Some days he makes it. Some days, the days the fates smile, he can duck past the ones who own him while their attention is elsewhere, maybe on the way all of sudden Denise looks different, though she hasn’t changed since last year when she got boobs, so maybe it’s really the Owners who are different now, seeing things like boobs and liking the way they look and somehow the girls don’t all have cooties anymore. Some days, the fates grin, and the Owners get detention or Coach makes them run laps.
Most days, the fates are just there, like grownups, not seeing anything they don’t want to see, and the Owners get to own him deeper, peel off another layer of soul and rake their long-clawed words over it and spit on what’s left. The worst days, when the fates have a toothache or hemorrhoids, he makes it to the culvert, the maw of ‘oh, god, no’, where the Owners turn the darkness into the Void and drag him into it.
The culvert’s ribs, marching in drill formation under the trucker-stuffed highway — because why would he go there at all if he could get to the almost-haven of home another way — have the texture of esophagi and windpipes, closing behind, opening in front, moving him to the Owners and when they’re done, beyond to the rectum to shit him out, ragged and stripped of protein and carbs and anything good and pinching him off, just another turd.
It isn’t supposed to be this way, a shred of him whispers, but the Owners’ assault weapons — word-spears and knuckled fists — pummel him with lies so exquisite they must be true and so most of him, all but that shred, the bitter last shred, agrees and takes it because he must deserve it if the Owners tell him so.
When they finally back away, he sucks it up and sucks it in, tucking all the anguish and humiliation — he knows big words because someday someday maybe he’ll own at least a piece of himself — away, along with his cock, and jeans-ing his ass again, and turns toward the culvert’s end where Steven waits to walk him home.
He used to wonder why his big brother never came for him on the danger side. He thought he might ask one day, until that once, just once, he’d seen Steven look into the Void and then his hands were slick with sweat, and he knew that Steven belonged to the Owners too. Or had. Now, he belonged to the almost-haven, with a job and everything, and the boy gripped that tight, breathed it into his lungs and tucked it into his heart, that Steven used to be owned and now he isn’t.
I can do it, the boy in blue says in the hidden corridors of thought — maybe not so very different from the culvert — If Steven can, then I can, too.
But today, this day, this one small day, the fates have more than hemorrhoids. The Owners do what they always do, the closing in behind him and the ‘drop that bookbag, queer’ and the yanked-down jeans and the bending bending stabs, but it’s different. The mad doesn’t go away. Maybe because the boy for the first time ever gets a hard-on, too. They go on and on with harder, rougher, slaps and punches and squeezed balls and when he doesn’t scream, they boot-kick and black-eye and split-lip. His jeans — the only pair he owns — are torn and muddy and blooded when he finally stumbles into the dark that’s transforming into light and when Steven sees him, he has to hold his brother’s roaring targeting back because Steven is red-faced and shouting and only Dad is supposed to shout like that and where did Steven learn those words anyway.
He pulls Steven away, failing at ‘manning up’ like always and so his dad can’t be proud, but the tears come anyway and the gasps and finally thank god finally Steven listens and takes him almost-haven home.
Hide your jeans, Steven tells him. You can’t let Dad see.
But what will I wear?
Steven’s teeth are grinding so hard the boy can hear the scrape of cusp on cusp and he wonders if teeth break. Steven says, Tomorrow,, it’s Saturday. I get paid. I’ll buy you more. Say you’re not feeling right. You fell on the way home, hit a rock. You don’t feel right. Stay in bed. You hear me, boy? You stay in bed tomorrow.
He nods a knot of fear, because in Steven’s eyes, there Dad is, and no one, no one ever, should look like that. At least Steven doesn’t ask what happened and the boy is rescued from the shame of saying, the disgrace of knowing, the making real by saying, that it’s all his fault, his fault, his very own.
The fates must have had some good pile cream because Dad stayed away-drunk all weekend and Mom, well, Mom didn’t really count since Dad always said she wouldn’t know an alligator if it bit her and made her into a purse instead, and Steven bought two pair of jeans, two whole pair, just like the ones that bore his guilt and shame like patches ironed on, curling up at the corners.
Sunday night when all the stars were born into the sky, the boy sneaked out of bed to stand by Steven’s bed, because he could prove he had to piss, though that wasn’t the reason, not at all.
I can’t go to school, the boy told Steven. I can’t let them look at me no more.
You go to school, boy. You just go to school. You can’t get stupid on me. I’ll beat you worse than Dad if you do. Do you hear me, boy?
Yes, I hear. I’ll go to school. But I don’t know if I’ll live all the way home.
You just go to school. Do what you’re told.
Monday was a just-there day for the fates, and the boy walked home, shaking and trying to swallow his heart back into his chest again and swiping the back of his hand almost across his eyes to keep from crying because if he knew one thing it was that crying would make the fates get a toothache bad.
The culvert tapped its fingers, waiting for his dragging feet, his faltering feet, his stopping feet. The boy took a step back, and another, hearing the Owners in the Void, moving toward him. He raised his head to peer at the highway and swallowed hard when three semis side-by-side swooshed past spitting diesel and bravado along the road. More followed behind. He couldn’t. It wasn’t safe.
He looked back into the Void. It wasn’t safe either.
The highway. At least he’d die quick, a pancake on the road, and it would all be over.
The boy clambered up the embankment, using hands and knees, quick, quick because the Owners were shouting at him and he could hear the thump of running. He stood on the shoulder, watching, watching, nearly shitting his pants when a trucker blew his air horn at him. He could almost feel the Owners breathing on him.
There! His chance, to make the median anyway, and he bolted, just as fingers grazed his back. He couldn’t see, for all the black and red panic floating in front of his eyes, but when his feet felt grass and another semi blew its horn, he fell forward, into the arms of growing things, safe, maybe, in the lie that said this was a scenic road.
When he could turn and look, the Owners were there, watching for their own turn, and the boy took a chance to cross the other side and there was the right-of-way and the trees beyond and the path toward home and he was safe, because Steven would be there.
He turned again, thinking maybe he’d wave before he ran down the embankment to his brother. The Owners were still there, all three of them, in a line, knee-bent like sprinters, waiting their chance, too. But there were four, not three, and one was just coming up behind and he was tall and he was Steven and he dropped to the ground and rolled into the Owners’ calves and the semi screamed or maybe it was the Owners and then he closed his eyes and vomited until his toes felt like coming up, too, and the police were there and the ambulances and someone with a strong arm squatted down and told him Steven was all right, and the boy knew by the way the man turned him to face toward almost-haven home that the Owners weren’t OK.
Finally finally they brought Steven to him, and his face was dotted with blood but it wasn’t his own and Steven wrapped his arms around the boy and let him cry without saying a word about it not being manly.
The police took them home and Mom was crying, too, and she kissed them both more times than all their lives before, and the police said, There, there, the boys are all right and it was a terrible accident, but it was nobody’s fault, the older boy tripped and fell, and there, there, don’t cry, give the young one some warm milk and the older one some whisky and let them go to bed, don’t cry.
So she did.
Dad, that was different, but the boy knew it would be. Dad took his belt and beat the living shit out of both of them, the boy for trying to cross the highway — though the boy wanted to shout that he didn’t just try, he did it, he really did it — and Steven for not stopping him.
That night, after the stars were born into the sky until morning, the boy looked over at Steven in his bed. Steven nodded, and the boy laid back and smiled.