"The rain," Tyler says.
Josh nods, slowly.
"It's like..." Tyler pauses, searching for the word.
"Crisper," Josh says.
"Exactly," Tyler says, nodding.
"Almost like..." Josh frowns, "red? Maybe?"
"Mostly," Tyler says. "With a hint of orange."
"Orange, right." Josh points at Tyler. "That's right. I keep forgetting that one."
"A lot of things are orange, though," Tyler says, frowning.
"Not where I'm from," Josh says darkly. "Everything's just blue-black there."
Tyler winces. "I can't even imagine that."
"Don't," Josh says firmly. He shakes his head. "Don't even try."
Tyler shudders a little. "Believe me, I don't want to."
Josh nods. "Good." He sits up straighter suddenly, cocking his head.
"My mom coming?" Tyler asks. Josh nods, standing up.
"Keep it short, yeah?" Josh asks as he closes the closet door.
"Okay," Tyler replies to the now-empty room.
There's a soft tap on the door before his mom pokes her head in.
"What are you doing, Tyler?" Tyler's mom asks, looking in.
"Talking to Josh," Tyler tells her. He immediately regrets saying anything.
"Tyler," his mom says, sighing. "Josh isn't real, remember? We've been over this before."
"Right, Mom," Tyler says, nodding. "I'm sorry."
"Tyler, I..." His mom pauses, looking unsure. "Don't apologize, okay? It's just that Josh doesn't exist."
"Okay," Tyler tells her, waiting for her to leave so Josh can come back.
His mom looks at him, something yellow-blue-red in her eyes. He forgets what other people call it. Josh would know.
"Tyler, you have an appointment tomorrow, remember?" Tyler's mom says. "With Dr. Paulson."
Dr. Paulson has lots of markers, a checkerboard, and a liberal use of a drawer full of candy so Tyler won't tell anyone about the one time everything tasted like metal and soap and magenta dipped in candle wax.
"Okay," Tyler says, nodding.
His mom bites her lip. "All right, Tyler," she says. "Remember to eat, okay?"
"Okay," Tyler echoes, and she closes the door.
Josh immediately opens the closet door.
"Dr. Paulson," he says with a tone of distaste.
"Why don't you like him?" Tyler asks as he watches Josh settle himself on Tyler's bookshelf.
"He sounds so..." Josh bites his lip, searching for the words. "I would say purple-green, but I'm missing something, aren't I?"
"Pink," Tyler says immediately.
"Right, right," Josh says. He makes a face. "I don't like it when you go there."
"Would you rather I go back to Dr. Craig?" Tyler offers.
Josh recoils the best he can while perched precariously on a bookshelf.
"No!" Josh exclaims. "No, no, never!"
"I was kidding," Tyler says as he sprawls back onto his bed.
"Some joke," Josh mutters, sounding irritated. "Don't kid about that, okay?"
"Okay," Tyler says, suddenly reminded by his conversations with his mother. The sound of butter being spread on toast, bland, and purple-red acceptance.
"No, really," Josh says, hopping off the bookshelf so he can grab Tyler's hand. "Don't joke about that. That was... bad."
"It was," Tyler allows, and Josh presses his lips to Tyler's hand.
"Please don't joke about that, Tyler," Josh murmurs.
And Tyler is so charmed by the way Josh's mouth forms his name that he agrees automatically.
Tyler can tell Dr. Paulson has had a long day.
"Everything all right with your wife, Doctor?" Tyler asks politely.
"Peachy," Dr. Paulson huffs, flopping down onto his chair. "Chocolate or lollipop?"
"Lollipop," Tyler answers. He likes to suck them as obscenely as possible once in a while, just to check Dr. Paulson's priorities.
The lollipop is red, tasting green-red-yellow, like cherries. Tyler's careful to rub it across his lips, making them as red as possible.
"Last session we discussed books," Dr. Paulson says, not paying attention to Tyler's treatment of his lollipop. "And headaches."
"Those two may as well be synonymous," Tyler says.
"Yes, you mentioned that many times," Dr. Paulson says, sounding tired.
"And the Bible-"
"-has such small print you may as well be looking at a rainbow," the doctor finishes.
"Although the first part-"
"-of Genesis is almost entirely green, so you can read it," Dr. Paulson says. "I take very good notes, remember?"
"I remember," Tyler says in the same tone he uses with his mother.
Dr. Paulson, who is entirely familiar with Tyler's vocal tones, sighs.
"Tyler, I'm sorry I'm not at the top of my game today," he says. He leans forward, and Tyler jerks back so quickly that the lollipop almost goes down his throat. "Sorry, sorry," Dr. Paulson apologizes. He takes off his glasses so he can scrub his face with his hand. "I'm so sorry, Tyler."
Tyler doesn't say anything. He thinks that if he opens his mouth, nothing but the 'gibberish' only Josh seems to understand would fall out. His heart's pounding in his chest, and he places his hand over it. Dr. Paulson follows his movements and winces.
"I'm so sorry, Tyler," he repeats. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"I'm okay," Tyler says, pleased when he hears them come out as 'normal' words.
"You're not, Tyler," Dr. Paulson says with a sigh. "You're not okay." He shakes his head slowly, as if to clear it. "What do you want to talk about today?"
Tyler shrugs. "I don't know."
"Have you been writing?" Dr. Paulson asks.
"A little," Tyler mutters, picking a loose thread on his jeans.
"Have you written about anything particularly interesting?"
"The treehouse," Tyler says, before wishing he didn't say anything because Dr. Paulson's eyes go blue-orange-green, all interested and almost hungry-looking.
"What treehouse?" Dr. Paulson asks, jotting something down in his notebook.
"We- I found a treehouse in the woods," Tyler murmurs, scowling down at the carpet. He feels oddly exposed now.
"What was the treehouse like?" the doctor asks, not looking up from his notebook.
"I dunno. Woody." Yellow-purple. The way wet chalk feels. The lowest B on his piano.
"Do your parents know about the treehouse?" Dr. Paulson asks.
"Does it matter?" Tyler says, a little more defensively than he intended.
Dr. Paulson blinks. "I suppose it doesn't," he says slowly. "I just wanted to know if you've been talking to them."
"You could've just asked them that," Tyler points out. "You could've just asked me that."
"You're right, Tyler. I'm sorry," Dr. Paulson says, sounding genuinely apologetic. "Have you been talking to your parents?" Tyler snorts. "I thought so." The doctor leans forward slowly, so Tyler has time to prepare for his presence. "I think you should talk to them, Tyler. They really care about you."
"They don't." Tyler knows he sounds like a child, like the smell of orange peels, but he doesn't care.
"They do, Tyler. And they were so, so upset when they found out what had happened to you."
"They never believed me."
"Tyler, you weren't very easy to understand then," Dr. Paulson says gently. "You still aren't, honestly."
"You seem to manage."
"I've known you for a long time now, Tyler."
"So have my parents."
"Have they really?"
Tyler is silent for a moment. "No." He pauses. "They don't know me at all."
"Tyler, have you ever thought about making peace with your parents?" Dr. Paulson asks.
Tyler scowls. "They should be the ones making peace with me."
"They're trying, Tyler, really," the doctor says. "I guess you haven't noticed, but they're trying to make amends."
"Well, they're doing a heck of a job," Tyler mutters.
Dr. Paulson ignores that comment. "They said they've been trying to take you out more and participate in family activities."
"I hate crowds," Tyler tells his doctor. "I hate board games. I hate TV."
"They don't know what you like, Tyler," Dr. Paulson says. "But I'm sure they'll be happy to do whatever you do like with you."
"I..." Tyler pauses. "There's nothing that I like to do."
Dr. Paulson goes quiet for a moment. "You like Josh."
Tyler blinks. "What?" Dr. Paulson has never willingly brought up the topic of Josh before.
"I'm not saying that Josh is real, Tyler," the doctor says quickly. "But maybe you could try telling someone in your family about him."
"And what purpose would that serve, other then to cater my delusions?"
"It'll help you open up," Dr. Paulson says, ignoring his sarcasm. "You're much easier to understand when you're talking about something you're passionate about."
Tyler thinks about this. "You'll have to tell my parents that it okay for me to talk about Josh."
Dr. Paulson sighs. "I didn't mean for that to happen when I told them about Josh, Tyler. I'm sorry."
Tyler shrugs. "Whatever."
Dr. Paulson nods slowly to himself, jotting something down in his notebook. "I'll talk to them."
"What are you going to say about me?" Josh asks as he picks at a piece of splintering wood in their treehouse.
Tyler shrugs. "I dunno. There's a lot to say."
"You could tell them how pink-red-orange I am," Josh says, flashing Tyler one of those smiles that make Tyler melt. "How sexy I am, how I sound like melted marshmallows, how my lips are the key C major, how I can-"
"Oh, shut up," Tyler says, pushing him playfully.
Josh laughs, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he grins. Tyler looks away before Josh can see him staring.
"My parents think I'm crazy," Tyler says suddenly.
Josh sobers immediately, frowning. "You're not crazy."
"I know," Tyler says. "But telling them about you isn't going to convince them of that."
Josh is silent for a moment. "What are you going to do?"
"Talk to them about you anyways," Tyler says. "Fuck what they think."
Josh grins. "You're really pink-red-orange when you swear."
Tyler blushes. "No, I'm not."
Josh looks at him thoughtfully. "You're pretty pretty, Tyler."
"Pretty pretty?" Tyler says.
Josh laughs. "Not my best word choice."
"Why do we talk like this, anyways?" Tyler asks. "If we just used our words, nothing like that would happen."
"You asked me to talk 'normally,'" Josh says. "For practice."
Tyler frowns. "Why did I do that?"
Josh shrugs. "Something about better communication."
Tyler nods slowly. "Sounds like something I'd do. Back, y'know."
"Well, yeah," Josh says. "You were all-" he makes a few indiscernible hand motions, "blue-purple. Jumbled."
"Mixed up," Tyler says, nodding.
"Not exactly," Josh says. "Sort of... I can't remember the word for it. Orange-green-purple."
"Confused," Tyler translates. Josh nods.
"That's it. I keep forgetting that one," he says. "Confused. You were confused. And like the letter M. The way August smells."
"Confused, maybe," Tyler allows. "I don't know about lost, though."
"You were lost," Josh says, sounding certain.
"Maybe," Tyler says again. He watches Josh flick the lighter he always has on and off. "Why do you even have that? You don't smoke."
Josh shrugs. "You never know when you'll have to set everything on fire."
Tyler furrows his eyebrows. "What? What are you talking about?"
Josh just shrugs agains. "You'll get it some day."
"He dyed his hair the other day," Tyler tells his mom.
They're sitting on the steps outside, watching the wind blow through the trees in their backyard. It sounds like a cool pillow on Tyler's skin, and he smiles.
"What color?" his mom asks.
"Blue. Bright blue," Tyler says, grinning a little to himself. "It was red for a while before, actually."
"That's neat, Tyler," his mom says, still looking rather uncomfortable.
"He has these really dark brown eyes," Tyler says, choosing to ignore his mother's discomfort. "Coffee eyes. That kind with coffee and hot chocolate. What's that called again?"
"Mocha," his mom supplies.
"Mocha eyes," Tyler says, nodding.
"Tyler," his mom says, biting her lip, "who is Josh to you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is he your friend?" his mom asks. "Boyfriend?"
Tyler splutters a little. "What? No!"
"It's... y'know, okay if you want a boyfriend," Tyler's mom says. "Just so you know."
"Great," Tyler says, still wide-eyed. "What brought that on?"
"You always have this goofy look on when you talk about him, Tyler," his mom tells him.
"Yeah, but that automatically made you think I'm gay?"
"Well," his mom shrugs, "you've never seemed very straight, Tyler."
Tyler blinks. "Thanks, Mom."
"It wasn't an insult!" his mom begins to protest, but pauses when she sees Tyler laughing.
"I'm gay," Tyler assures her once he's done giggling. "I just never expected you to notice."
"I do occasionally notice something about you, Tyler," his mom tells him.
Tyler immediately sobers. He frowns, and his mom sighs, carefully taking his hand.
"I'm sorry, Tyler," she tells him. "I know that an apology won't fix anything, that it won't change anything, but I am still so sorry."
"Why-" Tyler swallows hard, "why didn't you believe me?"
"I-" His mom sighs. "Dr. Craig seemed very professional, Tyler. He was supposed to be top of the line. And he was very smooth, very reassuring that there was absolutely no misconduct." She sighs again, squeezing Tyler's hand gently. "I regret not listening to you more than anything, Tyler."
"Don't we all," Tyler mutters. "Don't we all."
"How do you feel?" Josh asks one day.
"Who are you, Dr. Paulson?"
Josh rolls his eyes. "Come on, Ty," he says, passing him his pocket knife. "Show me. In 'normal' words."
Tyler stares at the knife, warm and heavy in his palm, like silk on dewy grass.
"Show me," Josh repeats.
Tyler flips out the blade, pressing it to the wooden floor of their treehouse.
"'Normal' words," he whispers to himself, trying to recall one for how he feels.
"Terrified," Josh reads. "Why?"
Tyler shrugs, wiping the wood shavings off the knife before flicking it closed and handing it back to Josh.
"I don't know. Always am," he says.
"Why?" Josh repeats. "Of what?"
Tyler shrugs again. "Of what's next, I guess," he says.
Josh frowns. "That's nothing to be scared of," he says.
"Why am I scared, then?"
Josh smiles in that small, gentle way of his. "Orange-green-purple," he says.
Tyler sighs, tracing his thumb over the carving in the wooden board.
"I'm not," he murmurs. "Not really."
"You are," Josh says. "Like stretched orange cotton. Not knowing what's around the corner is one of the best things ever."
"Terrifying," Tyler says, shaking his head.
"Maybe a little," Josh allows. "But maybe what's around the corner is the best thing you could possibly imagine."
"What if it's not, though?"
"What if it is?"
"What if it isn't?"
Josh leans forward, taking Tyler's fingers away from the carving in the wood.
"But what if it is?" he whispers.
"How are things with you and your mother?" Dr. Paulson asks as Tyler slides a peanut butter cup into his pocket.
"Fine," Tyler says.
"Fine?" Dr. Paulson repeats, eyebrow raised.
"Better," Tyler amends.
Dr. Paulson nods slowly. "You talked to her about Josh, then?"
Tyler nods. "She didn't look too happy."
"As expected, Tyler," Dr. Paulson says, still looking down at her notes. "It can't be comfortable for a woman to hear her seventeen-year-old son talk about his imaginary friend."
"Who she thinks is imaginary," Tyler corrects before he can stop himself.
Dr. Paulson pauses, finally looking up from his notes.
"Tyler," he says softly, "Josh is-"
"Yes, okay, whatever," Tyler says quickly.
The doctor sighs, running his hand through thinning hair absentmindedly.
"He's not real, Tyler," he says softly. "I'm sorry, but he just doesn't exist."
"Yes, fine, whatever you say."
Dr. Paulson rubs his face with his hands. "Tyler..."
"Look," Tyler says, suddenly feeling ready to fight, "I know you think I'm crazy because of this, but Josh is real, okay? You're not going to convince me otherwise."
Dr. Paulson chuckles dryly. "I'm seeing that, yes."
"It's all blue-black," Josh says. "My home, I mean. That's why I like it here better."
"You've told me that," Tyler says. "Lots."
"That doesn't make it any less true," Josh points out.
"I know," Tyler says. "I'm just saying that I hear you whenever you tell me."
"But I don't want you to hear me," Josh says insistently. "I want you to listen."
Tyler frowns. "What's the difference?"
Josh makes a frustrated noise. "Some people- philosophers, mainly- say other people never hear each other," he says. "But I don't think that's true. I think everyone hears, but I don't think most people listen."
Tyler's frown deepens. "I still don't get it."
"It's like..." Josh shifts, taking Tyler's hand. "Okay, when I say 'take my hand,' you think of holding hands, right? Not of taking my hand someplace with you. Unless we go somewhere hand-in-hand, but that's a different story." He shakes his head to clear it. "What I mean is, you hear 'take my hand' but listen to 'hold my hand.'"
"Oh." Tyler pauses, thinking. "I get it." He frowns again. "I think."
Josh cracks a smile. "Well, at least you're honest."
"Tyler, your psychiatrist and I want to start you on a new kind of drug," Dr. Paulson says as Tyler sits down.
"What?" Tyler asks as he picks out a purple lollipop. "Don't you remember how it went last time?"
"Not antipsychotics," Dr. Paulson says. "That was a mistake, I know." He sighs, running a hand through his hair. "That was a mistake."
"What kind of drug, then?" Tyler asks, unwrapping the lollipop and popping it in his mouth.
"Lorazepam," Dr. Paulson says. He pauses. "Ativan."
Tyler frowns. "Doesn't that treat anxiety?" Am I anxious? he wonders to himself.
"It also treats insomnia," Dr. Paulson says. "Frankly, Tyler, you're starting to look like a skeleton. One in need of a good night's sleep."
Tyler shrugs. "I think I'm okay."
Dr. Paulson sighs. "Your mother told me she can hear you talking to yourself at three in the morning. Every single night."
Tyler opens his mouth to say that it's not himself he's talking to, but decides against it.
"I'm okay," he says instead.
"Tyler, I really don't think you're getting enough sleep," Dr. Paulson says softly. "You look exhausted all the time."
"Tyler, this is honestly what I think is best for you," Dr. Paulson says gently.
Tyler glares at him. "And why do you care about what's best for me?" He leans forward, undaunted. "I don't think you do," he says, placing his hand over his cheek deliberately.
Dr. Paulson's expression drops. "Tyler," he begins, stopping. "Tyler, I'm so, so sorry about that."
Tyler rolls his eyes, leaning back. "Whatever."
The doctor sighs, rubbing his eyes. "There's no excuse for that," he says. "But Tyler, this really is for your own good.” He pulls out another piece of paper and jots something down on it. “I'm going to talk to your parents, and once I have their approval, we’re going to start you on Ativan. Okay, Tyler?”
“Whatever,” Tyler says again.
Dr. Paulson sighs again, rubbing the ring on his left finger. “Okay. Now, Tyler, I thought-”
"Stop that," Tyler says, irritated.
Dr. Paulson pauses. "Stop what?"
"Stop putting my name in every other sentence you direct to me," Tyler says. "I know my name now, okay?"
"Force of habit, T- force of habit," Doctor Paulson says.
Tyler chuckles dryly. "I hate my name," he tells his doctor.
"And why's that?" Dr. Paulson asks, scratching something down on his notepad.
"It's just a reminder."
Dr. Paulson pauses. "A reminder of what?"
"It's just another reminder that no one's actually unique," Tyler says. "No one's actually special."
Dr. Paulson sets his notepad onto the desk, looking intrigued. "Elaborate?" he requests.
"Certainly," Tyler says. "You know, there's someone out there named Tyler Joseph. Maybe not now, but there will be. Maybe even both, depending on how long I live." He pauses, tapping his chin. "And if there really are infinite universes, there are an infinite number of Tyler Josephs, saying the exact same thing that I'm saying, thinking the exact same thing that I'm saying. Yes, there are an infinite number of worlds where Tyler Joseph is a plumber who crossdresses in his free time and has never once considered other universes, but that would mean there are also an infinite number of worlds that are an exact replica of this one. And if that's true, there's no reason for anyone to feel special." Tyler hums thoughtfully. "You could always argue, of course, that there may be no such thing as parallel universes, but even so, there's still going to be someone with your name in your past, present, or future. And I read that everyone has a doppelgänger on this earth, although the two doppelgängers may not live at the same time." Tyler sighs. "What's the point in being unique?"
Dr. Paulson stares at him. "...and that's why you don't like your name?"
Tyler laughs a little. "A rather wordy version of why, yes."
"It's definitely interesting," Dr. Paulson tells him. "I'm definitely going to think long and hard about it later."
"Good," Tyler tells him honestly. "I think everyone should think about it at least once in a while. Food for thought, you know."
"Mom?" Tyler asks, walking into the kitchen.
"Tyler?" his mom responds, turning to him with an expression of mild surprise.
"I have something to tell you," he says, cautiously taking her hand and leading her to sit at the kitchen table.
"What is it?" she asks.
"I..." am in love with the boy you think is imaginary what do I do, "...uh." Tyler scratches the back of his neck. "Um."
"Yes?" his mom says.
"What's for dinner?" comes tumbling out.
His mother blinks in surprise. "Spaghetti and meatballs," she says. "Why? Do you want to eat with us?"
And for some unknown reason, Tyler nods.
"So, let me get this straight:" Josh begins, "you tried to eat the spaghetti with a spoon, called your brother a periwinkle dust mop when he tried to give you a fork, listened to your sister talk about her basketball tournament, fell off your chair when your other brother kicked you under the table, watched your dad drink a nonalcoholic beer, listened to your mom talk about your sister's basketball tournament, and burst into tears when the brother who kicked you asked why you don't go to school."
"That just about sums it up," Tyler says, nodding.
Josh raises an eyebrow at him. "And why did you even go to dinner?"
Tyler blushes. "It was sort of an accident."
Josh raises the other eyebrow. "How do you accidentally wind up eating dinner with your family?"
"I- ah..." Tyler runs a hand through his hair. "Well, I was going to ask my mom something, but, uh, I ended up asking her what was for dinner."
Josh's raised eyebrows lift even higher. "What were you going to ask her?"
Tyler feels his face flush even darker. "Nothing," he says a little too quickly.
Josh's eyebrows rise so high that they almost disappear into his mop of bright blue hair. Before Tyler can stop himself, he's reaching out and pushing Josh's eyebrows down himself.
They stare at each other for a moment before they both burst out laughing.
They end up with their foreheads pressed together and fingers intertwined, and they're both still giggling as Tyler looks down at Josh's soft, C major lips. It would be so easy just to...
Tyler snaps out of it, looking back up into Josh's mocha eyes. Their foreheads are still pressed together.
"Can I, um..." Before Tyler can think about it, he's shifting himself oh-so-slightly for their lips to touch. It's brief, but Tyler can still feel those perfect, C major lips unresponsive on his when he pulls back.
"Oh," Josh says, looking startled.
"Oh," Tyler echoes, standing up. "Oh, oh man, I'm so sorry, I- I'll..." He practically slides down the ladder.
"No, wait, Tyler-" Josh calls, but Tyler doesn't look back.
"You seem gloomy today,” Tyler’s mom comments as Tyler pours milk into a bowl of cereal.
Tyler shrugs. “I’m all right.”
She frowns. “You haven’t gone outside at all today.”
Tyler shrugs again. “Not in the mood.”
“Do you mind if I join you?” his mom asks, gesturing to the seat across from Tyler. He shakes his head. “Thank you.”
They sit in silence for a moment.
“I didn’t know you like that kind of cereal,” Tyler’s mom comments.
“Hmm?” Tyler says, looking up. “Oh, yeah, it’s Josh’s...” he cuts himself off when he looks down at the floating brown and tan corn puffs, “...favorite.”
Before he knows it, Tyler’s suddenly bawling into his bowl of Reese’s Puffs.
“Tyler,” his mom says, sounding alarmed. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Sorry, sorry,” Tyler says through a small sob. "I- I don't know, I-" Another sob cuts him off.
"Shh," his mom says, suddenly kneeling next to his chair, hand on his shoulder. "Hey, it's okay."
Tyler wraps his arms around her, burying his head in her shoulder. He's suddenly bombarded by memories of when he used to cling to her after his unending nightmares when he was little. He stopped asking for his mom when Josh came into the picture, though. He'd cling to Josh instead.
Tyler chuckles through a sob, wondering if he'll have to go back to hugging his mother after nightmares.
"It's okay," Tyler's mom says softly, patting his back. "Sweetheart, it's all okay."
"Mom?" he whispers into her neck.
"Yes, Tyler?" she replies.
"I'm in love with Josh," he says, voice cracking on "love."
"Oh." Tyler's mom holds him even tighter. "Oh, Tyler."
"And I know-" Tyler pauses to take a deep breath, "I know that you think he's not real, and everyone's so vehement about it that sometimes I think he might not be too. And where would that leave me?" He's starting to shake now. "Stuck in love with a ghost, that's what."
"Oh, baby," his mom says softly. "I'm so sorry."
The position they're in isn't very comfortable, and Tyler's mom slowly helps them both stand before guiding their way to the sofa. Tyler immediately curls up, burying his head back into his mother's shoulder.
"I messed up," Tyler says, shuddering. "I kissed him and he didn't kiss back and I want to die, Momma, he means so much and I messed it all up."
"Oh, honey," Tyler's mom says softly, running her hand through his hair.
"I messed up," Tyler says again. "I messed up bad."
"Tyler," his mom says carefully, "have you considered that this might be a good thing?"
"What?" Tyler says, confused.
"It's not healthy to rely on- on someone like you do," his mom says gently. "Maybe take a break from Josh?"
"A break?" Tyler says, so appalled that he's stopped crying.
"A break, Tyler," she echoes. "Just for a little while. Take up a new hobby or something."
"Josh isn't a hobby, Mom," Tyler says, indignant by her implications. "He's a person. A person that I need to make amends with," he says, springing up.
But Tyler's already dashing out the back door and running into the forest to find Josh.
Tyler can hear Josh humming mindlessly when he approaches the treehouse. He cautiously climbs up the ladder, poking his head in.
Josh is sitting there, flicking the lighter on and off as if in a trance.
"Hey," Tyler says, and Josh nearly drops the lighter in surprise.
"Hi," he says, pocketing the lighter. "Come in."
Tyler hesitantly clambers in. "So, I wanted to apol-"
He's cut off when Josh surges forward and presses C major lips to his.
The kiss last longer than the last one, and this time both of them are contributing. Josh's mouth is warm and sweet, and Tyler can feel his own heart thumping madly.
Josh's soft, blue-sky hands reach up. One cradles the back of his neck, and the other cups his jaw. Tyler's hands hesitantly reach up as well, grasping Josh's shoulders.
They finally pull back, and Tyler slowly opens his eyes to see Josh's still closed, looking utterly contented.
They just sit there for a moment, catching their breaths.
"Why'd you run?" Josh asks, breaking the silence.
"Why didn't you kiss back?" Tyler answers.
There's another moment of silence.
"I like you," Josh says suddenly. His voice sounds a little different. Like rain falling up. "I like you a lot."
"I like you a lot too," Tyler says, and Josh beams at him, tiger-growl teeth peaking through C major lips.
"Good," he whispers, odic, and kisses him again.
"Oh," Tyler gasps into Josh's mouth, "Josh."
"Good?" Josh mumbles as he twists his fingers. Tyler yelps.
"Like- like-" Tyler throws his head back, hitting the wooden floor of the treehouse. "I can taste- ahh..."
Josh swallows his groan, pressing perfect C major lips to his. Tyler whimpers again, bucking his hips up.
"Josh," he gasps.
"Tyler," Josh says, warm and low in his throat, honey and birdsong and dark, sweet orange.
Tyler's a mess of gasps and moans as Josh gently moves his fingers inside him. He can taste something, like metal but not quite, and he's so so desperate for something, but he doesn't know what.
"Please," Tyler whispers, not even sure of what he's pleading for. Josh's fingers press up, and the not-metal taste becomes so overwhelming that a sob is startled out of him.
"Hey," Josh says, pausing. He cups Tyler's cheek with soft, blue-sky hands. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Tyler says shakily. "Yeah, I'm okay."
Josh presses a gentle kiss to his forehead. "Tell me if it becomes too much, okay?"
"Okay," Tyler murmurs. He presses himself against Josh's fingers, and Josh smiles, all C major-sweet. "Come on," Tyler says, throat suddenly dry, "you can- ah."
Josh goes back to slowly moving his fingers. Tyler isn't exactly sure of what he's doing, but it's good.
He can feel something else in his veins, hot and desperate and red-black velvet. He groans, squeezing on Josh's fingers.
"So good," Tyler grunts. "So, so... like- ah, not metal but almost, and velvet, and- ahh..."
"Shh," Josh says softly. "I know."
Josh slowly pulls his fingers out. Tyler frowns at the loss.
"What?" he starts to ask, but Josh is suddenly shifting Tyler's hips and pressing something warm and hard against him. "Oh."
"Okay?" Josh murmurs, looking down at him with wide, mocha eyes.
"Yes," Tyler says, absolutely certain. "Yes."
Josh gently pushes in, lower C major lip tucked under tiger-growl top teeth.
Tyler's eyes roll back as he's slowly filled up. It burns, but it's like creamer for coffee, like red robin feathers, and it's okay.
"Okay?" Josh whispers.
"Yeah," Tyler confirms, closing his eyes. The not-metal in his mouth is building up again, and he gasps as Josh shifts his hips oh-so slightly. "Oh! Oh, ahh..."
Josh kisses him again, and Tyler kisses back as hard as he can.
"So, so, ahh," Josh moans into Tyler's mouth. "You're so, oh, oh..." Tyler kisses him, swallowing his groans.
Josh is starting to move his hips in slow, steady motions, and Tyler finds himself moving his own hips to meet his motions. Josh is hitting something inside Tyler every single time, and Tyler can't help but whimper in a low, constant sound.
"Tell me," Josh grunts, "tell me if it's too much."
"It is," Tyler murmurs back. "Keep going."
Josh laughs softly, startled, but obliges.
Tyler runs his hands through Josh's soft, blue hair, tugging gently. Josh groans, fingers digging into Tyler's shoulders, and Tyler wraps his legs around Josh's waist. His hips shift up slightly, and whimpers when Josh starts to hit that place inside him even harder.
"Come on," Josh grunts into Tyler's ear. "Can I...?"
Tyler doesn't even know what Josh is asking for, but he presses his hips even closer to Josh's, squeezing, and with a yelp, Josh's movements stutter and still.
"...are you all right?" Tyler asks.
Josh is panting hard as he reaches down and wraps his hand around Tyler's- whoa.
"I'm great," he says as he starts to move his hand.
"Ack," is Tyler's reply.
He reaches up, wrapping his arms around Josh's back, clinging desperately. The not-metal taste is more intense than ever, and he sinks his teeth into Josh's collarbone with a groan.
"Oh gosh," he gasps out. "Oh gosh."
Tyler feels the velvet in his veins, tastes the not-metal in his mouth, and he can start to hear a low humming, a perfect G sharp.
He groans, high in his throat, and Josh mouths along his jawbone down to his neck.
"Come on," Josh murmurs. "Almost there."
Tyler doesn't what Josh is even talking about, where he's close to being, but he's too jumbled up and overwhelmed to ask.
Josh twists his hand, rubbing his thumb over the top, and the not-metal in Tyler's mouth suddenly becomes so much, too much, and he sobs hard into Josh's skin.
"It's okay," Josh whispers. "Just let go. Let go."
Tyler lets go.
He's falling, sinking, and he can feel himself shaking. The not-metal in his mouth finally comes spilling out as a moan higher than he ever thought he could make. He splays his arms out, one hitting the wooden wall, and he feels all of his muscles clench and unclench.
The G sharp grows louder and louder until he finally screams, groaning and whimpering. Josh is murmuring soft, cloud-sweet words as Tyler finally quiets down.
"Oh," Tyler says once he can finally speak.
"Hi," Josh says against Tyler's neck.
"Hi," Tyler echoes, ears buzzing. "That was- that was..." For the first time ever, there's something that Tyler can't describe.
"Yeah," Josh says, kissing him chastely. "I know."
"I know," Tyler says, and immediately wishes he could shove those words back in his mouth because Josh's mocha eyes go dark.
"What," Josh says softly, C major lips pulling back to bare tiger-growl teeth, "did you say?"
"I'm sorry, Josh," Tyler says immediately.
Josh exhales in a way that Tyler can only describe as red-green-orange, like a stream over a bed of jagged crystal. Perfectly dangerous.
"I'm sorry," Tyler repeats.
"You don't-" Josh takes a deep breath, "you can't understand, okay?"
"You have no idea what it's like," Josh growls, "to be terrified of going home. No idea what it's like to be frightened of your own parents." He stands up, pacing the best he can in the cramped space of the treehouse. "You have no idea what it's like to have to hide whenever your dad gets too drunk and destroys whatever he comes across, and your mother is too high to care. You have no idea what it's like to use your body to protect your sisters, your little brother. You don't know the fear that runs through you when your father pulls out his belt because he's feeling pissed off and needs something to take it all out on. You have no idea what it's like to be whipped as hard as a grown man drunk on cheap liquor and anger can manage. And let me tell you something, Tyler." He stops pacing and turns to look Tyler in the eye. "It. Hurts."
Tyler swallows hard. "I- I'm sorry-"
"Sorry, sorry," Josh sneers. "Everybody's fucking sorry."
He resumes pacing. "Everything is blue-black," he repeats. He pauses, frowning. "For me," he adds.
"What's wrong, Tyler?" Tyler's mom asks.
"Huh?" Tyler says, looking up.
"You've just been sitting there all day," she says, sitting down next to him on the sofa. "Is there something wrong?"
"Well," Tyler says. He tries to stop himself, but the words suddenly come pouring out. "Josh and I had sex, okay? And ever since then he's been extra moody and I don’t know what to do. And yesterday we had a fight because I agreed with him when he said that everything is blue-black and he got mad because I don't know what it's like. And he's right, I don't know what it's like for everything to be blue-black. But he kept on yelling and yelling and Mom, he's hurt so bad at home and I want to help him but I can't and that hurts."
"You- you had sex with Josh?"
Tyler looks up to see his mother's face completely white.
"Yes," he says slowly. "That's what I said, right?"
"Tyler," his mom says urgently, squeezing his hand so hard it's to the point of painful, "did it hurt?"
Tyler feels his face contort into a vaguely shocked and disgusted expression. "What?"
"When you had sex with Josh, did it hurt?" his mom says. "Did he hurt you?"
Tyler frowns. "Well, a little. But I didn't really notice then." He considers this thoughtfully. "It hurt to sit down the next day," he says truthfully.
His mom looks absolutely horrified. "Oh, Tyler," she whispers, wrapping him into a hug. "I'm so sorry."
"What?" Tyler says, confused. Why is she sorry? Wasn't the sex a good thing? It felt good.
"It's okay," Tyler's mom says, rocking him gently. "It's okay. You're safe here."
Tyler sits there, utterly bewildered. Was he not supposed to have enjoyed it?
His mom runs a hand through his hair. "You're all right. No one's going to hurt you. Not anymore."
Tyler's mom hasn't let him out of her sight since he told her he had sex with Josh.
He hopes Josh will understand why he hasn't been out to make amends yet.
His mom has only left his side to call a few people and to talk to his dad.
"I'm just going to go say hi to your siblings, okay?" his mom says, when they hear the garage door open. "I'll be right back."
Tyler nods slowly.
He can hear his mom greeting his brother and sister when there's a tap on the living room window. He looks out to see Josh standing there, waving cautiously.
Tyler runs to the window, opening it.
"Hi," he says cautiously.
"Come on," Josh says, gesturing out to the woods behind them.
Tyler bites his lip. "My mom'll freak out if she comes back and I'm not here," he says.
Josh sighs. "Please?" he says. "I'm sorry, Tyler. I didn't mean to yell. Please. I'm sorry."
Tyler sighs, looking out. "Fine," he murmurs, climbing out of the window.
"Hi," Josh says softly, cautiously taking his hand. "Can we talk?"
"Okay," Tyler says, and they walk, hand-in-hand, into the forest.
"I'm sorry that I blew up at you like that," Josh apologizes once they're safely hidden in the trees.
"I'm sorry I said I understood," Tyler says. "I don't understand. I don't know what I was thinking."
Josh smiles, C major lips a little sad. "Everybody's fucking sorry," he whispers, and Tyler leans in and kisses him.
Josh's eyes are closed when he pulls back, and he looks peaceful.
"Sing," he says, eyes still closed.
"What?" Tyler asks, taken aback.
"Sing," Josh repeats.
"What do you want me to sing?" Tyler says, bewildered.
Josh shrugs. "Something everyone would know."
"Um." Tyler pauses. For some reason, all he can think of is "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
Josh finally opens his eyes when Tyler finishes. "Thank you," he says.
"Sure," Tyler says.
They walk deeper into the forest, hands still clasped together.
"Have you ever noticed," Josh begins, squinting up at the darkening sky, "that when you squeeze your eyes together, everything changes?"
"Yeah," Tyler says. "Not dramatically, though. Just enough to be unnerving."
"Yeah." Josh snaps his fingers. "Like that- that guy. With the covered faces. Red-August-L name."
"Um," Tyler says, thinking. "Uh, René Magritte?"
"Yel- yes, him," Josh says. "Everything's not quite what it should be."
Tyler nods slowly, squinting around the forest. Everything has a slightly eerie gloom to it, slightly off. He shivers, looking back at Josh, who- who isn't who he's supposed to look like.
"You're not quite what you should be," Tyler says without thinking.
Josh stiffens, and Tyler thinks he's going to yell again, but Josh just squeezes Tyler's hand.
"That's okay," he whispers, "as long as you remember me."
Tyler squeezes back.
They walk in thick silence, all green-orange. Tyler can sort of taste it.
"What if this isn't real?" Tyler says suddenly.
Josh frowns. "In what way?"
"In the way it's all in my mind," Tyler clarifies. Josh cocks his head.
"Well, of course it's all in your mind," he says, and Tyler blinks.
"This is all in your mind," Josh says, gesturing. "But that doesn't mean it's not real."
Tyler sighs. "Yes, but what if all this-" he gestures around, "is only in my mind?"
Josh shrugs. "Then it would still be real, wouldn't it? If you can see it, if you can feel it, why wouldn't it be real?"
"I- I don't know," Tyler says, frowning. "Maybe because it isn't real for anyone else."
"So, maybe you're not real."
Josh freezes, looking at Tyler. "What?"
"Maybe you're not real," Tyler repeats.
Josh is shaking his head. "No, don't say that."
"Everyone tells me you aren't," Tyler says. "My therapists, my psychologist, my parents-"
"Don't listen to them," Josh says firmly, staring into Tyler's eyes. "Don't listen. You can see me, right? Hear me?" He squeezes Tyler's hand. "Feel me?"
"Hallucination?" Tyler offers.
"One that kisses you?" Josh retorts.
Tyler shakes Josh's hand off in favor of burying his head in his hands.
"Tyler, I'm real," Josh snaps. "Do you hear me?"
"Let me think!" Tyler yells back.
"I told you to remember me!" Josh growls. "Did you think that up yourself? Am I really just your imagination?"
"Shut up!" Tyler screams, hands over his ears. "Shut up shut up shut up!"
"Listen to me!"
"You're not real!"
"Yes I am!"
"You're not real!"
"I am! Tyler, listen-"
"Not real, not real, not real-"
And then Josh backhands him across the face.
They both freeze.
"Did- did you just-"
"Tyler," Josh gasps out. "Tyler, I'm so sorry, I didn't-"
"Get away from me."
"Oh, Tyler, I'm so-"
"Leave me alone!" Tyler screams. "Get away from me!"
"Tyler, please, I'm sorry!"
"Stay away!" he shrieks, running towards his home.
Tyler screams, tears running down his cheeks. He runs into the light of his house, bangs on the door, and his brother opens it.
"Tyler! Mom's been so-"
Tyler runs past him, sobbing as he dashes into his room. He collapses on his bed, not even bothering to lock the door.
He burrows under the blankets, curls up, and falls asleep.
Tyler wakes up to his mother lying on his bed next to him, rubbing his back.
"Hey," she says softly as he sits up, rubbing his eyes.
"Hi," he says, feeling hollow.
"Want to talk about it?" his mom asks gently.
Tyler starts to shake his head, but says, "Josh hit me."
His mom's eyes widen. "He what?"
"It was my fault," Tyler says, running his fingers through his hair. "I kept screaming that he's not real, he's not real, and he was crying but I didn't stop and finally he just hit me."
His mom stares at him, looking horrified.
"He hit you," she says slowly.
Tyler rubs his eyes, nodding. He's suddenly wrapped into a fierce hug.
"Mom?" he says uncertainly as he feels her shake as though she's crying.
"Tyler," she says softly. "Oh, Tyler. I'm so sorry."
"Why... why are you...?" Tyler begins but doesn't finish, hesitantly patting his mother's back.
"My baby boy," she whispers, hugging him to the point that it's hard for him to breathe.
Tyler looks up to see his youngest brother peeking into the room.
"Um, I don't mean to bother you, but Dad's on the phone," the brother says, holding out the phone.
Reluctantly, Tyler's mom releases Tyler and grabs the phone. Looking much relieved, his brother leaves immediately.
"Chris?" his mom says, holding the phone to her ear. She listens for a moment. "No, he just woke up." She pauses again. "Yes, I did- no, I'll tell you later." Another pause. "Yeah, he is. See you soon." She hangs up, setting the phone on Tyler's dresser.
Tyler's mom sits back down next to him on the bed.
"Are you hungry?" she asks.
Tyler shakes his head. "What time is it?"
His mom checks her watch. "3:50," she says.
"In the afternoon, or-"
"In the morning," she says.
Tyler frowns. "What's Dad doing out? What's my brother doing up?"
"Your dad went out to go pick up a few things," his mom says. "And all of your siblings haven't been able to sleep."
"That's my fault, I'm sure," Tyler says, sounding perfectly apathetic.
His mom squeezes his hand. "It's my fault, if anything," she admits. "I've been a bit of a mess."
"Oh," Tyler says, unsure of what else to say.
"We're going to see Dr. Paulson later, okay?" she says.
"We all need to talk together," she tells him.
She shrugs. "Everything that's been happening."
Tyler sighs. "The sex," he says, and his mom flinches.
"Yes, Tyler," she says. "That's part of it."
Tyler nods slowly, lying back down. He buries his head in his pillow and pretends Josh never hit him.
"I don't get why we're making such a big deal out of this," Tyler says.
"Why do you think we shouldn't be?" Dr. Paulson says.
Tyler shrugs. "It's just sex," he says. "Plenty of kids do it."
"Most kids do it because they like it," Tyler's mom says gently.
"But I liked it, Mom," Tyler says, frowning. "I like it."
His mom stares. "You- you liked it?"
"Yes," he says. "Why? Should I not have?"
"Well, no, I- I mean..."
"What?" Tyler demands.
"We didn't think you would ever be able to enjoy sex," Dr. Paulson interjects. "Not after what happened with Dr. Craig."
"But Dr. Craig," he pauses, swallowing, "he just- he just hit me. Right?"
"Oh, god," his mom says, burying her head in her hands. "Oh, Tyler."
"Momma?" Tyler says softly, suddenly so so scared.
His mom just shakes her head, burying her face in Tyler's father's shoulder.
"Dad?" Tyler asks softly, and his father swallows hard, intertwining his fingers with his wife's.
"Tyler, Dr. Craig-" he pauses, taking a deep breath, "Dr. Craig..." He shakes his head, looking to Dr. Paulson.
"Tyler," Dr. Paulson says, his normally calm expression looking troubled, "Dr. Craig would hit you, yes. But, ah..." He runs a hand through his thinning hair. "He would, well, hurt you. Sexually."
Tyler sits back.
"He'd- he'd rape me," he says dully.
"Molest you, yes," Dr. Paulson says softly, eyes full of rooster-crow sadness.
"And I didn't remember?" Tyler asks.
"That was a severe amount of trauma for a child that young, Tyler," Dr. Paulson says. "It's not surprising that you repressed those memories."
"But no one ever told me?" Tyler questions.
"We saw no need to upset you," Dr. Paulson explains. "It would've only hurt you."
"We're so sorry, Tyler," his mom interject tearfully. "So sorry."
"Sorry, sorry," Tyler mumbles to himself. "Everybody's fucking sorry."
"And this is where Josh comes in," Dr. Paulson says. "You started talking about him not too long after Dr. Craig became your therapist."
"So?" Tyler asks.
"Tyler," Dr. Paulson says softly, "Josh is a coping mechanism. He's not real."
"No," Tyler tries to say, but things are starting to click into place. "Oh. Oh, no."
"I'm sorry," Dr. Paulson says, looking genuinely apologetic.
"But... but we..." Kissed. Touched. Made love. It was real.
Tyler buries his head in his hands. No one else has ever seen Josh. No one else can prove he exists.
Hell, Tyler doesn't even know Josh's last name.
"Tyler," his mom says, "do you want anything? Do you need anything?"
Tyler's shaking his head slowly, digging ragged nails into his knees.
"No, no," he says, squeezing his eyes shut. "No."
"Tyler," somebody says. He doesn't know who, because everything is starting to blur in his ears.
"The food is poisoned," he whispers before everything goes dark.
Tyler wakes up in his bedroom, his mom asleep on the chair next to his bed and holding his hand in an nearly painful grasp.
He looks out the window, at the sinking sun, and squints his eyes.
"Remember me," he whispers.
His mom stirs next to him, her eyes fluttering open.
"Hey, baby," she murmurs.
"Hi," he says, still looking out the window.
"How do you feel?" his mom asks.
"Tired," he says. "Could I, ah, maybe get some water?"
"Of course," she says. "I'll be right back. Don't move, okay?"
"Okay," he says, still looking out at the sun.
"Hey. Look at me."
Tyler reluctantly looks away, looks at his mom.
"Don't go anywhere," she orders.
"Okay," he repeats, and she gives him a hug before leaving.
As soon as she closes the door, Tyler's throwing open his window and clambering out the way Josh used to all the time. He races out into the woods, skin suddenly too tight for his body.
Dirty. Dirty dirty dirty. The kind of dirty that Tyler can feel in his soul, the one place where he can't scrub viciously with soap.
His feet are wet with blue-black water, and he looks up to see everything turning blue-black now. He wants to shout for Josh, to tell him that he gets it now, he understands, but Josh is gone and he's never coming back and Tyler thinks his lungs are going to burst.
"I'm sorry!" he screams. "I get it now! I promise!"
But everything's becoming bluer and everything's becoming blacker and Tyler can feel the cold in his bones. It's seeping in through his eyes, and he closes them as tightly as he can but it still leaks through. He's shivering, he's shaking, and he's so, so dirty.
Tyler slowly becomes aware that he's pleading for Josh to come back, come back to him, but Josh is never coming back because he isn't real, and Tyler is a crazy fucking idiot left with only his crazy fucking mind and he's so so so dirty, he's filthy, and he's never going to be loved.
"Please!" he shrieks, harsh and guttural, like the word's being torn away from his throat. "Oh, please!"
The word echoes around the forest, bouncing from tree to tree, and Tyler can feel the word sink through him, coating his bones, making them vibrate "pleasepleaseplease."
"Where are you?!" he screams. "I need you! I fucking need you, oh please!"
His hands are on his head, pulling his hair, clawing his skin. His nails are tearing though the soft skin of his cheeks, ripping, and he thinks that the pain is the most real thing he's ever felt. He claws desperately at his face, his neck, his arms. It hurts, it fucking hurts, and he's sobbing but he's laughing because isn't this just the best thing ever?
"I'm real!" Tyler screams. He points towards the sky accusingly. "I'm fucking real! Why aren't you?!" He collapses onto the cold, cold ground. "Why aren't you real?!" he shrieks. "Why- aren't- you- real?!" he demands, slamming his head against the ground with every word.
Tyler goes quiet suddenly when he realizes that he's sprawled out in front of the treehouse. Their treehouse. He closes his eyes and lets the memories play before them. Kissing, touching, whispering lullabies that were never real.
It was never real.
With a strangled cry of agony, Tyler pushes himself up off the ground. He clambers up the tree into the treehouse.
It's dark, quiet. The air is heavy, and Tyler doesn't speak. He sits and watches tears drip onto the T-E-R-R-I-F-I-E-D that's carved into the wooden floor.
Josh's lighter is lying by Tyler's shoe, and he slowly picks it up, flicks it on. The flame glows in the darkness, and Tyler watches himself press the flame to the wall.
He holds it there, watching the wood grow darker as it chars. For a while nothing else happens, but Tyler suddenly sees the wood catch fire. He flicks the lighter off and watches, transfixed, as the flame grows larger and larger, climbing up to the ceiling.
Tyler lies on his back and watches as fire slowly engulfs the roof. The treehouse is starting to fill with smoke.
Something inside him is pulling, insisting that he has to get out, get out before he suffocates or burns. He ignores it. He doesn't care anymore.
Tyler falls asleep as everything around him burns.
He doesn't care.
"How do you feel?"
The funeral is a small, quiet ceremony.
The mother is crying softly, the father is purposefully silent, and the siblings are warily grieving the brother they never really knew.
The doctor is there too, rubbing the tan line on his left ring finger and breathing in, breathing out.
The priest conducting the ceremony asks if anyone would like to say a few words.
A boy with bright blue hair and mocha eyes (and C major lips and blue-sky hands and tiger-growl teeth) stands up.