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“Hey,” he said on the phone, voice charged with an electrical urgency. “Hey,” I mimicked, chewing contemplatively at my already-blunt fingernails.
“Hey,” he repeated, and I heard the faint shuffling of papers in the background. Ah. A business call.
“Hay is for horses, Tony,” I joked lamely, wiping the damp tips of my fingers against my slacks. “What’d you call me for?”
As he rounded up the right words to explain his situation, I felt something settle comfortably inside of me. The silence gave me room to jump to the most dire of conclusions, then pull myself back into reality. This would probably just be another one of your average Tony Talks, lots of words strung together like Christmas lights, but with little to no meaning.
“I’m currently inside of the Matthew House.”
My giggle erupted out of me without warning, tickling the phone line shrilly as I deadpanned, “It’s 2:30 AM on a Wednesday. You are most certainly not inside of the Matthew House, at least not on legal terms.”
“Ah--but I didn’t say that I was inside of the Matthew House on legal terms.”
My heart jumped violently into my throat as I leaned to the left, curling the bouncy phone cord around my finger as I did so. On the kitchen table was the stiffened paper pamphlet that Tony and I had picked up from the Matthew House, our most favorite and most local museum, a few months ago. The front was plastered with images of the massive building’s interior, mummies in glass cases and Nazi uniforms hung up in rows like soldiers toeing the line. The two of us had visited the Matthew just last week, investigating a town legend buried beneath the years. Everybody referred to the semi-myth as the Legend of Mr. Runaway, and it was something that Tony and I had gotten perhaps a little too interested in recently. At this point, it was just a pipe dream; one that we had put together through late night internet searches and pre-class, coffee-charged conversations.
It went like this:
The Legend of Mr. Runaway was a story that had been passed down through the families of Matthew, Michigan for years upon years. As the stories told, a Jewish man living in western Poland was taken from his home and thrown into a concentration camp far from family and friends. He was first placed in Auschwitz when he was only 17 years old: young, spry, and strong. He worked hard and did everything the soldiers commanded of him, and quickly rose through the ranks of the other prisoners. The soldiers began to favor him, and although he was still treated inhumanely, he was treated better than the others. However, the clever boy had hidden motives. The legend says that he fell in love with one of the soldiers’ daughters, who had visited the camp one day and caught his eye. Apparently, his feelings for her were requited, and she suggested that he befriend the soldiers so that she could work on breaking him out for a few hours and they could freely express their love. Now, instead of just pulling the wool over these soldiers’ eyes one time, the man and the woman were said to have done this over one thousand times without being caught. And not only did Mr. Runaway exchange vows with his German girlfriend in secret, he was also said to have brought food and blankets to his fellow prisoners courtesy of the outside world. Unfortunately, the girl’s father did eventually catch the two together and order Mr. Runaway to be executed in front of all the other prisoners to make an example. This was indeed carried out, but not before Mr. Runaway shouted out some last words that ignited the whole camp with newfound hope: “Live on not for the sake of freedom, but for the promise of love in all of its forms.” Beautiful, right? Years and years after, the Matthew House apparently attained rights to all of Mr. Runaway’s secret journals and love letters to his girlfriend throughout their affair. But for some reason, the Matthew refused to put these documents on display; because of this, lots of people in the town tend to doubt the legitimacy of the stories. Tony and I?
We’ve never doubted it for a second.
“You broke into the Matthew House?” My whisper was shakier than I would have liked it to be, trembling with stormy, turbulent disbelief.
“Yes. Sort of?” Tony’s voice picked up at the end, hysterical. I grabbed my car keys off of the kitchen table hastily, knocking the bowl of oranges next to it right onto the linoleum. They thundered across the floor like an approaching stampede. “Well, yes. Yeah. I hid behind the Sphinx exhibit until all the lights went out and the night watchmen went home. It was wild. I mean, my heart was beating at like a thousand miles per second, and-”
“But why, though?” I couldn’t hide the anger in my tone, the indignance and the hurt. Ever since we’d become interested in Mr. Runaway, we’d been spitballing the idea of breaking into the Matthew House. Of course, our conversations always ended in laughter, like, ‘aw man, we’d never do that!’ But we’d always harbored these gentle undertones of…‘maybe.’ ‘Why would you break in without me?’ was the real question I wanted to ask. Instead, I disguised it under a guise of quasi interest. “What were you expecting to find in there at night that we hadn’t already scoured in the daytime?”
“Nothing! I went in with 0 expectations, but Luke...Oh my God.” His voice faded gently away, as if he’d set down the cell phone. It was hard to respond, because I was fearing the worst. Tony was all alone in that huge museum, hiding in the shadows behind a bunch of dusty mummies and portraits of French revolutionaries. What if he was caught? What if he went to prison? He was, although unbeknownst to him, my almost-boyfriend! God, he was being so selfish. There was no way I was going to date someone who went to prison for being a law-breaking History geek. No way in Hell.
“Tony, what?” I finally blurted, ear pressed as close to the phone’s earpiece as possible. “What’s going on?”
His tone shook but it was laced with brevity, a sort of conciseness I’d never heard from the shy boy who worked in the campus library. “I found it. Mr. Runaway’s suitcase. I mean, it’s more of a duffel bag, and it’s kind of not what I was really expecting? Like--”
“Okay, Tony!” I was practically shouting, holding back the irresistible urge to jump into my car and climb into that museum through a 3rd floor window. “Let’s play the questions game. I ask you a question, you answer me. In one short, sweet, simple sentence. Got it?” The line dropped silent for a few seconds, and I realized he had been nodding without realizing that I couldn’t see.
“Oh! Yeah. Go ahead.”
I let out a breath that had been held in for so long that my ribs seemed to cry out in relief. “Where did you find it?”
“The basement. Of the museum. The museum basement.”
I touched my hand to my face gently, smoothing out wrinkles with my fingers.
“And...what do they say?” My throat felt grotesquely dry. “The letters, I mean. Is it true? Are the-the stories. Are they…?”
“Yes.” Tony’s answer was breathy, full of held-back emotion. “Yes, they are. But...different. It’s different than the legends say.”
“Way, way different.”
I nearly folded, nearly asked him to just explain it all to me on the phone. But then I thought of his pale, cold fingers gripping those papers so tightly. And I thought of those papers, yellowed by time and ripping at the corners. And I thought of time, and how there was no time like the present, and how I would never get another chance to sit on a glossy museum floor with my almost-boyfriend and watch his mouth sound out the words that would uncover a story buried in...time. Time. That’s what it was all about.
“I’m on my way.” I slammed the phone into its receiver before I even heard an answer, skidding out the door like a boy on his way to meet fate.
My feet plunged into the pathetic half inch of slush caking the museum parking lot. A choked, disgusted noise burst out of my throat as I grabbed my backpack up from the passenger’s seat and slammed the door shut. Every time I moved, my boots made a horrible squelching sound that send a chill up my spine. Plus, the wind was chapping my lips and my cheeks. I pressed my mitten-cladden hands to my face in a weak effort to warm myself up. As I locked up my car, I heard a familiar voice come bounding towards me from across the lot.
In the words of Tennessee Williams, Tony’s scream was heaven-splitting. I practically jumped out of my skin, whipping around so quickly I had to lay a hand on the hood of my car to steady myself.
“Tony, shut up,” I hissed back, but he didn’t hear. He was too busy bouncing around and grinning, getting way too close to letting the huge metallic doors slam shut and leaving us stranded out in the cold. Hastily, I began stomping towards him, every puff of visible breath laced with paranoia. There had to be security cameras in the parking lot as well as inside of the museum; there was no way we weren’t going to get in trouble for this. I could back out now if I really wanted to. I could just drive home, and leave Tony to weasel himself out of this.
Once I found myself standing about a foot away from him, I knew there was no way I was going to be able to back out of this one. Tony’s grin was luminescent, an out-of-place sun on a cold, winter night. His tongue poked through the gap in his front teeth, wiggling like it had a mind of its own. His fingers were moving, too, curling into fists and then opening like perpetually blooming flowers. He was an unstoppable force of momentum, hurtling toward me, straining to bust through my atmosphere. His happiness was contagious. When I attempted to snarl, “Are you trying to get us caught?” the worlds bubbled out in spurts of colorful giggles.
Tony waved me in with calloused, shaky fingers, glancing left and right around the corners like a secret agent. “Come in, Naked Mole-rat. I repeat, commence entrance, Naked Mole-rat.” I slipped past his apprehensive whispers, shaking my head and biting back a smile.
“Why is my codename Naked Mole-rat, you asshole?” I wondered, teeth gritted but still chattering from the below freezing temperatures. The inside of the museum didn’t seem to be heated at night, so Tony’s explanation was punctuated with puffs of word smoke.
“You’re all pink and your face is always all scrunched up and wrinkly, like a naked mole-rat's.” He saw the indignance in my brown eyes and laughed shrilly, rushing out a lighthearted, “No! Seriously, it’s cute. Don’t get all offended.” He ducked toward me, pinching my cheek between his index finger and thumb.
“Quit,” I complained, swatting his hand away in vague annoyance. Tony shrugged me off and began making circles around me on the hard marble floor. When I looked at him expectantly, he turned on the green plastic flashlight rolling around in his palm, shedding a thin ray of light onto the floor before us. The tiny beam was almost comical in its weakness, giving us a muted view of the massive lobby. “Alright,” Tony sighed, cracking his knuckles against his protruding hipbone. “Let me show you what I’ve got set up here.”
We walked across the floor at drastically varying states of intensity. Tony was completely relaxed for once, shoes slapping the floor and leaving trails of rhythmic echoes that seemed to smack me in the face. My footsteps, on the other hand, were more tiptoes than anything. I felt like a mouse, trying to make as little noise as possible. I tried to put up with Tony’s obnoxious pounding of the linoleum but once his sneaker screeched for the 5th time, I froze.
He turned around slowly, flashlight hovering just an inch beneath his softly rounded chin. It cast ghostly shadows onto his already-pale skin, igniting triangles of light that shimmered against his hair. He had his arms crossed, and strands of his blue hair hung down over his forehead. I wondered, for probably the hundredth time, how he managed to bleach and dye the life out of his hair so many times and maintain its child-like softness. When I realized the private smile that had crept onto my face, I shook myself and put on a grimace.
“You’re stomping around like this is your house or something, dumbass,” I complained, staring angrily into his eyes.
“What am I gonna disturb?” he snorted, flashing the beam of light around, letting it ghost over the faces of statues and the ghoulish profiles of old, white men I didn’t know the names of. "I hate to break it to you, Luke,” Tony sighed, “but Night At The Museum is not how real life works. Seriously.” He took a step forward, put a tentative palm on my shoulder. “No one is here, and if some crazy homeless man or evil night watchmen busts in on us, I promise to protect you. Okay?”
My tongue clicked gently in my mouth as I contemplated, but I knew it was a lost cause already. The nerves in my stomach were quickly diffusing and the longer I looked at Tony’s baby face, the less prominent my desire to run away became. It wasn’t even that I wanted to stick it out with him anymore: it was that I had to.
I gave him a whimsical smile and mumbled, “If anyone’s gonna knock out a night watchman, it’s gonna be me, alright?” Tony practically jumped 30 feet into the air, his excitement sending a surge of adrenaline through my veins. We started walking again, making way more headway without my hesitation and apprehensiveness. Finally, we reached a cool-looking, metallic elevator.
Tony leaned forward to press the button, and in the lingering glow I noticed that the fingernails on his right hand were painted orange. I glanced from his eyes to his hands until eventually, he caught on to my observations. “Oh!” He laughed, waving his slim fingers through the air as if he was trying to dry the polish. “I got really bored waiting for you, so I went through the cubicles upstairs and found a bunch of nail polish on this one desk, so, y’know. Here we are.” I snagged his hand out of the air, holding his nails close to my eyes and scrutinizing them.
“Your cuticles are remarkable,” I commented half-sarcastically. They really were impressively well-kempt.
“Yeah, I know,” he responded indignantly, voice completely devoid of embarrassment. That was the best part of Tony; he was impossible to humiliate. Everything he did, he did with pride.
As the elevator’s bell went off and its doors slid open, Tony began to quiver at the fingertips. The shaking began to spread, until it became unignorable. The mirrors in the elevator were a little loose, and he was bouncing so much that they were starting to wobble, too. “Tone,” I murmured reproachfully, “You getting anxious?” His anxiety was a monster I’d known about for a long time, on account of how the first time we met was at a party where I had to calm him down from an attack. We were total strangers then; it was almost difficult to think about. Since then, he’d panicked a couple more times, but his meds and his therapy kept things mostly under control. I knew the tell-tale signs, though, and this was starting to seem like one of them.
“No!” he burst, giggling hysterically for a few seconds. “I’m just so excited to tell you-to show you…” He shook his head, but I couldn’t stand the waiting anymore. The elevator seemed to be moving in slow motion, taking us down to the basement floor. I gave Tony my most urgent stare.
“Tony.” The blue-haired wonder swallowed hard.
“Lucas,” he responded, mimicking me the same way I’d done to him on the phone.
“What do those papers say?” I demanded gently, taking a slightly threatening step towards Tony. “I deserve to know just as much as you do, and you know that.” Tony nodded, chewing on his bottom lip nervously.
“I know you do,” he conceded, “but I swear, it’ll be so much better if you just wait to read the papers on your own.” The boy stepped forward suddenly, and my back thunked against the elevator wall. He grabbed my arms, pinning them to my sides, and whispered, “They’re the real, authentic letters. The ones Dominic wrote.”
I blinked. “Dominic?”
He froze. I could see the gears in his head turning as he realized his mistake. “Oh, no. I meant Mr. Runaway.”
“His name was Dominic?” I asked, vocal tone thrusted up two octaves. He collapsed into breathy laughter, nodding.
“Yes, yes, Dominic,” he whispered through his giggles. I stared in disbelief, wondering if maybe he was just joking around with me. “But I’m not telling you any more.”
Suddenly, the elevator whirred angrily and the doors split open in front of us. Tony was the first to step out, quickly reaching for my hand. I interlaced my fingers with his, and we began to run.
The museum air was stale but warm in our lungs, filling us with dust and magic. Faces of statues and portraits whipped past me as Tony tugged me along. Artifacts covered in tarp and blankets became blurs of color and motion in my peripheral vision. Nothing was in focus except for the boy, and the story, that was pulling me ahead.
We skidded to a stop all at once, and I crashed into Tony’s back as he spread his arms out to protect me from something. When I finally caught my breath, I peaked out from behind him and found my eyes settling on a dark brown duffel bag shrouded in shadows.
“That it?” I whispered. Tony rolled his eyes at me, speaking in a normal tone, “Yes, that’s it, Luke.” His deadpan broke into a foolish grin.
“Go check it out.”
I approached the bag slowly, my fingers itching at my sides. The room seemed to shrink around me, spiraling until the focal point of the whole world was the duffel, with the papers spilling out of its sides. As I kneeled down in front of it, I felt Tony’s hand press gently into my shoulder. “Flashlight?” he murmured, handing me the tiny piece of green, battery-powered plastic. I nodded, taking it out of his palm and letting it illuminate the discovery. Dust mites filled the air like tiny fairies, whirling around me and Tony and creating a microcosmic world for us to live in. He got down on his knees next to me, sliding across the floor and pressing his arm up against mine. His warmth sent a shock through my body, and goosebumps made homes on my skin.
“Read this one first,” he demanded, handing me a yellowed letter from the misshapen pile. “And everything will just kind of…” Tony trailed off, eyes connecting with my own like a key into a lock. “...click into place.”
I took a deep breath. And then, I read.
What hurts most is hiding us, for I have never been prouder to love a man as magnificent as yourself. I feel that I am betraying you behind these bars, forcing you to indulge in a secret that perhaps you have no interest in. But I do hope that what I feel is not a lonesome emotion. I do wish that I could kiss you now, between the bars of my constant cage, and fall asleep beside you in a bed much warmer than my own. Warmed by you. I write with no direction, because with you I am lost in a maze and I never want to be found. Sometimes it is good to be so lost in another. I do believe that I have found my escape in you.
Till death do us part,
I looked up, eyes glazed from reading the dull page in the dark. Tony’s eyes were on me. He ran his tongue over his lips in anticipation, chewing at the inside of his cheek insistently. I raised my eyebrows, opened my mouth, shut my mouth, lowered my eyebrows. At a loss for words.
Finally, stupidly, I announced, “Bernhard is a boy name.”
“So is Dominic.”
I shook my head. “That means. Something.” I blinked a couple times, trying to shake off the confusion I was feeling. The heavy, strange feeling that was overtaking me was one I did not recognize at all. It swelled like waves in my chest, sloshing hard against the concavities of my inner body.
“It means Mr. Runaway was a gay historical hero.”
Tony’s words quieted the ocean in me. I gaped for a few moments, still drowning in this strange feeling. But the feeling wasn’t really strange anymore. It had a name, and a face, and it was beautiful.
It was called truth, and for once, I wasn’t in denial of it.
I thought about all the times that I had felt like the punchline to a bad joke. Coming out to my parents, to my friends, becoming the person who I was always meant to be, hadn’t been a simple journey. The amount of times I’d been spat on, stepped on, looked down upon, were innumerable. At times I had been hopeless, longing to abandon my identity altogether. But this, these letters and the meaning behind them, changed absolutely everything.
“Dominic and Bernhard: love story of the century!” Tony squealed, clutching a letter to his chest tenderly. I smiled distantly, but I was still somewhere far away.
“Tony, this is amazing,” I muttered finally. “Representation. Real representation for me, and for you, and for every other gay person on the face of the Earth. Every minority group needs their leaders, right?” A grin began to creep over my face, an infectious one. Tony grinned, too. “Every little kid needs a superhero who looks just like them, and Mr. Runaway is ours.”
I barely noticed the feeling of Tony’s lips pressing into mine. He moved so softly, folding the corners of his mouth against mine like the doggy-eared page of a book. I didn’t kiss him back at first, still wound up in the shock value of discovering the truth. When I did, his chapstick tasted like cotton candy and I found myself smiling so hard my cheeks hurt.
“You laughing at me?” Tony giggled, words buzzing against my own mouth. We pulled back from each other, foreheads pressed together like we were two fallen columns leaning on one another for support.
“No way,” I whispered, shaking my head and letting my hair fall into my face.
“I’m just happy.”