I was slow to react to the mishap, but Johnny wasn’t. He jumped off the fence and simultaneously reached for his flask. “What the fuck, Dean?”
Dean held the flask away from Johnny, taking a swig. He held Johnny’s wrist tightly in his right hand.
I finally got to the fence. “Yeah, Dean. What the fuck?” I let my camera hang around my neck as I attempted to remove Dean’s hand from Johnny’s wrist.
Johnny fumed. I’d never seen him scowl so well. Blood dripped from his nose down his lip, and I could already see the skin beneath his eyes turning purple, even through the lenses of his Ray Bans.
“It’s your faggot project, Pete. I just did what you told me.” Dean released Johnny’s wrist and shrugged casually, as if it were no big deal that he’d just broken his brother’s nose.
Dean was broader and more defined than Johnny, but not as tall. He carried himself with an arrogance that can only come from being the eldest boy, and the most beloved son.
“I didn’t tell you to actually hit him. I said to take a swing.” I was angry, so I spoke through my teeth and nose. It wasn’t as menacing as I’d hoped it would be.
“Sounds like I did what I was told.”
Johnny let out a war cry, charging at his older brother. I stood in front of him, grabbing at his arms and pushing on his chest to hold him back.
“Move it, Peter! I’ll beat the shit out of him.” Johnny pushed past me as if I were nothing.
I was by far the smallest, and now that they were both being assholes, there wasn’t much I could do about it. I moved out of the way, checked that nothing was broken on my camera, and lined it up for a few shots. Might as well add to my project if they were going to be like this.
Johnny swung wildly at Dean, much scrappier and much less poised. I liked the way his coppered arms looked against the fading blue of the sky. Click.
Dean stood his ground, bemused. Johnny’s fist against his chest made his shirt ripple. Click.
The flask went flying, its dark contents showering the thirsty earth. Click.
Johnny’s Ray Bans flew through the air as well, magically unbroken. I could see the two boys through the dark lenses. Click.
Soon, I couldn’t wind my Vito B anymore. I was out of film. Johnny and Dean had bloodied each other up pretty well, but there weren’t going to be anymore pictures of it.
“Cut it out!”
They ignored me. I knew it’d be futile.
“Seriously. Mrs. Higgins is going to notice soon.”
That almost did it. Dean had ended up on top and was making mincemeat of Johnny’s perfect face. He took one last shot, spat on the ground, and declared himself winner.
When he got up, he extended a hand to his younger brother. Johnny didn’t take it, too prideful and ashamed to succumb to the generosity of his adversary. He pushed one hand against the ground and stood up haphazardly. He coughed and spat blood onto the ground.
I glared at Dean, taking my eyes off Johnny for a minute to do so. He just smirked back at me as he ran his arm under his nose, flicking away blood. He did everything like he was above everyone else.
Johnny reached back for his shirt and pushed it gently against his face, catching some of the blood. I wished I still had shots left on my roll of film. The way the blood blossomed across the white shirt was like rose petals in a lake.
“I think I’ll leave you faggots to it, then. So glad I could help with your project, Pete. Let me know if I can do anything else for you.”
Dean winked condescendingly, then punched my arm as he walked past me to his bike.
He rode off without another word.
“Rat bastard,” Johnny called after him.
I approached slowly, hoping his anger had died down. The sun was setting, so I wanted to get back to town, but I also didn’t want to make Johnny any madder than he already was.
I offered Johnny the canteen I’d picked up from where I’d dropped it when we first started setting up the shots. He took it gratefully and gulped down the last of the water.
“God I hate that guy.” Johnny glanced in the direction Dean had gone. “Did you get what you were hoping to get at least?” A warmth entered his voice as he made eye contact.
“Better, actually. I can’t wait to develop these.”
“I can’t wait to see them. I think you could really do something with your photography, Peter. I mean, I’ve only seen a few of your landscapes, but those were pretty amazing.” He draped his arm around my shoulders and squeezed gently.
I about melted, but I tried to hold myself steady.
“We should head back. Usually if I can get back before nine, I can hide most of the liquor mom picked up for dad, which sometimes spares her a little. He usually just hits her when he gets drunk.”
“Well, let’s get to it, then. I’ll be getting a beating for getting beat, so I’m in no hurry, but maybe we can just hang at your place for a little while. Will your dad mind?”
I shrugged. “Not if he doesn’t notice.”
We walked the thirty feet to where we’d dropped the other bike, and I bent to pick it up. With the state Johnny was in, it would be better if he rode on the pegs than me, even though I was smaller.
I pedaled the three miles back to town. Fortunately, I lived at the northernmost corner of town, about three blocks from Johnny’s family. We stowed the bike in the backyard where my dad wouldn’t see it, then cut back around to the front to head inside.
My mom was pacing the kitchen with the oven on the warming setting. She hadn’t done a great job covering up her black eye from the night before. She didn’t even notice us as we snuck quietly by. She was too busy staring out the window.
I let Johnny get ahead of me, signaling him to head down to my basement bedroom. I swung back into the kitchen to grab some ice.
My mom didn’t even turn around.
When I took a towel from one of the drawers close to her, she finally looked at me. Dark circles blended into her black bruise, and her mouth turned down at the corners, but she didn’t say anything to me. She just sighed, too worn down.
I smiled at her and gave her a gentle hug before taking one of the bottles of Jack from the liquor cabinet. She knew I’d been taking them, but she had never actually witnessed me doing so. She still said nothing. She just looked back out the window sadly.
“Hey Mom?” I said on my way out of the kitchen.
She didn’t turn around, but I could tell she was listening to me.
“I love you, okay?”
She shifted her weight and grabbed her elbows more tightly, and I knew that she loved me, too.
I locked the door at the top of the stairs on my way down to my room.
Johnny sat casually on my bed, still shirtless. He was looking around the room in the low lamp light, checking out the pictures I’d hung on my walls.
I was suddenly embarrassed, since most of the pictures were of him. There was one of my mom looking into the distance and one of my old dog, Buster, but the other fifteen were of Johnny.
I took a deep breath, deciding it was better to show them off like the art that they were than be nervous that he’d notice my crush on him. If he came to that conclusion, that was one thing, but there was no way I was about to come out and tell him.
I handed him the towel filled with ice as I stepped around the bed to the far wall next to the small window. I pointed to a picture hanging there. “This one’s my favorite.”
The image was of Dean’s Corvette. The blue and white paint had just been touched up, and he had put new whitewalls on it. Johnny leaned against it on the opposite side, back to the camera, his hands spread across the hood. He wasn’t wearing a shirt in this image, just like he wasn’t wearing one now, so the lines of his muscles and his shoulder blades were defined in the soft shadow. He was looking off to one side. I’d caught him in profile, deep in thought, a cigarette hanging Brando-like from his lips.
“I totally look like Marlon in that one. Good job, man. I appreciate how cool you make me look.”
He stared at it for a moment longer, then sighed and leaned back on the bed. He put the towel and the ice on his face with a sharp gasp.
“Dean’s a fucking bastard. He’s gonna be just like Pops.”
“Hopefully he won’t be quite as bad.”
“He already starts drinking at ten in the morning. He drinks all day at the shop. I’ve caught him getting handsy with at least three women in the last week. And when his girlfriend told him to fuck off, he hit her smack across the face, and she just kissed him. He’s a fucking rat bastard, just like our old man.”
I didn’t know what to say. My dad hit my mom, too, but he never hit me. The difference between Johnny’s dad and mine was that he also hit his kids. He hadn’t ever hit Dean, though. Dean was special. He was the perfect son.
“You’re lucky that you have a talent, Peter. You’ll get to leave this godforsaken town.”
I looked over at him. He had his eyes shut and was still resting the towel against his nose. It was offset still from being broken.
“We should probably reset your nose,” I said quietly.
Johnny sighed. “You’re probably right.” He sat up. He winked at me as I took his chin in one hand and his nose in the other. His hands rested on my shoulders as a way to brace himself. “Make me pretty again, Peter.”
I took a deep breath. “Three. Two. One.”
The crack of the reset bone sent chills down my spine.
A single tear escaped from Johnny’s watering eyes. He said nothing, but his pain was obvious. He patted my shoulder before leaning back, putting the ice on his face once more.
We sat silently for awhile, me looking at all of my pictures, him icing his nose and face.
“Y’know what I like best about you, Peter?”
“That you’d never hurt anyone. That was the gentlest resetting my nose has ever experienced.”
I could hear him smiling. It made me smile, too.
“You’re welcome, I guess. I’ve only ever reset my mom’s nose once. I’m glad I haven’t had to do it much.”
“Next time my fucktard of a brother gets me, I’m coming to see you.”
I wanted to build his confidence. I didn’t want him to feel like Dean would always win because I knew that couldn’t be true. “You’ll beat him next time. I know it.”
Johnny changed the subject. I’d clearly made him uncomfortable. “Where is it you’re applying this fall? University of California?”
“Yeah. They have a photography program there. Plus it’s like four states away.”
“God. I’m jealous.” Johnny sat up, dangling his feet off the bed to sit like me. “Pops is gonna make me work in his stupid shop, I just know it. Not like I’m good at much else anyway. At least I know my way around an engine.”
His hand rested on his thigh. His thick knuckles and short nails looked like those of someone who used his hands. There was always a little bit of dirt under his nails, too. It was one of the things I loved about him.
If he caught me staring, he didn’t mind. He reached around me, though, draping his arm across my neck and shoulders. He’d directed his gaze at another photo on the wall. “When did you take that one, Peter?”
My heart started to pound in my chest, and I was sure Johnny noticed. I tried to focus on the picture he wanted to know about, but all I could think about was the way his fingers rested on my collarbone.
“I think I took it two summers ago. It couldn’t have been last year, since they drained the lake.”
“Right. Well, I like the way the sun is behind me. Must’ve been toward the end of the day, huh?”
“Yeah. One of those rare Saturdays when we didn’t have to do anything at all.”
Johnny moved his hand to my shoulder, leaving his thumb on my shoulder blade. I was so acutely aware of his touch that I couldn’t look at him.
“You know what else I like about you, Peter?”
My eyes flitted between images on the wall, finally resting on a close up of Johnny blowing smoke rings.
“I like that you’re patient, and gentle. You’ve never once rushed me, or even asked me. You just waited for me to notice and reciprocate.” He choked a little on the last word.
I looked at him then, astounded. He had a few tears sitting in his eyes, but they weren’t from the brokenness of his face. He started to turn me toward him a little with the hand that was on my shoulder, and he reached up with the other to grab my chin.
His lips tasted like nicotine and Jack, smoky and sweet. His tongue was warm.
I grabbed at him hungrily--aggressively--my hands on his chest and back.
His skin was smooth and warm. I could feel the sinewy muscles in his back as I ran my hands along him.
He pulled away after a few minutes, looking at me gently.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m having a hard time breathing.”
I smiled at him, hoping he could tell that I didn’t mind at all. The fact that I had been able to kiss him at all was making my heart pound in my throat.
“I didn’t know it would be like that.” He scooted back on the bed so that his back was against the wall.
“I didn’t know it would be like that, either. I mean, I dreamed it would be. But I didn’t even think it would happen.”
I moved toward him tentatively, afraid to do anything too fast.
He took my hand and tugged me toward him. I nestled carefully into him, resting my head on his chest.
He rubbed the back of my neck.
“You could come with me, you know.” I’d wanted to suggest it for so long that it came out as barely more than a whisper.
“And do what, Peter? I can’t take pictures like you can. These are amazing. You’re amazing. I don’t have that going for me. Shit, I can hardly even add.”
That wasn’t true. Johnny was one of the top kids in our class. He read constantly, but he’d never let any of the teachers catch him doing it.
“You read a lot. I know you like history. Plus, I’m sure there’s a garage where you could work if you decided school wasn’t for you.”
Johnny put his lips in my hair. I could feel his warm breath making the hairs move.
“We have time.”
I hoped we did. I could feel his heartbeat against my ear. It was almost as nervous as mine was. We knew that we’d have to be careful. We could never tell anyone.
“Wanna open that Jack?” Johnny indicated the bottle I’d brought down with me from the kitchen.
“Sure.” I reached past him to the nightstand.
We shifted so that we were simply next to each other. When I opened the bottle, I heard the door open upstairs.
“Dad’s home. I’d better shut this door, too, just in case.”
I got off the bed, giving the bottle to Johnny. He took a long swig as I closed the door to my bedroom, locking it behind me.
He passed me the bottle. “It’s not fair, you know. I feel like you should be just as indecent as me.”
The Jack burned on its way down my throat, but it calmed my nerves a little. I handed the bottle back to Johnny and then pulled my t-shirt over my head.
“That’s better,” he said, eyeing my chest. “I always knew you had something goin’ on under there.”
I blushed, joining him back on the bed. He put his hand on my thigh and took another swig of Jack.
Upstairs, the yelling began.
It phased Johnny, I could tell.
“Got a ciggy, Peter?”
Johnny let go of me so he could grab the cigarettes from the nightstand. He took one from the package, letting it dangle from his lips as he offered one to me as well. I declined. The Jack was already hitting me pretty hard.
He lit the cigarette and took a long drag. My dad moved heavily across the kitchen. The slap he delivered to my mom made a loud snapping sound. She didn’t even scream anymore.
Johnny blew smoke rings. He winked at me when he caught me looking. I itched to capture both on film, and I inched toward my camera.
“Want me to teach you? A blondy like you could use some street cred.” He winked again, letting me know that it was okay to say no.
“Nah. I’ll never be as cool as you.”
He pulled me closer to him. Thwarted. Happy. Upstairs, a chair scratched across the floor.
“We can’t base our relationship on us wishing we could be as cool as the other.” He took a deep drag on the cigarette and then pulled my lips to his.
The smoke entered my mouth and stung, but I swallowed it anyway.
When he pulled away, I could see an admiration in Johnny’s eyes.
“This is going to work, Peter. Our vices match. Our talents are different, but our vices match.”
Upstairs, I could hear my dad hit my mom against the wall. I knew what it looked like. Open palm to face. Hair flying. Blood and spittle arcing through the air. Capturing the staged version was one thing. The reality made me want to hide.
He could see the worry in my eyes.
“You know I’ll never hit you.”
“And I’ll never hit you.”
This time, I pulled him to me. We held each other close as the one-sided battle upstairs raged on.
“This is going to work.” Johnny said it like a prayer.
Eventually, my mom screamed once, and I could hear my dad storm away. He slammed the door on his way out, and I could hear the tires squeal in the driveway.
I held Johnny gently.
“Does your dad know about you? How you are, I mean?”
His question threw me off because it was exactly what I’d wanted to ask him. I breathed the smell of him in before answering.
“No. He doesn’t even remember I’m alive most of the time.”
“That must be why you have the pictures up,” Johnny whispered.
“Does your dad know about you?” I was scared to ask him, so I didn’t make eye contact. I just kept breathing in his skin, the sweet smell of him.
“Remember when I took Alice to Homecoming last year?”
I wasn’t sure how this was relevant, but I remembered how much I’d hated her since then. I nodded, and Johnny sat up a little so he could look at me.
“Well, I took her home at ten. You probably remember me ducking out of the dance. And then, being the idiot I am, I went home.”
I waited for him to continue, to explain how that made him an idiot.
“My dad was surprised to see me home so early. I remember him looking at the clock, then at me, then at the clock again. He asked me why I was home before midnight, and I told him that the dance just really wasn’t any fun.”
My heart started pounding in my chest again. He had come to school the following Monday with a broken arm. He’d claimed that a piece of equipment had fallen on him the day before in the shop.
“He only asked one more question before he got out the bat. He asked if you’d been at the dance. I don’t think it would have mattered what I told him. He knew. He’d known for years. I don’t really know how he knew, but he must’ve caught me looking at you. Or he felt like we spent way too much time together without any girls involved. I don’t know.”
I stretched around him, holding him close.
The quiet took over completely. My mother must have gone to bed, because I didn’t hear anything upstairs. I wondered if I should check on her. Eventually, I could hear crickets chirping outside my window.
I don’t know how long we were asleep before we heard the car pull up in the driveway. It woke me up first, and my movement woke Johnny.
We laid there, barely breathing. I was sure my dad was drunk when he stumbled across the floor.
But it wasn’t just him I heard. Another male voice was up there, too. They were talking. “You think my twink son is here, too?” the other voice yelled suddenly.
“Shit! We can’t stay here.”
Johnny was terrified. We had to get the hell out.
Faintly, I heard something like, “Those damn kids locked it,” from the top of the stairs.
Johnny tore my favorite photograph from the wall.
I grabbed a couple of t-shirts and threw them into a backpack along with my camera and the one spare roll of film I could find. Johnny added the Jack and the cigarettes. We pulled on t-shirts from the floor.
I was struggling with the window when I heard the door open at the top of the stairs. They’d broken the lock.
“Shit. Peter, we gotta go.”
Johnny pushed me out of the way and wiggled the window open with more force than I’d been putting into it. He made a step for me with his hands and pushed me through the window.
I reached down to help him up, and we were off.
“Those little fuckers,” my dad yelled from below us, still in the basement as we took off running, hand in hand.
We ran south, knowing they’d go north toward the dried up lake first. They always sent Dean there first when looking for us.
The Cleaver’s barn loomed in front of us, the red still visible in the moonlight. Click.
We ran and ran. Random images hung vivid in my mind. A rope looped on a fence post. Click. The neon “Bar” sign on the Miller’s barn. Click.
I didn’t even notice I was breathing hard. I just clung to Johnny like his life depended on it.
“This is going to work,” Johnny assured me after about two miles. “We’re going to be okay.”
The stars seemed to wink at us from the warm July night sky. Click.
We kept running.
We didn’t stop until we were so far out of town that we knew they couldn’t catch us.