Our Young Friend
by Jonathan Robbins Leon
Mrs. Severton’s white car blocked Colin’s entrance to the neighborhood, but the old woman wasn’t in it. She stood in the median, ankle deep in miniature crotons, hands flying with emphatic gestures. As Colin rolled down his window, her shrill voice flooded the car with the sudden volume of a radio being switched on.
“You all tear around like you’re the only goddamn people who live here!” she said. “Screw the rest of us, right?”
The recipients of her wrath had parked their bikes safely on the sidewalk. There were five of them. Tan, lean teenagers with the kind of burst-bloom beauty that Colin tried to ignore. Ethan was among them.
“Some day, one of you is going to get flattened by a car.” She was working herself into a lather, getting red in the face, her voice cracking. The boys only stared, biding their time until they could resume their devilry. “And it would serve you right, you little shits!” Wrapped up in her tirade, she lost her balance and nearly fell face-first into the greenery.
The boys erupted into laughter. Dismissing her, they mounted their bikes. As he kicked off, Ethan looked back over his shoulder and called out, “Hi, Mister Hopewell!”
Colin nodded, conceding only a terse smile. Still, it gave him a thrill to be acknowledged like that, singled out as different from the Mrs. Severton’s of the world.
She approached his open window, her chin quivering with a rage that threatened to turn into tears. “I’m tired of being terrorized in my own neighborhood,” she said. With a nervous hand, she fingered her white curls, as if worried one of the tightly-permed coils had become misplaced. “Those punks rode right in front my car. I almost didn’t have time to stop.”
Like most of the neighborhood retirees, she sneered when she spoke of the group. Colin could remember being called a “punk” and a “little shit” only two decades ago. He would have laughed at Mrs. Severton then. He did not laugh now; she was too macabre. Did everyone dry and shrivel into brittle, ridiculous persons like Mrs. Severton? Would he?
His tone chilly, Colin asked, “Will you please move your car?”
The house was all his for three more days. With Adam in California, Colin would knock back a bottle of wine each night and catch up on the brain-rot reality television his husband hated.
He poured a cabernet and undid the buttons of his dress shirt. His phone rang: Adam. He thought of ignoring the call. Couldn’t they spend a few days apart without needing to be in constant communication?
Answering, Colin said, “I just saw your boyfriend.”
“I hate it when you say that,” Adam snapped. “He’s a kid.”
“Tell him that.”
“What do you have against him? He’s sweet.”
“The sweetest,” Colin said. He could hear his own voice taking on that nasty, biting quality it was prone to whenever Ethan came up.
“He likes to talk about the house,” Adam said.
The house. Colin clenched his teeth. His husband was forever bringing up the house! Hadn’t Colin been the one who begged him to put an offer on it? He’d fallen in love with it from the first, just as it was, lead paint, moldy smell, suspect electrical work and all.
Adam, though, couldn’t leave well enough alone. He was always making some improvement to the house, and he hardly had to crack open his toolbox to make Ethan appear. “What are you working on?” the boy would ask. Then he’d shake his head to get that mop of sandy blonde hair out of his eyes.
“Forget it,” Colin said. “Tell me about your day.”
Adam read him the conference schedule, detailing the different sessions he’d attended, names of people he’d met, what he’d eaten. Nothing was spun into an anecdote, but rather reported with the flair and accuracy of a court stenographer. If left unchecked, Adam would recount every precise detail about the conference, down to the color of the paper coffee cups.
“I have a bit of a headache, honey,” Colin interrupted. “I think I’ll go.”
“A headache? I hope you’re not drinking too much.”
Swallowing a mouthful of wine, Colin promised that he wasn’t. His husband reminded him that someone had invented wine stoppers, and they said their goodbyes.
Colin shed his work clothes and was ready to watch twenty-somethings date and scream at each other when someone knocked at the door. There was a momentary scramble as he found somewhere to set his wineglass and tugged a pair of shorts over his boxers.
He opened the door, expecting the mailman or some religious nut. He hadn’t bothered to check his appearance, so it was a shock to be confronted with Ethan’s radiant face. Colin’s hand darted to the crown of his head, pushing around his hair in an attempt to conceal a small bald spot there.
The effort of riding his bike had made Ethan’s face glow a becoming pink. The base of his neck glistened with sweat. “Hi, Mister Hopewell,” he said. “Is Adam home?”
Mister Hopewell. Adam. Colin noted the distinction.
“No. He’s away.”
“Oh. Where?” He stared at the older man with broad, expectant eyes.
Colin couldn’t remember being this direct as a child, certainly not when speaking with adults. “California,” he answered.
Ethan nodded. Looking back towards his bike at the curb, he seemed about to go. “Can I come in?” he asked instead.
As if readying to shut it upon the boy if he tried to rush him, Colin grabbed the edge of the door. “For what?”
He did not want him inside. A fifteen-year-old boy entering the home of a middle-aged gay man? What could be made of that? “All I have is tap water.” But Ethan didn’t mind. The other yards Colin could see were empty. “You can only stay a second,” he said.
Ethan followed him to the kitchen. He’d been inside plenty of times. With Adam, he was always full of chatter, asking all sorts of questions about the current project. What kind of tile was he thinking? How’d he know this pipe was safe to cut away? What bit would he use? On and on, and other things besides. What was his middle name? Did he like Rick and Morty? Had he played the new Destiny?
Ethan’s mother was single, a workingwoman. He was lonely for male company, Adam explained, but Colin didn’t buy it. This was no five-year-old boy wanting to play catch.
One weekend morning, Colin had slept in. When he shuffled into the kitchen, still wearing pajamas, he was shocked to find Ethan at the table. The boy paused from sipping orange juice through a straw, to say, “Hi, sleepy head. We’ve been planting.”
Adam had welcomed the help putting in the purple queen along the driveway. It had grown lush since then, and was always trying to creep its way across the grass and take over a flowerbed.
“I really am busy, so you’ll have to be quick,” Colin said.
Ethan accepted a glass of lukewarm water, drinking it down in three gulps. “Sorry, I’m all sweaty,” he said. He lifted the hem of his shirt, exposing a taut, hairless stomach, and wiped his forehead. Colin looked away.
“You guys have a fight or something?” Ethan asked.
“Did we have a fight?”
“Yeah, you and Adam. Is that why he’s away?”
“No,” Colin said. His nostrils flared, but he kept his tone even. “He’s gone for work. A conference.” Pursing his lips tight, Colin willed the boy to leave.
Ethan only leaned back against the counter, as if he was some sitcom guest star with every right to hang around as he pleased. “Why are you here?” Colin asked, the question surprising both of them.
“I was thirsty.”
“Not just now. Why are you always here?”
“Just being friendly,” Ethan said. His Cupid’s-bow mouth hardened into a smile of exaggerated sweetness. The cold fixedness of the eyes made Colin sure that the smiling face was only a mask, one that might slip at any moment and reveal something malicious and dangerous.
“I’m tired,” Colin said. “Will you go, please?”
Adam had to shout over the noise of the restaurant for Colin to hear him on the other side of the line. “There’s a game on, so it’s crazy here,” he said. Colin had hoped Adam might be at his hotel, bored from too many hours of television. Then he could have listened to Colin’s version of the strange afternoon encounter. He would have laughed, which would have annoyed Colin, but also put his fears in their proper place.
“Is everything ok?” Adam asked.
“Sure. Yeah, I’m fine. Have fun.”
Hanging up, Colin poured himself another glass of wine. Outside, the sun was setting. There’d been a sunset like this when Colin and Adam had come to tour the house, all orange and hot pinks succumbing to majestic purples. The realtor gave them a minute alone, probably hoping they would fall in love with the home. The wild sunset charmed them, and they offered over asking price.
Colin wasn’t charmed now. Instead, he felt a childish fear that the day was nearly over and the coming of night could not be stopped. What made it worse was that he’d remembered, after the boy had left, that he’d once given Ethan a key.
At the time, Adam’s endless rounds of projects had strained Colin to the point of breaking. Adam suggested a week away to reconnect without having to face the wreckage of the house. There was the question of who would water the plants and bring in the mail. Ethan was the obvious choice. He was given a key, and Adam and Colin escaped to a bed and breakfast in Georgia. Of course, the key was returned when they got back. The plants had been kept alive, and the boy was compensated with a twenty-dollar bill.
Yet it chilled Colin’s blood to remember it now. The locks were still the same. Might Ethan have a copy? Would the boy, only thirteen then, been capable of such a thing? Even if he didn’t have the key, he might know the garage window had a broken latch. A young, athletic person would have no trouble hoisting themself high enough to get in that way.
Stop this, Colin chided himself. Ruminating on paranoid scenarios of teenage intruders, he reminded himself of Mrs. Severton. Why would Ethan even want to sneak into the house?
Yet once he’d posed the question, Colin regretted it. His mind was off and running with distasteful suggestions: Ethan watching him while he slept, going through his things, or waking him up at knifepoint.
No, Colin would not let his mind run away with him. He commanded himself to take another sip of wine. But then, shouldn’t he stay alert? He sloshed the wine down the drain.
Only a handful of minutes had passed, but the sky outside was a dying orange, and as Colin watched, the last slip of sun disappeared, plunging the sky into an inky, starless black.
He needed to stay busy. Projects that had long ago been added to a mental list now offered themselves up as refuge. He cleaned, leaving the lights blazing in every room. It had been his and Adam’s intention to get blinds, but they could never agree on the style, so all of the windows remained naked and gaping. For Colin, the glass panes were like mirrors showing him only reflections of the inside, but anyone outside would be able to see the house, and him, perfectly. He was a frightened fish in a well-lit bowl.
Task by task, the hours went by. As he worked, he checked that the doors and windows were locked. He peaked inside of closets and thrust open shower curtains until every nook had been cleared. With his nerves dulled by exhaustion, Colin flopped onto the sofa. He picked something mindless on the television, turning the volume up just loud enough to make out the words.
A knock at the door. He woke and checked his phone: 12:34am. Who the hell is that? The knock came again, and Colin tiptoed to the door. Cautiously, he put his eye to the peephole. It was dark. Not able to make anything out, he reached tentatively for the light switch . . .
“Mister Hopewell?” Ethan’s voice sang out playfully, as if he knew the older man lurked just on the other side of the door. Colin flicked the light switch, but the porch remained dark. “It’s me, Mister Hopewell.”
“What did you do to my light?” Colin demanded.
“My porch light!”
“Maybe your bulb’s out. Can I come in? I left something.” Colin drew back from the door. He did not answer. “Mister Hopewell? I can just check real quick.”
He tried his best to sound calm as he asked, “What did you leave?”
“My house key. I think it’s on the counter. Can I look?” Colin tiptoed away to the kitchen and confirmed what he already knew: no key. Ethan was still knocking when he returned.
“It’s not here,” Colin told him.
“Do you mind if I check the floor?”
“It’s not here! Why don’t I call your mother and she can open the door for you? What’s her number?” Silence. Colin dared to look through the peephole again. This time, his eyes were better adjusted to the darkness. He could just make out the faceless silhouette of Ethan’s head.
“That’s alright,” the boy said at last. “I’ll just get in through a window.” Colin held his breath until he saw Ethan’s black shape drifting away from the door, merging with the shadows of the dark street.
With the boy gone, he was left shaking but triumphant. That bit about calling his mother had shut him up. Colin ought to have brought her up before, reminded Ethan that he was a child and not to bother him. Fear had gotten the better of him earlier, but he would go to bed now and put Ethan out of his mind. Room by room, he turned off the lights.
With the house dark, the windows lost their mirror-like quality, becoming transparent for Colin again. He was feeling his way from the kitchen to the bedroom when he remembered what Ethan had said. I’ll just get in through a window.
A very specific choice of words, Colin thought. Then, whose window? He’d assumed Ethan meant his own, but with sudden horror, he thought of the one in the garage. The broken latch. Suppose Ethan knew. Suppose, even now, he was lifting it open and getting a firm grip on the sill.
Cold panic gripped Colin’s stomach. It was dark, he reminded himself, and no one could see him now. His car was in the driveway, for the garage was where Adam kept lawn equipment and tools. Adam’s tools! He thought of the rusty-toothed saws and menacing claw hammers. I’ll just get in through a window, he’d said. He’d just get in through a window and bludgeon Colin to death, the older man’s blood splattering that young, beautiful, smiling face!
Colin snatched his keys off the counter. He flew to the back door, slipping out and hurrying around the house to the car, only praying to God Ethan wasn’t waiting for him in the dark.
Ethan had not gone home. He used his phone’s flashlight to poke through the Hopewell’s grass but found nothing. Walking his bike, he retraced his way up the street, his flashlight sweeping the pavement and bordering grass. He was a block away when he heard Colin Hopewell start his car. He found it, Ethan thought, and he mounted his bike to meet him.
A loud, metallic crunch, then a boy’s high-pitched scream ripped through the night, tearing neighbors out of their beds.
Someone called the police, and paramedics arrived. Ethan’s broken knee was buckled into a padded contraption, and the ambulance carried him away.
Colin couldn’t remember her arriving, but Mrs. Severton stood at his side. Her arm was fast around him in a gesture of support as she spoke to the police officer, a barrel-chested man named Clatworthy. “I saw everything,” she said. “That boy rode right into the street without even looking. They never do! I’ve been saying it for months. One of them was going to end up hurt or dead.”
Officer Clatworthy took down her statement, not noticing that the windows of Mrs. Severton’s house had heavy blinds, all of which were drawn closed.
Colin’s stomach pulsed, and he thought he might throw up right there in the road. His mind replayed the memory of Ethan’s face caught in the headlights. He’d been biking towards him, and Colin had panicked. Had he just not seen the boy in time? Or had he swerved to meet him?
“Mr. Hopewell,” Clatworthy said. “I’m going to need a statement from you.”
“He can’t possibly make a full statement now!” Mrs. Severton objected. “He’s in shock.”
“Do you need medical attention?” the officer asked. Colin shook his head. “Can you tell me what happened?”
He wasn’t in handcuffs. Ethan had been carried away on a stretcher, but the police were willing to blame the teenager based only on Mrs. Severton’s word. He wanted to tell Officer Clatworthy that Mrs. Severton was a spiteful old lady, and that he ought to be arrested and tried for attempted murder. He thought of Adam, though. Good, kind Adam, friend of the neighborhood boys.
Colin drew in a slow breath. The words appeared in his mouth like a memorized script. “He came out of nowhere,” he said. Mrs. Severton’s hand patted his shoulder reassuringly.
Jonathan Robbins Leon is a queer author of contemporary and speculative fiction. His short fiction has been published by Flame Tree Press, A Story Most Queer and Tales to Terrify. He regards himself as an old movie buff, Shirley Jackson enthusiast, and decent Bette Davis impersonator. Together with his husband Nick, he is the caretaker of a haunted house and father of a super villain. You can find more of his work through his website – https://jonathanrobbinsleon.com/ and twitter @JRobbinsLeon