December 2012 – 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, auburn 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 was somehow soothing in that combination. The panic in his chest subsided, 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. ‘Besides, you don’t understand. You’re still interested in girls. I never have been. 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’s 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’re 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.