Gabe’s least favourite idiom was it takes two to tango. Usually people used it to put blame on both parties when there was a failure of cooperation, but that wasn’t how cooperation worked. Or doing the tango, for that matter. It took two people to make something work, yes, but it only took one to fuck things up.
It definitely didn’t take two to clean the basement rec room. Adam, Gabe’s step brother, was making that clear by not helping at all.
Gabe’s step mum, Sally, liked to assign them jobs together ostensibly for the sake of learning to cooperate or family bonding or whatever the fuck. Gabe suspected she just knew Adam wasn’t going to do jack shit either way, but she didn’t know how to make Adam do things he didn’t want to and if she only assigned jobs to Gabe, the unfairness of it would be uncomfortably obvious. This approach let her look the other way and pretend for just a little longer that everything was fine.
A scrunched up tissue bounced off Gabe’s head and he added it to the waste paper basket he’d been collecting rubbish in, determined not to give Adam the attention he was after.
“I’m bored,” Adam announced, stretching himself out as far as he could on the couch, which Gabe was surprised to see was now its entire length.
Gabe had always been small for his age, but the year and a half he had on Adam had meant that Gabe had always been at least a little bigger than him. Now that Gabe was seventeen, he’d accepted that he was destined to be short, and Adam had just hit a growth spurt. He was taller and broader than Gabe now and still growing fast.
Gabe continued ignoring Adam as he dug food wrappers out of the hole in the wall. He knew all of Adam’s hiding spots for trash he couldn’t be bothered to put in the bin. Gabe missed the good old days when they still had two Wiimotes and one less hole in their walls. Of course, the blame for that one had been placed on both of them because they’d both been playing. Nevermind who threw the damn thing.
“Gaaabe,” Adam whined. “Gabe, I found something to throw out.”
“What?” Gabe asked without bothering to turn around.
Gabe spared him an annoyed glance over his shoulder. “No. You don’t have anything.”
“I do!” Adam insisted and held something up. “Look.”
Gabe squinted at the small item Adam had in his hand. “What is that?”
“A dead lizard,” Adam declared.
Gabe made a face. That really was what Adam had. He was holding it up by the tail.
“Gross.” Gabe walked over to him and held out the waste paper basket. “I hope you wash your hands after touching that thing.”
When Adam’s face broke into a sudden smile, Gabe knew he’d made a mistake, but it was too late. Adam’s hand wrapped around Gabe’s wrist and he pulled him closer, sending the waste paper basket flying and scattering its contents across the room. For a moment, Gabe was just annoyed, but that was replaced with a rapidly growing fear when he tried to pull away and realised Adam was too strong now. Adam realised it too, started to loosen his grip, and then suddenly tightened it again and laughed.
“It’s not funny,” Gabe growled and tried to elbow Adam in the ribs as Adam dragged him down onto the couch. “Fuck off.”
“You want me to let you go?”
“Then you have to eat the lizard.”
“What?” Gabe started struggling with renewed vigor, but Adam’s grip was firm and he didn’t care if he was hurting Gabe. “This isn’t funny, Adam.”
“It’s pretty funny for me,” Adam said. “Anyway, one way or another, you are going to eat this lizard.”
Adam tried to keep holding Gabe down with just one arm so that he could use his other hand to wrench Gabe’s mouth open, and Gabe finally managed to get an elbow into Adam’s ribs. Adam’s grip released long enough for Gabe to get to his feet, but he was already grabbing for Gabe again. Gabe stumbled back, hit something with the back of his knees at the same moment he leant away, and then he was falling backwards.
There was a loud crash, and pain, and everything went scattered and confusing. When Gabe’s thoughts started to return, all he knew for the first few seconds was that he should not move. Adam stood above him staring down, eyes wide, and he looked like the child Gabe had grown up with again and not the monster he was fast becoming.
Gabe could smell the coppery tang of blood, but it was only when Adam took a step closer and Gabe heard glass crunch under his shoe that he realised what had happened. The glass coffee table. He’d fallen. Was he dying?
God, he hated the smell of blood...
He might have blacked out for a while, then he heard a scream, then he definitely blacked out for a while because the next thing he was aware of was a woman in a paramedic uniform leaning over him, telling him not to move.
“He tripped,” Adam was saying. “He was getting up and then he just tripped and fell. I think maybe there was something on the floor and he just tripped on it.”
His mum shushed him and told him to go wait in his room, which seemed wise. The lizard thing had been fucked up, but if Adam had just said it had been an accident in a tussle, nobody would have really held it against him. The lies just made it sound like he’d done it on purpose.
Gabe made eye contact with the paramedic. “Am I dying?”
“No, of course not,” she said. “Just stay still, okay? You’ll be fine. Do you know what day it is?”
Gabe considered the question seriously, his eyes wandering around the room. “Summer.”
That was the last coherent thought he had for a while.
Gabe didn’t die. He needed a blood transfusion and glass removed from his back and a lot of stitches, but he did not die. When he woke up in the morning the next day, his step mum was sitting next to his bed.
Or, well, Sally wasn’t technically his step mum. He just usually called her that, and Adam his step brother, to save on explaining. It was either that or say they were some random people he happened to live with, which might have been closer to the truth.
His dad and Sally had been in a relationship… briefly, when Gabe had been seven. His dad had wanted custody in the legal sense but not in the actually having to take care of a kid sense, and his mum had died earlier that year, so Sally had taken Gabe in. He was still pretty sure she’d only agreed to it because she wanted her crazy little asshole of a kid to have a friend. Well, that had turned out fantastic.
“Hey,” Sally said when she saw Gabe was awake, voice cast low and gentle. “How are you doing?”
“I have to sleep on my stomach.”
Also he hurt a lot and would carry the scars from this, both physical and mental, for the rest of his life. But sleeping on his stomach was really uncomfortable and weird.
She gave him a strained smile and then swallowed and looked away. “Gabe… what happened?”
“It was an accident.”
She looked back at him, then nodded as she let out a slow breath. So she hadn’t been sure. They didn’t really talk about things with Adam, but it seemed like she did know how bad things were getting.
“He scares me,” Gabe admitted out loud for the first time.
“You said it was an accident.”
“He tried to make me eat a dead lizard.” Gabe turned a smile into a grimace. He didn’t find it funny. He didn’t want her to think he did. It was just… absurd. It was such a fucked up thing to do to someone that it didn’t seem real. “He was holding me down and he’s stronger than me now, and I got away and I fell.”
He half expected her to tell him that he should have just gone along with it, should have just eaten the damn lizard instead of fighting back, but perhaps that was unfair because she didn’t. She looked like she was about to cry. “Things are getting out of hand, aren’t they?”
“It’s not my fault. I’m trying. He—”
“I know,” Sally interrupted before Gabe could get himself worked up. “I know it’s him. I just don’t know what to do. I want to get him therapy, but he refuses and he’s bigger than me too, so what am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know.”
She nodded and let out a long, shaky sigh. “Listen, I have to get to work now. I’ll come and see you again later, okay?”
She leant down and kissed him on the forehead. “You get some rest.”
Sally did not come and see him again, and when it was time for him to leave two days later, it was his dad who came to pick him up. Which was fucking weird, because it had been nearly two years since he’d last seen his dad.
“Ready to go?” his dad asked, no questions about Gabe’s wellbeing, no explanation for his presence.
“At work? At home? I don’t know her life,” Gabe’s dad said. “Come on.”
Gabe didn’t move. “Why isn’t she here?”
“She needs a break from you fighting with her kid all the time, so now I have to figure out what to do with you.”
It was sad that Gabe honestly wasn’t sure if Sally had lied about what had happened or if she’d told the truth and that was just his dad’s assessment of the situation.
“I don’t want to fight with him. He’s just crazy and aggressive. He tried to make me eat a dead lizard.”
Gabe’s dad looked unimpressed. “He’s what, twelve?”
“He’s nearly sixteen now and he’s bigger than me. What am I supposed to do?”
“Maybe work out occasionally? Or just…” he looked Gabe up and down, “try to look a bit less helpless.”
Which was easier fucking said than done, honestly. He’d inherited his dad’s light auburn hair, pale blue eyes, and a smattering of freckles across his nose, but none of his dad’s tall, lanky frame. Maybe if he’d dedicated himself to the task of looking as tough as possible, he could have done better, but that wasn’t who he was and it wasn’t who he wanted to be.
Gabe shut his eyes for a moment and then let out a long breath as he opened them again. He didn’t have the energy for this argument. He barely felt like he had the energy to be standing just then. “Can we just go?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to get you to do.”
The rest of the walk out to the car was silent, and Gabe really didn’t care. He sat in the back and looked through a bag of his stuff Sally had packed for him. His phone, his laptop, and their charges were there, and in amongst the clothes she’d even put in his swim trunks. So she wasn’t expecting him back for a while, then. He wasn’t supposed to swim until he got his stitches out, and he didn’t expect it to be a very comfortable experience for a while after that.
Gabe hadn’t known where his dad lived these days, but he wasn’t surprised when it ended up being within convenient visiting-your-son distance. Of course he just hadn’t wanted to. He’d never gone out of his way to be a part of Gabe’s life.
It was a tall building full of tiny, tightly packed apartments. The elevator only had a slight smell of pee to it.
The inside of Gabe’s dad’s apartment was small, completely undecorated, and didn’t look like it had ever really been cleaned. It radiated miserly and loneliness. Even the furniture was basic and was probably just the stuff that had come with the place.
“Right, I need to go out for a bit,” Gabe’s dad said before Gabe even had a chance to set his bag down. “There might be something you can eat in the kitchen, but I’d check the dates on stuff first if I were you.”
“Mm.” Gabe flopped face first down onto the sofa. It smelled funny. Not strongly offensive; just sort of musty. By the time the front door shut a couple of minutes later, he was already half asleep.