by Michael Schutz
Owen said, “It’s only a grass snake!” and shoved the wriggling length of the dark thing in Greg’s face.
Greg recoiled in disgust.
The two stood under the great cottonwood tree. It forked, splitting off some ten feet above them; its height reached far enough into the night sky that the topmost branches were invisible.
Owen let the snake slither through his fingers and fall to the brown grass where it S-ed its way to wherever.
A breeze blew through Owen’s hair—long and unkempt compared to Greg’s. The autumn wind carried a cellar-scent of dirt and grass and wet leaves. It brought promises of winter.
Greg shivered. The wind grabbed at his open jacket, flapping it like bat wings. He pulled it tight around him. Here on the hill it was colder than in the small valley where Winston Academy nestled.
“Cold?” Owen asked, smiling
(his crooked smile for me whenever we’re alone)
and even with the stars covered by fall clouds, Greg caught the glint of a smile in Owen’s eyes.
They both craned their necks upward, trying to see where the tree ended and the sky began. Looking up, a slight vertigo pushed Greg gently against Owen’s arm. Owen didn’t flinch, and Greg didn’t right himself, preferring to rest his weight on his friend’s arm, just to feel its warm pressure.
“I’ll race you to the top,” Owen said, then looked over at his friend. “Where it forks—you take the right. I’ll go left. See who gets highest first.”
Owen was always playing these games—making these challenges that more often than not ended with him seated before Headmaster Schtrum. Schtrum had presided over fifty years’ worth of precocious and mischievous boys. He must have had a wrinkle and a grey hair for every stupid thing his boys had ever done, though the blue fire in his big, old eyes belied that he’d done his own fair share once. Regardless, Owen would have been expelled from Winston several times over if there hadn’t been a dormitory wing named for his great-grandfather, the beginning of a legacy.
The breeze blew again, and with it rose the sand paper sound of dead leaves; the leaves rattled against and over Greg’s sneakers. They gained flight on the far end of the hill.
“I don’t know…” Greg said.
Owen looked at him, goading him on.
Greg wanted to say ‘yes’. He wanted to give Owen whatever he wanted so he would stay
(so soft so shy only for me)
friends with him.
They’d become such fast friends at the start of the year. Owen, a Fourth-Year, envied the privacy in First-Year Greg’s rare single room. After a couple of anxious conversations, Greg let Owen lead him through the private woods at the back of the compound. Hidden by the trees, they’d bathed in the creek—Greg laughing and watching his new friend’s reflection in the bracing water.
“Yes or no?” Owen asked, ready to pass judgment.
It was now a week since Owen had held Greg’s hand as they twined through the trees. He would climb whatever Owen asked, but was it worth it anymore? Would Owen ever take him back there? Without Owen, he had only adolescent emptiness to fill his hours.
“Coward!” Owen whispered. Or maybe it wasn’t a whisper—maybe the strength of the word blew away into the late October night.
Owen’s hands scraped around the great, scraggly trunk; his shoes ground against the bark, pushing him up.
“You shouldn’t,” Greg said, but Owen was strong and quick and already up to the break in the tree.
“Left?” Owen shouted down. Then he remembered. “Yes, left! Yours is to the right.” His smile was fearless.
“Left,” Greg called up, and his voice was stolen by a brisk wind that shook the tree’s thinner arms and fingers far above.
Owen started climbing the left fork.
Why were they here? Why up this hill, to this single, massive tree? If Owen had wanted to climb like a wild child they should have run to their woods. They could have waded in the stony creek that meandered through the woods, as Owen’s snake earlier had slithered into the night.
The water would be so cold…
“You should see this, Greggy!”
Greg saw the vague, dim shape of Owen high in the tree. He was a bruised shadow among many.
Of course, Greg knew why Owen chose this tree.
The great Winston Tree stood lone sentry on this hill above the school. This was the tree which Third- or Fourth-Years made timid First-Years try to climb as initiation. This was the tree to which dozens—if not hundreds—of boys had brought clandestine girlfriends from neighboring Churchill Boarding and Preparatory School for Young Women, to prove themselves to the girls. It was the unofficial emblem emblazoned on the academy’s brochures.
This was Owen’s challenge: live up to it; live up to me.
He knew Greggy would never climb to the dizzying four or five stories above.
From the canopy, a sound—a shock of breath—jagged down.
A sharp thundercrack startled Greg into looking up at the clouds. A moment later Greg knew to look, instead, to the tree. One of the uppermost limbs gave way. Greg stared up; small pieces of bark and twigs rained down onto his feet and caught in his hair. The noise of breaking branches grew louder and closer.
Early frosts had hardened the ground, and Owen’s pin-wheeling body hit with a crunch that Greg thought
(it’s only pieces of the tree—Owen’s still up there)
was going to make him sick. Owen landed on his back, arms flung out at his sides. Still, he looked hale enough to shake off the fall once he caught his breath.
But his head… No neck should hold a head at such a grotesque angle—Owen’s head was twisted all the way back around, peering at Greggy over the wrong shoulder.
Between full lips, a trickle
(like the creek)
of blood flowed. The dam inside Owen’s head broke; blood poured from his ears and his nose.
One blind eye rolled up to white and watched the sky beyond the tree, made shaggy with the violence.
“Dad, I don’t want to go home.”
“Gregory, your mother and I booked a connecting flight out of Heathrow this evening.”
“Please, I want to be here.”
“Did you know the boy?”
“Dad, he was my best friend.”
“Honey, maybe we can stay for the service?”
“Your mother’s on the other line.”
“Mom, why are you listening on the other line?”
“Gregory, we understand the difficulties you’re—”
“You cannot understand this.”
“Greg, your headmaster said that classes would be suspended for two weeks…”
“That’s how long I have to mourn?”
“I trust the whole school is mourning this tragedy, Gregory.”
“Everyone’s just waiting to forget. That’s not the same thing.”
“Gregory, it will do you a world of good to spend time back here.”
“I’m never going to forget.”
“I need to be here.”
“Greg, we’ll go to the service as a family—won’t that be nice?”
“I need to wait for him.”
“Use these next two weeks to start looking ahead, Gregory.”
“Wait for whom, Greg?”
“He’ll come back for me.”
“No, Gregory, we’re bringing you back with us.”
“Oh, Greg, all of your old friends are still here.”
“He’s coming back.”
“Who is, Greg? They’re all here.”
“Greg? Did you hang up?”
The fey whisper woke Greg from troubled sleep. He lay in his narrow dormitory bed, sheets off his skinny body, listening to night sounds outside the half-open window.
His arms broke out in goosebumps.
His name… Someone down on the grass quietly called up to him. Greg’s blood felt sluggish and thick.
Still mostly asleep, the rising fear didn’t stop him. His bare feet hit the chilly floor, and he padded to the window. The curtains on either side were old dorm curtains, stiffened by age and weather. Standing at the window, Greg pushed them back as much as they would go.
Was this another of his dreams? It felt real. The air smelled like dirty locker clothes. His mouth flooded with the flavor of bitingly cold creek water.
Those soft whispers sounded familiar.
(this has happened before).
“Owen?” Saying his name out loud sounded like
The hill and valley were silent, holding expectant breaths.
Greg had been holding his own breath, unaware. “Owen?” He levered himself out the window and saw only shadow-shapes like puppets in a dumb show.
Greg didn’t want to look out the window anymore. He felt foolish.
The night sounds had stopped.
Now Greg wondered what was underneath his window. His pulse throbbed in the back of his throat. He tried to lean out from the window again, but he was dizzy and scared and when he closed his eyes he saw the nightmare of Owen’s face.
Rising from outside: “Left or right, Greggy?”
Greg stepped away from the open window.
“Left or right. Greggeee!” Owen climbed the ivy-covered bricks of the wall— Greg recognized the sound of Owen’s shoes grinding their way up to the second storey. Greg’s body tingled with fear. The sensation doubled, then tripled, and finally became a vibration that shook him until his head actually cleared.
Owen’s chapped hands grabbed the sill.
Greg’s mind screamed for him to move back, but a force more primal took him forward. His trembling hands reached out to help.
Owen pulled himself up; the muscles in the older boy’s arms bulged as he swung his weight over and inside. “Greg!”
“Owen! Shhh! You’ll wake the whole floor!”
Owen’s green eyes lit up as he flashed his crooked smile; the vibration started once again within Greg’s lower stomach.
“I knew you would come back.”
“You called to me in your sleep.” Owen’s eyes were steady. Even in death, he looked healthier than Greg. The dark flax of his hair was perfectly disheveled from the wind outside. But Owen’s skin was not so tan anymore.
(are you real?)
Owen reached out a cold hand and brushed the side of Greg’s face. Greg shuddered but he parted his lips for Owen’s fingers to slide along them. Greg trembled and buried his face into the crook of Owen’s neck where the chill flesh was soft.
Owen took Greg’s hand and pressed it over his lips in an icy kiss.
(is this our last time?)
“It should have ended before this, Greggy.”
Taking Greg by the shoulders, Owen walked him backward until the backs of Greg’s legs found the bed. Sitting down hard, Greg peered up into the older boy’s face.
(it was your eyes)
“No… it was more. It always meant more to you, Greg.” Owen’s hands rested on Greg’s shoulders.
Greg thought perhaps his heat would transfer to Owen, but instead, the frost of Owen’s touch prickled his skin. Greg shivered but wrapped his arms around Owen’s waist, his face against Owen’s tight belly.
(will you be with me now?)
“Didn’t I always give you what you wanted?” Owen pushed him down onto his back. The rusty springs of the old dorm bed creaked and then groaned as Owen added his own weight.
Lips met lips, then lips to necks; hands fled downward to undo and to open and to bring them to a closeness that each one wanted in his own way.
(this is the last time?)
“This is the last time.”
“Shhh, Greggy. Just let it happen.”
And it did.
It was simply macabre.
The casket was on display in the chancel, just to the side of the pulpit in the chapel.
Owen’s parents had deemed it best to hold one service at the school for his classmates, followed by a separate service for family and dear friends who waited in Baltimore. The chapel was standing room only. An ocean of school uniforms undulated, a live organism. Every student at Winston was there—most just happy that there were no classes that day.
Greg wanted to shout at them all that Owen wasn’t in there. He’d seen him last night. Maybe Owen was dead but he’d been walking and talking. Greg wanted to protest this ruse, but his own parents sat on either side of him far back enough to be lost among the students and parents.
Many of the parents stood in back and observed their sons’ responses to the ritual. Some sat in the pews, sharing
(what right do they have?)
in their grief.
The flowers adorning the chapel sent a cloying hybrid of scents into the incense-stale air.
Voices murmured, joining each other in a low, irreverent hum.
High above them all, rust-colored stained glass saints stared down. Below, Greg averted his eyes from the coffin. It was a closed casket, and Greg wondered what was in there, if Owen was not. What was going to be buried?
(his neck turned all the way around)
Greg had never felt so confined in the chapel before. His mother and father pressed in on him. The casket that he could see, even though he tried not to, was so large in his mind that it drained his senses. From the apse, the eyes of the Christ looked benevolently down—His hands outstretched to reveal bloody palms.
As echoes finally died away, their priest blessed them in Latin and gave the sign of the cross. The service was about Owen no longer needing his earthly body.
The students chanted en masse appropriately. Prayers were said. Fondnesses of the young man would be reserved for the private ceremony. Here it was simple: Ashes returned to ashes. Dust returned to dust. They were blessed, and they were dismissed. The mammoth pipe organ bellowed the recessional while the voices began again in earnest. There was a mad, uncaring shuffling and pushing through the nave.
Greg’s parents were blessedly close-mouthed. Outside, he recognized Owen’s mother and father by rearranging certain traits and gestures.
He broke away from his parents.
“I’m Greg.” He integrated himself into a line of the few who were offering condolences.
“One of Owen’s friends?” the mother said.
“Yes, we were—”
“—very good friends.”
“He was very well-liked…?” she said, looking around at all the faces that surrounded her.
Greg stared into her green eyes. Voices addressed him but they were small and tinny. His parents came over, flanking him once again.
Owen’s mother asked him how close they’d been. Greg wanted to tell her about the nights in each other’s beds, the nights in the stream. He wanted to ask her what fear she’d bred into her son, that Owen could never fully reciprocate the love Greg had given.
He felt the revolution of the earth and thought he was going to be sick. He turned to run but was slowed by the web of people still milling around on the grass, now free to talk as loud as they wanted.
Owen’s father called after him, calling the wrong name.
Greg outran their voices.
He ran towards the dorms, but at the last moment he cut past them to the Collin’s Classroom Center. He followed the flagstone path around to the back and made for the grass expanse behind Winston.
He crashed into the underbrush, running to the older, larger trees. The noise of his progress echoed back along the path.
A scraggly branch grabbed his dark blue Academy suit coat. He lost his balance, nearly fell, but managed to wriggle his arms out of the jacket. Where it fell, it soaked up the damp. He ran to the creek and into the cold water. His shoes splashed water up his calves and to the knee.
Greg heard laughing, sharp and real.
He reached the other side and climbed the small embankment. His wet and torn pant legs picked up dirt and little brown leaves.
(this is the last time)
He thought it was creek water but it was tears which blurred his eyes.
(Didn’t I always give you what you wanted?)
Greg collapsed, gulping for breath. The only light was the forest-dusk diffusion of sky shown weakly through the canopy. He leaned into the trunk of one of the bigger trees, resting his back against the hard bark. The grey light faded further, and darkness curled around him like low smoke.
He heard the laughter again and easily recognized it.
Owen was in every shadow.
Greg waited. He could hear the snapping of low branches—footsteps through the underbrush.
Owen was in every breath of wind.
Greg said, “I knew you’d come back.”More stories like this by topic: LGB characters, Queer authors