If you haven't read part 12, do so here. Or you can start from the beginning.A week passes, then two, and every day I curse the boy in the mirror whose spine is missing.
In stories and what I remember of films, character development jumps after a major crisis. A resolution is made and a revolution occurs. Were this not my life, I would have walked out on Mr. Hale within a week of the incident, or Brandon would have stormed the house and whisked me away for a happily-ever-after. It should have been my breaking point, when I said to myself, "Anything is better than this," and shook the dust from my shoes as I left. However, the shocking and unfortunate encounter on that fateful Sunday was a minor mishap, one that barely wrinkled the fabric of my relationship with Mr. Hale and was quickly ironed out.
Another Sunday goes by, another weekly anniversary of the worst day I've had since my parents died. The vacation incident only ranks below because I had run from the man I thought I loved, not allowed him to be driven away. This incident, even though I tell myself that time will dull the hurts between Brandon and me, is refreshed every time Sunday comes round. My thoughts turn morbid. I contemplate life and death, and my inner critic sneers that if I died now, no one would mourn my passing.
For Christmas Mr. Hale throws a fête, a ribald affair that I escape by claiming sickness and sticking my finger down my throat to provide evidence. I cannot do the same for the New Year's Eve party, but the guests are business associates who know nothing about his sexual preferences.
My courage, or perhaps my idiocy, set its iron talons to me the following week. I feign illness again, though careful not to repeat previously used symptoms. As soon as I am sure that Mr. Hale has departed, I get dressed.
Bunny, this is stupid, I inform my booted feet. He is probably in class. Deaf as always, my feet continue the reverse of my last pedestrian journey. Wind bites at my eyes and cheeks, and I give up trying to wipe away all the cold-induced tears that stream down my face. Winter makes everyone weep for one reason or another.
The absurdity of the situation is painfully apparent. It was an entirely foolish notion to fake sickness in order to stand outside a window and stare at a man making coffee. Of course, I could go inside and apologize for the hurtful words exchanged. I sigh and silently berate my transparent reflection in the shop's window.
The voice originates behind me. I turn, stomach dropping.
"What are you doing here?" Brandon's voice is distant but curious.
My ears are likely turning pink, and I am glad for my hat. "I played sick."
We stare at each other for a moment. I am unsure why I am quite so elated to see him, especially since he'll likely tell me to leave. Brandon, however, surprises me. His smile is not wide enough to be labeled a grin, but shows his teeth nonetheless.
"Come on in. I'm just here to do some reading and stuff before I clock on for the lunch shift."
I follow him inside, docile and apprehensive and elated that he deigns to speak with me. We sit down in a booth away from the front window; I catch myself drumming my fingertips on the table while Brandon gets us coffee. I am taken aback by his change in attitude. Though I know he is nothing like Mr. Hale, I wonder if Brandon, too, is going to deliver the worst news with the most pleasant of demeanors.
"Orange Pekoe, my treat." Brandon sets a cup in front of me and takes a sip from his own. "Okay, you go first."
There is froth clinging to the corner of his upper lip but I don't touch it.
"I thought you had school," I say. Why is that the first thing from my mouth? It sounds as though I had hoped to avoid him. I amend with, "I'm glad I caught you."
"Next semester starts in another week," Brandon smiles. "Benefits of college life and all."
"I apologize," I blurt.
"Me, too," Brandon replies easily. "I was judgmental, you were defensive and snappish. We both said things we shouldn't have."
I nod. "I have been sorry since they emerged from my mouth."
"Dude, we were both jackasses," Brandon says easily. "I thought you were the one who had invited me over."
"I beg your pardon?" I nearly yell the words, horrified.
Brandon shakes his head ruefully. "I know, I know, you didn't even have a cell phone, and it was a text message. But I was kind of excited, so I didn't think about it or anything."
My mouth gapes fishlike as I grasp fruitlessly for the vocabulary with which to express my outrage. I can hardly believe that Mr. Hale would stoop to a tactic so childish.
"In retrospect," Brandon fills the pause, "it's a little bit flattering to think that Mr. Hale was so afraid of losing you to someone like me."
Someone perfect. It's too saccharine, too genuine to say aloud. The words are locked under my stone tongue. I think that I might hate Mr. Hale a little.
"I suppose it doesn't matter, in retrospect." I wrap my fingers around the cup to keep from looking at my only friend. "We can make countless apologies, but I am still fully reliant on Mr. Hale."
Brandon's eyes narrow. "We're friends, right?"
I nod. The thumping of my heart must be audible.
"This whole apology thing is to mend a friendship. It's not so that we can run away to the Appalachians together and raise sheep and make sweet love under the harvest moon while the doves coo."
That sounds considerably better than my other options. "I just, I mean, I'm ready to leave the relationship, but I'm not truly prepared. You know?"
Brandon huffs with undisguised irritation. "Tuck, if you can survive him, you can survive without him. You'll never know how you function on your own if you don't try."
I spread my hands helplessly. "Who would hire me? I have no skills."
"You could be trained."
"I have no time."
"A friend of mine makes serious cash doing hour-long odd jobs."
"And I have no source of transportation," I finish. "I have to walk to the new Starbucks, and if I'm late in returning..." I drift into silence. Let Brandon imagine to what uses Mr. Hale puts me in that case. He hasn't seen the worst.
"Public transportation. Ever heard of it? Carpooling, perhaps?"
It all seems impossible. I don't want to tell Brandon what a coward I am. The truth, nonetheless, slips out. "I'm a bitch," I mutter into my tea. "Maybe it's all training, maybe it's in my nature and Mr. Hale just brought it out. No matter how you look at it, all I know how to do well is be some rich guy's toy. I can't survive on my own that way."
"Tucker." Brandon flicks my fingers, causing my eyes to rise. "Being able to take care of ourselves doesn't mean that we never need help."
I'm about to tell him that I know, but am afraid of falling into old habits of dependency. Any words that were ready to leap from my mouth are stilled by the look on Brandon's face. He's looking up at someone behind me with an expression that nears murderous.
True to form, I freeze, as though if I sit still enough he won't notice I'm still there. A stern hand grips my shoulder, and before I can wonder how he found me, Mr. Hale yanks me to my feet. A real rabbit would scream in the throes of death.
"Hey," Brandon says tightly, angrily. "Lay off."
I can't look at him, though I know that my whole face is red with humiliation. For Pete's sake, you're a grown man, I tell myself, but myself pretends deafness. Mr. Hale does let go of my shoulder; I haven't looked to see if anyone else is paying attention.
"You need to come with me," Mr. Hale states, and the weight of this sentence is crushing. His voice is honey-smooth, tailored for the public. He is the viper and I am the mouse.
Brandon is looking to me to do something, say anything. I want to apologize to him and tell him that I'm not ready to survive alone. There is a twisting, snapping, ripping sensation around my heart. Perhaps it has leapt from my chest and left itself pulsing on the table, and I'm leaving it there as I turn and follow the man who owns me. The niggling voice at the back of my head laughs derisively. You think you have nowhere to go? Soon you won't even have Mr. Hale to keep you from starving.
This is what you chose, I remind myself when Mr. Hale orders a chair brought for me at the table. It should feel like a reward, but with the mahogany distance stretching between us I know that I am entering a new hell of my own creation. We eat silently; I stare at my plate and push the food around with my fork. How did he find me? Does he not work today?
I imagine the look on Brandon's face when I left him, like pressing a bruise to see if it still hurts. It does.
Mr. Hale's voice makes me jump, I was so entangled in my thoughts.
His expression betrays nothing, but he holds out his hand. "Come upstairs," he repeats.
In Faustian manner I take his hand and allow him to pull me up the stairs, down the hall and into his bedroom. I stand with my arms at my sides, numb, as Mr. Hale extinguishes the lights, undresses me, and lays me on his bed.
Then he fucks me.
He sets a savage, punishing pace. Each stroke screams Mine! as his fingers crush my waist to the bed. I do not whimper or cry out, but I grip the headboard hard enough to leave fingernail imprints. I wonder briefly why he turned out the lights and shut the blinds; he has never done that before.
Mr. Hale uses his hips like a jackhammer, each thrust knocking the wind from my lungs. He's using every technique to make my body rise to him, and though he is successful I feel distant from the pleasurable sensations that my nerves communicate. Perhaps I have died, but my physical being is yet unawares. Something hot is falling on my face. I open my mouth and taste salt that is not of sweat.
The room is black and Mr. Hale is already breathing heavily. I reach up, startled when he grabs my wrist.
Oh, I think. Oh.
His body shudders with orgasm, and mine does not long after. Mr. Hale wraps his muscled body around me, gripping me so tight that I worry he might collapse my rib cage. Had I been only two years younger, I would have rejoiced. He really loves me! I would have repeated silently, smiling and stroking his arm until I fell asleep. Now, I marvel at my lack of emotion as I lie awake long after Mr. Hale's breathing evens out.
I'll never see Brandon again.