He’d always known that he was different. With a name like Marmaduke Francis Mason, who wouldn’t be? Not to mention the nickname ‘Moose’ that had been bestowed on him thanks to an ill-advised prank on a scouting trip involving a container of blueberries, pepper, and twine.
Growing up in a small town with a military father and a community involved mother meant that everyone knew him. When he was younger, that meant that there were that many more people to greet him on the way to school, that many more birthday wishes and Christmas treats. It was just one more sign that he was loved and part of something bigger than himself. He’d never felt lonely or unseen, not with so many of his mother’s friends cooing over him while their husbands tried to recruit Moose to join their junior league sports teams.
It wasn’t until he grew older, when he began to listen more and think more about what they said, and often what they didn’t say, that their attention began to feel more and more like a trap. Because in a small town he could never escape all the eyes that noticed him - isn’t it just precious you and Midge are such sweethearts? - and all the faux parental concern - haven’t you heard about that Keller boy? Because if he wasn’t the all American boy, the one they all thought he was, who even was he?
Everyone expected him to act just as they did, to uphold the values of family, tradition, and country even though he dreamed of liberal arts colleges on the West Coast and backpacking in the Alps. He was expected to talk the same way, about sports and women and woodwork, when all he wanted to discuss was just how irritating Pop’s new neon signs were compared to the old ones. To think the same and parrot their opinions back at them at the barbecue cookouts while football played in the background, when all he wanted to do was paint the sunset and listen to Mozart.
To be the same way as them.
It was stifling and infuriating and oh so easy to slip into that mindless mold they wanted from him when all he wanted was something more.
Often when he lay in bed at night, Moose fantasized about what his life might have been like if his father had transferred away from Riverdale. To San Francisco, maybe, or D.C., or Seattle, or Tokyo. To be somewhere that Moose was just another face in the crowd, lost among the shuffle. Where he didn’t have to put all his time into football and lacrosse and shop class and stupid rites of popularity.
If he were braver, more sure of himself like Kevin was, or Reggie, or Midge, he wouldn’t care what people thought about him. The comments his father made at dinner - the problem with this country is no one’s religious anymore - wouldn’t make him fidget. His mother’s unthinking judgements - I can’t believe she wore flannel, what is everyone going to think? - wouldn’t cut him to the quick. And Moose himself wouldn’t find himself regurgitating those comments to the rest of his friends, laughing the loudest to hide his fear of discovery.
When he was younger, he’d tried to talk to his mother about it. He’d just started middle school biology, and the teacher had assured the class full of boys that it was normal to feel flushed and anxious and different about girls than they did about boys. Only, Moose didn’t feel any different towards girls than he did towards boys. He got flushed and nervous and jittery around both Jason and Midge. He wanted to give them both the world and hold their hands and kiss them.
Confused, he went to the one person he thought he could trust. After all, his mother always had said to talk to her about these things. That she’d answer any of his questions without judgment. But when he’d asked why he felt the same about Midge and Jason, why he wanted to kiss them both, his mother went white and asked what he wanted for supper. He might not have had the best grades, but Moose was smart enough to know when a subject was never to be spoken of again.
The guilt and the shame - he was different and he shouldn’t be - about his feelings were enough to make him bury them as far down as he could, covering them up under pranks and jeers aimed at anyone different from the rest of his friends. Moose knew his actions weren’t harmless, no matter what Weatherbee and Coach Clayton might tell him. They left psychological scars that wouldn’t heal. Ones similar to the ones he himself was trying to hide. Because in another world, Moose would be the one at the other end of that bullying.
It was ironic, then, that it hadn’t been his dalliances with Kevin - harmless experimentation, he’d promised himself, just a way to prove that those immoral thoughts had no hold over him - that made the town ashamed and scandalized. Nor had it been his spiraling recklessness after Midge’s tragic murder, the thought of which still gave him nightmares and sent his stomach roiling whenever he heard her name.
Instead it had been Colonel Michael Mason’s past indiscretions and toxic suppression of his true self. Colonel Mason, it turned out, had spent years hiding badly hidden secrets of his own. Secrets that explained why the Mason family had moved around so much before they’d settled in Riverdale. Secrets that turned out to be the same as those his own son was hiding.
That horrifying night in the woods Moose learned a hard lesson in what could happen when you lie to yourself for too long.
Not a week later, and what was left of the tattered family - the father in police custody undergoing psychiatric evaluation; the mother a sobbing, inconsolable mess; the eldest daughter gone without a forwarding address; and four children under ten unable to go outside for fear of violence and ridicule from a tight-knit community - had thrown away everything related to Michael Mason that they could.
Plans were made to live with Ms. Duke’s, nee Mason, family. Because in Riverdale there was nothing left for them. Pulling in the last few favors she could, Ms. Duke enrolled Moose into summer school at Stonewall. The prestigious prep school upstate eschewed all but the most waspish sports, instead focusing on its arts and literature programs. It was a change Moose jumped at. A chance to leave it all behind - the toxic community; the trappings of sports; and, with some effort, his own deeply ingrained, self-harming prejudices.
With a new phone in hand - new number, empty contact list, who would want to call you after that, son? - Moose gave everything he had to his youngest brother, ready to start anew. But, like a parasite, Riverdale hadn’t been ready to let him go. His roommate, he found out, was to be Jughead Jones, the kid he’d grown up with and grown apart from. The entire week before the fall semester started, Moose’s stomach was in knots, paranoia clouding his every thought.
Would Jughead tell the entire school about Moose’s dalliances with Kevin? Would the rumors explode about his father, the mad pervert who branded and killed teenagers in the woods? Would he be resented for all those years of jeering and flippant catcalls in the locker room?
It wasn’t until Jughead’s face lit up and he pulled Moose into a hug that he could relax. It was a kindness Moose didn’t feel he deserved, but he accepted it nonetheless. After all, they’d been friends once upon a time. And it turned out to be easy to share a room with the strange loner. Jughead was prone to fits of quiet introspection, moments that usually lined up with Moose’s own bouts of melancholy. Neither broached the subject of Riverdale; some things were just too hard to remember.
But when Jughead had barged in, ignoring the universal tie-on-the-door cue to go away, causing Thadeus to flee the room, Moose’s greatest fear came back to him. Those small town eyes, the hushed whispers and knowing looks. It was all he could do to keep from bullying Jughead into silence.
Instead he’d done what he always should have done, and decided to be honest with himself.
“I’m bi,” Moose blurted out.
“Ok. But could you lock the door next time?” Jughead said with a shrug before launching into his latest conspiracy theory.
Moose blinked, stunned by his reaction. There was no judgment, no fear. Only acceptance and a strange sort of normalcy about it. As if the world was bigger than the only one Moose had ever known. For once, Moose didn’t feel different. He didn’t feel pressured into a mold someone else made for him.
It was enough to just be himself.