To Be Alive
B. Rourke © 2020
All Rights Reserved
There are 206 bones in the human body.
Rhett Hawkins knew them all by name and as he stood in front of the mirror naked, he counted the ones he could see poking through his pale skin.
Count the clavicles.
One and two were there. He reached up and touched them both reverently, his eyes tracing the outline of the twin curves underneath his skin. Rhett loved how graceful they looked in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. If he had to pick a favorite bone, it would be the clavicle. His eyes got stuck on a small bruised mark on the right one and he was captured there for a few seconds staring at it. It shouldn’t be there anymore, yet it was. He was marked. Branded on the outside to mimic the inside where he carried the wounds on his heart he’d caused all on his own.
Count the ribs.
A knock on the bathroom door jolted him out of his ritual and he frowned. The knock was followed by a jiggle of the locked doorknob and he called out to his roommate letting him know he was inside still.
“Did you get lost in the shower or something?”
“Just getting out,” he responded, as a shiver raced through his body. Rhett briefly wondered if he was getting sick. He seemed to be shivering a lot more than he usually did even though it was winter outside. Dylan kept the townhouse warm enough that they could walk around in shorts and be comfortable when it was freezing out but for some reason the heat wasn’t warming him like it used to.
Footsteps moved away from the bathroom door and he turned his eyes back to the mirror, noticing for not the first time the darkened circles his eyes seemed to sink into. He was definitely getting sick. Maybe Dylan had picked up some bug from work and spread it to him, or maybe someone at the art studio gave him the gift of bacteria during class. Rhett briefly considered jotting down a reminder to make a doctor appointment before he gazed down at his body again.
Count the ribs.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. He tapped each one with a fingertip as he counted in his head until he reached the seventh pair. Rhett frowned as he dug his fingers into his skin, searching for pair seven. He pinched the flesh between his fingers as his frown deepened. Below pair six, the rest of the ribs were hidden under a layer of fat that made him sick to his stomach. No matter what he did, those stubborn ribs never seemed to appear. His gut bucked and heaved though it was empty, the handful of carrot sticks he’d eaten at the reception having long been removed from his system. Rhett huffed a disappointed sigh as he gazed further down his body at the bruises on his hips.
He bruised easier than he really should. The outlines of his lover’s hands were present in his flesh even though he hadn’t been with the man in four days. Maybe that was a sign of whatever sickness he had. Rhett nodded in agreement at himself in the mirror as another loud knock broke his concentration again. “Jesus, Dylan,” he mumbled, “I’ll be out soon.”
This time, Dylan’s voice smacked of concern. “Rhett, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Dyl, I’ll be done soon. Just shaving.”
“Can we talk about tonight when you’re done?”
He shivered, though he didn’t know if it was because he was cold or because he knew what Dylan wanted to talk about. “Can we leave it alone right now? Please?” Rhett knew if he begged, Dylan would drop the conversation. He always did; it was one of the reasons Rhett still talked to him. Dylan wouldn’t pry and ask questions where he shouldn’t be sticking his nose. There was a pause outside the door followed by a small noise that sounded like agreement as his body relaxed. He didn’t want to unpack everything that had happened at the wedding reception because then he’d have to tell the truth and the mere thought of doing that was like bile on his lips.
Rhett grimaced as he gazed toward the door, waiting for the footsteps to meander away as they had before, but he heard no movement. Please don’t let this be the one time Dylan pestered and prodded for answers. He had none to offer.
“I just think maybe we need to talk?”
Fuck. He hadn’t gone away.
They didn’t need to talk. The day had started off well enough but had devolved into the usual shitshow he’d come to expect of his family. On the ride home, he had realized Dylan’s reaction wasn’t the same as his own response. His roommate had been shaken to the core by the words his mother had spat at him, but he just felt numb.
When had he gotten used to her?
“I told you my mother is different.”
“You said different, not batshit.”
“Rhett, you know that’s not normal, right?”
He paused, weighing his words carefully before finally answering. “It is for me.”
A silence outside the door made a small thrill of hope that the conversation was over lace down his spine. Thirty-three vertebrae. He’d count them last.
Count the bones.
Rhett swung his eyes back to the mirror, goose bumps pimpling his flesh. He was turning blue from the cold but couldn’t put clothes on. Not yet. He had to count. As Dylan talked outside the door, his voice faded into the background.
Two hip bones.
Count the ribs.
He always got stuck on the ribs no matter how much he tried to forge forward with his examination of his body. If he could just see them all, he knew he’d feel better. He’d be better. Dylan continued mumbling outside the door and he was growing annoyed with the chatter behind the lock.
Count the ribs.
Deep breath. Find the seventh pair. Dig fingers in. Jab. There they were.
Rhett’s head spun as he shivered in front of the mirror. His knees knocked together as his body quaked from the effort of standing for too long. How long had it been? It felt like hours.
Count the knees.
“Rhett, I’m getting really worried. You’re not even talking to me anymore.”
Count the bones.
Rhett’s impatience grew. He needed to finish this so he could be warm and get some sleep. He was so tired, his body shivering and shaking as he stood in front of the mirror wondering what it would take to get Dylan to go away so he could be done.
No. Not the truth. He couldn’t explain that the person he’d been spending so much time with wasn’t a girl. That he’d met him at the club, his devilish gray eyes promising freedom and comfort unlike any he’d ever known until he’d wrecked it all. That he was the very word his mother had hurled at him during her tirade of abuse.
She’d called him that for as long as he could remember, tossing it out at him like it was his real name and she hadn’t picked out the name Rhett Butler Hawkins after her favorite leading man of all time especially for him, her firstborn son. His younger brother, Ashley Wilkes Hawkins, had been gifted her second-favorite character’s name. She often said she made a mistake wasting the name Rhett on him when he was so fat, ugly, and stupid. Ash was more of the Rhett Butler than he could ever pretend to be, she’d say. Gone with the Wind was her lifeblood and she fancied herself a modern day Scarlett O’Hara except her version of Scarlett was remarkably hostile and smelled like too many cigarettes and beer.
Rhett was also pretty sure that as challenging as the movie version of Scarlett had been, she would never have put out a cigarette on her Rhett’s leg. Mom had tricked him that time, pulling him on to her lap to show off his grade one report card with a smile on her cracked lips. He’d cautiously scrambled up and settled onto her knees, opening the report card with a smile as the cigarette in her hand burned, the smoke curling around them like a hug. Rhett had been doing good. His spelling was perfect and math, his hardest subject, was better than it had been the first time report cards had come home. He’d briefly hoped for a pat on the head like Ash got whenever he handed Mom his report card but watched in dismay as her face scowled. A yellow-stained finger pointed at the comments his teacher had written.
Rhett is a smart boy, but he needs to work at staying on task.
His mother had snarled at him, demanding to know why he was wasting the teacher’s time, and he couldn’t get the words out to explain that he got bored and often finished before the other kids. Mrs. Taylor said he was smart, he’d pointed out, still hoping for the pat on the head that would make him feel whole for even just a few minutes. Instead, a sharp sting hit his leg, and he screamed in pain as his mother shoved him off her lap onto the threadbare carpet before reaching out to take a long swig of her beer. She’d muttered something about him being a fat little faggot as he scrambled to the corner of the living room, tears streaming down his face. The scent of burnt ash and skin had filled his nose while he sniffled as quietly as he could, trying to avoid another punishment. Ash had come home a few minutes later and hadn’t appeared to notice the smell, but Rhett swore that for years after he couldn’t pass by the corner of the trailer’s living room without catching a whiff of burning flesh.
Count the ribs.
Rhett’s body wavered as his eyes threatened to slide closed. He was so dizzy he should really sit down. He’d been standing for far too long; his clanking knees were threatening to give out beneath him. If he could feel anything, he was certain he would be alarmed at how quickly his body was giving out on him but all he registered was cold. He blinked his eyes slowly, trying to clear the black spots dancing around the edges of his vision.
There are 206 bones in the human body, and for the first time in his life, he couldn’t stay awake long enough to count them all.