risk of hospital-acquired infection, it’s actually safer for you, Justin, to be away from the hospital, and I trust Carolyn’s recommendations on home health care nurses. There isn’t anything we can’t handle ourselves after a little instruction. Your dad’s going to call Bill later and see if they’re still willing to take us in for the interim. My sister’s out as an option since you can't be around small children, and the insurance–”

“Actually,” Clay interrupted. “I thought—maybe we could go back to the house?”

They all turned, in sync, to stare at him.

“Not—not permanently,” Clay said. “I still want to move, but until we can find a buyer who's not scared of our murder house–” Lainie flinched. “–I guess we could stay there. I’d like to sleep in my own bed, and Justin needs to stay away from Alex for, like, the foreseeable future.”

The fuck? Justin thought.

Lainie put her hands down on the bed and sank into them.

Matt came a few steps closer. “You were pretty adamant about not going back there.”

“I’ll live upstairs,” Clay said flatly. “It’s fine.”

Clay had become the default decision maker, so it was already decided, but Matt still asked for his opinion anyway, “Justin, is that acceptable to you?”

“Yeah, I don’t care, as long as I’m with you guys.” He directed his next words to Clay. “Wherever you wanna go, I’ll go.”

“Okay,” Lainie said, beaming at them, bright and vibrant. She produced her legal pad out of thin air. “We can give it a trial run. Let’s make a list of everything that needs to happen before tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. They were going home.

Tomorrow.

It didn’t feel real.

It felt too real.

Justin didn’t know why, but he fumbled for Clay’s hand, seeking it out under the blankets. He clutched at the warm fingers, his only lifeline.

 


 

It was late. The lights were turned down low. The hospital was a busy kind of quiet, nighttime quiet. Matt had gone back to the house to get things ready. Lainie was on her phone in the chair by the corner, talking to Alex’s mom. They did that a lot these days.

Clay was still lying beside him, and it was cramped—but Justin didn’t mind. He and Clay had converged on a common comfort zone, which meant they were basically winging it, open to unpredictability.

Justin had slept with a lot of people, in a lot of different places—cars, stairwells, underpasses, abandoned buildings—but he had never been so consciously aware of someone else’s body before. Sometimes Clay would tap his arm, testing with small touches, careful finger dribbles. Other times, he would get unexpectedly grouchy and throw the blankets off the bed, or get anxious and breathe like a raging bull, or get bored and attempt to balance Styrofoam cups on Justin’s head, which was childish and wonderful, and vastly preferable to the time he knocked his broken arm into the bed railing and then projectile vomited onto their new comic.

They had talked a little more, about Christmas, about Alien Killer Robots, about college and who their ideal roommate would be. The meds were making Clay sleepy (sleepier) but he was resisting, had been resisting for over a week.

Insomnia was a real fucker.

All Justin wanted to do was close his eyes, put an end to the day, and overdose on sleep. But there was something more important he had to do first: “If I stay here with you, will you sleep? I’ll stay awake,” he promised Clay, because he had finally figured it out. “I’ll make sure you don’t hurt anyone.”

Something in Clay relaxed, something that had been weighing on him for a long time, and Justin knew he had said the right thing.

“Wake me up... wake me up if you need anything.” Clay’s eyes were already drooping shut.

“What the fuck would I need?” What I need is for you to sleep and get your head on straight. “Go t’sleep.”

“Night.”

“Night.”

Within ten seconds, Clay had conked out.

Justin kept watch, as attentive to Clay as he would be to the opposing team during a basketball game, determined not to fuck this up. When Clay started to mutter and kick, Justin lightly stroked his arm until he settled, bumped their knuckles together each time Clay snapped to alertness, coaxed him to lie still when he thrashed around like a miniature tornado, smiled at him each time he peeked his eyes open, cheeks glossy with tears. It was hard work, doing nothing, and Justin found himself starting to nod off, so he picked up Clay’s phone and texted Alex, who stayed up with him and sent him message after message after message—it turned into the longest text conversation they had ever had.

Hours passed, and, at times, the feel of another body so close to his was a dull discomfort, which turned excruciating when Clay coiled his good arm across his stomach and breathed against his neck, but Justin stayed still, ignoring the panic, denying it control, wanting only to make his brother feel safe again, and he felt a strange surge of pride when he saw the peaceful, open softness to Clay’s face.

He was finally sleeping. True dream sleep. There were no pain lines, no twitches of distress. Clay wasn’t hurting. He wasn’t scared. He wasn’t trapped in a night terror or drugged to unconsciousness. Shadowed in the dimness, he looked young, but also pale, washed out in the dark.

Matt returned, and he seemed pleasantly surprised by the development. Lainie hovered, but her expression was happy, content.

Justin liked being looked at that way, and he liked it better when it came from doing what felt natural to him.

Maybe not everything I touch will break. Sometimes, I can bring good things, too.

Clay slept deeply until the morning, curled around Justin, solid and warm, a faint sheen of sweat on his skin. Justin watched him, his head and chest full—of congestion, mostly—but also of nice don’t-fuck-with-my-brother feelings.

Framed in the slant of sunlight from the window, Clay woke up, yawning widely, pillow lines etched on his cheek, hair sticking up at all angles. He pressed a finger to the crease of Justin’s eyelid. “Your turn.”

Justin didn’t argue. He promptly fell asleep, dozing for a few hours before a nurse arrived and politely kicked Clay out of the bed so she could do her assessments.

With a sigh, they parted, and Clay sat back in his chair to studiously watch the nurse listen to Justin’s lungs with her stethoscope. Justin put his hand where Clay had lain, the lingering body heat seeping from the sheets to his nerve endings, then on to his muscles, ligaments, blood cells, bone marrow.

Sharing a bed... it had felt more intimate than anything he had ever done with anyone else. Because, although he and Clay had slept together, it hadn’t started with, or ended in, sex.

It was a new experience for Justin, something unexpected, something gentle and anchoring.

There would always be guilt. There would always be shame. But when Clay left to go get a quick breakfast in the cafeteria, skipping his first shower, and Matt actually came within three feet of Justin and thanked him for having helped Clay get some rest, and Lainie massaged his hair back from his forehead with a maternal smile, Justin wished this, and only this, could be what people thought of when they saw him: he cared for his family, and he knew what family was.

 


 

December 20th

Justin was already in his wheelchair by the time Clay made it back to the room. He looked different dressed in normal clothes. No more hospital gown, no more IV lines, no more heart monitors. There was still that damn nasogastric tube, which was public enemy #1, but because Clay didn’t want Justin to starve, he guessed he could learn to live with it.

“Where the fuck were you?” Justin asked impatiently. “We’ve been waiting.”

“I had to go to the gift shop.” Clay draped the infant-sized t-shirt across Justin’s lap, the fabric a brightly colored blue, I’m the Little Brother emblazoned on the front.

Justin gaped at it, his eyebrows raised, the prelude to a sulk. “This is so not funny.”

“It’s a little funny... Isn’t it?”

Justin sulked.

Clay rolled his eyes, for the effect, and he tried to imagine coming to the hospital to welcome a new sibling into the world... instead of coming to the ER for a friend who was potentially preparing to leave it.

It was too foreign a concept.

What would it have been like—to have a baby brother? To grow up, side by side, with Justin, and have a connection before they even knew what language was? Clay wondered if Amber had ever considered having more children, and then, with a sinking stomach, he thought of Justin’s childhood—fists and fury, guns and dope, broken furniture, slamming doors, too-large hands on a too-small body.

Nights filled with bruises.

Clay had a firmer understanding of what it must have been like, but 30 minutes could never compare to 16 years.

“I missed you,” he said, just so Justin knew, even though they had only been apart for half an hour. He pulled out his real gift from the pocket of his hoodie—a brand new stress ball, shaped like a basketball. He pressed it into the curve of Justin’s palm. “Here, I promise not to ruin this one.”

“Dude!” Justin cracked a wide grin. “Much better. Thanks.” He threw it into the air and caught it easily. “For therapy?”

“Yes.” Clay liked it when they thought the same thoughts.

Justin lifted his fist to bump with Clay’s. Clay obliged, never really knowing what to do with all the affection Justin gave him.

Their mom lifted the t-shirt off Justin’s lap and held it wistfully, like it was an actual infant. Then she looked at Clay and laughed, wiping at her eyes. “I still have the onesie you came home from the hospital in, up in the attic.”

“Well, now you have something for Justin, too. You can put it in his baby book. Or frame it on the wall.” The shirt had really been a gift for his mom all along.

“Aw, you say the sweetest things,” Justin said, a feverishly happy shimmer surrounding him like an aura. (Or maybe that was just Clay’s migraine.)

“Shut up,” Clay told him. By which, he meant, you are far, far too much for me sometimes—I can’t lose you.

“Don’t give your mother any ideas.” Their dad picked up the bag of get-well cards and the only two balloons with any remaining buoyancy.

“Wait, wait, I’ve got him.” His mom took over the job of pushing Justin’s wheelchair, and the patient transporter, who had started the journey, was wise enough to allow it without making a fuss. Once they left the room, their procession slowed to a crawl as the entire nursing staff, or so it seemed, lined up to bid them goodbye.

Clay’s dad fell into step beside him. “Justin’s amassed quite the fan club while he’s been here.”

“Yeah, he has a talent for that—getting people to like him, whether they want to or not.” Clay envied it—the entitled ease. He felt awkward in any social situation, but Justin carved out a place for himself wherever he went, filled the room, made it his, or, rather, made it theirs. Justin was waving his hand in Clay’s direction, including him in whatever inane, but charming, comment he was making to the environmental services lady.

He looked indestructible, untroubled. Magnetic, even.

But it was disingenuous.

“He’s likable,” Clay conceded, with reluctant fondness, “but he’s going to need our help. He’ll fool you and Mom into thinking this is no different than anything else he’s been through. I think—it’s different.”

“An astute observation,” his dad said, placing a calming hand on Clay’s shoulder. “But I don’t think he’s the only one who says he’s okay when he really isn’t. It’s not a competition, kid. I don’t want you to think that you need to hide anything from us. You should feel comfortable telling us about how low you’ve been getting, about how the meds are making you feel. Your mom and I are going to counseling, too, you know. Healing—it’s a struggle, but so is life. The struggle itself is living.”

There was a pressure behind Clay’s eyes. If he looked down, he was sure he would see blood spatter, see it cresting like an ocean wave, coating his legs, as an oily substance was poured over his head—a dual drowning. Focus, Justin said, slinging his arm across his shoulder, his thumb brushing across Clay’s bottom lip... except Justin was in his wheelchair, talking to a nurse down the hall with their mom, so it couldn’t be Justin who had said it, couldn’t be Justin who had touched his face. Clay’s thoughts tangled into a wall of ivy, and he saw a hospital cart topple over, but when he blinked and looked again, it was fine.

Words formed and they almost died on his lips, but Clay blew them out, like bubblegum: “Justin shouldn’t have survived what Seth did to him.”

His dad came to a halt. “Shouldn’t have...?” He gripped Clay’s arm, holding him back, letting everyone else go ahead. “You mean medically, right? Statistically? Kiddo, please tell me that I’m not purposefully misunderstanding you.”

Clay didn’t know what he had meant; it was a complicated translation from synapses to syllables. “Yeah, that’s what I meant,” he falsely claimed.

All he could see was red.

“Hey,” his dad said, an unsure look on his face. “You do not give up. You never have. Don’t let this be the one time you do.”

There was so much to miss in the world; there were always more reasons not to; suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem, et cetera. Clay knew it, he believed it. He wished he felt it more, though. How could you not want to die, but also not want to exist at the same time?

Maybe he should talk to Alex, instead of avoiding him like he had planned to do.

“I won’t, Dad. All I want is to get better. For Justin to get better. Healing. Therapy. College. Retirement.”

“I think you skipped a few milestones in there,” his dad said wryly. “I’m not trying to be Panglossian about this, but it is going to get better, day by day. You know what Abigail Thomas said, ‘Good things happen slowly and...”

“Bad things happen fast,’” Clay finished. “Yeah, real inspiring. Kind of hollow, though, when you’re slogging through it.”

Did psychosis happen fast? Or was losing yourself a slow, inexorable descent, so slow that, when you reached the bottom, you didn’t even realize you had changed at all?

Stop, stop, stop. He schooled his face, trying to rearrange it into something high-spirited. This day was supposed to be a celebration—a homecoming. He wanted it to feel that way, for Justin. He didn’t want to dampen the mood or make it lackluster. They all needed a break from morbidity.

Clay spied the top of his sketchbook sticking out of his dad’s bag. It was almost full. He had been sketching every day since they had been in the hospital, one particular subject filling the pages. While Justin was striking when drawn in tragedy, Clay much preferred his easy-going smile. To honor it, he curled his lips upward for the sake of his brother, an action more mechanical than emotional.

“We’re falling behind,” his dad said, encouraging him forward. It was true: His mom and Justin were already at the elevator, holding the door for them.

Clay felt lonely, and then he felt a tug jerking him forward, gravity demanding its due, and the only way to satisfy its pull was to follow it home.

“You ready?” his mom asked him when they caught up. “We’ve tried to keep this quiet, but there could be press waiting outside.”

“I’m ready,” Clay said, stepping across the threshold, finding his way to Justin’s side, touching his shoulder. “Let’s go home.”

Home. He looked to Justin when he said it.

Green eyes.

All he could see was green.

“Push the button,” Justin said, and Clay did.

End of Part Two

Chapter Text


Part Three

December 20th

“I have some difficult news.” Dr. Changtai spoke to them with words of compassion and encouragement, and her announcement, though sobering, hadn’t put a pall over Justin’s release.

They had all rallied, Clay wandering off to the gift shop, Justin dressing in the bathroom, Matt collecting their scattered belongings, and Lainie going over discharge instructions with the nurse. There was no time to pause and think, no time to visit the jail and look Raymond Martínez in the face—demand an explanation, an apology, a spillage of blood equal to that which her children had spilled.

Lainie asked herself for a continuance.

She granted it.

Later.

Later, she could dig into the research and ponder the statistics. Schedule immediate tests, for Clay. Delayed ones, for Justin. Break down in the master bathroom, and ask Matt, “Did we wait too long? Were we not proactive enough?”

She had become a master of insurance forms, of medical parlance, of realistic expected outcomes. She had not become a master at navigating the emotional wounds of sexualized violence, the psychological scars of great bodily injury. The impacts of such violations were immense, but the trauma of it had silenced her children.

They would not speak of it.

She was afraid they never would; she was so afraid—afraid afraid afraid.

She was afraid of losing them.

Losing them to themselves.

But she had spent weeks in the company of potential loss, it wasn’t new, and she could postpone her fears for later, too.

Later.

Because today... today, her children were finally coming home.

 


 

The cavalcade of police cars started its way down the street, providing an escort for the Jensens’ vehicle as it approached the house. There was a blockade erected on the sidewalk, secured by deputies, intended to keep the reporters at a safe distance, to give some measure of privacy to this homecoming.

Jess stood with her friends, bouncing on her toes, blowing warmth back into her fingers. It was a cold day, the sky a gray bruise, spotty rain misting their cheeks. They had been hard at work the previous night and in a frenzied rush this morning to get everything prepared, but these final moments of waiting had turned out to be the most difficult part.

Zach called them into a huddle. They hugged and put their hands together, hers on top of Alex’s, Alex’s on Sheri’s, Sheri’s on May’s, and Zach’s freakishly large hands surrounding them all.

“Okay, guys, we did good work, but now we gotta go with the flow and be the supporting players. We’re not the offense. We’re not the defense. Mr. and Mrs. Jensen are the coaches, so they call the plays.”

Zach paused dramatically, looked at the house with a stressed-out squint that didn’t quite fit the vibe he was going for. “We can’t fumble this one, guys. So, Alex... man, please don’t screw it up for us by talking about existential dread.” Zach shook his head, clapped his hands. “That’s all I’ve got.”

“Nice pep talk,” Jess said as the Prius pulled up to the curb. “Justin would appreciate it, but Clay would call you an idiot, for sure.”

“And I would take that as a compliment,” Zach said with a grin. “Because Clay calls Justin an idiot all the time, and there’s no one he respects more.”

Carolyn came over to speak to them, brisk and to the point. “All right, remember what we talked about. If you have to cough or sneeze, you step away, you handle it, and then you go wash your hands. I know you’re all eager to see Clay and Justin, but physical contact is very painful for them right now. By all means, be enthusiastic—I think they could use some cheer—but please try to restrain yourselves.”

The lecture was unnecessary. Before coming out to wait, they had all scrubbed their hands raw. They had spent the previous evening scrubbing the Jensens’ house from top to bottom with disinfectant and bleach (Zach’s mom was an efficient taskmaster). They had also washed all the Jensens’ sheets and linens, restocked the fridge and pantry, set up the rented rehabilitation equipment in Mr. Jensen’s office, and redecorated the living room—all the while rigorously trying not to think about the terrible things that had gone down in that cozy space and trying not to stare as Mr. Jensen crouched down to the floorboards, closed his eyes, and touched the wood grain.

So that was where...

The sight had been so hauntingly evocative that Jess had needed to go to the kitchen and make a call. (“Daddy, I changed my mind. Come over and help us put up the trees.”)

The car doors slammed, one, two, three, in a row. Matt came around with Justin’s walker and opened the fourth door, and Lainie leaned into the car to unfasten his seat belt as Clay held his hand under the door frame so that Justin wouldn’t bump his head as he slowly maneuvered his way out of the passenger seat.

They waited patiently until Lainie gave a sign that they were allowed to approach.

Jess had gotten reports from Zach and Alex, but no words compared to being able to finally see Justin for herself.

She took him in.

“Hey,” he said, sliding the mask off his face, acknowledging her before anyone else.

“Hey,” she managed. “You look...”

“High,” Justin finished, self-deprecation in the curve of his mouth. “You can say it.”

“Well-medicated,” Mr. Jensen swiftly corrected.

Yes, it was true, Justin did have a glazed dopiness to his eyes that bespoke heavy painkillers, but what had struck her the most was how insubstantial he seemed. He was wearing an overlarge sweater, which hid it somewhat, but she could tell he had lost a lot of weight in the hospital.

Too much.

He looked painfully thin.

She stepped closer and Justin’s face—once so lovingly tilted down to meet hers—found its way to rest on her shoulder. She felt his hair touch her cheek, the faint scrape of his stubble, and it was barely an embrace, but it was immeasurably nice, and it felt like someone had defogged the glass that had separated them since she had first seen the news on the TV.

I almost didn’t get to have this again.

The first person Clay spoke to, surprisingly, wasn’t Sheri but Alex. “Is everything—good between us?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I was worried you’d think less of me.”

“Well, I don’t. You’re just out of time.” Clay’s expression was casually blank so Alex continued: “With your internal metronome. You’re off the beat. I was aiming for a less depressing metaphor this time around because Zach says I’m too emo. I mean, I think I’m appropriately emo. But, yeah.”

“Okay, cool.”

Thankfully, Clay looked much better than the last time Jess had seen him. He had more natural color to him, less little boy lost in his eyes. The swelling on his face had gone down, his sling was hidden underneath his jacket, and the part of him that had been missing—Justin—was now no more than an arm’s length away.

“So, stupid question,” Jess said to Clay. “How are you?”

He shrugged loosely. “The continual pain has made me delirious, I guess, because Justin doesn’t annoy me anymore.”

“Hospital honeymoon period,” Alex said. “Give it five minutes.”

“Dude,” Justin said, pushing his walker to the side and leaning against the car like he was in a fashion shoot for the reporters down the street, “you were complaining about seat belts the whole ride home.”

“Well, yeah,” Clay began, baffled. “But I didn’t mean– I was criticizing seat belt manufacturers! I wasn’t annoyed at you. Did you think I was annoyed at you?” He swallowed harshly, wrapped his fingers around Justin’s walker. “Because that’s idiotic.”

Zach and Jess shared a glance.

Clay nudged the walker closer to Justin. “At least hold onto this with one hand. Do you wanna fall and rip your stitches? We just got home.”

May crept out from behind Zach, peeked at Justin from behind Sheri.

“Well, come here, bumblebee.” Justin opened his arms and May wrapped her small arms around Justin’s torso and hugged him gently.

“You look really good,” May said after breaking the embrace. “I like your bracelet.”

Justin fiddled with the silicone band and Jess saw the words printed in bold font, NO SPLEEN. She wondered if he was wearing it for Lainie’s peace of mind, or if he would have to wear it, always.

“Give Clay a hug, too. But be careful of his ribs, okay?”

May stepped over to Clay, and Clay reflexively took a step backward. “Oh.” May was probably the only one of them who had the emotional intelligence to say, “I don’t think I should hug you. But I’m happy to see you, and I’m sorry you missed final exams. I got an A+ in math, so they’re gonna put me in Honors Geometry next year.”

“That’s awesome.” Clay clumsily patted her shoulder. “And, you know what? I don’t care about missing final exams.” He looked at Justin, and when Justin looked back, he held the connection and did not look away. “Some things are more important.”

Lainie put her hand to her chest and Justin smiled, a soft, sad, fond smile—the smile he reserved only for Clay.

“I’d do the same for Zach,” May said solemnly.

“You hear that, Zach? We rate higher than math.” Justin laughed, rich and deep, and the sound of it filled the street, covered the somber expanse of marble sky. “No one else hug me. I’m all gross. And highly contagious.” He winked at May.

“Is that supposed to scare me?” May asked, and she looked pleased by the attention. “I wouldn’t mind getting sick. Maybe they’ll quarantine us together.”

“He’s not really contagious,” Clay said, with a perturbed frown. “He’s vulnerable to infection, like, really vulnerable. He had sepsis at the hospital. If he gets–”

“We know,” Jess said soothingly. “We’ll be careful.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Justin said to May. “You’re my girl. There’s no one else I’d rather be stuck with.” But Justin cut a sideways glance at Clay as he said it, and they all knew what he was really saying, and to whom.

“Alright, alright, that’s enough of that.” Zach picked May up from behind and put his chin on her head. “He’s too old for you. And a bad influence.”

Jess thought Justin would have liked to linger in this carefully constructed frivolity, to hug each of them in turn, but Clay clearly didn’t want to be hugged at all and he kept glancing anxiously at the crowd of reporters and busybodies in the far distance, so Justin said, “We should get inside,” and Jess knew that he had really foregone hugs for himself just so that it wouldn’t become awkward for Clay.

He was a good brother, his relative lack of experience inconsequential.

They entered the house through the back door, which meant it was a long, slow walk, but a long walk was more feasible for Justin than attempting those steep front steps. Matt and Lainie strategically surrounded their sons, one in front, one behind, and Clay stood rigidly close to Justin, an arm around his back, letting him pause when he needed to, which was often, and their foot placements came not before, not after, but exactly at the same time.

“It’s okay to take a break. Hold onto me, if you need to.” Clay was a good brother, too. Whatever he lacked in the ability to execute, he made up for in dedication and understanding.

When they reached the patio door, they all hung back, formed a semi-circle out on the grass, because they knew this was something the Jensens needed to do by themselves.

Jess couldn’t hear what was being said, but the conversation was obviously emotional and whether the words were of celebration and gratitude, or mourning and trepidation, it was difficult to ascertain. Matt was first to enter the house and Clay was supposed to be second but he stalled and had to be coaxed into taking another step. He looked like he was being forced to enter an active shooter situation instead of his childhood home, and it made Jess sad—to think that a part of the old Clay was gone, not buried under miles of traumatic shit but just gone, never to return.

Justin leaned towards Clay until their shoulders touched, and there was another discussion, this time between brothers, and whatever was said provided the necessary reassurance, the impetus for progress, but not before—

“Are they...?” Alex asked.

“Yeah, they are,” Zach said.

Hand-holding: the true next level.

“It’s sweet,” Jess said, with a smile. It was such an oversimplification—calling something sweet when its origin was traumatic. She couldn’t remember Clay and Justin ever holding hands before their near-death experience, couldn’t imagine them wanting to do so, although there had been many times, at school, when Clay had been panicking about an exam, walking circles around their lunch table, and Justin had slung his arm around Clay’s shoulders and taken a walk with him, such a casual gesture, but Clay had always mellowed out.

After a respectful minute, Jess decided it was okay for them to enter the house, too.

It was very quiet, everyone processing in their own way. Justin was tracing the vein on the side of his throat with his thumb, distant, focused on nothing. Clay was hyper-alert, eyes darting around, his muscles tense, a cord wound too tight. Lainie was pulling hand sanitizer out of her purse, efficient, practical. Matt had a hand on Clay’s shoulder and his other hand was stretched out, slowly approaching Justin’s shoulder, but it faltered, retreated, and found Lainie’s arm instead.

Interesting.

“Fuck, man,” Clay said to Justin. “Fuck.”

“It’s nice to be home,” Justin said.

Alex preceded Zach into the house, and the screen door smacked shut behind them.

Loudly.

The snap reverberated through the room, and Clay reacted like a flock of birds scattering after a gunshot. In a blind panic, he leapt in front of Justin—to shield him from perceived harm—and then he flushed, the fear in his eyes replaced by disgust, and he barreled past his parents. They could hear him bolting up the stairs.

“He has a migraine,” Justin explained. “The bright lights, y’know.”

They all nodded and hummed and accepted the bullshit explanation. (It was an overcast day, the house was dim.)

May skipped up to them and salvaged the rapidly diminishing joy. “You’ve gotta see what we did in the living room.”

“We can do that later,” Lainie hedged, her hands knotted in front of her. “Justin... if it’s too soon, you shouldn’t feel obligated.”

“It’s okay,” Justin said. “I want to. I’d like to.” He gestured at May. “Lead the way.”

May did, giddy in her excitement. Matt walked into the room behind her and stood off to the side, fading unobtrusively into the background, like he had signed a contract to always maintain a certain distance. Lainie was wary, her hand clutching Justin’s upper arm. When she drew a shaky breath, Justin halted, leaned down and kissed her cheek. “It’s fine, it really is. This is one of my favorite places to be.”

Lainie looked at him with wonder and heartbreak, like he had defied her expectations but in a way that she didn’t want. “Thank you. That makes me happy to hear. You make me happy.”

“I shoulda taken video,” Sheri said, turning to Jess.

“Right?”

Justin had used to tease Zach about being a mama’s boy—merciless taunting, sometimes even cruel—but it seemed like he was well on his way to becoming one himself.

It should have been a heavy moment, should have been in-their-face and ugly—like Clay’s bruises, like Hannah’s empty desk—and Jess’s heart did double-time in anticipatory anxiety, but it was her anxiety, her intrusive memories, not Justin’s. He was expressionless as he entered the living room, his every thought and feeling securely locked away. If it was distressing for him to be back in the room where he had almost died, nothing in his body language revealed it.

His reaction was, honestly, underwhelming, and Jess fantasized—briefly, but very vividly—about walking up to him, running her fingers along the tube taped to his cheek, bringing her lips to his, and dragging something real out of him.

A kiss as soft as crushed flowers.

(Desiccated rose petals, crumbling too easily.)

She reconsidered. Probably shouldn’t kiss my immunocompromised ex-boyfriend in front of his parents five days before Christmas in the actual spot where he might’ve watched his brother be savagely beaten.

“You guys did all this?” Justin asked, eyes sweeping over the room.

“In less than 12 hours,” Sheri said, twirling her wrist. “Which should earn us a reality TV show because our budget was $100.”

It was an Instagram-worthy scene.

They had removed all the furniture, except for the two wicker chairs, which they had pushed to the far corner and draped with blankets from the upstairs closet. There wasn’t much to be done architecturally, and they didn’t have the time to paint, or the audacity to choose new furniture, so they had gone with surface fixes: loud and gaudy trinkets from the dollar store, mistletoe and holly hanging from the rafters, a folding table Alex’s dad had given them from his garage, which they had stacked with an assortment of presents, some from them, others given by the community, and the crowning glory: three Christmas trees that took up most of the floor space and hopefully helped block out the memory of three atrocities.

Assault and battery. Attempted murder. Justifiable homicide. All covered over with tinsel and artificial Christmas cheer.

“This tree is for Clay,” May said, tapping a red bauble so that it began to swing in a lazy arc. “We all worked on the trimming. I picked out the Star Wars stuff, and Sheri made the Alien Killer Robot ornaments, and, well, it’s really just a mishmash of nerdy things we thought he’d like. Yours was harder. Zach decorated it, mostly, and Alex. Your dad strung the lights. Do you like it?”

“Shit. Of course I do.” Justin listened as May explained the color scheme and the rationale behind how they had arranged the stockings on the mantelpiece. (“We put yours last, not because you’re less important, but because it should be by age, and you’re the youngest. Your middle name is cute, and I’ve decided to call you Drew, but no one else gets to. Just me.”)

Justin stared at his stocking and its embroidered lettering, Justin Andrew Jensen. He looked endearingly stupefied, and unfairly adorable, and Jess wished she could freeze time so that he could stay in that moment and have those warm feelings forever.

“What’s the third tree for?” he asked. “Looks a little naked.”

May giggled.

“Oh,” Sheri said. “This is your family tree. Lainie told us where all the ornaments and lights were, and we brought them down from the attic, but we didn’t think we should put anything up. We thought maybe you’d want to do it as a family? For your first Christmas together.”

“I don’t know if Clay will...” Justin shook his head. “He might not wanna...” He twisted sideways, looked at that spot on the floor, that place where Matt had lingered, and his voice became rock-steady, like what he was talking about was a blandly ordinary thing. “A lot happened in this room. It’s hard for him.”

Only for him? Jess thought.

“We’ll make it work,” Matt said. “Even if Clay doesn’t want to come down and participate, we can still go through the ornaments in your bedroom. Each one of them has a story, and we’d like to share those stories with you. Clay wouldn’t want you to miss out.”

Justin lifted his hand and touched the only ornament that hung on the empty tree. Jess had hoped he would notice, would have been disappointed if he had not. She had hung it up, taken it down, hung it up a dozen times, until Mr. Jensen had told her, “leave it, it’s perfect.”

The personalized ornament was adorned with blue and green ribbon, and Jess had selected the stupidest and sappiest picture of Clay and Justin she could find on her phone before making a hasty trip to Walgreens to finalize the design.

Justin ran his index finger over the photo, over the sentimental text that framed it, Brothers make the best of friends. “This is really nice.” He wiped his face quickly on his sleeve. “Thank you guys. For everything.”

The Christmas lights bathed Justin’s face in a dream-like glow, but the diffused effect was over too soon, evanescent, because he was looking across the sea of people, looking and looking, but not finding whom he sought.

“Can we–? I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but I should... I should go see what Clay’s up to.”

“Yes, of course,” Lainie said, a tinge of worry in her voice, as if she had been contemplating the same idea. “Zach, honey, why don’t you walk behind him in case he needs help?”

“Sure. I’ve gotcha, dude.” Zach followed Justin up the stairs, Justin taking it a step at a time, the climb no doubt as daunting a prospect as a hike to the top of Mt. Everest, and Jess saw the sweat on Justin’s face, saw how physically demanding this (once simple) task was for him.

On the fifth step, Justin’s legs buckled, and Zach caught him, grabbing onto his biceps, keeping him upright. “Is this not gonna work? ‘Cuz I feel like it’s not.”

“I can do it,” Justin said briskly, but his face had gone two shades paler. “I have to figure it out somehow.”

“Okay, true, but I already figured it out.” Zach pulled Justin’s arm over his shoulders firmly. “I’ll carry you.”

“Zach, no. I’m too heavy.”

Please. I could carry two of you. Easy.” Zach picked Justin up like he was a basketball, without the slightest sign of strain. “I can carry you up and down the stairs 100 times a day if you need me to. It’d be a good workout. I could camp out in Mr. Jensen’s office and be on call. Oh, we forgot to tell you: We set up a cot in there, in case you ever want to sleep downstairs. PT is gonna wear you out, but you’ll see progress if you keep at it.”

“We figured you’d rather be in your own room,” Sheri said, hefting Justin’s walker higher as she navigated the stairs.

“With Clay,” May added, unnecessarily. “He’d miss you.”

At the end of the hallway, Zach set Justin down and Sheri positioned his walker in front of him so that he could have a little pride and walk into his bedroom under his own steam.

“Clay! What the fuck are you doing?”

Jess, alarmed, rushed in behind Justin to see what the problem was.

“Whoa.”

Clay was in the process of tearing his drawings off the wall, and there were crumpled balls on the floor, partially ripped sheets on his bed, half-torn papers still taped at skewed angles. He had done a lot of damage in the time they had been downstairs, which was quite a feat given that he only had one hand with which to manage it. He had managed it, well enough.

Clay staggered back when he saw them, as if he had been startled, startled by himself more than anything, but he huffed and pivoted and continued tearing the drawings down with violent, disjointed movements, like the pictures were aesthetically offensive.

The wall looked barren. There were chips in the paint. Missing flakes of colors.

“Huh,” Zach said.

“Clay!” Justin kicked a fragment of paper off to the side with his shoe. “Stop, man. What are you doing? Don’t rip up your drawings.”

“I don’t want them.”

“I want them!” Justin said desperately. “Can I have them?”

“Why?” Clay gave Justin a look that Jess couldn’t quite parse. Fucked up, complicated, and yet tender, too.

“I like them. I wanna keep ‘em. Please?”

There was no defense against that word, please, not when Justin paired it with dewy-eyed supplication, not when he directed it at Clay.

“Alright, fine. But I don’t want them hanging up.”

“We’ll help take them down,” Sheri said. “We know you’re going to move soon, so it’s kinda like packing things up, getting things tidy, right? I get it.”

Jess didn’t get it. They were far, far from understanding anything in Clay’s tormented mind.

She was relieved to see that he hadn’t touched anything on Justin’s side of the room—his posters and sports paraphernalia, his picture of Amber, his mini basketball hoop. Those objects were a reminder of last summer, of coming back to Justin’s house after a date at the Crestmont, of cuddling on his bed and then taking it further, opening her body to him, reaching that sweet spot together... then having to dive under the blankets as Clay wandered in (“Are you–? Oh my god! Right, so I’m just gonna—leave.”).

Things had seemed simple back then, and good.

“Please sit down,” Lainie said patiently to Clay. “This isn’t necessary. Your dad and I are happy to rearrange or reorganize anything you’d like. Just ask.”

“Yeah,” Alex agreed. “Take a break. Wanton destruction can wait ‘til tomorrow.”

“Candy cane?” May offered, pulling one out of her purse.

Clay took the candy and handed it to Justin, who pulled off the wrapper and handed it back.

Sugar proved an adequate distraction, and Clay chomped on the candy cane, rather ruthlessly, but the only possible casualties this time were his back molars. And even that stopped when Sheri reached out and skimmed her fingers over Clay’s forearm.

Justin sank onto Clay’s bed and possibly it was uncomfortable for him because he let out a faltering sigh, but as he tilted his head back to look at the ceiling, there was a stunned quality to his expression and Jess realized, he didn’t think he’d ever see his room again.

“Wrong bed,” Clay said.

“Yours was closer.” Justin bounced his hand off the mattress a few times.

“They’re equidistant.”

“And identical. Would you let it go?”

“Would you?” Clay didn’t really seem bothered, the attempt at an argument more a product of habit, or perhaps a familiar comfort. Clay and Justin could bicker for hours, about any topic, and tended to tire themselves out doing so. (Tony had banned them from the lunch table in October after a two-day squabble about honey mustard... until he had realized that they were perfectly content to sit by themselves and would likely never return.)

“Whatever,” Clay said, giving up gracefully. “We’ll swap beds.” He moved over to brush a bead of sweat off Justin’s temple. “You okay?”

“Yup.” Justin ran his hand along the comforter, staring at it with veneration, like the answers to all his troubles could be found there. He closed his eyes and murmured happily, “Fuck, I missed this.”

“You missed my bed? Typical.” Clay’s lips curled slightly, the first smile Jess had seen from him. A true one, without any shadows in it. But it would take a recognizable effort for Clay not to smile at Justin, she thought. Even if the smile wouldn’t stick.

They went to work, taking down the pictures, arranging them by size, retrieving the discarded drawings from the floor and handing them to Justin, who stayed seated and diligently smoothed out the crumpled edges. Sheri took the most ruined pieces and slid them into her purse.

Alex didn’t help.

He had an agenda of his own, but each time he tried to approach Justin, Clay stepped into his path, blocking him access. It wasn’t malicious—it was Clay—but there was no way it could be interpreted as anything other than deliberate.

Jess guessed that when you had committed murder to save someone, it probably heightened your sense of responsibility towards them.

Or maybe Justin’s welfare was simply something Clay wasn’t willing to trust to anyone else yet.

“Where do you want the drawings?” Zach asked Justin.

“Under my bed. Just put them under my gym bag.”

“Got it.” Zach crouched down to stow the drawings away.

“Can I get you an ice pack?” Matt asked Clay, making an unnecessary amount of noise at his entrance, but, paradoxically, making the noise seem non-threatening and benign.

“Not yet.”

He turned to Justin. “What about you, kiddo? What can I get you?”

“Mouthwash?”

“Mouthwash,” Lainie repeated, as if the request troubled her. (It didn’t surprise her, Jess noted.)

“Well, that’s simple,” Matt said. “We can certainly do that. Think you can make it to the bathroom?”

Justin pushed his hands against the bed, grabbed onto the walker, contemplated getting up, shook his head, and let go. “No. I don’t think– I don’t think I can.”

It hurt to see the physical weakness, to see Justin self-conscious about his body, to see him brought low in this way, too.

“I’ll bring you a glass,” Matt said as Lainie knelt to remove Justin’s shoes.

“I’ll get it,” Jess offered. “I know where everything is.”

She found the mouthwash (there were two bottles, but she knew whose was whose: spearmint for Justin, peppermint for Clay) and she picked a cup at random, figuring that Mrs. Dempsey had probably sterilized and replaced them that morning.

Justin rinsed his mouth vigorously, which was dumb and masochistic because it had to burn pretty badly; he still had sores in his mouth, didn’t he? (Zach had been ambiguous, so Jess didn’t know how Justin had gotten them. From the ventilator? But that had been weeks ago. From biting his tongue from the pain? The idea of it made her shudder.)

Justin kept tilting the bottle, rinsing and spitting—three times, five times. Was he aiming to down the entire thing?

Clay was watching him sadly. So was Lainie.

Sheri intervened. “You can’t get high on that, you know.”

“It’s alcohol, isn’t it?” Justin said, but he seemed ill at ease. “My mouth tastes awful.”

“Well, no kissing for you, then.” Jess took the mouthwash away. She felt like they were all missing something, doubly so when Clay shoved his way between them, causing her to almost lose her balance.

“Would you fucking get out of his space?”

Justin’s eyes widened, and he surveyed Clay, almost fearfully. “Hey, hey. Dude. Look at me.” He brought a finger to his chapped lips, tapping them three times, an odd gesture that somehow cleared the storm and calmed the waters.

“Sorry.” Clay gave Justin a slow once-over and then turned his attention to Jess. “Sorry, fuck, Jess, I overreacted, I shouldn’t have done that.” He was as quick to soften as he was to snap. “I think I’ve exceeded my asshole quotient when it comes to you guys.”

“Hardly,” Alex said. “Enabling Justin’s mouthwash addiction? Problematic, but not a crime.”

“Your alarm system’s in overdrive,” Sheri said. “Anyone’s would be, after going through what you did. You can’t help what triggers you.”

“It was still a dick thing to do.” Clay’s voice was layered in shame, and he took a step closer to Justin, and then another, in such a way that Jess didn’t even think he realized he was doing it. (Well, there was a finite limit. He would realize it once he fell on top of him.)

“Yeah, well, welcome to the club,” Zach said. “We all do dumb shit. Justin and Alex especially.”

“Fuck you.”

“What? Don’t come at me for speaking the truth.”

“Justin’s way worse than me,” Alex protested, fondly judgmental, and he marched towards Clay’s bed, defiant and determined.

Clay cut him off.

“I am worse,” Justin concurred.

“At least he’s self-aware,” Sheri said.

For a good minute, Clay struggled with a trauma-induced reflex that centered on Justin, but then he moved away with a meaningful look at Alex, like he was surrendering a territorial claim and thought himself generous to do so.

Justin quirked an eyebrow at him, raised his index finger like he was making a pronouncement. “I’m gonna hug Alex.” He paused, as if waiting for confirmation or permission. “You cool with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be cool?” Clay looked at the ceiling, his fingers rapidly tapping his hip.

Justin sucked air between his teeth and then rolled the walker to the side. He pushed himself up, and Alex met him, and they stood there, kind of tentative, and when they hugged, it was uncoordinated in a way Justin rarely was, but they relaxed into it, like a marshmallow melting into hot chocolate, swaying side to side. Clay looked at them askance, and there was a strange sort of pain behind his eyes.

What the hell is going on with you three?

Justin reached out his hand and beckoned Clay closer, “c’mere,” and, as if on automatic, Clay went. Justin caught Clay by the arm, gently collected him and pulled him in, and, slowly, Clay began to give ground, avoiding Alex, but leaning into Justin. It was a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, Justin trying to make it work through sheer stubbornness, and Alex trying to tune the configuration like he would tune his guitar.

Jess remembered when it had been her, Alex, and Justin orbiting around each other, quiet near-misses and tumultuous collisions. Had they been this unstable, full of this much messiness?

God, what idiots we were.

Clay was working his jaw, and he seemed close to losing his patience with the arrangement, but he had become dormant, a volcano no longer close to eruption; in fact, he was rubbing circles of warm affection along Justin’s back, his chin on Justin’s shoulder, enduring any psychological discomfort for Justin’s sake.

This isn’t gonna work.

Jess wasn’t trying to be pessimistic, but the dynamic between the three of them was off. There was so much more love and weight, importance, on one side of the triangle than there was on the other.

Did Alex realize it?

Did Justin?

(If Jess was the third side, would it be different? Was she being self-absorbed and over-confident to think that it would?)

Time ticked by, and it was fascinating to watch, but then Clay tugged on Justin’s hand, insistent, and Justin stepped away from Alex, the distance between them widening as Clay led him away.

Jess grabbed Alex’s arm to stop him from trying to follow.

Relax, bro-yo. Clay’s not your competition.

Clay idled at the edge of Justin’s bed, and to Sheri’s amusement, Zach’s confusion, and Alex’s further exasperation, Justin cupped Clay’s face in his hands, holding it like it was the most delicate thing in the universe, brushing his thumbs along the cheekbones, murmuring, “Calm down.”

“I am calm!”

“No, you’re not. You’re starting to spiral. Just look at me, stay here with me.” Justin unzipped Clay’s hoodie, unbuttoned his shirt, ritualistically rebuttoned it for him, smoothed the wrinkles out. He flicked Clay’s lower lip with his thumb, pressed his finger to his own mouth and then gave it back, as if transferring a kiss, and Jess had been naked with Justin, he had kissed her clit and called her beautiful, skillfully working two fingers inside her, but this was intimacy of a completely different form and the sight of it made Jess blush. She didn’t want to turn away, although she thought maybe she should.

“What the fuck are they doing?” Zach asked lowly.

“Being Clay and Justin,” Alex sighed, which was the best description for it, the surest and simplest truth.

Jess cast him a sympathetic glance. The feeling of dismissal, no matter how complexly motivated, always stung.

“I’m trying so fucking hard,” Clay said, his eyes flicking self-consciously to where they all stood. His voice was raspy, full of gravel and obscure emotion. “This was supposed to be a nice thing, you coming home. I want it to be nice.” He tangled a hand in Justin’s shirt, at the bottom, gently. “I’m trying so fucking hard to hold it together for you.”

“I know you are.” Justin rubbed the back of Clay’s neck, and Clay’s expression didn’t change, but there was an emotional transaction occurring between them: comfort given for comfort received. “No one cares if you lose your shit. I don’t care. It’s okay.”

It was okay. Whatever weirdness they were witnessing, none of them faulted Clay or Justin for it.

Clay shook his head, touched Justin’s elbow. “Sit down. Fuck, you should sit down. You’re shaking.” He eased Justin onto the bed, and something shifted, their roles reversing, Clay becoming the dominant, leading one. The caregiver.

It was a task that Clay excelled at, and he was more at ease and more actively engaged as he pulled a stress ball out of his pocket and dropped it onto the bed. “You need this?”

“Nah.”

“You might. It’s getting bad again, isn’t it? Do you want everyone to leave?”

“I think it’ll pass if I– if I...” Justin wrapped an arm around his middle, his leg jittering up and down so fiercely, Jess swore she could feel the vibrations through the floor. Clay sat down, pulled Justin’s forehead to his shoulder and braced him for a minute, said, softly, “It’s not going to pass. You know it’s not. Let’s ride it out.”

Clay had picked up on something none of the rest of them had. As Justin attempted to reposition himself, there was some kind of spasm, and he stifled a groan, his face contorting as he hunched over, his body taut with discomfort, his fingers gripping his knees, the knuckles bone-white.

“Oh shit–”

Lainie took a step forward, but Clay held up a forbidding hand, and she stopped, deferring to her son.

“Don’t sit like that. C’mon, you’ll only make it worse.” Clay pulled Justin’s legs up onto the bed, one at a time, working the protective mask over his mouth and nose as he encouraged him to roll onto his side, and then, with reverent devotion, he brushed his hand through Justin’s hair, soft brush strokes on a canvas of misery.

There was silence.

A slight moan.

A low, strangled noise.

Then, an animal sound—an animal half-crushed, longing for death, but still alive.

Goosebumps pricked up the back of Jess’s neck, little spiders crawling up her spine en masse.

They were all spooked... except for Lainie and Matt, who only looked weary, as if they were expecting it, as if this event, and its audible accompaniment, was a regular occurrence.

Justin was a complete baby when it came to illnesses of any kind, and he had been the epitome of a drama queen when he was detoxing from heroin, but this was different, this was horribly different, this sound wasn’t an overreaction, or an exaggeration, it was just horrific.

It was the sound of grievous injury. Of bullets ripping through tissue, cutting organs to shreds.

“Shhh. Easy. I know it hurts. I know.” Clay looked in their direction, his teeth fiercely working his bottom lip, tears shining in his eyes. “Mom?”

“Give me a minute.” Lainie disappeared and they all waited, helpless, as Clay smoothed Justin’s hair and spoke the sweetest sort of nonsense to him.

Jess thought it strange that Mr. Jensen stayed by the door, his face pale and drawn, clearly upset, clearly affected, but not making any attempt to comfort his sons.

“Fuck Seth,” Alex gritted. “Fuck that asshole.”

“Zach?” May’s voice was frightened.

“He’ll be alright.” Zach took May by one hand and Alex by the other and pulled them both out of the room. It was a good decision. The small bedroom already felt very crowded.

Lainie returned, Carolyn in tow, and together they worked in tandem with Clay to sit Justin up and get some Tylenol into him. The pills had been crushed and dissolved in water, and Carolyn walked Lainie through the process: using a stethoscope to check Justin’s stomach tube placement, drawing the mixture up into a syringe, connecting the syringe to the NG tube, flushing it afterwards with warm water.

Jess watched in macabre fascination. She had never considered just how difficult it would be to medicate someone who couldn’t simply swallow a pill. The process had taken perhaps five minutes, not much in the scheme of things, but it was a five-minute delay on any sort of pain relief, so it was five minutes too long.

“Okay, sweetie, we’re finished.”

Justin slumped down, panting against his knuckles, crying quietly, twisting to his side, and then freely sobbing, his whole body convulsing, and it was a shocking development, because—minutes ago—Justin had been smiling, he had been supporting Clay, holding him up, and now he was in agony, curled into Clay’s lap, making himself into the smallest target possible, his world narrowed to one physical sensation: shrill and persistent anguish.

Lainie stood up, placed her hand on Clay’s shoulder. It was hard to say who looked the most fragile at that moment. “The Tylenol should help. Try to close your eyes and rest, Justin. In a few hours, we can give you something stronger.”

Justin blindly reached out his hand, and Clay helped guide it to the stress ball, pausing there as Justin’s fingers closed around the ball.

Clay–” Justin choked out.

“I’m here,” Clay said, very quietly. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Jess felt like she was witnessing something profoundly personal when Clay curled his nails into Justin’s flesh, just shy of rough, his eyes full of remorse, but his fingers tightening, tightening until Justin stopped vocalizing his distress, until the tremors stilled.

(There had been little healing scabs on the backs of Justin’s hands. Tiny red scratches... thin and rounded... the shape of fingernails.)

“God, Justin,” Jess whispered. She clenched her hand into a fist, hard enough to make her fingers ache, and stared at Lainie as she came over to where she and Sheri were standing.

Lainie spoke to them in a hushed murmur. “He overexerted himself today. We shouldn’t have let him do so much, but he was just so happy to see you all. He has occasional episodes like this... deep, stabbing nerve pain in his abdomen. There’s nothing we can do. The severed nerves just need time to regenerate.” She wiped a hand over her forehead. “This attack wasn’t too bad, thankfully.”

“Not too bad,” Sheri repeated.

Jesus.” Jess swallowed thickly. If this wasn’t bad, Jess didn’t want to see what bad looked like.

Clay raised his voice. “It’s gonna pour rain soon, so...” His words trailed off as he gingerly slid out from beneath Justin, settled him on the bed, tucked a blanket around him and inched away, staying within touching distance, but deliberate in his efforts not to touch.

“Is that your tactic to get rid of us? Because, I hate to disappoint you, but it’s kinda weak.” Jess tried to sound in control as she shoved the rage in her chest down, down, down.

The dark onslaught of thoughts came anyway.

Alex had been right. Fuck Seth.

“Thank you for coming,” Matt said, firm and direct, which was an eviction notice that carried more weight. They had barely gotten to visit at all, but after this turn of events, the only thing to do was leave.

Christ, what a nightmare.

The Jensens had to be near their limits, after all the medical stress, the insurance snafus, the media attention, day after day spent coping with pain like this, night after night spent worrying over one another.

Lainie and Matt exited the room, Sheri followed.

“Hey, Jess?”

Jess turned back at the threshold, looked at Clay, at his red-rimmed eyes, his pinpoint pupils, his irises, brimming blue. It was so incredibly poignant, the realization that because Justin was suffering, Clay was suffering, too.

As much as, if not more.

“Yeah?” Jess asked.

“Close the door, will you?”

“Sure.” She pulled it shut and nearly stumbled into Lainie.

“Oh, sorry, did you want to stay with them?”

Jess reached for the handle, but before she could turn it, there was a harsh click as the door was locked from the other side.

“Did he just...?” Lainie looked sunken-in, a hesitancy coloring her tone.

“Yeah. Is that okay?” Jess shifted. “I could ask Mr. Standall to come kick the door down for you. Or if you have a coat hanger, I could probably pick the lock. That’s what my dad does when Elijah has a temper tantrum.”

Jess didn’t even know if she was joking or not, didn’t know what she would do if Lainie said, yes, please do.

“No, it’s fine.” Lainie placed her palm against the wood. “They probably—they probably just want some time alone. God knows they had precious few opportunities for it at the hospital.”

Jess’s mind was spinning with a thousand personal insights, and she worried she might be out of line to share them, but she wanted to do something to ease the feeling of helplessness that had struck her when she had seen Justin’s shaking shoulders, when she had seen the ruined scraps of Clay’s drawings. “I don’t think it’s that—or not only that. Their safest place to be... it wasn’t safe for them. Justin’s used to it, growing up on a battlefield, but it’ll be harder for Clay.” She paused. “I know what it’s like—having something bad happen to you in the place you’ve always felt safe. It’s almost like a violation, all on its own. It took me a while to not be afraid to sleep in my bed again.”

Lainie nodded primly, and Jess could see the anger, the guilt, she carried with her, even when she wasn’t consciously dwelling on it.

“I’m sorry,” Jess said quickly. “I didn’t mean to make that sound like a survivors’ meeting. Locking the door... it probably gives Clay a sense of control. Even though he knows, rationally, that he’s safe here because he has some pretty damn awesome parents and he has Justin, who’d die to protect him.”

Lainie turned to face her fully, reluctantly pulled her hand away from the door. “Don’t ever apologize for speaking your truth. Or for trying to empower someone else to see the truth for themselves. It does help, what you said, more than you know. They’re getting to be very—private—these days, and I know not to view it as a rejection, or an exclusion. It’s more... a sanctuary they’ve created within each other. Did you have that after what happened to you?”

“Yes. With my mom and dad, and Alex. But then, one day, I found the strength within myself, or I guess I realized it had always been there and I emerged from my cloister, and...” She spread her arms. “Here I am.”

“You’re radiant. And resilient. And you’re mature beyond your years, has anyone ever told you that?”

“I’d like to think so, but I mean, I can’t claim full credit. It didn’t come easily for me. Therapy helped. Journaling and meditation. Don’t laugh, but dance class did, too. I’m not always as put together as I seem.”

“I don’t think any of us are.” Lainie looked away. She opened her mouth, but no words came. They seemed lodged in her throat.

Jess offered her hand and squeezed Lainie’s when she took it. “People forget to check in on the bad-ass women in their lives because we’re always there, kicking butt, but are you doing okay, with all of this?”

“No,” Lainie said frankly. “But I have plenty of support structures, which I’m utilizing. And there are some hurdles that—that we’re still working through. It’ll take time to find our routine, to find a day-to-day structure. To figure out what will be of the most help, for Clay and Justin. Their quality of life right now... well, it’s not ideal.” Her voice dropped. “It’s far from ideal.”

Lainie’s hair was a little frizzy, her clothes more than a little wrinkled, mascara flaking off under her eyes. She looked as hurt as her children and beyond exhausted, but, to Jess, she was stunning—absolutely beautiful—an example of what Jess hoped she could someday be herself.

A woman who had seen a boy who needed help and had opened her home without reservation. A woman who wasn’t overbearing, like Clay claimed, but invested, who worried to make up for a world that didn’t worry enough.

It was going to be a difficult night, a hectic week. Jess could foresee how the next chapter unfolded, how melancholic the upcoming verses might be. But even the saddest stories had a brightening sky, a calmness in the churn. She thought of her father’s hands on Mr. Jensen’s back, the prayer he had spoken over him after Matt had finished spackling the bullet hole in the wall: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’

The Jensens weren’t religious, but, still, her dad’s words had seemed to help.

“There’ll be some good stretches, too,” Jess told Lainie. “I think today had some good bits, mixed in. Don’t you?”

“Yes.” Lainie touched her cheek, her fingers brushing over the place where Justin had grazed his lips. “Not actionable, maybe, but—beneficial, emotionally.”

Jess looked at the closed door, heard indistinguishable words on the other side, Clay’s voice, gentleness in it, and if it was comforting for her to hear, she had to imagine that Justin felt similarly, that even if he was steeped in the worst kind of misery, he didn’t feel lonesome or abandoned in it.

“It’s totally not my place to say, but Seth’s not something any of us saw coming. I met him a few times, and Justin talked about him, but I never thought–.” Jess shrugged. “I never thought he’d do something like this. I mean, he was in jail. You couldn’t’ve known.”

“I’ve been trying to push it away,” Lainie mustered, “to let go of the self-reproach and doubt, but the only way I can willingly let myself even breathe about it is to pursue some form of legal justice. The other two men... it looks like they’re going to take a plea deal, which is what we want, we don’t want a drawn-out trial, we don’t want the wounds to fester, but Matt and I, we decided we’re going to pursue a civil lawsuit with the jail. They were negligent. They released Seth without due diligence, and because of it...” Lainie crossed her arms, as if separating herself from the experience and the memory. “I have to fight for my children. Who else will, if not me?”

“It’s needed,” Jess confirmed, with a pert nod. “The system doesn’t care about victims, about our right to live without constant fear of our perpetrators. People think we should just move on after shitty things happen, deal with the damage and then forget it, but that’s bullshit. I think we should nourish our outrage, use it to inspire change, so that other people don’t have to go through what we did. You’re gonna make a real impact. Justin won the lottery when he got you as his mom.”

“You think so? I’m not sure I’d say that.”

“Don’t believe me,” Jess said. “I’m only repeating what Justin told me. The adoption finalization—it was the best day of his life. The best day, by far, and, really, you’re the only mom he’s ever known.”

A slow, grateful smile spread across Lainie’s face. “It isn’t how I ever imagined having a child. It took us 17 years to meet, but he was always my son. Always.” She rested a hand over her heart. “Does he know?”

“I’m not sure,” Jess admitted. “I think he does.” She thought of how Justin’s face lit up whenever he talked about Lainie, about how he had laughed at his adoption party, an unencumbered laugh, free and airy, like pink cherry blossoms on the wind, how on the day after his adoption he had seemed different somehow—as if, after seventeen years of believing himself fractured inside, the Jensens had seen him and told him the truth: he had always been whole. “What am I saying? Of course he knows. He does know. And he and Clay... they’re strong enough to handle this and find their way back.”

Lainie visibly softened. “Clay never wanted a brother.”

“Sister?”

“No. He wanted a warren of rabbits. And a spaceship.”

Jess laughed. “Believable.”

 


 

Lainie didn’t fully realize the cruelty inherent in returning home until Justin faced away from her on the bed, his body tense as the blanket was removed and she administered his first suppository under Carolyn’s supervision.

It felt like betrayal, and it hurt to do.

When she finished, she meant to lower herself to the mattress beside him, maybe kiss him on the forehead, tell him it would get easier the more they did it, that taking care of his physical needs was her blessing as a mother and she was grateful to be allowed to tend to them.

Instead, she stepped back. She waited. She did not touch him. When she trusted herself to speak, she asked, “What can I get for you? I can stay, if you’d like?”

“Will you...” There was a disturbed catch in his voice, and she was almost thankful she couldn’t see his face, couldn’t see if there were tears. “Never mind.”

“Yes, I will.” He didn’t have to say it. “I’ll go get Clay.”

Clay was waiting outside the door, chewing on his thumb.

“He needs to stay in that position for fifteen minutes. Can you set the timer on your phone?”

Carolyn slipped out of the room, and Clay’s eyes moved past her to where Justin lay curled on his side, shivering under the blanket. “I got him, Mom.” He knocked softly on the door frame. “I’m coming in. Just me.”

Clay grabbed his iPad before crawling onto the bed between Justin and the wall, propping the tablet up so Justin could easily access it with his hand. “Find something for us to watch. Whatever you want. Even sports.”

Lainie hesitated and then shut the door, leaving them to the protection of their solitude.

 


 

The day Alex had shot himself, the day it had happened, everything was sharp. There had been visceral crying and screaming for what felt like hours. And then had come the quiet. The waiting. Sitting in the pain. Not living, not being alive. Just the endless state of enduring.

Carolyn watched as Lainie scrubbed her hands at the sink, as she endured. She was frustrated, and it was understandable.

“Nothing really prepares you for something like this.” She handed Lainie a towel. “But it’ll become routine. Give it two days, and you’ll be teaching me some tricks.”

“I hope so.” Lainie looked at the refrigerator, at the taped list of doctors’ phone numbers, a list prepared not for the Jensens, but for any visitors who might need access to it in case of an emergency. “I wasn’t expecting Justin to let me do it. I thought he would ask Clay. God, I’m glad he didn’t. Clay would have done it in a heartbeat, but that’s not something he should have responsibility for—administration of his brother’s rectal medication.”

“This is only for the short term,” Carolyn reminded her, “until Justin’s motility issues improve. I know it seems harsh, but rectal administration is the most effective route and the most therapeutic, from a medical standpoint. It will greatly reduce the side effects of some of these drugs, and you’ll know for sure they’re being absorbed properly, which is uncertain if you go the oral route. With his stomach so damaged and the small bowel resection...”

“Oh, I know,” Lainie said bitterly. “His digestive system’s a mess. An absolute mess. Those bullets... the internal hemorrhaging was almost fatal in minutes, mere minutes, but now—now it’ll be years of complications.” Lainie closed her eyes, gave herself a moment, and then began restacking the piles of paper on the kitchen table.

Carolyn came over to help her sort the paperwork—discharge instructions, insurance forms, physical therapy logs, swallow study results, list after list of side effects and drug interactions for the multitude of medications.

It was a lot.

It was enough to make you want to sink to the floor and never get up again.

“We knew there would be a trade-off to coming home,” Lainie said with a sigh, “that we’d be giving up the ability to do intravenous administration of Justin’s most critical medications. We discussed it, we knew what we were getting into, but—emotionally—it’s a different story. I want to alleviate any discomfort he feels, to help preserve his dignity without aggravating his injuries. He’s my son, he’s everything to me, but he’s only known me for eight months. It’s an awkward situation, to say the least.”

“Would it be any less awkward if it was Clay? If it was Clay’s medication?”

Lainie stilled, her mouth slightly falling open as if the thought had never occurred to her. “No, I suppose not. Actually, it would probably be worse. Clay’s very self-subsistent, very intractable, and Justin’s more... accommodating. I see what you mean. I get so caught up sometimes about the adoption issue, worrying that I treat them differently, that I have an instinctual preference, or that they think I do.” She smacked her palm against the table. “Who knows? Maybe I do. Maybe I’m not the mother I thought I was.”

Carolyn didn’t respond right away. She didn’t want to make this into more than it was, or make Lainie feel less than she was. She pushed on Lainie’s shoulder, got her to sit down so they could work on the next task of the evening: sorting the prescriptions Matt had picked up from the pharmacy. Her friend needed something to do with her hands, needed to have a continual sense of utility, and it had to be directly connected to her sons’ welfare in order to give her any peace.

“This isn’t an adoption issue,” Carolyn said, handing her Clay’s morning pill container, each compartment marked with the days of the week. “This is a having-more-than-one-child issue. I’ve struggled with similar feelings, but I’ve learned to embrace it. I treat Alex and Peter differently because, you know what, they are different and they have different needs. And, let me tell you, I have a favorite child. It’s whichever one of them is frustrating me the least at any given minute.”

Lainie twisted opened the bottle of calcium supplements, and she looked at Carolyn with apprehension. “But if you had to choose between them... in a moment of crisis... could you?”

“I don’t know.” Carolyn frowned, giving it proper consideration. “I’d have to be in that moment to say for sure. I’d like to think I could—for the sake of one, if not the other.”

“For the sake of one.” Lainie put her hand to her mouth and looked away. “Which one?”

“Lainie,” Carolyn said gently. “If this isn’t hypothetical... if this is something you feel like you did... Choosing Clay was the right choice. Choosing Justin was the right choice. The only moral lapse would be if you had chosen neither. And I know you didn’t do that.”

“I chose Clay.”

“And you chose Justin a hundred times before that. I guarantee you’ll have to choose again. It’s situational. This mothering business is crazy hard; don’t make it harder by putting yourself on trial. Having Clay taught you the depth of your love; Justin, the breadth.”

There was an indefinable release of tension, like this had been a confessional, and Carolyn, confessor.

They worked in silence for a while, dividing the pills, until Lainie swiped at the tears on her cheek with the heel of her hand. “Everything that happened... I go to bed with it, I wake up with it, I have nightmares where I feel like I’m drowning in their blood. But I know that what I’m going through is a trifling thing, inconsequential, because it’s worse for them, it’s so much worse—it’s unbearable, to think how they must feel. I’m trying to take my pain and set it to rest, so I can focus on them, on their pain, and what they need, but I’ve never felt so inadequate to a task. Clay and Justin are so kind to each other, so generous and intuitive—you’ve seen it—but I feel like a brand new mom, worried I’ll drop my infant when I pick him up.”

“Which means you’re doing it right,” Carolyn said, begging her friend to hear her words, believe and accept them. “I think the best parents are the ones who feel the most incompetent. And I would never tell you that your pain is worth equal consideration to theirs, because I’m a mother, and I know how it works, but, as your friend, I am going to make sure you take care of yourself so that you can take care of them.”

“Thank you, for saying that. And for being here to boost my confidence in setting up the NG tube and doing the feeding. We really want to minimize the number of strangers in the house for the first few days.” Lainie ran her hands through her hair, looking like she was half-asleep. She was in a state of delayed emotional shock, the wreckage of the crime committed against her family appearing in a different light now that things were becoming quiet, now that the shooting had stopped and the blood had been cleared away.

None of this would be quick to mend.

And no well-chosen phrases would make it better.

Carolyn picked up the next bottle, and—was it bad luck? or providence?—that the bottle she happened to pick up had implications which, as a nurse, she knew and recognized. She saw the label, Truvada, and her stomach did a flip. She knew the primary reason a patient would be prescribed an antiretroviral medication.

Lainie saw her looking at it. Lainie took the bottle from her and set it back on the table.

Sometimes the best thing you could do for someone was pretend. But sometimes acknowledging the truth was the only real solace. Especially for a mother, whose twin-chambered heart had been trampled upon.

“Oh, Lainie.” What else had happened in this house, not twenty feet from where they were sitting, on that terrible, terrible night?

“It was only precautionary, at first,” Lainie said, hurt bleeding into her voice, her shoulders rounding as she fought to keep a deeper wound inside from rising and consuming her. “We were going to discontinue the medication after the man consented to an HIV test as part of his plea bargain. That was the plan.” The bottle rattled in Lainie’s hand. “But it turns out we can’t discontinue it.”

“Oh no. No, honey.” Carolyn’s eyes watered, but she was careful that no tears reached the point of overflowing.

“Justin’s–” Lainie broke off, staring at her, distraught. “Justin’s baseline HIV test was indeterminate.”

“When did they do the test?”

“Three hours before discharge.”

Carolyn did the math. So it had been thirteen days, enough time for HIV antibodies to be produced by the body. A person with an inconclusive result after a high-risk exposure could very well be in the early stages of HIV infection.

But Justin’s case was more complicated.

And maybe she was even leaping to the wrong conclusion.

Although—

 

(“Do I have to take everything off?” Justin asked as Carolyn set down the towel.

“No. You can just slide them down, your sweatpants and your underwear.”

Justin moved to obey, his fingers on the waistband of his pants, but he stilled and his eyes went vacant and they lost him for a very long time.

Lainie didn’t say anything, and neither did Carolyn.

Dissociation was not rare for a highly traumatized patient. Gun violence—and a debilitating injury—were highly traumatic. And dissociative diagnoses were strongly correlated with histories of childhood abuse.

Carolyn focused on doing her job, letting Lainie take the lead, but she had heard the message, Don’t go there. Don’t touch this.)

 

Carolyn touched Lainie’s forearm, trying to be respectful of the topic, and the associated emotions. “Was getting tested proposed because of Justin’s intravenous drug use in the past? Or was there a reason to be concerned about a recent exposure?” What a clinical way to word such a sensitive question.

“He’s been tested in the past, all negative. We made sure of it when we found out about the heroin. Both times. This is—it’s a new concern. I know you’ll keep this confidential, Car. I’m running in circles and I have to speak to someone.”

Carolyn nodded, leaning forward with solicitude, knowing how meticulous Lainie was, how she chronicled everything, how she needed to summarize her findings into closing remarks to find any closure herself.

“Matt’s in denial, he won’t even consider it anything but a false positive. Which it could be. I read that the rate of HIV transmission through the throat and gums is very low unless someone has cuts or sores in their mouth... and Justin did, severe ones. That’s why I’m so worried. It was blood to blood, which I know is the highest risk scenario and we know for sure, now, that the blood source was HIV-positive. No antiretroviral therapy; the man didn’t have insurance.”

Lainie tried to continue but couldn’t, her eyes hooded and haunted. Carolyn’s mind raced, pulsing with worry, but she knew to stay silent and wait.

“Justin needs to do another test, but that won’t be accurate for two more weeks, at the earliest. It could be three months before we know anything conclusively. And we’re testing Clay, too, because there was a lot of... cross-contamination that night.”

Carolyn slotted her fingers together under the table, this revelation almost too much to comprehend. She could feel everything she wanted to ask on the tip of her tongue, but, still, she waited.

“What do I do?” Lainie pleaded. “What can I do? God, what is there to do?”

It was too early for condolences and too late for definite assurances. Their friendship was rooted in honest communication and Carolyn couldn’t promise a felicitous outcome or give personalized medical advice in an area outside her scope of expertise. “You’re already doing everything. Everything. An indeterminate test result isn’t unexpected, considering all the trauma to Justin’s system. It could just as easily be caused by nonspecific antibodies. Don’t let your mind go there yet, and if we have to go there... it can be very manageable, as far as diseases go.”

She watched Lainie’s face. Saw bright pain and dull fear.

She took the bottle of Truvada away from her. “I know there was a scramble to get Justin released early, but his nurse did you a disservice. You don’t have to wait weeks. There’s an RNA test that can detect the virus directly and Justin’s already in the detection window. It’s expensive and insurance won’t cover it, which I’m sure is why it wasn’t brought up as a possibility. But it’s 99% accurate and its sensitivity is 100%, so it won’t mistakenly tell an HIV-positive person that they’re HIV free.”

“How expensive?” Lainie began snapping Clay’s morning pill container shut, a day at a time. Between the two boys, they had a small fortune in prescription medications sitting on the table.

“In the ballpark of $200.”

Lainie blinked. Then, she brushed back her hair and laughed. “That’s it? You should see how much these therapists charge per hour. The Victim Compensation Board is providing $5000 for mental health counseling for Justin, which helps, and we’ve got claims in process for some of the out-of-pocket expenses that insurance denied, and there’ll be restitution, eventually, but... good lord, what am I going on about? Money isn’t an issue. I’ll look into it first thing tomorrow. No matter what, we’d rather know. I need to know, and Justin won’t say, but I can tell it’s gnawing at him—not knowing. Clay’s beside himself.”

Carolyn wasn't sure which hurt more, hearing Lainie’s relief at having a test that would more quickly reveal her son’s status or knowing that she was about to ask Lainie to break one of the most sacred confidences, that between parent and child.

She reached for Lainie’s hand. “Stop me at any point if I make you uncomfortable, but I feel like there’s more sadness to this tragedy than you’ve shared. I’ve sensed it—this dark cloud hanging over you and Matt and Bill, something more than the medical uncertainty. I know Clay and Justin’s well-being comes before anything else, but can you tell me how there was blood-to-blood contact in Justin’s mouth?”

“I want to,” Lainie said. “I want to, but you know I can’t.”

“I know. But if I said it, and you didn’t deny it... would that be okay?” In asking, Carolyn was thinking about Alex, how in recent months he had been not-so-covertly searching the internet for tips on receptive anal sex, how late last night, Alex had announced, “I may have a boyfriend, but that’s not an invitation for you to grill me for details,” how Carolyn had smiled, genuinely happy to see her son’s enthusiasm and said, “Well, I’d love to meet him. Invite him over... unless for some reason, he’s being released from the hospital in the morning and will be quarantined at his house for the next month.” Alex hadn’t confirmed her guess, but he had spent the next hour talking about Justin, asking questions about his recovery and how he could make things easier for him.

Carolyn couldn’t help the undercurrent of worry because if what she suspected was true, it was a fragile layer not necessarily to be trusted to two hormonal teenage boys. “As a nurse, I’ve seen the worst of human nature, in the form of victims and perpetrators alike. Some of these medications,” she picked up a tube, “like this topical gel, and Justin’s mannerisms when I examined him earlier... I’ve seen it before. In sexual assault victims.”

Lainie glanced around, although they were perfectly secluded and Carolyn had been discreetly quiet. “Please tell me it’s not that obvious,” she said with dismay.

“No,” Carolyn replied, her heart breaking for the boy sleeping upstairs, a boy so sweetly courteous and considerate, whose humility was unrehearsed. He had thanked her five times that evening, recommended her a sprouted grains bread they had in their freezer, which had no added sugar or salt. He was always that way, appreciative of her cooking, of her knowledge of basketball, and most of all, of her son.

He had his mother’s soul. Lainie’s in all ways—except DNA.

“It’s not obvious at all, if you’re not trained to recognize the signs. It was Clay’s reaction more than anything that tipped me off.”

“Clay?” Lainie asked numbly.

“He’s very protective over anyone touching Justin, isn’t he?”

Lainie immediately broke into sobs.

“Come here, hun.” Carolyn took her friend into her arms as she wept.

They spent the next hour doing nothing else.

 


 

The door creaked open and a thin line of yellowish light fell across Lainie’s face as Clay emerged, yawning. He didn’t seem surprised to find her there. “Justin’s asleep,” he mumbled. “I have to go to the bathroom. Will you watch him?”

As if that wasn’t her deepest wish, as if she hadn’t been listening at their door for the last three hours, hoping to be let in. “I would love to.”

Clay’s gaze fell on her pile of sheets and pillows and he nudged them with his toe. “You’re sleeping out here? Mom, we’re fine. Really, we’re fine. You don’t need to go into full-out ‘mom’ mode. We have our phones and the bell you gave us. We don’t need babysitters.”

He shuffled down the hall, so she slipped into the room, taking a moment to relish a sight which had become completely foreign after weeks spent at the hospital.

Justin was stretched out, head resting on his pillow, his arms tucked underneath it. He was in his own bed, in his own comfortable clothes, and in this familiar environment, he looked less injured, less susceptible to harm. The sight felt like a promise kept: we got you back home safely.

He was trembling in his sleep, quivering continually (a symptom of his low metabolism) so Lainie pulled the covers over him, smoothed them down around him lightly, sat on the edge of the bed. Her hand dipped to brush back a lock of his hair, and she wanted to do so much more, but she withdrew, knowing not to touch Justin while he was unaware, just like she knew not to crowd Clay with questions. Or to smother either of them in maternal affection. Or bruise them with too much attention.

As she watched him sleep—the same way she had watched Clay in his crib for those first hours, days, weeks—the catastrophic pressure on her heart eased somewhat, and she could finally admit it to herself: She loved Justin differently than she loved Clay.

But she would have loved a second biological child differently.

A third child. A fourth.

Love was not accumulation, but neither was it instantaneous. She and Matt had had nine months of pregnancy to ease themselves into the idea of having Clay, of working out how he would fit into their lives.

Justin had been her son for eight months, and, yes, she was still in an adjustment period, but she shouldn’t hold any guilt over it. In the hospital, she had chosen to be with Clay because she had known Clay had needed her composed assurance, just like Justin had needed Matt’s steady gentleness. Self-doubt had clouded her initial instinct, but how could she have ever questioned it?

There was no disparity of love between her children.

Clay and Justin were unique, and her love for each of them was uniquely shaped by who they were—their talents and flaws, their quirks and limitations. Sometimes Clay would need a little more nurture, a little more care. Sometimes the opposite would be true. Maybe she hadn’t quite worked out the balancing act, but it was a process and she had the gift of time.

I may not love them in the same way, but I will always love them equally.

Clay returned, with silent footfalls. “Mom,” he whispered, his hand on her shoulder, “Sleep on my bed, I’m not using it. You’re being ridiculous, but please don’t sleep on the floor.”

Lainie stood, careful not to jostle the mattress, and Clay slid under the sheets next to Justin, and Justin, without waking, moved over to accommodate him and welcome him back. They were so intrinsically linked, their bodies knew each other and respected the boundaries, even whilst unconscious.

She thought Clay meant to stay awake, but his breathing became deeper and deeper and soon leveled off, sleep-sodden. His hand, the one that had not been mangled, found Justin’s arm, and never ceased its gentle caress.

Sometime in the early hours, Matt joined her, bearing two cups of tea.

“Have they been awake?”

“Not for hours.”

“Well, that’s good. They seem comfortable enough.”

They sat on Clay’s bed, sipping warmth back into their bones, looking at the war-torn landscape, the aftermath of brutality.

At the miracle that soothed a hundred nightmares.

She could hear her children breathing, and she didn’t know about her husband, but Lainie found herself blindsided by an all-encompassing, petrifying sensation of peace and possibility.

Oh, what a painful blessing it was—to love your children, and how remarkable—to listen to them live.

Chapter Text

December 21st

Clay flipped his drawing around. “What do you think?”

“What is it?”

“You can’t tell? It’s a cigarette lighter.”

“Well, duh.” Justin took the drawing, turned it at various angles, his head tilted. “What’s it supposed to represent?”

“Nothing. It’s a cigarette lighter.” Clay considered. “I guess it could represent what would’ve been the murder weapon—if I had died.”

“Jesus.” Justin pushed the sketchpad away from him. “I liked your old drawings better.” He peeled off a section of mandarin orange and handed it to Clay to eat.

Clay took a bite. The juice flooded his mouth. It tasted bloody. (Justin’s blood, manifesting as taste.)

“What’re you thinking about?” Justin flicked Clay’s temple and then did it again. “I can tell you’re getting stuck on something in there.”

When his mom or dad asked him that question, Clay said, “Nothing,” because it was so much easier than explaining his thoughts to someone who wouldn’t understand. But he had the feeling that he could confess anything to Justin, no matter how dark and disturbed, and Justin would roll with it. He tested the theory. “I was almost disappointed this morning, about my results.”

They had gone to a clinic in Oakland for HIV testing, and he had known in less than 30 minutes: negative. They wouldn’t know Justin’s results for two to four business days, which meant it would be hanging over them until after Christmas.

“Dude,” Justin sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Don’t be so fucking morbid.”

“You get it though, right?”

“Yes. You think that if you got a positive result, it would make my results, whatever they are, okay. But it wouldn’t. Not for me.” Justin passed him another slice and waited until Clay put it in his mouth before tracking his eyes away.

Hunger had disappeared as a sensation, but Justin had become hyper-fixated on making sure Clay ate, offering him food throughout the day like he was some kind of grazing animal, and Clay didn’t know if it was genuine worry or if Justin was sublimating his own cravings by taking vicarious satisfaction in Clay’s diet.

It didn’t matter. If Justin wanted to feed him peanut butter followed by pickles... then Clay would eat peanut butter followed by pickles—a monstrosity of a food combination.

They put on some bullshit movie on Netflix and it was supposed to be a comedy, but Clay never felt compelled to laugh. The humor seemed insipid to him, but, of course, Justin thought it was hilarious and laughed at everything.

“Stop being happy,” Clay grumbled, but, obviously, he meant, please, always be happy.

“For the love of fucking–,” Justin began. “Life’s gonna suck in ten minutes. Let’s enjoy the moment.” He lazily ran his hand over Clay’s hair, pushing the strands the wrong way, making a mess out of it—on purpose, probably. “Shit, man, I know this is hard for you, I didn’t mean... If you need to go off about shit, go off.”

They were getting closer and closer to zero hour, so Clay grabbed Justin’s hand, pressed it to his forehead. Although Justin was constantly shivering, his body was like a freakin’ furnace, his hand like a sunburn against Clay’s cool skin.

“What the fuck is going on with you?” Justin asked, fondly.

“Mom’s gonna be coming in here soon, so before it gets massively awkward: Do you want me to do it this time? Your suppository?”

Justin frowned. “It goes up my ass, dude.”

“I’m aware.”

“Doesn’t that gross you out?”

“I have literally been covered in your blood and vomit. What’s a little shit, right?”

Justin smirked and slid his hand down over Clay’s face, playfully pushed it back against the wall. His fingers smelled pleasantly like citrus. “There’s no shit. I’m constipated as fuck.”

Maybe Clay wouldn’t laugh at dull movies, but Justin could make him laugh, just by being obnoxious. “Seriously, did I need to know that? Thanks for the mental imagery. But, c’mon, do you really want Mom doing this three times a day? If I do it, you could at least have entertaining commentary.”

Justin shut the laptop. The background noise died and the happiness was instantly sucked from the room—a rapid decompression after a hull breach.

A lump the size of a brick formed in Clay’s throat. “Talk to me. Be real with me. Nobody’s here but us.”

“It’s fucking humiliating,” Justin said, grabbing their fleece blanket and holding it to his chest. “Taking medicine this way.”

“Yeah, and I just said I would do it. Weren’t you listening?”

“Yes, I heard you. But I know how squeamish you are, so, yeah, no thanks.”

“Well...” Admittedly, sticking pills up someone’s butt should be a repulsive and aversive thing to do, but, that morning, when one of their nosy neighbors had started ringing the doorbell over and over, Clay’s stomach had decided, without warning, to reenact The Exorcist, and, without hesitation, Justin had reached out his hand and caught the vomit, held the nastiness in his hand—all warm and puke-y—while he talked Clay out of a panic attack, and he hadn’t given a fuck, not until their mom had led him to the bathroom sink and lectured him for twenty minutes in a slightly hysterical way.

You cared for me. Now let me, for you.

He thought about moving away, maintaining some space between them as they had this conversation, but that wasn’t how they did things, so he stayed where he was and confessed, “I never told you, and, like, don’t tell people this, but I... I fainted when I got my tattoo. Like, straight to the floor.”

Justin turned Clay’s wrist over, grabbed a marker from Clay’s art case, and started doodling a design. “That little thing? Seriously?”

“Yeah. But like—your stomach, all that blood—it was the goriest thing I’ve ever seen, I can still smell it, and feel it on my hands, I even remember the taste of it, and all I can think, over and over, is that I should have passed out, I should have fainted. But I didn’t. Because I knew that if I lost consciousness... you’d die; if I didn’t maintain pressure on your wounds... you wouldn’t make it to the ambulance. You needed me, so I did it, I just fucking did it. And this? This is no different.”

Their legs and hips were touching, but Clay scooted over, just so he could feel the nerve endings firing, the tactile signal that meant stop, here is the barrier. God, he was pathetic. How was it possible to want to be closer to someone when you were already pressed up against every inch of them?

Justin let go of his wrist. His design was a black flame—simple, elegant, the contours tracing the veins. “You like?”

“What’s it supposed to represent?” Clay asked facetiously, trying not to show blatant admiration, even though he did kinda like it.

“Destruction,” Justin said. “And remembrance. Things you coulda lost. Things you fight for.”

“Things?”

A thing.” Justin nudged him with his elbow. “The most important thing.”

Clay studied his wrist, the black ink so thoughtfully arranged, so wretchedly impermanent. The design would wash off in the shower, be gone by tomorrow; unlike Justin’s pain, it wasn’t etched into him. “We should get tattoos,” he said abruptly. “For your birthday. You know... like, matching ones.”

He glanced at Justin.

Justin glanced at him. “It’ll hurt.”

“Not much,” Clay said. “Only a little. I can take it. I swear I won’t pass out.”

There was a brief silence and then Justin smiled, as bright as a flash bomb. “Okay. Definitely. For sure. We’ll do it. But you should design it.”

“You’d trust me to do that? To design a tattoo that you have to wear forever?”

“Dude,” Justin said, like that was a response.

As a response, it said nothing, and everything.

Clay blinked. He wrapped his hand around Justin’s wrist. “Let me do your medication tonight.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. As long as you cooperate and don’t make it difficult for me.” Clay tried to inject as much enthusiasm as he could into his words because he knew Justin was embarrassed about their mom having done it the previous four times and the tension between them was already palpable. He didn’t want their relationship to regress because of this. Not when Clay was perfectly capable of stepping in.

“Don’t take this the wrong way...” Justin twisted to face him, met his eyes. “But I think, I think I’d rather your mom did it. It kinda requires two hands, and, I don’t know, it’s more of a mom thing to do, I guess?”

Yes, and I’m fucking glad you realize that.

“Okay, sure, that’s cool. I just wanted you to have options. And, dude, Mom’s your mom, too. She missed out on changing your diapers, so this is like making up for lost time. It’s probably the highlight of her day.”

“You fucker.” Justin flung an orange slice at him.

“What? I’m not joking,” Clay insisted. He held up his hand so Justin could see it coming and he tried to be as casual as possible when he put his fingers over Justin’s face, over his eyes and forehead (far, far away from his mouth), and bumped his head back against the wall—a mirror image of what Justin had done to him. He did it softly, not violently, not recklessly, but not too softly, a little rough.

It was good for both of them, but it was illusory, this moment of lightheartedness. It would soon be back to permeating dullness. Or sharp agony. Or an emotional crash—depending on the spin of the wheel.

For this minute, though, Justin’s smile was easy, and its effect on Clay was always full, never depleted. Which gave him an inexplicable pang of guilt. Because half the time, he wondered if Justin’s smile was for his benefit, if it was his way of providing comfort.

Of hiding, of running.

A protective lie.

Justin opened his bag of Doritos, held one to his nose. “Thanks for not making a big deal out of it.”

“It’s your medication. It kinda is a big deal. I have a vested interest in keeping you alive, you know.” Clay took the chip out of Justin’s hand and bit down on it, hard, so that it made a crunch that he hoped satisfied them both. “And in case Amber ever insinuated otherwise, or told you outright, it’s not embarrassing—to let family help you out with this kind of thing. Mom’s not bothered. Or grossed out. And I wouldn’t be either.”

Justin fidgeted and his hand curled into something that resembled a claw (which meant he wanted a fix, for whatever fucking reason), and Clay, with bitterness, thought exactly none of his words had registered, at least not until their mom came into the room with the medication and a towel and said, “I know this is not the most comfortable of circumstances, honey, but I’m going to try my best to not let it be that way; I bought you this basketball magazine if you’d like to look at it while I–,” and Justin stood up to hug her, his face fitting neatly into the curve of her neck, and it seemed like—something.

Something nice.

 


 

Shakespeare had possessed a father’s insight when he wrote, Absence from those we love is self from self.

Matt felt estranged, absent from self—alienated from his family.

He wanted to be an equal partner to his wife. He wanted to tackle the difficult emotional issues, to provide the needed medical care, to assist with physical therapy, to chat with his sons and console them.

But it had quickly become apparent that he could not be the protector.

Not when he was seen as the aggressor

Matt had walked into the living room, intending to join Lainie and Justin as they strung popcorn and cranberries onto thread to hang on the trees for the local wildlife—but when Justin had seen him, he had stood up, skirting the edges of the room, disappearing quietly.

He had not returned. (They found him later, tucked into the corner by the stairs, vacant-eyed and trembling. Lainie had taken his hand, Matt had retrieved his walker, and together they had led Justin to the front door, made him unlock it, relock it, and turn on the alarm system. He had snapped back to an exaggerated cheerfulness, and when they brought him upstairs to Clay, the cheer became real.)

But, before that, Lainie had handed Matt the bowl of cranberries and said, “It’s the room, Matt. It’s not you.”

He wished it were true.

In the boys’ bedroom, Matt had reached out his hand, only his hand, to take Justin’s temperature, and Justin had jerked away, letting slip two devastating words—please don’t—before forcing himself into stillness, pliant and obeisant. Matt had remained calm, recognizing the trauma in the reaction, and had asked, “Hey, kiddo, still with me?” and Justin had given him a charismatic smile, leaned into the thermometer like nothing had happened—but Clay had started to pace the room, raking his fingers through his hair, yanking pieces out, speaking to someone who was not there, “Stop touching him. Stop fucking touching him.”

Matt had sent Lainie to do the next vitals check.

She had done every one since.

(“You look like Seth, a little...” Justin had said.)

(“Don’t touch Justin’s face,” Clay had warned.)

As much as he was learning—cautiously—what triggered his sons, it was unpredictable and inconsistent and he hadn’t found a way to circumvent the occurrence entirely. He couldn’t adequately explain it to Lainie, or to Dr. Ellman—how emotionally disturbing it was for him that his own children viewed him as intrusive, as predatory, or, in Justin’s case, as someone to be feared.

So Matt retreated, worked in the background, stayed off the front lines, sat in his office handling the paperwork. He perused real estate listings, prepared his course syllabus for the next semester, re-worked drafts of Justin’s victim impact statement, which Matt would read aloud to the court on behalf of his son, edited Clay’s statement, which Clay had courageously decided he would read aloud himself, in front of each perpetrator.

More and more often, Matt found himself typing letters, old-fashioned correspondence, late into the night.

 

My Dearest Sons—

I wish I could drive you out to Fremont Peak, set up our telescope, spread a blanket on the ground and treat you to the stars and constellations—that suffused glow that makes the dark of night a wondrous spectacle.

I wish you were little boys.

Boys I could carry in my arms, one on each shoulder.

I hold a grief so overwhelming, for every pain in your life is a pain in mine. But with that grief is a love to match it. However clumsily or inelegantly expressed, you both bring me abounding joy and nothing can displace my love, nor shake its foundation.

—Your Affectionate Father

 


 

December 22nd

“Let’s jump right into it. Tell me about Seth. Tell me exactly what he did. Tell me how you feel about killing him.”

That was a rough approximation of what Clay was expecting Dr. Lee, their trained trauma counselor, to say to them during their first joint session.

But she didn’t ask about Seth. Or about Shane. Or about Raymond. She didn’t ask them to speak about that night at all. Instead, she emphasized that the first goal of recovery was for her to assist them in the areas of their lives where they were struggling the most, the areas where they were having the most difficulty coping.

Where were they struggling?

The list was long.

Pain management—because Justin’s doctors were yanking him off narcotics so fast that Clay was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. (“You’re not,” his dad told him, “it’s only a sympathetic response.”)

Nightmares—because Clay woke from them screaming. Because Justin woke from them struggling to breathe, fully conscious, but unable to move. (“Sleep paralysis,” Dr. Lee said. “Nocturnal assault,” Clay corrected.)

Panic attacks—because Clay had tried to go into the living room to decorate the Christmas tree, had wanted to do it, more than anything he had wanted to do it—to share that memory with Justin—but it had ended with him in the downstairs bathroom, puking his guts out for hours while Justin’s thumb moved in slow strokes over the back of his neck. (“I’m sorry.” Justin had clicked his tongue. “Why? If we do nothing for Christmas, it’ll still be the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Here, sip this ginger ale. But, like, keep your head over the toilet, just in case.”)

Dr. Lee asked them about their plans for the future and because Justin was taciturn (uncomfortable), speaking in shrugs and offering only monosyllabic responses, Clay began to ramble about the universities he had applied to and how overpriced higher education was and then—not wanting to leave Justin out—he also expounded on the virtues of community college and in-state tuition.

“What about you, Justin? What are your plans?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you thinking about college?”

“Nah, that’s all him. None of that shit is for me.”

Which pissed Clay off, and he decided to be taciturn (devastated) and stop talking. Justin, uneasy, picked up the slack and filled the silence by telling Dr. Lee about the time he had watched his mom gasping for air like a fish and how, at five years old, he had tried to give her mouth-to-mouth and that was what he didn’t want for his future, for his kid to walk in on him overdosing on the floor—which pissed Clay off, too, and he didn’t even know why.

Dr. Lee asked to speak to Justin alone, and Clay leaned against the door of his father’s office, rested his ear against the wood, tried to catch the words being said—yearning for connection and filled with a deafening absence.

 


 

They had been encouraged to sleep as much as possible.

So they slept, in snatches, taking turns, afraid to move too much and wake each other up if the sleep was peaceful, afraid to drift off if it was their turn to watch. And when they didn’t sleep, they stayed in bed,