It was the middle of the night when the phone rang, and
Michael lunged for it automatically, some part of him
still half-expecting David to call.
"Hello?" he said hoarsely.
"That you, Michael?" came the voice on the other end, and
the boozy slur to it was so familiar that for a moment
Michael could have sworn he could *smell* the liquor on
Dad's breath. It made his stomach tighten reflexively, in
spite of the hundreds of miles he knew were between them.
"Dad... is something wrong?" he asked cautiously.
"Wrong? Nothing's wrong. Does something have to be wrong
for me to want to call my boys?"
//Usually,// thought Michael sourly as he propped himself
up against the headboard. "No, of course not," he said,
trying to sound reasonable, "but it's two in the morning,
why don't you call back tomorrow and we - "
"Just wanted to talk to my boys," said his dad again,
"Ok, ok, I'm here, Dad," said Michael quickly, hating the
way his voice came out sounding meek and placatory. There
was a moment of silence on the other end.
"Did they tell you not to talk to me?" said Dad, still
"No one told me not to talk to you, it's just that -"
"Don't you listen to them," Dad went on, as if he hadn't
heard. "I've got as much right as your mother does. And
more than the old man, that crazy old coot. I never did
like him, you know, him and his boneyard, right there in
the house like that, all those dead things. Never thought
it was right. It's not... not healthy for a man's sons to
grow up in a place like that."
Old anger flared in Michael. Their father had long since
lost the right to have any say in how they lived, even
before his final desertion and the divorce that had
brought them here to Grandad's.
"No one told me anything, Dad," he said again, tightly.
From the other end of the line he heard the unmistakeable
sound of glass against glass and then a deep swallow.
"You keeping an eye on your little brother? Your Mother'll
spoil him rotten if she's not careful... always her
favourite, he was, we both know that. Always loved him
more than you and me put together, didn't she, son."
"Dad- " Michael protested, feeling a headache start to
blossom behind his eyes.
"You, you never got coddled." said his father thickly.
"You're more like me. Always have been. You always looked
out for yourself, no one holding your hand... I think we
understand each other, you and me, even if we had our
troubles... We think alike. You know the way things work,
what a man has to do, that sometimes it comes down to it
and you *have* to use your fists -" another swallow, and
for a moment he seemed to lose his train of thought.
Michael clutched the receiver in his hand, knuckles white,
palms suddenly slippery with sweat.
"I never had to worry about you, that you wouldn't turn out
to be a man, a man I could be proud of. Sammy now, I'm not
so sure about... and with your mother the way she is... I want
you to keep an eye on him, Michael, make sure he doesn't
turn into, you know, a mama's boy. When's his birthday
again? I could send you some cash, you could take him out
on the town, find him a girl, make him -"
With a bang, Michael dropped the receiver back into the
cradle. Sammy's birthday had been last week, and all
evening Michael had watched him trying not to look at the
"Michael?" said a sudden voice from the doorway, and
Michael jumped and looked up to see Sammy standing there,
looking wide awake in spite of the late hour. "Who was
"No one," said Michael, "just some old drunk who dialled a
wrong number. Why don't you go back to bed?"
But Sammy stayed in the doorway, head cocked to one side.
"You were on the phone a long time for a wrong number."
"I told you, it was a drunk - I couldn't figure out what he
was saying at first."
Sammy looked at him hard for a moment, then said, "It was
Dad, wasn't it?"
Michael punched his pillow back into shape and flopped down
flat on the bed again. "Yeah," he said finally, "Yeah, it
was. Like I said. Some old drunk."
Sammy shut the door behind him, and came over to perch on
the edge of Michael's bed. "That's not fair, Michael. You
always say that, but he's not a *real* drunk. I mean,
sure, *sometimes* he drinks too much, but - "
"Which makes him a drunk, in my books," said Michael,
turning his back to Sammy.
"Look, I know you're pissed at him, but... " Sammy's voice
trailed away, and he gave an awkward shrug. "What was he
calling about, anyway?" he said, after a moment
"He wasn't calling to wish you a happy birthday, if that's
what you're wondering," said Michael. He could sense
Sammy's flinch even without looking at him, and he turned
around again, said, "Christ, I'm sorry, Sammy, I didn't
mean it to come out that way. But the man's a son of a
bitch. I don't know why you always defend him."
"Come on, don't be such a jerk, he's not *that* bad, " said
Sammy. "I know he always hassled you more than he did me,
but I think... well, you remember when he gave you the bike?"
"Look, just because *he* thought he could buy me -" snapped
Michael, but Sammy shook his head and interrupted.
"That's not what I mean. It's not the money, it's... well,
he spent weeks looking around to find one he thought he
could fix up, you know, and checking out the junkyards for
parts and stuff. And he kept going on about how he used to
love doing stuff like that when he was your age... I
think you remind him of himself or something."
Michael glared at him and, through gritted teeth, said, "I.
Am. *Nothing*. Like him. Now go to *bed*. I want to get
Sammy put his hand on Michael's bare shoulder, but Michael
shook the touch off and Sammy gave an exasperated sigh.
"Fine. Be a big baby. But he remembered *your* birthday."
Before he could stop himself Michael sat up again and said,
"He *did* ask about your birthday, actually. He wanted to
know when it was, so he could send me money to get you a
whore so you didn't turn out gay."
Sammy jumped up and was out the door in seconds, slamming
it behind him and leaving Michael alone with the echo of
his words. With a groan he kicked the blankets off,
meaning to go after him, but before he could even get out
of bed he heard Mom's voice in the hallway.
"Boys?" she called softly, "everything OK?"
Michael dove back under the blankets and didn't move when
she stuck her head in to look at him. By the time she'd
gone back to bed and he judged it safe enough to creep
down the hallway to Sammy's room, he found the door
locked, and Sammy didn't respond to his whispered calls.
And after that, of course, Michael couldn't sleep at all.
Dad's booze-rough voice in the night... he should have hung
up on him right away, should have known the man would just
end up saying something poisonous. But some small part of
him still felt weirdly compelled at the sound of it, as if
he were a child still and unable even to think of not
He'd been happy enough to listen once. When he was little
Dad used to sit him on his lap after dinner and tell him
stories, his deep booming voice filling the whole room as
he told Michael of valiant heroes and strange magical
creatures. Later, lying in bed at night, Michael could
still hear Dad's voice, talking to Mom, telling a
different kind of story.
"Just you wait, Lucy," he'd say, "It's only a matter of
time. My work is good, top-notch craftsmanship, original
designs, not like the rest of the hacks out there banging
bent nails into cheap pine. It'll get noticed. We'll be
able to move out into the country, get a big old place,
lots of room for the boys. No more moronic craft-fairs
with crooked juries - people will come to *me*."
Michael had believed it as much as Dad had. Dad's people
had been carpenters and cabinet-makers for generations,
and after one year of college he'd dropped out and started
his own workshop, making furniture that Michael had thought
was magical, twisted roots and heavy carved heartwood fit
intricately together into chairs that the fairy-tale
creatures from Dad's stories might have sat in. He didn't
see how anyone could fail to notice it, or to notice Dad
himself, with his booming voice and the defiant pelt of
hippy hair that none of the other fathers he saw dared to
But somehow things never quite seemed to come together. The
very strangeness of the furniture seemed to put buyers off,
and it would make Dad angrier and angrier, until his scowl
and folded arms alone were enough to drive people away
from their booth at the craft fairs. One year at the big
state craft fair he punched one of the judges in the face,
and was banned for five years.
And as Dad got more and more frustrated, tangled and
twisted with his own anger, the furniture echoed him,
growing ever more tangled and heavy and gnarled. Dad
started having to take on outside work with local
contractors, but his temper got him into trouble there
too, and it never seemed to last long. He started staying
out late, coming home smelling of alcohol instead of
sawdust and glue, or sometimes not coming home at all.
Eventually they'd lost the workshop entirely, and after
that it seemed like everything had changed. Dad had always
been restless, they'd always moved a lot, but the workshop
had been a constant, and without it everything felt like it
was spiralling out of control, the moves more and more
frequent, Dad going from job to job to job, the fighting
And maybe Sammy was right, maybe Dad didn't drink all the
time, but it seemed to Michael that no matter how many new
beginnings they made, everything would fall apart again,
and Dad would come home one night with his eyes flat and
dead and a bottle in his pocket.
And the stories that Dad told Michael now were very
different. "Come talk to your old man, son," he'd slur,
shaking Michael awake in the middle of the night and
herding him sleepily into the living room.
"Well, son," he'd say, "your mother's gone and locked the
bedroom door on me again... what a surprise... talked free
love like the rest of them back when I first met her, and
we all thought it was for real, didn't we? Didn't we, son?"
Michael, uncomprehending, would nod , knowing that Dad was
as fast with his hands drunk as he was sober, and that if
he didn't Dad would clout him on the head hard enough to
make his ears ring.
"I should have known better. They never give anything away
for free, son, no woman ever has... you get to thinking
they're nothing but soft and wet and easy, but inside
their heads they're keeping score, and they'll make you
pay for it, one way or another. There's no such thing as
free, son, don't you forget that. They'll fuck you over
for the least little thing... Fuck you right up the ass, the
bastards out there. Doesn't mean a thing to be a man
anymore... I used to laugh at my Granddaddy when he told me
that, I thought he was just some mean old ignorant
backwoods motherfucker. And he was, right enough, but he
knew what he was talking about... I wasted my youth, son,
we thought we could change the world, but we didn't change
a thing. You still have to pussy up to the bastards in the
suits and ties or you're nothing in this world, nothing...
Nothing free, no freedom, no beauty. Nothing beautiful,
not it you look at it long enough, it's all rotten inside
and the ugliness comes creeping out through the cracks and
round the edges... "
And Michael would nod and listen, and listen and nod, until
he could *see* it, see the ugliness flowing out from
everything, from Dad too, with his slack features and
heavy-lidded, reddened eyes. Sometimes after those nights
he'd wake up sick to his stomach, retching into the garbage
pail is if it were literally poison his father had been
"Come on, you should tell Mom if you're sick," Sammy would
say, "she'd let you stay home from school." But Michael
would shake his head and drag on his clothes and go, sit
in the classroom hearing nothing, his father's voice still
loud inside his head.
Just once, when Sammy had gotten up to go to the bathroom
in the night, Dad had called him over too. "Come on,
squirt, time you learned a little something yourself!"
he'd said. But when he started to talk, Sammy had looked
up with such terrible puzzlement in his wide eyes that
after only a few minutes Dad had stopped, and sighed, and
said, "I think you'd best get back to bed, boys."
"Dad never wants to talk to *me*," Sammy had said sadly
when they were back in their room, and Michael had just
shrugged, not knowing what to say to him.
They'd moved again when Michael was eleven, and that had
been one of the worst times yet. He never knew what had
forced the move that time, but Dad was in a rage for
weeks, his ill-temper radiating from him almost visibly.
One night Michael came home to find their mother's left eye
blackened and swollen, and that night he'd taken Sammy to
their room right after dinner, and talked him into going
to bed early, then put a chair against the door. He woke
several hours later with a brimming bladder. He lay in the
dark holding it as long as he could - he could *feel* the
cloud of ugly tension outside the door. But it was too
much, and as quietly as he could he crept out the door and
down the hall.
But he hadn't been quiet enough. "Who's there?" Dad had
barked, and come weaving unsteadily down the hall. "Oh,
it's you. What are you doing sneaking around?"
"I have to go to the bathroom, Dad," said Michael meekly,
but Dad blocked his way, swaying on his feet.
"Sneaking around, just like the rest of them, just like
your mother. But I taught her a lesson tonight, I did, she
won't be sneaking around behind my back again anytime
soon... . And she's gone and locked that damn door again.
Don't know why she bothers. I don't want anything to do
with her old hag's pussy, don't know *who* all's been
Horror tightened Michael's bladder further, and he shifted
from foot to foot. "Dad, I really have to go, I'll come
right back, I promise," he'd said, but his Dad had ignored
him, his eyes blazing wilder by the moment as he spat out
vicious words that Michael tried not to hear. "Dad,
please," he tried again, and took one sideways step down
Dad roared, and his big callused hand came flying at him.
Michael ducked, but this time the blow wasn't aimed at his
head, this time Dad reached out fast as lightning and
grabbed him by the crotch, hard enough to hurt.
"You're not going anywhere! You just damn well hold it
until I say so!" yelled Dad, face, red and crazy. He
glared down at Michael, who could do nothing but gawp up
at him in shock, and only then did he seem to truly take
it in, Michael's piss-hardon in his pyjamas. He smiled, a
vicious snarl of a smile that showed his teeth, and then,
to Michael's absolute horror, started to slowly knead his
crotch. "Oh, little pansy boy likes that, does he?" he
"Dad *don't*!" gasped Michael, but his father didn't let up.
"Likes having someone else hold it for him, does he? Wants
me to touch his little worm?"
And oh god... no one had ever touched him there before ... he
wanted to cry, to throw up, wanted to run away and curl up
somewhere small and safe and never ever come out again.
But even in his panic a small involuntary flash of heat
moved through him at the rhythmic touch. And that was the
worst thing of all, and he cried out again, "Dad, please,
please, *don't*," his voice coming out a high thin wail.
At his cry the main bedroom door flew open and Dad dropped
his hand and Mom came running out into the hallway.
"Don, leave the boys alone!" she screamed. "Michael! Get
back to bed!"
And Michael had dashed down the hall as fast as he could
and slammed the door behind him on the yelling outside,
slammed it then leaned against it, filled with corrosive
shame at his own frightened weak-kneed trembling, at the
wetness in his eyes and the spark of unwilling heat that
still lingered in his groin.
"What's going on?" asked Sammy, sitting up straight in his
bed, his eyes wide and frightened.
Michael could only shake his head. His bladder was still
achingly full, and helplessly crying now with shame and
fear and humiliation, he climbed up on the desk and
messily peed out the screened window.
"Don't cry, Michael," Sammy had said, though there was a
quaver in his own voice, "It'll be OK."
He'd tried to climb into bed with Michael after that, the
way he still did when he had a bad dream, but Michael had
shoved him away and wrapped himself as tight as he could
in a cocoon of his own blankets and fell into an
exhausted, fitful sleep. When he woke up, though, Sammy was
there with him, his small blond head on the pillow beside
him and the blankets from the other bed spread clumsily
across them both.
He squirmed now at the thought of how he'd thrown Dad's
words at Sammy tonight, the cruelty of it. It was stupid,
but he had never really thought of what they did as *gay*,
exactly, had somehow never thought past Sammy being his
*brother* to what it meant that he was another guy.
Stupid too that the thought should bother him, but it did,
gave him a feeling of squirming discomfort deep inside.
One more thing to set him apart from everyone else, one
more thing to make him an outcast. And Sammy... he had to
wonder now if that was something else he should have on his
conscience, whether this was a direction Sammy would ever
have gone without him.
He could still feel his father's contemptuous words echoing
inside his head, and his own reaction made him even
angrier, as though it was a piece of his father inside
him, more poison that he'd swallowed.
He *wasn't* like Dad. He wasn't. He wouldn't spend his life
taking out his own frustration and anger on whoever
happened to be closest...
He'd apologise to Sammy, first thing in the morning.
But that wasn't so easily accomplished. When Michael tapped
on Sammy's door in the morning he got no answer. And when
he came out of the bathroom, just a few minutes later,
Sammy's door was open and his room was empty, and Michael
found him downstairs at Mom's side, helping with breakfast.
"Sit down," said Mom, "we're having scrambled eggs and
sausages." Sammy didn't look at him.
After breakfast, Sammy followed on Granddad's heels out to
the garage and volunteered to help with the shopping. And
when Granddad came home again some hours later, he was
alone, and told Michael that Sammy had picked up his
dirt-bike already and had said he was going for a ride. At
that, Michael grabbed his jacket and left, kicking his
motorcycle into life at the foot of the drive.
He drove down the road until he knew he'd gone further than
Sammy could have gotten on the bike, then looped back and
tried the other direction, knowing hopelessly that Sammy
could already have gone down any of the paths and dirt
roads that led off the main blacktop. And then, at last, he
was just driving, driving the way he used to after they'd
killed David, when this thing with Sammy had just been his
own shameful, secret imaginings, driving fast and hard and
stupid, gunning the bike into the curves, blindly
rocketing right down the centre of the road. Finally, like
so many times before, he found himself guiding the bike
down the rutted, muddy pathway to the cliff above the old
He got halfway down the path at near full speed before his
bike stalled and gave up, almost dumping him. He climbed
off it and stood, breathing fast. There were plenty of
other tracks in the mud, but the only sound in the air now
was the ocean, and suddenly unwilling to break the quiet
again he walked the bike the rest of the way, around the
curve and past the tumbled boulders where the scrub-brush
died away and was replaced by coarse grass and bare soil.
And there was Sammy, sitting with his back to the farthest
of the boulders, his bike on the ground beside him.
"Go away," said Sammy, not looking up as Michael drew near.
Michael propped the bike next to the boulder and crouched
down beside Sammy.
"I'm sorry, Sammy, " he said. "I don't blame you for being
mad. What I said, it was a shitty thing to say to you. I
was upset at Dad, and I took it out on you... and I'm
Sammy nodded, still not looking at him. "You're right, it
was a shitty thing to do. But..." and he glanced at
Michael for just a second, "was it ... was that what he
Michael shrugged uncomfortably. "Well, not in those exact
"Well, then I'm glad I know, " interrupted Sammy, grinding
his heel fiercely into a tuft of grass at his feet. "Fuck
him. I'm *glad* I'm gay!" He jumped to his feet, and
started walking away from Michael, striding out along the
edge of the cliff. "I'll be as gay as I want to. I'll be
gayer than he could ever even *imagine*."
Smothering the hysterical urge to giggle, Michael went
after him, saying awkwardly, "But I don't think he
necessarily really *meant* it, not seriously. And Sammy,
you don't... well, you don't really *know*, do you? I
mean, you've only... you've never actually gone all the way
with a girl, have you? Maybe, you know, if you did, you'd
Sammy whirled to face him, his cheeks red and his eyes
blazing. "Is *that* what you think I'm pissed about? Don't
be so fucking stupid, Michael." He started walking faster,
tension visible in his shoulders.
"But - " said Michael.
"Of course I'm gay!" snapped Sammy back over his
shoulder. "I've known that for *ages*. That's not the
"Then what *is* the point?" said Michael, frustrated and
Sammy stopped and turned again, arms folded across his
chest. "I was such an *idiot*!" he said contemptuously,
glaring accusingly at Michael. "I liked it in Phoenix. I
liked it a lot. And we'd been there long enough that I
really thought we were going to stay. And we had the
house, and we actually got to finish a grade at the same
school we started it at, and I had some friends, and
then... I should have known better."
"Well," said Michael hesitantly, trying to figure out
where this was going, "we didn't really have much choice,
did we? Mom couldn't keep the house on her own, and -"
"You just don't understand *anything*, do you?!" yelled
Sammy, then lowered his head and ran right towards Michael.
Automatically Michael ducked out of his way, but Sammy
didn't even slow, just ran by him, back towards their
bikes. And before Michael realised what was happening,
Sammy kicked the brake off Michael's bike and gave it a
great shove towards the edge of the cliff.
"Hey!" shouted Michael, and started running after him, but
the bike toppled over on its side and slid on the dry
grass down the last few feet of incline and then off, into
space. Moments later came the sound of a crash, audible
even over the sound of the sea.
Michael was only a couple of yards from Sammy now. Sammy
was standing with his arms tense at his sides, his face
white, set, defiant. "Go ahead!" he yelled, "Go ahead, hit
me!" and to his horror Michael realised that his fists were
clenched and his arm drawn back to strike.
"Go ahead!" cried Sammy again, and Michael tried to halt
his headlong run, skidding in an arm-swinging scramble the
last few feet. He saw Sammy lunge towards him, saw his fist
come up, but there was nothing he could do to avoid it and
he simply shut his eyes as it crashed into his face.
Then he was on the ground, and Sammy was on top of him,
flailing at him inaccurately. Michael covered his face
with his hands and let the blows fall, mindful of how
close the cliff-edge was. "Stop it, Sammy!" he cried
through his hands, "Stop!"
But Sammy was gasping out incoherent words, and didn't seem
to hear. "It's not fair," Michael caught, "not fair!"
"Stop!" said Michael one more time, and when Sammy didn't,
he twisted and, with all his strength, shoved him away,
off to the side away from the cliff. Then he curled into a
tight ball, waiting for the blows to resume.
"It's not fair," Sammy said again, and then he was sobbing
in earnest. Michael uncovered his face, and saw him
crouched miserably next to him
"It's just not fair. You always got to do whatever you
wanted, and he never -" Sammy's breath caught, and he
wiped at his nose. "And I - I always did everything
*right* - did everything I could think of - I tried so
fucking *hard*. And he still ... he still ... he still
Michael reached up and pulled Sammy down into a rough
embrace, an awkward heap of arms and legs and bruises.
Sammy buried his wet face in Michael's neck, and Michael
could feel his rib-cage shake with sobs as he stroked his
back, not sure what else to do.
They lay like that for a long time, until Sammy's crying
stopped and his breathing evened out again and he finally
raised his head. "Oh god, your nose is bleeding, " he
said, peering at Michael. "I'm so sorry. And.... and your
bike. I'll, I'll make it up to you, Michael, I promise.
We'll get you a new one. I have some savings, and some
money from my birthday, and - "
"Shhh," said Michael, putting a hand gently over Sammy's
mouth. The thought of his bike made him want to cry, but
Sammy looked so miserable that he did his best to smile
wryly. "Don't worry. We'll work something out. More
important is figuring out what we're going to tell Mom
about it. And you're going to have to ride me back, you
know. I'm not walking all that way.
Sammy nodded seriously. Then he let his head fall back onto
Michael's chest, and without meeting his eyes, asked his
impossible question again, the question that made Michael
feel like something inside him was shattering.
"Do you love me?"
"Yes," said Michael, and held on tight.