By the Pricking of Thumbs

Neil used to play Hasbro’s Don’t Spill The Beans with his older brother, and he’d cry when he’d lose. He’d deny the crying, just like his brother denied cheating by tipping the side of the plastic pot with his finger on Neil’s turn, dumping the beans out. After, Neil would collect the little beans and use them to “cook” in his sister’s old dollhouse. Another day, another game, while his brother smirked at his trembling bottom lip. By the time Neil figured out how to cheat himself, his brother didn’t want to play games with him anymore.

Neil was good at finding ways to amuse himself. He liked to make small villages out of Lincoln Logs, and he spent a good deal of time redesigning and refurbishing the dollhouse. He liked looking at his mother’s home and gardening magazines, at their bright and cheerful pictures. When he was a little older, he’d watch soap operas after school with his mother while she did her needlepoint. When he asked her if he could try, she’d been happy to show him the multicolored threads and the book of patterns even while his father scoffed. You have the right steady, sure hands for it, she said. And the patience. Neil always had a good deal of patience.

Many years later, at the night in the police station, Neil will stand with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his letterman jacket—Liam’s jacket, actually—and his patience will come in handy.

Liam was an only child, and this was both freeing and stifling. His mother hoped it’d be harder for him to leave her and the cozy home she’d built for the two of them behind on the first day of school, but he ran into his kindergarten classroom with hair already straying from his mother’s carful side part, a grin on his face, and no backward glance over his shoulder. Liam rushed into most things in his life in this same rowdy, eager manner. He bounded through elementary school with one of his shoelaces perpetually untied. Try soccer, his gym teacher told his mother at a parent-teacher conference, rubbing his eyes. Maybe that will harness some of his energy.

There wasn’t much energy harnessing, but the soccer field was where he first ran into Neil, whose father had signed him up for the opposite reason. You’re too quiet and still, Neil’s father said, studying his son on the field before unbuttoning his mechanic’s shirt and returning to his car. Go run around or something. Be more like your brother.

Liam was good at running around, whether the soccer ball was near him or no. Liam was also good at telling stories. He filled composition books in class about adventures and heroics and battles; he prattled on to the principal when he was sent to her office for being too disruptive; he stood on one end of the soccer field with Neil, waving his arms around in excitement and rambling.

Liam was good at telling stories, but on that night, he will find he doesn’t know what to say. There will just be Neil’s white face and the stern gaze of the officer that picked them up, waiting for words that cannot unstick themselves from his throat.

When their classmates started calling Neil names and whispering at recess around the fourth grade, Liam told him over and over to just ignore them. He dragged Neil home with him after school and distracted him with board games and comics and, of course, his own stories. Being known as Liam’s friend helped Neil, and Liam never joined in with the teasing. Liam liked Neil, or he seemed to, and Neil liked him too—he was funny and nice and fun to play with. His house was close to Neil’s. He was smart and understanding and a good best friend. Neil liked seeing him at school, at soccer, and sometimes on the weekends.

Neil wrote some of these things down on a valentine for Liam, cramped next to the generic Superman Valentine’s Day message—YOU’RE MY SUPER FRIEND, VALENTINE!

This was a mistake. His classmates saw it, and they giggled behind their hands. Neil, hunching his shoulders, looked at Liam’s face pinched with confusion and resolved to stick to the pre-written messages only in the future.

Besides, he could always leave extra messages in Liam’s mailbox, and later, his locker.

Neil didn’t want to go to the bonfire. “It’s at Keith’s,” he said flatly, shifting his textbooks around in his locker. “Wouldn’t you rather just stay in for the night? And I can get some of my physics project done.”

“Stay at home, with my mother? Pass,” Liam shot back, thinking of her narrow suspicious looks, her admonishments to go to church, her leading questions. How he kept his bedroom door locked when Neil came over. He shifted his weight. “Might be okay, right? We could just go for a little while.” Liam tried to keep his voice level.

Keith worked out in the weight room before school, had a squashed looking face, and was the type who looked like they adored lighting things on fire. He’d cornered Liam before school in the parking lot, arms crossed. “I saw you,” he’d sneered, and Liam didn’t need to know the specifics of what he’d seen to know that he had, in fact, seen it.

He knew that they really needed to go to this bonfire—make an appearance, stay on Keith’s good side, spend some time with the other guys. Blend in.

“Please?” Liam tugged on the collar of Neil’s shirt. Neil smacked his hand away while glancing around the hallway. He straightened the collar and made sure it was up high enough on his neck for coverage, then slammed his locker shut. He was always telling Liam to be more careful.

“Fine,” Neil sighed, “we’ll be there.”

The police officers will bring the three of them in separately for questioning. Liam will go first, and he’ll feel like the white-washed walls are closing in on him inch by inch.

He won’t say anything, won’t answer any of their questions.

We have a witness, the older officer will say, hands resting on his stomach. She had a friend who nobody noticed, who slipped away and used a neighbor’s phone to call us. We know you all were there when it happened, that you didn’t just find her.

Neil stayed in the car, Liam will say. He’ll look up at last and say it again, louder.

Neil found one of his brother’s magazines in middle school and brought it to Liam’s one night when he stayed over. He’d never seen one before. Liam turned page after glossy page fast before noticing Neil’s expression. “What?” he said, hand hovering over a bikini model. Neil bit his lip.

“I don’t think about girls,” he mumbled. “I’m supposed to, but I don’t.” There was a buzzing in his ears, but he’d felt the pressure of this knowledge in his chest for too long without release.

“Well,” Liam stuttered, something in his voice betraying awareness that this was important territory and yet inability to navigate it, “they’re not all I think about.”

“Really?” Neil met his eyes, then, hopeful.

He batted around the same fluttering hope for years, squelching it down and giving it tiny increments of air when he saw fit, to keep it alive.

When Liam grasped his hand to tug him up from the grass at a soccer game, laughing, rubbed his back; Liam at some time, some place, voice like spun sugar whispering I’m proud of you—down, down.

When Liam hugged him at their eighth grade graduation, reassuring Neil that it only goes up from here, my man!—a gasp of air, an automatic smile.

When he promised himself he wouldn’t look in the locker rooms after their gym class and did, even though he promised and he hated himself and he hated the little spike of pleasure even more—down, down, down.

When the two of them sat on the hood of Liam’s new-old car after he scraped through his driver’s test, knees almost touching, and Neil told Liam they were only one and a half years away from college. “We can make it,” he breathed, rubbing his palm over the cool metal. “We have to get out of this shitty town.” Liam smiled, knocked their knees together—air, just a little.

Neil is second in line for questioning, and when they ask him if he wants anything to drink, he’ll ask for a cup of water and never remember to take a sip. He will run his finger around the rim of the cup and will his voice to stop wobbling. He’ll remind himself, repeatedly, to breathe.

I didn’t want to go to the bonfire, he’ll tell them, each word careful. I didn’t want to get in Keith’s car, either, and I didn’t know what he was doing. And when I did, I didn’t get there fast enough, I couldn’t help her—

You got out of the car? The younger officer will interrupt, frowning. Are you getting mixed up? We’re talking about at the park.

Neil will frown back, and the officer will say that Liam had told them Neil had stayed in the car the entire time, and Neil will close his eyes.

They were at Liam’s house at the cusp of eighth grade, just finished playing gin rummy in the basement, and Liam’s mother had gone up to bed after telling them to keep it down and by God, get some sleep. Liam had an open bag of Twizzlers in one hand and was gesturing with the other while detailing the rumors he’d heard about the new girl at school.

“Supposedly, she’s kissed a lot of guys.” He gestured with a piece of licorice and pulled a face. “A lot, Neil. And, you know, more.” He waggled his eyebrows and smirked.

Neil was peeling his licorice apart string by string, brow furrowed in concentration. “What’s it like to kiss a girl, anyway?” he murmured, pulling at the candy. “How do you do it?”

“Easy.” Liam had always rushed his answers before thinking them through, been eager to please. “I’ll show you.”

Neil opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. He fumbled with his Twizzler and dropped it. He nodded.

Liam found himself nodding back. He licked his lips. He didn’t know why he could feel his face heating up, but he wasn’t one to back down—from one of his own ideas, nonetheless. Before he let himself think too much, he reached for Neil’s face, and he kissed him.

It was not cinema-worthy. It wasn’t romantic, either—it was clumsy, their teeth clacked together, and it was all but three seconds long. Later, when Liam tried to remember what Neil’s lips had felt like or tasted like, he came up empty. No matter, he scolded in the dark, it didn’t mean anything.

After, in the basement, he wiped the back of his mouth with his hand and ignored the stuttering of his heartbeat. Neil’s cheeks were flushed. They stared at each other far longer than the actual kiss had lasted.

Silence didn’t sit well with Liam. “So—” he stammered. Neil waited a beat more before blurting, “I’m not—”

They didn’t talk about it. Not like they should have.

They will not have had time to talk or to process the situation before they get to the police station, either. They will just be together, and then suddenly apart.

Neil knew their small Maine town, Neil knew their place. Neil understood how a boy was supposed to grow up here, what he was supposed to be. Neil could be good at hiding when he needed to be.

Neil went to the library at the next town over to check out certain books with a card under a fake name in attempt to learn the terms, to understand. No one else had to, though. No one else had to know.

Sometimes when he was stressed Neil would take out his old needlepoint. The familiarity and the rhythm of the stitching soothed him, and the care and concentration the craft demanded forced him to let go of other thoughts, other things. He rolled the child-sized protective thimble between his fingers and forgot to replace it, instead sucking at the thumb pricks. By the pricking of my thumbs, his mother had sing-songed when he was still small, reaching out to tickle him. Something wicked this way comes.

He made Liam a handkerchief once, though he didn’t think Liam would use it—Liam’s initials intertwined with flowers in one crisp corner. He rubbed his thumb over the letters, over and over, once it was done.

Should he edge the door open with his foot, see what was or could be behind it, or just leave it alone? He asked himself this while he studied the ceiling some nights, the nights when he couldn’t sleep. On most of these nights—for a year, or maybe more—Neil decided it was easiest and best and all those other persuasive words to lie, to deflect, to settle.

During questioning, Keith will lie, of course. It’s his girlfriend, and it’s his car, but he will still lie. It was a group effort, at least. When pressed, he’ll give a name. Keith was angry, sure, but he wasn’t the one to lose control. Why would he do that to her? Why shouldn’t they believe him?

Neil said he had a cold at their first homecoming dance, kept ducking into the bathroom to blow his nose. Liam brought a date from study hall who lost interest in him in the middle of a new Simon & Garfunkel ballad. The two of them stood together near the spiked punchbowl until they’d had enough of the loud music and shimmering lights. Outside, Liam loosened his tie and laughed, giddy at the cool night air on his heated face. He grabbed for Neil’s hand and twirled him around, once, in the parking lot.

“Sorry, my eyes are leaky,” Neil whispered, bringing his sleeve up to his face, but Liam thought he might be the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He distracted himself by pulling out his handkerchief, dabbing at Neil’s eyes and cheeks with clumsy fingers.

“Sorry,” Liam whispered back, “I might be drunk.”

They didn’t go to junior prom. They both snuck out once it was dark—Neil was successful, for once—and danced in the park. Liam cupped the back of Neil’s neck and grasped his hands while doing his version of the Twist and laughed as loud as he wanted. Liam knew he was happy, and that had to be enough.

Did you hit her? The officers will say together in different tones. Look, son, the gentler voice will continue, we’re not asking if you meant to hurt her. We’re just asking if you did.

Liam will know he hurt her, he did, just not in the way they’re asking about. He’ll also know that he won’t, can’t, hurt Neil.

Liam managed to throw Neil a surprise birthday party for his Sweet Sixteen, and Neil both couldn’t figure out how he’d pulled it off and couldn’t get rid of the smile etched across his face. The others from the soccer team and some of their classes had left, and Neil and Liam laid side by side on the floor of Neil’s bedroom. Liam took out the bottle of wine he’d smuggled from his mother’s cabinet—it’s French, mon trésor—and they passed it back and forth, content with their bellies full of cake and their company and the settling haziness.

“I’m happy,” Neil slurred, feeling warm and heavy with wine. Liam rolled towards him and propped himself up on one elbow, picking at the carpet. Neil copied his position and grasped Liam’s hand to stop him, movements slow. He kept his hand on Liam’s. He blinked at their hands together and then reached for the wine bottle again.

Neil miscalculated—maybe—and instead of grasping the bottle, he grasped the side of Liam’s face, ran his thumb down his cheek. Liam sucked in his breath, sharp. Neil felt the warmth and smoothness of Liam’s skin and closed his eyes.

“Another birthday present?” Liam’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat.

Neil cut off the thoughts that were screaming at him by tilting Liam’s face toward him and kissing him, soft. Liam tasted like frosting and bitter wine and it was his birthday, goddamn, he could crumble a little just for today, out of sight, couldn’t he?

They kissed for much longer than three seconds this time—they clutched at each other until they broke apart, breathing fast. Liam was kneeling over Neil with his hand in his hair, moving slow for once, and Neil could have cried at how good it felt and at the sadness in Liam’s smile, in his eyes.

“We can’t,” said Liam, voice shaking, fingers digging into Neil’s scalp.

Neil sighed. “I know. This town, everybody, they’d—” Something heavy and ugly was balling up in his stomach, uncomfortable. “We’d be—” He shook his head. Liam disentangled their limbs and slid off of him, slow. They sat, side by side, backs propped against Neil’s bed. Neil could hear his parents and his sister moving around downstairs, still cleaning up from the party.

“I,” Neil started, then stopped. “I, uh, wouldn’t want to ruin us, anyway.” He gestured between them and picked up the forgotten bottle of wine, taking a sip for something to do. He passed the bottle to Liam, who stared into the murky green glass, chewing his lip.

“I’m happy,” Liam said finally, “with you.”

“Me too,” whispered Neil, and he thought that it was funny, really, how he had never understood what it meant to ache. He’d been building up to it all this time. Were there other words like that?

“Would you want to?” He let the question linger in his bedroom, the same bedroom he had always had, and wondered if he and Liam were the same as they had always been, too, even here, even now. There was a beat, then another, then another, of silence, broken only by Liam rolling the now almost empty wine bottle between his hands.

“No. I mean, yes, I mean—” Liam set the bottle down with a frustrated sound.  “No, we don’t have to—we don’t have to, you know, label or, I guess, I mean, we’ll just be what we’ve always been, right? Just maybe a little more—”

“Bold,” finished Neil, as Liam whispered, “free,” and he was sure the wine was helping but it didn’t matter because he knew that when he looked back at this night he would only remember the taste and feel of Liam so close to him and his fuzzy happiness and the idea that he had never been alive until he turned sixteen, but at least he had a long ways to go.

Take your time, the older officer will say, voice gruff, after going over the details, over the news about Dena. We have plenty of time. Neil’s throat will be tight, and he’ll choke the tears down for as long as he can. Take your time, the officer will say again, a mantra, and Neil will lean forward in the small, cold interrogation room with his face in his hands. He will feel small, too, and cold.

We know you didn’t see it happen, the other officer’s voice will cut into the mantra, and if you didn’t see it happen, could you at least give us your best guess? Who do you—

It wasn’t Liam, Neil will manage, searching in the pockets of Liam’s jacket for something to wipe his face with.

But you don’t know for sure, they’ll chorus together.

I know.

But how can you if you didn’t see it happen, the officers will push. Isn’t it reasonable to at least entertain the idea that you could be incorrect?

After, Neil will pull out the handkerchief and see Liam’s initials in his own careful stitches, and cry.

Liam’s mother told him many times that skepticism was more potent, more useful, than happiness. He sat on the edge of the tub once, wincing, while she crouched in front of him and bandaged his knee after dousing it with something that stung. See, she grumbled, if you’re going to be over the moon, you have to remember that sooner or later you’ll have to end up on the other side, and who knows what’s waiting for you there?

Liam liked the feel of leaping, the scattered stars, too much to pay her any mind.

So he leapt—and there was the moon, and Neil, and maybe the trajectory could have been longer and brighter if not for

Think of her parents, this officer will say, grim. Think of her family. They want answers, and they want justice. We’ve gotten an answer from one of your friends already, and that answer was your name. Think of her mother.

Liam will think of his own mother, of her disappointment and her skepticism.

I’m sorry, he’ll say, and he’ll know he doesn’t have to talk, that’s his right, but it’s never stopped him before.

At the park—Keith drives them, though he’s a little drunk. His car lurches from one side of the road to the other. His face is still stormy, and he growls at Liam in the passenger seat each time he tries to say something. Neil is in the back, hugging his knees to his chest and staring out the window.

The bonfire had been okay, until it wasn’t. Someone had spilled it—one of Keith’s faceless loudmouth friends—about Dena, about seeing Dena with someone else. Keith hadn’t paused for details. He’d stomped into the house and called her, demanding she meet up with him and give him some answers. Liam had heard the shouting and had been in Keith’s line of vision when he continued stomping to his car.

“You’re coming with me, for backup,” he’d snarled, something calculated in his features—and Liam had begun to protest, and then Keith had gotten into his face so that Liam could smell the stale beer on his breath and added, “I’ll tell.”

Liam had told Neil to stay, insisted it, and Neil had asked why he was going at all and to just stay, to please stay so they could go home, and here they are together in Keith’s car.

Dena, standing in the park with her pretty ponytail and her arms wrapped around herself. Keith, jumping out of the car with Liam trailing behind him. Neil’s cold in the backseat—Liam hands him his jacket and tells him they’ll be back in a minute. Their fingers brush each other.

Keith is bellowing at Dena, baby, not letting her get a word in, and the irritation and anger on her face are transforming like a slow kaleidoscope into fear. Liam starts grabbing at Keith’s shoulder because really, it’s been enough and they’re not accomplishing anything and Keith shoves him aside because don’t touch me, you queer. Liam pulls back like he’s been smacked and then, and then—

Keith’s hand flashing for a split second in the dusk, whacking into Dena’s temple.

Dena on the ground, hair spread out over the leaves. She isn’t moving. Liam crouches next to her, panic spotting the edge of his vision, and Keith shakes her, and they’re yelling together in the gathering dark, though Liam doesn’t know what he’s saying.

And there’s another voice, from behind them, and it’s Neil’s.

Liam sits now, alone, and Neil’s voice is still there. Mingled with it is Keith’s, a sour note, as if in a duet with an out of tune piano. I’ll tell, sounds the chorus.  I’ll tell everyone about you, the both of you, what you are, what you’ve been all along. How long had he been watching? Liam knows that there’s always been eyes pressing in on them, unblinking.

College, escape, everything that’s out there, is so close now—so close that Liam can taste it. He’s sure Neil can, that he lives for the pinpricks of sweetness on his bittered, tired tongue.

The officers are watching him, expectant. Their faces are the same. Liam fidgets with the truth. He tries to be calm and thorough and patient, but there isn’t time left. All he had ever wanted was more time, just a little more time. He tries to decipher what would happen, what could happen, if he tells. If they will believe him, Keith—about Dena, about Neil, about him.

It’s time to spill the beans, the officers sing together, joining the rising noise.

Neil’s voice, soft, ever-present. Don’t.

Liam grits his teeth and tells his story.

 

 

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