Bear, Otter, & the Kid 03 - The Art of Breathing (5 page)

I nodded, even though I wished he wouldn’t need it at all.

“I won’t do it, Tyson. Not if I don’t have your blessing.”

And I realized he meant it, and it made me sick to my stomach that I had such power over him, that he was willing to alter the course of his whole future just because I was scared. I couldn’t do that to him. I wouldn’t. So even though my heart hurt with it, I told him of
course
I would support him. Of
course
I understood. It was one of the few times I ever lied to him.

But he’s good at his job, and it looks good on him. Dom continued to grow. And grow. And grow. Now, at twenty-two, he has a few inches on Otter, both in height and width. He’s a giant and can be intimidating as all hell, both on and off the job, though that intimidation never works on me. It’s not as if it’s a façade, it’s just that I can see the Dominic I know through all that steel and grit. I told him once he can be a hardass all he wants, just as long as he’s not like that with me, because I’ll make fun of him repeatedly to his face. He growled at me that he’d arrested people for less. I reminded him that, by that point, he’d only been a cop for, like, six hours and he needed to get off his high horse because I still wasn’t buying it. Then he told me that when I got my license, he was going to pull me over every chance he got, just because he could. Of course, at that point we didn’t know that I probably wouldn’t be around him when I was able to drive.

“You’re still being quiet,” he says, touching my arm. “Everything okay?”

No. Everything’s not okay.

“It’s fine,” I say. “Just a little stressed, I guess. Finals, graduation.” I shrug. “You know, the future.”

“Do you know if you’re valedictorian yet? Or is that just the forgone conclusion?”

I smile, trying to be modest, even though it comes out sounding like bragging. “They haven’t said, though it looks like I will be. Hell, it’s great publicity for the school—someone my age graduating with a 4.30 GPA. Think of all the donations they’ll be angling for now.”

“Then there’s the fact that you got into an Ivy League school,” Dom points out.

“Yeah. There’s that.” I look out the window.

We’re almost to the Green Monstrosity.

“Tyson?”

“Yeah?”

“You know I’m proud of you, right?”

I bite my bottom lip, trying to keep myself in check. If only he knew how hard it is to hear that. It’s not as if I don’t know. I do. We just don’t say things like that to one another, not usually. Platitudes are not who we are.

But even I can’t ignore the fire that ignites in my belly at his words.

“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”

He pulls up to the curb at the Green Monstrosity. Good. It looks like no one’s home. The house should be filled with people now, waiting. I’m about to open the car door when he reaches out and grabs my hand, stopping me. I stare down at my fingers on the handle. I wait.

“Tyson,” he says.

“What?”

“You haven’t even really looked at me since I picked you up.”

“I have.” I sound petulant. Defensive.

“You haven’t,” he rumbles at me. “I’ve been waiting.”

“For what?”

“For you to see me. What’s going on?”

Everything
. “Nothing,” I say. “It’s not….”

“It’s not what?”

Damn him. “It’s nothing.” I turn to look at him and flash a smile, trying to make it as bright as humanly possible. Trying to make it so there’s no more questions. No more words. It almost works, because I can see the quirk of his lips as he starts to respond, just like I know he will. I smile at him like this, he smiles back. It’s the way we are. It’s how things work.

But it starts to crumble. It starts to fade. The smile I’m expecting slides back into a frown. Now it’s awkward, me and him, sitting here just staring at each other like we’ve got all the time in the world. And doesn’t something happen then? Don’t I feel a pang in my chest, a skipping beat in my heart? My hands would be shaking if they weren’t curled tightly around the handle. My knees would be bouncing if I wasn’t concentrating so hard on keeping them still.

He has such blue eyes. He needs a haircut, maybe in another week or two. I’ll have to remind him. There’s a little scar, just left and below his bottom lip. He doesn’t remember how he got it, only that it’s there. I wonder again if it came from that night, that night he screamed and wouldn’t stop screaming until his voice broke in half.

“Tyson,” he breathes. My name on his lips is like a revelation, and I want to break. I want to shatter. I want to tell him things I can’t even admit to myself.

“What?” I croak.

“You know I love you, right?” His gaze searches mine.

“Yeah.” Because I do. I’ve known since the beginning. It’s inevitable—our word of the day, the word of our friendship.

“And you’d tell me if something was wrong?”

“I don’t….” I shake my head. “We’re best friends, right?”

“Right.” No hesitation. No looking away. “Like brothers.”

I ignore that part. “And you trust me?”

“Always.”

“Then I need you to trust me now,” I say, trapping him, even though I don’t want to.

He knows. His eyes narrow. “That’s not how this works.”

I nod, though it costs me. My hands start to shake. “I’m fine. Hey, let me go get ready so we can go out for dinner, birthday boy. We don’t want to waste you turning into an old man by sitting in your car all night.” Though that sounds good to me. Every bit. Every part.

He doesn’t stop me as I open the car door this time. I take a deep breath, the salt in the air thicker than normal. I hear the cry of seagulls, the normal sounds of traffic on the street. Somewhere, someone laughs. It’s normal. It’s the same.

I don’t stop him when he puts his arm around my shoulders as we walk up the steps. I don’t stop him when he holds me close. I put one foot in front of the other and ignore how he smells. His grip on my shoulder tells me we’re not done talking. Maybe it can wait. Maybe it can wait forever. Maybe we can just turn around. Maybe we can just get back into the car and drive away and go somewhere else where I can be an almost sixteen-year-old kid with no expectations weighing on me, and he can be whoever he wants to be, and it will just be me and him. It’ll be the two of us against the world, and we’ll tear it apart and carve out our own place. Things are starting to disintegrate within me, and I need him to know the choice I’ve been given. I need him to make up my mind for me.

I need him to tell me to stay. To never leave his side.

I look up at him and he looks down at me, and for the first time in all the years I’ve known him, that weird twinge in my heart becomes something more, something so much more that it roars in my ears. It hits me like a sledgehammer to the chest, and only one real thought comes to mind as I realize that I’m in love with my best friend:
Bear’s going to shit himself silly when he finds out about this. It’s impossible. It can’t be like this. It’s not
supposed
to be like this.

But it’s inevitable.

I open my mouth to tell Dom everything, because I can’t keep this from him. I just can’t. Then he opens the door to the Green Monstrosity.

“Surprise!” everyone screams.

Surprise. Surprise. Surprise.

 

 

“R
EMINDS
ME
of the party we had for you,” Creed tells me hours later. “You remember that jumping castle we had in the backyard?”

“Urgh. Don’t remind me. Bear and Otter wanted to get one for Dom as a joke, but I think they’re weirdly kinky about jumping castles. I don’t think the guests would have appreciated a show.”

Anna gives a choking laugh from her spot next to her husband. “That’s something that I could have completely gone without knowing.” She furrowed her brow. “Wait, weren’t Bear and I still dating when that party happened?”

“You are so not allowed to be jealous over something like that,” Creed says, pretending to look wounded. “Besides, you know nothing happened between them back then. At least at that point.”

“Except the falling in love with each other part.”

“Well, think of it this way,” he says. “You traded in a gay and got a huge old motherfucking stud. You upgraded, baby.”

“Daddy? What’s motherfucking?” JJ asks, appearing at his side. Like most five-year-olds, he looks a bit sticky, juice and cake and dirt smeared all over him. The fact that he’s the spitting image of his dad and uncle makes the effect slightly more amusing.

“It’s what I do to your mother,” Creed tells him, grinning.

“Creed!” Anna slaps him on the arm before leaning over, licking her thumb, and wiping her son’s face. “Your daddy is in big trouble,” she tells JJ. “He’s going to be grounded later, much like you’ll be if I ever hear you say that word. We don’t say that word out loud. Right, Creed?”

“Er. Right. Never, ever say motherfucking. Or balls.”

JJ nods. “Okay. I won’t say motherfucking balls.”

“I love you, dude,” Creed says, adoration clear in his voice. I laugh until I get a glare from Anna.

JJ cackles and high-fives his father before he takes off running in a group of munchkins being led by Bear and Otter.

“You know,” I tell them, “you guys cursed around me that much when I was his age, and I turned out okay.”

Creed eyes me up and down. “Define ‘okay’.”

“I can dress myself and feed myself and walk without falling down. Most of the time.”

“Success, motherfucker!” He says it in a low voice, though, so his distracted wife won’t hear him. Anna has the run of their version of the Thompson household, that’s for sure. Creed likes to pretend he still has his balls, but I’m pretty sure they were removed the moment he asked Anna to marry him last year. I asked them once why they waited so long. Anna said she was carefully weighing all her options just to make sure. I thought that was funny. Creed didn’t.

We watch as Bear and Otter lead a group of kids in some game I can’t quite figure out. Bear looks like he’s miming that he’s either a teacup or a rhinoceros with a skin disorder, and Otter’s jumping up and down as if he’s excited about Bear’s status as a cup or a flaky rhino. The kids around them scream with laughter, and JJ breaks through all of them and jumps into Otter’s arms, shouting, “Uncle O! Uncle O!” Otter laughs and spins him around and around and around.

“Have they talked any more about adopting?” Anna asks me, a look of fondness on her face as she watches our family.

I shrug. “A little. I don’t know if they’re ready for it yet, though. Moving across the country is taking up a lot of their time, and I don’t think Bear is quite there yet. And you know as well as I do that Otter won’t push.”

“That’s not who he is,” she murmurs, smiling as JJ attempts to climb Otter like a tree. “Bear will get there.”

“He will for Otter,” Creed says, wrapping his arm around Anna’s shoulders. “Even if he can’t do it for himself, he’ll do it for him.”

Creed’s right. He will. Bear will sacrifice anything to make Otter happy, even if it means going against what he wants for himself. But I get the feeling Bear’s focusing more on the little boy now resting across Otter’s shoulders than Otter right now. There’s a strange look on his face, one I can’t quite place. It’s gone before I can figure it out, and he looks back down at the other kids swarming around his legs shouting happily.

I look around the party, waving at Alice and Jerry Thompson (Creed and Otter’s parents), who’re sitting down talking with Custody Trio—Eddie, Erica, and Georgia (the social worker)—all of whom have somehow become a part of us. They wave back, grinning. There are people from the Seafare Police Department, all gathered together, laughing and drinking beer. There are faculty from the school where Bear teaches, friends of Otter’s from the photography studio. Neighbors are mingled throughout, and for a moment, I pretend Mrs. P is there too, standing next to me, telling me that she is pretty sure she wants to have relations with the police chief, but don’t tell her husband Joseph, God love him, because he’s probably eavesdropping on us right this very second, as he’s wont to do. I remind myself to go see her, as it’s been a while since I’ve been to her grave. It was too hard at first, and for a long time, I stayed away. It’s gotten easier and I know she likes it when I bring flowers. I have so much to tell her. Maybe I can tell her about—

“Where’s Dom?” I ask. I haven’t seen him in a while, and he doesn’t seem to be in the backyard.

“Oh,” Creed says. “He went inside a bit ago with Sta—oof!”

I turn to look at him, wondering what the hell that’s all about. Creed’s rubbing his side and Anna’s glaring up at him, pulling her elbow back.

“I think he’ll be out in a bit,” Anna says to me. “Why don’t we go get something to eat? You can help me with JJ. He wants to become a vegetarian just like his Uncle Ty.”

Adults are so fucking weird. I want to find Dom, maybe to give him his present when it’s just the two of us. I’m a little embarrassed by it, to be honest, and I don’t know if he’ll like it, but it was the first thing that I thought of, and it’s the only thing that’s stuck with me.

“Sure,” I say as I look toward the Green Monstrosity.
I’ll go find him in a minute
.

A minute turns into ten minutes, but as soon as Anna’s distracted, rolling her eyes as JJ refuses to eat the hamburger she’s made for him (“Uncle Ty said that it’s made with hormones that’ll make me shrink! Motherfucking balls!”), I blend quietly into the crowd, stopping by the present table, piled high with gifts. I grab the square package that’s badly wrapped (I understand the math behind it, what with angles and all, but wrapping presents is not exactly my forte; I think maybe I’ve used the world’s supply of scotch tape just to wrap a present the size of a book), before heading toward the house.

And it’s in these last steps before I reach the screen door that my decision is made. It’s in these last steps I take that I can’t imagine myself being away from him, not for any stretch of time. It’s in these last steps that I know I’ll tell Bear that I want to stay here for another year, just to find my bearings. And while that is true, the real reason I’ll stay is because of Dom. The real reason I’ll stay is to make sure Dom knows how I feel about him. I’ll have a whole year to convince him he belongs to me, that I’m not just some kid who has tagged along by his side for the past six years. I’ll convince him that where he goes, I go. If he wants to stay in Seafare forever, then I will too. I don’t need to go to school. I don’t need any of it. I just need him. When I tell him, the look of relief on his face will be such a palpable thing that I’ll wonder why there was ever really a choice at all. I don’t think about Bear’s and Otter’s reactions. I don’t think about their disappointment because they’ll get over it. They’ll be fine. They’ll understand. They’ll know because they
have
to know. They’ll
have
to understand.

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