There was something about Tommy that was soft, too soft. Like he couldn’t be real. Freshman year, he cried in Mrs. Garvey’s first period bio class during a documentary on lemurs, when it got to the part about deforestation. It was a quiet cry. The tears ran down his face almost silently, but not everybody pretended not to see. That was the day Randy decided that he was out to get Tommy. Things were bad from the moment they were together in the same room--we just never expected it to come to this.
Everybody knew that Tommy was a good kid. He had it written all over him, in washable crayola marker, the kind that comes in packs of eight. He loved his mom, you could tell. He was always running errands for her, driving to every strip mall in our scummy small town, the black garbage bags taped over the back windows of her Corolla flapping in the wind. If there was any way in which he could be criticized, you could say he kept to himself too much. It was true--nobody saw him out past nine PM. He didn’t go to the football games or to the keg parties we had out back in the woods--we just never thought anything of it. He had a sick mother to take care of, after all. Everybody knew that Tommy was a good kid. If anyone took a closer look--not that any of us did--you’d see he was poor, maybe the poorest kid in town. But nobody could’ve guessed that he was, you know.
After what happened, we really didn’t know what to feel. Some called it sadness. Others, disbelief. It was summertime, mid-June, the last week of school. We were restless in our seats. We smoked long skinny joints in the woods behind the softball fields after school let out. We bought Arizona Ice Teas and guzzled them walking down Main Street. We cheated on tests, hooked up with each other in the clammy backseats of parents’ cars--anything to forget how bored we felt, how stagnant.
After the funeral, all of this stopped, at least for the weekend. We sat behind closed doors, letting the thick, June air smother us. We tried to forget the image of Tommy’s mother at his casket, oxygen tank beside her, weeping, but we couldn’t. She was his mother and he was her martyr, sort of. He would have died for her, we all knew that. In a way, that’s exactly what he did.
Nobody said that Randy killed Tommy. Nobody dared use the word murder. Tommy died, that’s all. Tommy got beat up bad, and then he died. That’s all. Because nobody wants to go any further. Nobody wants to hit any nerves. If you scratch the surface, you wind up with dead skin under your fingernails, then blood. No answers. Who wants that?
Richard Lynch, Sr., couldn’t be gay. He was Randy’s dad, for Christ's sake. He was the high school janitor and the assistant football coach and the purchaser of cases of beer from the nearby Mobil gas station and the watcher of Fox news from the old shitty set with rabbit ears in the living room. He wore paint-stained denim and flannel shirts and Timberland work boots and a baseball cap. He kept a stack of Playboy magazines shoddily hidden in the second-to-the-bottom drawer by his bedside. He was no fag.
Still, we saw what we saw--the door of the janitor’s closet yanked open, Tommy on his knees, Coach Lynch standing with his pants at his ankles. Everybody saw. Or knew somebody who saw, or heard Tommy’s sneakers squeaking across the linoleum as he sprinted, away from the crowd. He spit the saliva and cum out of his mouth. He ran until his legs gave out. Tommy was a good kid. He knew he could never come back.
Everybody talked. Everybody asked questions, whispered at the back of class, rumors collecting like pieces of gum stuck to the bottoms of desks. Nobody knew anything, except for what we saw. Maybe it started with Tommy, late to class and with no hall pass. Maybe Coach Lynch caught him and reprimanded him, held Tommy’s chin in the grip of his thumb and index finger. A firm grip, a calloused palm. Maybe Tommy liked it. Maybe he begged Coach Lynch for more. Nobody knows for certain. Everybody imagines, theorizes. What if it was Coach Lynch, stringing Tommy along? Maybe Tommy didn’t really like it. Maybe Coach Lynch hurt him, threatened to tell his mom. There are no answers. Randy and Coach Lynch packed up and disappeared for good. Tommy’s mom is in her hospital bed, clutching the railing. Everybody knows where Tommy is. That means no one is left.
The night Randy killed Tommy, he wore a white t-shirt, blue jeans, work boots. There was a baseball bat in the back of his truck, but he chose his fists. He wanted to feel Tommy’s teeth fall out, flesh bruising beneath him. Randy found him easily, the way a bloodhound sniffs out prey. He was thirsty. His instincts told him.
Tommy was waking up. He had run until he reached a clearing in the woods, where he passed out, hours before. Randy found him just as he was waking up. He was back on the ground after the first punch. But Randy didn’t stop. He beat Tommy bloody, made him a ragdoll. Tommy didn’t fight back. He was too small. He didn’t scream. There was nobody to hear. His bones shattered into the dirt. His front teeth fell out, first the top two, then the bottom. He was dead in twenty minutes. Nothing but a ghost boy, just like that.
We found him the next morning. He lay bent askew, his neck snapped backwards, mouth agape, toothless. Blood stained the grass. After that, he came to us in nightmares. Eyes black, face scabbed over, he rattled our windows, left blood pooled on the sill. In the dreams, we locked our doors, every time.
There were no proper eulogies. No right words to say. Tommy was a good kid. Everybody knew this. There are still questions nobody will ever ask. There is our small town and there is a dead boy, buried inside of it.
All we can say is that there’s no denying the body, how everybody saw it. A boy broken beyond repair. How we stood there, transfixed. There, on that dusty back road, he lay on his back, still as a crucifixion—the whole town holding its breath.