Head down, shoulders hunched, hands shoved deep into jacket pockets, Noah Mayer ignored the world around him as he made towards his destination. He didn’t want to be here; didn’t want to be making this journey that he’d made so many times before. He wanted to be somewhere else - anywhere else - even home held more appeal tonight, and surely there was some humour in that thought? But things had changed and he didn’t know how to change them back again; was sure that it was way too late to put things right, even if he was able to.
The weather perfectly suited Noah’s mood as thunderclouds rolled slowly across the darkening sky, cold rain drizzling down and dripping through the autumn leaves that he walked under. He was oblivious, his inner turmoil taking all his attention. Why the fuck hadn’t he tried to talk to Luke at school today? Noah knew why. He couldn’t stand the brush-off he knew would come in front of his schoolmates; couldn’t bear to see Luke turn away to his other friends, those warm eyes suddenly cold and unfriendly. And knowing it was all his own fault didn’t make it any easier to deal with; he had no one to blame but himself. If only he’d been better at hiding his feelings; better at maintaining the boundaries of normalcy that others seemed able to observe, then Luke wouldn’t have distanced himself; would never have realised what a freak Noah had become. He wished to God things could go back to the way they were; back to the easy friendship which had dominated Noah’s life for the better part of the last two years. If only they could go back….
Noah had never had many friends. Naturally reticent, his father’s army career had ensured that he never spent anywhere long enough to feel comfortable mixing with the other kids. Added to that were his father’s high expectations of behaviour and achievement, so from a very early age, Noah’s life had been filled with duty and his father’s perceived honour. He never failed to remind his son that everything Noah did reflected on his reputation. It was an extremely heavy burden to bear for one so young and he took it very seriously; he had to.
When he was just fourteen, Noah and his father moved to Oakdale and settled into a small bungalow in an area given over to basic army housing. Noah did what he always did when he moved somewhere new – he kept himself to himself and tried to blend in to the local scenery as best he could. He’d learnt by experience that the ‘new kid’ scenario went one of two ways; either everyone wanted to know you, or no one wanted to know you. Noah preferred the latter and did what he could to remain invisible. Unfortunately, one kid – Luke Snyder – was having none of it.
Luke was the archetypal popular kid, or so it seemed to Noah. He’d lived in Oakdale his whole life and was obviously very confident in both his position within the school hierarchy – all the groups seemed to like him - and within that of the small town he knew so well. He was everyone’s darling - always cheerful, always helpful, always ready to pick up and care for any waif or stray that crossed his path. He even had dimples when he smiled, for fuck’s sake. Noah worked hard to avoid him. Luke, however, saw this as a challenge and was relentless in his need to make friends with this quiet new kid. Noah would be the first to admit that he was eventually worn down and before long, he’d forgotten why getting so close to someone was such a big mistake.
Within three months of arriving in Oakdale, Noah had become an honorary member of the extended Snyder family. He’d never had anything like that before and, although he sometimes found it overwhelming – the numbers and sheer noise often brought him to sensory overload – it hadn’t taken long for him to love it. He knew it was wrong; knew that at any moment it could all be snatched away if his father was to be transferred, but it hadn’t stopped him falling in love with Luke’s whole family life. It had taken much longer for Noah to realise that he’d fallen in love with Luke Snyder as well.
If asked, Noah would be able to tell the exact moment he realised he was in love with his best friend. He’d stayed over at their farm – a pretty regular occurrence by this time, and one that was acceptable to Colonel Mayer, as it allowed him to take assignments away from home – and been thrilled to witness the birthing of a foal to Luke’s favourite mare. Luke had refused to leave the barn throughout the night so, consequently, they’d both hunkered down in the hay with strict instructions from Luke’s dad, Holden, to keep out of the way. Noah had never been part of anything so amazing and was wide-eyed throughout the whole proceedings, avidly taking in every detail. After the birth of the foal, he’d watched as Luke stroked the mare, murmuring comforting words and resting his head against the horse’s heaving neck. He’d turned to Noah, his eyes bright with love and excitement, his lips still moving, hands still stroking, and Noah had felt something momentous move within his chest. His heart sped up and he could feel a warmth spread throughout his whole body; he never wanted the feeling to go away.
Of course, Noah tried to talk himself out of what he was feeling. The cold light of day forced him to face some painful truths that couldn’t be ignored, not least of which was his father. He just knew that his life wouldn’t be worth living if the colonel suspected anything of what his son was going through – and he meant that quite literally. Noah was well versed in his father’s opinions on a range of society’s ills and he was in no doubt as to his opinion on ‘those fucking queerboy homosexuals’ that ‘ruined the lives of decent, hard-working, god-fearing folk.’ Funny how his father only ever mentioned God when he was criticising those he didn’t agree with.
However, no matter how sternly Noah talked to himself about his feelings - or how hard he tried to talk himself out of them – they just wouldn’t quit. And in the dead of night, when he didn’t have to hide from anybody else, he could admit that what he was feeling was real and allow himself to dream a little.
During the following days, Noah concentrated on being Luke’s best friend, on making sure that nothing changed. There was no way he could ever let him know what he was feeling because he knew it would ruin their friendship. He couldn’t risk that – wouldn’t risk that. Luke’s friendship was what got him through the days, he had no doubts about that, and there was no way he would do anything to jeopardise it. If that meant denying who and what he was, then that’s what he’d do. He knew he couldn’t bear it if Luke looked at him with anything other than the friendship and respect they had now. If he knew Noah’s true feelings, he wouldn’t be able to hide his disgust and it would just about kill him.
So what the hell went wrong? Noah still hadn’t figured out how he’d given himself away – he thought he’d been so careful - but it wasn’t exactly easy around the most tactile boy in the world, for fuck’s sake – it was pure torture. Luke came from a family of natural touchers and huggers, something that Noah had found very difficult to get used to when they’d first become friends. He tried desperately to pretend, actually having to make a concerted effort not to pull away from Luke’s casual touches because he didn’t want to arouse suspicions that maybe things had changed for him. But things had changed, although it was a while before Noah realised that Luke was the one pulling away from him. At first he’d thought he was imagining it, because it was nothing overt, nothing he could put his finger on. Gradually, however, although he still spent time with Luke and his family, Noah began to feel like an outsider again. Luke stopped reaching out to him, seeming uncomfortable in his presence; stopped smiling so freely, his eyes becoming shadowed. Noah told himself he was imagining it, that he was transferring his own feelings of guilt and self-loathing on to Luke, but then there came the moment when he couldn’t pretend any more.
Noah hadn’t seen Luke, except from a distance at school, for several days. They’d spoken on the phone a couple of times, but Luke had said he had extra chores to do now the foal was growing. An offer of help was turned down. Feeling depressed, Noah had needed to get out of the house, eager to be anywhere other than in the oppressive silence that pervaded every room, even when his father was home. He didn’t really have any destination in mind, just wanted to be where there was noise and light. Stepping from the cooling evening air into the warm coffee shop, Noah’s eyes were automatically drawn to the sound of laughter coming from his favourite booth in the far corner. His breath caught in his throat as his eyes met those of a laughing Luke. What the fuck? For a moment, his brain couldn’t process what he was seeing and he knew the shock must be showing on his face. Without thought, he took a step forward, only to stop as Luke shook his head slightly, making it clear that Noah wasn’t welcome. He knows! He knows! ran like a litany through his head, pounding through his bloodstream and bringing bile to his throat. He turned and ran.
That had been nearly a month ago. A month in which Noah easily reverted to the shadow he’d been before coming to Oakdale, invisible to everyone and happy to be so. If his father noticed any change in his son, he didn’t show it and Noah was grateful for that, for the indifference. He drifted through his days, barely looking up from the ground, afraid that people would see what a bad person he was just by looking. He tried desperately to blame Luke for making him feel this way, but in his heart, he just couldn’t. This was his fault, nobody else’s. It was Noah who was a freak; Noah who’d perverted his only friendship with his unnatural feelings. It was Noah who had to face the consequences, as painful as they were. And they were. It wasn’t just losing Luke that hurt; it was everything that went with it. When you hadn’t experienced the warmth and love of family, you didn’t miss it. But Noah now knew what was missing, and it hurt…it fucking hurt! And there were days when he didn’t think he could forgive Luke for that; for literally forcing him to realise what was missing. He could forgive Luke for hating him; for hating the perverted thing that he’d become, but he couldn’t forgive him for leaving him so empty and alone.
It was several moments before Noah realised his feet had come to a stop, so engrossed was he in his thoughts. He was here. Raising his eyes to the Snyder house, he drank in the warm light that spilled out into the surrounding darkness. It looked like a home, so warm and inviting, and he felt something inside himself tighten as he stood there, his fingers clenched in his pockets. He could do this; ten minutes and the past two years would all be over; he could do this. Raising his hand to knock on the door, he didn’t realise that the dripping rain hid the tears that stained his cheeks.