A/N: This will be a long one as I just can’t help myself, haha. So get a snack and sit comfortably. Also, I want to thank you guys for all the support I’ve had so far. I’m kind of overwhelmed. <3 <3
And thanks to Mau for naming Sedrick. (You’ll see.)
The first few months in Riverview passed in a lonely, violent blur.
I could barely sleep at night and crawled through the days in a broken, sluggish haze. The teenagers who had woken me that first night took it upon themselves to torment me. I would wake, heart pounding, pulse racing, to banging on the door. Tapping at the windows. They would scream and shout and whoop. Jeering at me. Taunting me. They would start fires and I would quiver in my bed as the flames sent flickering orange light spilling beneath the blinds. Even under the blankets, my eyes stung from the stench of burnt rubber.
Some nights, I even heard them talking about bigger fires. About setting the house alight and watching it blaze furiously against the dark night sky.
I started to have nightmares of burning alive.
I couldn’t go to the police. I knew that.
In town, I had seen a newspaper article about James Frank’s death that had made my blood run cold. Apparently he had been some bigshot film star (though I’d never heard of him) and some intrepid paparazzi had discovered his body before the police. The media in Bridgeport had kicked up a shitstorm, propagating rumours of murder and covering tear-filled tributes and candlelit vigils. No one had anything to say about him but glowing praise.
Over night, James Frank became the nation’s hero.
And I was his killer.
Even worse, the furore had spread to Riverview. I guess the news of a big city, celebrity murder was much more exciting than reports of a stranded cow or two. Once or twice, I overheard some of the community expressing the opinion that I – well, James’s murderer – should be hanged.
On top of that, I knew that some people in the apartment block had known I lived with James, even if they hadn’t known my name or anything about who I was. My description had probably been circulated around every police station in the country.
No, I couldn’t go to the police.
When I wasn’t gardening or fretfully reading the newspaper, I began to clean up the house. I mopped and scrubbed and dusted, but the floor, the walls and the furniture never seemed to get any cleaner. I ended up making numerous trips to the dump as I discovered more and more rubbish.
The empty bottles that littered the ground outside were replenished every night, but I dutifully recycled them each morning.
It seemed like an impossible task.
Slowly but surely, however, the house started to become more liveable.
But then, the house began to fight back.
As I choked and spluttered in the torrent of rusty tap water, I knew the house was sentient. And it was trying to kill me.
This meant war.
After realising that the house was out to get me, one of the first things I did was to sell the oven. No longer would it tempt me with its promise of steaming waffles or piping hot spaghetti bolognese. With the money I received from its sale and the sale of the frankly disgusting fridge, I was able to afford a new, cheap refridgerator. It stood proudly white in my dingy kitchen and, oddly, looking at it made my day just that little bit brighter.
I was still suffering from horrible nightmares, but the lack of that fiery kitchen death trap helped me to sleep a little easier.
After the sink had exploded on me, I checked it religiously every morning. I didn’t want it to get any ideas about soaking me again.
I was onto it now.
Using all of my (practically non-existent) DIY skills, I managed to reattach the toilet seat to the toilet after some difficulty. It was nice not to have to hover dangerously over the gaping bowl every time my stomach protested my salad-heavy diet.
I felt a strange attachment to the poor decapitated gnome after the pissing incident, so I brought him inside one morning and scrubbed him up. Using liberal amounts of superglue, I managed to stick his head back on his body. Though he still needed a paint job and was missing his base, he looked a hell of a lot happier than he had done when I moved in.
Not wanting to put him through any more urine-related trauma, I set him up on the dresser in the bedroom where he would be safe.
I named him Sedrick, after a character in a novel Kami had started but never finished.
God, I missed her.
It took almost two long months, but I finally managed to finish cleaning up the house. Granted, it still needed a major decorating job, but there was no more random junk in the front or back gardens and I was no longer afraid of getting tetanus just from stepping outside.
To spruce the place up a bit before I had the money to properly paint the walls, I bought some plants to put in the rusty buckets that had been abandoned out back. I didn’t know how long they would last – the teenagers still visited regularly, though it was becoming less frequent – but they made the house a lot more like a home.
Some mornings, it was hard to force myself out of bed.
Those were the mornings after particularly bad nightmares, when I’d woken up covered in cold sweat with the taste of ash on my tongue. When I could almost feel the flames caressing my skin.
The nights when I had to sing myself back to sleep.
The only thing that really kept me going was my small garden.
The seeds I had planted were really beginning to sprout and I felt as though I had accomplished something. For a hobby I had only really started to bag myself a free lot, gardening was quickly becoming my life.
I discovered that I had quite a way with plants – at least, none of them had died yet. Sometimes I talked to them in an attempt to make them grow, kneeling in the dirt and touching their fragile leaves. I knew that, somehow, they could hear me.
One day, something happened that snapped me out of the depressed, monotonous rut I was trapped in.
I met her.
I had gone into town to visit the library and to pick up some books on making my own fertiliser (Gardening for Dummies had informed me that fertilising plants was essential to their growth, and who was I to question the book?). On a whim, with the books under my arm, I decided to head to the gazebo and sit in the sunlight for a while to read. The press coverage of James’s death was beginning to die down and I was starting to feel safe again. At least in the daylight.
To my surprise, the usually deserted gazebo had an occupant.
Apart from Kami, I hadn’t really had all that much experience with women, but I knew enough to appreciate that this woman was nice to look at. She was perhaps not beautiful in the way that would have her snapped up for a modelling contract, but she was comfortably pretty. Stepping into her presence was like stepping into a room with a cosy fire.
And it made me just as uncomfortable.
To my consternation, when I stepped up into the gazebo in an attempt to overcome my sudden shyness, the woman got to her feet and approached me.
“Um, do you have any idea where the police station is?” she asked, and panic reared in my heart like a wild horse.
Had she recognised me? Was she going to turn me in?
Oh, God, I thought. I’m going to end up in prison, becoming the bitch of some large man with ‘Mum’ tattooed on his arm.
Her next words, though, calmed me somewhat.
“I’m new in town, and my handbag’s gone missing. It had my passport and my phone in it and everything.”
For a moment, all I could do was stare at her. The sunlight danced in her hair, turning it to golden waves that cascaded down over her shoulders. It struck me that she was a lot softer than Kami, from the gentle curves of her body to the look in her eyes. I doubted she had ever kneed a guy in the balls for laughing at her.
I must have been silent for too long, as she said quietly, “Hello? Is everything okay?”
I flushed, the blood rushing to my cheeks.
“Uh… yeah,” I said, and could have kicked myself – how stupid did I sound? “I’m sorry,” I added after a pause. “I’m quite new here myself, and I’m not exactly sure where the police station is, but…” I gestured vaguely. “If you head in a that way direction you should find someone who can help you.”
She smiled then and thanked me, though I had been nothing but unhelpful.
“I’ll find it,” she assured me when I tried to apologise again. “Don’t worry about it.”
She turned to leave and, suddenly, I felt rather lost.
“Wait!” I blurted without thinking, then blushed when she turned back to face me, obviously bemused. “I’m Gabriel,” I told her, my voice faltering. “Gabriel Nesaren. I just… wanted to say I come here a lot if you ever need a friend.”
I could have kicked myself again. Stupid, Gabe. Stupid.
The woman smiled, her eyes amused.
“I’m Susannah,” she said. “Susannah Moss. And maybe I’ll take you up on that.”
Susannah was true to her word and we started to meet up most days. She had a new job at the Riverview theatre and I often came to see her on her lunch breaks. I was usually covered in dirt, sometimes even with smudges on my face, but she never seemed to mind.
I could laugh and joke with her and, for the first time since arriving in Riverview, I felt like I could relax.
Sometimes, when talking to her, I wondered whether my feelings for her were more than just friendly. I looked at her on occasion and felt a flutter in my chest. The very same flutter I had felt with Kami a lifetime ago.
Susannah – or Susie, as she liked to be called – never gave me any indication that she felt the same way, so I refused to give the matter any further thought. I didn’t want a steady relationship, anyway.
I didn’t want to end up like my father.
But Susie had such amazing eyes and a smile that made my day shine.
I’d been friends with Susie for perhaps two months when everything went wrong.
“So,” she said, as she placed her empty pasta carton on the ground. “Did you hear the police got a new lead on the whole James Frank thing?”
What had been a pleasant sunny day suddenly got inexplicably cold. I could barely hold back an involuntary shiver.
Would she notice that my voice was strangled, that my palms had begun to sweat? Could she hear my heart clattering against my ribcage?
“Oh, everyone at work was really shocked about it. Apparently he was living with a male prostitute. Someone in the apartment block came forward about it or something. Anyway, the police think the prostitute killed him and stole all of his money.”
Whilst the story wasn’t strictly true, it still struck horribly close to the bone.
“Maybe he deserved it,” I burst out, unable to keep a touch of venom from tainting my voice. “Maybe he wasn’t the nice guy the tabloids portray him as.”
Unfortunately, Susie completely misunderstood the poison in my tone.
“How can you say that?” she asked, dismayed. “Just because he’s gay doesn’t mean he deserves to die!”
I put my face in my hand, feeling shaky and sick.
“That’s not – that’s not what I meant.” When Susie didn’t say anything, I decided to dig myself into another lie. “I was… I was a male prostitute in the big city. I never met James Frank in person, but I heard stories about him from some of the others. They said – he wasn’t -” I let out a soft sigh. “He wasn’t very gentle. Not someone you wanted to get involved with.”
Okay, it wasn’t strictly a lie. Some of it was true. I’d never had sex with James – a small miracle coming from much protestation on my part – but I was practically his live-in prostitute. I had exchanged sexual favours for somewhere to live, hadn’t I?
The only lie I told was that I hadn’t met James Frank in person, as I didn’t want her to connect me to his untimely death. But from Susie’s silence, I wondered if she knew I wasn’t telling the truth. If she knew I was making up friends to hide my own past.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her move as if to wrap her arms around me, but she froze at the last moment.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to see the play of emotions on her face as she tried to digest what I’d told her.
After all, what self-respecting woman wants to be friends with a down-on-his-luck, ex-male prostitute? Especially if she thought he was lying about his involvement with a murdered man.
Susie was silent for a long moment; it felt like forever.
“I’m sorry, Gabe,” she said eventually. “I have to get back to work.”
I nodded mutely, trying to ignore the tears that were stinging my eyes.
There was another silence, before Susie added awkwardly, “I’ll see you around, I guess.”
I watched her go, feeling dazed and numb, hoping she would look back and reassure me everything was all right. When she didn’t, my stomach clenched and I had to fight back the urge to vomit.
What did I just do?
The next few days, I went to the gazebo for Susie’s lunch break like normal, but she didn’t turn up. It hurt deeply, but I couldn’t bring myself to blame her. This was all my fault. I should have just feigned interest in her story and then changed the subject.
I just had to go and ruin everything.
I closed my eyes and let the hot water pound down on my face, my skin. Red marks blossomed at the water’s bite, but I didn’t care. It was nice to feel pain somewhere other than my heart.
As the days passed, I couldn’t get Susannah out of my head.
I wondered what could have happened if I’d got up the courage to kiss her, to be bold where I had never dared to be bold with Kami. Would we have become a couple? What would she have thought of the dump I called my home?
I didn’t know why it bothered me so much. I had no plans to have a relationship with any woman (or man, for that matter), let alone marry her. I figured, as the pain dulled but the ache remained, that the loneliness was finally getting to me.
After that incident, I threw myself back wholeheartedly into my garden.
What time I had usually spent with Susie on her lunch breaks, I now spent fishing in the small park where I had spent my first night in Riverview. I’d found the old fishing rod beneath the floorboards when the bath had been ripped out and, surprisingly, it was functional. The books on fertilising I had picked up proclaimed that the best fertiliser was fish, but so far I had not managed to land a single bite.
Perhaps I would pick up Fishing for Dummies or something similar when I next went to the library.
And then, just like when I’d met Susie, everything changed.
I’d come back from a fishing trip and grabbed a bowl of cereal. This was normal – I practically survived on cereal and salad nowadays, as I still had not caved to the urge to buy a stove. The house couldn’t trick me like that.
No, what was abnormal was the breathing.
Yes, you heard me right. Breathing.
Something – or someone – was in my house. In my bedroom.
Drawing my knife from its sheath in my sock, I gathered my courage and went through to the bedroom. My knuckles were white where I gripped the handle.
I froze as my eyes fell upon the source of the breathing.
There was a boy on my bed. And he was asleep.
Involuntarily, my fingers tightened their grip even more on the knife handle. Who was he? What did he want? What was he doing in my house? How did he get in?
I must have made some noise of distress, as the boy suddenly rolled over, his eyes flickering open. When he laid eyes on me, the knife clenched in one hand, fear sparked to life on his face. He couldn’t have been any older than fourteen or fifteen, and his face was a bloody, bruised mess.
“I – er -” he stuttered, gaze not leaving the blade.
He slowly got to his feet, hands held up, and I panicked.
“What the hell are you doing in my house?” I demanded, brandishing the knife at him to keep him away. “Who are you working for? What do you want?!”
I was startled – though perhaps I shouldn’t have been – when the kid slumped to his knees and started to cry.
“P-please don’t k-kill me. I just – I just wanted somewhere to sleep. I’ll – I’ll go, I swear.”
“Relax,” I mumbled, feeling rather ashamed of myself. “I’m not going to kill you. I was just – I was just startled, that’s all.”
The boy got slowly to his feet, wiping his eyes on the back of his hand. I couldn’t help but notice he kept glancing around worriedly, as though he expected someone else to burst in on us at any moment.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him gently, trying to make up for my earlier outburst – though I was still uncomfortable about the idea of having a stranger in my home.
“I’m worried he’ll find me. Does the lock work good? I’m just – I don’t want to get beaten again.”
The words tumbled out in a tearful mess and I felt my stomach twist with guilt for shouting at him.
“I just – don’t let him find me, I couldn’t -”
“Hey,” I cut him off, my voice as placid as I could make it. “Who’ll find you? Your dad? Stepdad?”
The boy shook his head, wiping his eyes on his hand again. His voice was barely audible when he next spoke.
“Your – what?”
“My pimp,” he said again, and looked up at me. His eyes dared me to say something. “I just… I can’t do it any more. I can’t -”
I couldn’t help it. My conversation with Susie came back with startling clarity and I suddenly felt shame course through me. I had no idea what being a male prostitute was really like. Looking at this kid in front of me, I knew my time with James had been practically a walk in the park.
And I’d killed him for it.
“Why the hell would you do something like that?” The words fell out before I could stop them. “You’re only a kid, for God’s sake!”
The boy took a step back as though I’d just slapped him around the face.
“I – I had no choice.”
He looked so worn down and defeated that my shyness was almost defeated by the urge to hug him. Almost.
“I’m sorry,” I said after a moment. “I just… I’ve been through something similar.” That much was true, at least. “And you’re just… you’re just so young.”
He closed his eyes, a tear rolling down his dirty cheek.
“I just don’t want to be like that any more,” he whispered.
I didn’t speak, wondering what to do. I couldn’t just kick him out on the streets, not now I knew what he was running from. And I couldn’t go to the police to try to find him protection for obvious reasons.
Something told me that he wouldn’t dare go to the police station himself either.
“Okay,” I said after a time. “You can stay here until you get back on your feet.”
The boy looked up at me, startled.
I nodded, and then bit my lip.
“I’m sorry for shouting,” I told him. “My name’s Gabriel. Gabe.”
He managed a small smile after a moment.
“I’m James. But you can call me Jamie.”
There was a moment when all of my blood seemed to turn to ice in my veins. I closed my eyes, trying to convince myself that I was no longer in his apartment. That I couldn’t feel his hands on me, pulling off my clothes. Why couldn’t he leave me alone? Wouldn’t I ever be free of him?
I opened my eyes and swallowed hard. Jamie was staring at me anxiously.
“I’m all right,” I forced myself to say. “It’s nice to meet you, Jamie.”
Leaving Jamie to settle in, I headed into town and picked him up a second-hand sleeping bag. It would have to do until I could afford something more. By the time I returned, he had located one of the spare shirts I had managed to acquire and was sitting on my bed, practically passed out from exhaustion.
When I gave him the sleeping bag, his face broke into a smile.
“Thank you so much,” he said, hugging it to his chest. He looked me up and down. “If there’s… anything I can do for you to, um, repay you -”
“No.” I cut him off, my voice firm. “That’s behind you now. You don’t ever have to do anything like that again, unless you want to and it’s with someone you love.”
His eyes were relieved as he looked back at my face.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
When I checked on him about half an hour later, he was already fast asleep. I rested my arm on the doorframe, my heart aching for him. The poor thing looked as though he hadn’t got a proper sleep in weeks.
I took a shower to calm myself down.
Thoughts of James Frank swirled around in my head as I scrubbed furiously at my face. I had been an idiot to think that I would ever be allowed to forget him, to forget what he had done. To forget what I had done.
Perhaps this boy who shared his name was sent to me to be my penance.
Perhaps, if I helped him, karma would allow me another chance with Susie.
Jamie was a quiet boy, but he always tried to make himself useful around the house. He insisted on making dinner, for example. I guess he was worried that I’d change my mind and kick him out, no matter how many times I tried to persuade him to the contrary.
I had to admit, it was amazing to have company for dinner each evening after the months of painful loneliness. Jamie was a good listener and an equally good talker. We talked about everything and anything – except the fragile subject of our pasts. I knew he would tell me whatever had happened when he was ready; I suspect he thought the same about me.
Luckily, I had managed to fix one of the broken dining chairs, otherwise things could have got a little awkward.
It took about a week for Jamie to become comfortable enough in my presence to join me in the garden. The first time, when I noticed him hovering awkwardly by the broken picket fence, I just smiled and handed him the watering can. He took it nervously, then smiled slightly back and started to water my thirsty plants.
From then on, it became a regular thing.
I managed to get Jamie enrolled in the local community school, though he had tried to insist that he didn’t need to go. I had never graduated high school, so I was determined to try and ensure Jamie got the best education he could get. I felt responsible for him.
It may have been a bit presumptuous of me, but I knew Jamie secretly appreciated my stubborness in the matter of his schooling. Every afternoon I would watch him struggling with his homework, refusing to give up or ask to help. If he hadn’t wanted to be in school, learning, he would never have done that. He would have blown it off and tried to finish it in class, or not bothered at all.
That wasn’t my only indication that Jamie loved school and was thankful to be there. When he recieved a ‘C’ on his first homework assignment, he had leapt off the bus and run round back into the garden, almost knocking me flying as he threw his arms around me in a hug. I had never seen him so happy as in that moment.
Things weren’t always that way, however.
Sometimes, when he thought I wasn’t listening, I would hear Jamie sobbing. I never brought it up, though. I didn’t want to embarrass him or to push him before he was ready.
He knew that I was here for him when he was ready to talk. At least, I hope he did.
Jamie had been with me just over a month when I started to look into making things legal.
He had nightmares almost every night about his former pimp coming to take him away (the night time visits from the rowdy teenagers didn’t help that one bit) and I thought that perhaps legally adopting him would make things easier. Under my new identity, of course.
At least, that way, if the pimp ever came for him, I would have a legal leg to stand on.
Trouble is, I wasn’t sure how exactly to go about it when I didn’t have any ‘official’ documentation, either for me or for him.
Jamie knew nothing of my dilemma. I didn’t want to get his hopes up if what I was planning turned out to be impossible. He had mentioned his lack of a father nonchalantly a few times, and I knew he looked up to me, even though I was barely five years older than him.
I just hoped that I could be the protector he thought I was.
What I really needed was someone else to talk to about everything. I regretted isolating Susie from me now more than ever.
It shames me to think that, before Jamie came suddenly into my life, I had forgotten what it was like to have fun.
Though I also had forgotten that fun sometimes hurt. Jamie had a surprisingly strong arm.
Ah, sweet revenge.
One evening, Jamie stormed out.
I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened, except that I had asked him at dinner if he had made any friends at school. I was trying to make conversation, as I had some rather big news for him and I didn’t want to blurt it out over our salad. To my shock, Jamie had reacted badly to my innocent question.
“What do you think?!” he had shouted at me, before pushing his chair back and stalking out.
I took my time washing the plates, mulling things over. I wanted to give him a chance to cool down, otherwise any conversation I tried to have with him would end up going nowhere.
I found him outside by the garden pond, looking thoughtful and sad.
It was only then that I realised his face had never really healed. In fact, I could swear that there were some fresh bruises blossoming on his pale skin. Suddenly, his reaction at dinner clicked into place in my brain.
On top of everything else, Jamie was being bullied at school.
Looking at him, however, I figured that – like everything else – bringing it up before he wanted to would have a detrimental effect on our relationship. Instead, I turned my back on him and looked up at the stars.
“It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?”
At his shaking voice, I turned back to face him, deciding to at least attempt to help him out.
“You know you can talk to me whenever you want, don’t you, Jamie?”
He gave me a rather sheepish smile; in his eyes, I could see that he knew I had figured it out.
“Yeah,” he said softly. “I know. But I’ve got it.”
He touched his fingers gingerly to a new bruise.
“Yeah. A teacher caught the guy. Managed to get him expelled.” He paused. “He’s a pretty cool teacher.”
“What about the other pupils?”
“When the guy’d got dragged off to the headmaster’s office, they all decided it was okay to be my friend.”
I frowned my disapproval, but said nothing. As long as Jamie was happy, I wouldn’t interfere further.
“Sit down with me,” I said instead, flopping down on the dewy grass with a sigh.
Jamie hesitated for a moment.
“Are there spiders?”
I gave him a little smile.
“I can’t promise there aren’t.”
After a moment of wrestling with himself, Jamie lowered himself onto the ground rather cautiously.
“Wow,” he said, looking up at the sky with a slight smile. “You’re right. The stars are all out tonight.”
I didn’t reply, trying to think about how best to frame my news. It was nice just to see him calm after the brief anger he had displayed earlier that evening.
I turned to face him, nervously playing with my fingers. I hoped that he would take the news well.
Crap, I thought. What happens if he doesn’t? Maybe I should have made a contingency plan or maybe I shouldn’t say it and let him find out for himself or –
I cut my brain off before I could talk myself out of it and swallowed hard.
“Jamie, I have something important to tell you.”
“Hm?” he said, not taking his eyes off the stars.
I decided to go for the blunt approach, as much for me as for him.
“I have the papers to adopt you. All I need is for you to agree so I can sign them.”
The look on his face was worth all the trouble I had gone through to get to that point.
“Really? But… how?”
I smiled slightly.
“Let’s just say I have connections.”
In truth, I had gone to see Elena Holmes, my ‘boss’ at Doo Peas, and begged her to help me out. It turned out that she had connections in the legal profession that had helped me to circumnavigate the usual channels.
The only catch was that one of my future children (if I had any), would have to go and work at Doo Peas. It was a bit like signing over my first born child to the devil, but I was confident of two things.
A) I would never have any children of my own.
And B) They couldn’t actually hold me to that deal.
“Does that mean you would be, like, my dad?” Jamie asked after a heartbeat in a soft voice.
I pointed out a particularly bright star, gathering my thoughts.
“Something like that,” I said eventually. “But mainly it would mean that no one could take you away from me without me being able to put up one hell of a legal fight.”
Jamie’s voice grew softer.
“Like my pimp?”
After a moment of taking that in, Jamie said, “Is there a catch?”
Not that you need to know about.
“If living with me is a catch,” I replied, throwing him a grin. “And helping out with the garden.”
Jamie just laughed.
We passed a happy hour out under the stars, pointing out interesting constellations and various other things. Conversation turned back to less serious matters, namely a field trip that Jamie was going on to the local science centre and what vegetables we should grow next planting season.
“Look!” Jamie said suddenly. “A shooting star! You have to make a wish!”
I wish that Susie would give me a second chance.
As we watched the star disappear beyond the horizon, I thought that maybe – just maybe – my wish could come true.
The night began to get cold soon after that. Jamie was the first to admit defeat, getting to his feet and brushing damp grass off his trouser legs. I followed suit, stretching out my body and yawning.
Jamie paused before we headed indoors.
“Hey, Gabe,” he said, a smile touching his lips. “Thank you. For everything.”
Before I could reply, he turned and ran off inside, no doubt to claim the bathroom before I could even think of using it.
I smiled to myself as I heard the bathroom door slam shut and the water begin to run.
Perhaps things were starting to look up after all.