.. | short stories | 01 (they used to be best friends)
Two boys of about ten years and of wiry build raced along the main thoroughfare of their home town. It was nothing but a dusty dirt road really, bounded on either side by buildings whose poorly-hidden state of decay betrayed their age. They were still inhabited nonetheless by little businesses of all sorts- barbers, diners, insurance for the poor farmer, five and dimes, the real estate office- singular, not plural. The majority of these old places, however, with their rusting tin roofs, old painted brick, iron paned windows and dormers were antique shops. At least every other block had one, the plague of southern small towns where everyone had something old to sell as a new treasure. Worn saddles, vintage rust bucket toys and yellowed magazines were junk, even in this place, but occasionally a gem could be found if one knew what to look for . And these boys knew what they were looking for.
On they raced, short strides on two pairs of young legs pounding a haphazard rhythm into the grinding gravel and leaving a trace of kicked up dust behind them. One clutched a brown paper sack to his chest with both arms, hindering his speed without the use of them to match the pumping of his legs so that he fell behind his friend slightly. Determined, he followed as his companion veered off of their pathway down a side street, flanked by beater cars and a cattle trailer or two, and made for a row of hedges that appeared from the street to seal off their route.
Slowed to a trot, they bounded into the bushes and went down on their bellies in the earthy smelling mulch. They emerged out the other side and sprinted once more along the side of a decent sized house possessed of a sweet, old fashioned nature. The brick had long ago been whitewashed so that here, in the early afternoon sun, the brilliance of it stood out against the black wrought iron window trimming and porch railings and black shutters. It was a beacon among the fresh green of the lawn and surrounding gardens, a tad ostentatious when one took a look at the surrounding neighborhood houses, some of which appeared to be falling apart at the seams. The owner of this house, the white house, took great care of her vegetation, spent a great deal of time and effort on it, and money, when one considered the watering costs here in the middle of a hot southern summer. Still, even now, as a poor choice of species the St. Augustine was wanting for water again.
The boys crunched across the lawn without a thought as to how their path made tracks in the parched grass. They headed for a large live oak that towered over the westernmost room of the one-story house. Underneath it they sat, on the side away from view of the street and house and huddled close with their treasure.
"Let me see," one boy said, grabbing for the bag his friend had carried all the way here. He had a healthy, ruddy complexion and a mass of dark blond hair. The small speckling of freckles on his nose only appeared in the summertime under the immense weight of the sun and heat. He had the look of one of those ‘cute little boys' grown women often stated would surly grow into quite a handsome young man. He had the chocolate brown eyes of his father and the skin and hair of his mother who'd died long ago, before he knew to recognize her. Lean and energetic, he was a popular boy in school and sport, with many friends and only a few real enemies. With them he was prone to pick fights fairly often.
His companion snatched the bag away and dug around in it himself, saying, "Cut it out, Benjamin," pronouncing Benji's full name, which they both hated, in mockery. "I bought it, I get to see it first." He tossed back shaggy dark hair from dark, piercing eyes without thinking. At ten his hair was already very thick and a little too long, which made him the subject of ridicule from time to time at school when there was nothing else to be made fun of. He always had good grades, was often the teacher's favorite, did well in everything he tried, in fact. He was all around a good kid and in being so, had more enemies than his troublemaker friend.
Though his skin was still fair, ruling out the possibility of other races in his blood for the most part, in his points he was still stark in contrast to Benji, who was colored in all light and sun. This boy's eyes were dark, nearly black, and he had in them a sharp intelligence yet to form from experience. At this stage it took more the form of a craving for learning, a knack for observing and a talent for absorbing everything, everyday, every moment of the world around him. He would be called clever, quick and intellectual soon enough, life had just not served him the time to become so just yet. For now he was as any other boy, though with the slight advantage of conscious inner thought.
"I would have paid for it," Benji retorted, crossing his arms. "And don't call me that."
The dark-haired boy, Alex, relented and sat back, favoring his best friend with a slightly apologetic look. Benji really did hate his name, mostly because it was his father's but also because it sounded too country to him, and he hated the country. He'd never been anywhere else, but still, he hated the country.
"I told you I would call you anything you wanted. You just need to come up with a good name." As Alex spoke he pulled out their treasure from the bag and laid the dusty old magazine on his lap.
"I'm still thinking about it," Benji grumbled. The thought was soon out of his head though as Alex opened the magazine over his knees, and he leaned close to his friend's shoulder to see better.
The old ream of paper was some yellowed copy of Time, large, crinkly and smelling something awful of must and mildew. They had bought the thing for only one reason and that was its size, to better hide something much more interesting inside.
Alex discarded Time and held in his hands the smaller magazine that he had pulled from between its pages, the one they'd hidden there while crouching in the back isles of the shop, and bought the larger under false pretenses. The smaller thing was an old photo mag whose pages were graced with scantily clad women of the old days, and some who had nothing on at all.
Both boys stared down as Alex thumbed slowly through, eyes fixated on their first view of a real woman, showing off her private self in still-seemingly prudish poses, despite her lack of clothing and obvious self-restraint.
"Look at that," Benji said, his finger slapping down on the pages over his friend's lap. He was leaning close, very close, so that Alex subconsciously leaned away a little, being a boy not quite comfortable with much contact. He was unknowing of this fact until he was forced to notice Benji's chest against his arm and shoulder as his friend leaned, or of his hair brushing his cheek. His cheeks flushed and he suddenly thrust the magazine to his friend and stood up.
"You take it, I think they're ugly," he said, brushing grass from his muddy jeans. They'd been stomping around in Mr. Grieves' field earlier, taking advantage of the mud his expensive sprinklers created in the mid-morning showering of his crops.
Benji blinked up at him, the magazine now in his hands. "No they're not," he said. "They're just a little old fashioned. Here, look at this one, she's young."
"No she's not." Alex looked around the tree towards the white house, his house. His mother would be inside at this time of day, could come out any minute in fact. His father would be at work and therefore not a danger, though he was sure to hear about anything his mother came across.
"Benji, put it away," he said through sudden nerves. "We shouldn't get caught with it."
His friend was still flipping through, utterly absorbed. He hadn't heard.
Alex knelt by him again and snatched the thing from him. "I said put it away!"
"Hey! What's wrong with you? Give that back."
Alex held the rotting mag to his chest in a defiant show that he had no intention of obeying. Instead, he wanted to burn the thing. It had been tantalizing in the store to peek at it; there had been the danger then of the shop owner finding them out. There had been the nerve to hide it and essentially steal it, but now there was nothing. The women looked different now and he felt different about it, and had suddenly decided he didn't want his friend looking at it either.
Benji, however, didn't seem to share this change of heart as he stood up, only slightly taller than his friend but certainly more intimidating. He always got in fights, for whatever reason, and Alex knew that the fact that they were best friends would not stop him from lunging if he felt so inclined, even when some of his previous fights had been to defend him.
"Give it back."
No one had ever accused Benji of having much patience, especially when it came to Alex, and even more so over something he so desperately wanted to look at, which Alex was keeping from him. His best friend was so stubborn, such a brat sometimes, that he was probably doing this on purpose just because he could.
Benji charged at him and bowled him over in the grass before the darker-haired boy could react. The magazine went flying, suddenly forgotten among the pulling of clothes and hair, the kicking of shins and half-hearted punches to the arms and chest. Benji would never hit him in the face.
Being of a decent build himself, however, Alex fought back as best he could though he could hardly move with the hard ground at his back. He tried to roll away but couldn't, he tried to twist, he couldn't. He finally kicked out with his leg and freed it from the tangle of Benji's and used that to roll themselves over, putting his friend's back to the ground and gaining a palpable advantage.
Palpable indeed. His victory wasn't the only thing tangible just then. He himself had happened to wear pants that day but Benji had chosen shorts made from an old pair of jeans, his favorite, covered in paint spots and well-worn in. They were thin, and there was no hiding what Alex suddenly felt against his thigh.
Right as he realized it, his friend realized it too. Benji thrust himself out from under him and scrambled back away from him on the grass. His cheeks had flushed red. Alex felt instantly sorry for him, for his embarrassment, but still couldn't admit to him the number of times such a thing had happened to him, even if it would have put his friend at ease. At least he had a father to explain such things, whereas Benji had none. No one in their right mind, even a boy so young as Alex would have called Benji's paternal parent a father to him.
"Leave me alone," Benji said suddenly when it looked as if Alex would move towards him.
"It's ok," Alex answered. "I don't mind."
Benji looked at him finally. "But..." and then found he couldn't even finish. He couldn't say ‘But, you... touched it' when Alex was looking at him with those dark eyes, almost as if he thought Benji foolish for even making a big deal about it. He really didn't mind about the things young boys snickered at while huddled close in the corner yards at school. He had never been part of those groups anyway.
Benji straightened his clothes and stood up to dust himself off. The magazine suddenly didn't matter anymore; in fact, it repulsed him. He never wanted to see it again.
By the time evening fell, the whole incident was virtually forgotten. Cicadas had commenced their vibrating songs as soon as the sun had begun to set and their sound was so droning, so white that one could tune it out altogether if one had to listen long enough. The boys hardly heard the cicadas anymore, even though when they were younger it had been a favorite game to try and find them in the grass, in the trees, just by following their sounds. That had been until Benji had finally caught one. He'd accidentally pulled off a wing in the process of imprisoning it in a mason jar, but had paid its permanently left-turning troubles no attention until Alex had nearly begun to cry at the sight of it. Benji flung the jar away in disgust to chase after his friend who had fled the scene of such a crime.
A few years older now from that time, Benji thought about how much younger Alex had always seemed to him until very recently, when the dark-haired boy had suddenly, almost over night, flourished into the makings of who he would eventually become, leaving his impish childhood nature behind. He still never put up much of a fight, nor argued to any great extent, nor picked up any taste for competition. The only real difference now in him was that he just seemed to think more, to himself mostly, but more so in any case than any other kid that Benji knew.
They were still sitting underneath the old live oak tree on the west side of the white house, Alex's house. They would live their lives out there, move from elementary to middle to high school together, and the years would pass without a hitch, without warning. Fleeting and temporary. The next significant moment in time came the last night of their youth, high school prom. An event of pomp and circumstance neither of them had much enthusiasm for, but Benji's current girlfriend had roped him into it and he would not allow Alex to escape a fate he could not. By all accounts, though, he should have. Maybe things would have turned out differently.
"Benny! Someone here to see you!"
The guttural shout from the front desk man rang throughout the garage. Only one head raised, the owner of which also owned the name, amid the sounds of machinery, the smell of oil, discharge and rubber and the hot heavy air of a stuffy car garage on a southern summer midday.
Benji stood up straight and arched his back a little to relieve the stiffness from almost an hour bent over the engine of a diesel truck whose ailments he had not yet been able to uncover. Any interruption was welcome, even if it was his wife calling to bitch him out for something else. He wiped greasy, blackened hands on an already greasy shop rag and made his way to the front, unconsciously reaching with the rolled up sleeve of his arm to rub the sweat from his brow. Christ, it was hot today.
The front desk man nodded his head towards the closed door of their supervisor's office; whomever had come for him had evidently wanted privacy. It had to be Rezia. She hated the smells of the garage and even more that smell on her husband when he got home.
Ex-husband, soon to be ex-husband, he had to keep reminding himself. Pain had a way of burrowing into the back of his mind when he was working, manual labor being in his blood so his father had said, and he had long ago determined that he was doomed to never rise above that station. But working with his hands, physically pouring concentration, shutting out the world- it was a welcome relief from life itself when nothing else had gone well to this point. Rezia's infidelity, moreso her deceit had become a permanent fixture that he could only close a door on when he was working; and now for her to come here, to his place- it was more than he wanted to deal with.
He opened the office door with gusto, ready to flay her alive for daring to come here, and stopped in his tracks. Rezia was forgotten, the sounds of the shop were muted, color disappeared and the world was unmade in an instant.
It would seem at first he shouldn't have been able to recognize the young man who stood near the window, but not in a thousand years could he not have known those eyes, even when the face, hair and body had changed so. Grown so. His dark hair was longer now, brushing lightly the nape of his neck, the topmost layers hanging a little in his eyes and framing his face while the underneath layers flipped up a little of their own accord. It suited him. He was taller than Benji would had expected him to be, of a healthy but wiry build that was perfectly detectable from underneath his dark pants and the darker shirt he wore, whose open collar and top buttons generously exposed his throat. He looked young, smart, artistic. Beautiful still.
Emotions came flooding back around the time that the world was crumbling. Anger. Fear. Doubt, abandonment, elation, mistrust, resentment. Rage. It was the last that eclipsed them all, thus the only one that showed in his face and the sudden stiffness of his spine. Every muscle in his body tensed.
"Benji," Alex said, looking equally shocked but at an opposite end of the spectrum of emotions. He looked relieved at first, perhaps that Benji had agreed to see him at all, even though he didn't know his childhood friend had come in under a false assumption. If Benji had known who waited for him, would he have come?
Benji stood a mute fool, hand clenching the door knob so hard his knuckles were white even through the grime. No one had called him by that name since- well, since Alex had left. No, since he'd vanished.
The first inclination was to run. Slam the door and get away. Rezia was in so many ways a better subject to agonize over than this one, he'd take pain over her any day than have to face Alexander again.
Alex read the thoughts in his head, knew Benji would run if he waited too long. He himself had always been of an intellectual mind, but was not so far gone that he couldn't read people almost as well as Benji, whom he'd always thought a master of it. Benji possessed intuition, a talent for reading people and saying the right things at the right time. Acting on his impulses and passions. They'd balanced each other out so as children, but what now? When the stigmas of society, education and age were upon them?
It would seem that Benji would let them get the better of him. He turned to go without a word-
"Wait," Alex said, feeling the lump in his throat betray him. He hadn't expected Benji to look as he did. Somewhere in his mind he had hoped for a young man aged beyond his years and bent by toil and heat, bitter at the world and who would refuse to see him at all, thus sparing the pain of his company and the memory of how'd they'd parted.
But the young man that stood before him was tall and robust, a complete man in his early prime, hardened by work and sunshine, blond as a god, tan as a field hand and slender and proportioned as a reed. Alex hardly noticed the grime on him, his black hands and the smudges on his cheek and brow. He looked animalian, so completely male, as he'd always had a way of it, with passion still in the brown of his eyes even if it was just the anger geared towards him. However, as much as Alex hadn't expected his appearance, he had expected even less what it would be like to merely be with him again. To be in his presence and feel like a complete part of a whole once more, even if there was a dividing line between them.
Benji stopped in the doorway and slowly turned. His breathing was labored to match the heartbeat that throbbed in his throat and temples. Alex was imploring him with his eyes, his whole body language, leaning there towards him.
"Not here," he said in a low voice, as if he could barely control himself. "I can't do this here-"
"Where then?" Alex asked, stepping forward a little more. He dammed his eyes for welling up in fear of rejection but if Benji wouldn't see him, forgive him, then putting the world back together again was pointless. "Benji, please-"
Benji watched the tears come up into Alex's eyes at his harshness. It broke his heart all over again. He wanted to hate him more for making him ache that old ache.
He'd spoken the truth; he couldn't do this here. He didn't want Alex here where he could be dirtied, see what it was that Benji had become. For the first time since his adult life had begun, he felt shame for the state of things. Work, which only a few moments before had been something he was proud of and took pleasure in, suddenly became something to be embarrassed about. He wanted to clean his greasy hands, tame down his sweat-moist hair. Standing before him Alex looked so clean and fresh, as if whatever life he'd been living away from here was a good one. And Benji knew he looked exactly what the life here had made him into. A dumb animal, working in the heat for a little money because there was nothing else he was good at.
"The house," Benji said, meaning Alex's without saying it. They both knew he'd never had a home of his own, and he certainly wasn't going to bring Alex near Rezia. Not after what had happened so long ago. "In an hour," he amended. "I have to settle things here first."
Alex gently nodded, subdued. The look didn't seem right on him; he seemed to be someone who had always been proud and walked with their chin in the air. When they were boys he'd already had the makings of such a person. Why here, now, did he seem as cowed as a rotten dog?
Benji heaved a slow sigh to let the tension out of his shoulders long enough to let himself feel, as Alex did, what it was like again to be part of a whole. His childhood friend had changed, the boy had become a handsome young man, but it was still him.
The next hour was useless for anything but brooding and reminiscing and fretting like a prisoner awaiting execution. Benji knew he was innocent of all crime- he'd done nothing to deserve the punishment of being forced into recollecting old memories and old aches. Alex was the guilty one. He was the one who'd left, he was the one who planted the seed of doubt, then disappeared before it could be scarified.
After toiling to complete his current project, Benji hid in his own nook of the shop out of sight of everyone else though still surrounded by the comfortingly familiar sounds of a life that went on in oblivion. Several moments passed until finally, he broke his stare at the wall and stood up. He stripped off his work jumper and heavy clog boots to change into the clothes he'd left the house in earlier that morning, a simple white t-shirt and an old pair of jeans, the perfect combination for a hot day that he'd chosen with hardly a thought, but now wished he had something a little nicer to wear. At the basin he silently scrubbed his hands and arms with a vengeance, nearly willing lose skin if the grease was stubborn enough. He ran his damp fingers through his hair, wishing the sweaty strands over his temples and neck would dry. He glanced in the streaked mirror above the basin and saw a man tousled by heat and worry.
Meanwhile, Alex waited at his mother's old house, having hiked there easily enough from the Row Street shop. The walk had only been a few blocks but the noonday sun had beat down on his dark clothes like a furnace. He was disappointed in himself to feel how unused to the heat he was now after a life in the cool city under street café awnings, among air-conditioned university lecture rooms and amid nights spent prowling the club scene with his closest friends. It was almost as if he'd never been here before at all.
His mother's house looked the same, a gleaming white beacon surrounded by well-watered lush green. When she had died a month ago, a letter had been sent to him full of official seals and headers and difficult legal language telling him that he'd lost a mother but gained a house. In the memoryless weeks that had followed he had all but forgotten the second half of the letter about the house until one day, a Sunday, he'd picked himself off the couch, turned the mindless, droning, unwatched television off, bathed, shaved, for God's sake ate, packed and found a bus that would bring him home. Here, home. At that point, then, there had been nothing on his mind but Benji. Was he still there? What would he look like? Was he married? Didn’t he have a child? They were questions he didn't want the answer to at all. He had wished, even as the bus pulled onto the main fare, to be back home. City home.
The house was dark but for the unabashed sunlight that crept in behind the drawn curtains in determined rays, spreading along rich, chocolate hardwood floors and illuminating the dust in the air that a month-long neglected house tended to pick up. Despite the abandoned disposition of the house, the smells were so familiar to his nose and the feel of the place so like a home he'd once loved. How was it that he'd never wanted to come back?
He moved to the window, arms crossed lazily, and peered out into the yard. He could see their tree, the old live oak still standing. How often had his mother peered out at the same spot? To see him and Benji there, up to no good as young boys, and later, that last night, up to even worse? But that time it'd been his own fault entirely.
Behind him, he heard the familiar groan of the heavy oak door and the step of a grown man in boots on the wooden entry. Alex turned and saw Benji, his hand still on the door even after he'd closed it behind him. He looked so beautifully disheveled and messy, his thick hair still damp with sweat, white shirt tight to the contours of his torso, ragged jeans showing the fine proportions of his body. In the back of his mind Alex saw the silly little boy he'd once known. The summertime spattering of freckles on his nose, wiry little body always bruised or scraped up. The image was slowly fading, even as they stood there staring at one another. Benji was a grown man now.
"Hi," Alex whispered in the quiet of the house. He watched Benji finally leave the entry and take a few more paces towards him, only a little unease in his step. His friend seemed to suddenly notice the house he stood in and began to look around, Alex supposed, noting the changes to it since he was last inside. He stepped closer until they stood facing one another finally.
"I wanted to call you when I heard," Benji said, idly running his hand along the dusty windowsill. "But..."
"I know," Alex said, bowing his head a little. He looked up. "Benji-" No more words would come, not for several more moments when he could handle looking into those large brown eyes without nervousness. "I wish I could give you an explanation," he said finally. "I wish I could tell you why I had to go, but I don't know how."
Benji watched him patiently. Alex noticed how the natural set of his brows and the corners of his mouth made him appear compassionate when he gave such a stare. He wondered if that was the look he always had when concentrating or if his old friend really did feel empathy for him. He supposed it didn't matter. He had not come here expecting anything from Benji, anything at all. Merely an opportunity to clear with his friend once and for all the pain he'd inflicted on them both.
"That night that we graduated," he began, "was something we'd looked forward to for so long. I didn't mean to ruin it. I didn't mean for anything like that to happen at all. It just did."
Benji's face didn't change. "It wasn't your fault," he said evenly. "Peter and his louts always picked fights with you. I'm just glad I was there to stop them-"
Alex ruffled a little. "That's not what I mean and you know it. Yes, I got into a fight. Yes, they humiliated me in front of everyone, in front of you. I'm talking about what happened after that."
His old friend's eyes dropped away for a few moments. "Oh, that," he said softly.
He bristled more. Had Benji put the memory from his mind? "Yes, that," he insisted. "That was why I left, and no other reason."
Benji stepped away from him and made a psudocasual turn around the large living room. "It was a long time ago. It's not a big deal." He plopped himself down on the covered couch. The timbre voice betrayed plainly that he wished to avoid the subject.
That night was supposed to be a happy one, full of hope and expectation for the future. It was a warm one, their last night of high school, and the end of a period of their life that'd been marked by a closeness of friendship that few outside understood. So much so that Alex more often than not bore the outsiders' mystification in the form of abuse. It had come out that night, when they'd finally decided to confront him and accuse him of what was the truth. Then Benji had stepped in, looking so suave and elegant in his tuxedo, brushing Rezia back with one arm, pulling Alex away with the other. Benji was taking his side as always, but this time it was he who was wrong. It'd made something in Alex's mind snap into place as he stood there, pulling Benji's arm to get him away.
"He's not, God dammit, just leave him alone!" Benji yelled at them, the pod of marauding seniors that he faced.
His friend turned to look back at him. Alex remembered pausing for a few soundless moments as everything around them moved in slow motion. Benji's eyes were locked to his when then the realization came without another word spoken between them. Alex could read his friend's eyes reading his own- Benji knew then. The door to his happily innocent life up to this point quietly clicked closed.
You're not- Benji's eyes said.
But I am.
It had to be goodbye, it had to be at that moment. How could he live anymore in this town with these people and their dull lives? Where the only one who had made it bearable was Benji, whose eyes now told him he'd lost his friend forever. There was only one thing left to do; he'd owed himself that much. To this point, though he stood a handsome boy of eighteen, Alex had never kissed another soul. It had to be Benji as his first, how could he bear anyone else?
So he'd done it. One little brush of the lips and it was over, the world came flooding back in a wash of confused shouts, Rezia's high-pitched squeak and outrage. Everyone had seen it, something none of them had seen before. And then Benji there, frozen solid with a mystified stare, wordless, motionless, nearly breathless. It was the last image Alex held in his mind of his friend.
Alex came around the couch to stand over Benji, hurt and outraged. Being away from this place had allowed him mind to grow and his independence and pride to flourish. He had been allowed to become who he would.
"It is a big deal! To me it is!" he hissed. "You can't sit there and pretend it's not. Not anymore. It's the way I am and you've known it just as long as I have." Alex's voice softened a little. "But that night I snapped. I just couldn't take their teasing anymore because it had started to hurt. Just hurt. I realized that night when you were between them and me that I couldn't hide it and deny it anymore. That they were right and you had to know, I couldn't bear for you not to."
Benji's eyes were unreadable.
"But I also realized something else at the time," he continued, taking a chance and sitting down next to his friend, an easy distance away. "And that was how I felt about you. Puppy love I suppose, but it was real enough to me back then." He held Benji's eyes. "You were the only one who really knew me."
He gave his friend a few moments to think this over, which Benji took, staring at the carpet. Alex watched the muscle jump in his jaw when he'd finished thinking.
"But you disappeared. After all of that, if I was so important to you-" Benji said finally, "Where did you go? Where have you been?"
Was that the only question he had?
"I took the next bus into the city to live with my uncle. I hardly took anything with me. Maybe some clothes. Music." He fidgeted his fingers in his lap. "You see, I'd been planning it for a few months before graduation but I never could find a way to tell you. I had to start over somewhere else, away from here. But as for what happened that night, I hadn't planned any of that. It just sort of happened." He looked up at his friend. "How could I have faced you the next day?"
"You're facing me now."
"It's different now. We've both grown up, done our own things. I went to college there, got my degree in literature, then went back for my Masters in arts and civ. I speak two languages, Benji, and God, I've met so many people! People like... people like me."
This appeared to sink in quickly compared to everything else. Benji's eyebrows raised. "So... you met someone?" Met someone? Kissed someone? Had sex with them? his raised eyebrows said.
"You don't care?" Alex said carefully, as if his very heart were made of glass. One word from Benji and he would leave this place forever and never look back except with a sad memory of a life he'd once lived and a friend he'd once loved.
Benji's brown eyes had always been warm no matter what his emotional state. They were so now as he took a long time in answering. "I cared when you left without telling me why," he said softly. "I cared when you didn't share with me something so important until the last possible moment." He looked up again. "I cared that you came back."
"You're angry with me."
"Where will you stay?" Benji asked after a moment. "Here?"
Alex looked around the deserted house and unconsciously hugged himself. So many memories. "Maybe the motel. I don't think I can stay here, not alone."
"I'll stay with you, if you want."
He couldn't read anything in Benji's eyes. It hurt that he'd fallen so out of sync with his friend that he wasn't able to understand him anymore, not like he'd used to. Why would he want to stay here? What about Rezia, was he not married to her? Did he not have a child at home? Was that not what he'd understood from his uncle's letter?
When his friend ducked his head for a moment, Alex began to suspect that there were more things wrong in Benji's life than an errant friend come back to haunt him.
"Corina's not mine," he said in explanation, though Alex would never have presumed to ask for one. "And neither is Rezia, it would seem. There's going to be a divorce, she'll take my daughter from me. My whole life's in the process of falling apart and here you come waltzing back into the middle of it."
Well, it was hardly waltzing, wasn't it? Benji's voice was gruff with anger and emotion that made Alex's heart twist in his chest. Benji had always been a wonderful user of words despite his rudimentary upbringing. He'd always devoured what books Alex would give him to read, but had never excelled in school despite them. Alex wondered if it was this town that did it, where kids who got the highest marks were a little bit outcast. They were suspected of thinking they were better than everyone else, and no one missed them when they left this town for the city and better lives. After all, it was what had happened to him. But Benji had always had a need of people around him, to fill the void his family left. He wouldn't jeopardize that need to belong with getting a few more points on his tests and a shot at college. He would never believe he was better than these people.
And now here he sat, dirtied by work and tired by emotion and hardship. His head hung a little and his blond locks fell into his eyes, so that quite by accident he looked more handsome than any of the preening beauties Alex had seen on the main street club scene. Without even trying he looked so intriguingly innocent of all knowledge of the outside world but for what went on in the perimeter of a few town blocks. He was country and blue collar. But Alex had always seen him as so much more than that.
He inched a little closer on the couch and dared to touch Benji's slumped shoulder. "I wish I could do something," was all he could think of to say. "You always helped me when things were bad, even after I left."
Benji raised his bowed head a little and looked at him.
"It was rotten for a while, really rotten being there all alone," Alex continued. "And so lonely. I wanted to call you so many times but... I couldn't." He sighed. "So I just thought about you until I felt better, and thought about what it would be like to come back here someday when I wasn't afraid to face you again."
"I would have called you," Benji said. "If I'd known where you were. Especially lately when all this started. I wouldn't have been afraid to face you."
Alex gave a little grin. "Ah well, you were always braver than me."
That made him smile, and to see Benji smile was something to behold. It was contagious. There was another silence, though this time, strangely, or not so strangely, marked with the comfort that emanates between friends.
"Do you want me to stay then?" Benji suddenly asked.
"Do you want to stay?"
They both looked at each other, then nodded in unison. That brought on another smile. After a few more moments, Benji stood up and stretched his back. He looked around like he hadn't really seen the place as it were.
"We'll have to clean up a bit," he mused. "Make it more comfortable." He tugged at the white sheets that lay over the furniture. "How long will you stay?"
"I hadn't really thought about it," Alex said truthfully. As long as it takes. But for what?
The answer seemed good enough for Benji at any rate. "Well come on then. Let's get this place cleaned up and livable. Then I'll take a shower, then we'll go to store. I bet there isn't a scrap of food in the joint. Well, what are you waiting for?"
Alex gave a strangely excited sigh as he stood. He watched Benji bustle around, pulling sheets off the furniture as if he were doing magic tricks, talking to himself about the dust and disrepair of the place. It was as if everything had fallen into place, all the pieces. He wanted this moment to go on forever, this moment where they'd connected again.
Worth finishing? Tell me! | back to main