Chapter 51, How to Handle Tough Questions:
Sometime after laying down I was woken by the sound of the front door opening and hushed whispers getting closer down the hall. I heard Isabelle telling Max good night and the click of his door shutting, then there was a soft knock at my door.
"Come in." I half muttered, my voice a bit gravely from sleep.
"Hey," She greeted quietly, standing in the doorway. "I'm going to go home, Max is in bed."
"Ok. Did you guys have fun?" I asked through a yawn.
"Lots, and he didn't waste his money and is still in one piece; we told you there was no need to worry. Call me tomorrow and let me know how everything goes with mom ok?" It wasn't really a question, more of a command.
"Alright I will. Good night Izz." I waved goodbye, shielding my eyes from the thin sliver of light that was coming from behind her.
"Good night Alec, thanks for everything." She blew me a kiss.
She shut my door back and left. I tried to fall back asleep, but I'd had just enough of it before being woke up that now my body was starting to register it as a power nap and was telling me to stop rolling around in the covers and get up.
As was my bladder.
When I left the bathroom I heard noises coming from where Max was supposed to be sleeping. I felt uncomfortable eaves dropping, but I wanted to make sure nothing was wrong, so I tiptoed to the door and pressed my ear against it.
It sounded like he was crying.
I knocked softly.
"Max, are you ok?"
I heard more sniffling before he replied.
He didn't sound fine.
"Can I come in for a sec?"
I hadn't had a chance to talk to him about what he'd seen, and heard, this morning and it seemed like now was going to be the time.
He gave the ok and I entered. He turned on the small lamp that his glasses were sitting next to over on the nightstand and sat up in the bed, looking at me with red, swollen eyes; the eyeliner Magnus had applied earlier now smudged.
"Hey," I began, not sure how to lead into the topic.
"Izzy said you guys had fun?" I tried to break the ice.
He nodded, not adding anything to the conversation.
Alright, strike one. Maybe I should try the more direct approach.
"With everything that went on today we didn't get the chance to talk about this morning. Izzy said you had some questions on the car ride over?"
He looked like he was trying very hard not to start crying again, his nostrils were flared and his jaw set. So much stubbornness already.
"Dad said mom only has enough love for us and not him. Is that true? Is there a limit on how much love you have?"
"No Max, there isn't. I'm sure he was just upset and angry and trying to say hurtful things. Sometimes, a lot of times actually, when adults fight they say things just to be mean to the other one. Even if what they're saying is completely ridiculous." If Robert thought my mother didn't love him anymore he only had himself to blame, I was sure it had nothing to do with their children.
"Do you think mom and dad are going to get divorced? Sister Jane says that's a sin; we've talked about it in church and the parents of this girl in my class got divorced and now her mom doesn't come to church anymore and no one wants to sit next to her at lunch. Do you think that's going to happen to me? Is mom gonna stop going to mass?"
If I could have, I would have punched Robert in the face right then. All of the anger issues I'd had over him that I thought I'd worked though and gotten rid of came rushing back in sympathy for Max. He shouldn't be asking these kinds of questions.
I took a deep breath and tried to figure out how to answer that without flat out telling him what bullshit I think organized religion is.
"I think that divorce is a very big step and I'm sure they both have a lot of talking to do before anything that major is discussed. However, I know that no matter what happens between them, your parents love you very much and nothing is going to change that."
I thought I handled that question well, but as I finished the last sentence his eyes filled up with tears again and he bit his lip to stop them from falling.
"That's not true. They stopped loving you. At least, dad did."
I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me at that statement.
How was I supposed to deny that? They're actions had obviously led him to believe that and I didn't have any honest basis for disagreeing.
"That situation is… complicated," to say the least, "you don't have to worry about that."
He turned away from me momentarily to wipe his eyes, then changed the subject.
"Do you think that, if they do get divorced and dad moves out, mom would let you come over again?"
There was a lot of 'if' in that question. I was beginning to think I'd gotten in over my head starting this talk in the first place. I should have just let him go to sleep.
"Oh Max, I… can't answer that." There was no way for me to even speculate on that possibility.
"She defends you sometimes you know." He suddenly looked back up at me with hopeful eyes.
"What?" Surely I must be hearing wrong.
"When dad says stuff about, you know, you liking boys and going to hell. Mom yells at him for it sometimes. She says she doesn't think you're going to hell."
I didn't really know how to respond to that. I'd stopped believing in all that fire and brimstone bullshit years ago, but my mother staunchly believes it, and for her to have defended me in front of my little brother… Well, maybe tomorrow wasn't just a product of emotional unbalance.
My cynicism assumed her defense of me was simply used to aggravate Robert, but maybe it was a start.
"Do you think you're going to hell?" His voice was quiet, but strong, as if afraid to know the answer but needing to ask anyway.
I suppose I had to have known this conversation was coming eventually, but I still felt blindsided. I'd been hoping he would be a bit older before these sorts of things plagued his thoughts and that maybe by then he would have a better understanding of the world outside of my parents' house and the Catholic Church.
Seems I had no such luck.
"No. I don't. Hell is a place for people who do bad things, people who hurt others. I don't think any just deity would punish someone for simply loving another person." Tonight was not the night to get thoroughly into a religious and philosophical discussion with Max, especially since he had very little exposure to other points of view, so I didn't go into the fact that I didn't believe I was going to hell because I didn't believe in hell.
Max's red eyes got wide before he averted his gaze.
"I hope not." His voice was barely a whisper.
I tilted his face up to look at me.
"Hey, let's stop all this heavy talk for the night, I don't want you getting nightmares." I smiled, trying to make him smile as well. He didn't, but he looked a little less sad.
"Can I," he looked down at his feet before finishing. "Can I ask you something else?"
"Sure, anything." I braced myself for what could possibly to come, hoping it was "can we have left over pie for breakfast?" and not "where do babies come from?" or something along those lines.
"When did…" he stopped talking and looked away, turning his body almost entirely away from me. "How did y-you know that you're…?" He hiccupped.
The universe was determined to make my life complicated tonight.
I took a deep breath and pressed on.
"How did I know what? That I'm gay?" I wasn't expecting that question and thus asked for clarification in order to stall.
He nodded his head, still turned away from me. His refusal to look at me hurt.
Is he ashamed of me?
I'd thought he was ok with it, with me, every part of our conversation thus far indicated that, but he was acting so strange now. Still, I wasn't going to lie or hide anything from him; if he had questions I would answer them, within reason.
"I'm not sure really. I mean, I thought girls were pretty gross the first few years of school, but so did all the other boys. I guess I started to notice I was different around your age when this girl, Katie Sharp, I think her name was, transferred to our school. She was the prettiest girl in the entire school and everyone was obsessed with her. And I had no idea what all the fuss was about." I laughed a little at the memory. Max didn't say anything though, so I continued.
"I thought for a while that maybe I was just a late bloomer and I'd start liking girls eventually, but once high school happened I realized that I didn't just not like girls, but that I was starting to be attracted to some of the other guys in my classes." I left out the details about how much of those years I'd spent hating myself and being terrified that everyone could see my thoughts written all over my face.
"You didn't like anyone when you were my age?" Max finally spoke and his voice was weak and raspy, like he'd started crying again or was about to.
"Not that I can remember." I tried to think back to fifth grade; it was a while ago. "No wait, that's not entirely true. My best friend Tyler." I had forgotten about that. I'd put a lot of effort into blocking it out, changing the way I felt. "I had a crush on him for a very long time, but I tried to ignore it, tried to make it not true."
I'd finally just stopped talking to him altogether; it was easier to have him hate me than it was to be around him all the time and hide my feelings. I felt like everyone would know by the way I looked at him or talked to him, and every time we rough housed, like ten year olds do, all I could think about was kissing him. I barely even knew was kissing was at the time, but I knew that my heart raced when his face was close to mine and his lips looked really nice. Nicer than Katie Sharp's.
"Did he know? Could he tell?"
"At the time, I was so scared that he did, but looking back on it now, no, I doubt it. If he did he never said anything. I'm sure he would have been as terrified to talk about the subject as I was."
Max finally turned around and I could see that he had indeed started crying again.
"Hey kiddo, don't cry."
What did I say wrong now?
"I'm not." He replied stubbornly. He wiped his eyes on the back of his hand and sniffled. He suddenly sobbed and threw his arms around my neck. I could barely make out that he was saying: "I don't want to go to hell."
I could feel his tears soaking through my shirt, dampening my shoulder.
I put my arms around him and held tightly, running my hands over his back trying to sooth him the same way I'd soothed Isabelle earlier. For the family that never cries, we certainly were doing a lot of that today.
"Max, hey, why would you say something like that?"
He was sobbing too much to speak so I just held him for a few minutes until he was about to. Finally he let go of me and sat back on the bed, crossing his legs and putting his hands in his lap, staring down at them. His breath was catching every few seconds and he was sniffling, but the tears had stopped.
"I'm scared Alec." He finally choked out.
"Of what?" I put my hand on his knee, trying to comfort him.
"I don't want mom and dad to stop loving me."
It finally clicked.
I was an idiot for not figuring it out earlier, but it was literally the last possibility in my mind. The questions, the worrying about hell, being scared…
"What's his name?" I asked softly. I could tell he was terrified to be talking about this so I tried my best to make him feel as comfortable as possible. Obviously he was trusting me with something huge and I prayed that I wouldn't screw it up or make him regret it.
Max blushed and wiped his eyes again.
"Julian B-Blackthorn. He's in a grade above me, but he sits at my table for lunch and we h-hang out sometimes."
"And you think you like him?" I was trying to tread carefully. Max was so young and I didn't want to seem like I was encouraging him one way or the other, but I had to let him know he could talk to me about it. It's not like he had many impartial options.
His blush crept farther over his face and he kept looking at his hands, I now realized, out of embarrassment about talking about a crush.
"Yeah. He's really funny and an artist, like you, except he paints a lot. And he's got these bluey-green eyes that just make you want to stare into them forever and sometimes I-" He broke off, biting his lower lip.
"You don't have to be embarrassed, you can tell me." I encouraged, though somewhat leery of what he sometimes did.
"Sometimes I think about what it would feel like to kiss him." He said quietly.
Well, that was definitely a good indicator that you like someone as more than just a friend.
"Does he know?"
Max looked scared again and shook his head furiously.
"Ok, it's ok. You don't have to be scared, I'm not going to tell anybody. Your secret's safe with me." I said quickly, trying to calm him down.
He looked relieved.
"Thank you." He said sincerely.
"Of course. You can tell me anything. I mean it." I did too, even though half of this conversation I'd spent squirming in my skin, giving my brain a workout trying to come up with replies to his questions.
"I wish I could talk to you more." He pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.
"I do too. I'm sorry." Especially now. I wanted him to have someone to talk to about all of this.
"Izzy said mom wants you to come over for dinner tomorrow. Maybe she's going to let you come see me more."
I couldn't stand to see him getting his hopes up in case it didn't work out, but I was glad I had made up my mind to go tomorrow. There were suddenly much higher stakes than just my feelings alone.
"We'll see how everything goes. In the meantime, you know you can talk to Izzy too. She'll understand."
She was busy with school, but she was still at the house at least once a week for family dinner and he could call her any time.
"I know, but it's weird talking to her about this kind of stuff."
That was understandable. I still found it a bit weird to talk to her about guys sometimes.
"I'm sorry, I wish I it could be easier for you. I can't promise that tomorrow is going to work out, but I do promise I will do everything I can to talk to you more often." I patted his arm.
"I feel so alone sometimes," he sighed. "I'm scared they'll find out."
"I know buddy, trust me, I know. But you're not alone." I hugged him for what was probably the hundredth time today, wishing I could offer more assurance than that.
"Thank you Alec. I love you." He told me, hugging back forcefully.
"I love you too kiddo."
He looked like he felt a little better when we broke apart and his breathing was steady again, no more tear-soaked hiccups.
"You're not going to tell anybody right?" He demanded seriously.
"I already told you, not a soul unless you say it's ok." I swore. I would never betray his trust on anything unless I thought he was in danger, and, to be honest, right now the only danger I was worried about was if Robert found out he was having feelings like this.
"Not even Izzy?" He verified.
I shook my head.
"Not even Izzy."
"Nope, not if you don't want me to. But I can promise you they're both extremely trustworthy and can be trusted as much as me if you want someone else to talk to."
Max chewed his bottom lip.
"No one right now." He said finally.
I respected his choice.
Max smiled for the first time since he'd mentioned his friend Julian.
"I think I can fall asleep now." He told me, yawning.
"Ok. I'll be right across the hall if you need anything. Get some rest, I'll see you in the morning." I kissed the top of his head and walked to the door, making sure he clicked the light out before I closed it.
What a day.
So, I was very on the fence about Max's confession in the chapter. Part of me feels like it's too much and to be honest it was not my intention until a couple of days ago when I wrote the other chapter and this part popped into my head. But, here it is. I think it gives Alec that extra bit of motivation he needs to work on his relationship with his mother.
Anyway, I hope if you hate this you keep giving the rest of the story a chance and know that a Heronstairs chapter is coming up very soon and you will get to see Cecy and Gabriel, and Jem meeting the family!