WARNING: This story contains some intense topics. Highlight to read the more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. There are identity issues, emotional angst, some very ugly racism, prejudiced language, a physical scuffle, post-traumatic stress, and other challenges. However, the upstanding characters handle it pretty well, and the dirtbags are pretty obviously dirtbags. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before clicking through.
"Strong and Fragile"
Late summer brought the dry-dust days that made working outside a bad idea. Instead, the team turned toward indoor projects, fixing up the endless miles of underground tunnels and rooms that supported the supercollider ring itself. Eric and TeJay couldn't make heads or tails of it, so mostly they helped Uncle Chris make supply runs into Waxahachie.
At first, one of them went while the other stayed to fetch and carry. That suited Eric just fine through most of July, because it was one thing to hang out with TeJay in the middle of nowhere, and another to do it in town where somebody might see. Last thing he needed was a bunch of guff over that.
It itched at him, though, same like the nightmares had. TeJay meant something to him now, best friend he'd had all summer, and in some ways the best ever. The bond between them was like spider silk, strong and fragile -- it'd hold the spider, sure enough, but if you yanked on it then it'd break. Eric liked the feel of their growing friendship. It didn't sit right with him, splitting up just because he was being a pussy about what people might think. Third of August, he woke up yelling for the first time in a month, and decided that'd wasted enough time dithering over it.
The next day Uncle Chris said, "Supply run. Who wants to come along?"
"I'll do it, Eric went last time," said TeJay.
Eric took a deep breath. "Let's both go. We'll get it done quicker, and what we save in meter money, we can spend on ice cream."
"Okay," TeJay said, his eyebrows going up.
"Hop on in," said Uncle Chris as he waved at the pickup truck.
They all climbed in, TeJay in the middle since he was the smallest. Eric liked the lean solid feel of him, brushing together as the truck bumped along the country roads. It's just an experiment, Eric told himself. He thought about all the nutty things that Uncle Chris' friends did, welding stuff together or mixing buckets of liquid that turned funny colors. He might not understand the science parts, but he was getting the hang of testing things to see what would happen. If it don't work out, I can go back to how it was before. If it does work, well then, TeJay and I got more places to hang out.
They pulled into the parking lot that served the practical part of Waxahachie's little downtown street. "Who's doing what?" asked Eric.
"I'll hit the lumberyard. You boys get the hardware," said Uncle Chris. He handed them a list with the budget envelope clipped to it.
"We'll get right on it," TeJay promised, taking the little packet.
Inside the hardware store, they quickly filled a cart with nails and quarter-round trim and cans of paint. Eric pointed out some more decorative trim, and TeJay suggested taking samples back to see if Alex liked any of them better. Then they bumped into Dan, who'd been Eric's best friend before TeJay.
"What'cha doing?" Dan asked Eric.
"Picking up stuff for my summer job," said Eric. "You?"
"Paneling for a baby room," said Dan. "My sister's knocked up, so."
"Congratulations," TeJay said quietly.
"Who asked you?" Dan snapped.
"Hey, cut it out. TeJay's with me," said Eric, stepping between them.
"Do they have the white panels or not?" hollered Jonathan. "Your mama's gonna be sore if we're late!"
"Hit a snag here," said Dan.
Jonathan came around the end of the aisle and saw them all standing there. "The fuck's up with you, Eric?" he said. "We don't see you for weeks, and now this shit?"
Eric realized two things at once. First, Dan didn't seem like much fun anymore. Second, TeJay was starting to shake just the least little bit, and Eric had spent enough time studying flashbacks and panic attacks all summer to realize they needed to get gone.
"Nevermind that, Jonathan. We're just here for some supplies, and we done found what we need. Be seein' you around," Eric said, steering the heavy cart with one hand and TeJay with the other. At the cash register, he handed over the list and the envelope.
"Where the hell d'you get all that dough?" Dan said, his voice rising.
"Told'ya I had a summer job," Eric said. "It ain't mine, though, it's for this stuff." He got paid plenty, but they didn't need to know that, especially since he was saving most of it. He just hadn't decided yet between trying his hand at college, or getting himself a halfway-decent truck.
TeJay thanked the cashier in a barely-there voice, scooped up their change, and bundled their purchases into bags. Then he headed to the truck without another word. Eric hustled along behind him, wondering if TeJay was okay. They'd eaten lunch before they left, so it shouldn't be low blood sugar, and the weather was sweltering but they'd mostly been inside with the air on, so he shouldn't be overheated. Had to be Dan and Jonathan running their fool mouths.
"Hey Eric, you oughta count the change 'fore he snitches any of it," Dan said, catching TeJay by the shoulder.
A year ago, Eric would've laughed, tickled half to death with Dan poking at TeJay. Now it rubbed him wrong, like the time he'd had a sunburn and brushed up against the rough brick wall. Eric knocked Dan's hand away from TeJay and said, "You leave him the fuck alone."
Shoes scuffed against the blacktop of the parking lot as Jonathan came up on the other side, grabbing TeJay a lot harder than Dan had. "Why should we? You sweet on him or something, Eric? Turnin' into a nigger-lover?"
Eric hauled off and hit him. Jonathan went down and didn't get up. Dan rounded on them, but Eric and TeJay leaned out of his reach. Kay had shown them a few moves, and they weren't really good at it yet, but they were a far cry better than Dan. To Eric it seemed like the other boy was moving through molasses.
TeJay had that little hitch in his breathing, though, that he got right before he really flaked out from flashbacks. This needed to be over.
So Eric put a knee in Dan's gut and left him whooping for air. "You stay away from us, or I'll give you a lickin' you won't forget," he warned.
"What the sam-hell is going on here?" barked Uncle Chris. "I sent you boys to fetch hardware, not start a boxing match!"
Eric cringed but didn't back up. "We tried, Uncle Chris. We got everything on the list. But Dan and Jonathan wouldn't leave TeJay alone."
"Thought they was friends of your'n," said Uncle Chris.
Eric could feel the line between was and will be, strong and fragile, waiting for him to decide. "Not no more," he said. "Best see to TeJay now. I think they shook him up some." TeJay's brown hands on the bags had knuckles bleached to cream, he was holding on so hard.
"Sho'nuff," said Uncle Chris, helping TeJay into the truck. A load of lumber already filled the back end.
"I'll call the cops on you," Jonathan moaned from the blacktop.
"Y'all could do that," Uncle Chris said evenly. "Then y'all could have fun 'splaining how this mess got started. I reckon the sheriff wouldn't be too happy about your little hankie trick."
"Just shut up," Dan hissed, hauling Jonathan to his feet. "Let's get out of here while the gettin's good." They limped away.
Uncle Chris and Eric climbed into the truck, bracketing TeJay. The boy was shaking like a leaf. "You two all right?" Uncle Chris asked.
"Guess so," TeJay said. "Eric knocked them back before they could hurt me."
"I'm fine," said Eric. "Just didn't expect 'em to lay into us like that. They liked me fine before, I thought they'd leave well enough alone."
TeJay looked at him, one corner of his mouth twisting. "Skin privilege is a lot more fragile than most people think. They don't realize how easy it is to lose, just by hanging out with the wrong crowd."
"What about you, then?" Eric asked. "Anybody on your side of the fence giving you grief about us?"
TeJay shrugged. "I'm a fly in buttermilk," he said. "May as well own up to that."
Uncle Chris had a look on his face that Eric couldn't put a name to, like he was happy and sad all at once. "I ain't too glad it came to hittin' today, but Eric, you made me proud back there. I know how hard it can get, when where you come from tangles up with where you're going."
Eric glanced at TeJay, who still didn't look great but at least wasn't shaking no more. Eric stretched one arm over the back of the bench seat. TeJay leaned back against it. Eric thought about their friendship, so new and so precious that he'd thrown away Dan for it, who he'd known since second grade. But when you came right down to it, well ...
"No it ain't," Eric said.
Uncle Chris smiled a little wider. "In that case, best we get a move on," he said, putting the truck in gear. "That ice cream ain't gonna eat itself."
* * *
"Life is strong and fragile. It's a paradox... It's both things, like quantum physics: It's a particle and a wave at the same time. It all exists all together."
-- Joan Jett
Building trust is necessary for strong relationships. Here are some tips on how to build trust.
Close friendships take time to develop. Follow the steps for deepening friendship.
Racism focuses on apparent differences. Challenging racist remarks or actions is one way to fight racism.
Trauma can lead to PTSD. Know how to support a friend who has PTSD.
Flashbacks often happen after a traumatic experience. I couldn't find a good reference for externally observable symptoms of someone experiencing a flashback. Based on my observations, these may include: sweating, shivering or shaking, losing track of a conversation, stumbling or otherwise losing balance, staring blankly, and not responding when spoken to. There are tips for helping a friend through a flashback.
Skin privilege is a batch of advantages you get for having pale skin. While the physical ones -- like being able to find products designed for your kind of skin -- are fairly stable, the social ones tend to vanish the moment you associate with "undesirable" others. People talk about skin privilege as if it were inescapable but it really, really is not. If you're going to work in multicultural contexts, you need to understand those costs and risks. To Eric this is all a totally new perspective and he keeps getting blindsided by it.
"Fly in buttermilk" means one dark-skinned person surrounded by light-skinned people. This combination is widely disliked by both dark and light groups.