Note: The original concept for this story was from Ryan Bartlett and it was he who intended to write it. He'd just started it, and I hadn't seen his approach, when he passed away. Because it's relevant to the storyline we were developing, I've done my best to create what he was aiming for.
Royce's trial had dragged on, and I'd thought my part in it was done—except for attending the sentencing. I wanted to be there for that—or I had. My feelings wavered, sometimes, about what I wanted when it came to Royce. I think the biggest thing I wanted to know was why he'd done it. In my anger I'd fantasized about screwing and terrorizing him as he had to me; to feel some measure of revenge. Other times, I was somewhat embarrassed at this base and dark fantasy.
The therapist said it was natural and even healthy to a point. As my initial testimony came and went, I had slowly let it go and gave myself to my life of Devyn, and my family; we'd dropped the 'found' part of it and just gone with family. When Royce fired his first lawyer, it had been upsetting—I'd wanted things done and over. Then there had been another delay while several motions were filed and our own lawyer met with us to consider a civil suit.
Even then, it was only so much background noise. Yes, I still looked forward to the day he'd be found guilty and sent to prison for good. But, in the meantime, I had a life to live and Royce wasn't worth my time or energy. That is, until he'd fired his lawyer again. The new one had the right to recall me to the stand, since I'd testified, and was invoking the right to do so.
So, even though I'd tried to push Royce and his actions away, I couldn't outrun my memories of either.
Thinking of the person I was when Royce was imposing his will on me still brought intense feelings of shame and worthlessness. Even though I understood them, in an academic sense, trying to manage the feelings when they hit me so hard was tough. I focused on my coping skills, the ones Dr. Freeman and I had worked on, and began repeating them to myself by rote, trying to create a calm routine.
This is where my mind was as I sat in the hallway of the courthouse with my parents on one side and Devyn on the other. Devyn squeezed my hand lightly, and I turned my head and tried to smile back. At this point someone else might have reminded me that they'd be right there, that everything would be over soon or that it would all be okay. Devyn didn't have to, he just kept up the mild pressure with his hand and smiled at me, looking me in the eye.
I reached a hand out, pushing back some of his shaggy blond hair. “You look so nice.”
Disentangling his hand he signed, 'I have to keep up with you, in case there are any hot guys at the courthouse.'
“Very funny,” I snorted and took his hand. Glancing past Devyn I saw Royce's family enter at the far end of the hall. His father was a tall, imposing mountain of a man with a barrel chest and brisk walk. His wife walked beside him, a fairly slender woman with a severe, yet tired, set to her face. Idly I wondered, again, if Royce was who he was because of them or in spite of them; the old nature versus nurture argument kept bouncing back and forth in my mind.
Trailing behind them was an odd sight for a formal place like a courthouse. He was built like Royce, but on a smaller scale, but that's where the similarity ended. His had on skinny jeans, black, that were unflattering at best. He wore boots, a hoodie and a coat over that; his hair was dyed a deep blue. His eyes were the same shade as Royce's, yet they had nothing of the meanness I'd experienced. Instead they appeared wary, flitting about the space as if uncomfortable with his surroundings. His mien could be seen from the way he was chewing his cuticles.
As they walked past, the boy and I locked eyes for just a moment. I wish I could say it was a special moment, that I had intuitively grasped something, but—and then it hit me.
“Holy shit,” I muttered.
Devyn poked me and gave me a questioning look. I pushed my chin out in the McGuire's direction and as I watched their retreating forms said, “I think that was Foster McGuire, Royce's little brother. Jesus, he's changed.”
'What do you mean? Changed how?'
“He used to dress...I don't know, average, I guess. Tee and jeans kind of guy, maybe sports stuff. Look at him now, though. Weird.”
Devyn shot a curious look down the hallway, and I began thinking of the stages I'd gone through when Royce was abusing me...
“Morning, folks,” the prosecutor said, interrupting my train of thought. With a frown, I dismissed Foster from my thoughts and stood to shake the lawyer's hand.
“I guess I'm as ready as I'm going to be,” I said.
“Well, looks like that won't be necessary,” he said, his face pulling into a frown.
“Has that, that...has he changed his plea?” my father sputtered.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“What happened? Did Royce off himself?” I asked derisively.
The lawyer glanced at each of us very quickly and then said, “I'm afraid Royce McGuire is dead.”
I was too stunned to speak. After girding myself to be questioned about the abuse, again, I was unprepared for this. Add to that making the casual remark about him dying and...I was mortified.
“How?” my mother managed; her voice leaden.
The next evening I tried to make some headway on my homework. I found that I couldn't shake the annoyance, the anger, confusion and then, oddly, a black void that seemed to swallow all that emotional tangle into nothingness. Unfortunately, this dearth of feeling was creating a lack of thinking and a lack of concentration and, I needed something to kick-start me. I slipped my shoes on and grabbed my keys.
“Mom? I need to stop over and see Devyn for about thirty minutes. Is that okay?”
“Did you get all the work done you wanted to, Griffy?”
“Not yet,” I said, shaking my head. “I'm kind of having a logjam in my brain. I just need to get out and...get some air or something.”
She smiled and said, “Don't be late.”
With a nod and a smile, I headed out the door and over to see my boyfriend. So much had come my way since Lucien and Robin had, literally, pulled me from a ditch on the side of the road. I knew I owed them my life in a very real sense, even though they shrugged off any sort of credit. As a result of them, I'd gotten the support and courage to break free of Royce and now I had Devyn to love me and Philip who needed me. I had friends who cared for me and...life was good. Right now, I needed to be reminded of that.
I knocked on the front door and then slipped inside, waving to Mr. Kennedy as I bounded up the stairs two at a time. I found Devyn laying on his stomach and playing a video game. As I entered the room, he smiled and paused his game and scooted over to clear a space for me. I flopped down next to him and, after a quick peck he raised an eyebrow at me.
'I thought you were swamped with homework?' he signed.
“I have that English poem thing to write, but my head is stuck in neutral,” I said.
Giving me a pensive look—and knowing me so well— Devyn signed,'That asshole still fucks with your head, doesn't he?'
I bobbed my head. “I need some cuddle time. That okay?”
Then, for about thirty minutes, we just lay in each other's arms. I felt my brain unlocking as I warmed every place where Devyn and I made contact; his scent soothed away the gray thoughts in my mind. I nuzzled into him and realized I don't have anything to be sorry for. If Royce had treated me like this, he'd still be alive. Hell, I might still be dating him. I also, perhaps selfishly, enjoyed that Devyn was unable to speak; there was no chance of unnecessary words filling space between us. Everything Devyn needed to say was conveyed in his fingertips, his arms wrapped around me and the occasional brush of his lips. I focused on each point at which our bodies came together and felt each set of muscles relax into the warmth and safety that was my boyfriend. I do my best thinking when I'm safely in Devyn's arms, I've found. There is no place safer than next to someone who returns your love.
From downstairs there came a scream—something from the TV—and I jumped; my emotions screaming back and roiling in confusion the black nothingness dissipating as if it had never been.
Pulling back to study his face, I said, “I keep going back and forth. As soon as I think I've reached some closure, some sort of peace...my mind turns things over one more time. It's kind of like I'm afraid I missed something important that I'm supposed to think about. Some...tiny thing that makes this...something.” I shrugged, “I don't know.”
Devyn stroked my forehead, then signed, 'I didn't even know you then, and it's still kind of complicated for me. More than anything, I wanted him to feel as trapped, scared, lonely and afraid as you did. I wanted him to suffer without hope. In a way, I feel cheated.'
I nodded slowly as Devyn stopped signing and began to stroke my hair. “I know what you mean. He, uh, left a note.” I paused and swallowed. “The lawyer called last night to tell us. Emailed a copy.”
His hand stilled for a moment and then resumed their slow caress.
“He blamed me for everything. Said, um—” I paused, brushing my hand across my eye. “He said that...that...”
His fingers pressed gently down on my lips. I turned to him, feeling confused. He began to move his fingers, 'He's manipulating you, still. The guy lacked empathy of any kind. His ego was so huge, there was no way he even considered that anyone else had feelings—or that he should be concerned about them. Don't play his game.'
I pursed my lips and blew out, letting out a sad chuckle. Rubbing my face and then taking his hand I said, “You're right, of course. I'm letting him into my head.” I lay my head on his chest and, as I listened, I wondered if there had ever been a nobler heart than that of Devyn Kennedy.
“Like this?” I asked.
“Yep. Now, just push down,” Lu told me. With a snap, it was in place. “See? Now try the other one.”
Using a small screwdriver I lifted the plastic tab on the windshield wiper and began pushing the worn out blade back down the hook-shaped arm. To make it easier, I was standing on the bumper of Lu's new bus and trying hard not to bend the wiper arm; my height made this awkward. Lu kept up the encouragement and direction and, minutes later, I'd installed the second wiper blade.
“How about that?” Lu grinned at me. I gave him a wry smile.
“I'm no mechanic,” I admitted, “but I got it done. What's next?”
Holding up a box he said, “Headlight. Got a ticket the other night so I have to get it swapped out and show the court to get out of the ticket.”
“How long were you driving around with a headlight out?”
He shrugged. “I don't know. I don't drive that much at night and we have streetlights...”
“Still,” I said, letting the sentence go unfinished.
“I've replaced so many bulbs and fuses on this thing, what's one more?” Lu said as he unrolled a plastic sleeve filled with screwdrivers and selected one. He explained how the headlights were held in and how to get them out and turned me loose. I'd never worked on his old bus and had regretted it once it had been destroyed. I didn't see the fun in the work like the rest of them seemed to, but it finally occurred to me that the important part was spending time with Lu, so here I was. To my surprise, I was actually enjoying all of it.
“Problem?” he asked gently.
I started, realizing that I'd picked up the screwdriver and then simply stood there, zoning out. Placing the tip of the screwdriver into the head of the screw, I said, “I keep doing that. Ever since they told me I just...I don't know how to feel, you know?”
“I can only imagine, Griff.”
I let my hand drop and stared at the end of the screwdriver. “I wasn't looking forward to adding to my testimony. His lawyer was really trying to blame the victim and my parents were nearly hysterical.”
Lu's hand landed gently on my shoulder and squeezed. I turned my head and smiled tightly at him.
“Should I feel bad for him, Lu? I'm struggling with that idea.”
Patting my shoulder and releasing me he turned his back to his bus and sat on the bumper, and I joined him.
“He was a sick fuck, Griff. I don't wish bad things on people as a rule, but man... Karma is a bitch, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, letting my mind drift to the previous day. I had been supposed to appear in court, something our lawyer had previously assured me I'd not have to do—not with Royce in the room. But, that promise hadn't held up. I was nervous I was going to have to see him again – my rage had cooled, my heart and my spirit had healed. Even though he'd left his scars on me, I was still here and thriving.
My anger had carried me before, after my all-consuming fear had broken. My therapist was happy with my progress and I was, too.
Snapping me back to the present, Lu said, “I guess it's complicated, huh?”
I shook my head slowly. “I'm not sure it is, really. I was so scared for so long and then...just angry. I hated him—still hate him—but it's all kind of useless, now. He'll never pay for what he did to me.” I sighed, “I guess him getting punished wouldn't change what he'd done. At one time, I'd have been happy he was dead. Now that he is...I wonder what that makes me, to wish someone dead.”
“Makes you human, I guess,” Lu said, bumping me with his shoulder. “We all have moments where we aren't so noble—“
“What? You? No!” I teased.
“Pft! Me? Yeah. Now, Robin, no.”
“I don't know. I think Philip was lucky Dev got to him before Robin did. For such a sweet guy, I think he could really do some damage.”
“I guess,” Lu said, nodding. “I hope I never find out.”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, me too. Do you think...I mean,” I paused and licked my lips. “Dev hit Philip, but I don't think it changed Dev in any real way.”
“Maybe,” Lu replied. “As far as I know, Robin's never been in a fight. He's got plenty of muscle so, I'm sure he could hurt someone...and he's sensitive enough that I think it would really bother him afterward. I think...he'd feel like he hadn't been in control.”
“I know something about not feeling in control.”
Lu put a hand on my arm and said, “Not exactly apples and oranges, but it affected you, right?”
“Yeah,” I said thickly and nodding. “Hard to imagine your perfect boyfriend out of control.”
Lu snorted. “Robin might be perfect for me, but he's not a perfect person. We've had our ups and downs.”
“And would you say those are his fault or yours?” I teased.
“Mostly mine,” he said, laughing. “But you have to understand, as great as Robin is—and he is great, don't get me wrong—he isn't perfect.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, smiling at my friend. “But do you think him getting in a fight would make a big difference to who he is?”
Lu fell silent for a minute before replying. “I think that once you decide violence is the answer, you kind of stop thinking. Robin and I both think—sometimes too much. We all have that...ability to get violent if we get pushed beyond a limit, but I think that violence is always the last resort.” He paused and looked at me until I met his gaze. “I think the part that worries me is that if Robin had started hitting Phil, that day, I don't know if he'd have stopped.”
“That's silly,” I replied. “Robin probably would have stopped as soon as he realized Phil was hurt.”
“No,” Lu said, shaking his head. “With as angry as Robin was—and trust me, so was I—I'm not sure he'd have been thinking enough to stop. What happened to you...that was the first time I can think of where I was so angry that I could have killed someone, you know, in the moment.
“In a way, philosophically, maybe that makes me a monster. Killing someone goes against what I believe, but...” Lu shook his head and sighed. “I think those boundaries, those...lines you don't cross become a lot closer than you might think when you love someone. I mean, if I knew what Royce was doing to a stranger, I'd still intervene. But knowing you...I don't know. I think it's easier to reach that anger and be someone you aren't.”
I coughed, a little overwhelmed by the emotions roiling in me. “We're just talking about a fistfight, though.”
“Sure, on the surface,” Lu said and nodded. “But under that? Philip was poking at that hurt Royce had laid on you. He was starting where, maybe, Royce did. I have no idea if the way Royce acted is a learned thing or of he's just a sociopath but...hitting Philip would have been, I think, like hitting Royce. Just...wanting to hurt someone who was hurting you.”
“But...Dev is still Dev, and Robin is still Robin.”
“Yeah, but here's the thing. We all change, over time. Robin learned from Charlie's death, from the suffering that goes with that kind of tragedy. It changed him. He's learned from dealing with me and dealing with what happened to you, to Dev. It changed him. After those guys burned up my old bus...well, he's different.”
Lu waved his hands. “Almost paranoid, I guess. He wants us to take self defense classes. He talked about learning to fire guns, even. It worries me.”
I paused at this information and said, slowly, “I read something for a class once that stuck with me. There was a philosopher, I forget his name, but he said something like having possessions turns you into a slave to them. Like, if you have a home you become a slave to it; maintenance, protecting it, all that stuff. I guess, sometimes, love is a type of willing slavery—we do so much to maintain and protect it, sacrificing all other things.”
“Yeah,” Lu nodded. “Given Robin's history, having had a death close by...well, it's on his mind.”
I fiddled with the screwdriver as my gaze dropped down to my feet. “I think the part that bothers me most, Lu, is how I'm not sad. I'm glad, you know, it wasn't me that did it to him. I'm still grateful to Robin for talking me down from killing him with my dad's gun. But...” I shook my head, “I wonder what it says about me that I don't feel anything about him dying.”
“What are you supposed to feel? What could possibly be appropriate?” Lu asked. “Look, not everyone or every situation deserves forgiveness. Royce knew exactly what he was doing to you. He knew you were in pain, humiliated, scared—he knew it all. He didn't care. Not about you, not about any of it. All he wanted was control and to...I don't know.” He held his hands out in question.
“He wanted to humiliate me. He got off on it,” I said numbly. “He liked seeing me scared and confused while he hurt me. I don't think he ever loved me.” I glanced at Lu, whose face was filled with concern, and I looked away. “I just wish I could figure out what to feel.”
“Feelings aren't usually logical,” Lu pointed out. “Maybe you should just accept whatever it is you're feeling instead of...well, are you...I don't know how to say it. You're feeling something, right? Maybe you shouldn't be so worried if it's right or wrong?”
I began to nod slowly. “You're right. I don't owe him anything. You know how I feel. Lu?”
“Free. But I never knew freedom could feel so unstable.” I sighed and said, “I think I was always worried he'd come back. Get out and come back for some twisted revenge. He never thought what he'd done to me was wrong, you know that?”
“I don't know how anyone can treat someone else like that,” Lu replied. “Especially you.”
I smiled wanly. “You're just saying that 'cause you love me.”
“Well, duh!” Lu laughed. “Come on, this headlight isn't going to install itself.”
I sat at home that night and thought about my conversation with Lu. Even though my life was so much better than it was a year ago—measurably, unbelievably, wonderfully better—I still felt a dull disconnect between my brain and my emotions. I was glad I'd spoken about my problem with Lu—no matter how much he deflects, he's such a great friend—and tried to work through my deadened emotions. He didn't try and tell me how to feel and I appreciated that; he was okay with just trying to help me see what he thought I knew was there and couldn't say. In a way, he was right. I actually felt some relief that he thought it was okay to not really know what I felt about this situation.
I woke early the following day to the urgent ringing of my phone. Blearily I pulled it to me, answering just to make it stop making noise.
“Hum?” I said.
“He kissed me!”
“Griffin! He kissed me! Come on, wake up!” the voice urged. I pulled back and looked at the screen and saw a picture of my buddy, Philip Ashmore, smiling back. Oh.
“What time is it?” I mumbled.
“After ten! I'm out front and ringing your bell...now.”
The bell echoed through the house and I groaned lightly and stretched. Getting out of bed I stretched again and hit the bathroom. Emerging just as Philip bounded up the stairs two at a time, grin plastered to his face, I couldn’t help but return a smile at him.
He grabbed my hand and dragged me back to my room, bouncing all the way like a puppy with a new toy.
“Okay, okay,” I said, chuckling and yawning all in one. “Tell me.”
“Oh my God!” he exclaimed and jumped onto my bed. I went to my dresser to make myself more presentable as he filled me in.
“So we went to the movies last night— “
“What did you see?” I asked, just to mess with him.
“Who cares?” Philip replied tartly. “The point is it was just the two of us! So we’re sitting there, right? We were watching the previews and the room goes really dark. So you know what he did?”
“Slurped his drink?” I asked deliberately. Philip growled and threw my pillow at me while I laughed. “No, what did he do?”
“He took my hand!” Philip said, swooning and grinning in a satisfied way. “I know it sounds silly, but it was so cool!”
“I can understand that,” I replied. “Then what?”
“Then…then,” he said, smiling in a very dopey fashion, “there was a scary part or something, I got startled and jumped. He pulled me over, pretending to protect me and I turned to tease him and…he kissed me.”
“Is he a good kisser?” I asked, knowing Philip had no prior experience to compare it to.
“Oh, Griffin,” he said, as his eyes focused on me and his face took on a serious look. “I imagined what it would feel like for so long that I’m not sure what it was I really expected…but I was blown away. Just completely…dude, it was so awesome!” His voice moved up as his excitement crested, and he shook with the excitement of sharing his experience.
“That’s fantastic, Philip!” I said and held my hand up to high five him. He was far too excited, however, and before I knew it he was hugging the breath out of me. After dressing, Philip and I went out for a bite to eat. I knew Devyn was planning on working with Lu today, so it left me free to pal around with Philip—and boy, was he a tonic. He was being so bubbly that my dark thoughts and roiling emotions seemed like a tempest in a teapot.
We went window shopping and just talked about nothing and everything. It was so nice to see someone who could have been a Royce turn into this sweet guy who finally got what he wanted—someone that liked, maybe even loved him for him.
That night, as I sat at home, looking at my English paper, I had a thought. The teacher wanted us to write a poem in the style of a poet from a listing she provided. Checking the list an idea began to form and I started to put a few experimental lines on paper. I thought of my abuse, of my journey 'til now and my mish-mash of emotions.
By the time I was done, I felt like I'd purged something from myself. I knew I'd have no trouble reading it aloud, as the assignment required, and that might be cathartic as well. I closed my laptop and went to brush my teeth. Soon after as I settled into bed in the absolute darkness of my room, my words rang in my head.
In the style of Edgar Allan PoeHear my dark tale dearie, it may leave you, like me, weak and weary,