It was there, just in the back of my throat, just like earlier, the no no no no clogging it, clogging my throat, making it near impossible to breathe past the no and the please and don’t and I’ll do anything…
But Jackie wouldn’t listen, his face twisted up, and his big heart, a heart so damn big it broke mine, broke me. Finally, it was what broke me into pieces, and I cried when he peeled away the suit of armor and left me exposed.
There was pity, maybe, then anger, and the question, “What happened, Zach, what the hell happened?”
“Hell, it’s not okay. Who did this to you?” Jackie chewed his lip, eyes scrunched, thinking hard. “Was it yore Pa?”
Was it? I couldn’t remember, not exactly. It’d gotten muddled, me on the floor in Eddy’s bedroom, him and his brand new trainers connecting hard so’s I doubled over, curling up tight as I could, but it didn’t matter. He was bigger, tougher, stronger. Always had been. And this time, for once, he had good reason.
I’d been caught out. And that was on me. I couldn’t stay away, wanting one more look, one more chance to get it right in my head, how it’d go for me and Jackie. The touching part, that I recalled even now, how it felt, how it would feel and I’d given in to it. And he’d come up behind me, so quiet I never heard. Him watching me watching … shouting Filthy little queer… is that what you like, huh, huh?
Jackie shoved at my chin, but I tucked it, not wanting for him to see how it’d gone down. Eddy’s hands on my throat, dragging me outta the chair onto the floor, pinning me there and touching, touching me in that special way and I tried, oh God I tried so hard, I was so hard and it felt so good and he took me there, there to that special place…
Laughing at the strap and the whack, the first one was like no was really yes, bad in a good way, but then it was more, more than bad, until it was too much, and I cried words that wouldn’t come out, gagging words, sucking air out of my lungs, sticking it and the words in tight and the sick in my belly took over and they both laughed, both of them taking turns with the strap and laughing.
Jackie rolled me, rolled me on my side, gentle like, his fingers working the tee-shirt loose from my skin, sticky icky skin, and he sucked air like I’d sucked in their hate.
He asked, “Can you walk?” then huffed something under his breath. “Stupid question. You got this far. Can you make it to my house?”
“You need cleaned up, Zach. Your back fucking looks like Jack the Ripper worked it over.”
He had no idea. Struggling to stand, I had to let him help me up. “I’ll wash off in the pond.”
“Hell you will, man. You need antiseptic shit.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “And a new tee-shirt.”
That wasn’t all the new I needed, but he was right, I needed something other than the green crap floating in the pond getting in the cuts and doing more harm than what had already been done. Jackie was near as big as me now, holding me by the shoulder, half-carrying, half-dragging me down the lane toward his house.
I objected, “Ain’t your folks home?” The last thing I needed was them calling my Pa and letting on I’d flown the coup.
“They went to that viewing. Old man Barker. Won’t be back ’til late.”
Muttering, “Okay,” I halted at the porch steps, flirting with passing out, my head gone squichy and odd-feeling. The prospect of dirtying the Missus’ clean bathroom with my filth got me swaying and wanting to run—anywhere, didn’t much matter which direction. Away, just far, far away.
Jackie caught on quick and offered a solution. “We can do this in the wash stall.” He turned me around, pointing me toward the barn. “Water’s cold, though.”
“Don’t matter. It’ll feel good.” I tried for a smile. He wasn’t buying it.
With a scowl Jackie said, “You know where to go,” and nudged me toward the dilapidated building, then turned toward the house.
“Where you going?”
“Inside. Need the first aid kit.”
Then he was gone, the screen door slamming and boots clunking on wood floor until I couldn’t hear much beyond the ringing in my ears and the squawk of the chickens when I knocked the pen by accident.
Inside it was almost too dark to see. I couldn’t recall where the light switch was, so I felt my way down the concrete aisle until I found the opening to the narrow wash stall. When the lights flickered on, it took me a minute to adjust. By the time my head wrapped around my situation, Jackie had joined me, setting the fishing tackle box on top of an overturned five gallon water bucket.
Unwrapping the hose, he laid it out in a line to where I leaned against the rough wood slats wishing I was anywhere but here.
“You need help?” He pointed at my tee-shirt.
Sniffing, I finally realized just how much a mess I was. Vomit and motor oil and dirt from the shed floor had turned the cotton into a disgusting mess. It looked on the outside how I was inside: twisted and ugly and disgusting. Depraved.
I whispered, “I’ve got it.” But that was easier said than done. All I could think was there was no way Jackie was touching that filth. Not now, not ever.
I slipped it off. It cost me. Cost me in skin. Cost me in choking back how much it hurt, hiding from Jackie how it felt to wear shame for everyone to see.
He pointed the nozzle at my groin. “Jeans too. They ain’t much better.”
My belt was long gone, lost on the floor of Eddy’s bedroom, along with everything I thought I knew about me and how to feel when you was touched in that special way. They’d left the top button open, the zipper part down … or maybe that was me not able to put shit to rights once they had their fun, laughing and strapping and quoting on words what made no sense.
Leaving me alone, locked in to think on my sins.
Jackie tossed the hose, came close, dropped to his knees and yanked the denim, yanked it down to my ankles. He lifted a foot, then another. I was barefoot.
How did that happen … me being barefoot?
When he pulled on my briefs, it was like a gun going off in my head, a firecracker lighting me up, loosening the words stuck deep in my throat.
“Please don’t. Please. Please don’t.”
Jackie gurgled, “Zach?” and touched, touched it, touched that thing that wasn’t his or mine anymore. “Wh-what’s wr-wrong? What did he do?”
He kept touching and tugging until I sunk to the ground, onto the rough concrete, skinning my knees, the ache shooting off, like it was a river of pain I’d do anything to forget.
“Clean me, Jackie. Please. Just get me clean.”
I spun around, ignoring the rip to skin and the crunch of sharp, gravely bits chewing off my knuckles, the tears spilling hot, rivers of heat and hate, and finally understanding how they saw me, how they all saw me—ugly and damaged and filthy. I’d have been okay with their pity and their thinking on me as weak and different and needful of special consideration, but they’d changed that around, making me invisible until I wasn’t.
And then they feared me. Now I knew why.
The water hit, cold enough to burn, numbing me from the outside in. It was a good thing. The sting was like all hell unleashed on my back and ass. I shouted, “Fucking hell, Jackie!”
“Be quiet, you pussy. It’s just Betadine. It’ll only sting for a bit.” He mumbled to himself, patting at the long lines sliced across my flesh. “Mostly just some pretty awesome welts.” Dab, dab. “One or two cuts. Bleeding stopped.” A swipe of ointment, cool and smooth. “Most of the damage is to your back.”
He kissed my cheek, a sweet make-it-better peck. I moaned into my hands, my face flaming as wildfire exploded in my groin. Then he rolled me onto a blanket and pulled me in tight, rocking me back and forth.
His voice echoed from miles away, like it was some stranger talking down a canyon. It was adult, that voice, sounding all grown up, like a teacher or the reverend. “Let it dry for a few. Then we’ll go find you something to wear. I ain’t got nothing big enough, but Ma’s got a donation pile of Pa’s stuff. Something will suit you.”
I asked, “Why you doing this, Jackie?”
The question didn’t make no sense, but the words came out anyway. He was my friend. That should have been answer enough, but … but. He was way more than a friend. He was different from anybody else—in a way I wanted more off, more special, more touching special, him and me together in ways no one else had a right to know about.
Except now they did, Eddy and Pa, and they ruined it, made it ugly and hateful.
It’s a sin, boy. You’re a goddamn sinner. A pervert. Going to hell for that. You understand?
Jackie was quiet for so long, I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep, but then he spoke into my ear, his voice so soft I barely made it out. “If I tell you why, will you tell me what happened?”
No I can’t, I won’t! You’ll hate me, hate me like they do. Calling me a whore and a slut and a pervert. And they’re right. I am. I’m all of that because of what I did.
He refused to let me turn away or get up, and I nearly died at his strength, at his determination, my heart filling with pride at my Jackie taking charge. Taking care of me. It hit me hard, harder ’n I expected it ever could, the tables turning on us, on me.
I mumbled, “I can’t,” and prayed he’d let it go. He didn’t.
“They catch you jacking off? Is that what this is about?”
It was close enough to true. It’s what Eddy had done, finding me in his room, staring at his screen, trying hard to figure it all out. Them boys weren’t much older ’n me and Jackie, both looking like the two of us had all those nights by the pond or under the tree, but doing more, more than I ever imagined.
My skin went cold with remembrance, cold and hot, hot and cold, hot and hard, harder, and Jackie felt it and pulled me in closer. Rubbing me like we done so many times.
Squealing like a little girl, I cried, “Jackie. Please. Don’t.”
Taking his hand away, Jackie petted my head, crooning nonsense I could barely make out. Then he growled, “It was Eddy, wasn’t it? What did he do to you, Zach? Tell me or by God I’ll find him and beat the living shit out of him until he says…”
He sat me up, holding onto my shoulders, shaking me like a rag doll. Shaking the words around until they spilled, spewing outta my mouth like a dam just burst.
“It was my fault. I shouldn’t a’been in there watching on his computer. And I come and he saw me come, and he told Pa and then they hauled me to the shed and whooped the fucking tar outta me.”
Jackie knelt on the hard concrete, hands on my shoulders, face scrunched. Wanting to believe me, but wavering on the edge, so I shrugged and finished with, “That’s all,” and hoped it really was.
But God help me, that wasn’t all, even though it was mostly true. Mostly. All but the part where my brother, my fucking perfect brother, touched me and did things to me that I hated and loved and didn’t want him to stop.
Even when I wanted him to stop so bad it hurt, hurt so good, and when I came it was like nothing I ever felt before. Not even with Jackie. And that dream I’d had with Jackie and me being like one, he’d ruined it. It should have been so good, not filthy dirty ugly.
Eddy proved they were right. I’m a sinner. A pervert for loving what he done. Hating him for what he done to me. Hating myself.
They were right. All of them.
Jackie had a strange look, his eyes gone shady dark, the color muddied up like he got when he was cross or worried. He stood and pulled me up.
“Let’s get you something to wear.”
I followed him into the house, up the stairs and into his bedroom. He left to find clothes. When he returned, he set them on the bed, keeping his back to me, looking unsure about something. But when he spoke his voice was strong.
“Ma caught me doing it. She told me if I didn’t stop I’d go blind.”
“Did you? Stop, I mean?”
“Course not. But I asked Grams if it was true. The part about going blind.”
My jaw dropped. No way would I ever screw up the courage to ask anybody that, let alone his Grams. Fearful of the answer, it still didn’t keep me from asking, “So, what’d she say?”
He chuckled and turned around to face me. It surprised me how tall he was getting, like he was sprouting right in front of my eyes.
“Grams didn’t answer right away, but when she did, she asked me how many blind men I ever met.” I guess I looked confused, ’cause Jackie grinned that way he had, the one that lit my heart. “When I told her I didn’t know nobody who was blind, she said, ‘There you go,’ and left me to ponder it a bit.”
He held out a shirt, helping me slide the sleeves on and making sure the material didn’t catch on any of the welts. I managed the trousers on my own, an old pair of that slick, shiny material you saw the seniors at the home wearing.
Curious about what Jackie had said earlier, I reminded him, “You said you were going to tell me why…” but then I thought on what he’d just said, and muttered, “…nevermind.”
He got an odd expression on his face and asked, “You mean about why I was helping you?” I nodded yes. He hesitated long enough I thought he wasn’t going to answer but then he said, “I ain’t telling you why I done anything until you tell me the truth, Zachary.”
Swallowing hard, I understood something new and strange—that deep down inside Jackie knew me better than I knew myself, that he’d seen or felt or guessed the lie. I wanted to tell him, to explain, but how was that even possible? How did I confess my sin, the sin I allowed to happen. The sin of my brother finger-fucking and sucking me into a place I’d never known existed? To where I’d betrayed the only person I’d ever love.
And then they’d punished me, him and Pa, and it was good, it was deserved, and I’d got off easy…
…except then Jackie said, “Don’t meet me at the pond no more. At least not until you’re ready to tell me what really happened, Zach,” and it wasn’t easy no more.
Now it was hard and dark, and sin settled heavy, the fit so damn perfect I wondered at why it’d taken so long for me to get it.
As I left, the words fuck you, Zach, fuck you echoed down the stairwell.
At the front door, I mouthed the words I’d said earlier, “You’re too fucking late.”