Genre: M/M Romance
Notes: Written for the LT3 GR group challenge #14, here.
Prompt: I’m no good at Goodbye …
Raj raised the beer to lips, sipping slowly, watching Michael as he did the same, his head tipped back against the plywood wall of the treehouse, one knee bent, the other stretched out, the toe of his boot brushing Raj’s knee when he moved.
Again, Raj was struck with the knowledge that this moment, this little pocket of time that sooner or later, had to burst, wasn’t infinite, that after tonight there would be no more drinking beer and getting stoned with Michael. No more sharing earphones and listening to the music on Michael’s iPod. No more Michael.
He leaned forward, shifting onto his knees, pushing the beer across the floor. “Michael—”
Michael shook his head. Don’t.
Raj persisted, hand brushing over Michael’s knee, denim and skin, his jeans full of holes. The words broke from his mouth before he had a chance to pull them back. “I don’t want you to go.”
Michael turned his face away, took another sip of beer and wiped his mouth. His shoulders tensed, and Raj could see the muscle pull taught in his jaw. Eventually, he spoke, his voice sounding cracked, a little strained. “I have to do this. If I don’t …”
Raj knew only too well what would happen. Michael’s story would end the way of so many who had grown up in this town, the way his own story would probably end. If he didn’t get out now, he never would, and every day he’d hear the clock ticking, methodically counting down his seconds, minutes and hours. Every day he’d wake up, and he’d already be dead, be able to see his own grave every time he drove past the churchyard on his way to work.
Michael’s gaze flickered back to his. “It’s not about us …” he said, as if Raj had ever thought that. Okay, well maybe he had, just a little.
“If I stayed, I’d be doing it for you.”
“And I wouldn’t want that.” Raj sighed. “And neither would you.”
With another sigh, Raj settled back into his space against the far wall. Not that the wall was far. The treehouse had been built when they were kids, and it had been small then. Now it was impossible not to move without brushing or bumping against one another, and even sitting, the top of their heads brushed the roof.
“Maybe …” Michael paused, tongue darting over his lips to wet them. “Maybe you could come with me?”
Raj shook his head. They’d been over this before. Raj was the second oldest child in his family, and his brother had moved out, gotten married. He was needed here, for now at least. Honestly, the idea of leaving scared him. He’d never been away from home for more than a weekend before, and even when he stayed over at Michael’s for a night he always made sure to call his ma before he went to sleep. Michael often laughed at him for that—he was almost eighteen after all—but Michael had never really understood the ties of family. His own had broken up a long time ago, and none of them really needed each other the way Raj’s family needed each other. Sometimes, Raj envied Michael a little for that. His independence had never been won through battle but was freely given, and he took it for granted. Still, Raj loved his family, and running off to the city with Michael would hurt them, he knew.
“I wish you would.” Michael’s boot tapped against Raj’s knee.
“If I left, I’d be doing it for you.”
A chuckle; Michael smiled. He glanced at his watch, grimaced. Raj looked outside, through the little window they’d made, plastic sheeting clouding the stars. It was late. As Michael made to move, Raj reached out, fingers curling in his sleeve. “Don’t go yet.”
Michael looked at him, and nodded, pushing himself forward to meet Raj’s lips, hands falling either side of his waist, flat against the floor, one knee pressing into his thigh.
Raj let out a shaky breath, met his kiss and let the fire flow through his body, didn’t try, this time, to damp it down.
Finally, Michael broke away, swinging his legs out of the hatch doorway, dangling into nothingness. “Keep my number, yeah? If you change your mind … Even if it’s next year, or the one after that …”
“I’ll call you.”
“Call me anyway,” Michael said. “I’ll be busy but … Call me. And I’ll come home. I’ll visit and … Well, anyway. I gotta go.”
He disappeared through the hatch, wood creaking as he scaled down the rope ladder.
Raj buried his face in his hands, and blinked back the tears that threatened.
Spring blossomed into summer, and with it came the end of the academic year, the seemingly endless void between this and the next. Raj languished, spending most days in his room, as he had spent the last couple of months but now without coursework and revision to throw himself into.
Kam was home a lot more lately, he’d noticed, often eating meals with them, meals Raj wanted desperately to escape from. Both Kam and Laura, his wife, were there often, concerned glances thrown his way, business discussed from father to son over the table and after dinner, discussions which Raj wasn’t a part of, and was grateful for. If Kam was going into the family business, maybe he wouldn’t have to.
Michael called once a week. Raj always answered his phone with the fumblings of an excited schoolgirl receiving texts from a crush, but after he felt … What? Empty? Hollow? The high quickly faded, turned sour, and he spent hours dwelling in old memories, thinking about the treehouse, about Michael’s living room, his bedroom, about the pond buzzing with dragonflies, swimming with newts and tadpoles.
Summer dragged on, its warmth and light seeming to mock him, birds taunting him with their cheerful song whenever he left the house. He sat in the garden, sometimes, and watched the bees drift from flower to flower. Would he be like them, he wondered? Growing content with his work, drifting through it, living for the hive until the day he’d land, exhausted, on some pink rose petal, and find he couldn’t lift his body to fly away. He’d die there, in the middle of a never-ending mission, knowing that his children would carry it on, and with his death he’d see the deaths of those gone before him, and the deaths of those that would come after him, and he’d mourn for fields he’d never flown to, for a hive that was never his.
But, as quickly as summer had come, it faded too, and a new year started, his final year. He’d already decided on a university, one close to home, and he sat through morning tutor sessions zoned out, switched off, while the rest of the class examined their options.
Michael, it seemed, had fallen on his feet. After spending most of the summer working in a sandwich shop, he’d finally managed to get an interview with a small radio company, and they’d been impressed. Now he had not just one job, but two, and he was thinking about upgrading his living conditions, moving out of his eight-bed house share in East Acton and into something smaller, a little nicer, where the police weren’t constantly pulling up outside his front door.
Raj couldn’t help it. He envied him. Michael was living his life and Raj felt, more and more with each passing day, that he was still just waiting for his to start. It wasn’t just envy he felt, of course; he missed Michael. They’d spent most days together since they were eleven, sometimes with Joe and Dan and the others, but often just the two of them, up in their treehouse drinking stolen beers and talking about the kinds of lives they would have one day.
Michael wanted to be a DJ. Raj had never much cared about having any specific job; what he wanted was to be happy, to have a family, someone who loved him. They’d been talking about love when Michael had kissed him, that first time. Raj thought he’d been going for another beer, and was too surprised when Michael’s lips brushed his to really react one way or the other. Later, he’d told himself he wasn’t gay, but gradually he realised it didn’t matter if he was or he wasn’t—he liked Michael, and yes, in that way.
But Michael had gone before they’d ever really had a chance to explore the way they felt. They could have been good, Raj knew, really good, and Michael had said as much himself. But not here, he’d said. He couldn’t stay here. And Raj … Raj didn’t know if he could stay anywhere else.
He was at his desk drawing. A self-portrait for art, all smudged lines and blurred edges, definition lacking so it was hard to tell where the background ended and where he really began. He was smoothing his finger over a line when his bedroom door opened. No knock, no tentative push, the door was flung wide, bouncing off the wall. Kam held his hand palm out to stop it hitting him, and crossed the room, flopping down on the bed.
Before Kam had moved out, this room had been half his, and sometimes he still treated it as though that hadn’t changed.
“Ma wants me to talk to you.”
“Oh?” Raj carried on sketching out a new line.
“Yeah. She thinks you’re troubled.”
Raj stopped drawing, set down his pencil, and turned to face his brother. “And?”
“Oh, I don’t know. She thinks I can fix that with some sort of heart-to-heart.”
“Ha. That’s unlikely.”
Kam blew a lock of overlong hair out of his eyes. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” A pause, then, “So what’s up?”
“The sky?” Raj muttered, turning back to his drawing.
Kam rolled his eyes. “Whatever. You’ve been off ever since Michael left. I mean, we kinda thought you’d get over it, but … It’s been six months, Raj.”
Raj shrugged. “You always said I was oversensitive.”
“I say a lot of things.”
Raj smiled a little at that. “Too right.”
“You know, Ma thinks you should go to London.”
“What?” He spun to face his brother, taken aback.
“She doesn’t want you to, not really, but … Well, we were talking about you, and she kind of mentioned the idea, you know in that too-casual way of hers that means it’s serious?”
“She thinks I should go?”
“Well, I think she just doesn’t like UWE, to be honest. And well, London’s not that far away, is it? I mean, it’s not gonna be like visiting Grandma.”
Biting his lip, Raj’s gaze flickered to his drawing, then back to Kam. The idea was tempting. London. More than London, Michael.
But he couldn’t. Could he?
Autumn always reminded Raj of Michael. The chill in the air, the crunch of crisp, fallen leaves underfoot, the smell of damp earth and the thin golden sliver of the sun as it set, earlier and earlier, the darkness thickening, letting the moon shine brighter and longer.
When it got too cold for the treehouse, they’d often hung out at Michael’s instead, his mother and sister usually out, or in different parts of the house, leaving the two of them to their videogames and films and whatever else they felt like doing. There’d been no interruptions at Michael’s, although for some reason Michael kept bugging him to go to his instead. Probably something to do with the constant snacks his mother kept bringing them, the big home-cooked meals. They never had any peace at Raj’s house, but at least they were well fed.
He set his suitcase down on the gravel driveway, now littered with golden leaves and debris, twigs and the occasional crisp packet blown their way by the wind. His mother darted forward, clamping him in a tight, smothering hug. Behind her, Kam chuckled, and Raj shot his brother a scowl over her shoulder.
When she pulled away, there were tears in her eyes, and he had to blink back his own. “You will call me every day,” she told him. “You understand? Every day.”
“I promise.” They weren’t empty words; Raj knew he’d be on the phone to her every evening, and woe betide him if he ever forgot.
“Have you packed clean pants?” Kam snickered.
“And brushed your teeth?” Jiya grinned at him.
“Been to the toilet?” Aana joined in.
Raj rolled his eyes at his siblings, but inside his chest, his heart gave a painful squeeze. He knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d see them. After all, he’d probably be travelling back and forth at least every other weekend, and they’d already all made threats to come up and visit him regularly. But still, it felt like the end of something. One phase of his life was over, a new one just beginning.
“Take care, son,” his father said, coming forward to slap him on the shoulder, and, at a pointed glare from his wife, pulled Raj into a loose, one-armed hug.
“Go on then, be off with you.”
“Yeah,” Jiya said. “Get the hell out of here.”
Raj grinned, breaking into laughter as his mother slapped Jiya on the arm for her language, and got into the waiting taxi, pulling his case in after him.
As the vehicle pulled away, Raj twisted around in his seat, watching his family recede into the distance, his brother and sisters waving wildly, his mother staring after him with her shoulders slumped, his father already turning back into the house.
As they rounded the corner, Raj settled back with his head against the window, staring up at the sky, scudded with greying clouds. He smiled, no longer scared, but excited, happy. Soon, he’d be on the train to London, and beyond that, his new home was waiting for him. Michael was waiting for him. A new life, a happy ending. He was sure of it.