Wednesday, September 8th 12:57 PM

Wednesday, September 8th 12:57 PM

All right, so he was no good with such dominating people. Of course, he never really had been. Memories of what it had been like to be a teenager flooded his mind. All those adults, always watching him, always scrutinizing him. He always got the best grades on everything, he was never absent, he was never late—but they wanted more from him, more. They were vampires, and they would have sucked the very life out of him had he given him the chance.

He was just glad that Curtis didn't go to Riley's old high school. He didn't think he could handle walking back onto those grounds. He didn't think he could handle seeing those faces, hearing those voices—they were the sorts of things that haunted his dreams even then, five years later. Sometimes he was such a coward.

It went terribly with the dean, you see. The dean didn't like Riley, didn't like the way that Riley cared for his brother. "He's a growing boy. You need to be strict with him, tell him when he's doing wrong. You can't just let him go around willy-nilly and do whatever the heck he wants. He's a teenager, and teenagers need discipline. Are you sure you can handle your brother, Mr. Walden?" He talked with his hands, and with each biting verb he spoke he would bring down the side of his hand with a chopping motion onto the palm of the other.

No. He wasn't sure. It was all he could do not to flinch at what the dean said, let alone take care of his brother. His eye was still stinging, his head was still ringing—he was terrified of a teenage boy over five years his junior. No, he wasn't sure. But he couldn't run away from that terrible responsibility. It was his duty as the only living relative left to take care of Curtis, despite everything about him that made Riley want to run away. He didn't like it, but life was full of those sorts of things.

He had to ask where Mr. White's room was. It was in the far side of the school, where the classrooms were made up of prefabricated rectangular boxes, all pressed and clean and fake- looking. There wasn't a natural material in them. Even the students were pressed from plastics and fiberglass. Even the air was bottled in some factory and shipped.

That was the vibe they gave off, anyway, as Riley made his way toward them. That was the feeling he received as he walked up the concrete slab, which served as a ramp, and opened the door.

Trailer 7, U.S. History, Mr. White, classroom capacity 35, classroom size 37.

Mr. White was eating his lunch at his desk as he flipped through some beat up old history book. Leave it to a teacher to pass their time reading material they knew backwards and front. Leave it to a teacher to eat a McDonald's salad. He was wearing a gray polo shirt with long sleeves and a white stripe across the chest, as well as a pair of black slacks. He emitted a wave of teacher.

He was in his late twenties or early thirties, but he looked tired. That sort of tired that never went away, even after a good night's rest. His hair was black, but not that terrible phony black that Riley could never stand. It was a dark, dark brown that had the promise of bleaching into a lighter color if he went out into the sun more often. His eyes were brown, but his complexion was relatively fair. He looked like his voice—tall, the potential to be well-built, kind nature.

Mr. White glanced up at him for a moment, said, "Hi," and went back to reading, perhaps to finish the paragraph. Whatever he planned on doing, he stopped short. He looked up again, a little slowly, and swallowed his bite. "Mr. Walden?"

Riley supposed that Mr. White had been expecting someone who looked at least a little bit like Curt. They were quite different in appearance and nature, however. Riley was short and thin; Curtis was tall and thick. Riley was fair-haired and pale; Curtis had brown hair and tanned skin—from the days when he spent less time on the computer. They both had the same eyes, rather round and considerably green, but Riley hid his behind the thick glasses he had been forced to don after years of reading too many books; Curtis had perfect vision. They were quite different.

"Yes. Although I'd love it if you continued to call me 'Riley,' Mr. White."

Mr. White put down his salad fork and pushed the plastic bowl away. "Sure. Sure. So long as you call me Tom, anyway. Here." He pointed to a blue, plastic chair, the kind with the holes in the back and the metal legs, that sat in front of a low, blue table—probably where his teaching assistant sat to grade papers. "Pull up a chair and stay awhile."

Riley smiled. He was corny in the way that teachers were supposed to be—that odd sort of goofiness that wore off in the disenfranchised teachers and continued to glow brightly in the dedicated ones. He pulled the blue chair over to Tom, as he preferred to be called, and sat down. He put his shoulder bag in his lap and thumped his fingers on it awkwardly for a few moments before the teacher jumped into the discussion.

"So are you the only one that takes care of him?"

"Yes." He was used to that question, and he was used to the answer. It didn't even faze him anymore. "You see, our parents died four years ago. I was in college at the time, but I dropped out to take care of Curt. I know what the foster care system can do to children his age."

Thomas nodded. As a teacher, he had had his far share of experience with foster kids. "Yes, it's rather sad, I must admit. But it can't be easy."

"It's not." And it wasn't. He wanted to lie about it, but Thomas was difficult to lie to—mostly because Riley never could lie to any of his teachers.

"So you dropped out of college?"

Riley smiled sadly. That was always the hardest thing about it. He had liked college, yet he only was able to stay there for a few months before his parents…died… "It was difficult to leave. I was there on a full-ride scholarship, but I couldn't go there and make enough money to take care of the both of us. I had to make a decision."

"I guess so. Sorry if I'm prying, but didn't your family have life insurance?"

"We did. It just didn't cover their death."

"Oh." Mr. White sort of got an idea of what that meant, but he didn't ask anymore. He already knew he was out stepping the boundaries. He backed up before the border patrol of good manners caught up with him. "Well, I tell you, you're a lot more dedicated to your family than most people I know. Not everyone would do all of that for someone so hard to handle."

"He wasn't always this way, though."

"They never really are, are they?"

Riley chuckled—the forced kind of laugh.

"Well, Riley, I'm sorry that I had to send your brother to the office. I really do hate to do that—it's such a cheap way to handle problems. I usually just call them after class and talk to them, but he was just…terrible." He shook his head. "He doesn't take too kindly to his teachers calling home, does he?"

"No." Riley shook his head. The memory of the night before, despite his efforts to suppress it, was still fresh on his mind, as was the bruise on his face. He was glad Thomas hadn't brought it up yet. "I'm sorry I let him figure it out, though. I know him well enough to know that he gave you a hard time."

"No worse than usual, but it was enough to get me really mad. I kind of cracked, I admit it, and I know I let him win, but I just couldn't handle it."

"Yes. He does that to a lot of people."

"He would have only gotten detention had he left when I told him, though. It's like he likes making things worse for himself."

"No." Riley shook his head. "Curt doesn't look at things that way. He sees it that people should and would eventually break down and do what he says, no matter how much trouble he might go through in the process. He thinks that, while you might win a few battles by getting him taken out of class and whatnot, he'll eventually win the war and get you to quit your job. Or worse." He was used to it, really. Curtis had done the very same thing with a teacher in junior high, and there was little doubt that he would do it again to this teacher.

It made Riley feel badly, it really did.

"My gosh. Is he really that bad?"

Riley looked to the side and sighed. "A bit, yeah. I mean, he might not do it with you," he added quickly, "and I hope to high heaven that he learns better before he does something so heartless, but he'll try. Oh, he'll try. It's how he passes time."

"Doesn't he care about his future?"

Riley sighed. "People like Curtis don't think that way, do they?"

"I…I guess not." The teacher shook his head. "Wow. I'm sorry that he's like this, then. I mean, if he can treat a teacher this way, then…" He looked up, and then he noticed the bruise under his eye. The glasses and the inability to look him straight in the eye had hid it at first, but it was clearly visible then. "He—he didn't do that to you, did he?"

Riley wished he had been sensible enough to say, "Do what?" but he didn't think about it first. He reached up at touched it gently with his slender fingers, and then he turned pink in the face. "He wouldn't."

"Oh, he did, didn't he?" Thomas got up from his chair and walked over to him. He was awkward in doing so, but he put his hand on Riley's shoulder. "You did so many things for him, and he repays you by hitting you?"

"He didn't hit me!" Riley insisted, but he was a poor liar. "I mean—I mean…even if he did, I probably deserved it. I know better. I shouldn't say things that'll only make him angry." He must have sounded so pathetic, like a battered wife or something, but it was true. He knew better than to make promises he couldn't keep. He should not have ever told that teacher that he would talk to Curtis, because he knew it would only mean that he would be hit like that.

Oh, oh, god. Was he crying? He could feel the hot tears begin to pour down his face, completely uncontrollable.

"Riley."

He pushed him away and got up from the chair. His bag clattered onto the floor, and he picked it up before Mr. White could get it for him. He rushed over to the door, and then he paused with his hand on the knob. His shoulders were trembling from the effort he had to put forth to prevent himself from crying. "I'm sorry for bothering you like this, Mr. White. I know that my brother is awful, and I'm sorry that you have to put up with him. I'm sorry that I pushed my troubles on you. …Thank you for being so understanding."

"It's—it's no trouble, you know," Mr. White said. He took a step toward Riley, but he never got the chance to stop him.

Riley threw open the door and rushed down the ramp. He tore the sticker that simply read "VISITOR" in red letters from his chest, crumbled it up and then chucked it into the nearest trashcan. He wiped the tears away from his eyes, and then he took off his glasses and cleaned the tears from them. He was in his car and driving away within five minutes.

He couldn't believe how stupid he had been.

The evening of Wednesday and the following Thursday were both difficult days, but Riley managed to get through them. It seemed that Curtis had expressed his wrath enough so that he was not too entirely vengeful with his older brother. Riley was grateful. He needed the peace, to be able to whole himself up in his room for hours and hours without interruption. Normally, he would have written a few words here or there, but they were stopped up inside of him with grief and confusion. He instead simply sat there, staring at the judging walls, thinking little if not of his last conversation with Mr. White.

Yes, he was Mr. White again. Thomas went away as soon as Riley foolishly spilled his guts to him.

And things were getting worse. Even his dreams had lost the status of "escape." He was starting to break down. He could feel it.

And, while Curtis not had been as vengeful as he could have been…he was still the same, predictably cruel person he had always been.

Friday, September 10th 5:41 PM

He couldn't believe that it had happened again.

Weakly, because he was so, so tired and so, so abused, weakly, because his body was giving in on him, he got up from the floor of the living room and staggered through the vast wilderness of sorrow, down the hall and then finally into his own room, his sanctuary. In there, no one could touch him, not even his brother. He locked the door and then fell onto his bed. He was crying. But, then again, when wasn't he those days?

His fingers blindly reached about until they fell upon the smooth, plastic surface of the telephone. He held it close to him for a while, and then he began to search through the caller ID until he came across the number of Mr. White. God, he wasn't anywhere close to coherent. He hit "send" and then he listened as the phone rang. Once. Twice. Thrice.

Mr. White picked it up on the third ring.

"Hello?
"Mr.-Mr, White?"

"Yes?" He sounded confused, like he almost recognized Riley's voice but he didn't want to be presumptuous.

"It's Riley. I-I-I don't know who else to call. I don't really have very many friends I could call right now, y-you see. Do you think you could come to my apartment?"

He didn't sound cross or anything, like Riley would have thought he'd be—had Riley been thinking at the time. He just sounded confused, like he couldn't understand why he would be asking him of all people. "What happened?"

"I don't want to talk about. I just need someone here. Before he gets back."

"Oh, gosh. Did Curtis do something to you again? Should I call the police?"

"No, no." He shook his head even though Thomas wouldn't have been able to see him do it. "That's not it. You can't call the police. You can't. I just need someone here. Please."

"Well…" He was probably rubbing his face with his hand, a little lost, probably rubbing his temples, confused, probably biting his lip, uneasy. He probably wasn't thinking properly either. "Where do you live?"

Riley gave him his address.

"All right, I'll be there in around twenty minutes. Can you wait that long?"

"Yes."

"Fine." There was the faint click of him hanging up.

Riley hung up and then rolled over. He was still crying, but in the gentle sort of way that was only noticeable if someone were to look at him directly. Tears smeared onto his glasses and obstructed his vision even further. He felt miserable. He wished he had stayed at work an extra hour, and then he would have missed him. But no.

He watched the clock tick by for eighteen minutes before he heard someone knock on the door. Slowly, Riley fell out of bed and stood up. It was difficult to do, but he managed anyway. He unlocked his bedroom door, staggered across the apartment, and then he opened the front door. Mr. White looked like he had just undressed from work and then speedily redressed again to get to Riley's house. His buttons were off by one, and his shirt wasn't tucked in anymore. He looked stressed.

"Are you all right?" was the first thing he asked. He walked inside and closed the door behind him, and then he took Riley by both arms. "What happened?"

Riley still wasn't thinking properly. He didn't care, though. He just let it all come out. To hell with what Thomas thought. If he rejected him, at least it would be before they were friends or anything.

But…but he couldn't tell him all the truth. No, that would ruin everything—everything.

It horrified him how easily he was able to fabricate the story.

"One of Curtis's friends was over here using his XBOX or something, and I came home to him here. I guess he wasn't supposed to be here or something. I don't know." He pulled one of his arms away from Mr. White so that he could brush some of his hair out of his face. "Then he tried to rape me."

"He tried to what?"

Riley expected him to drop him there and to storm out of the apartment (because, in his tired mind, he could never properly be a victim), but instead Thomas pulled the slender figure over to the sofa and put him down.

Riley looked around, down at the worn fabric of the cushions, for a few moments as he vacantly considered what had happened. He could feel himself start to zone out at just the idea… Then he wormed away and got up. "That's where it happened."

"Oh." Mr. White blushed. "Where's your room, then?"

Riley led him into his bedroom, and, oddly enough, he didn't feel violated in the least. He expected it to be painful to bring a near stranger in, but it was almost as if Mr. White were supposed to be there. He sat down on his bed, and then he cupped his head in his hands in a rather pathetic manner. "I don't know. I don't know. He didn't go all the way; I scared him off. It's just…" He was starting to sob again.

"It's all right." Thomas sat down next to him and put his arm around him. "It's all right. You don't have to tell me everything if you don't want to. …But are you sure you don't want to call the police?"

"Yeah. Yeah." He sobbed loudly, and then he looked up at Thomas. "I don't want to send him to jail or anything. I'm just afraid he'll come back is all. I think Curt let him copy his key. But I don't want to call the police. It's just too much of a hassle to go the police. They never do anything anyway."

"They never do anything?" He mostly mouthed the words to himself, absolutely in horror. "You mean this has happened to you before?"

"…Once or twice, I guess. Maybe more. I try not to remember." He shivered, and then he looked away. It was hard to look at someone when admitting such things. "I don't know. It's because I'm so small, I guess, and, since I've always had a hard time making friends, I would fall into strange groups. Whoever would be nice to me, I guess." He could feel it, more tears bubbling up inside of him, threatening to break through the tenuous levies of his psyche. "I'm kind of an idiot like that."

Mr. White (…no, Riley supposed he was and forever would be Thomas at that point) pulled him a little bit closer and sighed. "You're not an idiot. You're the victim."

The victim

Though he had never told anyone what had happened to him before, those words were so rare and so refreshing. He always knew that someone else would scorn him, if not directly then indirectly, when he was not looking, yet there Thomas was telling him that he was a victim. Him. Riley. The idiot who let himself fall into the arms of such terrible people.

He started to sob uncontrollably. He fell onto Thomas and held onto him so tightly that his fingernails started to dig into his skin through the fabric of his shirt. He couldn't manage any words, any sort of "thank you" or continued explanation. He just cried.

And it felt so good to do it with someone holding onto him. It felt wonderful to feel the gentle pressure of arms around him, of a large hand patting the back of his head. It felt so wonderful to hear, "It'll be okay; it'll be all right," in his ear—a soft, hushed voice.

They were practically strangers, and yet they had shared so much with each other already.

Friday, September 10th 6:43 PM

"Can you get up, Riley?"

Riley nodded, but he wasn't sure if his legs would actually support him. He let Thomas pull him up, and he let himself put most of his weight on the strong arm that supported him.

"You okay?"

"I…think…so."

"Good. Come on. I doubt you want to stay around here like this. You can stay at my place tonight," he told him in one of his gentler voices. And he proposed the idea so easily, so completely without effort, that it didn't seem real.

Riley clutched him tighter. "Are—are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. What kind of ass would I be to leave you here in a place like this?"

"Oh." He hadn't thought of it that way. He had only thought of what a burden he would be for Thomas, calling him up in the evening and monopolizing his shoulder for nearly an hour. "…All right. But, but let me get a few of my things. I still need to go to work tomorrow."

"Yeah." Thomas carefully avoided the living room and helped Riley sit down at the kitchen counter. "Just tell me what to grab, and I'll get it for you."

Riley looked up at him for a moment, unsure of what to think, and then gave in: "If you really want to." It was odd, having someone be so kind to him. He wasn't used to it. "I have my outfits for the week planned out—I keep them hanging in the closet. Grab the one on the left, and then get some underwear and socks from my top dresser drawer."

Thomas chuckled to himself as he left the room. "How practical."

He came back a few seconds later with exactly what Riley had asked for, though he had picked up a pair of blue socks. His slacks were black. "Guess not everyone thinks about those sorts of things," he thought blankly as he watched Thomas put everything in a neat pile on the counter.

"I can get the rest," Riley decided. He got up from the stool, however, just in time for Thomas to push him back into his seat.

"But you don't have to. I'm being nice to you. Just take it for what it's worth and sit there," he told him forcefully. It was strange. It was such a tender thought, and yet the delivery was so strong. "Now, what else are you missing?"

"My toothbrush and…" he paused and then blushed, "…my medication. They're both in the medicine cabinet." Of course, it was pretty obvious in Riley's eyes that he was strange enough to need some sort of medication. Sure, they were to prevent stress-based ulcers and not insanity-based episodes (he had stopped taking those ages ago, since they made it so difficult for him to think), but he felt that taking medicine was reason enough to be judged.

Thomas didn't seem bothered by it, though. He fetched them quickly and came back, holding both in one hand. "That all?" he asked—simply, like it was nothing.

"For one day? Yeah." He nodded. "Let's—let's go before he gets back."

"You don't think that he'd come back right away, do you?" Thomas looked alarmed.

"No, not him. My brother." He got up from the stool and stood up straight. He realized for a moment that his shirt was unbuttoned, that his hair was a mess, that his eyes were red and swollen, that his pants were partially undone, that his belt was hanging from three of the loops, the metal buckle clacking loudly whenever he moved. His face burned vermilion while he began to fix himself up.

Thomas smiled sympathetically. "I'm not too spiffy myself right now." He had realized long ago, during the long period in which he held the near stranger in his arms, that his shirt was buttoned incorrectly, but he knew he couldn't fix it then. While Riley cleaned himself up, red in the face and as embarrassed as could be, he placed the toiletries on the counter and redid his shirt, since he had on an undershirt beneath. When he was done, he stacked everything together and picked them all up, tucking them under one arm.

"You…came right away," Riley said. He was buttoning his shirt—an excuse to not have to look up.

"Of course I did."

"Most people wouldn't've."

"Most people would. You just haven't had the luck of knowing any of them," Thomas replied with a shrug. "Are you ready to go?"

Riley glanced up, mashing down his hair with his palms, and nodded nervously. "Yeah. …And thank you."

Thomas smiled, but it was a slow, gradual smile, as if he had to force it upon his face. But there was a certain level of tenderness in his face. "You're welcome," he said, and then he turned on his heel in a prompt sort of way and added, "Now, come on. If he's really going to come back, then we might as well get out of here before he does."

Those words proved to be prophetic.

They made it to the door just in time to see him come in. Bad luck, it seemed, was the major culprit in the misery of Mr. Walden's life.

"Well, fancy seeing two of my favorite people in the same place at the same time," Curtis hissed as he slinked into the apartment. And, God, that voice. Oh, how it made Riley's skin crawl. It always had, yet after such kindness on the part of Thomas, it was even worse—like feeling the heat of the southern California summer after years of living on the frigid Oregon coast. It didn't feel right—it was abrasive and erosive. It was sickening.

Curtis busted into the room like a wild storm, raging and promising to bring in some casualties. He stomped right up to his history teacher, just his history teacher, and glared and glowered up at him. But he didn't have to look up much. There was only a three-inch difference between him, this teenager and this man.

…And Curtis was obviously stronger.

"What brings you to our humble abode, Mr. White?" He made the title sound like an insult.

"Riley called me. He told me what happened," he replied in a stiff, angry manner. Just being around his student made him angry—a terrible creature who fed on the misery of others.

"Oh, did he?" he asked sarcastically, titling his head as he dead. He drew back a few feet, purely for the advantage of seeing both of them properly, and smirked. Such a cruel, cruel smile. He bore his teeth like a wild animal, and then he laughed, a low growl—a starved wolf. "And did he tell you what I did to him? Or did he lie about it? He likes to lie about it. He has for a long time now."

"What…you did to him?" Thomas glanced down at Riley, who was starting to tremble again. He was biting his lip, and his face was flushed once more. His breath was shaky and uneven. He was on the edge, a familiar location.

Curtis laughed, and then he continued, without reservation or a scrap of humility, "So he didn't tell you? But, then again, why would he tell you that he's been fucking his younger brother?"

For a moment, Riley's mind went blank. His legs gave way, and he fell onto the hard wooden floor upon his knees. He didn't cry, and he didn't say anything. He just sat there, dumbstruck, lost. What was he supposed to say?

…It was true, after all.

"What?" Thomas's eyes were still on Riley, still watching his small figure curl in upon itself and shake like a single leaf in the brutal winds of autumn. He just watched him—unflinching, uncertain.

"Well, that's a bit of a lie, isn't it?" He smiled to himself and then walked away from Thomas into the living room. "He's not doing the fucking. He wouldn't be. It's a funny thought, but he wouldn't be. And, truth be told, he puts up a fight every time, but," he paused and looked over his shoulder, down at his brother, his shaking, tormented brother, "he's never called the cops or kicked me out, never truly made me stop."

"…s not…"

"What's that, older brother?" Curtis cupped his ear with his hand. "Gotta speak up."

"It's not true."

Thomas knelt down beside Riley, carefully placed his things on the floor, and then he put a single hand on his shoulder. He stayed like that until Riley finally turned to him, his blank, soulless eyes looking up at him through thick, tear-blurred lenses. "Come on. We're going to my place, remember?"

"Ha! So you'd take him back to your place just like that, knowing he's been screwing around with his brother. What are you—as fucked up as him?" He stood over them, like an angry, immature, hating beast, waiting all the while to torture them in whatever manner possible.

"…'Fucked up,' as you put it, is victimizing someone smaller than you," Thomas said slowly, as if the thought were coming to him just as he said it. And with that he understood everything—all the sorrow, all the strife. Riley was an open book that had waited for years, probably most his life, to be read by someone with the time—it was all so obvious for those who wanted to know. "Come on, Riley. Let's go."

And his bravery—it built up inside of him, welled up inside of him and threatened to blow at any given moment. It swelled from within the cockles of his heart, a sort of inspiration that could drive an entire life of fulfillment. He was ready to defend the small, tremulous bird that had fallen into his life.

"Of course, he didn't let me go all the way this time. I guess he can't let himself fool around with me when he's making friends like you, huh?" He laughed and then walked into the kitchen. "Better get the hell out while you can, though. He might just change his mind and decide he likes me best."

Riley was starting to cry again, and all he could say was, "It's not true. It's not true. Don't believe him. Don't believe him. He's lying." Such a faint, weak voice—such a sorry, pitiful tune. It drifted from his lips gingerly, vulnerable to most anything—liable to break apart.

"Sh, it's all right." Thomas pulled him close and held him there for a few seconds before he released him and got up. He picked up Riley's things, and then he helped Riley, who had to lean on him heavily to stand properly, up. "Come on. We'll go to my apartment. Don't worry about anything, all right?"

"Of course, when you take into consideration the fact that he gave up all his hopes and dreams just to take care of me, you have to realize that he's going to eventually come back. He needs me, his vindictive younger brother. He won't admit it, but he does. That's why he's never kicked me out. That's why he's such a damn mess."

"It's not true," Riley whispered contritely through his sobs.

"I know." Thomas opened the front door and then put one arm around his small, frail, unstable frame. "Just come on. Don't listen to him. He's the messed up one, all right?"

Riley needed no further coaxing. He let himself be pulled along by Thomas, no more than a stranger, with whom he had let so many secrets run free. Such a different character, to care for him without fully understanding the burden and the weight that Riley was so plagued with. An unusual relationship that was born from a mutual understanding of the cruelty of an individual.

"He'll fucking turn on you, too. That's all he's good for. Using people and then turning on them." Curtis's parting words, the last thing he said before Thomas took Riley away.

There always had been something wrong with him.

Friday, September 10th 7:01 PM

Riley noticed right away that, though it was cluttered, Thomas had a clean apartment. There was the faint smell of a pet within, perhaps a cat, but it was maintained and orderly—kept in line even though one occasionally colored outside of that line. It was hectic inside that small apartment, with only one bedroom and one bath, but it was pleasant. Riley already liked it, and he was hardly even aware of being inside of it.

Thomas sat Riley down at the dining table, which was nothing more than a glorified card table. "I'll make you something to eat, and then I want you to go to bed," he said as he placed Riley's things on the sofa in the living room, which shared space with the dining room and consisted of nothing more than a sofa and a television. A stack of books sat beside the chair, and an old Playstation system was propped up against the out-dated television. The cable box said it was 7:03, and the VCR boldly declared that it was 12:00.

"I'm not hungry."

"Try to eat it anyway."

"I don't want to."

The kitchen was joined to the dining room/living room by a small doorway and a window that could also serve as a bar. There were books stacked on the tiled surface of the counter, most of them novels but the rest of them historical references—all ranging in levels of complexity and depth. The kitchen was clean, and there were no dishes "soaking" in the sink, but there were bits of cat food here and there from where his cat had decided to run amuck while Thomas had stepped out.

Thomas looked through that window and frowned. "You ought to," he told him, using his pleasant, kind tones once again.

Riley sighed. He didn't feel like arguing. "Fine, fine. Just…there are a lot of things I don't like to eat."

"Like what?"

"Anything green."

"Anything green," he repeated. He smiled to himself. "No wonder you're so small."

Riley didn't respond. He didn't really know what to say. Yeah, that was probably true…it was just the sort of topic that had no bearing in his current life. He had so many other things to think about—things that had nothing to do with his size and nothing to do with how many vegetables he ate.

His world was so different. His life had changed so greatly. He was no longer the quiet and withdrawn Riley, who was the secretary for some nameless manager of some nameless department of some nameless corporation. He was Riley, who had been raped by his little brother for the past two years. Riley, the freak who didn't have any concept of the real world.

A nameless, faceless, soulless creature with no drive.

He wished he could still talk about such simple, silly things.

He hid his head in his arms atop the table and tried his best not cry. Where was he even supposed to go from there? How was he supposed to function? It was easier when he was able to ignore it, but now that he had to face it, now that someone else knew, it was so terrible. He was desperately lost.

Who was he anymore?

Thomas put a plate down in front of Riley. "Here. I'm personally too tired to cook right now."

Riley continued to sit there, his face buried in his arms.

"Eat." Thomas obviously wasn't in the mood to argue either.

Riley moaned, but he sat up straight and ate it anyway. It was a sandwich, rather plain, with some white cheese and some roast beef. It wasn't his favorite meal, but he didn't feel like arguing. What was the point?

It took time ten minutes, in absolute silence, to eat, while Thomas paced across the dining room several times. He could have watched T.V. or read a book, but he decided to pace across the room again and again, the sound of his sneakers on the linoleum something like a march to which Riley unconsciously timed his bites.

Just before Riley finished eating, Thomas retreated back into the kitchen. He poured a glass of water from a purification pitcher (the water in that city always had a sort of rasp to it that wasn't quite natural), and then he brought it to the table. He put it in front of Riley and simply said, "Drink."

Riley had been crying so hard that his throat was sore and dry. He hadn't even realized it until then, but he had been quite hoarse for a while. His voice no longer contained the slightly feminine tones, and it would fade from time to time while he spoke. He sounded like he was going through puberty all over again.

He compliantly drank most of the water, though he could not force himself the drink the last of it. Once he was finished, he was taken into a small bedroom by Thomas, who was uncomfortably silent throughout. He pointed to the small twin bed, and then said, "Sleep."

Riley glanced at the bed. "…Where are you going to sleep?"

"On the sofa."

"It's a loveseat, though, isn't it? Won't that be uncomfortable?"

Thomas shrugged. "Go to sleep anyway," he instructed him stiffly.

Riley suddenly felt terrible. "But it's your bed," he protested miserably.

"So?" Thomas walked over to his closet and pulled a few blankets from the top shelf. "I can sleep just about anywhere. Just go to sleep. You probably need to. It's early, but you've been crying so much. You have to be tired."

Well, Riley thought, I am tired. But… "I'd just feel bad if I slept here."

"And I'd feel bad if you didn't. Look, you're sleeping there," Tom insisted firmly as he pointed to the bed. He tucked the blankets under his arm and headed out of the room. "I'll probably be up for another three hours or so—I've got papers to grade—so if you can't sleep, you can come talk to me. Lord knows you have enough things on your mind to need it."

Riley watched him leave the room quietly, blushing because there were a lot of things on his mind and everyone was what he considered shameful, and then he sat down on the small bed. The springs within creaked under the slight pressure of his weight. It felt like Thomas needed to flip his mattress, which was probably an odd observation, but it wasn't like his mind was following a normal train of thought at that point in time.

He flopped down onto the bed and turned over so that he could burry his face in the pillow. The entire bed carried with it the very light scent of Zest soap and a cat. Thomas is probably the type to shower during the night, Riley observed blankly, strange though such an observation was.

Riley took off his glasses and put them on the first flat surface he could come across. He kicked off his shoes, he closed his eyes, and he thought about everything for a moment, half-hearted, racy thoughts, before he fell asleep. It was all too easy, but he was grateful for that.

Perhaps in his dreams he would be able to forget.