“He was bad with me too, but it was a little more random. If the phone rang and woke him up, he’d hit me, or if he had plans to go out but had to cancel for snow, he’d knock me around to burn off his anger. I was always looking for the secret code, the rules I could follow so he wouldn’t freak out. That’s how you keep yourself safe, you know? You pay attention to how the world works. But there was no secret code for him. It was like our actions were entirely detached from his reactions to us. He acted like I was this lazy, selfish brat and like my mom thought she was a queen. Like she treated his money like toilet paper. She was constantly apologizing for nothing, and then when he’d really hurt her, or me, he’d apologize. Back off for a few days.
“Even with all that, I think losing her broke whatever was left in him. I don’t know.” He paused, thinking. “Maybe it wasn’t love. Maybe treating her like shit made him feel like he had power. He didn’t have that with me as I got older.”
“Making you keep him alive was the only way left to manipulate you,” I said.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Maybe. But if I’d left, he would’ve died sooner.”
“And you think that would’ve been your fault?”
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it would’ve been. He would’ve been dead, and I would’ve known I could’ve stopped it. Plus, she didn’t leave. How could I, knowing it wasn’t what she would have wanted?”
“You don’t know that,” I said. “You were a kid.”
“Pete likes to say I was never a kid.”
“That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Don’t act like I’m pitiful,” he said. “It’s in the past. It’s over.”
“You know what your problem is?” I asked, and this time when I stopped, he did too.
“I’m aware of several, yes.”
“You don’t know the difference between pity and sympathy,” I said. “I’m not pitying you. It makes me sad to think of you being treated like that. It makes me mad to think you didn’t have the things all kids deserve. And yeah, it makes me mad and sad that a lot of people go through the things you went through, but it’s even more upsetting because it’s you. And I know you and I like you and I want you to have a good life. That’s not pity. That’s caring about someone.”
He stared at me intently, then shook his head. “I don’t want you to think about me like that.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like an angry, broken punching bag,” he said, his face dark and tense.
“I don’t.” I took a step closer, searching for the right words. “I just think of you as Gus.”
He studied me. The corner of his mouth twitched into an unconvincing smile, then faded, leaving him looking burned-out. “I am, though,” he said quietly. “I am angry and messed up, and every time I try to get closer to you, it’s like all these warning bells go off, and I try to act like a normal person, but I can’t.”
My stomach flip-flopped. Closer to you. I glanced at the lake while I got my bearings. “I thought you understood that there’s no such thing as a normal person.”
“Maybe not,” Gus said. “But there’s still a difference between people like me and people like you, January.”
“Don’t insult me.” I looked sharply back at him. “Don’t you think I’m angry? Don’t you think I feel a little bit broken? It’s not like my life’s been perfect either.”
“I have never thought your life was perfect,” he said.
“Bullshit. You called me a fairy princess.”
He coughed out a laugh. “Because you’re the bright light! Don’t you get it?” He shook his head. “It’s not about what’s happened. It’s about how you cope with things, who you are. You’ve always been this fierce fucking light, and even when you’re at your worst, when you feel angry and broken, you still know how to be a person. How to tell people you—you love them.”
“Stop it,” I said. He started to walk away, but I grabbed him by the elbows and held him in front of me. “You’re not going to break me, Gus.”
He stilled, his lips parting and his eyes searching my face for something. His head just slightly tilted and those grooves rose from the inside corners of his brows.
I hoped that what he was understanding right then was that I saw him. That he didn’t have to do anything special, figure out a mysterious code to unlock the secret parts of him. That he just had to keep being here with me, letting me discover him bit by bit like he’d been doing with me since we met.
“I don’t need you to tell me you care about me,” I said finally. “Two nights ago you held me while I sobbed. I think I blew my nose on your shirt. I’m not asking you for anything except to return the favor in whatever underwhelming and mild equivalent of lap-weeping you need.”
He let out a long breath and leaned forward, burying his face into the side of my neck like an embarrassed kid even as his hot breath woke something up beneath my skin. My hands skimmed down the curved muscle of his arms and knotted into his rough fingers. The sun was low on the horizon, the thin blankets of clouds streaked a pale tangerine. They looked like melted Dreamsicles floating in a sea of denim blue. Gus lifted his face and looked me in the eye again, the light leaping in great licks through the gaps in the moving clouds to paint him with color.
It was an unabashed moment, a comfortable silence. The kind of thing that, if I had been writing it, I might’ve thought I could skip right over.
But I would be wrong. Because here, in this moment when nothing was happening and we’d finally run out of things to say, I knew how much I liked Gus Everett, how much he was starting to mean to me. We’d let so much out into the open over the last three days, and I knew more would bubble up over time, but for the first time in a year, I didn’t feel overstuffed with trapped emotions and bitten-back words.
I felt a little empty, a little light.
Happy. Not giddy or overjoyed, but that low, steady level of happiness that, in the best periods of life, rides underneath everything else, a buffer between you and the world you are walking over.
I was happy to be here, doing nothing with Gus, and even if it was temporary, it was enough for me to believe that someday I’d be okay again. Maybe not the exact same brand of it I’d been before Dad died—probably not—but a new kind, nearly as solid and safe.
I could feel the pain too, the low-grade ache I’d be left with if and when this thing between Gus and me imploded. I could perfectly imagine every sensation, in the pit of my stomach and the palms of my hands, the sharp pulses of loss that would remind me of how good it felt to stand here with him like this, but for once, I didn’t think letting go was the answer.
I wanted to hold on to him, and this moment, for a while.
As if in agreement, Gus squeezed my hands in his. “I do, you know,” he said. It was almost a whisper, a tender, rugged thing like Gus himself. “Care about you.”
“I do,” I told him. “Know that, I mean.”
The tangerine light glinted over his teeth when he smiled, deepening the shadows in his rarely seen dimples, and we stayed there, letting nothing happen all around us.