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Coming of Age Contemporary LGBTQ+

“Will you come with me, Ari?”

It was a punch in the gut. I actually felt pain in my stomach when I opened the door and Jack was there, tall and quiet under the grey sky, so much older than the last time I’d seen him.

Then he spoke. Six words. And I was angry so fast it made my head spin, blurred him until all I could see was a mass of crimson, until I could have killed him with my bare hands right there.

I took a breath, then another, before I looked at his face.

He seemed plenty calm, but I knew him. His shoulders were taut and high, eyes ringed with rich purple shadows. Some people grow into themselves as they get older. Jack looked like he’d grown out of himself.

“Hello,” I said, leaning against the doorframe. “How are you?”

“Ari-”

“Because I’m doing great, thanks for asking. I was pretty lucky, though, wasn’t I?”

His mouth twisted. I didn’t give him time to talk. If he talked, it would all be over.

“You ever been to Seb’s grave, Jack? Bet not. It’s a nice little place. You can see the old pub from the bench. His mother spent months up there, just talking to him. I was the one who had to go get her and walk her home and put her to bed.”

He didn’t say my name any more. He just watched me, wary, waiting for the next condemnation. Like he was waiting me out until I’d worn myself down.

God. How old was he? Eighteen the last time I’d seen him – twenty-five now? Twenty-six? His cheeks were sallow. He’d always been pretty, too pretty for us. We were the poor kids, the scrabbling kids, the desperate kids. Jack, though. That boy. I was fourteen when he walked into my life, all dark eyes like a hurricane and hair too wind-blown to see through. And oh, the stories he had.

“Come here, Ari,” Jack said, sitting on the top step of the staircase over the bar we hung out at. I went over and sat on the step below him and he ruffled my hair like I was a kid. I wasn’t a kid. I was fifteen then and I thought I was all grown up.

“You’re a trouble-causer,” he said, but affectionately. I leaned into his hand like I was a cat that wanted petting and he went back to winding strands around his tan fingers. We were a close group. Six or seven of us, the core mischief, and then the outer group of loners and strangers that rotated around us. Not Jack. He didn’t belong with us, even if he was as bruised and wild as the best.

“Toby shouldn’t’ve let us in,” he said, but real quiet this time. “You’re kids.”

I pushed myself off and looked up at him, perched above me like a big brother, bony elbows resting on ripped jeans. The silver barbell in his eyebrow gleamed. “What’re you, then? You’re only seventeen. You’re a kid as well.”

Jack clicked his tongue reproachfully and reached out to me. Reluctantly, I sat back into him. I never could resist him for long. “Two years is a big difference, Ari. And Toby still shouldn’t have even let me in.”

I chewed on my lip, worrying a strip of peeling skin. Toby was the bar owner. He let the local kids in after dark sometimes, before dark as long as they were closed. He wouldn’t let us drink, but the other kids would steal. So would I. Rarely – it always made me feel bad, a creeping, sick, deep-down badness – but I did it. “If Toby didn’t let us in, Kev would break a window.”

“Kev isn’t the tough guy he thinks he is.”

“He’s got a knife.”

“If he was really brave, he wouldn’t need it.”

A whoop and scattered laughter from downstairs. For once, I didn’t feel the need to join the others. Jack made everything all right. He kept winding my hair through his fingers, quiet.

I thought we must look like ghosts, roosting at the top of the stairs in the near-dark. Sometimes I felt like one, echoing around the place without people ever seeing me. I never could hold onto the world tight enough to leave a mark. Maybe that was why I was drawn to Jack. He burned so brightly. People orbited around him, slipping effortlessly into his gravity. He made living look easy.

“Where did you come from, Jack?” I said instead of thinking about it. Our group was good at making noise to drown out the silence. None of us sat well with silence. “It’s like you just appeared.”

I could hear the smile in his voice. “Maybe I did.”

His eyes crinkled when he smiled. I knew he was doing it now even though I couldn’t see him. Then he told me that he came from London, but he was laughing quietly, knotting my hair around my ears like a crown.

“No, you don’t,” I said mutinously.

Birmingham.

“No.”

Liverpool.

“You don’t even have the accent.”

He laughed again and whispered into my ear that he came from a secret country, that he’d take us all there one day. That there’d be no more late nights under sick yellow lights or days blowing bubblegum at the teachers. No more kids turning up with fingers printed onto their arms in purple and blue. That it’d all be okay when we escaped. He sounded sad now. Lonely.

“You’d better take me,” I said. “Don’t leave me here, Jack.”

“Oh, Ari,” he said, and pressed his mouth to the top of my head. Stayed there for one second, then two. “Don’t you worry. I’m not leaving you anywhere.”

I never could think straight around him, never make the sensible choice, the right one. It wasn’t love, not in the romantic sense. I loved him the way a moon loves its planet. The way a flower loves the sun, the way a sapling loves the oak that shelters it. The way we love things that give us context. He was the house and I was the ghost haunting it.

I didn’t know where that left us now. In the distance, thunder rumbled. Any moment the sky would split.

“Come with me, Ari,” he said again, very quietly. “We can go away together.”

I looked at him, though, and all I saw was Seb’s mother, cheeks carved into valleys with the rivulets of her tears. I saw Seb with a bottle in one hand and a cigarette dangling loosely from the other.

“Do you still smoke?” I asked him.

“I gave it up. After.”

After. He wasn’t at the service when Seb was lowered into the ground. The rest of our gang was there, Kevin sulking in the corner, his on-again, off-again girlfriend sobbing in the front row as the priest murmured on endlessly. I was twenty-four now and it felt like everything I was were memories. I wanted to go back to summer days in empty classrooms. I wanted to have Jack spinning me, laughing, until the ever-present loneliness in my blood boiled away to light.

“You’re an adult now, Jack,” I said quietly. “Time to leave Neverland.”

He didn’t kill Seb. Seb did it all by himself. But Jack was the bullet in the gun, the hand holding the little white baggie, and I don’t think any of us forgave him for that. For ducking out when real life crashed down. Kids might expect their mother to walk out, their father to leave, but they don’t expect their big brothers to abandon them.

The sky parted. Rain pooled in the hollows of Jack’s collarbones and puddled around his feet. I didn’t invite him inside.

“I’m sorry, Ari,” he said. “Please, just… let me try again. Let us try again.”

I was fourteen and my mother had me by the arm. I was fifteen and Jack had me by a thrall. I was sixteen and life had me by the throat.

I knew I would regret whatever path I picked. There was no winning here. I looked into Jack’s eyes, as clear and grey as the first day of winter, and just as cold. Whatever fire he’d had – I’d had – it had burned out a long time ago.

“I’m sorry, Jack,” I said, and closed the door.

From my window I watched him walk up the path to the lane. The rain had soaked his clothes to his skin and clung to the curve of his shoulders. For one long second, before the lightning cracked down, I saw the whole exhausted mystery of him and wished that time could be paused, that I could freeze him there and I here and it would always be just the two of us, suspended, while the world moved silently on and left us at the point of parting.

Then the lightning flashed and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, he was gone.

May 27, 2021 12:30

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