Nov. 13th, 2009 12:33 am
backdrifter: I won NaNoWriMo 2009! (nanowrimo 2009)
[personal profile] backdrifter
It was the third time Miss Vaughn called his name during attendance that Ryan finally answered. He was sitting at his desk, making idle circles with his pencil in his notebook without even looking at them, and when he looked down he realized some of the circles had traveled out onto the desk’s top. He put the pencil down.

“Ryan, I need you to focus,” Miss Vaughn said, eyeing him. “Can you please pay attention?”

“Yeah,” Ryan agreed, nodding, but already he could feel his attention slipping. When Victor had left last night, he’d interacted with Ryan’s parents no differently than any other night, and he had patted Ryan on the back in a brotherly way before taking off for the night. Ryan had forgotten everything like homework, or like wheedling Danny until he let him play Mario Brothers with him, especially since he hadn’t gotten to with Victor. In fact, he’d simply crawled into bed, feeling very odd, and fallen asleep by eight thirty.

“Ryan.” It was Miss Vaughn again, who apparently couldn’t go on if Ryan in particular wasn’t paying attention to her lesson. “Wake up. Where are you?”

“Here?” he said, confused by the question. Did he have teleportation powers he wasn’t aware of?

“Whatever it is you’re daydreaming about, it’ll still be there after school,” she said, and tapped his notebook with her finger. “Don’t waste paper like this. You kill trees that way. Save your paper for work.”

That day was probably never meant to be a good day anyway. Ryan sucked in math, read the wrong passages out loud in humanities, said something infinitely dumb about the sun revolving around the earth in science class, which had nothing to do with the lesson on biology anyway. At lunch time he simply sat down at his class’s table, forgetting to get on the lunch line. There were more important things to think about. Miss Vaughn took him aside at the end of the day, sitting down as he stood on the other side of her desk so they were at eye level with each other.

“What’s up, Ryan?” she asked simply, clasping her hands and putting her elbows on her desk.

“What do you mean?” he asked, looking around. Everyone else had gone home, and he was stuck here broiling in his coat, backpack already on. Victor would be coming to get him soon. He couldn’t not be there when Victor arrived.

“What do I mean?” She looked at him incredulously. “I mean that you have been beyond distracted today. It’s like you’re not even on this planet most of the time. You’re giving wrong and frankly dumb answers that I know are way beneath you, and you keep spacing out. You’re better than this, Ryan. You’re a brilliant kid.” She pursed her lips. “Is something going on at home?”

“No. I have to go, Miss Vaughn,” he whined, nodding his head at the door. “My babysitter is coming soon.”

“She won’t go anywhere,” she said dismissively. “I still need—”

“He,” Ryan corrected, and Miss Vaughn shook her head.

“I still need to talk about this with you. It’s important that you do well in school, Ryan.” She reached out with a small, brown hand the color of good chocolate cake, and touched Ryan’s shoulder. He shivered, pulling away, and Miss Vaughn looked startled. “Ryan, what—”

“I think Victor’s here,” Ryan said quickly, and then he was running out of the room and into the hallway, rubber soles squeaking against the institutional flooring. Miss Vaughn called after him, said something about how they weren’t done, but Ryan could only think of Victor not seeing him there and leaving.

When he skidded to a stop just outside the doors that led to the yard where everyone got picked up, his heart jumped into his throat to see Victor standing by the bench he always sat on. Victor seemed to be standing oddly—like he was the Leaning Tower of Piza, which was a factoid he should have remembered earlier today in class—but it was Victor, so who cared about his posture? Ryan flew toward him.

“Hi, Ryan,” Victor said as he neared, and the voice halted Ryan in midstep. This was not Victor’s voice. The voice was raspy, a very poor copy of Victor’s, as if Victor had taken up smoking when he was an infant. When he looked up at Victor’s face, too, there was something wrong with his eyes, though Ryan couldn’t quite pinpoint it. “I’m here to pick you up.”

“Are you sick?” Ryan asked, taking a step back. “Your voice…” Another step back.

“I’m here to pick you up,” Not-Victor repeated, taking a step forward to close the gap. One of his strides was worth two of Ryan’s. “Let’s go, Ryan. I’m here to pick you up. Let’s go, Ryan.”

“Go away,” Ryan whispered, eyes wide. “Something’s—you’re not right—” He edged away again. “Go away!”

“Hi, Ryan,” Not-Victor said again, and this time he smiled big, his mouth becoming like a fracture in his face. His teeth took a moment to appear, and when they did they seemed like they didn’t quite align. Like the lower set had been shifted over left by one tooth-width, even though his jaw looked completely normal from the outside. “Let’s go. I’m here to pick you up.”

“Leave me alone!” Ryan whisper-screamed, and his body turned before his face did to run away. When he faced forward, he slammed into a skinny body, which was Victor. No, it was Not-Victor, when he looked up. He fought not to scream. There were too many people looking—why weren’t they helping him, it was so clear Not-Victor was a monster!

He took off again, and he yelped when he ran into a body once more. He pushed away with both arms, and coordinated hands took him by the shoulder.

“Whoa, whoa,” a smooth voice said from above, “what’re you doing? Is this some new game I don’t know about?”

Ryan looked up into Victor’s face, real Victor with real teeth and a real voice, and he threw his arms around Victor’s waist gratefully. He buried his face in Victor’s coat, and Victor rubbed the top of his head. “Man, what happened to you? You look like you saw a ghost, kid.”

Ryan didn’t say anything, and Victor just let him stay like that for a while, petting Ryan’s head and back soothingly while he waited for Ryan to calm down. Truthfully, Ryan calmed down long before he was ready to let go, but he desperately wanted the human contact after being cornered by that—thing. Not-Victor.

INTERVIEWER: Are you ready to continue?
INTERVIEWER: Tell me, then, about the first time Victor touched you.
SUBJECT: He was mad. Not at me. Or sad, or... He had a cut on his lip, a bruise on his chest. Someone hurt him. So he locked himself in my room to cry.
INTERVIEWER: Did you know why?
SUBJECT: Not then, no. Not for a long time.
INTERVIEWER: So what happened then?
SUBJECT: It... I don’t know that it seems like a lot now. It just felt that way when I was so young...
INTERVIEWER: Don’t worry about that right now. Your feelings as a child are not any less valid now that you’re older.
SUBJECT: He, um, he put his hands under my shirt, from behind me, when we were lying sideways on the bed. He talked about what a shitty day he’d had, and he cried a little bit, and he held me like that until I fell asleep.
INTERVIEWER: You fell asleep?
SUBJECT: Why, is that—what’s wrong? We were so still for so long—
INTERVIEWER: Nothing’s wrong with it, Ryan. I was only curious. Please go on.
SUBJECT: There’s nothing else, really. He acted weird, and then he was sick for days. Or that’s what Maya and Jack told me, anyw—
SUBJECT: Maya’s boyfriend. Victor’s best friend. I hated him. Why, does he matter?
INTERVIEWER: You’ll find I’m a very curious doctor. Do go on.
SUBJECT: He just wasn’t in school. Nobody knew if he was actually sick. I mean, thinking now, I know what was happening to him, but nobody knew then.
INTERVIEWER: And then, when he returned?
SUBJECT: Friday, December 11th, 1997. The day before my birthday. He took me to see a movie that had been out for months. He got all emotional over the neuralyzer—
INTERVIEWER: I’m sorry, the what?
SUBJECT: Neuralyzer. You never saw that movie?
INTERVIEWER: What movie?
SUBJECT: Men in Black. About a section of the government that protects us from aliens, and the neuralyzer is something they have to erase the memories of regular people who see the aliens. You pick a point in time after which you don’t want them to remember a thing, you zap them, and voila. It’s like the last few hours didn’t happen. Or days, or months... Or years.
INTERVIEWER: And you think perhaps he may have been wishing for the same thing.
SUBJECT: In retrospect, maybe. I didn't think about it then.
INTERVIEWER: So what happened then?
SUBJECT: He took me home, like he was supposed to. My family was gone, with relatives that were in town for my birthday... And it's funny, of course, they they didn't wait for me when it was my birthday they were there for. (snort) He asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to play Mario Brothers, I think. Or maybe I just thought it. But I wanted to play Mario Brothers.
INTERVIEWER: And did you?
INTERVIEWER: What happened?
SUBJECT: He started tickling me. He liked doing that a lot, like... He knew all the places, with me, by then, that were the most ticklish.
INTERVIEWER: Did you sense anything malicious then?
SUBJECT: What? No, he was just tickling me. It was when he stopped tickling me that there was anything weird about it.
INTERVIEWER: Do you want to tell me exactly what happened?
SUBJECT: He kept...shushing me. And telling me nobody was ever going to hurt me. Or that he wasn't going to hurt me. Both, he said both those things, over and over again.
INTERVIEWER: What was he doing?
SUBJECT: Um. Under my shirt, he was—
SUBJECT: His hands were under my shirt, touching...not everywhere. My chest. Mostly my chest. And...he put his mouth here. Not a kiss. Just his mouth.
INTERVIEWER: (low volume) Patient is currently touching just below his ear. (normal volume) And so?
SUBJECT: He apologized. I asked him to not go when he said he couldn't be my babysitter anymore. He agreed.
SUBJECT: And then I went crazy.

Miss Vaughn didn't call his parents, at least, but she warned him that it was only a matter of time, if he didn't shape up. Ryan's solution was to stop answering in class. If he didn't answer, he couldn't say anything dumb. Miss Vaughn didn't seem to like that, either. He couldn't win.

The thing about it was that Ryan couldn't keep his feet on the ground, mentally speaking. Miss Vaughn's voice to him was like the drone of insects far away, and when he shifted in his seat, the fabric of his shirt sliding, he felt instead giant hands, roving and touching. It would be then that he would take off, a little copy of him somewhere in an imaginary world pushing off the ground with fake feet.

Gravity would suddenly mean very little, and copy-Ryan floated away from the feeling of the hands. When the thoughts of how he shouldn't be so frightened of Victor's actions came to him, they felt light, and then he would actually see them, big malleable bubble-things that he could use to propel himself away. In this world, he knew that he was allowed to be scared when Victor kissed him somewhere besides the cheek or forehead, or when Victor's hands became disembodied creatures searching for soft places to travel over.

Miss Vaughn always spoke then, and he would become a meteor, his velocity setting him aflame as he approached the earth. His impact always left a crater in the middle of the classroom, but either Miss Vaughn didn't notice, or she didn't care. (Neither option made sense to him.) It may have had something to do with the fact that when he dusted himself off, the crater was gone, and in fact, he seemed to have teleported back to his desk. After that, the only choice he had was to blurt out an answer and hope it had something to do with Miss Vaughn's question—it usually didn't—or to keep quiet, a blank look on his face. More and more, he chose the latter.

"Ryan." Miss Vaughn again, demanding his attention. His attention was in demand, a commodity, a—


"What?" Ryan looked up to see Miss Vaughn drumming her fingers on his desk.

"I am not having this anymore. You drift off in class every time I look away, and when I come back it's like your eyes are glazed over. You've never been like this before, so I know this isn't just the way you are. There's got to be something up." She gestured. "So tell me, Ryan. What's up?"

This line of questioning again. "I don't know." He honestly didn't, because he didn't understand the question, so how could he know the answer?

"Is it something at home? Your parents fighting or something?"

"No." His parents loved each other. They fought over little things, like he assumed any couple did.

"Well, I mean—is it school? Is it Dillon bothering you again? I thought he stopped."

"No." Dillon had barely bothered him since Victor's intervention.

"Ryan." He looked up again. Good lord, was she ever going to be satisfied with the amount of attention she got? "What exactly is it you're thinking about when you go off into space like that?"

Ryan looked at her, fingers twiddling. He considered telling her that he really was going into space, into a part of the universe where thoughts were tangible. But adults never understood anything, obsessed with seeming rational and normal, and he had a feeling that Miss Vaughn was no different. So he said nothing.

"Talk to me." Her voice softened now, and she pulled up a child-sized chair to sit beside him at the table. He looked around at the other students, all focused on drawing on printer paper with borrowed crayons, not a one of them paying him or Miss Vaughn any attention. Ryan turned his attention back to his teacher. "Please, Ryan, if it's something serious, I have to know."

Had to know. He looked at the wood of the table, the way years of fourth graders had scored and stained it. "It's nothing," he said, and he was echoing himself now, the Ryan that lay under Victor and told him nothing was bothering him. "Nothing's wrong."

Miss Vaughn sighed. "Well, if nothing's wrong, then please, Ryan, pay attention in class. Your grades are important." She glanced at his blank paper. "Draw someone important to you, okay? That's your assignment today."

So Ryan pulled crayons toward himself as Miss Vaughn walked away—black for the hair, brown for the skin. Blue for the jeans, grey for the faded t-shirt. Red for the sneakers, because Victor's sneakers were grungy and grey and he talked about how he'd like nothing better than a pair of red Converses. He drew a blocky figure, arms held out as if it was waiting for something, the red shoes splayed like a ballet dancer's. The black crayon recreated Victor's dark eyes as black dots, and then zigzagged for his wavy hair. Then he picked up the brown again, the wax gliding down Victor's stick arms to make hands. It frustrated Ryan when the hands looked more like claws than the strong, bony ones he was so familiar with. It frustrated him further when he realized that by coloring in the grey t-shirt, he was no longer able to put a logo or print on it, and Victor always had something on the front of his shirts.

Still, he signed his name to it, scrawled the date in the corner, and turned it in. Miss Vaughn offered to let him keep it; he turned her down. He wasn't sure he wanted Victor to see it, when it was a declaration that the teenager was the most important person to him. He couldn't exactly articulate it, but he felt like it would give Victor license to do ever more frightening things to him, and his stomach twisted. He ran away from the feeling to go greet Victor outside.

There were several ways Ryan could feel about the increasing amount of time he seemed to spend alone in the apartment with Victor. He could be happy; Victor was his favorite person, and Victor also let him play Danny's Nintendo until he thought his eyes might fall out of his head. Victor bought him cupcakes, knishes, cheese blintzes with powdered sugar. Delicious Hebrew food that distracted him from all the Japanese culture his relatives had tried to cram down his throat this past weekend.

And then there was the other side of the coin. He could feel dread, because there were times when Victor interrupted all the good fun and food and went quiet, his hands crawling monsters on Ryan's body. Victor commented, once, on how full Ryan's lips were, touching two solid fingers to the soft skin, and then he leaned forward, putting his own lips to Ryan's. His entire body shook when he did, and somewhere in his head it struck Ryan as almost funny how Victor's mouth was so petite that it wasn't much bigger than his own. He thought of other things when Victor's wet tongue swiped across his front teeth.

Victor always apologized, told him that it "wasn't right" and he should never accept that kind of behavior from anyone, but Ryan only half-felt the emotion in the words, especially when Victor's long arms came from behind to pull him into a hug. He'd read in his parents' magazines and newspapers that he was supposed to leave alone about torture victims that went out of their heads when the torture began, because the pain wasn't just physical; he knew what Victor did to him wasn't precisely torture, but between those printed lines of the victims' quotes, he felt a sense of commiseration. The problem was that he couldn't do what they did, couldn't go to a "happy place," as one of them called it. He'd once thought the stillness was only in his room, but he came to realize that it was there whenever Victor explored the skin under his shirt, and the stillness rang in his ears, kept him firmly grounded as Miss Vaughn probably wished he could be in class.

And yet, when Victor sat up, after he got all his apologies and crying out and Ryan somehow ended up being the one comforting him, things would return to normal. They would both act as though nothing had just happened, Victor going behind the TV to plug the Nintendo in while Ryan picked out a giant cartridge to blow the dust out of. It was only then that Ryan felt that out-of-body feeling, looking at Victor and feeling like he'd dreamed the whole ordeal. Every time.

Victor would pick him up, take him to karate, and simply wait for him outside, leaving Ryan with the constant sensation of Victor's presence. It would propel him through his forms, through the kicks, blocks and punches, and when he was set up to spar with Douglas or Jacob or Jonathan or whatever pale white boy he was paired with that week, he flew through the forms, flowing evenly from low block to cannon punch to block again—until he looked at Victor, sitting on the sprinkler pipes outside. His broad back reminded Ryan of the shoulders attached to it above him, like the top of a cage on the couch, and then Douglas or Jacob or Jonathan would get in one lucky strike, sending unfocused Ryan staggering back. Himura-san eyed him with worry from afar.

It was after one of these karate practices—the last one for the year, because it was late December—that Victor first took off his shirt. He brought him home to an empty apartment again, Danny and Kenny having been picked up by Maya after their own karate practice. Maya generally didn't bring her brothers home until later, taking them out for McDonald's and then getting them Boylan's sodas at the grocery store to sit on the median and drink them. Or so Ryan heard, anyway.

They'd played a couple rounds of Mario Brothers before Ryan got tired of Mario dying, and then he was sorry he'd said so because Victor had gone quiet and soft-eyed again. The controllers clattered to the floor, and Victor's hot, wet breath was on Ryan's neck, kissing gently. Ryan held still. He could deal with Mario dying, he promised. Mario could die a thousand more times and he would never tire of it.

Victor drew away, looking strangely unsure of himself. "Ryan," he said softly, "I want you to see something today."

Ryan said nothing. Nothing he did would stop Victor, anyway, and he hated that feeling of powerlessness, even more so because it was Victor giving him that feeling. Victor, his hero, his—

Victor pulled off the white t-shirt he wore that day, revealing a long, skinny torso, slightly muscular and slightly hairy, especially down the center. It also revealed bruises, shaped like grapes or fingertips, dotting his hips, and a more commonly-shaped one blooming in the center of one pectoral muscle.

"Do you want..." Victor swallowed. "Do you wanna touch?"

Ryan held his breath, searching for danger, for a trap. Interaction with Victor always meant something scary, but here he was sitting back, waiting.

"You don't have to," VIctor whispered. "It's... It's okay. I know it's... I know it's ugly." He swallowed again.

"No," Ryan whispered back, and again he found himself in the strange position of comforting the much older boy. "It's not." And he reached out.

The first thing his fingers encountered was heat, radiating from Victor's smooth brown skin like he was a furnace. He just brushed the skin at first, with only one hand, still watching Victor's eyes. Victor watched him with the same soft eyes, and Ryan felt the courage to keep going. So he put his whole hand to VIctor's stomach now, and the heat spread through his thin fingers, seeped into his palm. Victor's body fascinated him, despite the dread he'd come to associate with it. Under the skin was muscle, and it made for a strange sensation of hardness under the softness of Victor's skin. Firm. That was the word for it.

He pushed his hand up Victor's torso, fingers threading into the black curly hair that bisected him through the navel. He looked up again, breathing nervously now, but Victor still remained quiet, still watched him. "It's okay," he assured Ryan when he lingered in one spot for long.

Ryan swept both hands over Victor's body now, one hand going across a nipple—brown, like his, only bigger, and shaped like eyes instead of circles. Victor shivered, and one of his hands twitched, but he still did nothing.

The hand not on the nipple went up, felt along the sturdy line of Victor's collarbone, and the crux of Victor's neck and shoulder. He went up his neck, feeling the tendons that corded out when Victor swallowed again, and then back down along Victor's jaw, a place on his own body where Victor might kiss him. He felt along Victor's brow, the thick brows like bristles, but Victor's face seemed to relax at the contact, though he was visibly trying not to move in any way. Ryan trailed a finger down the long nose, and from there it jumped to Victor's small mouth. The lips there were soft, dark, not very full, and when the touch parted them a little bit, Victor's breath on his nail gave him an odd feeling of power over Victor's life, even if it was only for this brief period.

"It's okay," Victor said again when the finger moved, though it seemed more like he was talking to himself now, than to Ryan. "It's okay."

Ryan pulled his hands away at last, looking up to see Victor had closed his eyes, breathing slowly, shakily. "Victor?" he asked, small-voiced.

"Is that it? Is that everything you want to know?" Victor asked, opening his eyes again to look into Ryan's. He reached for his shirt half-heartedly.

If Ryan was honest with himself (which eh didn't want to be, not now, not today), that was not it. He wanted to know, had always wanted to know what lay south of Victor's hips, though from having brothers he knew he wasn't alone in that feeling. Just basic curiosity. Just wanting to know the unknown. That was normal, at least, but he knew what was happening now was not normal.

And yet Ryan reached out again, and this time his fingertips landed, if tentatively, on the button of Victor's jeans. Victor bit his lip at that, put a hand around RYan's wrist, the thumb and forefinger passing each other. "You don't have to go there," he said, biting his lip again. "If you don't want to."

"I..." And Ryan wanted to say something eloquent and adult, something out of a movie script, like I wouldn't have put my hand there if I didn't want to put it there, but instead he only shook his head, knowing his nine year old's mouth would mangle the words into something stupid. He touched the knuckles of Victor's hand on his wrist, and Victor released him. He undid the button slowly, clumsily, hearing his own breath as though it belonged to someone standing next to him. Victor's breathing was deepening, his chest rising and falling dramatically, and Ryan pulled the zipper of his black jeans down. Between the air and Victor's skin was only a thin layer of stretchy cotton, burgundy with a grey elastic waistband, and Ryan put his hand just below that elastic. Above it was a firework of more curly black hair, thinning out to the thread of body hair that led to his belly button, and below Ryan's hand—

"Stop." Victor put his hand on Ryan's wrist again, more forcefully this time, using the other hand to hold Ryan's jaw. "Just—stop."

"You said," Ryan said, voice oddly gravelly, and he cleared his throat. "You said I could touch."

"It's not... It's not right..."

"You say that every time," Ryan said in an accusatory voice, and Victor looked away, knowing it was true. "You keep saying, 'Oh, it's not right, it's not right,' and then you do 'it' again and again, so if it's not right, obviously it's not stopping you. So why should it stop me?" His chest swelled with pride that he'd managed not to bungle the words, at the same time that it tightened. Why had he said any of that, why did he so badly want to see with his own hands? He didn't want this to go further, he wanted to sit back down properly and play video games. He wanted for Victor to act normal so he could be normal.

And yet he was the one who pushed at Victor's abdomen, and Victor lay back accordingly, shoulders against the arm of the sofa as he watched Ryan with a small amount of concern. He was the one to pull the elastic down past Victor's jutting pelvic bones where the bruises like grapes or fingertips decorated them, and despite the dead air roaring in his ears, despite his stomach going into sudden free fall inside him, he was the one to touch what he found underneath.

Victor writhed beneath him, moaning as he threw his head back and put a hand to his forehead.

He felt safe in the bathtub. Here, the only other thing there was to talk to was Kenny's rubber ducky, which outside of this room he eschewed as childish and stupid. In the tub, though, he named it Elvis, which struck him as a particularly American, non-Asian name, and he talked to Elvis. Quietly, knowing there were five pairs of ears outside that might hear him.

It was Saturday night, and he had been in the tub for twenty minutes, the water going from hot to warm. His toes felt nicely pruned, but he didn't like the sensation as much in his fingers. Still, he picked Elvis the Duck up in his wrinkled hands, and placed him on the surface of the water just above his chest.

"Oh, Elvis," he sighed, and submerged the lower half of his head in the water, causing Elvis the Duck to float away slightly. "I don't know, I don't know, I don't know what I'm doing, what's happening..."

It was another five minutes before he registered the figure sitting on the closed toilet.

His eyes went wide when he realized it was Not-Victor, this time with skin somewhat darker than real Victor's, and hair a lighter shade of brown. His teeth seemed to be properly aligned this time, but they were sharpened to the point of resembling shark's teeth, and the moment Ryan thought that, a second set of pointed teeth appeared behind the first. Not-Victor smiled wide.

"Hi, Ryan," Not-Victor said.

"Go away," Ryan whispered, sinking further down into the water until only his eyes were above the surface.

"Don't be like that," Not-Victor said in his awful grating voice, and he reached out one too-long arm toward the tub. His hand seemed too big, too, especially when it dipped into the tub water toward the place between Ryan's legs. Ryan snapped his legs together, the water splashing violently as he moved away from the enormous hand.

"I'm your favorite person, Ryan," Not-Victor said, his voice like giant rocks grinding against one another, and the other hand reached for him now, crossing over the first. Ryan shoved himself to the clear opposite end of the tub, the water going over the sides now, and Not-Victor looked at him with dumb animal eyes. He uncrossed his arms, stood slowly, and it almost seemed like he stretched as he stood, like a piece of rubber, before he sank down to something like Victor's height.

"And you're mine," Not-Victor continued saying, and this time he started lifting a leg to get in the tub with Ryan. It was then that Ryan realized Not-Victor was naked, and the breath caught in his throat before it began to come faster and faster, making Ryan dizzy. "You're my favorite person."

"Get out! Get out!" Ryan shrieked, but in a tiny voice, still aware of who could hear him. Not-Victor was somehow only his problem, something he couldn't explain to anyone else. He hugged his own shoulders, never letting Not-Victor out of his sight.

Not-Victor took a long time to sit down opposite him in the tub, limbs folding and tucking and shifting and folding again. When he was settled, Ryan had a clear view of his nudity, and this part was lifted directly from Victor's body. Ryan jumped out of the tub then, almost slipping as he landed, and he barely had the forethought to throw a towel around his shoulders before he escaped into the hallway, slamming the door behind him. Once outside he was lucky no one was waiting outside, and he quickly rewrapped the towel around his hips, shivering and dripping in on the hallway floor.

It was only later that anyone said anything about it, and it was only his father shouting about there being a mess of water on the bathroom floor.

Not-Victor was a screaming reminder of what Ryan had done with Victor only a few days before, and he pressed his hands over his eyes, as if that would suppress the memory. He was on the couch next to Maya, warm in clean pajamas, and Maya didn't notice, but Danny noticed everything.

"What's the matter?" Danny asked, mockingly concerned. "You have a fight with your boooyfriend?" Singsonging.

"Shut up," Ryan snapped, immediately tucking his hands into his armpits and glaring at nothing.

"Ryan and Victor," Danny sang, "sittin' in a tree—"

"I said shut up!" Ryan flung the nearest book, which happened to be the copy of Catcher in the Rye that Maya was supposed to be reading for school, bound hardcover. It hit Danny above the ear, and he yelped in pain.

"You shut up!" Danny yelled illogically, and then Ryan was leaping over the arm of the couch to pounce on his brother, fist raised like a hammer. He got in a couple pounds, Danny thwacking him in the side of the head, before a meaty fist grabbed both their punching arms.

"Stop it, both of you!" their father said, glaring at the both of them. "What just happened? One little thing, and bam! Fighting like cats. I mean," and their father smirked to himself, "what am I paying for those karate lessons for if you won't even fight the right way?"

"Ray!" their mother snapped from an armchair.

"Sorry," their father muttered, and then he was concentrating on them again, giving their arms a shake before he released them. "I want you both to apologize to each other and then leave each other alone."

"Sorry," Danny muttered, knowing already when to give up.

"He started it," Ryan said, crossing his arms, and Danny threw his arms up in the air, eyes rolling.

"That's not what you're supposed to say, you're supposed to say sorry so we don't have to deal with this!" Danny whined, which took the spotlight off Ryan for a moment when his father demanded to know what he meant by that.

Their mother stepped in while their father dealt with Danny. "Ryan, why are you acting this way? This isn't like you at all, just jumping on your brothers like that. You're not a violent boy." She cupped the side of his face with her hand, looking worried. "You're a good boy, Ryan. Why aren't you acting like it?"

He thought back immediately to Victor, to Victor lying back on the couch, and he looked down to hide the way the blood rushed to his cheeks.

"Ryan, what is it?"

But he couldn't tell her. If he'd suspected before that what he and Victor had together—and there, he was thinking of it as the two of them now, rather than what Victor had been doing to him—was not right, he was sure of it now. Victor had looked deeply ashamed at the end of the night, had even locked himself in the bathroom for five minutes, and when Ryan had pressed the side of his head to the door, he'd heard the distinct sounds of a teenage boy crying.

"Ryan. Please, if something's wrong, you need to tell me."

He inhaled deeply, an echo of the breathing exercises at the start of karate class, and as he breathed again, he felt the blood recede from his face. He could hear his mother calling him, distantly, and when he looked up, his face was blank, expressionless. "Nothing. I'm sorry." What she wanted to hear, he knew.

She sighed, not unlike Miss Vaughn had, and her hand slipped from his face. "Alright, Ryan."

It was true that Ryan had previously been the sort of child to sit and take whatever verbal abuse was dished out. And before he'd seen all of Victor, he still had more or less been that child. But he felt apart now, separate. When he sat and thought about it for too long, he would hear a whooshing in his ears, and things would seem to mute, and suddenly he felt like he was watching a family on TV, rather than sitting right with them. His fingers and toes would go numb, and the whooshing would grow in volume until somebody called his name, and he would drop back into the TV of his family's life, part of the cast again. Somebody would wave their hand in front of his face, and he would blink owlishly, looking around at the living room that had seemed so foreign to him a moment ago.

The feeling persisted at school. Whereas before he had been launching himself into space, now the classroom receded in front of him until his classmates had pinpricks for heads, and he realized he and his desk were stranded in a dark corner of nothingness. He learned to sit still when this happened, because when he got up to explore the nothingness, Miss Vaughn—a thousand miles away and still nosy and controlling—would shout and wave her tiny arms. He couldn't hear what she was saying, or even see her face as she did, but it seemed angry. Better to just sit quiet and still until the classroom came back, and hope Miss Vaughn wouldn't try to call on him while he couldn't hear her. (How did she not see the immense distance between them?)

Not-Victor destroyed the safety of the bathroom, of the warm tub water lapping at his shoulder, and instead it was a trap he knew he was walking into. He no longer spent up to an hour soaking, instead taking only enough time to rinse under the shower head and hop out. He'd never taken a shower before; showers were something adults did. And Ryan.

With each passing day, Victor would want to spend less time having fun and eating junk food, the way they had in the past, almost as if he anticipated the other thing they did, though he never acted quite like it during the act. It got to the point where Mario and Luigi ceased to be a part of their after-school activities, and Ryan was given no longer than the time it took him to have a snack before Victor's body enveloped his. The one-time thing he'd done with Victor lost its one-time status, and Ryan began to feel ill toward the end of each school day. When he sat on the bus next to Victor, his eyes and his memories acted together to make him a human X-ray machine, knowing every detail of Victor's naked body. Worse still, to him, when he looked around at other passengers he could see many of the same details. His mental X-rays of women tended to be fuzzy, gleaned from the movies Maya wasn't supposed to let him watch, but when he looked at men, the images were so clear he felt the bile in the back of his throat. He didn't want this knowledge.

And still Victor cried, still Victor apologized. The bruises on his body faded and appeared like short-lived flowers. They told a story in their placement and coloration, but they were in a foreign language without subtitles. There were times that Ryan suspected he might understand them, but the idea made his head feel tight, reeling.
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June 2011

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