Silence Says

Toby didn’t like to talk to people or look them in the eye. He didn’t need friends. Or did he? Shipped off to summer camp, Toby had more new things to get used to than he could deal with. Could his cabinmate, Noah, offer the support he so desperately needed?

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4. Chapter 4

Mark was talkative and energetic, and he brought those same traits out in Noah. As they made their way down the trail towards the lake, the two of them began a game of catch with a pinecone.

Toby focussed on the things they passed -- the tiny lizards that scurried off into the undergrowth as they approached, the birds that screeched in the trees, the trickle of a barely there creek that intermittently curved in to run alongside the trail. His attention wasn't drawn back to Noah and Mark until a pinecone hit him in the chest.

Toby came to a halt and stared down at the pinecone, his eyebrows drawing together.

"You were supposed to catch it," Mark said quickly. "I wasn't..."

"He wasn't ready," Noah said as he bent down to pick up the fallen pinecone. "Okay, Toby, ready now?"

Toby stuck his hands in his armpits and shook his head firmly. "I'll drop it."

"It's a pinecone. It's not like you're gonna break it."

Noah didn't get it. He was good at sports. It was unlikely anyone had ever laughed at Noah's level of ability or groaned when they had to be teamed with him. Toby would drop the pinecone. He would drop it again and again and they'd see how terrible he was at something that came easy to them.

Toby's head dropped lower and he shook it again. "No."

Noah shrugged and tossed the pinecone to Mark, who just barely managed to catch it. "That's fine."

It wasn't, though. Toby had, once again, shown himself not to be fun. Toby was starting to get the feeling that Noah was the same kind of person his foster parents were. People who enjoyed looking after others. That wasn't friends, though, not in the same way Noah and Mark were friends. That was just charity.

Toby scuffed his shoes against the ground as he walked, kicking at loose rocks. He wasn't sure when he'd decided that he wanted to be Noah's friend, that he wanted Noah to think of him as a proper person and not just something to be taken care of. Maybe he'd always cared, just a little, from the very first moment those beautiful blue eyes had landed on him.

As soon as he saw the lake, Toby regretted turning down Noah's invitation to go for a walk along it yesterday. The surface of the large lake was calm and empty, but as they approached its shore Toby saw tiny fish dart away through the clear water. He wanted to take the walk now, to walk along the shoreline and examine all the critters that made this place their home.

That wasn't what they were there for, though. They were there to canoe. If Toby kicked up a fuss he would probably be allowed to sit out, but Toby wanted Noah there with him and Noah was clearly looking forward to the activity. Besides, that wasn't a very mature attitude. He'd been told that before. It's okay to say no, but you should give things a try when you can.

They followed the curve of the shoreline to where the other boys in their house had gathered between a large shed-like structure covered in peeling red paint and a dock that jutted out onto the lake. Noah reached a hand out to guide Toby out of the way as a couple of the boys made their way through the group, each carrying one end of a canoe.

"Two people to a canoe!" the camp councillor -- a different one -- shouted to the group. "You will each need a life jacket and a paddle. Hurry up!"

Toby was almost certain that two people to a canoe meant he was sitting out after all, but it was Mark who lifted a hand in farewell to Noah and wandered off into the group in search of a partner. With a gentle hand on his back, Noah guided Toby into the shed.

Inside the shed at least two dozen canoes were stacked on racks, some too high for Toby to reach but probably not out of range of Noah's half head of extra height.

"Which one should we pick?" Noah asked Toby.

"I don't know anything about canoes.”

"I don’t know much either," Noah admitted as he tugged Toby out of the path of another pair of boys. "Which one do you think looks the coolest?"

Toby pursed his lips and considered the canoes, their range of colours and patterns. "I don't think I really know what cool means in this context."

"Whichever one makes you happiest to look at."

Toby was fairly sure that wasn't what 'cool' meant at all, but it did simplify things. After a moment of careful consideration Toby pointed to one painted orange, red, and pink. It reminded him of a sunset.

It was a little embarrassing, how much stronger Noah was than Toby. While Toby struggled with his end up the canoe, Noah lifted the other with ease. With a bit of difficulty and a bit of help from Mark they managed to get it out onto the dock, then Noah jogged back inside for paddles and life jackets.

"You really should take your hoodie off," Noah said as he handed Toby one of the life jackets. "I won't bug you about it if you say no, but we're going to be in full sun for quite a while."

Toby pulled his hoodie off without comment and felt a blessed cooling as the sweat coating his skin started to evaporate. When Noah had been sweaty and flush faced it had only made him more attractive, but Toby was pretty sure he just looked gross. He clipped on the uncomfortably stiff life jacket and helped Noah get the canoe into the water.

Noah made climbing into the canoe look easy, but when his turn came Toby hesitated.

"Here, crouch down and hold onto the edge of the canoe with both hands," Noah instructed. "Good, now put one leg forward into the canoe. Okay, now-"

Another canoe hit the water nearby, sending ripples across the surface of the lake. Toby and Noah's canoe started to rock and then Toby was falling forward, tumbling into the canoe. Before Toby could properly process what had happened he felt Noah's hands on his chest, catching him as he fell.

"It's okay, I've got you," Noah said as he carefully lowered Toby into the swaying canoe.

Toby realised that he was clinging to Noah's arm and quickly let go. Well, that was embarrassing.

Noah, though, just acted like nothing had happened. He helped Toby get seated at the back of the canoe and showed him how to hold his paddle before moving to the front and pushing off from the dock. Toby tried to paddle and immediately crashed them back into it.

Noah laughed, but it didn't sound unkind. He pushed the canoe away from the dock again "You're doing the steering. Try paddling on the other side. No, you're- We're going in circles here."

Toby gripped the paddle tight and pursed his lips. He could feel his frustration rising, felt the urge to give up on this whole thing and throw his paddle into the water. Nobody else seemed to be having as much trouble as they were.

"Here, come on, let's switch places," Noah said, his voice gentler now. "My fault. I've done this before, so I should be steering. I was just thinking that because I'm stronger I should be the one powering us, but speed doesn't really matter."

Noah gave Toby's shoulder a squeeze as they carefully passed one another and Toby found that, even though he was a little upset, he didn't mind the contact. It soothed him, made him feel like maybe things were more okay than they seemed in his mind. Still, it was with some trepidation that he picked up the paddle.

After a few cautious strokes, however, he soon discovered that things were far easier from this end. They glided slowly but smoothly out across the surface of the lake.

"It's nice out here," Noah commented when they stopped in the middle of the lake. "Are you having fun? The best I can tell is that you're not actively upset."

Toby carefully turned around on his seat to face Noah. "It's nice."

"I used to go out with my dad, but the river the club's on is muddy and boring. Not peaceful like this." He gave Toby a smile. "Better company, too."

Toby squirmed in his seat and dropped his gaze to Noah's feet. "Your dad must be really boring if he's worse company than me."

Noah laughed, though Toby didn't see how that was funny. "You're more interesting than you think. And my dad is just..." Noah waved his hand, a vague gesture of an idea difficult to express in words. "He's a good businessman, but he's so full of shit. He wants me to be just like him, which... no way. And apparently it's his business who I date, but if I comment on him marrying a woman half his age it's off to summer camp with me."

"Oh," Toby said, because saying nothing at all felt awkward. Well, more awkward.

Noah sighed. "Whatever. I'll be eighteen soon enough, then maybe he can have a kid who'll actually be what he wants with his new wife. I'm sure he'll love her just as much when she has stretch marks."

"My parents didn't want me either," Toby told Noah's shoes. "I mean, Linda -- she's my psych -- she said that they did, they just couldn't... I was too much. I think, though, they just wanted a kid, and I wasn't it."

"So you don't live with them?"

Toby shook his head. "Foster care. My dad -- he lives in Europe now -- he sends me presents sometimes, but there's never a return address." Of which Toby was glad. He wouldn't have known what to say. "My mum takes me out about once a month and we do things, but I think she just... She thinks she should."

"My mum died when I was little," Noah confided. "Cancer."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

Toby tapped a steady rhythm on his paddle, unsure where to go from here. He'd never really had a friend who he could talk to about things, only professionals who were paid to listen. He'd certainly never had anyone tell him such personal things about themselves.

"Want to keep going?" Noah asked.

"Yeah. Okay."

After the initial tension dissipated, Toby felt more relaxed than he had since coming here. He knew now that Noah considered him a person, a whole one, not just a charity case. And... he'd said Toby was interesting. Maybe that had been a lie, but Toby could at least pretend it might not have been.

Toby was almost sad when the councillor blew his whistle, indicating the end of the activity. Even though they had stayed mostly quiet, Toby had enjoyed Noah's company. It wasn't often he had Noah's full attention outside of their cabin, not since Noah had made other friends.

Reality returned as they approached the dock, the voices of the other boys and the sounds of them returning their canoes to the shed shattering the peace. The world was once again a chaotic and overwhelming place.

Noah climbed out of the canoe onto the dock first with the same agile ease he had climbed in. Toby did his best to mimic the motion, but it wasn't nearly as simple as it had looked. The canoe wobbled, Toby stumbled, and then the canoe tipped.

For just a moment the shock of falling, the shock of hitting the water, whited out all thought, then everything settled again and Toby bobbed upright, buoyed by the lifejacket.

"Toby!" Noah shouted, and reached a hand over the side of the dock for Toby to grab. The dock wasn't very high off the water and Toby could have managed on his own, but he accepted Noah's help anyway.

Toby kept his head down as he stood dripping in the dock, but he could still hear the laughter, the words not murmured quietly enough. Noah wasn't laughing, though. Noah was gently helping Toby out of his life jacket.

Everything was too bright and too loud and too wet and Toby just wanted to be alone. Or alone with Noah, maybe. Before he could take more than a few steps along the dock, though, they were stopped by the councillor.

"Are you hurt?" the councillor asked. "Did you hit your head?"

Toby's response was a whining grumble as he squeezed water out of the hem of his shirt.

The councillor sighed. "Just let me feel for bumps, then."

Before the councillor could even touch him, Toby grimaced and leant away, lifting his elbow to shield his head.

"I was watching, he didn't hit anything but the water," Noah intervened before things could escalate further. "I should get him back to our cabin so he can get dried off."

There was a tense moment of silence before the councillor sighed. "Fine, but if he starts complaining of any pain in his neck, back, or head, you bring him to the nurse's office immediately. Understood?"

"Of course," Noah agreed.

Noah led the way through the group of boys who had gathered around to watch the excitement, Toby following close behind.

When they reached the track leading into the bush, Noah paused. "You okay?"

Just then words were impossible, and Toby felt an impulse run through him to strike out at Noah for even trying. He folded his arms across his chest and stared at the ground instead, swaying slightly from side to side where he stood.

"No, then," Noah concluded. "Come on. Let's get you back."

As they started walking again Toby clicked his tongue. If he focussed on that, only that, the rest of the world receded just a little. He wished he could just do nothing, just walk back to their cabin without putting on a display. As it was, he was only barely able to keep himself from stomping off into the bush to seek out somewhere quiet and shadowed to rock until the intensity of existence receded again.

Though Noah said nothing, didn't even give Toby disturbed glances, Toby knew he had to have noticed. He wasn't deaf and the repetitive clicking sound Toby was making with his tongue couldn't be dismissed as a casual means to amuse himself.

Toby's throat felt sore. He wasn't sure what would have come out if he'd tried to speak, whether he would have screamed or broken down crying. He wished words were easier, he wished he could just calmly explain that it wasn't just the canoe, that it was everything, all the little stresses that had been laying beneath the surface of Toby's mind just waiting for a catalyst to set the whole thing off.

At least falling out of the canoe was something that would probably have been quite upsetting for a lot of people. Being set off by something stupid like an improperly cored piece of apple in his fruit salad would have been a lot more difficult to explain.

Toby didn't stop clicking his tongue until they arrived back at their cabin. Noah opened the door quietly, but just then even the unavoidable creak it made caused Toby to grimace. Everything was too much, too intense. Without so much as a glance in Noah's direction, Toby retreated to the bathroom.

He didn't turn on the bathroom light. It was too bright, and there was enough light coming in through the small window to allow Toby to see what he was doing while he showered. Not that he was going to be doing much.

Toby stripped his sopping clothes off and climbed under the warm spray of the shower. That, at least, felt good. He had been cold, but all his senses had been too raw for him to notice. Toby sat down on the floor of the shower and rocked.

There were too many things in his head, too many thoughts and feelings and Toby just wanted to regurgitate them all, to purge his system of all the fear and hurt. They came out in the form of desperate, sobbing tears. Toby hugged his knees against his chest and dug his fingernails into his legs.

Even alone in the bathroom, secluded from the outside world, Toby felt vulnerable, exposed. It had been a long time since he'd felt so helpless, since emotional pain had wrenched through him like a physical force, tearing at his body as it went.

After a while Noah knocked on the door, said something. Toby couldn't make out the words over the sound of the shower, over the static in his mind. It was just information.

It wasn't until the water went cold that Toby turned it off and stepped out of the shower. It was beginning to get dark, but Toby didn't turn on the light. Dark was good. He wanted dark. He wrapped himself in his towel and curled up on the floor and, when that wasn't enough, wrapped himself in Noah's towel as well. Just then, it didn't matter if Noah would mind. What mattered was keeping himself hidden from a non-existent threat.

Noah knocked on the door, a cautious rap of knuckles on wood. "You okay, Toby?"

The words made sense this time, but responding felt impossible. Toby barely felt in control of his own body, his own mind, let alone his ability to form language.

Toby heard the sound of Noah sigh and sit down against the bathroom door. "I'm trying, Toby, but I don't know what to do to help you."

It took a few seconds for Toby to make sense of the words, like his brain had lag. When he did he just felt guilty. Helpless and ashamed.

"I like you," Noah continued. "I want to just... do something, anything, and make it better. I'm not used to being so helpless."

I am, Toby wanted to say, but all he could offer Noah was silence.

Noah fell quiet but didn't move from the door. Toby could see his shadow underneath it. If it were anyone else it would have felt like an intrusion, but somehow, just then, Noah felt like a guardian. Like he was sitting watch outside the bathroom door, protecting Toby from outside threats.

Eventually Noah sighed and stood. "Don't suppose you want to go for dinner?" A few seconds pause. "Didn't think so. I'll be back in a while, okay?" Another pause. "Cheer up."

Toby waited until he heard the cabin door shut behind Noah before creeping out of the bathroom clad only in the two towels. He dressed quickly, paranoid that Noah would return prematurely, then buried himself under his blankets. It was much too hot, but it made Toby feel safe. He lay face down, his head tilted to the side just enough to allow himself to breathe, and fisted his hands in his hair. He stayed that way, unmoving, until Noah returned.

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