“Hey Mom,” Lukas says. “Sorry it’s been so long.”
He sits on the ground, his legs folded beneath him. The day is warm, and shines over the cemetery in a way that should seem unnatural—such a gloomy place shouldn’t be so bright and clear. But this place has been his safe haven for the last ten years, and for it to be dark and grim like in the movies would feel strange and unsettling. Lukas already is beginning to calm, feeling lighter than he has in weeks. The ball of stress lodged permanently in his chest begins to loosen, just a little.
“I know it’s been a while since I visited. I meant to come sooner, but. But things around here have become…complicated.” He gives a mocking smile at the inadequate word. Complicated doesn’t even begin to describe it. “I feel like I barely have time to breathe anymore, so much has happened so fast.”
Lukas wets his lips that have become dry, stares at the headstone in front of him, and wonders where to start; where to even begin untangling the knots that are his life right now. Philip, the murders, his father, this town—it all coalesces into this big, huge thing that builds up in his chest and pushes against his ribcage, leaving him struggling to draw in breath, not knowing if he’s going to scream or burst into tears. One moment, his life was good—not perfect, but good. And then in the space of seconds, it all turned to shit.
And Lukas—Lukas can’t deal. Doesn’t know how to deal.
So he comes here. He comes to the one place in this sea of confusion and fear and anger that still feels safe. That still feels like his. Something no one can touch.
“God, everything’s a mess, Mom.” He allows the emotion to show on his face, baring all the despair and desperation he keeps hidden from everyone else. “I can’t sleep anymore, and I feel so scared, all of the time. Someone slammed a locker in school yesterday, and I just—for a moment I thought it was a gunshot, and I freaked, and I was back in that cabin in the closet—”
The memory flashes before his eyes—the dark, and the fear, the glint of metal, and then gunshots making his ears ring. He jerks violently, his breathing shaky. He can’t stop seeing it. He can’t make it go away.
“I can’t get it out of my head,” he confesses. “And I can’t—I can’t tell anyone else about it, because if they know about it then they’ll know about Philip, and no one can know about that, I can’t tell—I just can’t.”
His breathing is heavy. His hands are shaking, and he fists them into the material of his jeans. He stares at the grave in front of him, at the words printed in the stone, and tries to imagine his mother is sitting there with him, warm and alive, not an empty shell six feet under. He imagines he’s six again, and her hand is a gentle comfort on his forehead, brushing back his hair, her voice a soothing reassurance. It’s okay, sweetheart. Take a breath.
Breathing is easier then.
“But I have to tell someone. I can’t just…keep this inside me,” he says. “And I can’t tell Dad—you know how he is. And Philip…”
Lukas trails off, not sure how to explain about Philip. The thought of him fills Lukas with equal amounts of warmth and fear, and he doesn’t know how to begin separating them. It’s why he can’t talk to Philip about the murders either, even though he was there, even though he’s the only other one who knows, who might understand how Lukas is feeling.
Being with Philip is…freeing. He feels like he can be himself with him, in a way that he could never be before. Philip is amazing and kind and beautiful, and he makes Lukas want to do better. To be better. He makes him happy.
But, unfortunately—Philip also makes him fucking terrified.
Because Philip represents everything he doesn’t want to think about, all of the secrets he’s hiding. The murders in the cabin, Lukas’s own feelings—all that pain and confusion he feels comes to the surface when Philip’s around, causes him to lash out blindly. He wants to bury all of it, to forget it, but Philip is always there, the memories trailing in his wake. And he scares Lukas more than anything—the manifestation of everything he refuses to accept.
So, no. He can’t talk to Philip about this.
But he can talk to his mom. He could always talk to his mom, could always be confident she would listen, that she would never cast judgment upon him, even at the tender age of six. He has only the vaguest memories of her, but he does remember this. She would just be there, a sounding board, a safe place to turn to when everything got too much.
He misses her.
Lukas doesn’t even know where to start, where it all began. His mind goes to the cabin immediately, but the truth is that it started long before that. It started on a morning, six weeks before the cabin, when a boy walked through the school doors and Lukas’s eyes were drawn to him immediately.
Lukas sighs, runs his hand through his hair. “This whole thing’s a complete cluster-fuck,” he says, then feels sheepish for swearing in front of his mom, even if it’s just her grave. She never approved of his father’s language, he doubts she would approve of his. “Sorry. Anyway, I guess it starts with Philip…”
And he tells her everything. He sits in front of the stone bearing her name, and he bares his soul and lays it at the foot of the grave. He rips away every lie, every mask, and lets that grave, lets his mother, see nothing but the truth. He lets her see him, every crack and dent and fracture, every dark little place he’s ashamed of. He leaves himself open, vulnerable; and after keeping his silence for so long, now he sings like a canary.
The words are hard to get out at first, and feel like he’s trying to speak through concrete. After so long keeping the tale under tight lock-and-key, the thought of speaking of it out loud causes the stirrings of panic within him, born of the fear he might be overheard. The cemetery is empty and the dead can tell no tales, but still the story gets stuck in his throat as he forces out the words.
But eventually the words stop getting stuck, stop having to be pulled from him from between his teeth. They spill from him like a dam had burst and could no longer hold back the flood. He’s been keeping it deep inside, wrapped into a tight little ball in the center of his chest, but now the thread is unraveling, completely coming apart. His entire body is shaking as he tells about the cabin, and the memory of gunshots ring inside his head; the memory of Philip, face down beneath the bed, how close Lukas came to losing him. The constant fear and paranoia that has followed him ever since, never letting up, never letting him breathe.
By the time he reaches Tommy and Tracey, dead because of him, all his fault, all his fault, he’s got tears running down his cheeks, biting his lip to hold back the sobs. He’s coming apart at the seams, and he wishes his mom were here, would pull him into her arms like when he was a little kid and tell him everything would be alright. But she’s not, she’s gone, and all Lukas has left is a stone with a name and a birthday on it.
“And I was a coward,” he spits in disgust. “I was a coward, and now they’re dead. Philip tried to tell me but I wouldn’t listen, and he killed them, and it’s my fault.”
Tracey has a sister. She goes to the high school. Lukas has to pass her in the halls every day. He can’t even glance her, not without thinking, I’m sorry, I killed your sister, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
“The memorial was a few days ago. I couldn’t go, I just—I couldn’t stand it. So Philip took me out to the city.” Lukas smiles at the memory, his heart lightening for a moment. It was so liberating—to stand in the center of the street and kiss Philip without a care in the world, to wander through the city holding his hand. Lukas never wanted to leave. “It was…it was great, Mom. This town…I feel like it’s suffocating me, and everyday it just gets worse and worse. But in the city—it was like I could breathe again. I could kiss Philip without feeling terrified, and…I could be whoever I wanted. Be with whoever I wanted. Nobody cared.
“I can’t wait to get out of this town,” he says. “Just hop on my bike and never look back.”
Lukas sighs, leans closer to the grave. He reaches his hand up, slowly tracing his fingers along the familiar letters. Amelia Waldenbeck. She would’ve hated it, Lukas reflects. She abhorred the name Amelia, preferring to go with the much less formal Amy. He has no doubt she would rather have that name on her tombstone. She thought Amelia sounded stuffy.
He stares at the name, at his fingers, bloodless against the gray stone. “I wish you were here, Mom,” he says softly, barely disturbing the air. “I wish you would tell me what to do.”
“I did a real shitty thing, Mom,” is the first thing he says when he sits down.
The cemetery is empty besides him, as per usual. Tivoli’s cemetery is rather small, with only a few dozen graves. When someone in the town dies, it’s often decided they be cremated, or be buried in the cemetery out in the city, so Tivoli’s own graveyard is a lot less populated. People don’t visit a lot, not that Lukas has seen.
He’s sitting on the ground across from his mother’s grave, just as he was a few days ago, and now he’s staring down at his lap, his head bent, twisting his hands. Shame burns in his stomach, in the back of his throat, on the tip of his tongue.
“I did a real shitty thing,” he repeats, “and now Philip hates me.”
Lukas can’t even blame him. He was an asshole. A scared asshole, but an asshole all the same. Philip is right to feel pissed—Lukas asked him to film him and Rose having sex to squash any potential rumors going around about his scandalous gay love affair (the fact that no actual sex occurred is of no consequence). Seriously, what kind of fucked-up person does something like that?
Lukas. Lukas does that.
“Fuck.” Lukas curls in on himself, bracing his elbows on his crossed legs. He buries his hands in his hair, gripping, pulling. “What’d I do?”
The grave doesn’t respond, not that he expected it to. He’s used to these regular one-sided conversations.
“This should be a good thing. If Philip doesn’t want to talk to me, doesn’t want to hang out anymore—great. I can be with Rose, and I won’t have to think about the murders, and things…things can go back to normal.”
Lukas presses his lips together, stares down at a single spot of dirt inches away. “But…I miss him,” he admits reluctantly, and feels the truth of it in his gut; a piercing pain in his chest when he remembers Philip’s face, marred with pain and anger. That’s it, Lukas. I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.
The words repeat, bouncing back and forth inside his skull. I’m done.
He presses his palms into his eyes until his vision goes white, remembering. Remembering standing outside next to his bike, Philip feet away, his jaw clenched.
I’m not gonna try to force you out of the closet, Lukas, he’d said. But I won’t let you drag me back in, either.
Lukas pushed him too far. He was so scared—scared of himself, scared of what everyone else would think—that he completely disregarded any feelings Philip might have on hiding and sneaking around like a dirty secret. He didn’t mean to make Philip feel like that, to feel ashamed of himself. That was never his intention.
But he did. He did and he never even noticed, because he’s self-centered and selfish, and other people’s feelings never rate above his own.
“God, I was an asshole, Mom,” he says, defeated. “Philip’s never gonna forgive me, and I can’t even apologize because he’s not talking to me anymore. I even went up to him at school—with people around!”
Lukas sighs. “Look, I know I was a di—a jerk,” he catches himself. Somehow calling himself a dick while pouring his soul out to his mother’s resting place seems disrespectful. “But…he just doesn’t get it. He’s from the city, he doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up in a town like this, where everyone knows everyone and where your private life is everyone else’s life as well. He just…it’s different. He doesn’t understand, he can be whoever he wants. I can’t.
“And I can’t stop dreaming about the cabin,” he continues. “I see it every night, and now I’m seeing it when I’m awake, too—the gun, the shots…my head’s so loud these days, I just wish it would shut off. Even riding my bike doesn’t help anymore.
“Philip says the only way for it to stop is for us to finally tell. And I’m starting to think he’s right. But…I can’t.”
“I’ve been thinking about death a lot recently,” Lukas admits quietly. “It’s just…something that keeps finding its way into my head.”
He looks down at his lap as he speaks, twisting grass strands around his fingers, pulling them from the ground. There’s dirt beneath his nails.
“There’s been a lot of death recently. Those guys from the cabin, Tommy and Tracey. That girl that was found hanged—Bella something-or-other. Turns out she didn’t commit suicide, someone killed her. The police are supposed to be keeping it quiet—so naturally, the entire town knows about it by now.”
Lukas isn’t blind to the irony that he’s talking about death in a cemetery. At least the subject’s appropriate.
“During the memorial for Tommy and Tracey…” Lukas swallows thickly. “I was on the roof, before Philip found me. Out on the edge. I kept staring at the sidewalk way down there and for a moment I thought…that I could just step off. One step—and my head would finally be quiet. It could be over.
“I’ve been thinking things like that a lot recently. About dying. And it scares me. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know how to stop feeling like this. All I want is for everything to stop. Things. People. Life.”
Lukas’s breath escapes him in a whoosh. He can’t believe he just said that. But it’s true—that’s the part that’s so terrifying. He feels so afraid, every day—things that mattered before, simply don’t anymore. Even the façade he puts up at school, in front of Rose and his friends, seems to be crumbling under the weight of his fear. He’s slipping, and sometimes he wonders, when forcing a laugh with his friends, or leaning over to kiss Rose, does it even matter? Why am I doing this?
Everything seems meaningless these days. Time slipping by and away like water through his fingers.
He traces the name on the grave, a familiar, intimate action. He remembers his mom, her lavender perfume and sparkling blue eyes, the way she smiled, how one side of her mouth would turn up before the other. Most days, he’s surprised he still remembers some of the tiniest details about her. It makes his chest ache.
“What do I do?” he asks. “What do I goddamn do?”
Silence is his only answer.
Tracey’s sister and her mother are visiting the cemetery today. When Lukas spots them on his way to his mom, his throat closes up and his chest feels tight.
“Lukas!” Tracey’s sister calls, forcing a smile when she sees him. He can’t remember her name, and it makes him feel a thousand times worse. “Going to see your mom?”
Lukas just nods. His lungs aren’t working quite right, and if he tries to speak, he’s afraid they’ll hear the crushing guilt in his voice. He wonders how they can’t see it written all over his face—his poker face is awful.
He makes his way down the rows and settles himself down in the usual spot. He doesn’t speak for a moment, just looks at the headstone as he gathers his thoughts. Truthfully, he was feeling a bit better today—nowhere close to being okay, but better than he’d been in a while. He made progress with Philip, and with Rose, and things were looking up—then the sight of Tracey’s family sent them spiraling back down.
“I broke up with Rose,” he starts off. “I couldn’t continue to string her along. I told her about the sex-tape, too, even though it could have ruined my chances at a scholarship if she’d decided to report it. She slapped me, which, I know, I deserved. I probably deserved a hell of a lot more than that.
“Philip and I are…well, I’m not quite sure where we stand right now, but he’s talking to me again. That’s something.”
Lukas blows a strand of hair from his face, and remembers Philip when Lukas told him he and Rose were over. He didn’t believe him at first, which Lukas doesn’t blame him for; he gave Philip no reason why he should. He has a lot of apologies to make, but he thinks they’re back on the right path.
“I don’t know what me and Philip are,” he tells the grave. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be anything—if Philip will even want to be after everything. But what I do know is…I’ve never felt like this before. Like I have something to hold on to, and that I’d do anything to keep. I’m scared…I’m so, so scared. But I think Philip may be worth it.
“I wish you could have met him, Mom.”
Less than five days later, Lukas gets shot in the chest.
He doesn’t visit his mother again for a while.
“Are you sure you're okay to do this?"
For one heart-stopping moment, familiar panic makes the words stick in his throat. The same desperate fear rises up in his chest and he chokes on it, lungs refusing to work.
Then he feels Philip’s fingers slipping between his own, pressing their palms together. His hand is warm in Lukas’, the weight solid and grounding. Philip gives him a soft smile, and Lukas smiles back, the tension draining from his body as he finally speaks the words he’s been so terrified to say.
“Mom, I’d like you to meet my boyfriend…”