Two days passed by in a haze. Tanner did not get up, except to go to the bathroom. He said nothing and did nothing. He just lay there. His reverie of anguish was broken only by the occasional presence of Hope or Chase, bringing him food and water, which he would not touch. Sometimes he woke up and felt Hope sitting on the bed beside him. He wanted to talk to her, to reach out to her, but he couldn’t. All the strength in his body had dissipated. His soul had shrivelled up into a useless slick of olive tainted mush. He was fading away, just like he wanted to.
Hope and Chase sat on the couch, in the middle of the night, numb with exhaustion. They had organised a watch system; fearing that Tanner would do something stupid if left alone, they had agreed to take turns sleeping, though neither of them found sleep possible anyway.
It took a few moments for Hope to register that her phone was ringing. Instinctively she found herself jumping up to check if it was her mum. It wasn’t. Then she registered who it was that actually was calling her. Dean? What the hell? Why would he be calling now? More to the point – why would he be calling in the middle of the night? A wave of panic rose in her. Something must be wrong. She answered the phone and walked outside, closing the door behind her.
Chase looked after her. He had a weird feeling in his gut. While he waited for her to come back inside, he hoped like hell that it wasn’t Dean on the other end.
When Hope did eventually walk back in, immediately Chase knew that something was very wrong. She was as white as ice. He leaned forward on the couch, ‘What’s happened? Who was that?’
Hope seemed to be in a daze. She stood motionless, looking into space, the phone still in her hand. It took her a while to get any words out. ‘Umm … it was Dean. His dad’s dead. He’s just been killed in a car crash.’
Chase stood up in genuine shock, ‘Oh, shit! What the fuck? What happened?’ He paused, trying to soak it in. ‘Is Dean okay? That’s a stupid question, of course he’s not’ – He stopped talking before he made it worse.
Hope put her phone down gently on the dining table. ‘I don’t know what happened. He was driving home, and he hit a truck, or it hit him or something. I don’t know – I couldn’t get much sense out of Dean, obviously. He died instantly … Dean’s a mess.’
Chase found himself immediately going into action mode. ‘What are you going to do?’ As he said it, he registered unwanted feelings within him. He wanted her to say that she was going to do nothing. But that was so heartless and cold. He was horrible for even thinking that. Of course she would do something.
‘I don’t know.’ She threw her hands over her face, and ran them aggressively down her cheeks. ‘Oh, I don’t know anything at the moment, do I?! Useless.’ She sat down on a dining chair and tried to get her head straight. ‘His family’s in Melbourne. His mum – his mum’s in Melbourne. He wants me to fly over with him for the funeral. Said he didn’t know who else to call.’ Her brow furrowed in deep, flustered contemplation.
Chase heard his heart drop. He chastised himself for the thousandth time that night. Trying to think logically about the situation, he sat down next to Hope. ‘Are you going to go?’
Hope’s mind was a whirlwind of racing, juxtaposed thoughts, all vying for precedence. ‘I don’t know. I mean – I should go. I’ve known Greg for over five years. Oh, my god, I can’t believe he’s dead. He can’t be dead! Just like that, no warning, just gone?!’ She was too shocked to display any emotion in her words. There was nothing but numb disbelief. ‘I was close to him, and Dean – oh my god. I should go, I should definitely go. I should be there for Dean, and for Laura.’
Suddenly she remembered Tanner and covered her face with her hands, ‘Oh shit, Tanner! What am I going to do about Tanner? I can’t leave him. He needs me here, he needs someone here! He’s in no state to be left alone, it’s way too risky.’ She stood up and started pacing, biting her fingernails. ‘No, I can’t go, I just can’t. I’ll just have to call Dean back and explain, and hope that he understands and’ –
Chase cut her off. ‘I’ll stay with him.’ He said it before he even realised what he was saying. Shit, did he just say that? Now he was actually encouraging her to go? Yes, of course he was! This wasn’t about him.
Hope stopped pacing and looked at Chase. ‘What?’ Her face was a tight picture of stark reality.
‘I’ll stay with Tanner. You go to Melbourne.’
Hope began pacing again. ‘No Chase, I can’t ask you to do that. It’s not your responsibility. No, it’s too much; you don’t want to do that. You know, well, you probably don’t even know just how bad Tanner can get. He’s so unpredictable when he’s like this, and I’ve never seen him this bad. He could do anything. You can’t shoulder all of that – you won’t even be able to sleep! No, I can’t go.’ Decidedly, she moved to retrieve her phone.
Chase calmly stood up, went over to her, and withdrew the phone from her trembling hands. ‘You didn’t ask me to, I offered. Look, you’re in shock, you’re not thinking clearly. I am. I will stay with Tanner, and you go to Melbourne, just for a few days, and you can come straight back after the funeral.’
Hope was torn with indecision. ‘I can’t leave him,’ she whispered. Her eyes misted up with desperation.
Chase placed his hands on her shoulders. ‘Look at me Hope.’ She closed her eyes and then looked up at him. ‘We will be fine. I will take care of him. I won’t let anything happen to him. You need to go with Dean – you’re right, he shouldn’t go alone.’
Hope said nothing. She just stared into his brown eyes. Unwillingly she felt herself wanting to melt into him, to surrender the weight of her body to his. There was a frightfully intense heat between them, even in the midst of this unexpected crisis. Both of them felt it, and both of them condemned themselves for it. Yet neither pull away.
Chase wanted to kiss her so badly that it physically hurt. Abruptly he shook himself out of his selfishness and walked away from her. ‘Call him back. Tell him you’re going. Ask him what flight, I’ll book your flight while you get packed.’
There was cold finality in his voice. Hope hesitated. She picked up her phone and went to walk away. But something made her stop. She turned around to face Chase, who was busying himself getting online to check flights. ‘Are you okay with this?’ she asked.
He didn’t look at her. He needed to keep his hands and mind occupied on the task at hand. ‘Of course.’
As she walked outside to call Dean, Hope realised that she didn’t want Chase to be okay with it at all, and she hated herself for it.
Hope emerged slightly dishevelled from the bedroom, dragging a small black suitcase. Chase stood up. ‘You’ve got two tickets leaving at 5am.’ There was a moment of silence between them. She tried to read his feelings, but his wall of indifference made it an impossible task. Then softly he said to her, ‘Are you going to go right now? You’re flight’s not for four hours.’
She thought she detected a sort of melancholy in his voice, a frailty that was not usually there. ‘Yes, I said to Dean I’d get packed and come straight over. He’s holding it together, but he’s a mess. He’s in shock. I should go now.’ She didn’t know if she was justifying it more to him or to herself.
He looked into her blue eyes. My god they were beautiful. Say something, he thought to himself. But what? He knew what he wanted to say. He wanted to tell her don’t go. No he didn’t – he wanted to say, go, but don’t let him touch you. Don’t get to close to him, because I want you to be mine. He wanted to pour it all out. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to say anything, and now wasn’t the time anyway.
Hope waited for something – for him to say or do something, though she wasn’t sure what is was that she wanted him to do. Fed up of waiting, she broke the silence. ‘I’ve told Tanner. I think he understood, he actually half replied to me anyway, so that’s a start.’
Chase looked down and then went to the front door to open it for her. She realised he wasn’t going to say anything, and she that needed to get going anyway.
She got to the door and stopped. ‘Thankyou for doing this. It means a lot to me. Are you sure you’ll be okay?’
The intensity between them was palpable. It would take so little for him to just lean down and take her lips with his own. ‘I will. I got this. You … you take care.’
She sensed that there was more that he wanted to say, but she couldn’t wait any longer. She started to walk away, but he caught her hand with his own. For a moment she thought he was going to pull her toward him, but he didn’t. He gave her a beautiful look of longing. ‘You’ll be okay?’
She made herself give a weak smile. ‘I’ll be fine – just worry about Tanner.’
Long after Hope had left, Chase stood in the bedroom doorway, looking at Tanner lying tucked up in bed. He didn’t know if he was asleep or awake. He felt so useless. He wished he knew what to do. As he watched him, he suddenly realised that he would genuinely do anything for this kid. Wow, he really would. There was something so very special about him. If only he knew what to do. The gravity with which he felt for Tanner in that moment was quite surprising to him. In fact, he wasn’t sure he had ever cared for anyone so much in all his life, and it sent ripples of fear through him.
Tanner lay in complete and utter submission. His body was heavy, so heavy, yet it was weightless. The colour drained from the earth piece by piece. There were grey shadows in power now. They were riding on the waves of human suffering and loving every second of it. It was surely impossible to live in such a place. Impossible. The demons were coming to get him. They wanted to strip the innocence from his soul and devour it hungrily. He would not fight them.
Tanner woke up in the night after a nightmarish slumber. Chase was lying on the floor beside his bed, asleep. Tanner soaked in the image. Chases’ body seemed to radiate colour in an otherwise monochrome landscape. He looked so childlike there on the floor, curled up like that. There was something deeply vulnerable about it; and deeply comforting. Tanner felt his face break ever so slightly into the beginning of a smile, as part of his soul returned.
The next night Chase sat on the couch in a picture of emotional exhaustion. He arms flopped lifelessly on either side of him. His clothes – his jeans and white t-shirt, were dirty. He felt disgusting. Disgusting and useless. Well, at least Tanner was safe – that was the main thing. But he still hadn’t gotten up all day, except to go to the bathroom. Chase had made him some food, but it remained uneaten on his beside table.
Chase wondered what Hope was doing. He imagined her wrapped around Dean, as the guy cried on her shoulder. Images of them touching, holding one another, looking at one another, kissing … all flooded through his mind. Stop Chase, just stop!
He was startled from his private nightmare by Tanner appearing in the doorway, with a white blanket draped over his shoulders. He looked like death. But he was up! He was up of his own volition, for the first time in a week! This was progress, finally!
Chase knew that he couldn’t push him though – that he needed to tread lightly, very lightly. His heart began to beat rapidly with the pressure of doing the right thing. ‘Hey man’, he said, ‘How you feeling?’ He tried to be as casual as possible about it.
Tanner kept standing in the doorway. He wrapped his blanket around him more tightly. ‘Like I’ve been hit by two trains, a bus and an army of tanks.’
‘Nice,’ Chase said.
After a moments pause where Chase wondered where he should go from here, Tanner asked, ‘Can I sit with you?’
Chase felt a pocket of relief pop up in his chest. ‘Hey man, it’s your house – of course.’ Tanner threw himself listlessly on the couch.
The two boys watched the television in silence for what seemed like an eternity to Chase. It was late, or rather early in the morning. The television was subjecting them to various long winded infomercials on the unique advantages of saucepans that turned into colanders, and exercise machines that made you look inhuman with muscular perfection.
‘Do you think if I purchased the illustrious Ab-Circle-Pro, that it would alleviate all my problems Chase?’ Tanner asked glumly.
Chase maintained a serious tone, replying, ‘Absolutely. I’m a firm believer in the powers of the new revised Ab-Circle- Pro. I think we should both get one.’
Tanner let silence enter the room again, before saying, ‘Chase, pass us that bottle of wine will you? I’m too traumatised to reach.’ He managed a half smile.
Chase laughed half-heartedly. ‘I don’t know if that’s such a good idea mate.’
Tanner gave him a weak look of mock distaste. ‘Well, you could make me summon what little inner strength my poor, frail, heartbroken body possesses, to reach out for the desired bottle, like one reaches out for some glimmer of hope in the darkness’ –
Chase laughed in earnest this time. ‘Oh shut up, you whimp! Here, have the damn bottle.’ He grabbed it and handed it to Tanner, who swiftly began drinking it straight.
‘Dude, at least use a glass so you don’t drink the whole thing in one go,’ Chase protested.
‘Chase, my dear, ignorant friend. I’m going to drink this medium range wine straight from the bottle until I feel the time is right to cease. And I really don’t think you’re in any position to judge, because you have just as many demons as I do vying for your attention, except unlike me, you shut yours down and keep them hidden.’
Chase looked at Tanner. Damn him and his perception! ‘Give me that’, he said irritatedly, as he rolled his eyes and snatched the bottle from Tanner’s weak grasp. He shook his head at the kid, before taking a deep swig.
As they took turns to devour the bottle, the infomercials ceased and were replaced by ministry programmes – the ones that fed upon the loneliness of the poor jaded souls who found themselves awake and alone at 4am on a Tuesday morning watching television.
‘Do you believe in god Chase?’ Tanner asked, emotionless.
‘Me neither.’ He paused. ‘Why is religion necessary, do you think?’
Chase groaned and thought about it. ‘I don’t know … because it gives people hope I guess.’
Tanner considered this for a moment, then said, ‘Yes, I think you’re right. I think religion is a product of humanity’s need for three things – structure, hope, and answers.’
They watched the television as some fool rambled on passionately about the physical and tangible possibility of redemption, before Tanner said, ‘Unfortunately for me Chase, I possess not one of those three things. I thought I did, but I don’t. And I don’t believe that Jesus will help me out with it. Though it would be so much easier if he did – spiteful bastard.’
Chase laughed. ‘We all feel like that sometimes mate. They’ll come back you know.’
Tanner looked at Chase, who was distracted watching the ridiculousness of the minister. Chase felt Tanner’s eyes boring into him, searching for something deep. ‘Tell me about one of your demons Chase.’
Chase snorted, ‘Which one? Take your pick.’ There was light humour and jest in his voice. It was a diversion. A diversion that he knew was pointless, as Tanner would see right through it.
‘The big one. The king demon. The one that plagues you in both your sleeping and wakeful state.’
Chase considered the request. He found himself in a state of momentary indecision. But before he could allow himself to mull it over any longer, he found that he was involuntarily coming out with the truth – a truth that he had never told anyone.
‘My mother killed herself.’
There was no emotion in his voice. He stated it as a fact, and yet there was a beautiful honesty about it.
Tanner didn’t react at first. He looked down, deep in thought. Eventually, he asked, ‘Do you know why?’ Tanner matched Chase’s lack of emotion, but there was compassion in him too.
Chase sighed. ‘I think so. My father left her for another woman when I was young. She went into a decline for a couple of years – she was always a bit mad, even before he left. One day she just took it too far. She took too many pills.’
It was the truth, as far as he knew anyway. But there was more … so much more. Chase didn’t allow himself to feel anything about it. He opened up to Tanner with a kind of blind physical need to voice it. He could keep the emotions buried. He was a master at that, if nothing else.
Of course he should have known Tanner better; he should have known that Tanner would push him further than he was willing to go. And not out of cruelty, but just because that’s who he was. That’s what Chase was expecting, but Tanner’s next question surprised him nonetheless.
‘Why does that make you feel guilty?’
Chase’s world stopped for a second. Everything moved in slow motion. Things became transparent. There was no going back now, he had started a conversation of truth with Tanner, and he couldn’t pull back now. But still, he could bring no emotion to what he said when he realised what the answer was.
‘Because she called me that night. She asked me to come over to bring her some alcohol, and I refused. I hung up on her. She kept calling and I ignored her. I didn’t know what had happened until my uncle woke me up the next morning and told me that she was dead.’
Chase felt like a huge omnipresent weight had been lifted off his being. It was a fleeting sensation however, as his mind quickly began to doubt his decision to be so honest. He anticipated Tanner’s response with a mixture of fear and hope. What response did he want? What he didn’t want was to be coddled or pitied. But that was something you would expect from a woman. Tanner was a guy – a young guy – so Chase found that he really didn’t at all know what he wanted from him.
Tanner considered what Chase had just told him in contemplative silence for some time.
Finally, with startling clarity, he said, ‘That’s why you’re here. It makes sense now.’
Chase was extremely surprised and confused. ‘What do you mean?’
Tanner put his finger to his lips and thought further. ‘In my semi-lucid state I sometimes wondered why you stayed with me, but now I understand. You don’t want to make the same mistake again. You think if you stay with me, and protect me from hurting myself, that that will somehow redeem you, and you won’t feel so guilty about abandoning your mum.’
The truth of it hit Chase like a thousand tiny spears right through the heart. My god, the fucking kid was right. He suddenly felt all the emotions he had been guarding so attentively powerfully whirl into his core.
Tanner perceived this without missing a beat, and registered that Chase was struggling. ‘Chase, it’s not your time to let them all out mate. I know that. You’re not ready. I can see you’re starting to panic.’
Tanner shuffled himself around slightly. ‘So, let’s move on to me, shall we?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘I feel like I want to die, but I wont. I just don’t understand. Why did she do that to me Chase? Why don’t things that should work out, work out?’
Chase had never been more relieved in his entire life. This kid was unbelievable, he thought.
He seized upon the opportunity to reverse the tables. ‘I really don’t know man. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we want them to, no matter how right they seem at the time.’
Tanner furrowed his brow in frustration. ‘But it shouldn’t be like that. I hate that! I hate living in a world like that. It doesn’t make any sense. I love her. We should be together – it’s right, I know it is.’
‘You know you should ask her about it. She’s the only one who has answers. I can only speculate.’
Tanner said nothing. Chase respected Tanner’s need to just vent without making a solid ‘fix it’ plan, and so he left it at that.
Before long, Tanner ran his hands down his face as another thought occurred to him. ‘My god – Lola … oh my god. What did I do to Lola? Oh god, I feel sick. I used her. I used her Chase. I manipulated her. And I knew exactly what I was doing. It was cold and callous and premeditated … how am I capable of that?’
Tanner was overcome with the violent shame of what he had done, and tears started to cloud his eyes. Chase no longer debated the right thing to do. Any discomfort and uncertainty he had felt had been washed away by the purifying waters of truth. Without saying anything, Chase put his arm around Tanner and gently pulled his head to his shoulder, cradling him. Tanner cried softly, and Chase let him.
After a while his sobs became quieter, until they stopped altogether.
‘You love my sister, don’t you?’ Tanner said matter-of-factly, with his head still on Chase’s shoulder.
Chase had given up being surprised. ‘Yeah, I do … don’t tell her that though.’
‘I won’t.’ Tanner said, completely unperturbed by Chase’s response. ‘But you should.’
When all truth had been laid bare, the silence that came between them was gentle and tender. Tanner sniffed and shifted his head slightly. ‘Chase, will you sleep in with me tonight, even though I’m a dude?’
It was the request of a child. Chase didn’t even have to think about it. Instinctively he answered, ‘Sure man.’ He paused and took a deep breath. ‘Under one condition though.’
‘What’s that?’ Tanner asked.
‘You take a shower first. You fucking stink man.’