I made sure to walk as fast as I could as I rushed to the bottom of the back steps. I didn't want them to look me in the eyes just yet. My mask still needed a little 'adjusting', I was sure of it. This was all a surprise on me, and my emotions hadn't really settled into a level of manageability just yet. What was I doing wrong? What was missing in my presentation? It's almost like they can see right through me. Me and every lie that I ever told to make them think that I was normal. I don't WANT them to see right through me! I don't want anybody to see who I am.
Because...let's be honest...on the inside, they'll find nothing but garbage and bullshit. Just...worthless junk that nobody wants to deal with, but doesn't want to go through the trouble and fuss of throwing it away just yet. If I'm not entertaining to them, then what am I? How can I expect to matter if they don't tell me that I'm worthy?
Why did Brody have to do this today? WHY???
I pretended to have some sweat on my forehead, wiping it away as I tried to hide my swelling emotion and uncontrollable tears from the only people in this world that I felt 'safe' around. The *ONLY* ones! What am I gonna do, huh? What the fuck am I going to do, now that they're poking around at my deepest, darkest, secrets in life? Trying to figure out who I am and what I'm up to? Trying to pry their way into parts of my life that are too vulnerable to let anyone else inside. It's not FAIR! I don't WANT to be exposed! I just want to love people on the outside and not have it go any deeper than that. I want to protect what little privacy I have so that I can have the strength I need to battle the hard times when they come.
Because the hard times always come. Always.
"So did you guys bring a basketball or a football or something? What's going on at the park that got you all together like this?" I grinned, still hiding my eyes.
There was an extended pause behind as the other boys tried to keep up with my panicked pace. Then I heard Adam say, "Brody came over....he said..." Adam stopped himself, then started again, "We thought that maybe you were having...some 'issues', and..."
"Hehehe, 'issues'? What kind of issues? I'm fine." I relieved a little bit of the pressure by laughing it off, but the emotion was building up almost as fast as I could get rid of it. "Besides, everybody knows that Sam is the one with parent issues! Am I right? Hehehe!"
Not even taking a cheap shot at the twerp gave me an out this time. They were really worried about me. I briefly turned back to look at them over my shoulder, and the concerned expression on their faces truly frightened me. I turned back forward again, hoping they wouldn't question it any further. Hoping that they'd find some other form of distracting conversation before the severe cracks in my mask began to show more clearly.
"Zack...dude, maybe we should stop for a minute and talk about this..." Adam said.
"Talk about what? God, what are you guys being so weird about? I already told you...I can't stay out long. You wanted me to come out here, now I'm out here. So let's go already." I said, hoping not to sound too agitated.
This is when Brody put a hand on my shoulder and tried to turn me around to look them in the face. "Zack, c'mon dude. Stop. Ok?"
"WHAT???" I said. I didn't mean to raise my voice. There was just this...I don't know, this touch of raw anger that suddenly rose up out of nowhere and hardened my stare. Elevated my tension. My mood, burned black like the tip of a freshly struck match.
But...the hurt look in Brody's eyes made me stop. It made me realize that he was hurting because of me. Because of ME! I think I felt my heart break from the very idea of causing that beautiful angel a moment of distress.
Swallowing down a heavy gulp of despair, I managed to say, "Don't do this, ok? Let's just go to the park. Everything would be much better if we all just went to the park and had some fun today. Alright?"
But Brody looked even more hurt by having me deny him the opportunity to talk more about it. "I can't, Zack." He whimpered, his eyes beginning to water up right in front of me. "I'm not going to just ignore this. I need to know if..." He looked back at Adam and Sam, who were both silent and obviously confused by all of this...but still stood at his side, as this sudden revelation brought a lot of past occurrences to light and helped to make sense out of them. "Zack...if you're having problems at home, you can tell us. Ok?"
"I'm NOT having problems at home!" I yelled. It was a totally involuntary response. One that I was ashamed of. "What is this? Whatever. Are we going to the park or not?"
Adam said, "We're only trying to help, dude."
I said, "Good. Great. And you helped. Thanks a lot. Just...you're way off with this one. I'm 'normal', ok? Just like the rest of you guys. So, can we go now?"
"Nobody said that you weren't normal, Zack." Brody said, but I cut him off. No! I'm not doing this! Not with him! Not with the only light I've got left in this world!
I said, "No, but you're assuming that there's something wrong with me. There's NOTHING wrong with me! Got it? I thought you guys wanted to hang out..."
Adam said, "We DO want to hang out..."
"Then WHY are you guys ganging up on me??? Just leave it the fuck alone!" Even I could understand why their meddling in my personal life had touched such a sensitive nerve. I just...I saw my three best friends looking at me with such a sense of pity. And I don't WANT their pity! I worked too hard to be just as 'normal' as they were. Why are they trying to destroy all that?
"Nobody's ganging up on you, Zack." Brody said, a single tear dropping from his eye as he approached me for a hug. But I rejected him. I stepped away and put my hand on his chest to keep him at arm's length. He was crying. My baby was crying, and it was my fault. That made me want to cry too, and that was tearing my whole 'normality' argument to pieces right in front of me.
"Don't do this, Brody. Please? All of you guys...if you don't want to go to the park then just let me go back home. I'm only gonna make things worse..."
"Worse than what?" Brody whimpered.
"You don't want to know." I said. I wiped a stray tear from my eye before it fell. "None of you want to know. Just leave me alone."
"I'm trying to HELP you, Zack..." Brody said.
"I don't need any help. I'm fine!"
"You're NOT fine! Why do you keep saying that???"
"Because it's TRUE! Ok?" I said.
That's when Adam took a deep breath, and he said, "Zack...is your dad...is he hurting you?"
I don't think I had ever heard the words spoken aloud before. Never once in my life, not even by me. The violent tremor of long suppressed chills were suddenly released like a storm cloud of angry bats in the very pit of my stomach, and I found myself almost too weak to answer with, yet, another lie. "Why would you say something like that?" I asked, my breath getting short, my bottom lip beginning to quiver. "WHY would you say that?!?!?" I demanded a fucking answer, and my best friends were too damned hurt to give me one.
Adam meekly replied with, "It's ok...if you want to talk to us..."
"WHY would you say that about me??? About my dad??? WHY? Like your lives are so perfect!" I growled.
Adam took a step away from me, practically feeling the heat of hatred ad disgust radiating off of me. But he stood his ground when he said, "None of this adds up, ok? You NEVER hang out after school, you're always running home like you need to put out a fire or something..."
"I've got better things to do than just hang out and 'play' all the goddamn time!" I said.
Feeling more bold about it all, Adam took a step forward to erase the one he took back. "You always seem on edge! EVERYTHING is a big secret with you! You have sores and bruises that pop up out of nowhere, you get mad at Sam if he touches the wrong spot on you! One day, you tell me you fell down the steps, the next you're telling Brody you fell off of your bike..."
"What makes you think this is any of your fucking business, huh?!?!?!" I shouted. "I don't know what you're trying to do here or what you're trying to prove, but my life is no different from yours! I'm ok, and you're ok! Why can't we just leave it at that?"
"Because you're my best FRIEND! That's why we can't leave it at that!" Adam snapped back.
Brody said, "We're only trying to keep you safe! Why won't you listen to us?"
"Oh, so you think you're better than me? Is that it? Let's all get together and help out poor little Zack, because he's too weak and too stupid to fend for himself..."
Brody whimpered, "God, no! It's not like that at all..."
But Adam was quick to say, "Aww, FUCK you, dude! I don't even know what you're talking about right now!"
Sam, who had been silent during this whole thing, felt a pinch of his own heartbreak as he saw his big brothers bickering like this, and I could hear the pain in his voice when he said, "Stop fighting! Come on, you guys! Please?"
I told them there's nothing to fight about. I said, "You know what, I thought you guys actually cared about me and wanted to go out and have some fun. But you clearly just want to back me into a corner and force me to talk about something that I CLEARLY don't want to talk about!"
"He was hurting you today, Zack....wasn't he?" Brody asked.
"Knock it off!" I said. It was a really weird sensation. Because a majority of my inner self wanted to confess it all. It wanted to scream it out loud, at the top of my lungs, and finally be free of the secret. The pain. The hidden sniffles. The private wincing that occurred every time someone touched a bruise or a sore spot on my body. I could feel the pressure building up inside. But...what then? This isn't a secret like...who stole the last few cookies out of the cookie jar? If I say something...if I tell...my whole LIFE will change! Maybe in good ways, maybe in bad. Just a few words spoken can destroy my entire existence. Make me an outcast. Ruin my life AND my mom's life. Destroy our family. I might have to move away. Or...my dad might just snap and kill us all. I could be that tragic story on the evening news. Something that the reporters use to further their careers as they tell the creepy tale of a man who had finally had enough and decided to murder his family and run off into the sunset.
At the very least...I'd be the laughing stock of our school. People looking at me as some sort of weakling who was too much of a sissy to take care of himself. Too much of a homo to fight back. Too much of a coward to tell anybody. I don't think I was ready for all that. I don't.
"Zack?" Brody said again, trying to push for an answer.
"Leave me alone. You know what? This is bullshit. I'm going home..." I said, and turned around to go back my house.
But Brody said, "I can tell that you've bee crying, Zack."
"So?" I said. I was embarrassed to admit it in front of Adam and Sam, but I said, "I was crying before you even left me today. Remember? I just...I don't understand why you're doing this to me right now."
"We're not trying to hurt you, Zack. We're trying to help." Adam told me.
Brody said, "If you're dad is hurting you...."
But I stopped him. "He's NOT hurting me! Stop saying that!" I don't know why I said it. At this point, I wasn't quite sure why I felt a need to protect him. But I did. I think it was more about hiding the horrors that I've been through than trying to portray my father as a noble man. I felt a tear drip from my eye, and I knew that they all could see it. But I attempted to laugh it off anyway. "Hehehe! He's...he's a parent, ya know? Parents suck. ALL of our parent's suck! I mean...right?" They seemed so sad, but I couldn't shut up. My heart knew that the secret was out, but my brain kept trying to fix things regardless. "I mean...Adam's mom comes in to embarrass him about his acne and him drinking soda. And Sam? Sam has to practically dive in the bushes to keep his parents from seeing him spending time with us. Heh...they're trying to force the poor kid to get braces! How fucked up is that?" My attempts at lightening the mood failed miserably. "So...my life isn't perfect. So what? Who says it has to be? It doesn't mean that you guys have to get all worried about it."
Brody let a few more tears crawl down his cheeks, and even though Sam had been silent this whole time, I could see him trembling, his eyes getting misty as well.
Brody said, "We're not going to stand by and let you get hurt like this..."
"Like WHAT? I can take it, ok? I'm not a wuss..."
"Nobody said you were a..."
"You're wasting your time. I'm just letting you know. This whole thing is stupid and I'm already tired of it." I started to walk towards my house again to avoid any more of this conflict. I was lucky to get this far without saying anything incriminating. I didn't want to push it.
"Do you want to tell us why you have a big red mark on your throat, then?" Adam asked.
Was I angry? Yeah...I think I was angry. REALLY angry!
Adam was like, "You can talk to us, Zack. I didn't notice it as much before...but I notice it now. And I think..."
"FUCK what you think!" I shouted, more tears now flowing freely from my eyes. "This is none of your business!"
Brody chimed in with, "Maybe one day...when you're dad's not around..."
"My dad's always around! Ok? So...no!" I cried. "Every day! He's there EVERY goddamn day! Waiting on me, like the fucking boogeyman! What, exactly, was your brilliant plan for dealing with that? Huh? Because I'd sure like to know."
I think Brody was trying to calm me down, but after a brief thought he asked me, "The other day...in the rain? When you called me from the convenience store in your bare feet...? Were you really...?"
"It was RAINING, ok? I asked for some help and you gave me some help! So what? You want a cookie? I thanked you for it. I gave you your shoes back. What do you want from me? You think that gives you the right to just accuse me of..."
"Was your dad around that day?" He asked. My breath got caught in my throat. The lies were beginning to short circuit as they crossed paths, and I found myself completely at a loss for words. Brody asked, "He's around every day.....right?"
"Not that particular...he wasn't around that day..." I stammered. "He went out for something, and I was...I already told you! I was doing my laundry and I got locked out of my house. And my dad was....he decided to go out..."
"In the storm? He just..."
"LEAVE ME ALONE!!!" I said, more angry at myself than I was at them. Something TOLD me that Brody was going to be the key to this whole thing falling apart! I just fucking knew it!
All of them stopped talking. They just...looked at me. I noticed that Sam was crying, but was too scared to wipe the tears off of his face.
"Why are you all....why...?" I began to break down into a fit sobs myself. "Why are you looking at me like that???" I wanted it to come off as angry, but I'm sure it sounded utterly pathetic instead. Especially when I looked into Brody's caring eyes. "Why can't you just walk away? Why are you making this so hard?" I sniffled.
Poor Brody. I knew that I'd only end up hurting him in the end. This is my nightmare come true.
They didn't know what to say. How could they ever hope understand?
I told them, "You don't get it, ok? Maybe you guys wanna help me, and maybe you think I'm some sort of freak or whatever...but that back there? That's HOME for me! Home. I mean, do you get it? It's all I have! It's all I am! When you guys go back to your houses, it's a whole other life for you. For me? This is life. This is home. And it was FINE until you came to screw it all up by trying to play detective! Can't you just...leave me alone? Just go away. I can take care of myself." I said.
The words truly hurt Brody to his very core. I know that it hurt Adam and Sam too, both of them weeping softly as the fought to understand why I had given them such a rotten ultimatum when it came to my own personal safety. But the pain that I saw reflected in Brody's eyes...it was on a whole other level. Had I betrayed his affections? Had I denied his infatuations? I don't think I'll ever forget the way he looked at me in that one despairing moment. Not ever.
I wish I could take it all back. I wish I hadn't been STUPID enough to tell him about my problems in the first place! Oh God...he's gonna stop talking to me now, isn't he? He's going to leave me! He's going to think, 'I don't want to deal with any of this', and he's going to run away from me and all my stupid problems. That's what people do! That's what ALL people do! I'm going to be left here all alone to fend for myself without any love at all. I just know it. This is the turning point. This is where I become an unwanted burden to the love of my life. This is the part where he finally sees the 'damage' in me, and completely loses interest.
Everybody wants a friend...but nobody wants to BE a friend. Not to somebody else. All benefits and no consequences, right?
The silence was killing me. Their stares made me feel so vulnerable. So exposed. "STOP looking at me like that!!!" I screamed, and had to suddenly cover my face with both hands as I began to cry uncontrollably. The mask had been broken, the damn was beginning to overflow. "I'm NOT a freak!" I said, and I looked at Brody with pleading eyes, walking over to put my hands on his shoulders. "Please don't think I'm weird. Please? I'm ok. I AM! All of us are ok. Let's go to the park. Just like you said, right? We can all go to the park. Right now. We can forget this ever happened. I can...I can 'fix' it, ok? Just don't stop liking me. This is stupid. It's ALL stupid. Can't we just...we can...let's just go to the park. Please?"
I'd do anything, say anything, to make this unpleasantness go away. But as I looked in Brody, Sam, and Adam's, eyes...I knew that it wouldn't be possible. They were looking at me with such...'pity'. Such remorse. That look alone gave me chills. It was like my father's voice telling me, "I told you so!"...right in my ear.
"Brody....?" I whimpered. Why couldn't I stop CRYING? I'm such a faggot! "Ok...alright...maybe, sometimes, my dad gets out of line." I said it as a desperate attempt to give him what he wanted and hopefully please my friends enough so they'd have their worst fears confirmed and let it go without digging deeper into the horror that was my life. "But I can do better! I keep my grades up, I keep the house clean, I cook for my mom...I'm a good boy. I stay out of trouble. I just...sometimes, I forget things, you know? I forget things, and I slip up. And I get punished. That's what parents do. They punish you when you've been bad. I just have to be better, that's all. I have to work harder. I have to make him see that I'm trying my hardest..."
I don't know if I was rambling or not, but suddenly Sam looked crushed, and he covered his face as more tears flooded his cheeks. Whispering, "Oh my God..." As though he couldn't believe that all of this was going on right under his nose and he never saw it before.
"No! Seriously..." I said, hoping to steer things back on the right track. "...I can do better. I can work harder. That's all there is to it." I saw Adam turn away to rub his eyes as well, Brody's bottom lip began to tremble as he sniffled in an attempt to keep from breaking down. "It's not that bad. I...I can handle him. He just gets a little crazy sometimes because...because I provoke him. And that's what I did today. I provoked him. If I wasn't such a pretty boy, such a worthless piece of shit, he wouldn't think of me the way he does. He'd be happy. My mom would be happy. There'd be no need for all of this chaos. I just...I HAVE to be better! I have to be strong..." No matter what I said, they just wouldn't stop looking at me like that. The more I cried, the more their stares began to burn off an entire layer of skin off of me. My tears got worse, my voice straining to continue, even if it didn't seem to be doing me any good right now. "I'm really trying, ok? I'm trying so HARD! I just...I want to be loved. Just like everybody else. Just like YOU guys. I want to be comforted...and protected...and appreciated. But I'm not good enough yet. I'm going to keep at it and keep pushing until I'm worthy of being cared about. You'll see. Ok? I promise, you guys! I'm getting better at this..."
"STOP!!!" Adam wept, and he looked at me, saying, "Do you even hear yourself right now? Do you? Are you telling us that you honestly think that any of this is your fault?"
"I know." I sobbed. "I just...I don't know what to do. I think, I think I can hang in there, and if I just stay out of his way and take care of the house the way he wants me to then..."
"Then what?" Adam asked. "Dude...do you think your dad is just going to wake up one morning and decide to stop abusing you?"
"It's NOT abuse! Don't be so dramatic! It's not like he sent me to the hospital or anything..."
"But he DID send you to the hospital! You just had your arm in a sling! Was that him too?"
"That was an accident!" I cried. "Look, this is getting crazy now, ok? Look, I really am fine. I can figure this out and I'll be safe. My mom will be safe too. This is my family. It's ok. I mean, thanks, you guys. Really...thanks. But the best thing for me to do right now is to keep from making him mad."
Adam said, "The best thing for you to do right now is to TELL somebody and have his sorry ass thrown in jail, Zack! I'm sure there are plenty of people in there that would love to see just how fucking tough he is!"
Brody stopped Adam from getting too overheated about it by placing a hand on his shoulder. Then he asked me, "What about your mom? Zack, did you tell her?"
The fear suddenly washed over me like a bucket of ice cold water. I immediately put my finger up to my lips to hush him up, and reached out with a trembling hand to quietly address him with a voice so shaky, I'm surprised he could understand me. "No no no no no...listen. Listen, ok? You can't ever tell my mom about this! You can't tell my mom, you can't tell anybody, ok?"
"Jesus Christ..." Adam grunted.
"No, LISTEN! Ok? You can't let this get out! You can't say anything about this! I'll never forgive any of you if you betray me on this, you understand? You have no idea what he'll do to me and my mom if you tell! I swore that I'd never ever tell! I'm already in trouble! C'mon, you guys...you've got to promise that you won't make things worse for me! Please? Brody? Adam? Please, you guys! You have to SWEAR! I need you to say it! I need you to swear!"
While they were all disgusted by the idea, I knew they could see the terror in my eyes. Brody said, "You need to say something to somebody, Zack. At least to your mom. Or to....I don't know, to somebody. And soon. Because if you think we're just going to let you come home to a dangerous situation every day after school, then you're wrong."
"Please, say you'll swear, Brody? Just...just say it, and I'll believe you. Just say it." I pleaded.
Brody gritted his teeth, but after a brief pause, he rolled his teary eyes and mumbled, "I swear. But ONLY until you tell somebody. You need to do something about this, and you need to do it fast!"
"I will! I promise. I will, ok?"
"I mean it, Zack..." Brody said.
"I know! I do! And...I'll work on it. Ok? Promise." Then I turned to say, "Adam? Sam? You guys swear?"
They didn't want to do it either. But then...
"I swear." Adam said.
Sam took that as permission to say it too. "I swear."
Even through my tears, I managed to smile with a heavy sigh of relief. "Good. That's good. Ok. Thank you. Seriously....thank you." I sniffled a few times, and suddenly saw Sam coming towards me, almost 'falling' forward into a tight embrace around my middle, his little blond mop snuggling directly under my chin. Brody moved forward to hug me next, and even though Adam was easily the most stubborn of us all...he soon wandered over to hug me as well.
As all four of us stood in that alley, hugging in our tight little circle of friends, I realized just how much they truly cared about me. I didn't have to work for their affection, or worry about losing it just because I didn't 'perform' the way they wanted me to. They didn't need anything from me but a few giggles and some quality time spent in their presence. And they didn't abandon me when things got weird. Except for my own mother, I really didn't think I was worth caring about. I never thought I'd experience something this golden. This priceless.
I might still have to go back to that house today. But this? This small cluster of boys sharing an emotional embrace in the middle of the alley? This felt like home.
This felt like love...