For Max and Amber.
Aberdeen, Washington. Summer, 1990.
Payton hastily wiped sweat from his eyes and, with greater force, drove his shovel into the warm soil with his foot. He sniffed, struggling to keep mucus from running down his lips and chin, the fragrant earth billowing over his spade. At last, the weed was uprooted, and his father discarded it in the green trashcan.
“Nice work, son. We’re just about through for today.”
Payton grinned. His older brother, Robbie, pruning and weeding the rosebushes on the other end, said, “Just about finished too, dad. I’m working on this last bush.”
Robbie stopped to wipe his forehead with the red bandana from his back pocket and wrapped it around his head for protection. Snatching his pruning shears, he snipped across the tangle of thorny stems, resuming his meticulous speed. His hands cautiously maneuvered with the handles to avoid getting pricked. Payton stopped and watched his brother, admiring his determination. He was shirtless, and the sun gleamed off the sweat streaming down his chiseled torso. Playing varsity baseball for high school certainly boosts self-confidence, but being one of the top players on the team — -while only being a sophomore — fuels vanity. When he felt modest, Robbie took Payton to Phelps Park and coached him, improved his swings, bunts, and screwballs. When his arrogance overwhelmed him, he peeled his shirt off and showed his fit body to the town, secretly hoping his girlfriend Kelly would blush and playfully beg him to clothe himself again.
Payton felt a stab of envy at his side. It was a familiar reaction whenever he brooded about the subject alone, listed the expectations from his family and church members over youth group devotionals. Replaying the wrinkled aunts and grandmothers, caked in powder and sweat from soups and casseroles, asking him when will Robbie’s team face Dinuba or if his adorable younger brother will resume the Thayer legacy. In his raging mental spiral, Payton drove his spade deeper into the ground, and he watched the loose dirt crease in mounds. The weeds were cleared, but Payton kept stabbing the earth. He quivered from his emotions frothing inside, and he suppressed the urge to yell at Robbie to stop parading his upper torso.
Then he felt it.
A prick on his thumb. Payton gasped, his shovel falling with a muffled clatter. He cradled his injured hand. A half-inch chip of wood was lodged underneath a bulging layer of skin. It was completely engulfed.
Payton cursed and tried to squeeze it out with his other thumb and index finger. His hand jerked, spasms coursing down his arm, the wound growing cherry red. Robbie brushed away his sweaty bangs and noticed his brother’s distress.
“What’s up, bro? You look like someone shoved a bat up your ass.”
“Nothing, it’s none of your business.”
“C’mon, Payton. What’s wrong?”
“Just leave it, okay?” Payton kicked his shovel and hurried inside the house for the first aid kit.
“Like hell I will.” Robbie followed him into the hallway. “Did you hurt yourself? Here, lemme take a look — ”
Payton shot past the immaculate living room, brimming with the late-morning sun pouring through the sliding glass door. He was struck by the immediate drop in temperature and shivered as the air conditioning cooled his baked skin. Past the shrouded hallway, he switched the bathroom light on and feverishly rummaged through the wooden drawers of the sink. He slammed the first-aid kit onto the porcelain counter, but Robbie had sprinted to the doorway before he could open it.
“Hey, chill out, Payton. I’ll open it for you.”
“Will you just leave me alone? I told you to back off!”
“What’s your problem? I’m trying to help you!”
“I didn’t ask for your help! I smart enough to put on a band-aid! I’m not a kid anymore! God, stop treating me like one!”
“Dude — ”
Payton abandoned his efforts and brushed past his brother, and after a brief silence, the front door opened and slammed shut. Robbie didn’t follow him. Leaning against the bathroom doorway, bathed in the milky morning light filtered through the window, he couldn’t grasp his brother’s behavior, struck by the initial fear that, for once, he didn’t know who Payton was. His father hardly registered what had happened, so by the time he trudged into the house and asked what was wrong, Robbie didn’t immediately answer. Wiping his brow, he glanced at his father and shook his head.
“Nothing, I guess.”
Robbie, in turn, slipped past his father and returned to his work. Five minutes after resuming, he had sliced his fingers twice on a couple of thorns. “Dammit.” He threw the pruning shears aside and told his father he was making lunch.
Down the blurred streets, barrelling past the identical suburban houses, Styrofoam cutouts for elementary musical productions, the pathetic excuse of a park, a swing set and seesaw, and finally the local middle school parking lot. Payton skidded to a halt in front of the side gate, NO TRESPASSING blaring from a dangling yellow sign. He hopped over the fence and recognized the familiar heat of grassy knolls, the sickly odor of fresh flowers in the garden outside the faculty lounge. When he reached the outdoor track and field, he eased to a brisk stroll. The fresh earth wrapped him in a crisp cocoon. A sickly sweet scent filled his nostrils. A mixture of rubber and freshly-cut grass. Both were familiar scents, yet they couldn’t remedy his spirit’s ailment. Frustrated, Payton’s gaze fell on the fortress of trees guarding the track and field. He feasted on his spontaneity and rushed for them, fixed on a particular destination. Though there wasn’t a trail, Payton flew past the gargantuan trees, slipping on the leaves and occasionally slamming into tree trunks. A few hundred feet, and he came upon a clearing. Stopping to catch his breath, arms dangling at his sides, he found his refuge.
A bridge. At the far end of the clearing. A faded grey structure composed of conglomerate rock along its tongue. Connecting a jogging trail through the woods and around the northern edge back to the adjacent neighborhood. The sun beamed through the lazy clouds as they drifted across the sky. The river sang its annual summer hymn. It swiveled on the upmost edge of the clearing, flanked by luscious grass, reeds, and dandelions. Underneath the arch, the river lapped at the sizable sandbar on both sides.
It was a secret spot he and his friend Bailey stumbled upon last summer. They were scouting for a fly that sailed over the baseball field, and after meandering the dense forest for ten minutes, they accepted the fact they ventured too far. They would’ve returned to the field when Bailey spotted the bridge through a gap between two oaks. Since then, Payton, Bailey, and their circle of friends often converged under the bridge to hike, cast stones into the river, or sneak a bottle of whiskey from one of their father’s private cabinets only to take a few repulsive sips and call it a night.
Payton’s feet drew him closer to the bridge. He felt the heat rise from the damp, mud-packed earth. He dispelled annoying swarms of gnats and bees, his torn blue jeans brushing grass blades as he made his own path across the clearing. At last, he approached the sturdy structure and cautiously peered underneath the arch.
It was empty. Payton was alone. He preferred it that way.
Payton sighed and sat on a dry patch of ground a few feet beside the bridge. He watched the distant grey clouds loom menacingly, awaiting the next day’s forecast. The river will rise, and no one would visit the banks for the next few weeks. With nothing else to occupy his flustered mind, nowhere else to run, he cradled his throbbing head, exhausted as a deflated balloon. He felt a spasm of pain the moment his hands touched his glistening forehead. The damn sliver. He gave his tender thumb a furious scratching. It relieved the itching yet irritated the festering swollen flesh. Payton cursed. He should’ve asked someone to help him. He slammed his head against his fist, regretting his hasty departure. Robbie wouldn’t understand. Neither would his parents. All they would see is a tempered adolescent probably irked by preadolescent angst. Payton gave the sliver one more feeble squeeze. It was useless. Nothing changed.
There was a snap. Brushing of grass against cloth. Payton’s head swiveled behind him. Standing over him was a man. He was fairly young, no older than thirty but certainly older than Robbie. The afternoon sun caught in his long elegant blonde hair. It created a lucid effect which showered the man’s upper body in golden light. As for his clothes, Payton was taken aback. He wore rugged torn jeans like himself, but he was decked in a navy blue knit cardigan and a worn pair of Oxford blood Doc Martens, truly a fashion discouraged by his parents, forbidden to be even considered. The man’s hands were tucked into his pockets, and his eyes, startling in their electric blue, seized upon Payton in innocent curiosity.
“Hey there, little man.”
Payton’s mouth went dry, searching for an appropriate response.
“Hey,” said Payton. “Um, waiting for somebody?”
The man chuckled. He self-consciously scratches his scraggly chin. “I was about to ask you the same question. I thought I’d be the only person here.”
“Guess you thought wrong.” Payton replied with a touch of indignation.
The man sensed the vibe and held his hands in defense. “Okay then.”
Payton regretted it instantly. “I’m sorry. I’m kinda having a rough morning.”
“Trouble at home?”
Payton shot a look at him. He hardly returned the man’s intense stare, yet this stranger immediately read his cues. Slightly unnerved, Payton nodded. “Yeah, you know, the usual crap.”
“Older brother usual crap.”
“Right,” the man nodded. He acted as if he fully comprehended his dilemma, but Payton reserved a sneaking suspicion that this man was a keen observer.
“I wish I could empathize with you,” the man continued, “and give you sound advice, but I happen to be an older brother. Lousy luck, right?”
Payton shrugged. “How old’s your younger brother?”
“Sister, actually. And she’s fresh out of high school. Twenty.”
“My brother’s gonna be a junior next fall. He thinks he’s the greatest phenomenon to grace this boring-ass town since Cheerios.”
The man snickered. “Don’t get google-eyed for him all of a sudden. I thought he was bugging you.”
Payton allowed himself to laugh. The man kicked some loose dirt off his smudged Doc Martens.
“So, what’s your name, bud?”
Disregarding his parents’ strict ruling, Payton was mesmerized by this man. His clothes, his looks, his honesty, his genuine concern for his well-being, especially his relaxed manner.
“Well then, Payton. My name’s Kurt. It’s nice to meet you.”
Payton wiped his brow with a shaky hand only to draw back from a sharp twinge of pain. That damn sliver. Agitated by the cruel sting of his sweat.
Kurt’s brow furrowed. “You okay?”
“It’s this stupid sliver I got from yard work.”
“Here, lemme see.” Kurt finally approached Payton and squatted beside him for a closer look. He gingerly took Payton’s hand into his own and scrutinized the accursed wound. At that point, there was a trickle of rich blood issuing from the protruding wood.
“Yeesh, it’s at an angle. Fairly difficult to remove.”
Kurt grinned. “You always charm strangers with sarcasm? I like it.”
Payton blushed and mumbled an apology. “I guess I’m angrier at my brother than I thought.”
“Don’t sweat. I know it’s not personal.”
“How can it? We’ve only know each other for ten minutes.”
“Here, how ‘bout this?” Kurt shifts his viewpoint to the other side for better lighting. With both thumbs and index fingers, he pinches the sliver. Immediately, Payton recoiled.
“Sorry, bud. Hang in there.”
Kurt glanced at him and recognized the instant regret. “Good thing we’re not at church.”
Even Payton was speechless. He nervously giggled. His thumb, however, ignited in a flash of pain, simultaneously sharp and aching. It was a slow process. The trickle doubled, and soon half of Payton’s thumb was painted a luscious dark red. Just as Payton groaned, his upper front teeth clamped onto his bottom lip, Kurt removed the sliver. Kurt chuckled as he watched Payton curse under his breath again.
“There, piece of cake. Here.” Kurt reached for his cardigan pocket and brought out a handful of litter. At least that was Payton’s initial assumption before he looked closer and realized the crumpled bits of paper contained writing, barely legible. Kurt scoured the cotton lining before he found a band-aid and a couple of crumpled fast food napkins. He wiped Payton’s bloody thumb and delicately bandaged his wound.
“Thanks.” Payton marvels at his patched thumb, staring at the faint scarlet residue embedded in his print, and before he could leap to his feet, Kurt lowered himself into the spot next to him. “So, uh, how did you find this place?”
Kurt shrugged. “Can’t remember, really. I guess I wandered around until one day I stumbled upon that bridge. It’s my favorite thinking spot, where I let my thoughts and problems just flow out of me.” He glanced at Payton. “How about you?”
“My friends and I were playing ball a year ago, and one of us hit a fly over yonder. We found this spot but not the ball. My friends come here to get away, too.”
“Funny, isn’t it?”
“D’you go to school? Like college?”
Kurt shook his head. “Nah, I’m too dumb for college.”
“So then what do you do?”
Kurt shifted his boots, delaying his answer. “I’m in a band.”
Payton stopped short. “Really?”
“Yeah. Killer, right?” It was Kurt’s turn to nervously chuckle. “We even released our first album last summer, plus some EPs and singles. It’s weird, seeing people, your friends, buying your art. Hell, it’s surreal.” The man’s smile emanated a childish excitement, a yearning to be adored and to adore. Payton peered closer into his gaze and, to his shock, recognized a buried sadness, as if he was on the verge of crying. The potential for danger struck him. This man, who might have given him a false name, had the opportunity to kidnap, murder, or dispose of him as he wished. Yet, Payton wasn’t afraid. He didn’t want to leave.
“It sounds awesome,” Payton said. “Just writing and playing music. Not worrying about school or your family.”
Kurt smirked. “I suppose, yeah. I don’t know sometimes. I give everything in my songs, my work, yet it feels like everyone wants more. I’m afraid one day they’ll ask me for something, and I won’t be able to give it to them. And the fact that I’m just a dumbass with a guitar, somebody with limits, they’ll hate and mock me and leave me for somebody better. You know?”
Taken aback, Payton replied, “Not really, sorry. I guess when I’m older, huh?”
Kurt’s forlorn cast fell on his dirty shoes. Payton felt compelled to hug him, but the idea of hugging a stranger quelled his desire. Kurt glanced back at Payton and gave another rueful smile. “Yeah, totally. So what’s this thing with your brother? Is he picking on you or what?”
“No, I’m just jealous. I want to be like him, but at the same time, I don’t. Even if I wanted to, I can’t.”
Kurt frowned. “You should never be somebody you aren’t.”
“I know, but it feels like everyone expects that from me, to be somebody I’m not. And my parents seem to give my brother more attention and love than me because of the way he is. Smart and athletic, part of the student council and yearbook, singing in chamber choir, it’s like he can’t do anything wrong. But if I fail a test or get bad grades or lose a ballgame, then they treat me like crap.”
“Why do you care what they think?”
“They’re my parents.”
“Yeah, they’re your parents. They’re not you. You’re not your brother neither. And if they can’t see or accept that, then fuck them. They’re missing out on what a great guy you are.”
“You don’t know me,” scoffed Payton. “We just met.”
“You’re talking to me now. You didn’t tell me to buzz off. That’s enough for me. From that, I believe you’re good.”
Payton then noticed Kurt’s smirk merged into his signature genuine grin. Payton’s fingers carefully trace his bandaged thumb, and he pondered this stranger’s kindness, how he somehow assured himself he was worth his time. The gentle river, lapping at the shore, placated his envious state, and soon he didn’t feel so jealous or resentful. With the sliver gone, his irritation and agony felt trivial. Still relevant, but conquerable.
“I wish I could believe.”
“I know,” said Kurt. “That takes a lot of practice. Just don’t let your folks get you down. Keep being you. It’s pathetic when people spend their entire lives being somebody else. A waste, let me tell ya.”
Kurt brushed his bangs from his face and intently stared at the river’s tenacious flow. Payton would’ve engaged in more conversation if not for a persistent nagging interrupting his rumination. The sky was a significant shade darker, and the pine treetops thrashed in the evening breeze. Kurt’s blonde hair whipped about his greasy face and stubble. He didn’t want to leave, but he didn’t have a choice. He reluctantly leapt to his feet and checked his jeans for mud.
“You heading off?” said Kurt, his voice tinged with desperation.
“My parents are pissed off enough. I’ll be dead if I don’t make it home by dark.” Payton lingered on the spot. “I wish I could stay longer. Will I see you again?”
“Maybe. If you happen to come here when I’m here. I’m currently crashing at some of my friends’ places, so I don’t have a home.”
“Oh, right. Well, here’s to hoping we bump into each other again.”
Kurt nodded. “Uh-huh. Until next time. It was nice meeting you, Payton.”
“Same, Kurt. Thanks again for helping me out.”
“Anytime, bud. Take care of yourself. See ya.”
Payton, an authentic ache congealing in his soul, gave Kurt one last parting grin and headed back into the woods.
The ache saturated within him, but Payton submitted to its throes. He counted the steps up the hill back to the school parking lot, but the generic routine couldn’t remedy his diseased spirit. If he hurried after church or a few hours before his parents came home from work, he could reach the bridge in the late afternoon and spend the evening with Kurt, but that was left to chance. It wasn’t guaranteed Kurt would be there every day, and if his parents caught wind of his new friend, they would surely extract every means necessary to discourage, even prevent them meeting. Payton, aghast at the hopelessness of their circumstance, felt their time was limited; his parents, friends, baseball, and the looming eave of middle school swirled into a black hole, draining him of aspiration, the urge to truly be himself. Sure, he promised to meet Kurt, but he was reminded of his adherence to his parents’ restrictions. His cardigan, his long blonde hair, his tattered jeans and muddied Doc Martens, everything of Kurt was everything his parents detested.
But I don’t detest him. Payton trudged through another decaying corpse of a dead tree. He saw the best in me. There has to be some good in him.
Payton stopped battling the brush, twigs slapping his knees and thighs. He ignored the prickling branches clawing at his body and shut his eyes. There was Kurt, still hunched by the river. Smoking a cigarette he found in his other cardigan pocket. Faintly humming one of his songs, perhaps envisioning how his band’s next jam session will unfold. Perhaps making friends with the creatures of the river, making pets of the organisms in the mud and the birds in the sky.
Payton imagines himself sitting besides Kurt, tasting his first cigarette, asking him if he knew any good thrift stores in town so he could by a cardigan just like his. Maybe ask if he could borrow a copy of his latest album, or hang out at his band’s next jam session.
Payton ached for his new friend, hoping he too would take care of himself, and while he fought the restraints of the monstrous brush, he retained the image of Kurt solemnly kneeling by the riverbed. He kept it in his head, even after he escaped the dreaded thicket, reached the deserted school parking lot, and retraced his steps back home.