OKAY! I had originally uploaded this to my other story Don't Let Go, but then ended up changing my mind because I felt like it didn't go well with what I have planned for all the other chapters. If you haven't read it, it would probably be helpful—but it's not necessary. I think it stands fairly well on its own, hence me posting it separately.
That being said: WARNING! This chapter is a bottomless pit of angst and despair. I don't know where it came from or why (because I swear it was nothing like this when I first started…) but the fact is—it's here. The content includes: Foul language, boy/boy love (Yay!), romantic fluff and detailed descriptions of physical violence and child abuse. I don't think it's quite bad enough for an M-rating, but just in case, you have been warned!
Disclaimer: *sniff* They aren't mine…
Joe was sprawled out on his stomach, eyes blearily gazing at the ancient alarm clock next to his bed. The neon numbers rolled over in the darkness, changing the time from 1:02 to 1:03. From down the hall, he could hear his father's deep, bear-like snore, followed shortly by his mother's soft exhale. The sound was both soothing and familiar, lulling his tired mind into a dreamy, lethargic state. But even then, his body refused to sleep.
As if on cue, the boy's stomach clenched painfully—a nauseating wave of panic and anxiety that was rapidly becoming a constant presence in his life. He had never been this scared before—had never been this worried before—and the feeling was overwhelming.
Slowly, Joe turned on his side, tucking up his legs to loosely curl into the fetal position. His throat and the backs of his eyes burned, but he refused to cry. That would be giving in. That what be admitting something was wrong…even though he already knew something was wrong. But, knowing and acknowledging are two completely different things, right?
He'd tried telling his dad—tried explaining that this wasn't normal and goddammit he was fucking scared—but the man wouldn't listen. If anything, Deputy Jack Lamb was happy about the unexpected turn of events. He had never liked Cary. Not when they were little kids, not now, and especially not after he lit their couch on fire. He wanted the blond out of his son's life. Permanently. It was that cold, hard fact that weaved the first threads of loathing into the young Lamb's heart—his first real taste of bitter hatred. How someone could be so callous, he would never understand.
His friend was missing. Only, not really. The little firecracker still went to school, though noticeably less than before, and still lived in the same house and had the same phone number. But…he wasn't around anymore. Charles, Martin, and Preston hadn't seen him outside the classroom since mid-October, and Joe himself hadn't heard a word from him in almost eleven days.
It wasn't normal.
The blond was always prowling around—lighting fireworks, starting arguments, eating ice-cream, riding his bike through people's lawns—and he always, always sought out the company of his friends. You could be lost in the woods fifty miles from any form of civilization, and if you were his friend, Cary would somehow find you. It was unavoidable; another one of those crazy quirks that the entire group had learned to love. But now he was just…gone. Wouldn't answer the door if you knocked, wouldn't answer the phone if you called. There was even one instance when Joe had tossed the boy a note in the middle of geography, only to watch him shove it in his shoe and never write back.
It was wrong. It had looked wrong and felt wrong, but the brunet couldn't put his finger on what exactly was wrong about it.
It had been in the way Cary moved—how he had kept his head down, shaggy hair spilling over his cheeks and eyes as he hunched his shoulders forward like he was trying to curl in on himself…like he was trying to hide.
"You're getting to be that age now, Joe," his father had said, the daily newspaper covering the lower half of his face. "People change. It happens to everyone."
But not like this, he thought, closing his eyes and clutching at his chest as the muscle inside tightened. Never like this.
A single tear pushed its way out from underneath a puffy eyelid, creeping over dark lashes and cascading down one soft, rosy cheek.
"What's wrong with you, Cary?" Joe croaked, barely fighting off sleep, like he was waiting for an answer.
Seconds later, the clock turned.
The phone rang.
The house had become a hazard. That was the only way he knew how to word it. A place that was once so safe…so inviting…was now dangerous.
Every creak of the stairs settling in the night was seen as a threat—another footstep crawling up to his room to wreak havoc while his mom lay unconscious on their filthy couch. It made him feel weak.
Like a victim.
Blue eyes darted to the numbered face on the wall, noting the hour for what felt like the hundredth time.
A laugh echoed down the hallway—a deep, full chuckle that ended in a high, wheezing pitch. His mother's laugh.
Quietly, Cary tip-toed out of bed and over to his dresser, pointedly ignoring the rhythmic creak of bedsprings along with the tell-tale thud, thud, thud of the headboard hitting the wall. Even though he should be accustomed to the noise by now, the blond couldn't help but crinkle his freckled nose in disgust. He could picture today's catch in the back of his mind, shoulders slicked with sweat and whiskey strong on his breath as he "plowed his woman" with reckless abandon.
Life had gone downhill after his dad left. More than anyone in Lillian could have ever imagined. Donna Nelson, who was once such a strong woman, couldn't handle the rejection and coped in the only way she knew how. With alcohol. And men. In the past few months Cary had seen dozens of them—fat, thin, short, tall, muscular, scrawny, dirty, drunk, drugged up and strung out—all on the arm of one single, self-destructing individual. It was all he could do to watch his mother fade away—weight melting off her already too thin body, skin discoloring, hair breaking, eyes dying—and beg, fucking pray, for an end. For a release. But, the big man upstairs must be hard of hearing, or maybe he just doesn't give a damn, because the devastation showed no signs of easing up anytime soon.
Unexpectedly, the horrid sounds Cary had been disregarding abruptly fell silent. The heavy weight of dread settled deep in the blond's gut as he stood frozen, scared to move forward and scared to move backwards in the eerie quiet of the house. Tonight's guest was Adam—a frequent visitor from Cincinnati that drove a truck and pilfered dirty magazines for a living. He was a burly, dark haired man with the build of a grizzly bear and the temperament of a pissed off shark; a quality made worse by his constant drunkenness. It wasn't unusual for him to lose control. In fact, it was almost expected.
The sharp, resounding slap of skin against skin followed by a yelp of pain solidified that expectation.
The noise startled Cary into action, and his hand shot forward to yank open the drawer where he kept his favorite lighter hidden. Sadly, the dresser was old and warn, and the rickety wood rattled loudly at the harsh treatment before sending a vase of used sparklers tumbling to the ground. The resulting crash was deafening.
His mother's door swung open.
Now panicked, the blond abandoned the metal trinket to make a run for his shoes. Adrenaline coursed through his body like venom, spreading from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, numbing the sickening sensation of tiny shards tunneling into the tender soles of his feet. Blood gushed from the wounds, mixing with the lukewarm water and ash that covered the floor—and then he was being pulled backwards. Adam was yelling—face red, eyes bloodshot, spittle flying from his mouth like a rabid dog as he fisted a meaty hand in the child's long hair. Cary hadn't even heard him come in.
A second hand grabbed at a gangly, bony arm and twisted it sideways. Something inside popped. Cary screamed.
He flailed his small body with surprising strength, jerking this way and that until the overgrown man was forced to release the throbbing appendage. Then, the kid was all teeth and nails, biting and clawing his way through salty skin and oil-stained clothes. He fought like a feral animal, jaw locking down and hands drawing blood, oblivious to the blows being delivered to his face and tattered torso despite the rivulets of red streaming into the whites of his eyes. His heart pounded loud in his ears, muffling the lewd curses leaving his attacker's mouth and drowning out his mother's squawking cries. That was the one thing Cary loved about a fight. Everything shuts down—every thought, every feeling—and you just don't give a shit. All that matters is survival.
His vision began to blur, and seconds later he was in the air; experiencing the sickly rush of his stomach melting with his brain before his cheekbone smashed against an iron bedframe. His head ricocheted, arching forward before swinging back to the ground with a hollow thump that sent vibrant fireworks exploding behind his eyes. Adam had thrown him—had literally scooped him up and tossed him down like a worthless bag of books. A small bubble of anger welled up inside him at the insane action, but Cary lay still, letting the pain settle into his bones as the man turned his fury over to Donna.
There was a heated exchange of colorful words as the chaos moved into the hallway, and at the sound of the first punch the boy allowed his bruised eyelids to flutter shut. He willed his mind to wander off—to leave the hell he once called home so he wouldn't have to listen to the escalating violence. He would have gladly taken every hit, every black eye and broken bone if it meant his mother's pain would go away…But he couldn't. Because he was thin, and his body was frail, and he was pathetically small for his age—and fuck it all, he was just a kid, goddammit.
So, he thought of happier times—of times filled with laughter and Twizzlers and the warm Ohio sun. He thought of Charles and his fat, overinflated, Hollywood-director's ego, and of Preston's nerdy passion for intricate mathematics. Of Martin's uncontrollable, emotionally-triggered vomiting and Joe's sweet, shy smile.
Cary loved that smile…probably more than he loved anything else…including pyrotechnics. It was such a rare and subtle expression, just a brief upturn of thin, soft lips complimented by glowing eyes and blushing cheeks. He had only seen it once, months ago, bathed in the light of the setting sun as they sat face-to-face on a set of railroad tracks…His heart had the gall to flutter at the memory.
Did Joe ever think about that day too? Did he ever sit at his desk, chin resting on the tops of his hands as he recalled the tingling heat created when their mouths had slowly touched? The blond knew it was supposed to be wrong for two boys to do that kind of thing…but everything about had felt so…right. Like that was the way things were supposed to be…
Oh god, that was sappy…Cary thought, immediately deciding that one of those blows to the head must have knocked a few screws loose. No more thinking for me…
Cautiously, he cracked one eye open, peaking around the room to survey the damage. It looked like a warzone—papers scattered everywhere along with clothes and blood and water and ash. From the distant sounds floating in from the open door, he determined that the scuffle had been moved downstairs. He glanced at the window several feet away. He was fine with that. It gave him a chance to make a quick getaway.
Nothing in Joe's life had prepared him for this moment. His head ached, and his nose was stuffy—but besides that, he felt almost nothing. It was as if every emotion he possessed had somehow fused and spontaneously combusted, creating an all-consuming emptiness. A void.
This is what death must feel like, he mused silently, resting his forehead against the thick metal door. Because there's no way someone could do this while they were still alive.
Several feet away, Elizabeth lamb was seated in a cold, plastic chair, watching her son with hawk-like eyes. The boy looked fragile—like if he so much as sneezed his entire body would shatter into a thousand tiny pieces. She held a shaky hand over her mouth as another night nurse wandered over to offer a few comforting words.
She didn't deserve those words.
Or at least, that's what she kept telling herself.
Getting that call from Cary in the wee hours of the morning had scared Elizabeth—had frozen her straight down to the bone. And in the privacy of her mind, she tortured herself with the memory his sobbing voice over and over again. His dialogue had been almost undistinguishable through the sheer force of it as he relayed the story that would surely haunt her forever.
An endless parade of drunk, nameless men that had slipped into his room and hurt him while his mother stood by and watched. It had taken an extreme for him to seek help—a situation so outrageous and violent that he jumped out a second story window in thirty degree weather, barefoot,to get to a phone.
It made her sick…
…and incredibly guilty.
Joe—sweet, little Joe who refused to take so much as a step away from Cary's door—had come to her and Jack several times in the past few weeks, insisting that something was wrong with the blond and he was getting worried. They had just brushed it off as a teenage thing—friends growing apart and all that—because, honestly, it was easier. Cary was a handful. There was no denying it. The boy was loud and destructive and cussed like a sailor, and he did horrible in school and was always getting himself into trouble. He wasn't someone the Lambs were comfortable letting their son around; and that had made the distance seem more like a blessing than a problem.
The woman sighed.
She could never have been more wrong.
At the sound of the nurse, Joe wheeled around—eyes swollen and cheeks stained red. He squeezed his lips together tightly and bowed his back forward in pitiful slump in an attempt to hold off any unruly sobs. The numbness inside was rapidly fading to a deep ocean of sorrow and fear.
Elizabeth's heart broke all over again.
"Yes?" she whispered, turning her gaze away from her son to give the woman in front of her her full attention. The nurse smiled gently.
"You're welcome to go in now…"
Joe didn't even wait to hear the rest of the sentence. In a motion that seemed faster than the speed of light, the door he'd been staring at for the better part of two hours opened and slammed closed as he darted inside. He flipped the lock over as a blatant warning, a message declaring: Leave us alone.
"Whoa, dude. I take it you don't want your mom in here?"
The blond was resting on a stereotypical hospital bed in the center of the room, IV dripping clear liquid into his veins and fluorescent lights painting his skin grey. Or at least, what you could see of his normal skin. His face was a battlefield of bruises and scrapes, some black as the night sky and some a sickly green with the slightest tinge of blue. One side of his lower lip was cracked and swollen, as was his right eye and the bridge of his nose. And, cradled to his chest, was a discolored arm held tight a sling.
"Oh…Cary…" Joe muttered, knees crumpling as he collapsed into a nearby chair. The use of his voice was all it took for the dam he had been holding up to finally break, and with a small, keening whimper, he began to cry.
"…Joe?...Joe?" Cary jolted upwards in alarm, blue eyes wild and wide. "Joe, what's wrong?"
"You are such a dick!" the brunet exclaimed, tears flowing freely as he cradled his head in his hands. "Why didn't you tell me this was going on?"
"God, Cary, I was s-so scared!"
"He could have k-killed you, Cary! He could have f-fucking killed you! Then what? "
"Jesus!" he exclaimed, tugging at his hair. "I'm s-such a horrible f-friend! I should have s-seen something s-sooner! I mean, y-you've been acting weird for m-months, but I just t-thought…I j-just…don't know what I thought…" Joe stopped, running his hands over his face as his breath hitched with painful, gut-wrenching sobs. He knew he wasn't being fair to Cary—knew he was acting completely hysterical and irrational—but he couldn't help it. He felt…betrayed. Betrayed because one of his closest friends, a friend he had known all his life; who he'd had sleepovers with and filmed movies with and shared his first kiss with, didn't feel comfortable telling him that some drunk bastard had been beating him.
"You're not a horrible friend, Joe…you know that…" Cary said, shifting under the thin sheets as he tried to get up.
"No…no, don't do that," the taller boy chided. "Lay back down. Please? I-I'll come over there…" His head spun nastily as he stood too fast, and he had to pause for a moment to wipe at his damp eyes and slow his breathing. Cary slid all the way over to the metal guard rails around the mattress, gesturing warmly to the empty space beside him with a small grin instead of to the chair. The butterflies in Joe's stomach fluttered.
"C'mere…" the blond murmured. The dark-haired boy obeyed.
"Are we both gonna fit…?"
"Yeah…I can turn on my side. I just have to keep the arm with the IV out…" he flipped over to demonstrate, lifting up the arm in question. "Here, lay next to me and I'll just rest it on your shoulder or something."
Joe clambered up the pillows at a deliberate, careful pace, making sure not to bump against the abused boy more than what was necessary. It was a lot easier said than done. In the end, they wound up face to face, knees and legs tangled together in a messy pile while Cary lazily relaxed his arm around the other boy's middle as they stared into each other's eyes.
"I really am sorry…" he whispered, breath damp against Joe's face. "I know I should have told you…but…"
"I know. I know you couldn't…"
"I just…didn't want you guys to treat me different…you know?"
Joe nodded thoughtfully for a few seconds before shaking his head.
"No. That makes no sense, at all."
Cary let out a sharp laugh that was more like a giggle, and Joe couldn't help but smile at him.
"My family's just always been…the bad family. The troublemakers. You know that. Everyone knows that. But…I guess I just…I was hoping…nobody would have to find out how bad it really was. Like…if I ignored it…it would all just go away and…nothing would have to change." Big blue eyes scrunched shut for a moment, wincing away a sharp sliver of pain.
"You okay?" Joe asked, worriedly running his fingers through the blond's hair.
"Yeah…bastard dislocated my shoulder. It just hurts sometimes."
"Cary…" the taller boy hesitated. "That's…that's all he did, right?"
"Hm?" The boy furrowed his brow in confusion.
"I mean…he didn't…you know, touch you did he?"
Cary's eyes snapped back open.
"No," he said seriously. "He didn't."
"You'd tell me if he did?"
"On my life."
"Good." Boldly, Joe pressed their foreheads together, one hand tangled in wheat-colored locks while the other rubbed small circles on his friend's upper arm—mindful of the tubing there. "So…what happens next?"
The question took a while to process in Cary's mind as he chewed on his busted lip, silently ignoring the flash of heat that had suddenly rushed to his face. All he could think about was how close they were—how their legs and their arms and their faces were touching, and how his skin seemed to buzz with some kind of weird, tingly excitement. Dammit, didn't Joe feel it too?
"Mmm…" he hummed, trying hard to focus. "My grandparents are coming up from Tennessee. They're gonna live in our house while Mom gets cleaned up."
"That's good," the brunet smiled.
"Mmhmm…" There was a pause.
"…Your face is red…" The boy's tone was teasing, and Cary mentally cursed the God that decided it'd be a good idea to create pale skin.
"Mmhmm…" he hummed again.
"I dunno…" Cerulean irises drifted upwards, glancing around nonchalantly yet refusing to meet the doe-like orbs that openly sought his.
"You don't know?"
The taller boy rose up on elbow, glancing down at the blond beside him. Cary's blush darkened.
"You're a liar," Joe stated with a wide grin. The injured teen leaned back a fraction, finally giving in and sparing his tormentor a playful glance.
"And you're an ass."
"Dick," the brunet laughed, his eyes crinkling in the corners the way Cary adored so much…not that he'd admit it.
Joe collapsed back down in a fit of giggles, gleefully pressing his face back against the blond's.
"That was a good one," he praised, subtly sliding a smidgen closer to link their legs together tighter. "God, I missed you."
Cary felt his skin warm again.
"Same here, man," he mumbled shyly.
Sometime during their bantering, the smaller boy's arm had shifted, leaving his open palm placed in the center of Joe's chest—right over the steady drum of heart. That, coupled with their closeness and their happiness and the minty smell of the dark-haired boy's toothpaste, left Cary a quivering mass of raw, sappy need. Now, the question was whether to act on it…which, of course, he did.
"Can I…" he paused to swallow down the lump in his throat. "…can I kiss you?"
Joe covered Cary's hand with his own.
"I was starting to think you'd never ask…"
Uhhh...*hides* Don't hate me! I tried including a detailed description of the kiss, but it just wouldn't flow right! I felt like it needed to end there. And I adore Cary, so I don't know why I keep hurting him. (I have no soul.)
Also, I coddle all compliments, encouragement, criticism, and notification errors with tender love and care. :D And your reviews fuel me like gasoline fuels our little pyro's flame.