ON A postcard of snowy Boston mailed priority post on December 23rd in a festive red envelope:
You know those times when you get the answer to your burning question and find out you were better off not knowing?
MUZZY-HEADED and confused, Emerson lifted his face from his knees. His eyes were itchy, his tears having unsettled his contact lenses. He blinked, trying to get his vision to focus, then turned to his alarm clock and was surprised to see that it read 5:53. He stared in surprise. Taking a moment to do the math, he figured that he had been sitting there for almost two hours.
He hadn’t realized that so much time had passed. He had been sitting alone, wallowing in self-pity and wishing Jonah would come home.
Emerson sniffed and rubbed his nose against his knees. It didn’t help that he and Jonah hadn’t fought since they’d started dating. Their relationship had been relatively smooth. Until today, when Emerson had come home, and all hell had broken loose.
Emerson didn’t know how to deal with it. The achy feeling in his chest hadn’t left since Jonah had walked out on him. Which was possibly the worst part of the whole experience: Jonah had just walked out mid-argument. And still wasn’t back almost two hours later. Jonah must be pretty mad if he was still cooling off.
For a brief disingenuous moment, Emerson wondered if Jonah would come back at all or whether maybe he’d just run away again.
Okay, that was a bitchy thought. Obviously Jonah wouldn’t just run away this time. He wouldn’t leave town without telling his boyfriend.
Still, Emerson hadn’t felt this awful since the last time Jonah had left.
It had only been a few weeks after graduation, and Emerson had been eager to celebrate Jonah’s eighteenth birthday. It was a summer of no responsibilities, and Emerson had been looking forward to how Jonah would best like to take advantage of that fact. Of course, Emerson wouldn’t be eighteen for two more months, and there were limits to the trouble they could get in before their twenty-first birthdays, but getting into trouble wasn’t the aim. Emerson just wanted to have fun with his best friend without distractions. Without girls.
Jonah was a flirt and tended to get carried away with pretty girls. He wouldn’t forget that Emerson was there, but he would split his attention, which, though annoying and somewhat hurtful, Emerson had long ago learned to forgive.
So Emerson had been waiting for Jonah to arrive so they could celebrate. He had showered and dressed in his favorite jeans before settling down on the couch to wait for Jonah to arrive. He waited, and waited, and then, an hour later, when Jonah hadn’t answered his phone calls, Emerson grabbed his keys and headed out the door.
Jonah didn’t answer his door either. Emerson knocked and called out for him, but the lights stayed out, and there was no response. He had stood on Jonah’s doorstep for a long time, staring at Jonah’s front door and the car in the driveway, contemplating his next move. The car was in, but the lights were off, and Jonah wasn’t answering the door or his phone. Emerson bit his lip, indecisive. Where could Jonah be?
Despite knowing Jonah better than anyone else, Emerson hadn’t been able to find him at the baseball diamond in the park. He wasn’t getting ice cream around the corner. Emerson even checked the movies, though Jonah wasn’t likely to go there without a car.
Another hour later, Emerson was back at home, finally admitting defeat. Jonah wasn’t going to be found today. Despite the car in the driveway, he obviously wasn’t home, and if he was out and not answering his phone—it wouldn’t be the first time that Jonah had gotten distracted by a girl and forgotten to tell Emerson.
When Emerson’s parents had arrived home that evening, it had been to find their son curled up on the couch watching The Princess Bride. His mother had arched her brows and asked, “Where’s Jonah?” and Emerson had only shrugged before telling her that Jonah had changed their plans. He hadn’t wanted to admit, even to her, that Jonah had ditched him without a word.
The pain of that day had just been the beginning. Jonah hadn’t just ditched him without warning—he had left town. When Jonah’s parents got back home the following day, they had phoned Emerson up in a panic. Was Jonah with him? Had Jonah said anything to him? Did he know where Jonah was?
Emerson hadn’t known a thing. He had known nothing until they had told him about the letter. The single sheet of paper that Jonah had left for his parents, informing them that he was leaving town for a while to get his head on straight, but with no information about where he was going or when he’d be back, just the promise that he would call.
The concern that had filled Emerson the day before while trying to find Jonah returned and multiplied tenfold. Jonah was gone. Sure, Jonah hadn’t exactly disappeared—he said he’d left on his own—but there was no way of knowing that Jonah was still safe or that he would stay that way. And why would he leave without saying anything?
That had been the first day of the worst few months of Emerson’s life. It had been a week before Jonah called to reassure his parents that he was all right. Then another month before Emerson stopped imagining Jonah dead in ditches or alleyways as everyone waited for him to call. It took even longer for Emerson to forgive Jonah for leaving in the first place.
But that feeling from the first week of the hollow stomach and the heartache, because of Jonah—that felt just like now. Because Jonah had walked out on him again. At least this time, Emerson knew why.
The sound of the front door opening and slamming shut made Emerson jump. Someone was home. The sound of large boots running up the stairs confirmed that it was Jonah. Emerson swallowed hard and held his breath. Jonah was home! So, Jonah would come see him, right? If Jonah was here, then it must mean that he wanted to talk, because Jonah wouldn’t come back unless he was ready to talk again. Emerson knew him, knew he’d stay away as long as his anger was still too hot. So if he was home….
Emerson sat still, his heart thumping in his chest, and stared at the door, willing it to open and for Jonah to be standing there.
It didn’t open.
Instead, Jonah’s footsteps led into his own room, and then—Emerson jerked at the loud thumping noise. It was followed half a minute later by another one. Okay, so maybe Jonah was still a little angry, but he had come home, which was still a good sign. So Emerson would just wait for him to finish whatever he was doing in his room, and then he would see him.
Emerson waited. He waited because Jonah was worth waiting for, as Emerson knew all too well. He waited because he really needed Jonah to forgive him and for everything to be better again. Emerson didn’t know what he’d do without Jonah.
It didn’t take Jonah long to finish what he was doing. Soon Emerson could hear him out in the hall again. His heart gave a few jerky, fast-paced thumps, but the footsteps didn’t come his way. Instead, they were going back downstairs. Strange, but surely Jonah wasn’t going to leave. There was silence for a long, long moment. Perhaps two minutes went by with Emerson wondering what the hell Jonah was doing down there. When the silence was broken, it was by the sound of the front door opening and slamming shut.
Emerson’s whole body twitched at the violent sound. Oh.
Slowly he stood up from the bed and made his way out into the hall. He peered through the open door of Jonah’s room to see… nothing. All of Jonah’s things—his books, his clothes, his computer—were gone. Emerson stared. Then, turning quickly, he hurried downstairs to see where Jonah had gone. Maybe he had decided to stay somewhere else tonight?
Emerson came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs, his knees suddenly turned to jelly. There on the entrance table where Zack would toss his cell phone and wallet sat a single brass key. Emerson took two mechanical steps forward. He picked up the key and stared at it lying in his palm.
It was a small thing, but… it was the key that Emerson had given him when he had told Jonah he could move in for the summer. Jonah had whooped with delight and kissed Emerson senseless before pulling away from a dazed and horny Emerson to attach the key to his key chain. “I don’t want to lose this,” Jonah had said, and then he had tackled Emerson onto the bed.
Now here it was, left behind on purpose by Jonah, because apparently Jonah wouldn’t need it anymore. Jonah had just moved out. Just like that. No warning, no conversation. He just packed his bags and left. Did this mean… was he leaving Emerson too? Did this mean he didn’t want Emerson anymore?
Emerson’s knees gave out, and he felt himself fall to the floor. One minute he was standing; the next he was sitting on the floor in the hallway, staring down at the key in his open hand. Jonah had left his key. Even when they had talked about whether or not Jonah should stay here, Emerson had always thought, had even said, that Jonah could keep his key. But Jonah had left it.
The tears didn’t surprise him this time. They came on with a harsh sob and just kept coming. Soon, he curled back into his tight ball, this time propped up against the wall, and the tears weren’t just a few drops. He was sobbing and gulping and making harsh, guttural noises into the fabric of his jeans. The tears wouldn’t stop. Any time he thought they might, he’d feel the jagged teeth of the key digging into the flesh of his palm anew, and the grief would take over once again.
Eventually, exhaustion and dehydration called a stop to the tears, but he didn’t find the energy to rise from the spot. He sat in numb silence, unable to move.
EMERSON hung up the phone and stared at it.
Jonah was still in Boston. Jonah was still alive and safe. He was well in Boston—why he was there was still a mystery, but he was safe. And he still didn’t want to talk to Emerson.
Every few weeks, Jonah would pick up the phone and call his parents, and after every phone call, his parents would call Emerson to give him an update. And after the update, Emerson would finally ask, “Did you tell him?” and Jonah’s mother would go quiet and tell him that yes, she had, but Emerson always knew by the tone of her voice how unlikely she thought it was that Jonah would listen.
Emerson sniffed and blinked back the tears. God, he was tired of crying over Jonah Cherneski. He was tired of waiting for Jonah’s parents to call just so Emerson could feel miserable. Sometimes he wished they’d never call so he wouldn’t have to feel this crushing misery afterward.
But Emerson would feel worse for not knowing. Even if knowing Jonah had called also meant asking if his parents had told Jonah to call him and inevitably being told that they had, but that Jonah still sounded reluctant.
Emerson wiped a hand over his face. Who was he kidding—he wasn’t done crying over Jonah Cherneski yet.
“Hopefully it will work out better here,” a voice said through the newly opened door. Emerson looked up to see two men walking into the room.
He sniffed one last time and tossed his phone onto the bed, watching the two men as they entered.
The one talking was pulling a key out of the door’s lock and looking at his companion. He had long black hair and was carrying a guitar. His companion was taller than him, with a shock of ginger hair that didn’t look natural. The color didn’t suit him.
“Relax, Zack. Why don’t you wait until you actually meet your roommate before you decide if you have something to rant about?”
Emerson sat and watched until they noticed him.
“Hello,” said the ginger.
“Hi,” Emerson said.
The one who was apparently called Zack nodded at him. “Hi. I’m your new roommate.”
“Ah. I’m Emerson.” There was a pause. “I answer to Em or Emery, if it helps.”
There was another pause; then the ginger stepped forward, his hand stretched out. “I’m Greg, this loser’s friend and lead guitar.”
“Yeah.” Zack closed the door. “We have a band.”
Zack and Greg took a moment to look around the room. It was fairly bare. Emerson hadn’t had time to put much up on the wall—except for his cork board, which his dad had put up. He figured it didn’t look that exciting to an outsider.
“So,” said Zack after a moment. He took another look at Emerson. “Are you high?”
Emerson blinked several times. “Um?”
Greg hit his friend with the back of his hand. “What kind of greeting is that?”
“An honest one? I found my new roommate sitting alone with red eyes.”
“You’re overly optimistic,” said Greg.
“Maybe,” Zack said with a shrug.
“I’m not high,” Emerson said. “I’m just not having—never mind. So, a band? What kind of music do you play?” The subject change was obvious, but Zack and Greg let it pass.
“Rock,” said Greg.
“Rock?” Emerson arched a brow. “Beatles, AC/DC, or Coldplay?”
“Peter and the Hanged Man,” was Zack’s less-than-illuminating answer.
“Us,” Greg supplied.
“Oh. But… who’s Peter?”
“Right. Literally or figuratively?”
“The first,” said Zack. He crossed the room to put down his guitar. “Greg is a Religious Studies major. So let this be a lesson to you—never ask a Religious Studies major to name anything.”
“Right.” Emerson nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind. I’m guessing you’re not also a Religious Studies major.”
“Not surprising,” Emerson said with a nod at the guitar case.
“He’s here for piano and cello,” Greg said, sitting down on the other bed.
“Nope. Need more traditional instruments,” Zack explained. “What about you?”
“I can’t even play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on a kid’s xylophone.”
“Good to know: don’t ask Emery to play back up. But I was asking what your major was.”
“Business. Right. Which was exactly what I was suspecting what with the pile of sketchbooks trying to hide under all these pencils.” Zack nodded at Emerson’s desk.
Emerson looked at his lap. “I like to draw.”
Zack walked over and pushed at the books. “A lot, I’m guessing.”
Emerson shrugged. “Hobby.”
Zack pushed the pencils off the books and picked the top one up.
“So, where are you from, Emerson?” asked Greg.
“Um, Hudson Bend,” Emerson answered Greg, but he kept his eyes on Zack, who was flicking through the book. “It’s a small town about half an hour away.”
“Ah, I’ve been there. Pretty, slow,” Greg said with a nod.
“These are pretty good for a hobby,” Zack butted in, still turning pages.
“Thanks.” Emerson looked down at his lap again.
“This one isn’t done,” Zack said, flipping the book around and showing off a half-finished sketch of Jonah. Emerson had started it a few days before Jonah’s birthday. Jonah was pictured laughing and beautiful, his face complete, though his neck, ears, and hair were only half-formed. Emerson had lost steam with it after Jonah’s birthday.
“Friend?” Zack asked.
Emerson blushed. “Yes.” He stood and walked toward Zack. He took the book from Zack’s hands.
“Blushing!” Zack crowed. “Boyfriend?” He waggled his eyebrows.
“No.” Emerson turned away. He used the excuse of putting the sketchpad away to hide his face.
“He is, isn’t he?” Zack smirked.
“What Zack is trying to say,” Greg cut in, “is that if he is your boyfriend, or if you have or want a boyfriend, we don’t care.”
Emerson stared at the sketchbook in his hands. Oh. His heart was beating a strong tattoo against his rib cage. Emerson had never told anyone; how did they—?
“Emerson?” Greg said.
Emerson’s hands were trembling.
“Emery?” Zack this time. “Shit. Okay, not boyfriend. But you want him to be?”
Still, Emerson stared at the book. He hadn’t known them for five minutes, and they had known.
“I’ve never told anyone,” Emerson managed to get out. “That I’m—gay.”
“Oh. Wow,” Greg said.
“Shit,” said Zack again.
Emerson let out a strangled, hysterical-sounding laugh. That was—easier to say then Emerson had thought. Possibly because Zack and Greg were strangers? “That was—unexpected,” he admitted.
“Yeah. Sorry to drag you out of the closet,” Zack said.
Emerson nodded and put down the sketchbook, then turned back to him. “No, it’s—good. I—you’ve saved me from the angst of trying to figure out how to tell you.”
Zack grinned. “Atta boy. And Greg and I really don’t care.”
Emerson gave a small smile. “Good to know.”
“You know, Greg was gay once,” Zack added.
Greg rolled his eyes. “Everyone experiments in college.”
Emerson stared. Greg had just admitted to trying sex with another man. “You…?”
Greg shrugged. “Only once. It was alright—would have been better with boobs.”
“Uh. Right,” Emerson said again. He wondered if he’d be saying that a lot over the next two terms.
“So, enough talk. Come help me unload my car,” Zack said as he put his guitar down by the bed.
That made Emerson blink in surprise. “Me?”
“Sure. If you help, it’ll go faster. We’ll increase our workforce by half!”
“True, but what’s in it for me?” Emerson asked even as he stood to help.
“His unending gratitude,” Greg supplied.
“My vow never to play the guitar or cello in our room between midnight and six a.m.,” Zack said.
Emerson smiled. “Make it eight, and you have yourself a deal.”
EMERSON was sitting alone on his bed; the room door was propped open, but he ignored the noise as he idly sketched. It was either sketch something dark and angry, or yell at Jonah’s letter again.
Jonah’s second letter had arrived yesterday, and it had been as maddeningly vague as the first. When the first letter had arrived, Emerson had been so eager his hands had been trembling, but he had been very disappointed to discover that Jonah had offered no explanation for why he had left. Jonah’s apology had been weak and did nothing to heal a heart that had been broken for two months.
Emerson’s reply had been… emphatic. He had demanded some sort of explanation as to why Jonah had run off without saying goodbye. Emerson had hoped that Jonah’s reply would offer something more than similar, vague statements. He had been very disappointed.
Emerson had freaked out, actually. Thankfully Zack had been out when the letter had arrived.
He hadn’t yet made any attempts to write back, still too angry to even try and pick up a pen.
So drawing it was. Though—Emerson cocked his head at his work—definitely darker than usual.
“So I’m walking over here on my way from class and this asshole I’ve never met before bumps into me and starts yelling at me for not looking where I’m going when I’m the one who dropped their bag! Like, I’m sorry you took up the whole sidewalk and don’t know how to yield the right of way to someone wearing three-inch heels, buddy! Ugh! He was such a frumious bandersnatch!”
Emerson looked up to see Hayley standing in his room and fuming. She was gorgeous as ever, her red hair a wild mane around her face, highlighting her anger and just making her even more radiant.
“What’s a bandersnatch? That sounds dirty.”
“It’s a… thing.” Emerson arched a brow. “It’s a nonsense word from The Jabberwocky. It’s Lewis Carroll,” she said finally, as if that should explain everything. Emerson supposed it did.
Hayley let out a gusty sigh and launched herself down on Emerson’s bed. “Whatcha doing?”
“So I see.” Hayley propped herself on an elbow and leaned over to get a look at the book on Emerson’s lap. “Wow. Dark.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“What’s with you?” Hayley arched a brow.
“Another letter from Jonah,” Emerson admitted without looking at her face. There wasn’t much point in lying about it; Hayley had a way of always getting stuff out of him, even stuff he didn’t want to tell. He had known her only a few weeks before she had figured out that he was gay and pining over Jonah, and unlike Zack and Greg, she hadn’t had the luxury of seeing his drawings of Jonah.
“Ooh. As bad as the first?” Her smile was sympathetic.
“Worse. This time I had had questions. Questions that I wrote to him. Questions that he ignored!” Emerson was starting to get worked up again.
“Ouch,” Hayley murmured.
“He barely even acknowledged it! He just writes that he’s sorry and doesn’t want to talk about it, and then he starts talking about Boston!”
“Wow. That’s cold.”
“So is Boston, apparently,” Emerson said with a bitter twist to his lips. There was silence for a beat, and then he let out a sigh. “I just don’t understand. Why won’t he tell me? Why is he doing this?”
“Because he’s a boy? And boys are emotionally stunted.”
“Gee, thanks.” Emerson gave a dry sniff.
“Also, he’s clearly an idiot who doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it and should be shot for not snatching you up.”
“He’s straight, Hayley,” Emerson pointed out. He thought he only sounded a little bitter.
“So? You are beautiful and awesome, and you could convert any guy! So he’s stupid if you haven’t got him dancing the YMCA and listening to Judy Garland.”
“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way.”
“Sure it does! I mean, I love dick, but I’d totally give it up for Scarlett Johansson. I mean, have you seen Iron Man 2?”
Emerson gave her a small smile at that.
“I love my life,” a voice said from the doorway. “My roommate is too gay to steal a girlfriend, but he brings home hot chicks who talk about banging Scarlett Johansson.”
Emerson rolled his eyes. “Nice. Way to impress a girl.”
“I’m always impressive,” Zack retorted as he tossed his notebook down on his desk.
“Hayley, meet Zack,” Emerson finally said.
They greeted each other, and then Zack sat down on his own bed. “So, why are you talking about going gay for Johansson?”
Emerson snorted. “Why? Trying to figure out how you can relive this conversation with other girls?” His voice was cutting at best.
Zack gave him the finger.
Hayley ignored them both. “Just trying to explain to Em why Jonah is clearly an idiot,” Hayley said sweetly.
“Ah,” said Zack, the syllable filled with meaning.
“Great,” Emerson muttered.
“What?” To give her credit, Hayley looked genuinely puzzled.
“That boy is an idiot. I’ve been telling Emma that for months.”
“Oh hells no, I am not going to shut up when I have found someone that agrees with me.”
Zack cut him off. “He still moping over that letter?”
“Yup. He was doing some emo art when I walked in.”
“Emo art? Damn. Violent or just depressing?”
Zack stood and picked Emerson’s sketchbook up from the bed. “Yikes. See, this is why that boy is no good for you. You sit around in the dark making depressing art,” Zack said, looking at the drawing.
Emerson flushed with anger and snatched the book back. “Give me that. He’s my best friend, and he left without a word to me. I haven’t heard from him in two months, despite knowing him to be alive and in possession of a phone. I think I have the right to be upset. And I have the right to sit alone and draw sad pictures if I want to.”
Zack was scowling. “He’s making you miserable. Next letter you should tell him to fuck off.”
“I can’t do that. I—I need to know what I did to make him hate me.” He lowered his voice. “Even if it’s the last thing we ever talk about.”
There was silence.
Zack let out a sigh. “Fine. But don’t get your hopes up, Emma.”
“Zack is right. He’s scummy. Leaving like that and not talking to you was a very scummy thing to do.”
“He’s not, though, which is why I must have done something to make him angry.”
Zack made a furious, aborted noise.
Hayley was the one who spoke. “Em, what he did was an asshole move even if he is mad—you’ve been worried over his well-being, and making you worry should be a crime.” She reached up to smooth a hand over his hair. “Now come on, Em, let’s go get some lunch. We’ll stuff our faces, and you can get all disgusted while your roommate and I discuss Scarlett.” Hayley bounced up from the bed.
Emerson tried to give a good-natured groan. “No, please don’t!”
“Sounds good to me!” Zack smiled.
“It would,” Emerson grumbled, but he didn’t protest when Hayley grabbed his hand and dragged him from the room. “There will be no discussion of breasts or other lady parts while I try to eat.”
They both laughed at that.
“I’m starting to regret ever letting you two meet each other.”
“You know you love us, Emma.”
“Speaking of: Emma?” Hayley arched an eyebrow.
Emerson let out another groan. Zack had started calling him by that stupid nickname after Emerson had made the mistake of commenting on the terrifying chartreuse shirt some guy had been wearing. Zack had arched a brow and asked, “Chartreuse? A.K.A., puke green?” When Emerson had tried to defend himself, Zack had only snorted before adding, “I just realized, you’re not gay—you’re such a girl, Emma.” Zack had refused to let the name drop ever since.
Zack just shrugged at her. “He’s a girl, what can I say?”
Hayley tilted her head contemplatively. “I see your point. Tell me more.”
Oh yeah, Emerson was definitely regretting letting them meet.
He knew it was cliché, but he also knew it was true: Emerson could tell something was wrong the moment his mother said his name.
“Honey, we’re at the hospital.”
Emerson began to shake. His grip tightened around the phone.
“Kierstyn?” he managed to force out.
“No, your sister is okay. Honey, it’s Daddy.”
Those words sent a shock through him. “Dad? What—?”
“A heart attack. He’s still alive, but we don’t have any details yet. You should come down to the hospital.”
Emerson nodded in response. He was nodding during a phone conversation and looking for his shoes and wondering how he’d make his way down to the hospital.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m coming. Just—which one?”
He managed to find his shoes and get them on his feet, but he was stumped by the laces. He started to tie them, but then he began thinking about how he had learned to tie his shoelaces. His father had sat him on the stairs by the front door and patiently showed him how to make first one loop and then tie the knot. Dad’s pride had been the only thing greater than Emerson’s own that afternoon. In a sudden rush, he wondered if his dad would still be around to share that memory or to teach him everything else Emerson needed to learn. His dad was supposed to be the one who would help him buy his first car, his first house. Oh God! A heart attack.
Zack walked in a few minutes later to find him staring at his shoes.
Emerson looked up to see his roommate and closest friend standing in the doorway. “My dad had a heart attack,” he said bleakly.
“Right. Tie your shoes, and I’ll drive you.”
Emerson didn’t argue.
WRITTEN in a Christmas card dated December 31st:
What? Is that your cryptic way of telling me I’m happier not knowing? Because if it is it’s really shit. Not knowing where you were is what nearly k
Then, scribbled underneath a week later:
Dad had a heart attack. He’s still alive, but he’s unwell. The doctors say they don’t know They think there might be another problem that made the heart attack worse.
I miss you.