FRERARD! Gerard revisits his old high school before it gets knocked down, only to discover he hasn't left quite as much behind as he'd planned...
NOTE: Um, so, the lovely –Ever_After- left a review on one of my stories recently, saying I shouldn’t have been nervous of posting it because it was art and ‘art shouldn’t be silenced by fear’, and I just loved that concept, so uh, I really, really hope you don’t mind, but I’ve used that in here. If you’re not happy with it, I’ll take it out, don’t worry.
The Lights I’ve Made
I never thought I’d return to my darkest yesterday. I thought it was just another memory clarted in puckered scars- another memory I needed to bury deep down inside of me and forget so as I could scream and drink and paint without it rearing its ugly head.
I never considered that it could actually be the reason I’m still alive.
It took guts- and a lifetime of being used to doing things I really didn’t want to do- to get me sitting on the suave black-leather passenger seat of Frank’s SUV, stomach knotted up in unused nooses while my slippery hands scrunch protectively together, leaving phantom sweat on my jeans where they cling anxiously together on my lap.
The SUV’s glossy engine purrs steadily along beneath my adrenaline-wired body, cruising easily along the dusty, summer-lonely highway in the late August glow, while I rest my head weakly against the tinted window, watching the dry, dirty roadside glide by, looking like some kind of polluted, urban desert in the setting sun’s radiance. The sun peaks brilliant orange on the horizon and explodes out across the sky, turning the open highway into a freedom kaleidoscope of amber and gold.
If I wasn’t too busy trying to remember how to breathe, my fingers would be itching to pin the momentary sigh of summer perfection down on paper. As it is, I’m using the breathing exercises I learnt from my 2005 therapist for the first time in years- for once, putting the world to art isn’t the first thing on my mind.
A few rusty cars with drought-telling, dusty tyres streak past, but other than that, the highway remains lonely in the slowly stilling summer. The sun is dying; soft, sighing rays of weary gold hit the dusty windscreen and cast a wizened glow of dust particles and ghosting summer into the front of the car, where Frank and I sit in comfortable silence. I think it’d be very hard to have an awkward silence with someone you’ve spent almost every day of your life with for the past twenty years.
I watch in escalating adrenaline as the highway peters out into the outskirts of Jersey, and, all too soon, the SUV murmurs to a smooth halt, the gentle jangle of metal letting me know that Frank’s switched the engine to off.
My stomach lurches unpleasantly, heart-rate rocketing and making my palms slick with nervous sweat.
Without hesitation, Frank flings open his door and jumps effortlessly down from the car, closing it behind him with a thud that makes me flinch in my solitude.
It takes me a couple more moments for me to psych myself up to stepping outside- for several timeless moments, I just I swallow thickly, trying to quench the sticky moths of approaching yesteryears rising from my gut, feeling their papery wings scrape my tensed throat to a scripture of crumpled jotter-page paper-cuts. The sun’s glare heats up the stationary car until I’m forced to fumble with the hot metal of the door handle and slip out into the hazy Jersey sunset for oxygen.
The dusty gravel crunches beneath my feet as I step from the airless heat of the car, hair blowing delicately into my face from the heady sigh of late August air, as I cross round to the other side of the SUV’s uncompromisingly shiny-black exterior where Frank is leant carelessly, black hair falling in floppy tendrils into his heavily-lidded eyes as he scores his lighter and holds it to the minted cigarette dangling negligently from between his angsty lips. The dying sun etches his shadow on the dusty rubble of the ground, as smoky round the edges as his cigarette.
As the comforting rasp of smoky tobacco taints the hazy summer air, I feel the tight lump in my chest melt a little, and lean shakily back against the hot, shiny metal of the car beside Frank, smelling the unmistakeable tang of his favourite spicy-orange chewing gum and the wax he uses on his inky hair.
“Well,” he breaks the silence slightly huskily, taking a drag of his cigarette and turning to look intently at me; a waiting work of art in a careless, story-telling skin and a raw golden gaze. “What are you waiting for?” He flicks ash expertly from his cigarette and raises his eyebrows questioningly at me.
I watch the ash curl and burn to cinders on the dusty chalkboard rubble under our feet before replying.
“It’s… weird,” I say simply, sighing.
“You’re telling me,” Frank says emphatically, exhaling exuberantly to emphasise his point. “But I still get why you wanna do it- only if you’re sure, though. Are you sure, Gee?”
He looks at me, all heavy-lidded kindness and raw wisdom. I’ve never ceased to underestimate the wonder of his eyes. They’re an artist’s dream and nightmare at the same time; so telling of his soul, yet near impossible to capture. People say that eyes don’t change color, but Frank’s do. Sometimes they’re gold and innocent, sometimes green and fiery. Right now they’re smouldering russet, with an almost amber tint in the ghosting sunlight. They’re always beautiful.
I nod decisively. “I’m sure.”
“Okay. Go on then,” he lets the beginning of a smile pull at his lips. “Before we run out of day and I’ve used up all my smokes.”
“Right,” I agree- but without moving an inch.
“Hey, c’mon, Gee,” Frank shunts me a little with his elbow, and I reluctantly stand up straight, tugging my Iron Maiden t-shirt straight and fixing my vivid red hair, fingers long and clammy, snagging on my split-ends. My stomach is writhing.
“Go,” Frank says gently, nudging me again. “I’ll wait for you.”
I nod, gritting my teeth and taking a few trembling steps forward, listening to the crunch of uneven ground under my black leather boots. I only make it a couple of paces before turning back round to face Frank, heart juddering right through me like the overwhelming beat at a gig that’s all you can hear and feel. He looks all careless-rock-star in his faded black jeans and scuffed about leather jacket, leaning so casually against the shiny exterior of the car. The cigarette dangles from between his lips, oozing cancer, as he fumbles in his pocket with talent-callused hands.
“I’d come with you Gerard, really,” he sighs, glancing to the shadow towering behind me and shuddering, leaning back against the car further and sliding on his favourite black ray-bans. “But I wouldn’t set foot in that place again for anyone.”
I nod again, only half absorbing his words as I nibble my lip, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, hating the feeling of being so vulnerable. The sun beats down on the tattered black fabric of my sleeveless shirt, a thousand forgotten sins wriggling their maggots under my skin.
“It’s not gonna eat you, Gerard,” Frank smiles lopsidedly at my anxious expression, blowing smoke out lazily- and I know that if I could see past his sunglasses, he’d be rolling his eyes fondly.
“I know,” I mutter, raking a hand through my vibrant red hair.
“Well, go on, then!” Frank laughs gently. “Before they actually knock it down- or before I do. I’m warning you, it’s very tempting.” He grins his easy, lopsided grin again and blows smoke across the hazy gold space between us. It lingers in the gentle golden air for a moment, then dies, curling away into nothingness.
Mind made up, I bite my lip, fixing Frank’s smile in my mind, and turn to walk determinedly towards the shadow looming in front of me. My legs feel weak and my heart is trying to break free, beating and beating and beating hot red blood right through me- but I carry on relentlessly the only way I’ve learnt to survive, until I’m standing right in front of the rusty, peeling gates that glitter forgotten days and forgotten lies and forgotten teens in the late August sunset.
Bellville High School.
I never thought I’d return here- to the place that inflicted all my soul-scars and taught me how to bleed.
Yet here I am.
The day I abandoned my uncompromising, harsh High School was the happiest I’d felt in the whole six years I attended it. I can still remember the feeling I had walking out of those rusty-pronged gates for the final time- feeling the freedom gush through me; light and feathery in my black-clouded mind of Prozac-wishing frowns.
It wasn’t for several years that I realised I hadn’t really left it behind. The nightmare still lived inside of me, feeding off my soul and fuelling all my fire. It was the place who created me, created the Gerard Way I’ve become. And for that reason, I’ve returned. I’m not really sure I could explain it rationally to anyone. For some stupidly nostalgic reason, I felt I needed to return to the place that had fuelled my career of rebelling against being the outcast it had made me.
I needed to return to face the building that held my yesterday’s demons- so I could truly leave them behind, because, with my scarlet hair and slim figure and successful voice, I was a completely different person. I needed to move away from all it held- all that had bound me down over the years.
I need to forget the sad-eyed, chubby kid I used to be so he won’t haunt me anymore.
But as I cross over that threshold one more time, I feel a million miles away from the successful, confident singer with the crazy hair. In this moment, I could still be the painfully shy, chubby, pale little kid who hid behind his lanky hair and scoured away in the shadows because they were the safest place to be. No one looked at the shadows- so no one looked at him.
I’m long removed from the shadows now. I have no reason to feel as timid and insignificant as I did at fifteen, but I do- like something gnawing away my flesh and bone so as I’m all hacked-about and insecure.
However, I’m not going to let that stop me. I’ve battled a whole load of things in my life, and know that avoiding the things that made me scared are often the things I needed to do most.
I’m not that lost, sad-eyed kid anymore. I’m not, I’m not, I’m not.
I can do this.
The yard is a dusty chalkboard, glittering broken glass in the late sunlight as I crunch my tentative way across its dusty wilderness in my black leather boots, remembering leaving Bellville High as a messed-up, depressed eighteen year old.
“Okay?” Frank asked me as I scrambled into his rusty red car, cheeks flushed from running. He’d found the car on a scrap-yard on the outskirts of town and proudly claimed it his own. It never ran properly. I don’t remember being on a single journey where it didn’t break down- but Frank refused to give up on it. He’d always been stupidly stubborn like that.
“Yeah,” I said breathlessly, fumbling clumsily with the seatbelt and cursing as it got tangled up in my school tie. “Fuck.”
“Hey, after today you’ll never have to wear it again,” Frank grinned, seeing the source of my swearing. Frank, of course, had dropped out of school at sixteen to play his guitar and smoke, while I, under the influence of my parents, had misguidedly stayed on for the remaining two years.
But now I was free. I never had to go back.
The thought sent thrills of excitement through me- I never had to be part of the teenage social-status chain again. I never had to conform to anyone. I looked out at the bleak grey rain rolling down the window, and hid my wide smile behind my hair, letting the wonderful, light, feathery feeling overwhelm me until I felt high on it.
“Right,” Frank said, revving up the unhealthy engine and fixing his bright orange, deflated Mohican in the rear-view mirror. “Ready to leave?”
“Fuck yeah,” I replied without even considering my answer. Frank didn’t question it for a second, so we both drove off into the dark grey summer storm and never looked back.
See, as I look back on that memory now, I’m not sure I really was ready to leave. It’s funny how memories are- like a snow-globe; every time you shake them up a little, they settle subtly differently, and you see them a whole new way. I mean, sure, I wanted to escape- to run and flee and never ever look back- but things in life don’t work like that. You can’t run away from five years of your life and pretend it didn’t happen.
I was torn away from everything I feared and hated without so much as a glance thrown over my shoulder. It was so abrupt and vicious a departing it scarred me. I didn’t take the time to really say goodbye to the damage it had done; I left the sad-eyed kid there- I left myself behind, determined to become someone else.
And now I am. So why do I still yearn to say goodbye?
Deep in thought, I crunch my way across the remaindering wilderness of the lonely playground basked in lazy sunset, until I reach the main entrance and, heart thudding through everything, seize the right handle- remembering the left is faulty- and go inside for the first time in over fifteen years.
It’s quite possibly the weirdest feeling I’ve ever experienced- and really, there have been a lot. It’s sad and nostalgic and repulsive and scary all at once; like returning to a nightmare you haven’t had for years. In that moment, it’s as if nothing’s changed one bit- and yet everything has.
I take a deep, shaky breath as the door clangs shut behind me, and instantly, the smells of cheap body-spray and stale school dinners and fusty, crammed-together humanity stings my memories agonisingly. I swallow, forcing myself to walk.
The corridors are still the same greasy, non-descript linoleum color, cracked and warped from generations’ futuristic footsteps- and to my well-walked feet, it suddenly feels sort of old and withering; giving easily under my weight, which is oddly reassuring- if I’ve walked through so much in the world, surely a school corridor towards a coffin of haunted memories of someone I used to be will be easy?
My footsteps echo solitary in the lonely corridor as I venture towards room 102, mind hazy like the sun setting over the school and making Frank’s waiting SUV glint black in the summer shine. The sound of my footsteps resounding on their own is oddly soothing- to be the only one here, to have returned, alive.
The hallway is as damp and dingy as I remember, with the English sonnets of an uninspired generation is forced up onto the grimy wall in colorless decoration. Someone’s stabbed a drawing pin right through the middle of one, shattering the paper like glass.
When I poke my head tentatively round the chipped door, room 102 is empty. A few abandoned wooden desks and chewing-gum plastered seats remain, and books are spilt uncaringly on the floor, forgotten work of phantoms. It feels as though I’ve stepped into a memory- but it’s all wrong, all mixed up. It seems oddly pitiful and small- rather than the looming terror of claustrophobic prison walls and trapping black windows I remember.
This was the first room I ever entered in the school; my registration class; the class I entered as a shy, geeky twelve year old, innocent to what high school was really going to be like. My first day of secondary was a day full of dark realisation towards the reality of the world. It makes my cheeks burn still thinking about it, over twenty years on.
I guess there are some things you never really live down, and this was one of them- such a deep, clean cut that scraped the bone.
There’s nothing like the first cut of reality.
I sat at the back of the classroom, away from the other kids. I wasn’t sure what to make of them- they seemed so different to the ones at my primary school. They circled round, crowing, stabbing their scrawny beaks into the weaker kids like vultures, their corrosive words digging into me like poisoned talons.
“Uggh, who’s he?” someone sniggered.
“It looks like something died in his hair!” another voice crowed.
Laughter billowed in my ears like blood, the cruel, abrasive cackles circling round me and making me slump lower in my hard plastic seat, hurt and confused.
“It looks like he died!” a snide voice catcalled. “Look how disgustingly pale he is- hey, freak! Are you albino? Or are you just dead?” They all laughed harder.
I’d never know how much words could sting. They burnt into flesh and ripped at my chest, violent and acid and abrasive. I hunched lower, trying to block it out.
“Oi! Freak in the corner with the dead crow in his hair! I’m talking to you!”
I looked up, lip trembling. I remember clutching the pencil I was holding for comfort and suddenly feeling very alone and close to tears because it was my favourite pencil- the little green one I’d gotten at the Art Gallery in New York where the attendant had loved my drawings so much she’d given it to me for free. It quivered in my hand, teetering over the drawing I’d been doodling on the back of my notebook.
“What’s it drawing?” A cold-eyed boy with a snotty nose leered over me. He laughed when he saw the butterfly. “Ahhhh!” he cackled derisively, his voice like razorblades on my pride. “The freak’s a faggot too! Look at his pwetty ickle butterfly!”
“It’s not meant to be pretty,” I said bravely, as more people crowded round my desk, hounding in like predators round a carcass. “It’s meant to be a metaphor for trapped freedom, because Butterflies spend half their life in cocoons before-”
My voice was drowned out by mocking laughter that rung scathingly in my ears, and I ducked behind my bowl-cut hair, cheeks flaming with utter humiliation. I clutched the pencil tighter- the only irrational source of comfort in such a harsh, unknown environment.
“Definitely a faggot,” the main boy sneered with his thin, baleful eyes. I hated the way he was looking so contemptuously at my butterfly, like he was violating it.
“What’s…” My lip trembled again with hurt confusion. “…What’s a faggot?”
The boy laughed right in my face, his breath ugly and spineless with the putrid stench of a rotting soul. He never looked me in the eye, but he laughed more. “You don’t know what a faggot is?! Oh my god, the faggot doesn’t know his own name!”
I frowned, genuinely confused. “Are you a faggot?” I asked, trying to figure the word out.
The boy’s eyes clouded. “What?”
The crowd round me fell ominously silent, and I instantly knew I’d said something I shouldn’t have done. I bit my lower lip, tugging at the vulnerable skin to stop anything else slipping out.
It was no use. Without warning, the cold-eyed boy snatched up my pencil, snapped it in two, threw it to the floor and then stamped on the remains. I watched the led and the green paint of my favourite pencil shatter, and realised, with painstaking obscenity, that was exactly what was going to happen to someone like me in a place like this.
I duck my head, cheeks burning with long-lost humiliation at the memory- one I rarely let myself relive, for exactly that reason. It’s funny how the smallest, most logically insignificant things can’t hurt the most.
I don’t linger long in room 102 now; the atmosphere of the peeling green plaster walls and the mouldy smell of trampled down dreams has become strangely airless, suffocated by the memory.
My natural instinct is to run all the way down the greasy corridors back to the warm, dry heat of Frank’s car and never look back- but I force myself on, hands determinedly clenched as I ascend the narrow staircase towards the music room. The stairwell is as dark and dingy as I remember, and the only windows are barred like a prison cell, barely letting any of the gentle golden sunset into the building.
The air gets thicker and thicker with strangled stripy-tie memories as I near the top of the stairs, and let my eyes flicker closed for a second, the suddenly potent tide of memories washing over me and absorbing me for the first time in over a decade.
I raced frantically up the narrow stairwell, footsteps clumsy on the greasy flooring. There was no escape. The avalanche of footsteps behind me was getting louder, pounding out the frantic rhythm of my young, vivid red heart.
On instinct, I flung myself through the door at the top of the stairs- my only escape- and slammed it shut behind me, sliding down the chipped wood as shallow gasps wracked my unfit body and my pulse whimpered in metallic fear. It took me a couple of moments before I realised there was actually someone else in the room.
I blinked and jumped up guiltily, half preparing myself for another chase.
But the boy sitting on the desk merely smiled, with kind, gentle chestnut eyes that reminded me fleetingly of my brother Mikey’s. This reassured me a little, although my heart was still racing, making my pulse flutter and swoop anxiously.
“Are you okay?” he asked, putting down one of the school’s crappy acoustic guitars down and approaching me, concerned. I wasn’t quite sure how to class him- he definitely wasn’t one of the ‘in’ crowd with his glasses and springy hair and hiking boots, but he didn’t seem like one of the rebels who skived and smoked. He looked clever. I liked him, because he looked as uncategorised as I felt.
I nodded shyly in response to his question, massaging the tearing pain in my chest and cursing my lack of fitness.
“Were you being chased?” the boy narrowed his eyes.
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I kept my mouth shut.
He interpreted my silence well. “That’s sick,” he exclaimed in disgust. “How old are you?”
“Nearly fourteen,” I mumbled from under my hair. It had outgrown its bowl cut and was tangled and black, shadowing my podgy face from the world’s sneering eyes.
“You must be in my year, then,” the boy smiled. “Hi. I’m Ray. Ray Toro.”
He extended a hand. For several moments, I just stared at it, but finally, trembling, extended my own and shook it in greeting, noticing how his hands were callused from playing guitar.
“I-I’m Gerard Way,” I stammered, feeling my cheeks flush and hoping he wasn’t going to pick up on the nickname ‘Gay Way’.
“Nice to meet you, Gerard,” Ray smiled sincerely, picking the guitar back up and sitting down on one of the seats.
For a couple moments, I just stood there, fidgeting and wondering whether to go or not. I wasn’t used to talking to people my age.
“Well, aren’t you gunna sit down?” Ray asked kindly, gesturing to the seat beside him. “I could use a bit of company. Does no one play music here?”
“Music- proper music- makes you a freak,” I quoted dismally.
“Little ray of sunshine you are,” Ray said lightly, but he didn’t seem cross. “Are you into ‘proper music’ then? Are we two freaks?”
I tried to bite back my smile, because my smile was ugly. “Yeah…Yeah, I guess we are.”
“You like Iron Maiden?” Ray asked.
“I’m more a Misfits kinda guy,” I admitted. “But I do like Maiden too.”
“Ah, I know the Misfits,” Ray said knowledgeably. “Want me to teach you a little?”
I blinked. “Like…on the guitar?”
“No, on the desk,” Ray joked. “Yes, on the guitar. If you’d like. Surely it’d beat spending your lunchtimes running away from the so-called in crowd?”
It did. It was a hell of a lot better. I even started to look forward to my lunchtime guitar lessons with Ray. I sucked at it, but that didn’t really seem to matter- we always ended up having a laugh. As we got to know each other better, I started to feel a little less alone, a little less helpless. Looking back, I’m not sure I’d have got through High School without Ray- or life for that matter. Ray’s always had my back, and sometimes I wish he got more credit for it, because he’s truly amazing. He’s like the best older brother anyone could have.
Mind cloudy with memories of sipping juice and eating our packed lunches up in the empty music room, I drift back down the stairs, a ghost drifting between two realities, listening to my grown-up footsteps echo sadly in the school’s deflated loneliness.
I know I don’t have much time left before I have to head back to the car, so I make for the last two places I want to see.
The cloakrooms are empty as I pass them; just a few colorless hoodies and jackets left limply on the pegs, shells of a misguided generation. It all looks so sad and pathetic that the bubbling nerves are draining away. It’s becoming clear how much bigger I am than this place- how far I am away from the boy who hid in the shadows.
It still hurts, though- walking through this dusty nightmare. I remember only too vividly finding Mikey hanging from one of the pegs in the cloakrooms after his first day. Even now, it still pains me to remember the terror and humiliation in his eyes.
Something wasn’t right- I could taste it in the stagnant school air of a thousand trapped, sweaty human bodies contaminating the oxygen. It made my heart skip every few footsteps, clinging nervously to my heart as I advanced shakily down the seemingly deserted corridor.
It was nearly four; half an hour since the disemboguement of brash-faced students had poured from the main doors, spattering the yard in their half-digested innocence. The school should be silent, but along with my quickened, slightly stumbling footsteps, I could hear small, tugging whimpers emanating from along the hallway.
My stomach lurched in fear, and I broke into a run, rounding the corner breathlessly to see my own baby brother, in his lucky grey beanie-hat and brand new school shirt he’d spent so long ironing this morning so as it looked perfect, hanging him from his collar on one of the pegs. His glasses were shattered and bloody, and his cheeks glistened with liquid salt.
“Mikey!” I cried, lunging forwards to lift him down from the peg in horror.
He looked at me, bright hazel eyes brimming with tears and salty humiliation before I pulled him into a fierce hug, crushing his small, spindly little body into my chubby one. He was frozen, but I shook relentlessly as I smelled the sickening metallic tang of blood on his skin. My brother; my baby brother, who I should have been able to protect, and I wasn’t there when he needed me.
From then on, I vowed to myself that I’d do whatever it took to keep Mikey safe.
Weirdly, once I’d decided that, it gave me some grim sort of purpose at school- I was no longer just an empty shadow, drifting limply from classroom to classroom, never really sure of anything. I had no option but to face up to my fears, because I needed to protect Mikey.
Gradually, without realising it, it built up my strength. Through helping Mikey, I felt just a little less hopeless, a little less lost- I felt as though, for the first time since joining high school, I had a purpose; that maybe, just maybe, someone needed me in the world.
My chest aches as I tear myself away from the corridors and force myself on, although each step requires more and more effort, as though I’m literally tearing the memories from inside me, bloody and screaming.
The doors at the end of the squalid corridor are wooden and stripped with age. I place one clammy hand on the handle and push the feeble glass to step outside into the grassy field between the main school block and the art block.
I remember a time when the grass was harshly shorn and clipped. Now it’s wild and flowering in the hazy sunset; a sea of final freedom disbanding all order and running free. I find that there’s a small smile playing across my face as I wade through the wavering stems of flowering grass and golden pollen. Insects buzz at my footsteps and the sun is warm and peaceful on my back.
The beautiful old birch tree just in front of the art block is still there, a standing point in time, weathered and wise and lush with opulent green leaves that rustle in the balmy breeze. I remember that sound from years back, where I spent the majority of my freshman summer with my brother’s friend from the year below, Frank Iero.
We’d grown close after I’d cleaned him up after a nasty scrap with one of the jocks, and he’d refused to leave me alone ever since. He’d refused to believe that I was simply ‘quiet’ and ‘liked to be alone’. Like I said, he never gives up on things. I’m so glad he didn’t give up on me.
A small sigh escapes my lips as I sink down onto the grass under the dappled canopy of the birch tree for a fleeting pause to dwell on those memories. I let the warm breeze breathe through my freshly-dyed scarlet hair like a concluding sigh and let my eyes flicker closed once more, reliving one of possibly one of the most nostalgic memories I have.
“Why do you always do that?” Frank asked me suddenly, rolling over onto his belly on the lush summer grass and looking intently at me. It was lunchtime, and we were lazing in the quiet shade of the birch tree once more, away from the prying stares of our peer group that burnt my back like being stabbed. Frank preferred hanging out on the top floor of the science block and chucking his lunch at the jocks below, but he knew I hated being in the limelight.
I was in the limelight now, though, as he stared at me uncharacteristically worriedly, sleepily-lidded eyes full of summer-ghosted questions, and I felt myself blush in the intensity of his gaze.
“Do what?” I asked, plucking self-consciously at the grass. My fingers were all clammy and sticky from the sun’s tempestuous heat, making the little strands stick to their pale flesh.
Frank raised his eyebrows and flicked a daisy at me. “You know, Gee.” His tone was light, but his gaze was not.
“I really don’t,” I insisted, ducking behind my hair and shredding more grass.
Frank let out a sigh, and I felt the exhale brush my tangled hair. It was all sweet and lemongrassy and it reminded me of long lost freedom where the summer holidays stretched out endlessly rather than having that dark blackhole looming at the end of them.
I jumped wildly as I felt him slide his fingers through my tangled hair and tuck it behind my ear, forcing my face out into vision.
“Why do you always stop yourself smiling?” He asked softly. “You always bite it back, like you’re…I don’t know…ashamed or something.” He looked pained at the very thought.
I didn’t answer for several moments, partly because I was ashamed he’d noticed, partly because the way his callused fingers lingered on the skin behind my ear sent shy little shivers all the way down my neck.
“Gee.” It wasn’t a question.
I looked up nervously, nibbling my lip. My cheeks burnt scarlet as I met his gaze, but I still found impossible to look away.
“Because it’s ugly,” I whispered.
Frank’s expression gouged, and I felt his grip on my hair tighten. “What?”
“You heard,” I mumbled, scooting back letting my hair cascade between us. I didn’t like telling people vulnerable truths like that. It was so much easier to stay in the shadows. But the shadows hurt, sometimes.
“Gerard,” Frank’s voice sounded all choked. “Smile for me.”
I blinked. “What?”
“I can’t,” I blushed.
“Fine. I’ll make you,” Frank said, a smile pulling at his mouth- it was that determined, refusing to relent smile I’d grown to love. “You know your art work? I think it’s amazing. I think it’s the best art work in the world, and one day you’re gunna be famous. I think you’re the best friend I’ve ever had. I think you’re sweet and odd and ever so slightly messed up, and sometimes you’re so perfect I wanna put everything about you to music so as I’ll never have to forget you.”
He raised his gaze to me, all russet and pleading and warm. “Smile for me?”
I couldn’t help it. The smile was tearing my face shyly, self-consciously apart. My cheeks were burning, and I didn’t know where to look, but I was smiling, really smiling without trying to stop myself.
Frank stared at me for a long moment. “You have a beautiful smile,” he said very softly, as if he was telling me his biggest secret.
That memory somehow causes my heart to break and re-fix itself all at the same time. Something so simple seemed to heal so much. For the first real time, I felt sort of acceptable- sort of cared about. I felt special, because, although Frankie was younger, I looked up to him so much. He was careless and brave and loyal, and never gave in.
Days with Frankie were like glorious, floaty, pink-skied daydreams amidst a gnarled hall of nightmares; rare and precious and bittersweet, because they were things I wanted to last forever- but I knew never could.
Nothing lasts forever.
Sighing in a way that makes me feel oddly lonely, I pick myself up off the grass and start towards my final destination. I don’t feel the same closure I would like; the sun is still sinking low and ghostingly amber in the sky, but it seems a long way off, and I feel trapped in this school that’s about to be destroyed as I push the door to the art block open, hearing it’s un-oiled hinges screech in protest.
The air in the art block is fusty with memories I’ve let rot and the stale smell of oil paints, and my footsteps echo loudly up the grotty stairwell.
As a teenager, the art room was my safe haven; my hideaway- the sole place in a airless coffin of vicious social-status that I could breathe, because no one else was really up there, other than the art teacher, and occasionally Frank, who trailed along with me because he liked sitting by the heater and trying to learn the guitar parts he and Ray had come up with in their last lesson.
Miss. Watkins was the best teacher I’d ever had. She’s the only teacher from my school days that I remember with any respect, because she taught me how to paint without my fears.
She believed in me.
“Don’t be shy, Gerard,” She told me when she first took me for art in my freshman year. I’d sat at the very back of the art room all lesson, toying with my pencil and not daring to draw anything on the blank paper before me in case someone noticed.
I hated drawing in art lessons- I hated the rowdy, raucous clattering of my classmates as they turned their noses up at me or laughed at my ideas. By fifteen, I’d all given up on even attempting to draw in class. I saw no point in it- no one appreciated it, anyway.
That was, until Miss. Watkins.
“You like art.” It wasn’t a question. “Want to know how I know that?” Miss. Watkins continued, rinsing paint pallets and brushes vigorously in the ancient sink just behind me. I’d got lost in a daydream world I couldn’t wait to pin down on paper when I got home, and hadn’t noticed that the classroom was now silent and empty. The bell for the end of the day must have rung, leaving just me and Miss. Watkins.
“Um,” I ducked behind my hair, nibbling at my lip.
“You listened,” she smiled, finishing rinsing the paintbrushes and turning to face me. She was slightly eccentric looking, with wispy, flyaway curls of sandy hair and piercing blue eyes that seemed to see right through you like a soul-x-ray.
“Uh,” I mumbled again, hating my shyness.
“I could tell, you actually understood what I was talking about,” her eyes shone with enthusiasm. “That’s pretty rare here. So why didn’t you draw something?”
I shrugged, cheeks feeling all hot, because I hated it when people turned their attention on me and forced me out of the safety of shadows.
She didn’t seem prepared to let me get away with a shrug, continuing to stare so perceptively and determinedly at me that I eventually muttered-
“I don’t like other people laughing at my work.”
“Oh Gerard,” she sighed gently, pulling out a chair and sitting down beside me. “Art should never be silenced by fear. Art is the antidote to fear.”
I blinked, shocked and amazed.
“I’d love to see some of your recent work, Gerard. I can tell you’re very talented, from your portfolio last year, and I refuse to let you shy away from that, okay? You’re going to have the best art portfolio this school has ever produced if it’s the last thing I do. Talent like yours simply cannot be wasted.”
Miss. Watkins never did give up on me, and slowly, I started to put everything I had into my art. It truly became fearless. I discovered that although I might not be able to overcome my loathings in life, I could paint them all out and exorcise them that way.
Now, as I enter the flaking whitewash-walls of the art room, it’s a little like walking right back into a tranquil memory. Unlike the English sonnets stabbed into the walls in the school below, the artwork pinned to the walls here is somehow floating, not constricted. All the drawings and paintings and sketches are faded from years of sun, and while some peel limply from the wall like pieces of dead skin ready to fall to make dust, a subtle few stand strong and bold, refusing to die.
One of these catches my eye, and suddenly, something sharp and jagged and razor-like cuts through me agonisingly. Feeling oddly separate from my perfected, skinny, red-haired body, I step out towards it, fingers trembling as I reach out to the A3 sized painting as though I’m in a some state of subconscious I’m not sure is a dream or a nightmare.
The painting is created with such painstakingly bleak and self-loathing strokes that it’s like pouring acid on the wound that’s just ripped through my smoky chest to look at it- look into it. There’s so much unnerving depth to it.
My legs feel numb as I tentatively venture the last few footsteps to reach it, treading so carefully it’s as if I’m crossing broken glass to my destiny.
The painting holds a boy; a chubby, hunched boy with sallow skin and scarred posture. He’s swamped in black clothes, as if he’s trying to hide away in their endlessness, and his feet are turned in self-consciously. He’s looking into a broken mirror, blood oozing, ugly and black, from the deepest shatter, trickling down the glass that should show his reflection- only there’s nothing there but a shadow.
In itself, it’s a bone-chilling painting; full of such self-disgust and despair and loneliness. But it’s his eyes that get me- his startlingly emerald, almond-shaped eyes, because yes, they’re the eyes of the boy in the painting- but they’re my eyes too. My eyes here and now are the eyes of the angst-tormented seventeen year old I thought I’d left behind.
But I haven’t.
We’re the same person.
I look different on the outside, with my bright hair and skinny physique, but I’m still him, inside, I’ll never stop being him- that lost, hiding kid everyone laughs at.
I’m shaking all over, realisation gushing in haunted goose bumps over my flesh.
As I run a trembling finger across the painting, I suddenly feel just like the angry, lost teenager that painted it at two in the morning in a fug of smoke and nightmares, trying to escape the inevitable. I feel alone and ugly and lost and not sure who I am again, just like I did at seventeen. I never left him behind.
Something wells up inside me, choking me, burning at the back of my throat and my eyes and I tear the painting right of the wall, slumping down on the grotty floor with it clasped between my trembling hands as the lost, sad-eyed kid I abandoned cries and I cry with him, because I am him, I’ll always be him.
I don’t know how long I sit there, feeling everything tearing itself apart and fixing itself back together and shattering all over again. All I’m aware of is the memory that is actually my truth painted so painstakingly in front of me and the salt gliding down my cheeks in hurt I thought I’d left behind.
I jump, sniffling, my eyes shooting up in panic to see Frankie standing in the doorway, eyes wide with concern as he takes in my slumped, snivelling form crumpled on the dusty floor along with a flurry of artwork corpses. He pockets his sunglasses and rushes over to me, leather jacket jangling, hair falling across his eyes.
“Gee, what’s wrong?” he asks gently, shuffling along to sit beside me against the dusty art-room wall. His arm slides round my skinny, shaking shoulders, pulling me close into his body and I inhale the warm, spicy smell of Frankie’s favourite orange chewing gum and the soft, supple leather of his jacket and the lingering wispiness of smoke on his breath, and the warm familiarity grounds me slightly, bandaging the raw wound in my chest a little.
“I…” I stammer out, wiping my eyes on my sleeve. “I’m still…him.” I gestures wordlessly to the painting beside me.
Frank picks it up, all careful and gentle. “That’s amazing, Gee,” he says slowly, taking in the image.
“But I’m still him! I never stopped being him!” I cry.
“Of course you didn’t!” Frank laughs, taking me so much by surprise that I stop crying and just stare at him in shock.
“But…I thought I was different now. Confident and successful and marginally less ugly,” I mumble, struggling not to lose myself in Frank’s beautiful, raw russet eyes.
He laughs again in disbelief, but it’s not unkind. “Gerard,” he says softly, turning to face me properly. He reaches out across my lap and twines his callused fingers with mine, stroking my thumb gently. “You are different now. But you’re still the same person- you’re the same Gee that went to school every day to protect his little brother, you’re the same Gee that had the best art portfolio the school ever presented, you’re the same Gee who hid behind his hair and nibbled at his lip and hated his smile, you’re the same Gee who we all love. You’re the same Gee that I love, okay? That kid you were in High School, he’s part of you- it’s just that you’re more than him now. You’ve added to him and made him unbreakable, because you know what it’s like to be broken. You’re him and he’s you- without him, you’d be nothing.”
I blink back my tears, swallowing the vulnerable salt in my throat.
“And as for being ‘marginally less ugly’,” Frank shakes his head, my favourite lopsided smile playing across his lips as he looks at me so warmly I blush. “Gee, you were never ugly in the first place. You’re beautiful because you’re you.”
“Thank you,” I whisper, the words all wet and wispy, caught in my mouth. I raise my gaze to Frank’s, hoping he can see the gratitude in my eyes.
I think maybe he can, because then he’s pulling me into a fierce hug and his hair’s all silken soft and citrus scented and his breath’s warm and smoky orange on my neck as his tattooed, musical hands snake round my waist, holding me tight, holding me together. I hug him back, wishing, childishly, just like those rare lunchtimes we spent under the birch tree as teenagers, that this could last forever.
Eventually, Frank pulls away, pulling part of my chest with him.
He looks at me and looks at the painting beside me on the floor, curling with age, and I don’t know what he sees, but suddenly he’s sliding his callused hand up my neck to cup my jawline, all tender and warm, and his sleepily-lidded russet eyes reel me in, intense and sensitive and reminding me of beautiful, long lost guitar melodies.
“Shadow boy no more,” he says softly, and then he’s kissing me, all hot, silky lips and tender hands cupping my face as if he’s holding the most precious thing in the world and he’s scared he’ll break it. My eyes flutter closed as my chest somehow breaks and re-fixes itself in one raw tug as my heart beats and beats and beats, forgotten blood of coffined memories finally allowed to breathe. The tang of gently spicy orange and the lingering wisps of smoke in his mouth complete it to perfection; it’s so him, so right, so Frankie, and I cling to him like there’s nothing else left as his lips tangle so softly with mine, melting into me like untamed perfection.
When he pulls apart, I feel like the sad-eyed teenager and the red-haired singer all at once, and it feels so peaceful and perfect. Frank looks at me, eyes brimming with warm russet and amber empathy that shimmers softly in the glowing shards of sunset oozing through the dusty memory-glass of the window.
“Ready to go?” he asks gently, hand still cupping my face.
I pause to think this time, to really consider my answer. I remember watching my favourite green pencil shattering beneath reality’s foot. I remember holding back Mikey’s mousy hair as he threw up on his first day. I remember holing up in the music room with Ray, hiding from what wouldn’t take us and learning not to care. I remember the hollow, raw feeling of dread I would wake up with every morning, lodged painfully between my ribs like an icicle of vulnerability. I remember hiding in the shadows because it was the only place I was safe. I remember lying under the birch tree with Frank, watching the clouds. I remember the taste of my own blood and the dull, ringing impact of fists pounding my flesh. I remember learning to love my artwork with Miss. Watkins. I remember watching Frank chuck sandwiches at the jocks from the top floor and paint a giant mural of Black Flag lyrics on the changing room wall on his last day. I remember trying not to cry when Ray graduated. I remember forcing myself to go every day to protect Mikey. I remember it all; I remember bleeding and being quiet and crying and trying not to smile and painting my heart out.
I remember my darkest yesterday; the yesterday that made me and who I am today. It’s all part of me. Without it I’d be nothing- but there comes a time to say goodbye to everything, to accept and move on.
These are the lights I’ve made.
I look at Frank, all warm and compassionate and russet-eyed with his art curling across his skin, and my mind is made up. “Yes,” I agree. “I’m ready to go now.”
So he laces his fingers through mine and gently pulls me to my feet. I take one last look around the art room and my painting on the floor, and then I let Frank tug me softly towards the door and down the stairwell where out footsteps echo loudly- echoes of two kids from yesterday.
“I thought you said you wouldn’t set foot in there for anyone,” I remember suddenly as we go out through the door into the honeyed, dusty sunset that casts our shadows long and world-weathered on the wild grass.
“Well…you’re an exception,” Frank smiles tenderly at me, stroking his thumb over our linked hands. I feel calluses from a lifetime playing raw, beautiful music and warmth gushes up inside my chest, healing my wounds even more.
I smile back, feeling stupidly like that shy, lip-nibbling teenager under the dappled shade of the birch tree, and we walk on, the ghosting amber sun beating down on our backs as we walk away from yesterday, ready to live in tomorrow.
It’s only when we reach the dusty, urban-desert roadside that I turn back to glance one final time at the obtrusive, ugly grey building that gave me a reason to sing. Then I look back at Frank, waiting for me, his careless black hair flopping in his face, tattooed hands shoved in the pockets of his leather jacket as the wind ruffles his hair away from those same warm, empathetic russet eyes that made me unafraid to smile.
I think of all I’ve made, my bright red hair brushed gently from my eyes by the concluding, hazy sigh of the dying summer, and I turn to smile at Frank, watching the way dust particles glitter between us in the finale of the glowing sun.
I’m not a different person. I’m exactly the same kid who screamed through his artwork and was scared of his own smile.
I’m just ready to step out of the shadows now- step out of the shadows and live in the lights I’ve made.
Yes, um, so I’m not really sure where the actual fuck that came from. Sorry if it was a load of tortoise poop- I really hope it wasn’t. I felt stupidly emotional writing it :L I’d love love love to know what you guys think, as this took me ages! Really hope it made sense to people… Thanks so much for reading all this- if you have, you're awesome :D R&R and make my day? Please?