"It's this way," said Echo.
He pointed toward a dark building just behind a park lamp, beneath it the mounds of melting snow in wet grass was illuminated. Jax's eyes followed his finger and he was close behind when his friend led the way through the dark of night, sneakers squishing upon the moist cement of a winding sidewalk. He looked up to a twilight sky peppered with twinkling stars and wispy clouds hardly noticeable to his squinting eyes that burned from the frigid breeze. The sidewalk serpentined around the small, one story building. Behind it, trees stretched their untrimmed branches like overgrown antlers. The place had nothing more to offer aside from the rattly old newspaper box out front.
"How do we get in?" Asked Jax, eyes falling to the soaked shoelaces of his sneakers as he stepped over slush.
"There's a door they boarded up because someone had already broken in before. It was just a bunch of wood planks so it was easy to break in," said Echo.
"So, like, you pulled them down with a crowbar or something?"
Echo pulled a flashlight from his pocket and lit their path once the park lamp no longer reached them. "Nah," he replied.
Jax saw himself and the flashlight's stream as a reflection in pitch dark windows as they passed them, so he shivered, arms crossed over his chest. Pulling his jacket closer he kept his eyes forward, gaze stuck on the curls twisting from under the orange beanie hat on his friend for fear of looking elsewhere and seeing something potentially scary. A forest was to his right, so he stayed focused and swallowed the lump in his throat. Although by then it was hard to feel as the cold numbed him.
When Echo stopped and aimed the flashlight at a door, Jax found it boarded up only halfway down, the lower half making a hole to crawl through. Broken pieces of wood were piled off to the side.
"Did you take a sledgehammer to it or something?" Jax gawked.
Echo crouched in front of the opening he made and looked over his shoulder with a cheeky grin, his rosy cheeks filling. Jax's breath puffed into the air as a spiraling cloud. He laughed in earnest.
They entered into the silent darkness, where no icy wind passed through their heavy clothes but it was chilly nonetheless. The flashlight danced across an otherwise empty main room, floors dirty and a dim orange light cascading through the windows closest to the front entrance. Jax could see snowflakes fluttering about the park lamp outside.
"Turn this way." Echo laid a hand on Jax's shoulder to guide his body in the right direction. He was handed the flashlight. "Point the light there."
Jax did so. He gasped, his opened mouth finding its way into a big smile. He turned to Echo whose eyes were already trained on him in the dark. It made his heart weightless as though floating in water or soaring through the sky.
"Cool, right?" Said Echo. He left Jax's side and neared the mural art that covered an entire wall. It was a large piece; under the light it was colorful and vivid, a solar system sprayed effortlessly. Each planet of the solar system was there, surrounded by what could only be thousands of painted stars.
"You sure this wasn't already here before the building was closed? It's like a professional did it," said Jax in open astonishment.
"I don't think so. The paint is pretty fresh so I assumed it was graffiti after the fact. Besides, professional artists only make boring stuff. Aren't you glad I convinced you to come?"
Jax felt slight heat prickle his cheeks, remembering his anxiety in doing an act as devious as trespassing onto private property, and how vocal he was about his concerns. He was a real baby about it. But despite it, Jax appreciated the push from Echo now that they were alone in a dark enclosed space. No eyes to watch them be mischievous.
With a shy smile Jax shrugged, then looked to his shoes. "You're very persuasive."
"That's true," Echo humored. He gestured for Jax to approach. "Come take a closer look."
With light footsteps Jax neared and took in the details, each stroke of spray paint confident and fascinating. He wasn't sure how it all worked, the technicality of it or what made the paint stick and not dribble down the wall. He contemplated it as his eyes traced the tiny divots and cracks, the texture of the artist's canvas as it showed through the work.
Echo's voice broke the silence. "Why outer space?"
Fingers rubbing his chin Jax gazed upward with quiet thought, his tongue pressing into the corner of his mouth.
"Hmm. Because it's cool." He answered.
"I'm trying to have a deep conversation, just go along with it, dude," Echo said, laughing mostly to himself.
Jax's face felt hot and numb simultaneously.
"Oh, sorry. Umm…" He took some steps back and soaked in the mural from a slight distance, figuring an expanded view would do the same for his thoughts. He tried to imagine the bigger picture, rhetorically. Why do artists make what they make?
"Maybe because space is comforting."
"Do you think space is comforting?" Echo asked.
"Well no. It's too big and dark and, like, you'd be too alone. Floating around forever just doing nothing."
"So you just don't wanna be bored?"
"Well, yeah I couldn't go to the arcade anymore. But it's also just too big mostly."
Echo hummed and crossed his arms, bundling himself up against the chill that went through him.
"I feel like I'm looking at home when I see outer space," Echo said.
"Yeah. Like, obviously it's not but I get this homesick feeling when I see it."
"Maybe it is your home," Jax said, gazing at his friend. "You should build a spaceship and put an arcade in it."
Echo chuckled, "For you?"
"Well, yeah. I…"
Growing shy, Jax kicked at the crunching dirt under his shoes and let himself trail off. Echo looked at him expectantly though, and he didn't want to spend a half hour trying to weasel his way out of saying something embarrassing like all the other times he's ever said 'nevermind, it's stupid' in Echo's company. He knew better at that point.
"I would miss you if you were gone," he said.
They stood silently, Echo's gaze stuck on Jax before averting and following wherever his friend pointed the flashlight so they would look together.
"I'll build a cool arcade then." He walked over to stand by Jax's side, unable to stop his lips from quirking into a smile.
"Wanna leave now?" Echo took the flashlight and immediately Jax's stiff hands were in his pockets. He avoided eye contact.
"Do you?" Jax replied.
"I'm not cold like you are."
"I'm still figuring out why outer space, like you asked."
In such dim lighting where his face was obscured, Echo was uncertain if Jax was being sarcastic or genuine. It was often times hard to tell with him. His humor was bland and he told jokes like a father would. What he'd seen of fathers who weren't his own, at least.
"I already know why," said Echo. He waited for the other to inquire.
He let a second or two pass before answering, "Because it's cool."
Silence, and then giggling from a voice so boyish and as innocent as Jax's. Echo couldn't see his face but he knew it was something great, even in the darkness it felt bright.
"We can go, I don't want you to freeze to death or something."
"I wouldn't do that. But okay."
Neither moved or said another word. It was a strange moment and as it passed, an awkwardness set in. Jax switched weight from foot to foot with an uneasy feeling and by then it seemed too late to say 'after you'. His cold cheeks went red at the thought of saying such a suave thing. Was he to leave first? Was Echo waiting for him? It only took a few seconds, but suddenly the night went weird.
The flashlight was pointed toward the ground, but Echo clicked it off. Jax could hear his breath.
"Can I ask you something?" Echo's voice came. It was disembodied, belonging to the vague space in front of Jax. His heart thudded hard in his chest and he couldn't tell why, or if he should analyze it before answering.
The voice was absent for maybe a minute, Jax had started counting the seconds after some time, once his mind came to the conclusion of what to anticipate was coming next. He licked his lips without thinking.
"I like you," Echo said. And he paused long enough for Jax to wonder if he remembered he was going to ask a question. Before a reply could be had however, he finished, "Can I kiss you?"
I like you. Can I kiss you?...
I like you. Can I kiss you?...
It repeated in Jax's mind. Voice caught in his dry throat and unable to swallow, his mouth opened and closed over and over. Despite being cloaked and safe within the blackness, he still felt so incredibly exposed and seen. He thought he should be grateful the flashlight was off, and yet his skin radiated such heat and his heart thundered so hard inside him he just knew Echo could hear it and feel it and was scrutinizing him. It was a buzzing and electric field around his body, raising the hairs on his arms even though his clothes pressed down on him. He supposed he just felt so small. He started to panic when he realized how Echo might be feeling, having confessed something so bold and there they stood completely silent. He didn't want to reject him, he wanted it. He wanted to be kissed by him badly in that moment.
"Yeah," Jax said, breathless.
The air shifted when Echo stepped forward, warm fingers surprising Jax as they slipped under his jaw and behind his ears, grounding him. He knew he was close, not even by the hot breath just before his lips but by the subtle sounds and the utterances of space between them losing distance. Just as Jax's thoughts drifted toward how warm Echo's hands were their lips met, something soft and naive. He didn't know what to do, but he didn't want to simply do nothing, so he pressed back and made as much of an effort as he could.
The kiss didn't last long by any measure of time, but it was sweet and warm. When they broke apart, Jax thought to close his eyes then but found they had already shut some time ago. Echo's arms wrapped around him slowly, as though giving him a chance to pull back if he so chose, but he did the opposite and leaned into him. Blanketed by his warmth he sighed.
"I…" Jax started, cheeks burning. "I like you too."
A hand rested in his head and brought them closer. Jax had an endeared feeling that it was a show of thanks, Echo's humbleness melting his heart.
"Let's go. Your mom is going to yell at me if she catches you gone or something," Echo said with a gentle voice.
"She wouldn't do that. But okay."
Once released, Jax noticed how hot it had been to be embraced when the freezing air cooled his chest and face. With an arm around his shoulder and the flashlight back on, leading their way, Echo pulled Jax along.
He pretended not to notice the other's eyes trained on him and hoped the scarlet of his cheeks could be passed off as cold related.
Nevermind the love in his chest.