September 2009 – thirteen years old.
The morning began in an orange haze.
Sunlight struggled to filter through the massive dust storm that had descended across the majority of the Australian east coast. From New South Wales, all the way up to Northern Queensland.
Everyone was abuzz with it on the morning bus. The faint orange glow cast by the dust storm threw everything into an eerie glow, and people were speculating all sorts of reasons for the phenomenon from the reasonable to the outrageous. It was just the kind of thing the twins would have loved, but, neither of them were on the bus.
Tim supposed that should have been an omen. The second one, if he counted the dust storm.
But he didn’t. So he made his way to school, not at all expecting the disaster that was to come. He was going to have his work cut out for him that day. His duty was going to be tested.
The problem didn’t start straight away, though, if Tim were paying closer attention, he might have foreseen it.
First, Ant was late.
Ant was never late. He was almost always annoyingly on time. Not through any fault of his own, though. No. Ant’s perpetual timeliness was entirely to do with his mother.
Yet, today, with the twins away and the dust storm pervading every nook and cranny of the school, Ant was late.
He came to school halfway through the first period, handed the teacher a note, and took his seat in silence.
Tim wasted no time. ‘Oi, you break down or something?’
Ant glanced sideways at him, and gave him a one shouldered shrug.
Tim frowned. ‘Your Mum don’t think the world is ending or something, does she?’ he asked, waggling his eyebrows the way he knew made Ant chuckle.
Another one shouldered shrug.
Tim frowned. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, studying his friend with the most serious frown anyone had ever seen on his face.
That was how it had started.
Someone shoved Tim’s shoulder, causing his elbow to slip and for Tim to smack himself in the face.
‘Maybe you should pay more attention instead of staring at your boyfriend.’
Tim didn’t even get a chance to respond.
Ant’s chair toppled backwards and he moved past Tim’s table in a blur of furious speed, his emotionless mask cracked to reveal the rage and pain bubbling underneath the surface.
His fist cracked into the face of the boy who’d shoved Tim, loud enough for the entire classroom to hear.
‘Don’t you speak to him like that!’ Ant’s voice was loud and rough and so, so very wrong.
In an instant Tim was on his feet. He didn’t care about the teacher. He didn’t care about the boy whose nose was no doubt broken. He didn’t care about the girls squealing and the other boys getting ready for a brawl.
He only cared about Ant.
About his friend.
‘What’s happened?’ he asked, his own voice strangely calm and quiet in the chaos. ‘What’s wrong?’
Ant turned, surprise etched into his features for just a fraction of a second. The dust storm cast the room into that same, eery orange glow as the rest of town. As if someone had put a filter over the sun.
It cast shadows over Ant’s face, turning his usually kind and gentle features into that of a trapped animal. His normally blue eyes, light as a summer afternoon, made amber in the glow.
‘I…’ Ant’s gaze refocused on the boy. ‘He insulted you.’
‘Ant,’ Tim said, his voice harder. ‘What’s happened.’
‘I think you should go home, Anthony,’ said Mrs Parker, her voice softening as she made her way up the aisle toward them. ‘I’m going to call your Mother. You need to be with your family right now.’
Tim started. He saw the pity in Mrs Parker’s eyes and knew, knew, what pain it was that had turned Ant, kind, gentle, caring Ant, into someone…someone like Tim.
Without a word he stepped closer, reaching out to pull Ant into the tightest hug he could manage. He didn’t balk when Ant broke. He didn’t pull away when the sobs grew loud and uncontrollable. He didn’t care that tears soaked his shirt. He didn’t listen when Mrs Parker tried to pry them apart and get Ant to calm down.
He just stood there, forming a support beam with his own body as his best friend clung to him. He held together the pieces of Ant’s broken heart until Ant was calm enough to hold them together himself.
‘I’ll get Ma to pick us up,’ he said, when the sobs had died down to hiccups. ‘We can have ice-cream, and go to the quarry, and see Shano’s cows. He has calves now, did you know?’
Ant shook his head, hands still clenched around Tim’s shoulders. ‘I didn’t know,’ he mumbled.
‘Want to see them?’
‘Mm. Yeah. I don’t want to go home.’
‘You don’t have to,’ said Tim, and he shifted ever so slightly, to give Mrs Parker a hard glare. ‘You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to.’
It was later, after Ma had picked them up and indeed taken them for ice-cream, that Tim learned about the shooting. While Ant was in the bathroom, Ma told him how Ant’s policeman father had died in service. There had already been an announcement about the funeral. Ant’s father was well known and well loved in town, but his mother was asking people to pay their respects at a later date and allow the family to have a small intimate funeral.
‘We’re not invited?’ Tim asked, his fists clenched.
‘Hush,’ Ma said, her eyes darting to the restroom. ‘It’s not for us to intrude. All we can do is be there for Ant when he needs us.’
‘Just not at the funeral,’ Tim said. He crossed his arms. ‘Well I’m going.’
‘You are not.’
‘She can’t stop me waiting out by the street,’ he said, scowling. ‘He can’t do it by himself. He needs me to be there, so I’m going. Even if it gets me in trouble. That’s my job!’
‘Sh, he’s coming,’ said Tim, waving at his mother. ‘Ready to see the calves?’
Ant’s dull blue eyes lifted from the squeaky linoleum floor and he nodded, a little wobbly, but a nod nonetheless.
October 2010 – fifteen years old.
They laid in the field, the beat up paddock basher a dead carcass beside them, it’s rumbling, sickly purrs having given out about half an hour ago.
They would get it running again, of that Ant was sure. He had a fairly good idea of what the problem was, but fixing it would require parts—which he would only get when Tim had cooled off enough to not try and set fire to the old, rusted out car.
So for now they lay sprawled in the grass, enjoying the late afternoon air.
Ant shifted. He kicked his shoes off. Rolled to one side. Rolled to the other side. Bent his knees and buried his toes in the top layer of soil. Laid a hand over his eyes. Scratched at the spot on his elbow the grass kept tickling—
‘For god’s sake Ant, stay still wouldja? I can’t relax with you twitching every five seconds. Spit it out already!’
‘Sorry, I… what? Spit what out?’
‘Whatever it is that has you twitching like a cain toad struck on the head.’
Ant winced at the mental image. ‘I’m not twitching.’
‘Are so. It’s driving mental. Now what?’
Any was quiet for a moment. Tim had his stubborn voice on, which meant that one way or another Ant had to figure out something to say. Why was he twitchy?
Well, that was obvious.
He sighed, shifted about in the grass and sighed again when he realised what he was doing.
‘I…alright…’ he said, and he swallowed, glancing over at Tim before deciding to keep his gaze firmly on the lazy white clouds above. ‘I…um…I think…see the thing is…I might be…er…That is I think, that I might be…well…gay.’
Wind swished through the grass, swirling in small, gentle, miniature tornadoes around them. Ant waited for the explosion. For Tim go get upset, or to sit up and rage or for him to cast Ant off as a friend.
Instead, what he got was a soft, faint snuffle. He frowned. Another beat of silence and…yep, there it was, a distinctive snore. Ant leaned up on one elbow, peering over at Tim just to be sure.
He flopped back into the grass with a sigh. Of course the idiot had fallen asleep.
November 2011 – fifteen years old.
The anti-septic stung, making Tim hiss as it was dabbed onto his bleeding knuckles.
Blue eyes flicked up to his face, a wry smile quirking up the corner of Ant’s mouth. ‘You know Genie is better at this than I am,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ said Tim, wincing as the cotton ball dabbed at a particularly nasty scrape. ‘But she always seems so disappointed.’
Plastic bottles thudded against each other as Ant searched for another cream.
‘Nope. You’re reliably happy to see me.’
Ant rolled his eyes, but Tim caught sight of the faint flush creeping up his friend’s neck and grinned.
‘Besides, you don’t lecture me.’
‘That’s because you don’t listen, not because I want you to keep fighting.’
‘Yeah, well… shit happens.’
Again, that same flick of blue eyes. ‘What was it this time? Did someone call the twins crazy again?’
‘No,’ he said curtly. ‘And I haven’t hit anyone for that in ages.’
‘You put glue in Amy Mitchell’s hair three weeks ago.’
‘Tch. That bitch,’ he sniffed. ‘She had it coming.’
Ant rolled his eyes, but Tim detected a hint of amusement. He grinned, knowing he’d gotten away with it; knowing that Ant understood. Ant and the others couldn’t always stand up for themselves, so, Tim did it for them. Sometimes that meant getting a bit rough, even if Tim knew the others wouldn’t approve.
‘You still haven’t told me what happened,’ said Ant, pausing as he studied the gash across Tim’s left eyebrow. ‘Your mum is going to kill you.’
Tim wrinkled his nose at the strong, bitter smell wafting from the nee cotton ball. Careful, as if Tim were a tiny child and not the six foot, athletic troublemaker he really was, Ant brushed the cotton ball across the shallow wound.
Tim sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth. ‘Yeah, well, shit happens,’ he said again.
Ant pulled the cotton ball away, brows furrowed in concern. ‘This is worse than usual, Tim. This wasn’t about Michelle’s brother was it?’
Tim barked out a laugh, leaning back on the edge of the bath he was sitting on. ‘You heard about that, huh?’
‘You getting caught with your girlfriend’s brother? Yeah, the whole school has heard about that Tim.’
Tim pretended not to notice the undertone of jealousy in Ant’s voice.
‘I couldn’t help it. He was flirting with me.’
‘Put this on,’ said Ant, thrusting a box of bandaids at him.
‘Oh, c’mon Ant, you ain’t mad at me are you?’
‘Why would I be mad?’
Tim sighed, thinking of at least a dozen reasons why—half of which Tim was the cause of. Still, angry or not, Ant was as gentle as he ever was.
‘There’s been a few comments at school about it. About you and Ben.’
‘Everyone knows that Ben is gay but…’
‘Now they think I am?’ Tim asked, flicking Ant a grin.
Ant frowned but nodded.
Tim shrugged. ‘Let them think what they like. It doesn’t bother me.’
‘Doesn’t it?’ Ant asked, and gestured to the various scrapes and bruises from this latest tussle.
‘This had nothing to do with Ben,’ Tim said, feeling the coil of anger unwind in his gut as he thought about what had set him off. ‘They can say what they like about me but if they call my friends—’ he cut himself off sharply, dropping his gaze to the small, well used first aid kit Ant always kept handy.
Ant sighed. ‘It was about the twins.’
Tim paused. He didn’t want to lie to Ant, but he also didn’t want to cause hurt he knew the truth would inflict.
He gritted his teeth, feeling the echo of adrenaline and fury tingle along his skin. His fists clenched, remembering the scene again.
He hadn’t been looking for a fight—especially not against three of them—but he just couldn’t hold it back. The words still rang around his head.
‘Oi faggot, bet you screw around with the copper’s kid too. Follows you around like a love-sick queerboy. Bet he lets you do—’
‘There,’ said Ant, zipping up the first aid kit. ‘That’s all done. I can’t hide the bruises like Genie does, but you can hang out here ‘til your Mum goes to work if you want?’
‘What about your Mum?’
‘She has some church thing on. It’s just me ‘til later tonight. I was gonna catch up with Freddie on the x-box.’
Tim grinned, bouncing up to his feet as if he hadn’t just gone two rounds with three beefed up losers.
‘You’re on, what’re we playing?’
The next day at school there were about twenty new rumours about Tim’s sexuality but none—not a single one—involved Ant.
To Tim, that was all that mattered.
December 2014 – seventeen years old.
‘Hey Ma…can Ant stay here a while?’
Mrs Holt looked up from the kitchen bench, where she’d been absentmindedly stirring her coffee and reading the newspaper. Ant stared at the paper as she surveyed them, his hand tightening around the handle of his suitcase, clutching at it so hard his knuckles turned white.
There was a moment of tense silence. Ant could feel Tim next to him. Felt the heat that resonated outward from the angry burn inside. A burn that Ant knew was there, but that Tim was somehow keeping under wrap for once.
‘You know,’ Mrs Holt said, turning her attention back to her newspaper. ‘I had your uncle build that loft into the barn a few years ago, when I was going to hire a stable boy.’
‘What?’ Tim asked, a hint of annoyance creeping into his tone.
She shrugged, her silken shirt rustling as she took another sip of her coffee. ‘I never hired one. Ant began helping with the horses that summer and, well, there wasn’t ever a need to hire anyone after that.’
It took a moment for her meaning to sink in, and when it did, Ant’s gaze drifted upwards in the barest hint of hope.
Tim got his eyes from his mother. Black as coal, yet as bright as the night of a full moon. She was waiting for his reaction, and when he looked up, revealing his face, those dark eyes narrowed and her jaw clenched in that familiar stubborn set.
‘Why don’t you boys see if you can clean it up a bit, eh?’ she said, reaching for her phone. ‘I have a few calls to make, then I’ll come out and help you. See if the mattress is still any good and if it isn’t, take the one out of the spare room.’
Ant couldn’t believe his ears. Did she say—did she really say he could stay? Did she really give him his own bed, his own room?
The heat coming from Tim took a new form. It changed from the simmering anger Ant could sense, to something lighter and filled with delight. He turned to Ant, grinning—beaming—and gestured toward the back door.
‘C’mon,’ he said. ‘Let’s go see your new room!’
As they left he room, Ant heard Ms Holt’s angry voice, ‘I thought I should let you know you’re son is safe at my house, though judging from the state he was in…’
Tim pulled him out of the room before he could hear the rest and Ant wasn’t sure if he should be annoyed or relieved. He didn’t to know who was going to come out on top of that conversation. Tim’s stubborn, independent mother, or his righteous, catholic one.
The loft stairs creaked as they made their way up the steps at the back of the barn. Ant had been in the loft many times. Tim held frequent slumber parties and gaming nights out in the barn, and though the loft wasn’t big enough for a crowd, it was suitable for their group of five.
Now, though, it was his.
Tim bounced on the mattress, throwing himself backwards and wriggling about—no doubt under some pretence of making sure it was “still good” but really just making a mess.
‘Seems alright to me,’ he said, sitting up and grinning at Ant.
The grin faded as his eyes settled onto Ant’s left cheekbone.
‘I’m fine,’ said Ant, and he turned to put his suitcase in the corner of the room.
He would unpack it later—so long as Mrs Holt was still okay with him staying there—but for now at least it was out of the way.
‘Are you going to tell me what happened?’
‘What really happened, not that bullshit you told me on the phone.’
Ant stared at the faded, reddish brown shag rug on the floor, his fists clenched by his side. In truth, his jaw ached, but worse are the pangs of guilt and shame that churned together in his gut.
‘Did you leave, or did she throw you out?’
Ant glanced up. He sighed, and shuffled toward the bed. It dipped as Ant sunk onto the end, the springs creaking in a drawn out groan.
Tim wrinkled his nose. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘We’ll have to fix that.’
Ant snorted, which turned into a chuckle and then, like a dam easing out flood waters in order not to burst, he started to cry. Soft little sniffles as he laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Tim, of course, panicked. ‘Jesus, don’t cry! It’s just a bed!’
Ant tried to brush away the tears, but more kept replacing them.
‘Seriously, there’s no need to get emotional. I mean I know it makes things awkward if you bring a guy up here but, hey, I’m sure we won’t hear you from the house.’
Ant’s sniffles cut off and he gaped at Tim, a few stray tears trickling down his face. ‘A…a guy?’ he blurted, and terror engulfed him.
He sucked in a sharp breath and found it wasn’t enough. He needed more air. More…except the memories begin to rush back in, filling his head, making him relive the last twelve hours. The date his mother had fixed. A sweet girl, and kind, but oh so not his type. The resulting blowback from his mother when he refused to go out with her. The argument they’d had.
God, what a fight it had been. He’d never heard his mother scream like that at someone before. Never heard her curse like she’d cursed him. And that was before she’d begun to throw things at him.
Ant tried to get more air, he gasped, his lungs filling but not quite enough. The room was far too bright and for a moment Ant thought he might pass out.
‘Oh hell,’ came Tim’s voice.
There was a rustling, and the mattress dipped down next to him. A hand grabbed his shoulder and Tim yanked him sideways. The hug was gruff and rough and awkward, and yet comforting. Tim patted him on the back, one arm around Ant’s shoulders as he rested his chin on Ant’s head.
All Ant could see was darkness, but Tim smelt like coffee and freshly turned earth and oil and it’s somehow soothing in that combination. The panic in his chest subsides, and with that scent in his nose, Ant began to calm down.
‘You stink,’ he mumbled into Tim’s chest.
‘Yeah well, some idiot put a hole in his fuel tank and guess who had to fix it?’ annoyance made Tim’s voice rumble deep in his chest.
A faint smile curled at Ant’s lips. After a moment longer of Tim’s clumsy attempt at comfort (the too-hard patting of Ant’s back wasn’t even in rhythm), Ant pulled back.
He scrubbed at his face, offering Tim a faint smile.
‘Well,’ said Tim, crossing his arms and leaning back to glare at Ant. ‘I can’t believe you freaked out.’
‘I know. I was just surprised.’
‘So was I! You know I’m not good with spontaneous tears. I need to be prepared to comfort.’
Ant’s smile broadened. ‘I think you’re getting worse at it.’
‘I appreciate the effort, though.’
Tim rolled his eyes, flopping backwards. ‘Well what else was I supposed to do. You’re my friend. It’s my—’
‘Job to make me feel better,’ Ant finished. ‘I know. Like I said, I was…surprised.’
‘What…that I know you’re gay?’
Ant shrugged one shoulder. He flopped back in a similar position to Tim, letting his legs dangle off the end of the bed as he stared up at the wooden rafters above.
‘You know I don’t care, right?’ Tim said, his voice suddenly serious.
‘Tch. Yeah, that was believable. You know, I’m hurt that you thought I’d care. I mean, seriously this is me we’re talking about. The guy who got dumped by the hottest girl in school because she caught me making out with her brother.’
‘Yeah, but you have no standards.’
Tim spluttered. Ant heard him roll around, and as he turned to look, a pillow came flying at his face.
‘I have standards, thank you very much. I just don’t happen to care what people think, and you shouldn’t either. Who gives a crap that you’re gay?’
‘You’re mother’s a bitch,’ said Tim, and then added as an afterthought, ‘No offence.’
Ant sighed. ‘I guess.’ He put his hands behind his head and tried to remember a time before his mother had become so overbearing. ‘Boys aren’t supposed to love boys the way Mum loves Dad.’
Another pillow to the face.
‘Cut it out, will you!’
‘You cut it out!’ Tim said, sitting up and glowering at Ant.
It was no longer a game. No longer funny. Tim was actually angry, and Ant shrank in the face of that stubborn expression.
‘You can love whoever, wherever, whenever you bloody well like, alright? Ain’t nobody got the right to tell you otherwise. You wanna screw boys, fine! Screw boys. So long as you know there ain’t nothing wrong with it. There’ll be plenty of people lining up to throw shit at you for how you feel, so don’t you dare add to it. You got that?’
Ant flushed. ‘Right, sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.’
‘Yes you did,’ said Tim, still scowling. ‘You never give yourself credit and it pisses me off.’
‘I…sorry. I’ll…try harder.’
‘God, don’t try. Just…I dunno…don’t judge yourself. There’s enough of that shit from everyone else. Especially your mother.’
Ant let out a dark chuckle. ‘Tell me about it,’ he muttered. ‘She threw a bible at me.’ Ant gestured to his face. ‘That’s what happened.’
Tim sat up, his eyes wide as he gaped at Ant. Abruptly, he snapped his teeth shut, a strange expression crossing his features. He sucked in a sharp breath.
It was no good. Tim burst out laughing.
Ant flushed and stared at the ceiling as he added, ‘She called a priest too. Said that I’d been possessed.’
‘Aha, oh god! What’d she think was going to happen, that you’d burst into flames?’
Tim fell back onto the bed, cackling like a mad man. Ant glared at him.
‘You know this isn’t exactly fun for me.’
Tim waved a hand at him. ‘You’re fine, you’re fine. You’re here aren’t you? Oh, man, I can’t believe she threw a bible at you, hehehe.’
Despite himself, Ant began to grin. Tim may have been rough and course and reckless. He may have been too loud, too outspoken and too restless. He may swear too much, and cause endless amounts of trouble; but he was here and he made Ant laugh, and for a little while things didn’t seem quite so hopeless. After all, wasn’t it Tim’s solemn vow to make his friends feel better?
‘All you need to know, is that when someone loves you, it means that they’d do anything to make you happy.’
‘What’re you smirking about?’
Before Ant could answer, he heard footsteps on the stairs outside.
‘How’s it looking in there?’ Ms Holt asked, peeking her head inside the door and looking far too smug.
Ant raised his eyebrows. Looks like she’d won.
‘Bed springs could do with replacing, but it’a alright. Sturdy,’ said Tim, bouncing on the bed in demonstration. ‘Oh, and I’ll need some supplies to rig up the new sign.’
‘Sign?’ Ant and Ms Holt asked at the same time.
‘Yeah,’ Tim grinned, a wicked glint entering his eye. ‘We’re gonna call it “The Poof’s Palace”.’
Ant barked out a surprised laugh. ‘God, you are an asshole, you know that?’
Ms Holt snorted. ‘If anyone else called Ant that you’d have knocked their teeth out.’
‘Course I would,’ said Tim, slinging an arm around Ant’s shoulders. ‘But I ain’t anyone else.’
Ant grinned. ‘No, you’re not.’
‘And anyway, he’s my poof, so I can say whatever I damn well please.’
Mrs Holt sniffed. ‘If you say so,’ she glanced at Ant, her expression softening. ‘Feel free to throw him out whenever he annoys you.’
Ant wasn’t listening, he was too busy trying to keep his face from turning bright red. It didn’t matter that it was a joke, or that Tim was only trying to cheer him up, Ant still couldn’t help the little flutter of pleasure in his chest.
He said I was his.