They were the same sounds Julian last heard when he was 14 years old that summer long ago that made him stop, remember, and hesitantly walk to the tall doors of the old church he used to attend every Sunday with his mother before she died, and then a few more times later with Mrs. Riley and her son, Taylor. Julian suddenly had the painful urge earlier in the day to board the train and take a solitary stroll through his old neighbourhood. He had passed his old house and Mrs. Riley’s, though he didn’t think she lived there anymore. Even though it was dark and getting late outside, Julian decided to make one last stop that evening before heading home. As he stood there, he found himself drawn to the tall and slender house of worship, the warm music emanating from it, the rich choir voices and crystal clear keys on the piano, and was washed over by the fond memories of a time so distant it felt like a life not of his own, as if he was not entirely sure he had lived it. Julian was not comforted by the sudden intrusion of a series of bright haunting images he had tried both wishing away and recreating for years. The best, happiest memories never brought joy. It’s strange how over time, the happiest of memories did nothing but supplement the pain of the sad ones. Yet even so, he couldn’t help but allow himself to respond to the tug of the longing and yearning of trying to somehow reconnect with the past. Julian’s forehead creased, the corners of lips sinking in and down in bittersweet sorrow. He listened carefully as he opened the doors, shutting them silently behind him. He took leisurely steps gently across the lush red carpet, the footprints from the sole of his shoe leaving their faint imprints behind. He noted that the carpet was a new addition. It had not been here when he was much younger.
The music grew clearer as he entered the sanctuary. Julian bit his lip – the left half anyway – thinking the impossible before muttering to himself in disdain to dispel the ridiculous notion. But he couldn’t help but notice how familiar the pianist’s playing style was. It reminded him of Taylor, the way he would accompany the worship on the piano every Sunday service as they sang.
Perhaps the reason why fond memories hurt so much was because they reminded him of joy and beauty, only so that he might know that he could never re-experience them. It was lost and, try as he might, he could never recreate them. So he tried to forget, but could only end up pretending to. No one could truly forget, especially not something that changed the way they lived. In Julian’s case, he had discovered that the only way to rekindle one’s own flame was to have another candle share its own light. As much as it hurt him to hear the music and remember the days that time had long stolen, he felt himself drawn to it, beckoning him to come and stay. And he relented.
He allowed his heart to comply, and as he sat in the last pew in the far right – the pew he always occupied with his mother, and then later with Mrs. Riley and her son, Taylor – he first looked around and observed the grand room before watching the choir rehearse. No one was sitting in any of the long benches; he was the only one. The ceiling was high with wooden beams making x’s and triangles from wall to ceiling to support the roof. The windows had been renovated, and the dusty lamps that once hung on the walls were now replaced with newer and more modern light fixtures. The warm soft glow of lights around the room was still the same, bringing a sense of hallowed peace and comfort from the falling of darkness outside. The front of the sanctuary had been renovated as well. A new altar and stage took place of the squeaky one he once remembered, but the dark wooden pulpit still remained. With a new stage and more space, the old upright had been swapped with a polished black grand piano. From the way it was positioned, Julian could not clearly make out the face of the pianist. A choir of young men and women was conducted by an older woman with her back turned to him. There were a few children there, one of which was a very young boy, a young toddler who wasn’t singing as much, as he was rather simply enjoying himself just standing there with a big grin plastered on his face. His hair was dark brown, and Julian watched him at a distance with interest and curiosity for a while before switching his gaze to something else. The long benches were still the same as the ones he used to sit on years ago.
A sudden memory emerged in his mind and he found himself looking through the small shelves and slots attached to the back of the pew in front of him, which were used to hold Bibles and hymnals. Next to it was a small shelf padded with green velvet reserved for depositing the little clear plastic cups used for drinking a modest amount of grape juice during communion, which were then collected at the end of service to be thrown out. He picked at the old and rough green velvet – no longer smooth and now worn out – lifting it off from its cramped space. The glue had dried up long ago, and Julian felt a small smile spread over his lips as it broke away from its confinement, puffs of dust voicing protest at the abrupt disturbance from years of relatively undisturbed slumber.
Julian looked at the dry wood underneath, vague hints of markings and chicken scratches of old days could just barely be made out. He took a finger and carefully wiped the dust off. Yes, all of these years and it was still here. Julian wondered if anyone had ever discovered the simple message he and Taylor once carved into the wood with a key. But perhaps it had no meaning now. Only to Julian. All of these years he had finally convinced himself that Taylor was gone forever. Convinced…and yet he still allowed himself to dream and hope from time to time. So much for ‘convincing’. Perhaps it was the same as trying to forget.
When Julian looked up, he noticed that the choir members had broken away from their orderly formations to chat with each other, loosening up. Slowly they started making their way through a side door upfront. The lady conductor took her music stand and put it to the side. Julian watched her make her way over to the pianist. He didn’t stand up, and the slightly open lid blocked off a part of his face from view. The two spoke in hushed tones for a brief moment before she too made her way to the side door. The only two people occupying the sanctuary were Julian and the church pianist. Julian sat all the way at the back of the room, while the pianist sat at his piano all the way up at the front. Julian kept silent, his mind wandering with nostalgia as he remembered old days full of discovery and significance, but in no particular order.
Quietly, ever so gently, so unobtrusively, Julian’s ears perked as he heard the tender beginning notes of a familiar song, a song he had not heard in ages. After the first line or so, he remembered the humble, almost romantic piece, but could not recall the name. To suddenly and unexpectedly hear it for the first time in years sent a cold shiver through his entire body. He was surprised that he still recognized it. He watched the hidden man behind the black piano with curiosity. He knew the song well. He just couldn’t remember what it was called.
All he remembered was that he had first heard it played for him on his 14th birthday that month of July, 16 years ago. He didn’t forget it then, and he couldn’t forget it now. He might have forgotten the name, but not the memory.
Sometimes, whenever his father, Dan Todd, was having one of his episodes, Julian would make his escape into their backyard as his mother quickly whispered to him to make himself scarce. Julian found himself standing outside looking at the backdoor feeling awfully frightened, knowing his mother was in there trying to calm down his father on her own. He knew her to be a very fragile woman and he didn’t know how much more she could take. Some days he wished she would just wake him up in the middle of the night to make a great escape to someplace just for the two of them, some place far away.
Of course, that never did happen. Instead, his mother took him to church with her every Sunday. It was just the two of them, and it was a haven away from the place that was known as ‘home’. Even though his father objected for an entire year, wanting to keep them under his thumb, he finally relented, throwing his hands up. He wouldn’t hassle them about it as long as they obeyed his one simple condition – they were never allowed to tithe because, as he saw it, it was his money for his own use. Julian’s father always kept a close eye on their money, keeping count of every penny. Dan Todd was a controlling man. Julian didn’t know why. He never thought about it, never questioned it. He just learned to live with it, but he knew he could do without.
Julian’s mother, Sarah, had found friendship and community at the local church. Though she felt her newfound faith helped to make her life a bit more bearable, she primarily came there for the sense of community and family. Sarah knew it was best to take Julian along instead of leaving him at home. He was ten at the time, and although it was all new to him, he took comfort in the sense of harmony and amity of the people and the place.
Because their service was in the afternoon, he got to enjoy the moments when the sun would come down and shine through the immense stained glass window, flooding the room with warm orange and faint hues of red, blue, purple, and green. He loved it best when the atmosphere was accompanied by the doxology played at the end of every service.
For an entire year it was the same lady who played it on the piano. However, the following summer he noticed a new face every so often. The same new face. It was a dark haired boy a few years older than himself who would sometimes take her place. From the way it was positioned, he could never make out the face very well. The first good look Julian got of him was on a Sunday of the following month in July when Julian spotted his mother, Sarah, talking to the boy and his mother. Julian was eleven at the time, and that day on the way home he asked his mother who they were. She told him that they were new to the church, but that they knew the church pianist well. He also found out that they were moving into the area, and in fact would be neighbours. Not directly next door, but one over, separated by another home sandwiched in between. “We’ll be having new friends living close by. They’re the Riley’s,” his mother had said.
Julian didn’t know about them being friends. Indeed, he found the prospect of having the dark haired boy moving in close by exciting, but he didn’t think he could easily make friends with an older kid. He asked his mother how old the boy was. The boy’s name was Taylor, Julian was told, and he was fifteen, four years older than Julian. Julian frowned. He was afraid the boy might be intimidating and would want nothing to do with him if they were ever put together. Two days afterwards they moved in.
A week later in that hot month of July, Julian found himself playing with a tiny dark woodlouse in the backyard while his mother was out grocery shopping, and his father was still sleeping, only to wake up past noon. When he was younger still, he found the insects revolting. To a certain extent, he still did. But when his mother discovered him curiously looking at them, following their path, she smiled and told him a funny name for them. Chuggypigs, she’d call them. She showed him a little trick they could do, that they rolled up into a tight little ball when you touched them. She said they did that out of fright, sort of like they were trying to hide, to protect themselves. He thought that was cute, so with some trepidation, he tried it for himself.
He found himself doing that when he heard a screen door open a few meters ahead. He looked up and, through the wire fence, saw Taylor step out of his house. He quickly looked away, pretending he had not seen the boy. Taylor looked curiously at Julian for a moment before he decided to speak up.
“Hi,” the boy said. Julian looked up and made eye contact with Taylor.
“Hi,” Julian piped out in a very small voice.
“I think I’ve seen you at church before. I’m Taylor, by the way. What’s yours? Your name, I mean.” Julian thought Taylor’s voice was very deep. He was fifteen years old, after all. Julian still hadn’t gone through puberty yet, and he felt scared having to talk to such an older boy. Taylor was also a lot taller. Very tall, in fact. And he had the blackest hair Julian had ever seen. Black hair, black eyebrows, black eyelashes, and black pupils. Black as night. The reflecting light off of Taylor’s eyes looked like stars in black space. They looked deep and awe striking, like something from beyond. Something mysterious to be explored and discovered, to take a voyage into. They were welcoming and Julian took solace in them.
“I’m Julian,” he replied. Taylor smiled, trying to appear approachable and friendly to the younger boy. Julian didn’t know why an older boy even bothered to talk to him. He thought the older kids got, the less interested they were in children. Maybe Taylor just thought it would be rude not to say hi, Julian thought, especially since he already knew Julian’s mother.
“I saw you and your mom talking to my mom at church last Sunday,” said Julian, trying to avoid an awkward silence.
“Yeah, we were. She’s a nice lady, your mom,” said Taylor.
Julian smiled. “Your mom’s nice too,” he said, not sure of what he should say to repay the unexpected complement. Taylor laughed lightly.
“I guess you can say that. Unless when I get into trouble or something,” he grinned.
Julian nodded slowly. When he looked back down he could not find the woodlouse. It had already escaped when he was distracted. Julian frowned.
“What kind of trouble?” he asked, just to keep the conversation going.
“Oh nothing bad, don’t you worry. Just little things here and there,” Taylor shrugged. He stood there quietly for a few seconds before his eyes lit up as he stepped back into the house. “Hey, I think I’ve got something to show you. I’ll be back in a sec.”
Julian remained crouched, finding a stick to dig into the earth with the hopes of finding interesting pebbles or rocks. Just another pointless activity to keep him occupied. He dug around for a minute before seeing something blue. He thought it was a rock, and as he was carefully tugging it out, he heard an incoming buzz loom by his ear and he yelped, jumping away. Bumblebees frightened him, and his face twisted in horror as he yelped once again as it dived back at him. He fanned his face, trying to move away from it.
“I’m back–oh hey, what’s going on?” Taylor said, surprised to see Julian hop from one area to the next, his arms flailing about.
“I don’t like bees. It won’t leave me alone,” he winced.
“Oh, just keep away from it and try not to agitate it and it’ll leave you alone,” Taylor chuckled. “But I could try distracting that little guy with what I just went in to grab and show you. Let’s see if it works,” he said, grinning. He held a bottle in his hands, twisted the cap open, and blew a few bubbles in the general direction of the black and yellow pest. Within a matter of seconds, the bee became preoccupied with them and flew away from Julian, leaving the younger boy in peace.
“Hey…” Julian started as he observed the bubbles landing on the ground. “They’re not popping.”
“Yep. I know I’m probably too old for toys like this, but I thought it was just cool, so I grabbed myself one. Pretty neat, huh?”
“Yeah,” Julian replied with hushed awe in his voice. “I’ve never seen this before.”
“Here, try it,” Taylor said. “Can you catch?”
“Umm…I guess I can try.”
Taylor tossed the bottle across the backyard of the house in between them and Julian caught it in both hands.
“Nice catch!” Taylor’s complement lit up a smile on Julian’s face.
“Thanks,” he said, opening the bottle. He brought the ringed loop up to his lips and blew them towards Taylor. Taylor grabbed and popped a few.
“Ya like it?”
“You can keep it.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure! You’ll make better use of it than I would. I just bought it to try it out.”
At that moment, Julian heard the backdoor open and his mother stuck her head out.
“Sweetie, I’m back. It’s lunch time. Come back inside,” she said.
“Okay mom, just one second.” Julian turned back to look at Taylor. “Thanks Taylor,” he said happily.
“Who are you talking to?” Sarah asked, making her way down the steps and over to Julian. She looked across the yard and spotted Taylor grinning.
“Hi Mrs. Todd. Julian and I were just getting to know each other.”
“So you’ve met?” she looked back and forth between the two boys. “And what’s this?” she inquired, seeing the bottle in Julian’s hand.
“Oh, it’s just a bottle of bubbles I gave to Julian,” Taylor answered for him.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have. He wanted it from you?” she asked. Turning to her son, she raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t ask him to give it to you, did you?”
“Mom!” Julian whined quietly in annoyance, his lips pouting, though he didn’t overdo it to avoid embarrassment. “That’s not true.”
“No, no, it’s just my little gift to him. It’s nothing really, Mrs. Todd.”
“And did you thank him, Julian?” she asked, directing her gaze back to her son.
“Yes, mom, I did,” he sighed, slightly exasperated. Taylor watched the two, chuckling quietly to himself. Sarah ruffled her son’s blond hair, grinning.
“I’m just checking, that’s all.” Shifting her attention back to Taylor she asked, “Is your mom at home right now?”
“Yes, yes she’s just inside, no doubt getting ready for lunch. I should be heading back in to help now.”
“Okay then. In a few minutes I’ll be ringing your doorbell. I’ve got something for the both of you. Tell your mom so that she’ll know to expect me.”
“Okay, thank you very much Mrs. Todd. I’ll tell her right now.” He walked to the backdoor of his house and stopped to wave goodbye at Julian and his mother. Julian waved back, and as his mother turned to walk back into the house, he crouched one last time and managed to pull out the blue stone before following her.
“What do you have for the Riley’s?” Julian asked.
“Just an Italian rum cake I picked up at a bakery on my way home from doing the groceries.” She turned to him and saw he was clutching something else in his other hand. “And what else do you have in your hands now?”
“Oh, just a rock I found outside,” he said, opening his dirt covered palm.
“Wow, that’s a nice one,” she said, nodding to herself. “I wonder how it got there.”
“I don’t know, but if you’re going to go over to the Riley’s house, can I come over too? I wanna give this to Taylor.”
Sarah smiled widely, rubbing the back of her son’s neck as she shook her head. “An exchange of gifts, I see. Of course you can come. But wash your hands and the stone first, okay. It’s polite to be clean.”
“I was just gonna do that,” he replied.
Within a few minutes, they stood outside of Mrs. Riley’s front door and Sarah rang the doorbell. In a short moment, the door opened, revealing a middle aged woman with short hair as dark as Taylor’s own.
“Hello Beth,” Sarah started.
“Hello Mrs. Riley,” Julian chirped right after without missing a beat.
“Well hello! Come on in!” she gestured with her hand, waving for them to come into her new home. “Welcome, welcome!” Looking at the box in Sarah’s hands, she made sure her sound her gratitude enthusiatically. “Oh Sarah, you really didn’t have to! Thank you so much! You really should stay and have lunch with us. You too Julian,” she added with delight.
“Oh, I’m sorry we can’t stay. I’ve got to prepare food for Dan, my husband, to have now and then later in the evening to bring with him to work. Then I’ve got some errands to do.”
“Oh, that’s a shame. But thank you so much for dropping by and giving this to us. It smells really good.”
Julian skittered around them but didn’t have to go any further to look for Taylor, as the older boy had stepped out from within the kitchen to greet the two guests.
Julian smiled shyly at Taylor for a short moment before dropping his eyes as if he were taking a newfound interest in his socked feet.
“What’s up lil’ man?” Taylor grinned.
“Hiya Taylor,” he paused for a moment, now suddenly feeling foolish at his earlier excitement in wanting to give his new friend something he had discovered in his back yard. Maybe Taylor wouldn’t like it. Maybe he would give him an odd look and throw it away when Julian left. It must have been so childish! Julian held it tightly in his small hands, hiding it behind his back.
His doleful and shy gesture did not go unnoticed by Taylor. “Hey buddy, whatcha got there? Are you hiding something from me?”
“It’s…It’s nothing,” he said, unsure of himself.
“Not if you show me, it ain’t. Come on, I wanna see!”
“Umm…okay…” Julian hesitantly pulled his hands in front of him and revealed the blue stone. Taylor’s eyebrows shot up.
“Whoa, that’s really cool! Holy smokes, where did you get this?!” Taylor exclaimed.
“I…I found it in my back yard. It’s nothing really.”
“Nothing?! Whadya mean nothing?! This isn’t you common rock that you can dig up just about anywhere in the dirt. This is something special!”
“You like it?”
“’Course I do! I love it. That’s a lucky find, Julian.”
“Well…umm,” Julian’s smile re-emerged in full bloom as he teetered back and forth on his feet. “I want you to have it,” Julian began, sticking his hand further out.
Taylor looked at him, an incredulous expression in his eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Julian said, his enthusiasm suddenly returning. “Just, um, think of it as a gift…and my way of saying thank you for the bubble bottle you gave me,” he said with a goofy grin.
“Aww, you really didn’t need to!”
“Yeah…I know,” he said slowly, dragging out the words. “But I wanna. I want you to keep it. It’s just a stone anyway. Didn’t cost me anything,” he giggled, slightly embarrassed.
Taylor reached out and took it from him. He weighed it in his hand, tossed it lightly and caught it, and nodded his head with a happy smile.
“Well, to me it’s not just any stone. Thanks a lot buddy. I really like it.”
Julian had never tried rollerblading before, and so when Taylor found out about this as he took his skates out for a leisurely stroll around the block one day, he got the measurements, went out and picked up a smaller pair, and took Julian with him to the small alleys behind the garages and slowly showed the smaller boy how to skate. It took him a moment and a few tries to find his balance and to move smoothly from one foot to the other. He could only go slow, and had some difficultly breaking and turning. One day when he showed considerable improvement and with the older boy’s praise and encouragement, Julian made the mistake of going too fast and when he took a sudden harsh turn onto a slope of bumpy gravel, he swerved, crashed violently against a metal shack and some tin garbage cans, and collapsed.
The angry gash on his knee, the shock of the impact he had made on the gravel and concrete to his hands and elbows, and the awkward positions of his feet and ankles made him cry out. He gritted his teeth in pain and embarrassment. He tried not to cry, but it was harder than he could manage. Surely, he thought to himself, that Taylor would be embarrassed at having a cry baby around him. Surely Taylor would see him as an uncoordinated klutz. Subconsciously, he looked up to Taylor, wanting to prove he was worthy, that he was good enough to be around an older boy. He took sharp shuddered breathes through his aching chest. He tried hard to appear tough, brave, and strong. But when Taylor immediately ran to him with worry written all over his face, Julian couldn’t hold himself together anymore, and he tasted the saltiness drip to the corner of his lips soon after his vision had blurred. A reflexive and choking tightness caught in his throat, preventing him from speaking.
Taylor was beside himself. He carefully and slowly helped the boy up. In a short amount of time, he got Julian back into his house through the backdoor. He took care of the hurting and distraught youngster, cleaning his wounds and bandaging them up. He checked to see if anything was sprained or broken. Taylor held his hand when the rubbing alcohol stung, and when it was finished, he hugged Julian to himself on the living room couch, quietly consoling the boy, making sure to tell him that he was very brave, that it was just a little accident, that despite all of what just happened he was proud of him for the progress and enthusiasm he had in learning something new.
Encouraged, Julian found himself feeling adamant to try again, but just to take it slower and more carefully the next time around. He wanted to live up to Taylor’s praise. While his knee was still healing, Taylor bought him knee pads to use for their summer activity together, along with a helmet. Taylor scolded himself for not thinking of it earlier.
Besides play, there was also work. Julian’s mother got him some math exercise books to practice and learn from to keep him from forgetting and to prepare him for next year. Julian hated math. He would look at a problem and not know how to start. It was even worse for word problems, when he had difficulty translating English into math. It was overwhelming and he lacked confidence. Conveniently, fortunately, and unexpectedly, Taylor was quite proficient in the subject and he took it upon himself to help make math straightforward, understandable, and fun – and if not fun, then at least interesting. Though it was a struggle, Julian eventually got more and more confident when he successfully completed problem after problem, his mind making connections and seeing the patterns. Because Taylor could do it, he wanted to be able to as well.
The two ladies, Sarah and Beth, became close friends. Beth eventually learned that there were some family issues regarding Julian’s father, Dan Todd. Sarah appeared sullen whenever he was mentioned, and tried avoiding the subject as much as possible. Beth had never seen the man. He had never attended the church services with Sarah and her son. All Beth could do was remind her that if she needed anything, she would always be welcomed here. Both her and her son.
Taylor had already played the piano for some Sunday services when Julian first saw him – something he clearly was comfortable with and had already had experience with before becoming a member at this church – and he continued to once or twice a month. Julian didn’t know anything about music, and so one day, when he walked up to Taylor at the piano after service, he was shown a few basics and had the opportunity to try them out. Though fun, he found it hard to get his fingers to cooperate, but was reassured by Taylor’s encouraging and supportive attitude. After his hands tired and he put them down, Taylor had played for him a short little piece he had learned. Sometimes they would fool around as they sat together on the piano bench. It was during these playful moments that the two appeared literally joined at the hip – with thighs touching each other, Julian would instinctively leaned into him, while Taylor would respond by wrapped an arm around the younger boy, hugging him to his side. The setting sun through the stained glass window warmed their backs. The two mothers would find them and smile at each other, seeing they were as close as brothers, before calling them to come on over and that it was time to go home. This activity was also, on occasions, repeated at Taylor’s home, since Taylor owned an upright.
The next summer, Julian was caught unprepared as he plunged headfirst into puberty at the age of 12, and was frightened at the surge of sudden physiological changes his body underwent. His voice cracked and deepened and he grew taller. He found that he had to readjust his pants constantly and be careful in hiding his uncontrolled – and uncooperative – state whenever he got up from sitting. He grew clumsy, tripping over his feet. He became extremely self-conscious of the hair that grew in ‘those’ awkward places. Of course, he had general knowledge that this was to be expected, being told that it was ‘perfectly normal’ and ‘okay’, but he still felt afraid of turning into some dirty monster, that maybe he was growing too fast, too suddenly. Though some kids were late bloomers, he didn’t think that becoming quickly developed was something to be entirely proud of, either.
Then, he started realizing that he was ‘noticing’ other kids, taking an interest in them. Oh, he noticed them before, but didn’t realize it when he was at a much more tender age. When he found himself sitting in class, looking at Andy’s hands, the nape of Johnny’s neck, the smooth yet firm calves of Timmy’s legs, and Nigel’s golden locks, it slowly dawned on him that he wasn’t doing what the other boys were doing – looking at Mary’s long brown hair, Shirley’s slender and smooth legs under her skirt, or the slope of Britney’s shoulders and her young breasts. He was only looking at the boys, and he felt disconcerted. Nobody told him this was ‘perfectly normal’ and ‘okay’.
What was unique though, was when he saw Taylor on Sunday’s. It wasn’t like looking at any other boy. There was a strange funny feeling in his stomach. His legs felt weak and he would grow hot. He felt himself perspire beneath his clothes. He zoned out when he looked at Taylor, jumping when the older boy had to repeat himself. His knees dipped and he shivered with electric feelings whenever Taylor touched him, whenever he touched his arm, tapped his thigh, whenever the older boy slung his arm around him. Taylor commented on his fast growth, and when Julian timidly hinted that he felt embarrassed, maybe even ashamed at the changes, that he felt scared and didn’t know what was going on with his body, it was not surprising to find Taylor once again reassuring and consoling Julian, telling him that it was okay, that he was okay and what he was feeling and going through was all perfectly normal. He made sure to dispel any fears and made it clear that if Julian had any questions about anything, even as embarrassing as they might be, he could always coming to him about it.
Unbeknownst to Taylor, Julian did not tell him about his emerging interest in boys, nor the special feelings he began to discover he had for him. Taylor once talked about girls. Julian felt uncomfortable, as he realized he didn’t have anything to say about them. It also made him think Taylor liked girls, and it made him feel different. Sort of…alone…alone in what he felt.
The following year, when Julian was thirteen and Taylor seventeen, Julian finally realized the fact that all along he had been falling in love for Taylor. They had gone from friends to brothers, and now he felt something more. But his young heart ached with the firm belief that Taylor couldn’t and wouldn’t ever feel the same way he did for him, that he wouldn’t ever be able to share this newfound love he had for Taylor. He loved everything about him – from his visual appeal, to how genuinely caring and kind he was; that it didn’t matter to him that Julian was four years younger; that as an older youth he was more serious about things, that he was more experienced, paying attention to matters of importance rather than be consumed by the trivial, that he wasn’t like the other kids Julian knew – kids who were wild and up with latest gossip, kids who were so into themselves that they would hurt others to make themselves look better, and kids who copied other kids just to be part of a clique. It was all about themselves. Taylor wasn’t like that. Taylor cared about others, was humble and kind, fun and smart. Julian could not comprehend why Taylor could enjoy having a thirteen year old kid trail after him. Whenever Julian saw him again, his knees would dip ever so slightly in response to Taylor’s warm and exuberant “Hi Julian!” or “Hey buddy!”, and he would fall in love with him all over again. Though it brought Julian joy knowing that he had a true friend in Taylor, he felt despondent knowing that he was alone with these feelings and that he would and could never express them. Not knowing how to cope with the heartache, he eventually made a vow of silence, deciding that maybe it was better to live in the fantasy rather than risk losing the closest link he had to the boy he loved in a wishful attempt at making it a reality. Should Taylor love him enough as a friend to not push him away if he ever did tell the truth, his fantasies would be quashed with the definite knowledge that they could no longer be rooted in the realm of hopeful possibility. And even by some miraculous happening where Taylor actually felt the same way he did, he had a nagging fear that Taylor wouldn’t be reciprocal because of their age difference. With friends, it didn’t much matter. But with lovers…he wasn’t so sure.
It was also that year that his father, Dan, began heavily drinking. Sarah grew tired and distraught at her husband’s state. Julian’s father spent the money they earned on booze, and it increased his predisposition to anger. He reasserted his controlling behaviour – demanding records of every dollar spent and withholding money – demanded to know where they were when not at home, and continued to be verbally abusive. He suddenly forbade them from going out on Sundays. He didn’t like them forgetting about their place under his roof, re-establishing and reminding Julian and his mother who owned them. He was jealous that they were forming relationships with other people. Sarah could not accept his breach of their freedom, and so rebelled, standing up against him with defiance. That was when he started getting physical.
Beth and Taylor hadn’t seen the two of them for a week and concerned, Beth called them several times, each time having Dan lie to them that they weren’t home. She speculated that somehow Dan was involved. When Sarah answered the phone for herself, Beth came to her with worry. Dan monitored her from behind, his eyes boring through the back of her head, his hot rank breath thick on her neck. Silently, she choked back frightened sobs in her tight throat. Sarah quickly invented a lie, saying that she now had to work on Sundays.
Following the phone call her husband saw to it that only he had access to the home phone, which he then locked away in his room. Sarah now slept in the spare room.
He took it up a notch the following month. He forbade them from leaving the house unless it was for work, school, or groceries. Otherwise, they were to stay at home. The only small sliver of freedom was whenever he passed out from drinking too much, staying that way for hours, sometimes an entire day or two. Soon after, he lost his job, and it was up to Sarah to pay the bills and put food on the table. It became harder and harder for her. She didn’t dare reach out to find help – he had made his control on her absolute, he had conquered her, though he had not yet broken her.
Slowly the house deteriorated into a filthy slum. Julian watched his mother sink deeper and deeper into depression. Sarah worsened her condition by blaming herself for not being strong enough for her son, thereby sinking into self-loathing, believing that she had somehow brought upon their torture and demise. Julian had to take care of her. His father was tickled with anger at the sympathetic display of familial love, so he turned on his son.
Three months had gone by when one wintry afternoon, Julian stepped outside into his backyard to grab a snow shovel and some road salt from the garage. When he stepped out of the door with the shovel and bucket in hand, he saw Taylor outside on his side of the fence.
“J-Julian?? Julian!! Holy crap, I haven’t seen you in so long. Where have you been?!” Taylor exclaimed, stuttering at the unexpected surprise as he watched in astonishment.
Julian just stood there. In front of him was the boy he had been forbidden to see, the boy who he came to love so much, and could not say or do anything about it. How do you talk to someone you haven’t seen in what felt like so long?
“I…I’ve been at home…” his voice trailed off.
“At home? But how come whenever we – I – called…wait, what’s going on?”
Julian gazed at him, his body numb, before resolving that he had to get away. “I…I can’t say. I’ll get in trouble.”
“In trouble? What do you mean?” his brow knitted with an incredulous expression. “I don’t understand,” Taylor said, frowning with confusion and sadness.
“I…” Julian started but couldn’t finish, turning to go back in.
Taylor shook his head. “Come on, talk to me, what’s been going on?”
“I can’t say, he’ll…” Julian’s eyes widened when he realized he had carelessly slipped out a hint.
“He? Wait, your dad?! I knew he had something to do about this…” Taylor visibly reddened, clearly upset. Julian’s face twisted with turmoil.
“I have to go…” Julian said
“Please Julian, it’s going to be okay. Just tell me the truth. I can help you. My mom and I, we can help you. And your mom. Just tell me!”
“I…I can’t. I want to, but I–”
A crash. “That’s enough! Get back inside!” his father barked, flinging the backdoor open as he marched and snatched Julian by the arm, yanking him back inside. “And you!” he pointed to Taylor. “You stay away from him. He doesn’t need you,” he growled.
It all happened too fast for Julian to react, and as soon as they were inside, his father attacked him repeatedly. Julian failed to cover himself in time and was struck to the floor before he realized what had happened. Sarah came into the room and screamed, flinging herself over her son.
“Get off! Stupid woman!” he hollered.
“Dan! Stop! Leave him alone! Please! Stop!” she cried.
He glared at her with flared nostrils; his face flushed a dark and menacing red. “You call yourself a mother? I’m trying to teach that good for nothing son of yours a lesson! All you do is soften him up, make him weak. Just like you,” he snarled.
At that precise moment, the doorbell rang. He ignored it for three rings, keeping at his attacks while mother and son tried to defend and evade. On the fourth ring, his annoyance grew. Irritated, he went to the door and found Mrs. Riley on the other side.
Firmly, she began, “Excuse me, but I would like to see Sarah–”
He cut her off, threatening to call the police if she attempted to bother his family again. He shut the door in her face before she knew how to respond. She blinked several times, stunned.
Christmas day was bleak. Julian’s mother became withdrawn and reclusive. She rarely spoke anymore. She still responded to him when he needed her to, still loved him as always. But she was too weak, too tired. She started getting sick often. Julian knew he was losing her.
His grades in school fell dramatically, but they were still satisfactory, allowing him to graduate from the eighth grade and move on to high school – though without any awards or outstanding achievements. He didn’t talk to anyone anymore. His teachers knew something was wrong, but when they tried to ask him he was not forthcoming. His hair grew long and ragged and his clothes were old, unkempt, and a size too small despite being thin and pale from not having enough to eat.
Winter ended, Spring passed by, and Summer was just around the corner. During the morning of his last day of the school year in June, his mother went out to do the groceries and was shocked to coincidentally meet Beth. When Beth quickly walked to her and embraced her, Sarah was wracked with uncontrollable sobs. Beth took her long lost friend back to her home, keeping watch to make sure they were not seen by Sarah’s husband. Over a cup of tea, Sarah told her some of what happened, leaving out the sordid details, but begged for her to keep it to herself. Beth adamantly refused, but eventually lost her resolve after having been wavered by Sarah’s disturbingly distraught pleas.
Eventually Sarah had to leave to retrieve her things and head off to work – something that was becoming too taxing on her weakened body. When he entered the house, she realized she had forgotten to buy the groceries, and Dan, his face flushed from drinking, suspiciously demanded an answer for her coming back empty handed. She had made a grave mistake, and she found no way of getting around it.
He asked her the question again, and she swallowed hard before inventing a lie – saying that she had forgotten her purse. He snarled at her and in disbelief, moved forward to search her. She backed away, telling him over and over that she was telling him the truth. She lost her balance and tripped over a chair. Quickly, he saw his chance and lunged at her as she writhed and struggled to scamper away. Finding out that he had been lied to, he struck her face several times before snatching her by the hair, dragging her by it. He’d ask her the same question again, and she would refuse to tell the truth. Frustrated and furious, he pushed her into the washroom, tearing her clothes off.
She stood there, humiliated, her shoulders hunched up with her chest hollowed and pulled inward as his eyes wandered over her thin naked frame. The anger vanished from his eyes, and instead was replaced by something else, something far more disturbing. A glaze of sadistic anticipation. It was between the cold tiles on her back and his smothering heat on her front that he broke her.
Julian had absolutely no idea what had occurred when he got home. His mother did not go to work that day and instead locked herself in her room. His father lay sprawled on the wooden floor, drunk and oblivious to the world. When Julian could not get his mother out of her room he became worried. She told him from behind the locked door that she needed some time alone, that she wasn’t feeling well. She said that she loved him very much, and that she was sorry. He thought that strange.
There was not much to eat. Julian got out canned tuna and made himself a sandwich for dinner. Sarah took pills, enough to keep her full.
He had a dream that night. He saw his mother wake him up, quietly telling him to hurry up and get dressed, and to not be too loud to wake up his father. He made his way down to meet her at the landing of the stairs in record time, and she excitedly took him by the hand as they left through the front door. They boarded a train. Julian wondered if they needed to bring their belongings, but she answered his unspoken question and told him that they would find new belongings. He suddenly felt happy and he asked her where they would be going. She just smiled peacefully. All he knew was that this was their great escape.
Julian woke up in a cold sweat in the morning when his father threw open the door. He was gruffly told to get dressed and head downstairs, where he saw several policemen exiting the house. His father should have been either asleep or in a drunken stupor, but instead was wide awake and alert, something which made Julian feel awfully troubled and disquieted. This was unexpected and most definitely out of the ordinary.
“What’s happening? Where’s mom?” Julian asked, afraid at being unable to predict his father’s reaction.
“She died last night,” he said curtly. Julian blinked several times, having difficulty believing the words he thought unutterable, something he believed was impossible.
“I said she died,” he glared.
“How?” he whispered, stiff and ice cold, refusing to accept what he had just been told.
“Heart attack. Take the money on the table and bring home food. She was supposed to do that yesterday. When you’re done, clean out her room,” he commanded matter-of-factly as he left the house to follow the police and ambulance. Julian stood there, cold and shell-shocked. Not a tear fell from his eye. It was too sudden, too unexpected. He had just spoken to his mother last night in his dreams and there was no way she could truly be dead. He wouldn’t accept it, refused to believe it.
When he searched the house, he knew she was gone. Regardless, he kept telling himself that she would return, that maybe she just went out to work or to do some shopping. Maybe she forgot and went to church without him. Wherever she was, she was going to come back. She wouldn’t forget him. She would come back.
That night, before going to bed he went through her room and found something hidden underneath her bed. It was a green hardcover diary. He wanted to open, to see what was inside. At the same time he was afraid of being intrusive. One doesn’t read another’s diary, do they? Even if he wanted to open it, it was held together with a padlock and he didn’t have the key. He tried looking for it in her room but he could not find it. He decided to try another day. The diary was the only closest thing he had to his mother now, yet it was not accessible. He slept in her bed that night. It smelled like her.
There was no funeral. Sarah didn’t have any living relatives to hear the news. Julian kept himself steeled, not grieving for the loss of the one person who loved and cared the most for him in his life, but instead fantasizing that she was on a short trip somewhere and would return soon. He kept this fantasy up through the first week of July but, when day after day she did not come home, reality began settling in. It was about due time he called off his flirtatious affair with the imagination. With it, a sense of abandonment seeped its way in, terror like a ghost shook and reverberated against the hollow of his ribcage while his stomach seemed to twist in an effort to expel the emptiness. There was no one for him to hold onto, and no one to hold onto him. He grieved.
He had to get away, but he didn’t know how to take care of himself on the streets. He was used to living at home with his father, but, it was different without his mom. She made it bearable. Now that she was gone…it felt dangerous.
Perhaps he could seek out the Riley’s. Maybe they could help. They are…were once, like family. But it would be humiliating to turn up at their door after months of no contact. As debasing as it may be, he didn’t think he had any dignity left, so he might as well try before turning to another alternative. But even if things do work out, he still had to deal with his father. His father drank and sometimes passed out, but was that enough?
The next day when he did the weekly groceries, he bought a bottle of sleeping pills. When he got home, he secretly mixed it into his father’s drinks – not enough to kill him, but just enough to keep him from being alert for a while. His father, thankfully, took no notice and was susceptible to it. Within a few minutes, he was knocked out cold. Julian crept out of his house and went over to Taylor’s front door. After ringing the door several times and knocking on it hard, he began panicking. They weren’t home.
He realized it was a Sunday and thought that perhaps they were at church. Not knowing where else to go and not wanting to go back inside his house, he decided to walk there. Maybe he could find them there. If he was rejected, then he would have to face the streets on his own.
The sky rolled with thickening grey, like someone had spilled dirty paintbrush dipped water on a clean canvas. By the time he got to the front steps of the church, dark shadows loomed menacingly over him. Service was over an hour ago, but he spotted their car still in the parking lot. A sliver of joyous hope slipped through him. They were still here. They were still here, and they would help him. It would be alright. Everything was going to be okay.
He ran up to the doors and tugged at them. Locked. They were locked, and they shut him out. No…no, not now. He gritted his teeth as he tugged again, desperately. It started pouring heavy rain, and he had little choice but to sit outside on the concrete steps, waiting for them to come out.
He shivered as his clothes soaked with cold rainwater, his long and unkempt blond hair plastering his face. He could feel the water seep through to the tip of his toes. Missing his mother, feeling abandoned and choked stiff with terror, seeing nothing but bleakness, began forming a cavity in his sternum. He hugged his knees to himself and soon could not differentiate between the salt of the fresh cold rain and the salt of his own dirty hot tears.
“Julian?! Julian?! What are you doing here? Oh my god! Julian! You’re soaking wet!” Taylor gasped in horror. “Mom! Mom, come out here!”
“Taylor, you forgot your umbrella, you’re going to get soaked! I don’t need two umbrellas, here, take–huh? What’s going on?”
“Julian? Julian! What are you doing here?”
Taylor took his umbrella from his mother’s hand and opened it up, covering himself and the already drenched and shivering boy. Mrs. Riley had her mouth open in shock as she crouched down, putting her hand on the boy’s shoulder. Julian looked up, his eyes half closed with exhaustion, his teeth chattering and his lips pale. He was barely aware of what was going on; his mind was too fatigued. He was silent.
Beth’s eyes widened with worry. Taylor’s frown deepened and his forehead creased with confusion. No words were exchanged between mother and son as they gently lifted and supported the frail boy over and into their car where she drove them home. Taylor sat in the back seat, taking his cardigan off to dry Julian’s hair and then wrapping it around him. He hugged the younger boy tightly to himself, ever so often combing his fingers into the boy’s damp hair. He hadn’t done that in a long time.
Julian fell asleep during the car ride and when they got home – to the Riley’s house – Taylor carried his young friend into his bedroom, stripping and drying him before tucking him into his bed. He watched his chest rise and fall with every tired breath, wanting to reach out and touch him as if to reassure himself that Julian really was here, that this wasn’t some sort of dream. But fearing he might wake him up from his much needed slumber, Taylor held back.
After a while, Taylor stood up and left to meet his mother sitting in the kitchen. She had her hands in her hair, her face tight with tension.
“How is he doing?” she asked, looking up at him as he stepped into the kitchen.
“I’ve tucked him into bed. He’s all warmed up and is sleeping now,” Taylor answered.
“Good. Make sure you keep an eye on him, and call me to let me know if anything happens. We don’t want him getting a fever.”
Taylor took a seat in front of her on their small table. Not a word was said. Not a sound was made. And then Taylor broke the silence. A sniff. A sharp gasp. A hiccup or two. She looked up and saw how upset her son was. She reached out and held onto his hands.
“I know Taylor, I know–”
“–Why did this have to happen?!” he croaked loudly, painfully. She lowered her eyes to the table. There was no answer. “Why wouldn’t they let us do anything about this, mom?! Why was he outside there all alone and cold in the rain, waiting for us? Why did any of this have to happen?!” he cried, his voice cracking, straining with anguish.
“God…I wish I did…something,” she started slowly, guiltily. “But Mrs. Todd just wouldn’t have it. She begged me not to, and I had to promise her otherwise...” A disappointed, frustrated sigh rushed out as she paused. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s gone too far,” she said, her voice faltering. “As soon as Julian is awake and aware we’ll have to talk to him and get to the bottom of this. I’ll try to reach Sarah; otherwise I may have to call the authorities to intervene. I don’t know. There’s only so much we can do. Now go to bed. I’ll let you know tomorrow after work if I can find her,”
“Mom, I don’t want to lose him. He needs us.”
She nodded slowly. “I know.”
Julian woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. He felt a pang of fear as he looked around, disoriented. He was quickly heating up and his side of the bed was damp – in fact, the t-shirt and shorts he wore were soaked. How did he end up wearing these? His discomfort grew and he slowly shuffled out of the bed, his mind blurred but his instincts told him he had to strip off the now freezing wet clothing. He jumped when he heard movement beside him, and then lifted his head and turned to look.
“Mmm…Julian? Is everything okay?” Taylor mummbled sleepily as he struggled to wake up and see what the matter was.
“Uhh…” Julian soon remembered the events of the evening. He realized that he must be in Taylor’s bedroom, although he couldn’t recollect how he had got here. “I’m just…really hot,” he said as he struggled drowsily to get out from under the sheet. Taylor sat up and shifting over, his hand making contact with the damp pillow and sheets.
“It’s damp. Did you wake up in a cold sweat?”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
“Uh…I…I need to change…is there something I can, uh…change into, maybe?” Julian asked. He felt the blood and heat run up to his ears. He looked away shamefully.
Taylor turned on a dim nightstand lamp by the corner of the bed and got out, walking over to stand in front of Julian. “Yeah, no worries, I’ll grab you some of my clothes. Now give me your shirt and shorts. I’ll put them away and give you some new ones.”
“Th-thanks, thanks a lot,” Julian mumbled weakly as he fought and yanked the wet clothes off as it clung to his moist skin. Taylor went over to his drawer and grabbed a clean t-shirt and shorts. He turned around and saw Julian standing there shivering, his skin slick with sweat, his arms hugged around his thin frame. Taylor sighed inwardly as he looked at his livid friend.
“We’re going to need to get you dried up,” he said as he left the room. A few seconds later he came back with a damp washcloth and a towel. Julian’s face blushed as he realized he was almost entirely naked in front of Taylor.
“Here we are. I can give you a hand–“
“–No, no, it’s okay. I-I think I can manage,” he stuttered, his embarrassment growing. “I’ll just go to the washroom and get myself dried and changed.”
“You’re going to have to take your underwear off too. It’s wet and stuck to your skin,” Taylor said. “I’ll give you a pair of mine, if you’re okay with it.”
“Umm…” Julian bit his lower lip.
“Oh! Oh, it’s okay. You can take it off in the bathroom and take it out when you’re done. I’ll take it from you and put it in the hamper with the rest of your clothes,” Taylor said hastily, realizing that he must have put Julian on the spot. Julian relaxed, feeling grateful, and took the items with him down to the bathroom.
When he had finished, he felt his face grow hot when Taylor took his underwear from his hands. Taylor didn’t give him any grief and simply took it away with the rest of his wet clothing downstairs. Julian stood in the bedroom alone, not sure as to what he should do, with his side of the bed still damp and cold. He looked at it like an unsightly stain, as if he had defiled something clean and hallowed by soiling it. It was shameful. He hugged himself to keep warm. When Taylor got back, he noticed Julian’s distraught state and quickly realized why.
“Sleep closer to me tonight on the dry side.”
“No, I-I can’t do that,”
“Why not? It’s okay. Come on Julian, let’s go back to bed. You’re looking tired and you need some rest and sleep.”
“Are…are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure,” Taylor said. He stepped toward Julian to close the distance. “Hey, is everything okay? What’s wrong?”
Julian shook his head. “No, no I’m fine. I’m really sorry about waking you up and having you go through all of the trouble just to help me.”
Taylor took a deep breath and sighed as he wrapped his arm around Julian. Julian grew rigid, his shoulders hunching upwards at the contact. “Come on Julian. Let’s go back to bed. Here, you take the side I was on. Don’t be afraid to tell me to scoot over if there isn’t enough space, K?”
“Okay. Thanks a lot, Taylor.”
“Anything for my best buddy.”
As they got themselves settled with the lights off, Julian faced away with his back turned toward Taylor. He felt the near proximity of Taylor’s warmth, feeling the older boy’s light breath on the fine hairs of the nape of his neck. He had missed this feeling, the feeling of security, of being cared for. He felt nostalgic of the summers they had spent long ago together – the good times, the new things he had learned and tried.
And then his father had to come into the picture and take it all away. His mother and best friend had been taken away from him. But now…now that a sliver of hope had slipped through the darkness, amongst all of the pain and loss, it made him realize just how afraid he was that this was all just a dream, that it was a mirage of water he was seeing in his hazy state of mind. Just when things might be turning up for him, he was afraid that it would all be taken away from him yet again. It felt so good, so safe now. He didn’t want to face the gloomy prospects of tomorrow.
He curled himself inward; a strange feeling of queasiness and fright flowed and ebbed through his body as his eyes welled up. They slowly overflowed and inched their way across his face – one crossing the bridge of his nose while the other slid to his temple. Despite trying to be discreet, a timid sniff was enough indication for Taylor.
“Julian?” Taylor whispered.
Julian’s face twisted in shame, knowing he had been found out. He did his best to remain silent, constricting himself to only accept shallow breaths. Taylor’s hand reached out and rested on his shoulder. Julian couldn’t do it anymore. He gasped and took a shuddered breath. A breath that would mangle your heart if you heard it.
“Oh no, Julian. Buddy…come here…”
He wept quietly, only loud with intermittent heaving breaths. It was too late now. Knowing that someone was now aware and feeling him – saw him naked and for what he was – was all it took. His shoulders shook violently and his breaths became sharp and ragged. Taylor scooted towards him, wrapping his arms around Julian. He turned the younger boy toward him. At first Julian resisted, but he eventually relented and was pulled in deeper by Taylor’s strong and gentle arms as he turned around, nestling his head between the older boy’s shoulder and neck. He had his arm bent up against his own chest, too afraid to touch his friend, the friend he loved.
“It’s going to be okay…it’s going to be okay…I’ve got you now. You’re safe here.” Julian now cried shamelessly.
He didn’t know he wasn’t the only person crying in the same room.
It was almost noon when he awoke. Taylor wasn’t in bed. Julian thought he had probably gotten up a long time ago. Pushing himself from under the sheets and the comfort of the bed, he made his way out and walked into the washroom. There was a note by the sink:
There’s a new toothbrush I’ve put next to this note for you. I’ve hung a facecloth on the hook next to mine for you to use. I’ll see you downstairs. There’s no rush. We’ve got the whole day to ourselves.
Glad to have you back,
It was strange, that a simple note could prove to show that his eyes weren’t spent from last night. He stood there for a moment wondering why Taylor cared so much for him. If only he could tell him how much…but what if that scared him away? Julian couldn’t risk losing him again after being separated for so long. He couldn’t, wouldn’t dare to push his luck. No, maybe things would be better this way.
After he finished, Julian took the stairs one at a time to the main floor. He turned toward the kitchen and spotted Taylor mucking about, whose face immediately grew alive with delight.
“Mornin’ bud! How’re you feeling?” Taylor asked as he quickly walked over, only to stop short in front of him, not knowing how to proceed.
“Hi Taylor. I’m…I’m feeling okay. Feeling a little drained, that’s all.” Their eyes met for a second before Julian glanced downward. They stood awkwardly in the other’s presence.
“I’m…I’m sorry about what happened last night.” Julian hesitantly began.
“Last night? Oh, no, that’s nothing to be sorry about. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Taylor said, noticing that Julian was probably feeling too ashamed to look him in the eye. “I really mean it. Don’t be embarrassed around me, okay? Both you and me, we’re going to stick together now. I mean that too, and this time I’m not going to let your father lock you up anymore. You need anything, you come over here. Okay? Better yet, maybe we can get you to stay here or something.”
Julian glanced up, startled. He didn’t know what to say. To refuse such a welcoming offer because he didn’t want to impose on them was the very opposite of what he needed. The conflict he felt fed his guilt.
“Look, if you want, we can forget about last night and all. I’ve…I’ve prepared some lunch for us. Mom’s at work this morning and won’t be back home ‘til around five thirty. I’ve just made us a few sandwiches. Nothing really special, but they should keep us full. Now come on and sit. Are you hungry?”
“Just a little,” Julian replied. Taylor had glasses of water for the both of them, and they sat in front of each other as they had their lunch.
Several minutes had passed by. “Wow, you really weren’t just a little hungry, were you?” Taylor asked as Julian bit into his third sandwich. Julian looked at him, then looked away, feeling embarrassed.
“I-I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be eating so much. I haven’t been eating much at home lately. I’m really sorry for being such a pig,” Julian said hastily, trying to supplement his apology with his hurried speech while pulling the sandwich from his mouth. He quickly wiped his lips.
“Hey, I was only teasing you! You looked pretty hungry, and judging from last night, you look like you could use quite a fair bit of food, especially since you’re a growing boy now. Just…just ignore what I said.”
Julian relaxed slightly and slowly continued to eat, taking cautious, modest bites. Taylor looked at him and chuckled. “You seem so uneasy. We used to be so comfortable around each other before,” he sighed sadly. “I guess you and I need to be reacquainted.”
“It’s…It’s just been so long,” Julian tried to explain.
“I know. And I’ve missed having you around.”
“Really? I would think that…since you’re older, you would be around other kids your age now instead of with me.”
“Maybe. But you’re different. I feel good when I’m with you. Your doesn’t matter to me. Though you’re younger, you make a better friend then most of the kids my age. You actually care and listen, you’re honest and fun. You already know I liked you from the first time we met. Or don’t you remember all of those Sundays and summers we spent together?”
“Of course I remember. I’m…I’m sorry, Taylor. It’s just–”
“–I know, I know. And no more apologizing about anything else, okay?” Taylor moved slightly forward, raising his eyebrows to make sure Julian knew he was being serious. Julian gave a wan smile and nodded. “…I just wished we could pick up from where we left off,” Taylor sighed.
Julian looked up to see Taylor’s honest face. “…Me too…” he murmured, almost to himself.
They finished their lunch silently, each one immersed in his own thoughts. Julian then helped Taylor clear the table before he leisurely walked through the house. He faintly recalled when the two of them would either be up in Taylor’s room, out in the back of the house, or sometimes on the piano fooling around while their mothers chatted away – sometimes over tea or whilst baking some homemade delights. He could almost relive those moments, but could only get close enough to see them as ghostly apparitions. Julian crossed his arms as he approached the old wooden upright piano in a corner of the room he was in. He smiled, remembering how they would sit so close to each other on the bench that their hips and thighs would squish and rub together. It felt exciting and…safe.
Taylor had shown him how to play the most basic of scales, sometimes little fun pieces, but Julian never really got far enough at them. He found fooling around with the keys fun, but anything beyond that he could not do, didn’t think he could. Though he did get better over time, he wasn’t trying to master anything. He did it because it was fun, but more importantly because Taylor could, and Taylor made it special. He liked it because Taylor did. Before that, music was not a language, a form of expression that he was acquainted with.
“It’s been a while since we last played together, hasn’t it?” Taylor said over his shoulder.
“Played?” Julian asked with a small smile. “All I ever did was fumble around. You were the one who played. I can’t, remember?”
“You weren’t bad for a beginner.”
Julian turned his head, raising his eyebrow.
“I stand by what I said. I’m serious,” Taylor grinned.
Julian turned away and sighed. “In any case, yeah, it’s been a long time.” He paused for a few moments in silence. “You still play for church?”
“Yeah, every other week or so, thereabouts. Ms. Johnson plays it when I’m not. She’s been working more with leading the choir now, too. Sorta conducting them.”
“I see,” Julian nodded his head.
“Do you want to play something on it?” Taylor suggested.
“I don’t remember how to play anything, honestly…well, maybe except for a few scales. Sorry teach,” he smiled wistfully.
“Teach? Oh, I wish,” Taylor laughed.
“Well, I think you’re good. It was only me that was bad.”
“Bad? Hey, that’s so not true! Here, let’s fool around for a bit. Maybe it’ll all catch up with a bit of muscle memory. Then you’ll see that you’re wrong.”
“Oh, I don’t think I can…” Julian said feeling unsure.
“We can just start off with a few scales. Nothing fancy. It’s okay if you don’t remember anything other than that. We’re just having a bit of fun. No pressure,” he winked.
“Okay, okay,” Julian sighed, shaking his head. The two of them sat down, with Taylor shifting over so that he would be closer to the edge to give Julian some room if he needed. He lifted the cover and watched as Julian wrung his hands, giving his fingers a wiggle.
“C major?” Taylor suggested.
Julian hesitantly started with both hands. He slowly ascended and then descended, trying it out twice before increasing the speed by a little more than his first attempt. He raised his eyebrows and smiled to himself.
“See, not bad for a beginner taught by yours truly, and you still remember too,” Taylor laughed. Eventually Julian tried out a few more scales, with Taylor encouraging him each time. He couldn’t remember any of the small pieces he learned, and once he grew bored of the exercises, he turned to Taylor and asked him to play something.
“Hmm, what is there for me to play?” Taylor wondered out loud, tapping his chin with a finger.
“Maybe something you learned for your piano lessons? Do you still take them, by the way?” Julian asked.
“Nah, I stopped in the winter. It was pretty hard to balance out school and piano, and when I finished my last piano exam, I stopped. It’s good that I then got time to focus on my final semester of school.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Ah, here’s a soothing piece to play, since I’m feeling a little calm and relaxed at the moment.” Julian started to get up, thinking of pulling a chair next to him so as to give Taylor some room. Taylor stopped him. “No it’s okay, you can sit next to me.”
“Are you sure?” Julian asked.
“Sure I’m sure. I want you to. I miss us sitting together. Come on, stay with me,” Taylor said earnestly.
Julian complied, but shifted over to make some room. Taylor took a deep breath, got himself settled, and began with a dreamy melody that stayed sweet and soothing until the very end. The solid chords were smoothly strung together. It was mesmerising, tranquil, and once again Julian found himself watching and listening with awe and admiration. Taylor’s face was relaxed, yet concentrated. Eventually when he finished, taking care to hold the final soft notes so as to express the intended emotion of the piece, he lifted his fingers gently with a relaxed breath, a pleasant smile on his face. His eyes seemed distant, as if he had been whisked away to someplace far…peaceful.
“Wow...” Julian whispered, afraid to break his reverie. Taylor blinked and bashfully grinned at him.
“Did I do okay?” he asked.
“That was really good. Like, really, really good. What’s the piece called?”
“Oh! Hehe, I guess I should have told you before I started. It’s the second etude of Chopin’s ‘Trois nouvelles Études,’ in A flat major,” he said.
“Wow, I really like it. I’ve missed hearing you play. I guess I’ve forgotten how good you really are.”
“Nah, I’m just okay. I’m not great,” Taylor waved his hand dismissively.
“Now it’s my turn to be serious. I mean it, you are good!” Julian said adamantly.
Taylor’s face warmed up slowly with a blush. “Thank you,” he said softly, not knowing what else to say to show his gratitude at Julian’s praise.
Julian sat quietly next to Taylor in a dreamy state, feeling his warmth, smelling his familiar sweet scent he had missed so much. A comforting scent. Slowly, he moved his eyes surreptitiously to gaze at his Adonis, but found that Taylor had done the same. Their eyes met for a brief second, and they both hastily pulled away, finding that each one had been caught red handed by the other. They then again glanced back at each other at the same time, quickly finding that they had just re-enacted the scenario. They burst out laughing, finding the humour in the situation, and it sent a pulsing beam of joy through Julian’s heart – like the exhilarating rush while swooping down a sloped track screaming at the top of your lungs.
After they recovered from their laughter, Taylor stood up and motioned for Julian to do the same. He stepped back and leaned against the wall. “I didn’t really have anything planned for today, but I’m thinking of maybe taking a walk around the neighbourhood and in the park. You wanna come along?”
“Duh! That’s why I’m asking! I’m inviting you. Unless you want to stay at home and do something else. I’m open to that too.”
“Oh, no, I’ll come with you,” Julian said, grinning sheepishly.
“Alright then, let’s get changed,” Taylor said as he turned on his heels, heading toward the stairs to his room. Julian followed close behind as he took the stairs step by step. He found himself staring intensely and curiously at the firm gentleness in front of him, clad in thin shorts. He felt unsettled when his heartbeat quickened.
As they entered his bedroom, Julian suddenly remembered that the only set of clothes he had were downstairs in the laundry from being wet in the pouring rain last night. “Oh, my clothes...I forgot. Are they downstairs in the laundry?”
“Not anymore, they’re not. I brought it up last night after they were washed and dried. It’s right there on my table,” Taylor said, walking over to grab the neatly folded pair of jeans and t-shirt. He turned and handed them to Julian.
“Thanks a lot, Taylor.”
“Not a problem,” he said before turning to his drawer, pulling out a pair of green-blue plaid shorts and a white t-shirt. He started to take his shirt off. Julian was supposed to do the same. He didn’t. Instead, he watched silently, not realizing that he had stopped moving. He had to observe the perfect blend that was soft and hard, the long, lean, and sinewy tightening and relaxing with every movement beneath glowing skin, alluring like the waves and dunes of the hot desert sand; the taut ropes visible when he extended his arms and the tightening as he involuntarily contracted his firm belly; the slope of his shoulder and the and shy tuft of hair that peeked from beneath the hollows of his underarms like a place of safety; the shallow valley in the centre that made way to hint two flat mounds, his strong bosom that stirred awake each with a pert dark nub. Julian felt an incoherent tremble rise from the pits of his stomach as he stood there dumbly, his entire being fixated on the near naked dark haired angel. His eyes glided over the dusting of hairs on Taylor’s arms as his fingers felt for the waistband, hooked thumbs pulling the thin shorts down to his ankles, revealing thin white briefs that left little to the imagination as they hugged each cleft. A throbbing bounced against his rib cage as his eyes trailed down the strong and slender legs where the dusting of hairs was darker. Taylor’s legs took a step so as to turn his body, and Julian’s eyes immediately went straight to the distinct contours of the bulge held snuggly beneath the white cotton briefs.
“See something you like?” Taylor grinned.
“Guh-uh?!” Taylor croaked as he jerked his head away in alarm. “Nuh-no! No, uh, n-nothing.” His face flushed a dark red as he turned away hastily, swallowing hard and blinking his eyes wide several times. He had been caught in the act.
“You know, I got around to thinking that since I got to see you nearly naked last night, it would only be fair if I was subjected to the same torment for your own viewing pleasure,” Taylor jokingly smirked.
Julian was too frightened by how easily he had been read, how he had so carelessly given himself away, to find any humour in Taylor’s joke.
Taylor saw that Julian didn’t smile. He saw fright, discomfort. Julian looked upset. “Hey...hey buddy, I was just joking. I’m sorry,” he said, stepping towards him. “I didn’t mean anything bad by it–”
“–It’s okay. Really, it’s...it’s nothing,” Julian said as he turned around. “I guess I should start changing.”
“Are you sure everything’s okay?” Taylor asked, not sure Julian was telling the truth.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” Julian had his back facing Taylor as he quickly took off his t-shirt and shorts. He felt guilty, a sense of shame hanging over his head. When he was in nothing but his underwear, he felt Taylor’s eyes on him from behind, and he suddenly realized how utterly pathetic it must have been for him to have been caught with longing love-struck eyes. What a fool. A salty droplet of self-loath wet his cheek. He angrily wiped it away as he pulled on yesterday’s outfit. When he finished, he turned around and kept his head low. He could still see, however, the older boy in front of him. The green-blue plaid shorts and white t-shirt against his sandy smooth skin was like an oasis.
Taylor moved to stand directly in front of Julian. “Hey, chin up,” Taylor said gently. Taylor suddenly reached out his hand, and though Julian felt his instincts jab at his side telling him to pull away, he couldn’t help but stay still, his breath irregular at the sheer nervousness and excitement as he timidly observed Taylor’s face up close. Taylor’s fingers went to his hair, gently combing and brushing it.
“There we go. Taking off and putting on shirts can sometimes mess up your hair,” he grinned, taking a few steps back. “Now you don’t look so much like you just got out of bed. We wouldn’t want to frighten the harmless neighbours out in broad daylight, now, do we?” he teased. Julian gave a nervous chuckle in response.
“Alright. Now let’s head downstairs,” Taylor said as he grabbed a few items from the edge of his bedside table, putting them into his pocket.
Ten minutes later, they found themselves strolling through the park on a bright and sunny day. The sky was clear and the grass was lush. They watched children run around on one of the play castles, and when they saw a couple of kids rollerblading down the lanes and sidewalks, Julian smiled sadly as he remembered the happier days when they used to do the same together. Taylor saw the subtle reaction on Julian’s face, feeling the same way.
“It’s actually not very often you see kids rollerblading. Nowadays, the hype is all about skateboarding. You remember me teaching you how to rollerblade?”
“Yeah. I was never really good at it.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, it took forever for me to balance myself. And then I’d fall and get hurt. I always ended up giving you so much trouble.”
Taylor shook his head. “Julian, first off, if there’s any fault…it’s mine. I mean, I should have gotten you a helmet and knee pads when I first found out you had never skated before. I should have taken things slower. Don’t be hard on yourself. You need to realize that you’re better than you give yourself credit for, and you’ve got to stop saying that sort of stuff about yourself, because for one, it’s not true, and another, because I said so,” Taylor laughed lightly, his voice hovering over the warm summer breeze as he slung his arm across Julian’s shoulders. “…Now I may be wrong, but I’ve always felt that you’ve always…looked up to me, wanted to impress me, to try at the things you couldn’t do, only because I could. You work hard and play hard, but you always think yourself short. You never think you’re good enough.”
Julian felt himself go ice cold. He had been discovered, read out loud. He kept his head down and didn’t dare look up, didn’t want to answer.
“Well…what if I told you that you are good enough?”
Julian didn’t like this, didn’t like how easily Taylor could see through him. What if he saw too much? It’d be too late. What would he think? “That’s what I want to be…” he mumbled weakly.
“But what you want to be, you already are.” After a momentary pause, he said, “I don’t mean to make it sound sappy, but we’re equals, brothers, friends. There are things you could teach me too. I’m not better than you. I mean, hey, I may be awesome. But then that would make you amazing,” he grinned.
Julian frowned when he meant to smile, and Taylor saw that his eyes were glazed over with a film of vulnerability and emotion.
“Hmm…I think we need to find an ice-cream truck.”
“Why?” Julian croaked out in a thick voice.
“Mmm…” he shrugged. “It’s an ice-cream moment,” he murmured cryptically. Julian was confused.
On their way back home, Taylor got both of them an ice-cream cone each. Taking a different route than from the one they first started on, they discovered a yard sale in progress. They took their time going through the items on display out on the front lawn. Taylor got himself an intriguing set of small tools and assorted items. Julian declined when Taylor offered to get him something he liked.
The afternoon flew by as the two of them got reacquainted. Mrs. Riley came home, bringing home some pizza for dinner. She insisted that Julian stay and have dinner with them, to which Julian made sure he expressed is utmost gratitude. However, when she got around to asking him about home, about what happened last night, why he was out in the rain, and where his mother was, Julian grew pale and silent. He lowered his eyes and fiddled with the pizza crust he hadn’t finished on his plate.
“Um…my mom. She’s…” he took in a deep breath. “…she’s gone…” his voice trailed off.
“Gone? What do you mean?” Beth asked, doing her best to hide the worry and alarming sense of dread in her voice.
“My father…he said she had a heart attack. He said…he said…” Julian could no longer trust his voice as it grew hoarse. He swallowed hard, his throat suddenly dry, the glass in front of him seeming too far away to reach. Taylor had stopped eating since he noticed Julian’s reaction, and he scooted over to put his hand on Julian’s thigh.
“He said it was…sometime during the night. I never got to see her. The paramedics…they took her away. She never came back,” Julian whispered, his entire body shaking.
“No… I…we…” Beth said incoherently, thoughts swarming thick through her head, “…we never knew…” Her face went white. She was caught unprepared, and she felt a sharp pain in her chest knowing that a close friend of hers had passed away without her even knowing, that Sarah’s son was left motherless and under the roof of a madman without love, care, and family. Beth suddenly felt a burdening sense of failure, as if she was somehow responsible for this, that if she had only been more assertive and intervening she could have prevented any of this.
“Julian…how long…?” she said stiffly, still in shock.
“A few weeks, maybe. I…I dunno. I just…I just want my mom back. I miss her…” he whispered painfully, forcing out the words, his lips trembling. Beth came over and enveloped him in her arms as he found himself gasping for breath as he cried unrelenting tears. Taylor wrapped his arms around him from behind, the three of them making a tight ball of pain, loss, and comfort.
It was dark out when they had finally settled down and cleared the table. Julian was quiet, his eyes distant. Beth asked him a few more questions about his staying at home with his father, and after he had told her all she needed to know, she demanded that he stay the night here and that the next morning he and Taylor should go over to Julian’s house to grab some of his belongings. She felt she had to make things right. A boy had lost his mother, and she had more than enough room in her house and heart for another son.
Once again, Julian shared Taylor’s bed for the night. Mrs. Riley did not have another bed or anything comfortable to lay down on the floor for him. She also realized that the two of them seemed content to share the bed. It appeared as if they needed each other, and from hearing all that Julian had told her, she could see why.
Julian lay on his side, still awake, hearing Taylor’s soft breath. Taylor lay roughly a foot from him on his back, staring at the ceiling.
“Taylor?” Julian whispered softly.
“Yeah?” he replied.
“I’m sorry for being such a burden to you and your mom. You really don’t need me barging in–”
“Shhh... Nobody said you were a burden. You’re not. If anything, you’re a gift. We care a lot about you.”
“I don’t think I’m a gift to anyone,” he said quietly.
“Well, you are to me. And to my mom. You’re here now. You’re safe here, and that’s all that matters.”
Julian was silent. “Thanks. Thanks a lot. For…for caring,” Julian continued after a momentary pause.
Taylor blinked sleepily a few times. “That’s what friends are for. I’m always here for you. I’ll never leave you.”
Another minute passed by. “I’m scared that might happen someday…that you might be gone and forget about me. I don’t want to lose you,” Julian whispered, his voice forlorn with a soft strain he tried so hard to conceal.
Taylor frowned. He rolled onto his side, wrapping his arm around the younger boy and pulling him in closer until his front snuggled up and warmed Julian’s back. “I won’t forget about you, and you won’t lose me. But if that happens,” he whispered softly, “we’ll find each other. If I have to be gone for a time, I’ll come back for you.”
“Do you really mean that?”
“More than that. I promise it.”
Along with stuffing a duffle bag with his clothes and other important items, Julian also took his mother’s locked diary. As the two of them moved quickly to leave, Julian’s father was aroused from his drunken slumber. He shakily stood up and wobbled out of his room, mumbling threats and obscenities at them. They quickly got out of the house and later in the afternoon, Julian borrowed a few tools from Taylor’s kit to pry open his mother’s diary. He felt like he should feel bad for intruding in someone’s privacy, but it was his only connection to her. Perhaps she might have left some sort of message for him, he hoped.
In a sense, she did. In her last entry she wrote that she loved him and that she was sorry that she couldn’t be strong enough anymore. His heart ached and his eyes blurred, but the worst was when he found out that his father had lied to him about her death. She didn’t die of a heart attack.
Throughout the rest of the summer, Julian’s father kept unnaturally silent. Though strange, Julian didn’t care enough to investigate.
Since Mrs. Riley was at work most of the time, Taylor spent his time by Julian’s side. He was his rock, and Julian loved him more and more every day. Their summer went by with a variety of activities. They went to church and played with the Sunday school kids. They swam at the local pool, visited the museum, saw the animals at the zoo, strolled through the art gallery, and read books at the library. They shopped at the mall, had cotton candy and rode the Ferris wheel at the carnival. They both decided to volunteer their time at a rec center working with kids. Taylor discovered that Julian was adept at working with the children and had a knack for art activities. At home, Julian began developing a skill for cooking, and soon enough it was proof that there was indeed something Taylor could learn from him.
Julian soon began keeping his own diary on the untouched blank pages of his mother’s book. His first entry was a letter to her. He told her he wasn’t angry at her, but that he missed her and the safety and comfort he felt when she was still there with him.
On the last Saturday of July, Beth and Taylor got a birthday cake for Julian’s 14th birthday. It was just the three of them, and to his embarrassment he choked up when they sang happy birthday. Mrs. Riley took them out to lunch at a nice restaurant and then later drove the boys to the theatres for a movie. It was an action film, which Julian loved, only this time he found it difficult to pay attention to what was on screen. Instead, his attention went to the electric vibrations he felt whenever his hand touched Taylors should they dig their hands into the popcorn bag simultaneously. Taylor grinned at him every so often when their hands met. Julian would look longingly at Taylor, taking comfort in the concealing darkness of the theatre. When the popcorn ran out, Julian kept his hand in the bag for longer than usual, pretending to dig around just so he could keep touching Taylor’s hand, who was also blindly searching for some. Taylor stopped moving and looked over at Julian, giving him an odd look. Julian quickly pulled his hand out, feeling that he had crossed a line, a familiar sense of shame and fear prickling his skin, a feeling of nakedness, of being seen through. Taylor wordlessly pulled out the last popcorn and surprised Julian when he reached over to place it on Julian’s lips. Julian watched him with wide eyes.
“You wanted the last popcorn, so now you’ve gotta eat it,” he teased. Julian slowly opened his lips, allowing Taylor to slip the salty and buttery popcorn into his mouth. When a piece got stuck on the corner of his mouth, Taylor wiped it away with a finger and moved them back to Julian’s lips. “Nope, still got some left,” he whispered. He blushed furiously as he slowly, instinctively nibbled and suckled, as if he was no longer in control of himself. Julian grew hot and hard, his heart rate constantly elevated throughout the duration of the film.
They had a small dinner afterwards – some fast food upon exiting the cinema auditorium. When they got home that night, they discovered a note Beth had left behind on the kitchen table, saying that she had to cover for someone at her workplace and wouldn’t be home until an hour or two after midnight. Taylor had an idea and he asked Julian to sit beside him by the piano. He wanted to end Julian’s birthday that evening with a bit of music before they headed off to bed.
“Something to remember when we grow older,” he grinned sheepishly. He placed his fingers upon the keys and began slowly, softly, bringing the song to life with an angelic touch. Except for the dreamy quality of the piano, all was still, and all was quiet, as if the world had stopped to listen in a collective understanding of something deeper, of something purer, like a secret hard to find in a fast paced and busy world. Neither one of them looked at the other when Taylor finished. The song faded like a memory, and Julian felt his eyes well up just sitting there so close to the boy he loved, having his heart strings played so delicately by such a heartfelt gesture.
“Träumerei, by Robert Schumann. One of the thirteen songs from his ‘Scenes from Childhood’ collection,” Taylor said.
“It’s…it’s beautiful,” Julian whispered, almost afraid to break the reverie.
“I’m glad you liked it. My little gift to you,” Taylor smiled. “But…there is one other thing. Come with me,” he said.
“Oh? What is it?” Julian asked with surprised.
“Just come with me. It’s a little surprise I’ve been working on,” Taylor responded, remaining firm in his ambiguity so as to keep Julian in suspense.
The two of them got up and left for what has now become “their” bedroom. Taylor told Julian to sit at the foot of his bed while he went and took something out from the drawer of his desk.
“I kept them in a box.”
“Them?” Julian was confused.
“Hehe, yeah,” he giggled nervously. “One for me and one for you, actually. Remember that stone you gave me a long time ago?”
Julian furrowed his brow for a moment before his face lit up. “Oh…the blue one I found in the backyard?”
“The day we first met, and we just…clicked,” Taylor added.
“Yeah,” Julian smiled almost wistfully to himself before his face slowly slipped back into a pensive, confused expression. “I can’t believe you actually still have it. But what do you mean for you and me? There was only one.”
Taylor’s nervous smile widened as he knelt next to Julian by the foot of his bed. He tried to remain calm, cool and collected, but Julian could tell from his shaky fingers that he was anything but. Julian had never seen him in this state before, and it almost frightened him. He bit his lips together as Taylor placed the box on his lap as if it held the most precious and fragile thing inside.
“Umm…” Taylor scratched his head, not knowing how to start as he let out a shaky breath. “Open it,” he said, trying to appear calm.
“Okay.” He kept a steady gaze on Taylor, trying to read him. Taylor knelt by his feet, waiting patiently yet anxiously.
Julian lifted the lid, and he stared in silent awe.
“The small tool kit. It also came with a few…um…accessories. Like the silver chains. And the metal clasp thing. I was able to split the stone in two, and from there, I just attached the clasp thing to it along with the chains to the ends of the clasp.”
“That’s…that’s so cool. But…why did you…?” Julian looked at him, questioningly.
Taylor simply smiled as he took one necklace and lifted his hands to Julian’s neck.
“No, it’s okay. I…I can do it.”
“I want to do it. For the birthday boy,” Taylor grinned.
“Um…okay.” Julian slid off to kneel in front of Taylor.
“Tilt your head forward. Yeah, just a little.” Julian quickly complied, once again blushing as Taylor’s soft hands brushed against his hair and the wisps of downy blonde on his neck.
“I think the rock belongs to both of us. So that’s why I decided to split it in two, so that each of us could have a half.”
Julian felt something had caught in his throat. His face and ears felt so hot, and a simple thank you didn’t seem enough.
“Taylor…” he stammered. “I don’t know what to say. You’ve…you’ve given me so much. And now this…I don’t know what to say…”
Taylor’s smile was so gentle it almost looked sad. “You don’t have to say anything.”
“No, uh…erm…I mean, thank you. Thank you so much. It’s just…this is…this is so much, and I don’t know how to…respond.”
“So…you like it? It’s not too…weird?” he asked, looking hopeful.
Julian gulped hard and nodded. “I…love it.”
“Then that’s all that matters,” Taylor said almost dreamily, feeling relieved. Julian was stunned at both the gift and at seeing Taylor this way. He had never seen Taylor this nervous, this much in need of assurance and approval, this vulnerable.
“Can I…can I, you know, put yours on? For you, I mean,” Julian asked, hesitantly.
“No, it’s okay, I can–”
“You did it for me, and…now I want to do it for you, you know…so…so we’re even,” he said, trying to mask his feelings but his words came out sounding all silly and unimpressive.
Taylor laughed. “Yeah…okay.”
Julian took the other half of the blue stone by the chain.
Taylor giggled, tilting his head forward. Julian slowly slipped it on, feeling a tug in his heart as his hands brushed against Taylor’s hair and smooth neck. He felt overwhelmed by the contact, sensing the intimacy of the moment, so much so that he couldn’t process what was going on as he stared into Taylor’s eyes when the older boy looked up. His hands froze as his shaky fingertips grazed Taylor’s neck. Taylor didn’t move, didn’t take Julian’s hands away, didn’t pull back. He just sat there, looking back into the younger boy’s eyes. Slowly, he lifted his own hands, guiding them to rest gently on the back of Julian’s.
Julian gasped inwardly at the touch. He was shaking with both fear and excitement, losing his bearings as powerful sensations that he had no experience in handling swept him off of his feet.
Taylor reached out and cupped Julian’s cheek in the palm of his hand. A tear streaked down his cheek. One of so much joy it hurt.
“Oh Julian…d-don’t cry…what’s the matter? D-did…did I do something wrong?” Taylor asked worriedly.
“No…it’s just that…it’s just that…” and he stopped.
“Just…what?” Taylor asked softly, using his thumb to rub the tears.
“It’s okay. You can tell me,” Taylor whispered, leaning in a little closer.
“Just…?” And he moved closer still.
Taylor gently placed his lips on Julian’s as the younger boy whimpered out loud, his breath catching in his throat, his heart slamming so hard against his chest that the thumping was visible beneath his skin. He felt light headed, he felt the heat pulse on his face; his skin perspiring as he tried so hard to keep his slender frame from shaking any more than it already was; he felt his arousal throbbing between his legs, the tip of which made his underwear increasingly damp. The boy he loved was kissing him, and he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to kiss, which lip goes over which, how firm or gentle he should be, whether to keep his mouth closed or open, and if open, how much. It was so intense, having his face this close to someone else’s. But it wasn’t just anybody, it was Taylor. It was someone special, someone he dreamed about, someone he really cared about, and someone who equally, if not more, cared about him. He didn’t know what to do with his hands but soon realized that they were moving according to instinct, to express what he could not say. His hands stroked Taylor’s soft yet strong neck while Taylor now had both of his hands cupping Julian’s cheeks. He could feel the older boy’s fingers and palms against his face, a feeling he had never felt before, an ethereal sense of merging, of becoming one, and it was…magical… It was divine, yet so…human.
With a gentle sound as they pulled their lips apart, coming up for air, Taylor’s eyes glazed over dreamily as he peered into Julian’s own. “You…were saying…?”
“…I love you…Taylor Riley.” It finally came out, and he knelt there, young love in his eyes, holding his heart out and hoping that the boy he love would take hold of it, accept it.
“I love you even more, Julian Todd,” he responded. Simultaneously they both grinned, Julian’s eyes brimming with a thousand emotions and Taylor’s reflected them with a thousand stars.
It was a night of many discoveries, and a morning of a few more as well.
It all happened so fast, with an abrupt ending that left behind a wound, and then a shrill taste in the mouth. Shrill, metallic.
Taylor made every summer day fun and memorable, but as the remaining summer days and nights grew fewer, Julian began detecting silence and solemnness from the cracks behind the jubilant mask he wore. Julian didn’t understand why, didn’t know how to approach him about it. He tried, but all that did was strengthen Taylor’s resolve to do a better performance with the mask on, to mask the sadness, the dread. Julian should have seen it coming though.
At the age of 14, Julian would very soon be entering high school that September, while Taylor, at the age of 18, would be entering college. Taylor had been accepted earlier in the year from the school he had set his sights on attending, and it wasn’t your local college. It was far away. He would be staying in a dorm, making new friends, meeting new people, attending socials, pursuing higher education in the direction of the career of his dreams.
The cat had to be let out of the bag sooner or later. Taylor hadn’t expected for this type of relationship, for such an emotionally invested bond to be formed between him and the younger boy, although he knew from long ago that he had always felt something so potent and consuming for Julian. He felt afflicted and wounded when he had to break the news, because he knew that it was his fault, his responsibility, for crushing his beloved’s heart. Julian cursed himself for being so…so oblivious, so naïve and blind, for knowing but not fully realizing the unique consequences and circumstances that they would face due to their age gap. He had come to believe that they were essentially married to each other, that Taylor would take him wherever he went, that he would go wherever life took Taylor. He wanted to come along. But it wasn’t to be. It wasn’t fair, but these were the circumstances.
“Will…will you come back…for me?” Julian asked one quiet night beneath the moonlit windowsill. He did his best to control his composure, to not blubber and look pathetic, spilling over with sadness and fear. Even as he asked this, his hopes dwindled as he knew that following their separation, Taylor would grow and experience greater things, that he would change and develop, and would leave him behind. Someday, Taylor would forget him, would find love with someone else, someone perhaps his own age, someone fit, deserving, and worthy of him. Taylor would leave behind his years of adolescent love and pretend not to remember the intensity of what he had demonstrated, expressed, and ultimately consummated with Julian. All Julian would be left with were memories, and it wasn’t fair that he couldn’t enjoy them. It wasn’t fair that they had to hurt – the beautiful, happy ones.
“I’ll come back for you. I won’t forget you. Ever. We’ll find each other,” Taylor responded with firmly. He promised to come back and visit as often as he could, to stay as long as he could. They then entwined, taking their time to show how much they loved and cared for each other. It ended in sobs.
Aside from his mother’s death, saying goodbye to Taylor was the hardest thing he had ever had to do. It was unbearably difficult to start school in a new environment with new kids and pretend that he was ‘normal’, to try to fit in.
Beth, in no uncertain terms, Insisted that Julian stay with her, as she had grown to love him as her own son. Unfortunately, his father decided that this was the best moment to re-emerge into Julian’s life, demanding that he see his own son. He had slowly recovered from his state of alcoholic stupor, but remained the hard and controlling man he had always been. He demanded to have Julian back in his house and under his watchful eye. Julian didn’t understand where this all came from. Despite the loathing, fear, and anger Julian felt towards his father, he was weak and tired following his separation from Taylor, and so did not have the strength to rebel and defy his father’s orders. Beth was at a loss as to what to do. She didn’t have any power to do what she knew was best. But she tried, she knew she had to. She argued with him to allow Julian to at least stay with her every few days throughout the week. He refused. All she could do now was keep a very close eye on Julian, to give him care and support, and to make sure that he knew to come to her should any form of harm or threat be directed at him. Julian promised he would run to her for help.
Except he couldn’t keep this promise upon his father’s discovery of the entries he had written in his mother’s diary one day. He had written letters to Taylor telling him about his days, his feelings, his fears, his loneliness, and his undiminishing love he had for him. His father learned of the relationship between the boys, and something snapped inside of him, just like it had the day he caused Sarah her end.
Julian found himself hysterically crying and begging for his father to stop as he was angrily chased around the house. He ran into the kitchen, and when he had no more energy in him, he collapsed and wailed in fear, scurrying into a corner. He had his breath beaten out of him in thrashes uncoordinated by rage, repetitive and unrelenting strikes that were so hard he couldn’t breathe. When his father stopped to catch his breath, Julian tried to get up and make a painful run for it when he had the chance, though all he could do was limp. He had to find Beth. But his ankles were struck. He knocked over the dish rack. He fell. His face was crushed against the sharp edges of the broken dishes, plates, and glass. His cheek burned, shot with agony, pulsing rapidly. His head lay in a crawling, expanding, consuming pool; his eyes blurred a rose tinted hue, and he was left with a shrill taste in his mouth. Shrill, metallic. Blood.
He eventually found his right cheek to be horribly scarred and partially paralyzed. He had to speak to so many adults in the hospital. He was so dizzy and drowsy. They took him away before Beth even found out. His father was arrested and became unheard of. Julian was put in a boy’s group home some distance away. Nobody wanted a 14 year old troubled kid anyway.
Taylor came home on the day Julian was taken away. He had stayed true to his word. He hadn’t forgotten about Julian, not once. He was so excited to come back to the boy he loved. He stayed up all night before hand in anticipation and anxiousness. He would spend all of his time with him. They would be joined at the hip again, and more. He promised he would come back. He promised he would return.
But he couldn’t find Julian anywhere. Taylor searched everywhere in desperation. But he was gone. Taylor tried and tried, but he couldn’t find him. He was gone.
‘Träumerei, by Robert Schumann. One of the thirteen songs from his ‘Scenes from Childhood’ collection.’ Taylor had played that song to him the evening of his 14th birthday, and now he was hearing it again years later. A streak crawled down to his chin, but he didn’t frown. His face was calm and stoic, though his heart was heavy. It was years ago. He told himself it was just a memory. It was long overdue for him to let go, to make peace with it and just let go.
“Excuse me sir, but we’re going to be locking up the church for the night,” a deep voice said above him. Julian looked up and wiped his cheeks. The man noticed and smiled sadly with concern whilst trying to refrain from being inquisitive.
“Is something the matter? Perhaps I can–”
“No, no. It was just the music you were playing. It just…reminds me of a time when I was…when I was younger.”
“Oh? Any stories you would like to share?” the man asked with genuine interest.
Julian stood up and glanced at the man’s face. He was tall, standing with a strong posture. His shoulders were broad. He had the blackest hair Julian had ever seen. Black hair, black eyebrows, black eyelashes, and black pupils. Black as night. The reflecting light off of his eyes looked like stars in black space.
“Uh…” Julian found himself blinking rapidly, his heart fluttering. No…no, it was his tired mind playing tricks on him, the haunting memories resurging, causing him to hallucinate. He was just…confused. Yes, confused. “No…not any in particular. Are you…you’re the pianist for this church?” Julian asked, changing the topic.
“Yes. It’s not my, I suppose, ‘official’ occupation, but yes, and I work with the choir here. We usually practice every few evenings throughout the week, and sometimes we have people that come in just to listen and stretch their legs, like yourself.”
“Ah, I see,” Julian said slowly as the two of them slowly began their walk towards the front doors. “How long have you been here at this church?”
“Oh, since I was…maybe 15 years old. But I was away for several years during college. I’m 34 now, so it’s been a while. Say, I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“I used to go here as a kid,” Julian confessed.
“Really? That’s strange, I don’t seem to remember…” the man frowned.
Perhaps it was the scar. There was no kid with a half scarred face then.
“Then perhaps we truly have never met,” Julian concluded for him, already wanting to leave. He didn’t like the vibes and thoughts he was getting here, being next to this man in a place from his past.
“Well then, I really should get going,” Julian said with finality.
The man smiled and nodded. “It was nice meeting you. I hope we’ll see you next time.” He offered his hand and started, “My name’s–”
“Daddy!” Instantaneously, as if precisely on cue, a little boy with dark brown hair – the same one Julian had noticed earlier – ran down the center aisle after them, his small feet making quick and muffled pit-pats on the red carpet. Daddy? Julian thought to himself. Had he heard correctly?
“Hey, slow down lil’ buddy!” the man laughed. “I’m not going to leave without you,” he said, reaching down to ruffle the toddler’s hair as he found his leg in a tight embrace upon the collision.
“Sorry,” he apologized, reverting his attention back to Julian. “This is my son. Say hello, Julian,” he said, bending his head down.
“Julian? His name is Julian?” asked Julian in surprise.
The little boy looked up at Julian, and, frightened by his half scarred face, turned and hid his head into his father’s thigh.
“Aw, he’s just a little shy. Don’t mind him,” the man said.
“Oh no, it’s fine.” Julian smiled a small smile. He wondered to himself if the boy also had a mother. But he didn’t ask. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. Either way, it wouldn’t really matter, would it? If this was who he thought he was, then this was a clear indication that he had moved on. He had moved on and made himself a family. He had a son to look after. He probably had a wife, too. What still alluded and surprised him was why the man had chosen his name for his son. Was it just a coincidence?
This was too confusing. He just…needed to go, needed to think. No, he didn’t want to think. The memories were too… It was…he had to move on, to make his exit, to say goodbye… He needed to clear his mind.
“Anyway, I’ve got to…I’ve got to get going now. It’s getting late. It was…it was a pleasure, meeting you. And your son,” Julian said. The man once again proffered his hand. Julian steeled himself as he reached out, making sure to first wipe the nervous perspiration off of his palm. The man grasped it and shook it firmly.
“Alright then. It was a pleasure meeting you as well,” he smiled. Julian took a step back and started turning away.
“Have a good nigh – eh?” the man stopped mid-sentence. He had noticed something, a flickering of light.
A reflection shining off a cool blue he had not noticed before.
Julian abruptly stopped in his tracks and turned back. “Yes?”
“I thought I saw something…yes, your, uh, on your neck. Is that a necklace?” Julian noted that his voice suddenly wavered, that his eyes suddenly brightened, sparkling with something he couldn’t read.
“Yes,” Julian said, glancing down as he touched it lightly. He saw that the little boy had slowly extricated his face from his father’s thigh, looking on with curiosity and quiet interest.
“Don’t you have one like that, Daddy?” the boy asked his father.
“Yeah…yeah I do,” he said, almost to himself. “Where…where did you get that?” he asked Julian slowly. He almost looked terrified.
Julian found himself mirroring the exact same reaction. There was only ever one person who had the other half.
And then Julian saw it. The emotions that he so feared, that filled him with apprehension. He saw shock. He saw sadness. Then he saw disbelief, and he knew that it would pave the path to rejection.
There was no need for the truth. He had to lie.
“I…found it. Yard sale,” Julian lied.
“Yard sale?!” he exclaimed incredulously. He was stunned. He looked as if something inside of him broke. He grew pale with silence.
“Yeah…yard sale. Anyway, I’ve got to go. It was nice meeting you. Take care,” he said quickly before his voice gave away. He turned and hurriedly walked to the front doors before the man could protest.
He threw the doors open and was hit with the loud crashes of heavy rain falling in torrents from the black sky. Just like the day Taylor had discovered him sitting and shivering on the concrete steps.
Now, he just stood. Just stood in the rain. He was immediately drenched, the rainwater plastering his hair against his head, his clothes shrink wrapped against his skin. It had been this moment when he thought he had lost it all 16 years ago.
He started walking.
“Hang on! Wait! I can drive you home. It’s pouring outside,” a voice shouted behind him. He felt a cover over his head. An umbrella.
It had also been this moment when things started turning around.