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The distance between us isn’t much, and before my brain can tell me what to do, my body is reacting. I kiss him. I just lean forward, and I kiss him, and I can feel him stiffen for a second – in surprise or shock, I don’t know, my eyes are closed – before he starts to kiss me back.

Travel back in time a few months and tell me I’d be doing this. Go ahead. I dare you. I’d laugh. No, scratch that. I’d punch you right in the face, then laugh. I mean, the idea’s just too ridiculous. I’m a guy. I like girls. Duh.

But that’s not stopping me right now. My arms are around him; he’s leaner than a girl, firmer – and the kiss is getting stronger, confident, insistent. I’m pressing against him, and he’s pressing back, and sweet Jesus, he’s almost in my lap –

Okay. I’m getting distracted here. What was I going on about? Oh yeah – in just a few short months, how did I get from normal, everyday, female-appreciating Jeff Schafer to the kind of confused and very excited boy-macker I am right now?

Strangely, this story starts with my dad.

*

“Get on the damn plane, Jeff,” Dad said, his arms folded in front of him like the stern taskmaster he is when not trying to be Awesome-Fun Dad, who’s fucking annoying but was really missed at that moment.

“C’mon,” I pleaded, right there in the middle of LAX, like a tool. “Let’s not do anything drastic. I swear, you won’t have to worry about me anymore! Nose to the grindstone, Dad. Totally. And I won’t see Mandy anymore, I promise. Just like you said.”

Okay, Mandy would’ve killed me if she heard me say that. Or, more realistically, she would’ve started crying and threatening to kill herself, because by golly, she will, just watch her, she will. Only she doesn’t. What she does do is assure me she’s on the pill and everything’s safe, but not read the fucking safety manual or whatever that would have told her explicitly that you can’t just take it and magically be infertile that same day. It takes a while to kick in. Obviously.

Only not obviously. She missed a period, and I spent who knows how many nights awake and freaking out over what to do. I mean, we’re only sixteen. God. Then she told her parents, who told Dad, who told Mom, and to make a long story short here I was, at LAX airport, in front of the gate that would lead me to the plane that would then carry me to Stamford, just a few short miles from my final destination.

Yeah, you guessed. Stoneybrook, Connecticut. Borington. Snoozeville. Dumbass Falls, USA. For the rest of the school year. Jesus Christ.

“She’s not even pregnant, Dad. False alarm! Is it really this big a deal?

Dad just shook his head.

“It’s not just that, Jeff. There’re the detentions, which you skip, which lead to Saturday school work days, which you skip, which lead to referrals, which build up, which lead to suspension. There’re the classes you’re failing. There’re all your other idiot friends, and you being an idiot with them. You haven’t responded to the threats, so maybe reality will do you some good.”

“I’ll do better.”

“How many times have you sung that song?”

He had a point.

“Please, Dad.” My voice was quivering, embarrassing me. “Stoneybrook sucks. It’s the worst town in the world. I mean, it’s so...boring.”

But it was more than that, and how could I explain? It was about leaving him and Gracie and Mrs. Bruen, and even Carol, goddamn her, and those same idiot friends he was talking about, and freaking Mandy, goddamn her more. Everything familiar, that made me feel like myself, that was in California. The beach, the ocean, the palm trees. Everything. But how could I explain?

“Maybe you need boredom in your life. Now get on the damn plane.”

“Dad – “

“Now boarding for Flight 269, nonstop to Stamford, Connecticut,” said some chirpy stewardess over the loudspeaker.

“GO!”

So I went. I got on the damn plane, as Dad so eloquently put it, and listened to the most depressing CD I had in my carry on bag. Blue by Third Eye Blind, even though it had nothing to do with anything.

*

“JEFF!” my mom screeched halfway across the terminal, and then two seconds later she was hugging me so hard it hurt.

“Mom,” I just said.

At least someone still liked me.

Richard hovered behind her, standing around like the stick-up-the-ass he is, not saying anything.

“How as your flight?” he asked.

“All right. A little bumpy.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Okay...

By now, Mom was letting me go and crying, digging around in her purse for a tissue. Richard, of course, unfurled a gleaming white linen handkerchief from his pocket like he was a magician and this was the bouquet of flowers up his sleeve, and handed it to her.

“We’re so happy you’re here, Jeff,” she said as she dabbed her eyes. “Even if...”

Even if I’m here because I almost knocked up my girlfriend. No, I didn’t say it.

“The circumstances are not ideal,” Richard finished.

“Yeah, thanks,” I mumbled.

“And we certainly hope,” he went on. “That we will not have similar problems here. You may be more accustomed to a...permissive lifestyle, but while you are here there are rules, and you will obey them. Am I clear?”

Yeah, he was clear. Clear as the hole in his head would be once I finished kicking his skull in. But my mom looked up at me, begging with her eyes, and I caved.

“Yes,” was all I said.

He nodded once.

“Good. Then let’s go get your bags.”

Mom linked her arm through mine, and we followed him.

*

For God’s sake, I still had X-Men sheets on my bed. Every time I’d come to visit this house, the once upon a time barn-house, I saw those sheets, and immediately forgot about them once I’d left. Even when I’d gotten older and not really into the whole superhero, macho, vaguely gay, pat-on-the-ass world of comic books, they just weren’t a big enough deal to request new ones. I mean, whoop de do, I’d be in Stoneybrook for like three days, a week, tops. Who cared?

And now, I had to care, because I’d be seeing those stupid sheets every night for...how many months? It was October. The end of the school year was June. It was too many to count.

“I need new sheets,” I said, staring at them.

Mom looked down at the bed, the sheets and blankets folded back carefully. Obviously, this was Richard’s work, especially since Dawn and Mary Anne, the neat freak twins, are both away at college now. She shrugged.

“I thought you liked the X-Men.”

“Mom, I’m sixteen.”

“So?”

So, only virgin dorks were sixteen-years-old and still read comics, but try telling that to your mother.

“So they’re like six years old.”

“Oh yeah...okay, sure. We’ll go to the Washington Mall tomorrow.” She was pulling clothes out of my suitcase – and I was letting her, since I didn’t have anything incriminating in there, all that was in my carry-on bag – and putting them away in her own special way. Dress pants folded four times and stuffed in a drawer, Stussy shirts just dropped on the ground, the socks and jeans all mixed together. That’s my mom. I still love her.

“But first, about school,” she went on as she did what she did. “You’re all registered at Stoneybrook High.”

“What’s my schedule like?”

“Hm? Oh, I don’t know. They were going to look at your schedule and put you in classes you still needed. They’ll give that to you when you start on Monday.”

It was Friday night. No rest for the wicked, I guess.

“How’ll I get there? Walk? I don’t know where it is.”

She grinned.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that! I called Dee Pike and explained the situation to her, and she’s sending the triplets out to pick you up. Isn’t that nice?”

I groaned. “Moooom...”

She looked clueless. “What? You’re friends with them.”

Yeah, like when I was ten. When we still all jumped on the bed together and wrestled and played with army men. Then, yeah, we were friends. But once my visits got shorter and shorter, and I didn’t have time to play and build forts anymore, we lost contact. She should know this. I mean, I couldn’t pick any one of them out of a lineup if you asked me.

If all three of them were in the lineup together, then maybe.

“I can get there myself, Mom,” was all I said.

“Well, it’s just for the first day. Afterwards, you’ll be able to figure out things.” She looked at me. “How’re you feeling?”

“Tired.” And I wasn’t lying just to be left alone. I swear.

“I’ll leave you alone then so you can rest.” Mom kissed me on the forehead. “Goodnight sweetie. I really am glad you’re here.”

She left the room, and I stood up to sort through the mess of clothes. It looked like my suitcase had thrown up.

“Night,” I sighed.

I really hate Stoneybrook.

Chapter Text

That was some kind of weekend. And by some, I mean bad, and sucky, and crappy, and a whole lot of other words that basically all mean stupid. But by the end of it I at least had a room that looked like it could possibly belong to a sixteen-year-old. And winter clothes, which was the stupidest thing of all. I mean, in Palo all you do when it gets cold is throw a sweatshirt on. Here we had to buy coats and really warm sweaters and shit like that. It would've been much more economical for me to stay in California.

Anyway, the weekend came, and then it was gone. Suddenly, I was sitting at the kitchen table, eating Raisin Bran, with a fully loaded backpack on the floor leaning against my chair. It all felt surreal. If I looked outside, would I see the ocean peaking over the horizon? A palm tree in the front yard? My surfboard on the porch?

Unlikely.

"Excited?" Mom asked brightly as she put the cereal box in the freezer.

"I guess," I mumbled.

Richard looked at me over his newspaper and frowned. He, of course, was completely neat and put together, even before seven-thirty. As put together as Richard can be, anyway. If I liked him at all, I'd build a time machine and tell High School Richie that girls don't go down on guys who wear sweater vests, but then again he was going out with my mom then, so maybe not.

"What was that?" he asked.

"I said, 'I guess.'"

"Hmm. Do you have everything?"

"Yeah."

"Notebook?"

"Yeah."

"Pens and pencils?"

"Yeah."

"Books?"

"They have to give me those."

"College-rule, looseleaf paper?"

"Richard!" Mom cried. "For goodness sake, do we have to interrogate him?"

"Hmm," Richard said, you know, being a succinct guy and all. Asshole.

Me, I just kept eating my Raisin Bran. No sense getting into the middle of things and piss off the Stepfather right off the bat, I guess. Better save it until tomorrow. Or ten minutes from now. I mean, you never can tell.

Luckily for all of us, a few minutes later the doorbell rang; it made my stomach twist.

"Come on," Mom said. "That must be the triplets."

And it was. She opened the door, with me just behind her, and there one of them stood on our front step. I don't know, maybe I would've been able to pick one of them out of a lineup, but I still had no idea which one this was for sure.

"Hi, Mrs. Spier," he said. "How are you this morning?"

So he was overly-friendly, fake angelic, the sort of Eddie Haskell good-boy act that other kids can see through in a second, but some parents have trouble getting past. Blue eyes and brown hair, that hadn't changed, jeans, Yankees shirt telling me they were still into sports. So far, so good.

"Oh, I'm fine," Mom answered, without using a name. She obviously had no clue which one he was either. "How are you?"

"Excellent! Hey Jeff."

"Hey."

"Well, you boys better get going. Jeff needs to get his schedule straightened out, and..."

"Mom," I sighed.

"Sure, Mrs. Spier," the Mystery Pike interrupted. "You ready?"

"Yeah." I slung my backpack over one shoulder.

"Great!" Mom cried. She kissed my cheek. I flinched. "Have a good day, sweetie."

"Yeah."

I was halfway down the front walk in about two steps. Mom waved. God.

The triplet just laughed as he slid into the passenger seat of the old gray Honda sitting in neutral in front of the house. I took the cue to climb into the backseat next to his clone, while another sat behind the wheel. The one in the passenger seat half-turned and pointed to the driver.

"Jordan." He gestured to the one next to me. "Byron."

"Hey." I really do have an impressive vocabulary.

"Happy to be back?" Jordan asked as we pulled out onto Burnt Hill Road.

"Not really."

Adam laughed. "You're still honest."

"Too honest," Jordan broke in. "They might think you're a snob."

"Like I care," I said.

"Attitude!" Adam smirked.

"They'll like that," Jordan said with a nod.

"You'll do fine."

"Any sports?"

"Soccer," I answered.

"Spring. What else do you do?"

"Do?" I repeated.

"Yeah," Adam said. "You know - schoolboy, smartass, jock, prep. What're you?"

"I don't like labels."

"Rebel," Jordan clarified.

"Totally," Adam agreed. "Chicks here like rebels."

"Hang with us, if you want."

Their friendliness wasn't hard to figure out - girl magnets are always welcome. We're talking about overflow here, and the benefits thereof. One guy can lure in a lot of girls, but unless he's really smooth, can only go home with one. That's when his friends score. So maybe these guys were kind of losers, or maybe just realistic.

"Sure," I answered vaguely.

"What classes are you taking?" Byron asked. They were the first words he spoke to me.

"I don't know yet. They have to give them to me at school."

"Hey, why didn't you move at the beginning of the year?" Adam asked. He stared at me via the rearview mirror.

I'm a pretty laid back guy and all, don't get me wrong. It takes a lot to get under my skin (unless you're Richard, or Carol, or Mandy, or...well, maybe I should move on). But an interrogation at seven-thirty? AM? As in, the morning? By three fuckheads I hadn't really seen since I was eleven? At seven-thirty? My fists were clenching.

"I wanted to move now," was all I said.

"It would've been easier to wait for the semester," Jordan pointed out.

I shrugged.

"What'd you do?" Adam asked.

"Hey, there's the school," Byron broke in suddenly, and started pointing out the various landmarks of glorious old Stoneybrook High School.

We parked and got out of the car. I slammed my door, but it didn't take the edge off. Frowning, I stalked off in some random direction. I had no idea where I was going. Care? Not likely.

"The office - " one of the Pikes started, but I had no idea which one said it. And need I remind you - care? No. Negative. I was gone.

"I'll find it!" I called.

I was twenty minutes late to my first class.

*

I'm going to attribute lunch to the fact that I had a few periods to cool down. To the fact that I'm a bigger man. To the fact that if I sat alone I would've looked completely lame.

Yeah, I sat with the Pikes. But it's not like I went crawling to them or anything. They asked me. As I walked by their table with my tray (with only a small green salad and a carton of yogurt on it - SHS really needs to work on its vegetarian menu), Adam nodded at me.

"Sit with us?"

I sat. "Thanks."

"It's cool," said Jordan.

Byron just smiled faintly and wolfed down his sandwich.

And that was that. I was part of the group, officially, though whether it was for me or for the potential girls I'd bring along, who knows. But as soon as I had a better invitation, I'd take it.

I'm going to spare you the introductions. There was a table full of people, but as far as I could tell, the core group consisted of the triplets, Scott Danby (some ass I never saw before, in an SHS football jersey), Shea Rodowsky (decked out in Sean John, suburban-hip-hop-Polish), James Hobart (what was with the redheads? - long hair, thick-rimmed glasses, glasses, scarf - desperate to be emo), Sara Hill (moderately hot), and Haley Braddock (total hottie - she didn't look like this when we were stuck on that island). As the triplets had predicted earlier, the girls slid over on the bench to sit next to me and asked me questions.

"How ya been, Jeff?"

"How's Cali, Jeff?"

"Where'd you get those piercings, Jeff?"

"Here all year, Jeff?"

"Sit with us tomorrow, Jeff?"

"Okay."

The reaction from the guys wasn't as good as I might've hoped. They looked like they were sulking, mostly. But what did I care? This was only until I went home anyway, and I don't mean home as in Burnt Hill. This would not be permanent.

Better not tell Mandy about this, I thought anyway.

Chapter Text

"...and so Charlotte almost started to cry. I mean, right in the middle of Gym!" Sara said with a laugh.

"Just because she couldn't climb the rope?" Haley asked.

"I know! Like a total baby."

"Maybe that's why they shouldn't skip kids a grade. They're just not on our level."

I was sitting in between the girls at lunch a few weeks after starting school, pushing around a cherry tomato in the "Zesty California" dressing still on my plate. I don't think there's actually such a thing as "Zesty California," other than it being a cheap marketing ploy. Put California in the title, and it sells. I was offended for my state, but then again, it worked - I picked the dressing, right?

Anyway, I couldn't really remember who Charlotte was, even though Haley had assured me I knew her when I lived here. Nobody seems to get that I lived in Stoneybrook six years ago. Maybe everyone's crummy little Connecticut lives have stayed fresh in their minds, but I have no idea who Betsy Sobak is and I don't care if she smokes weed under the bleachers after school. But if you ask me who Erick DeWitt is back home, I can tell you all about the time he got expelled for bringing a switchblade to school. That's just how things are.

The only people in Stoneybrook I knew anything about, really, even after being in this school for a couple weeks, were the other people in this group I stumbled into, and I wasn't too impressed. I mean, it didn't take long to figure them out.

But I wasn't really listening to their gossip too well anyway. I wouldn't have been even if I did know who Charlotte was. Like I said, I was sitting in between Sara and Haley, and every time one of them leaned towards the other in conversation, their breasts brushed against one of my arms. So I was kind of distracted. Plus, there was plenty of other stuff going on around us.

"I don't usually show anyone my poems, but..." I could hear James saying to a girl from our drama class, as he flipped open his poetry notebook. It was the fifth or sixth time I'd seen him show them off, but she giggled softly, pleased.

"...your fucking pudding on my sleeve!" Scott said.

"I said I was sorry," Jordan replied.

"Fuck, Jordan! People are going to think this is fucking shit on my letterman's jacket!"

"Scott, I said I was sorry. It was a fucking accident." His voice rose.

"Shit - "

"Look, if people think it's anything, they'll think it's mud," Byron broke in. "Like you've been playing hard, okay?" And that quieted them both.

"Can't," Shea told Adam with a shrug, on the other side of the table.

"Why not?"

"I need to go with my little brother to get his cast off, and it's going to take all day."

"I thought Jackie just got his cast off!

"No, that was for his ankle. Now the cast needs to come off his wrist."

Adam sighed. "Hey Jeff?"

Lucky for him, Haley had pulled back to take a drink of her Sobe, so I was somewhat coherent.

"Huh?"

"Doing anything tomorrow?"

It was a Friday. Now, I hung out with these guys everyday at school, but it was a default thing. Hanging out at school doesn't count. I could flirt with Sara and Haley all the live-long day, but I meant jack if I wasn't seen with them outside school walls. At first, I didn't care. But no matter what my dad and even Richard in his off-handed, polite way may infer, I am not an idiot. A few days at SHS made me realize that a better invite of friendship was not going to come. This table held the finest Stoneybrook had to offer. These were the "cool" kids, and yeah, I don't like labels, but I don't like math either, and that doesn't make it any less a reality.

"Don't think so. Why?"

"The car needs some work, and we could use another pair of hands."

"Uh...well, honestly, I don't know much about cars."

Adam smirked. "Neither do we. That's why we need all the help we can get."

"Then I'm there."

"Cool. You can find your way to our house on your own, right?"

I would've answered Adam, but Sara chose that moment to turn back to Haley, and my brain was gone again.

So these were my friends. They weren't any better than the friends I'd left back home in Palo City, but then again, they weren't any worse.

*

My room back home in Palo City has one of those beds that are low to the floor and have wheels so I can move it whenever I want. It's got a dresser and an end table with an alarm clock on it. The walls are white, or maybe a light yellow.

My room in Stoneybrook has a bed high off the ground with a wooden headboard and sheets that are blue and all match. The floor is wooden too, shiny, with a rug in the center that has a design with exactly ten concentric circles. The side table is the same kind of wood as the headboard, with two drawers with brass handles, and has a clock radio and little lamp on top. There's a small TV/VCR and a portable stereo on the dresser with - you guessed it - matching wood. The closet has a light in it that you turn on by pulling this piece of string tied to the bulb or whatever, and can hold all my clothes, my skateboard, and my suitcases. The walls are blue. Definitely.

Why the difference in memory? Well, as opposed to home, I was spending most of my free time in my room here in Connecticut. It made my mother worried, and Richard harrumph over how much electricity I was wasting by watching TV so much.

They were probably surprised when I came downstairs Saturday morning and said, "Going out."

Mom looked up from her bowl of multi-grain cereal and said, "Out?"

Richard was eating ham and eggs, but he set down his fork before asking, "Out where? And with whom?"

Okay, come on. This guy says whom, and clearly thinks he's not only Captain Neatness, but Kid Grammatical too. And yet, he was speaking in sentence fragments. I call that hypocritical. I wisely didn't call him on it.

"The triplets need help with their car, is all."

Mom smiled. "Oh, that's fine. I'm so glad you made friends, Jeff!"

"Maybe they'll be a better influence than your old ones," Richard muttered.

I hope my mother appreciates how often I've been biting my tongue for her.

*

The Pike house looked the same as it always had before, only slightly updated. See, there are eight kids in the family altogether - Mallory's seventeen, the triplets sixteen like me, Vanessa's fifteen, Nicky's fourteen, Margo's thirteen, and Claire's eleven - so it's natural for it to look like a total zoo at any given moment of any given day. At least, it always seemed like that to me, back when I was ten, and now I couldn't see much difference, except that instead of Wandering Frog Men action figures and Barbies, the mess was mostly clothes.

Not that we spent much time in the actual house. Once I showed up, I'd been unceremoniously led out to the garage by who I guessed was Vanessa, and abandoned at the doorway. I stood there awkwardly for a few moments. Not knowing what to do with my hands, I shoved them into my pockets with a shrug.

"Hey," I said.

Standing around the car were the triplets, Scott, James, and some kid that I guessed was Nicky, their little brother. At the sound of my voice, they all looked up, and nodded or gave some sort of too-cool-slightly-bored sign of recognition. Scott just took a gulp from his soda; they were all holding cans.

"Want one?" a triplet asked, holding up his Pepsi.

I don't drink soda. Usually, if people ask, I just say that it's because soda's bad for you, all sugar, and it eats away at your stomach lining, but honestly, the carbonation hurts my stomach. I go around with my gut in knots too often as it is.

I smiled sheepishly. "Got any water?"

He stared blankly at me. "We've got the hose out back..."

"You know, never mind. I'm good."

I walked up and joined them in just looking at the car, which just sat around like some really uninspired piece of shit work of modern art. We just stood there, surveying the scene but not so much as tiptoeing over it. Scott finished his soda and got another.

Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I guess I just lack the patience of these masterminds.

"Do we know what's wrong with it?"

"Nope," said another triplet, and threw back his head to take a swig.

"We ever going to find out?" James asked tentatively, and for the first time I wondered how long the others had been in the group.

There was a collective shrug from the remaining guys.

"I've got to be done by six, though," Scott said. "I'm going out."

"Who with?" asked a triplet.

He grinned. "Haley."

There was some small sounds of admiration, short laughs, and knowing nods from the other guys.

"Wow," Nicky murmured wistfully. Poor kid hadn't quite hit a good growth spurt yet, so he had to crane his neck to ogle Scott like he was fucking Casanova or someone.

"Haley?" I asked. "What's the big deal?"

They all exchanged glances.

"Well, when Haley likes you, she really likes you."

"Oh yeah?"

Suddenly, I was intrigued. It's weird - I'd gone through the vast majority of my life as a celibate, and that was survivable, but having sex even just a few times made my lack of a girlfriend unbearable. So this information, I could use. Definitely.

"Oh yeah."

"Let's just say she could be an elevator operator, for how much she goes down," James, the sensitive poet, added with a smirk.

"Seriously? That's - "

Just then, the door leading from the garage to the house swung open, and Mallory stepped in, carrying a bag of garbage aloft. We went silent instantly, eyes back to being stuck on the car, as she walked past us, stuffed the bag into a big trash can in the corner, and then retraced her steps.

As she retreated back into the sunny kitchen, she called over her shoulder, "Try checking the oil, dumbasses."

The door closed. We all looked at each other.

*

Turns out, it was a lot easier to actually do stuff with the car when we knew what was wrong with it. As Jordan changed the oil, he explained to me that Mallory had learned lots of random crap at the boarding school she'd attended until a year ago, including basic car maintenance. Thank God, considering the Pike boys obviously knew jack about cars; most of the oil ended up forming a new stain on the cement below.

After the car was good to go - changing the oil took all of ten minutes, tops - we mostly just hung around, drinking soda (orange juice for me), laughing and telling stories. Nicky stayed too, as always - he'd always wanted to tag along back when we were ten, too. He laughed the loudest and told the lamest anecdotes, until finally even Byron was telling him to get the hell away from us.

It was nice, it was easy. The whole day reminded me of being with my friends back home, having fun doing nothing. The only real difference was that, instead of the stories being centered around girls and soccer, here they were mostly about girls and the SHS baseball team, which all three triplets and Scott were on.

Like I said, it was easy. Pleasant. Maybe a little lacking in something, but whatever. At least I felt more like part of the group, which is a good thing, I guess.

A couple hours went by. There was a pyramid of soda cans on the hood of the car. Through the window, you could see that the light was growing dimmer as noon passed and late afternoon began to set in. Eventually, Scott left, announcing that he wanted to start getting ready for his date as early as possible. A few minutes later, Adam and Jordan looked at each other.

"Actually, we have dates too," Adam said.

"With the Arnold twins," Jordan added.

Adam winked. "Double the fun. You guys don't mind cleaning up, right?"

"Well -" Byron started, but before he could even begin his thought, his clones were out the door. After a second of hesitation, Nicky apparently decided that two was better than one, and set off to trail behind them.

James, Byron, and I stared sullenly at all the sticky soda cans waiting for us on the hood of the Honda. James cleared his throat.

"I've got to, um...help my little brother with his history homework," he said lamely, and hightailed it out of the garage too.

Byron and I watched him go, and when the door slammed, looked at each other blankly.

Now, when I said it had been an easy day, I should have clarified that Byron didn't really add to the easiness at all. Not that he was an asshole or anything; he was just way quieter than the other guys. He kind of just let his brothers do the talking for him and hung back. I guess that's why I felt sort of uncomfortable around him. When James left, all that easy feeling I'd built up flew out the door with him.

With a shrug, I moved to start picking up the cans.

"Don't," Byron said. "You didn't drink any."

I froze in mid-motion, surprised by the fact that he'd spoken.

"Uh...yeah, but I stood around with you."

"With one glass of juice." He started to carefully gather only the cans of his own grape soda. "Let them do it."

I was halfway impressed with him and halfway mad - his laid back defiance made me look like a jerk for just going ahead and trying to clean up. I crossed my arms.

"Okay."

I watched as he threw the cans into the recycling bin, then wipe his hands on a blue rag that'd been laying on the work bench. For some reason, the silence in the room was bugging the hell out of me, but I couldn't just take off and ditch him like the others. Maybe I'm a jerk, but not that big a one. I just couldn't relate to him, that was the hard part. The others weren't hard to deal with at all. Sports and girls - what's so complicated about that? But whatever anyone said, all Byron usually gave was a weak chuckle or some neutral comment. I had the distinct feeling that, if he hadn't shared a womb with Adam and Jordan, he wouldn't be in the group at all.

"So..." I said halfheartedly. "Think James' brother actually needs help with his homework?"

Byron laughed shortly. "Naw. Probably the other way around. James is in remedial history."

"What? I didn't even know there was such a thing."

"Yeah. You know he's from Australia, right? It's all the junk in American history that gets him. He can't keep the names and dates straight."

"I guess that makes sense," I said thoughtfully, for once in my life. "I mean, we've been hearing all that George Washington shit since we were little."

Byron nodded. "Exactly." His expression suddenly became worried. "Wait, don't tell anyone, okay? I'm not supposed to know. He's kind of sensitive about it."

I raised my eyebrows. "Then how'd you find out?"

He smiled sheepishly. "I heard Mallory talking to his brother Ben about it on the phone. Overheard, I guess." He actually blushed, the tips of his ears turning red.

"So you think he ran off to get one of his little brothers to help him with history?"

"Maybe. It's also almost time for his favorite show, and he hates to miss it."

"What show?"

"I shouldn't say."

I grinned slowly, my eyes narrowing. Suddenly, I'd found my opening to Byron, and my whole body was singing, Bingo!

"You're a gossip."

He kept blushing, kept smiling. "I just pay attention."

"And share your notes," I laughed.

"Not usually," he protested. The flush was gradually retreating from his face, and he looked just like his brothers again. "Just with some people."

In my head, I counted the weeks we'd known each other, minus the years between us being kids together and now. Not many. And I was like, Duh. I wasn't the only one at the lunch table feeling uncomfortable. And for some reason, that made me feel better.

I stepped back, hands shoved in my pockets. "So you're the one I come to when I need information?" I kidded.

He looked at his feet; I think he was embarrassed, even though he was still smiling a little. "Depends. Mostly, yeah."

"Anything I should know about you and your brothers?" I asked lightly, half-joking.

Byron looked up sharply. "A certain Pike boy," he answered finally, "pisses the others off because he can't sleep without a nightlight."

The boys all share a room, I remembered. And that wasn't exactly the kind of information I'd been asking for, but it'd do.

"Which one?"

"Can't say. Sworn to secrecy."

"You're not exactly the most reliable gossip."

"No, Sara's better for that. And I told you, I just pay attention. Listen."

I wasn't sure if he was telling me what he did, or what I should do, and I didn't really want him to clarify.

"I'll keep that in mind," I replied, and headed toward the door. "I've got to get going." I lifted my hand, and regretted it. It fell to my side in a half-wave. "See you."

"See you," I heard him echo as the door closed behind me.

Chapter Text

Something that Connecticut has that California doesn't is my grandparents. My dad's parents died before I was ever born, but my mom's folks are still alive and kicking. Even though we're not really supposed to talk about it - not polite or whatever - they're obviously kind of rich, and since they only have three grandkids (if you count my stepsister, Mary Anne, which I guess I do), we're majorly spoiled every time we visit. I'm sure as hell not going to complain about it, even if Mom and Richard do.

One Sunday, my mom and Richard took me to go visit Granny and Pop-Pop. We'd done this before, so it wasn't anything new - no teary reunions, cries of how much I've grown, any of that shit. Instead, we just sat out in the living room, in front of the fireplace, drinking hot tea, of all things, while my grandfather talked about stocks or whatever with Richard, and Mom told Granny about Dawn's magnificent college career. Don't expect me to go into detail about any of this, please; I wasn't paying attention. If you want to know the truth, I was counting the alternating white stripes in the wallpaper pattern rather than keep up with their slightly less than mesmerizing conversation.

Now, one thing I really love about Granny and Pop-Pop is that they don't really like Richard. They're nice to him and all, since he's married to Mom, but hell, they sent her all the way to California for school just to keep them apart. Old habits die hard, and even though they're always civil, there's this edge to what they say sometimes. I never noticed it as a kid, but now I do, and it's fucking hilarious to see these old people make him squirm.

And sometimes, it really benefits me.

For example, Pop-Pop lowered his mug of tea, looked at me thoughtfully, and asked, "You have your driver's license, don't you, Jeff?"

"Yeah," I answered. "But I haven't driven since I got here."

Honestly, I didn't think there was much in Stoneybrook that I'd want to get to by car anyway, but they were both born and raised here and are proud Stoneybrookites, so I kept my mouth shut.

"That's a shame," he said, clicking his tongue. "Seems to me that a boy your age should have a little more freedom."

Mom and Richard looked at each other, and suddenly I realized that my grandparents had no idea why I'd been sent back here. If they'd known that I'd almost impregnated my girlfriend in the backseat of her car, maybe Pop-Pop wouldn't have thought so much about giving me freedom.

"Well," Mom started. "We only have the two cars, and Richard and I need those for work. Besides, the school's within walking distance, and Jeff could always get a ride with one of us if he needs something."

"Even still," Granny replied. "Sure is a shame that a good boy like Jeff can't have a car of his own. You had one when you were his age, Sharon."

"I didn't," Richard retorted.

"Of course you didn't," Pop-Pop laughed. Richard, who'd been poor as a kid, flushed. "And there's no shame in that, if you can't have one. But surely, Jeff..."

"We really can't afford to get him a car of his own, even a used one," Mom broke in.

"Such a shame," Granny sighed. Apparently, they really like the word 'shame.' She turned to Pop-Pop. "Dear...we have three cars, don't we?"

He nodded slowly, a smile forming. "Why, we sure do."

"And we hardly ever use the blue Cadillac..."

Mom's, Richard, and my eyes all widened, probably for different reasons, but I think we'd all realized that they'd had this whole thing planned.

Pop-Pop turned back to me and winked. "Jeff, how'd you like to drive a Cadillac?"

I think I almost came in my pants.

"Oh my God!" I yelped.

"Now, this is really unnecessary," Richard protested. "Jeff can get along fine on foot; he doesn't need a car..."

"Now, Richard," Pop-Pop said, frowning at him. "I hate to say it, but this really doesn't concern you. We want to make this a gift to our grandson; it's between him and us."

"But Dad - " Mom said.

"Oh, Sharon, can you really deny your son this?" Granny clucked. "Look how happy it's making him - you want the car, don't you, Jeff?"

"Yes!" I cried, and lunged myself at my grandparents, hugging them and saying thank you about a thousand times.

Richard and Mom didn't protest anymore, though they did look a little sick. I don't know if I've ever seen them stand up to Granny and Pop-Pop, and hell, I love them for it. For my part, I spent the rest of the visit sitting in between my grandparents on the couch and being adorable, attentive, and well-mannered.

As we were leaving, when Pop-Pop put the keys in my hand, he whispered, "Try not to get into too much trouble," and laughed.

*

"You got a Caddy?!" Adam screamed when I showed up at school that Monday.

"Yep," I answered proudly, patting the hood. In their insane planning of this, my grandparents had already put my name on the insurance, so I was good to drive it immediately. That made Richard even more freaked, and me even more gleeful.

"Your parents gave it to you?" Shea asked in awe. We were all standing around in the parking lot before school, looking like tools.

"Grandparents," I clarified, still grinning from ear to ear.

"Even better," Jordan said.

"A no strings attached gift," Adam finished.

"It's nice," Byron commented simply.

Haley linked her arm through mine and smiled.

"You should take me for a drive sometime," she said, which made Sara giggle and Scott scowl.

"It's great, but I'm getting one too, soon. A car, I mean," James announced loudly.

He wouldn't, though. I'd taken Byron's words about paying attention seriously, and by God, it was doing me some good. I could kind of predict the others now, to some extent at least, and one thing I learned really quick was that James was a liar. I don't think he could really help it, but about ninety percent of anything he said could be counted on to be shit.

But at that moment, that wasn't on my mind. All there was in the world was the Cadillac. And Haley on my arm.

Mostly the Cadillac.

"Seriously," Adam said. "We should go cruising or something."

"Who's 'we'?"

He shrugged. "Whoever."

"Sounds cool. Maybe this weekend?"

"Definitely," he said with a grin, answering for the group as a whole. That wasn't unusual for Adam, and no one protested.

The bell rang, and we all went in to class, but I didn't care. Life was good.

*

A few nights later, I was setting the table for dinner like a good little boy when Richard sighed. And yeah, I know, who the hell cares, only it wasn't a sigh so much as a tsk, and it was clearly directed at me; no one else was in the room.

"What?" I asked.

Richard, my beloved stepfather, shook his head dismissively.

"You've put the salad fork in the wrong place."

I should have let it go. It really wasn't a big deal, I knew that, but his tone was just so...I mean, it was like I was ten, or just really, really slow. I know I do stupid things all the time, but I am not an idiot, and I was tired of fucking feeling like one.

"Who cares?" I retorted with a shrug, still holding a plate.

He frowned. "Well, I do, as well as many other people."

"Like, Dear Abby, or the Hints from Heloise lady."

"I don't like that tone, Jeffrey."

Who the hell did he think he was, calling me Jeffrey? He barely even knows me.

I frowned too. "But seriously, it really doesn't matter. I mean, we're having salad for dinner."

"If you're going to do something, you might as well do it right. Now, set it properly."

"No."

He actually looked stunned. "Excuse me?"

"I really don't see the point, so I won't do it."

We stood up-right, straight, staring at each other and scowling.

"Set the table correctly, Jeff."

"No."

"As your guardian, I do have the ability to ground you," Richard pointed out. If this were poker, he'd be showing me his hand.

"You do that," I replied coolly, and dropped the plate. It fell onto the table with a dull thud, but didn't break.

"The weekend!" Richard cried, pointing a finger. "Grounded!"

Well, there went the weekend drive. Suddenly, I did feel really stupid. Why hadn't I just moved the damn salad fork? But I couldn't let him win, see. I couldn't let up now.

"Make it a week," I said, and left the kitchen, the house, and oh, look, there was a car, just for me, sitting by the curb.

I spent a few minutes cruising down Burnt Hill Road, which is insanely long, and cussing myself out, "Fuck, fuck, fuck!" I mean, here I was, this relatively happy guy for a change, with a sweet car that I'd paid exactly zero dollars for, and some friends to replace the ones I'd left back home, and now I now I was going to be denied that. Just because I couldn't fucking shove a salad fork slightly to the left. How is it so hard for me to keep my damn mouth shut?

But I figured, hey, I was grounded anyway. Might as well go for that drive, right?

I was mentally planning my TV schedule for the week - if not more - I'd be grounded when I pulled up to the Pike house, and was busy trying to remember what channel showed more videos these days, MTV or MTV2, when I knocked on the door.

There was a crash inside, then a shout, before the door opened, and I found one of the triplets staring at me. I had no idea which one he was.

"Uh, hi," I said.

"Adam and Jordan aren't here," was the answer I got.

Apparently, Byron wasn't clueless to his place within the group, and that made me feel slightly bad for whatever reason.

"Oh. Will they be back soon?"

He shrugged. "They just left ten minutes ago."

That meant no. Crap. I was still kind of weirded out by hanging out with Byron alone. I don't know why; he just was so quiet, and I really couldn't read him a lot. Sometimes I caught myself looking at him for a long time, with no idea of what he was thinking. It was like his eyes were closed off or something, blank, so no one had a clue to his emotions or anything else about him. And when I looked, he never looked back.

But it's not like I could've just said, Okay, thanks anyway, bye. I'm a jerk, but I'm not mean.

"Look," I said with a half-sigh, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. "I think I'm going to be grounded the second I get home, so I figured I'd go driving while I could, but driving alone is..."

"Alone," he offered.

"Uh, yeah. Anyway - you want to go somewhere?"

He looked taken aback, actually, just surprised that anyone would ask that, and there was that pull in my chest again.

"Well...yeah. Yeah, sure." He half-smiled. "We going now?"

"No time like the present," I said. "Need to check in with anyone?"

"Naw, it's okay. I'm good to go."

I started down the walk before he shut the door, and was inside the car and buckled when he slid into the passenger seat next to me. Then we sat.

"So where're we going?" I asked finally.

"I was going to ask you the same thing," he said with a sheepish smile.

"Well, I don't really know of anywhere cool in Stoneybrook..."

"Who does?"

Oh, great. I kind of wished he was Adam, who had emerged to clearly be the leader in our group. And that was fine by me; it was too hard to be a leader, too many expectations tied up with it. I'd rather listen and decide whether or not to do my own thing. But at least he would've had a suggestion.

"We'll just drive until we figure it out," I suggested, and Byron nodded, his blue eyes blank as ever.

There were a few more quiet minutes, driving along. I reached for something neutral and asked, "So...you're on the baseball team."

He nodded again.

"What position?"

"Left field." Byron smiled, almost apologetically. "I'm not as good as my brothers."

"Who cares? I bet you're fine."

"Do you play?"

"Just watch."

"What's your team?"

"Angels." The Angels were as close to hometown as Palo City had. "What about you?"

"Red Sox. At least, they used to be. They traded Nomar Garciaparra."

I didn't have a follow-up for that; I didn't have any favorite players in baseball.

"And you play soccer?" he went on tentatively.

"Yeah," I answered, relieved that he made the jump in conversation for once.

"I don't know a lot about it, but I watch every once in a while. I like Beckham."

I laughed. "Who doesn't?"

Talking sports was easy, and it took the edge off. I found myself slowly relaxing as we chatted about scores, highlights, and various Classic ESPN Moments we had been witness to. Meanwhile, I kept driving, with absolutely no aim, while the streets around us grew from the cheery and well-groomed roads typical of the Stoneybrook I knew to dingy and unkempt lines of asphalt and concrete. It took me hitting a pothole to really pause and look around.

"What the hell?"

"We're in Old Stoneybrook," Byron explained. "They don't keep it so nice."

No kidding. I had to pull over to the side of the street to look. They was a seedy-looking bar, and an all-night liquor store with a few people hanging around outside of it, and no freaking way was that an adult bookstore...

"I had no idea any of this was here," I said in awe.

"Me either, for the longest time. I think it's a rule that you have to graduate the eighth grade before you can know about it or something." He stared out the window to the sidewalk, then touched the glass, pointing. "Let's go there."

I looked. It was a little pool hall with dim windows, though there was a neon sign that flashed OPEN. I wrinkled my nose at it.

"Serious?"

"Sure. I've never been anywhere over here, and neither have you."

"My stepfather'd be pissed if he found out."

"And you'd like that, right?" he asked quietly, but when I just turned and looked at him, he quickly added, "Besides, you're the rebel."

He grinned, and it was the first time I saw his teeth. One of the bottom ones was crooked. I found myself grinning back before I could stop myself, if I'd wanted to, which I didn't.

"Fine," I said with a little laugh and shake of my head, like I was saying, Oh, you tricky, tricky guy, okay, you win, and we got out of the Cadillac.

The pool hall wasn't as dark inside as I thought, but it was still pretty dim and grungy. Most of the light came from the Coors lamps that hung above each pool table and the jukebox in the corner. A few men, who basically looked exactly like guys who hung out in pool halls, looked up at us for a second when we came in, then went back to whatever they were doing. I guess we weren't the first couple of Nice Boys who'd darkened their door.

Byron nodded at an unused pool table. "You play?"

I wanted to say yes, but realized that the terrible truth about my lack of billiards ability would be revealed after, like, a second of play.

"Not well," I admitted.

He shrugged. "Me either. Want to just play for fun?"

"Okay."

The billiard balls were on the table already, but there were no cues to be found. After a couple minutes of confusion, we realized that we had to rent them from the cashier. Then we got down to the business of a really informal game of pool - just trying to sink anything, regardless of number or color.

"That blue two over there, center pocket," Byron said as he poised to take aim. It ended up bouncing against the eight ball harmlessly and going no where near that pocket.

I laughed. "You're lucky we're not gambling."

He grinned, showing those teeth again. "Like you're any better."

I took aim at the same ball, and proved him right.

"We suck," I noted cheerfully.

"Mmhmm." He bent to take his turn, eyes on the ball. "So how do you like Stoneybrook so far?"

"It's okay," I shrugged. "Same as ever. Kind of boring."

"Not the same as out by the beach, huh?"

"Nope. More to do out there. But here, people are friendlier."

"To your face, at least," he muttered.

I frowned. "What do you mean? Are people talking about me?"

"Oh, no, that's not what I meant," he answered quickly. "You as in people in general. Like...sometimes people are nice about things to your face, but not so much in practice."

"Like the guys and Haley?"

He shifted. "Yeah. Like Haley."

"Is it true? That she...?"

"As far as I can tell, yeah."

"Well, that's good to know."

"She just hasn't been the same since Matt died."

"Wait - what?!"

I remembered Matt, her little brother. He was this deaf kid, really good at ball. Really nice too, for someone I couldn't talk to.

"A few years ago."

"But I thought he was just deaf..."

"He was. Didn't have anything to do with it - he drowned when they were on a vacation or something. She hasn't been the same since then. More...fake, I guess. Wants everyone to like her. A partier."

"Holy...I mean, shit." I shook my head, feeling slightly sick. "And the others - they know this? And they let her go down on them?"

He shrugged, staring down at his shoes. "I guess they don't want to think about it either."

"Well, fuck, that really was good to know." I leaned toward the table for my shot. "Any other examples?"

But Byron was looking away from me, to the jukebox. "Let's see what's on the juke."

Like I said, me? Not stupid. I got the hint. "Uh, okay."

It turned out that there were about nine million songs on it, all of which my parents probably listened to in high school. We hardly recognized any.

"I like that one all right," Byron finally said half-heartedly, pointing to "The Joker" by the Steve Miller Band.

"Everyone does." I took out a couple dollars from my pocket. "Got any ones?"

He handed me one, and I fed all three into the machine, and pressed the button for "The Joker" - A61 - twelve times.

Byron suppressed a laugh. "Oh, God."

"Shhh," I whispered, smiling.

We went back to our game. "The Joker" came blaring on, and there was a murmur of recognition and appreciation from the other guys in the hall. A good sign.

"Some people call me a space cowboy," I sang along quietly, so only the two of us heard, and took my shot. "Some people call me the gangster of love. Some people call me Maurice - "

"Woo, wooooo," Byron chimed in, and I started laughing so hard that I couldn't sing anymore, which was okay, since I really didn't know the rest of the words.

We kept playing, though not well. Whenever we sank a shot, it was more by dumb luck than anything else, and not always even on purpose.

"Number four, in...that hole over there," I said. So much for sounding cool; I didn't even know anything beyond basic terminology.

Byron laughed, then laughed again when I missed the ball entirely. "Oh, you're ready for the pros!"

"Yeah, yeah," I muttered with a smile. "So, hear anything new about anyone we know?"

"I call that a tongue-twister." The white ball bounced off a yellow-striped one, sending it to the far end of the table. "And you said I'm a gossip."

"Hey, you're the man with the info."

"But I never ask for it."

"The Joker" ended quietly, then began again after a pause. Byron and I wisely looked up, feigning bewilderment along with everyone else.

"Party at our house next Friday," Byron said after the song set into its chorus. "You're invited."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. But when Adam tells you, act surprised, okay? He likes to be the one to make announcements."

"I bet he does. But, you know, I think I'm going to be grounded next week anyway."

"Me too."

"What'd you do?"

"I didn't tell my parents that I was taking off with you."

"You said you were good to go!"

"I was. I just don't think they thought so."

I started laughing again, for the third or fourth time since we'd gotten there, I think. More than I'd laughed in a while, since home.

"And you call me a rebel," I said, and Byron started laughing too.

"The Joker" ended and began a third time. This time, the men were sounding more pissed off than confused, and I saw a few of them glare at us. I nudged Byron.

"Maybe we better get out of here," I whispered, and he nodded.

As discreetly as possible, we set our cues down on the table and wandered out the door. As soon as we passed the threshold, we started running, sneakers slapping hard against the pavement until we made it to the Cadillac.

It's not like we thought we were going to get jumped or anything; just seemed like the thing to do. So we did, laughing.

When we got back to Byron's house, I said, "We should hang out more."

Still sitting next to me, he nodded.

"We should."

Our eyes met for a second before he looked away.

"Well...see you," he said, and started to get out of the car.

"Once we're not grounded," I joked.

He laughed. "Yeah."

I watched for a few moments while he walked up the path to his door, then pulled back onto Slate Street. I was likely going to be grounded the second I stepped into the door at home, I was dangerously low on gas, and I probably had "The Joker" stuck in my head for the rest of my life.

I'd had a great time.

"I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree," I sang softly to myself.

Chapter Text

After that taste of freedom the Cadillac had offered me, it was practically hell to be grounded for two weeks. I was unceremoniously stripped of my car key (I didn’t miss the gleam in Richard’s eye as he slipped it into his pocket) and informed that I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere but school, pretty much, and even as schemes started forming in my mind, Mom added:

“And I want you to call me by three-thirty every afternoon so I know you’ve come home. Remember, I have caller-ID at work, so I’ll know.”

That’s one thing about mothers; they know you too well sometimes.

But it wasn’t too horrible, I guess. Byron had been handed a similar deal, losing car privileges and having to get home by a certain time, only to a mother who didn’t work outside the house and could keep an eye on him. So we walked to school and back together. It wasn’t really arranged; on Monday we just met, while I was crossing the street and he was turning the corner. We raised our eyebrows at each other.

“You walk this way?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

And we fell into step with each other, side by side, and that was that. Sometimes, we talked.

"Lady MacBeth was a bitch," Byron said one day after school, out of the blue. We were all reading it in English class, no matter who our teacher happened to be.

I laughed. "Naw, she was just trying to get better things out of life, you know? Her husband was too much of a wimp to do it himself."

"I guess..."

"She took a chance. It didn't work out, but she tried, at least. You have to give her credit for that."

"She doesn't sound so bad when you put it that way," he said, and glanced up at a sky that was cloudy and thick.

*

“I am not giving up this party,” Adam said at lunch, scowling, his jaw firmly set.

Next to him, Jordan shrugged a little, resigned.

“Well, shit, Adam, what’re we supposed to do about it? It’s kind of hard to party when one of us is on restriction.”

“I know,” Adam retorted, and shot a pointed glare in Byron’s direction. “What the fuck did you do anyway? You never get grounded.”

Byron’s shoulders tensed a little. He was sitting next to me, and I glanced at him, confused. What was the big deal about his brothers knowing? I mean, it hadn’t even occurred to me that they wouldn’t know, since the whole thing was so not a big deal.

But he met my gaze, and for once, a split second, his eyes opened up. I mean, not that they’d been literally closed. He just – his eyes. They were blue, blue, blue, and you could never tell what they were thinking. But here, for a moment, I knew he didn’t want me to say anything. So I didn’t, and neither did he.

“But you can’t cancel it,” Scott Danby said, probably a little too forcefully, but then, hey, I’m not a big oaf, so what do I know about forceful?

“Yeah, we were going to get some…” Shea started, but shut up after a Look from Adam and glancing at the vice-principal, who was roaming the cafeteria within earshot.

“Well, our mom and dad can’t really let us do anything with the rebel here,” he nodded to Byron, “stuck up in our room moping all night.”

Haley looked disappointed, her cheeks turning a pretty pinky sort of color. Sara just wrinkled her nose at Byron, who stared down at the table. My stomach flipped.

“Hey,” I said suddenly, and was surprised by my own voice. I had to pause for a second to figure out where I was headed. “I’m grounded too, so I’d be out anyway. You think they’d let Byron come over to my place during the party?”

Jordan and Adam looked at each other.

“Maybe,” Jordan said finally. “If we really begged them. Would your mom be cool with that?”

“Probably,” I answered with a shrug. “I mean, she probably owes your mom a favor, for driving me to school the first day.”

They looked at each other again. Adam smiled.

“This is going to work,” he said softly, confidence seeping into his voice.

While the rest of the group started talking excitedly, all at once, Byron met my eyes again, mouth curved into an almost-smile, and I could see him start to relax.

“Yes!” James cried exuberantly across the table, and grabbed Jordan’s shoulders, shaking him a little.

“Hey,” Jordan said, laughing, shaking him off. “Don’t go Forbes on me!”

I opened my mouth, about to ask what the hell that meant, but Byron turned his face back to his food, shoulders hunched again.

*

Sometimes, we didn’t talk.

And that was okay. We would just walk together, in this companionable quiet, Jansport backpacks slung over a shoulder or two. In the mornings we could hear the birds shrieking, warning us off their territory, and a few late crickets calling for mates. In the afternoons, all there was was the brisk autumn wind that was starting to get sharper, and the slap-slap of our shoes on the sidewalk together.

And that was okay.

In many ways, the best thing Byron offered was silence. I just didn’t know it yet.

*

“Maybe I should call Dee up and cancel,” Mom said, looking at me worriedly.

“I’m fine,” I answered, snapping a little. “Jesus!”

See, when offering up this brilliant plan of mine, I hadn’t anticipated that, at that very moment, various germs and microbes were already working their way into my delicate, cold-abhorring, Californian body, and by Friday, I had what was probably a chest cold. Most of my feeling-like-shit time had already passed, but there was still this ache in the chest, like my insides were trying to climb up and out of my throat, and a pretty bad cough.

“We don’t want him catching your cold, though,” she went on doubtfully.

I coughed into my hand before replying, “Like he hasn’t already been exposed at school, or the twenty million brothers and sisters he has.”

“I guess that’s true,” Mom agreed half-heartedly.

“It is.” I paused and coughed again, a little painfully. “Could you make me some tea?”

“Of course,” and she beamed, happy to be asked to do motherly things.

I fretted for a while, sipping my hot tea. It was my first time having anyone over since moving back to Stoneybrook, and even back home I’d never really been the ‘entertainer’ type. Mostly, I just went where my friends went, and I’d never wanted them around much anyway, not with Gracie, my little sister, around. What were we going to do? The Spier residence didn’t have a lot of thrilling options – just TV and a shit load of VHS, essentially. Being grounded, we of course couldn’t go out. Not that we could have topped the pool hall incident anyway.

Byron was so quiet, and his eyes still creeped me out sometimes. Maybe that day’d been a fluke.

But before that thought could fully form in my head, the doorbell rang.

“Got it,” I tried to holler, but it hurt my throat and came out hoarse. Opening the front door wide, I found a wide-eyed Pike boy, his backpack dangling from his hand.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi!” my mother called out from the kitchen, waving gaily with an oven mitt still on her hand.

Byron waved back uncertainly, twitching his fingers, and I couldn’t help but cringe.

“Um. Hungry?”

He shook his head. “Not really. But I don’t mind watching.”

I grinned. “Pervert.”

His eyes widened further. “No, I meant – !”

“I know what you meant,” I told him, laughing a little. “I’m not hungry either.” I coughed, then nodded to the stairs. “Movie or something?”

He relaxed a little, nodding. “Okay,” he agreed, and we ran up the stairs to my room. I had the weirdest sense of déjà vu; this felt like being ten again, when the house was first rebuilt, and the Pike boys and I were trying to decorate my new room.

Byron must have felt the same thing, because the first thing he said after stepping inside was, “Where’s the Batcave?”

I grinned. When I’d first set up my room, I’d had a comic book theme, complete with a plastic Batcave. “It’d been in shambles for a while. I guess Alfred hasn’t been dusting.”

“Why can’t Batman do his own dusting?”

“Maybe he’s retired now.”

“And Robin got away?”

“I thought that was the Joker.”

“Woo wooooo,” he chimed in to the tune of the Steve Miller Band song we’d played the hell out of at the pool hall, and I burst out laughing, knowing that it hadn’t been a fluke at all.

“So, what do you want to watch?” I asked finally, gesturing to a mound of videos I’d tossed on my bed after school. There were easily a couple dozen – I hadn’t taken the time to count them.

He did a double-take that made me grin. “These are all yours?”

“Yeah. Well, my family’s. My mom likes taping things. Richard just likes labeling them. We have more, if you don’t find any you’d like. I left the boring stuff downstairs.”

“Chick flicks?” He bent over the pile, sorting through it.

“That, and Dawn’s weird Haley Mills fetish.”

He picked up a tape, eyes scanning the label. “Young Sherlock Holmes?”

“Hey, shut up, it’s good!” The corners of his lips quirked, so I added, “Well, it was when I was a kid.”

He waved the tape at me, waggling his eyebrows like he was Groucho Marx or something.

“Prove it.”

“Pop it in,” I challenged, and with a single sweeping motion pushed all the tapes from my bed to the floor so we could sit.

Watching a movie is easy. There’s nothing that absolutely needs to be said, and definitely no in depth discussion required. At most, just making stupid comments is enough, and there was more than enough fodder in Young Sherlock Holmes, it turns out.

The summary of this cinematic masterpiece – Sherlock Holmes is young. He is at school. Watson is even younger, and fat, and also at school. A game is afoot. Sherlock gets his hat, solves the mystery, the end.

At least my sporadic coughing wasn’t distracting us from the gripping storyline.

“Why do guys keep falling onto each other in this?” I had to ask finally, watching the villain scrabble in the teenaged Holmes’ arms.

At the other end of the bed, back against the wall, Byron shifted. “Terrible centers of balance?”

“Sherlock’s hair is poofy. It throws his weight all out of wack.”

“And Watson probably lacks depth perception because of his glasses.”

“And – ” I started, but was hit by a fit of coughing. I covered my mouth with my hand, turned away, but it refused to let up. After a while, tears came to my eyes.

“Here, I’ll...” Byron said, but didn’t finish his sentence as he strode out of the room. He was back in less than a minute, carrying one the little paper cups that Richard stocks in the bathrooms. He held it out to me; the design on it was Spring Flowers. “Water.”

Nodding, I took it and gulped down, but the cough only subsided a little. He took his hand out from behind his back, producing another Dixie cup. I took it, and this time the fit stopped. I smiled gratefully and wiped at my eyes before crushing the little cylinders of cardboard in my palm.

“How’d you know?” I asked, a little shaky.

“I’m amazing like that,” he responded lightly, staring down at me. “Are you okay?”

“Fine. Just a cough.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

Slowly, Byron sat back down on the bed, perched gingerly on the edge.

“Should I go?” he asked finally. “I mean, if you’re sick, you don’t need me around.”

“I said I’m fine. We’re having fun, right?”

“Still...”

“Come on,” I said, unsure of when I’d become so desperate for companionship. It must have been the social isolation from being grounded. “Besides, if you go, who’ll I hear my gossip from?”

I got a small smile for that one.

“What do you want to know?” he asked, sounding bemused.

“Well...” I hadn’t really gotten that far. “Why do Adam and Jordan always go out with the Arnold twins, but they never sit with us?”

“Because everyone thinks they’re skanks,” Byron answered immediately.

I raised an eyebrow. “Like Haley?”

“Haley’s not...it’s different. I guess...well. They’re not ‘cool’ or something.”

“Oh.” I paused. “Why don’t you ever go out with them?”

“Two of them, three of us,” was his answer. “Someone had to get left behind. And I’m not really sure I’m ready to date a slut.”

“It’s got it definite ups and downs,” I replied. “Mostly downs. Ha.”

He glanced at me.

“You...?”

“My girlfriend Mandy. Well, ex. I guess. We never really talked about it. But anyway, she was fun, but kind of dumb. Like she didn’t understand how to use the Pill.”

“You got her pregnant?”

“No, thank God. We just thought I did. That’s kind of why I’m here.”

“What would have done if it had been for real?”

“Shit my pants.” I looked at him, suddenly uncomfortable. “Crap.”

“Those are synonyms.”

“No, I mean, dammit. This is how you get your gossip, isn’t it?”

“No! I don’t look for it! And I don’t tell most of the time!”

“You’ve told me.”

“Well, not about friends.”

“You’ve told me things about James and Haley. Aren’t they your friends?”

“Uh.”

“Exactly!” I stood up suddenly, and made a quick pace to the TV and back. “Look, I don’t – shit. I mean. I just. Don’t tell, okay?”

He didn’t answer, just stared at his shoes.

“I don’t want to embarrass my mom,” I went on, wincing a little.

Neither of us said anything for a moment. Then, slowly, he lifted his eyes from his shoes to mine.

“If it makes you feel any better,” he responded carefully. “I’m the Pike boy who needs the night light on still.”

I blinked. His eyes were light and deep all at once.

“I figured,” I answered finally, and knew I was safe.

*

Hours later, after we were both in our respective beds – me in my own and Byron in a cot Richard’d set up – and the lights were turned out, I whispered, “Byron – what’s Forbes?”

There was no answer immediately, and I wondered if he’d fallen asleep already before I heard, “Forbes?”

“Yeah. Jordan told James not to go Forbes on him.”

“Oh.” For a second or two, all I heard was the crickets outside, calling each other. “He meant Justin Forbes. He was this guy – a couple years ahead of us in school. He came out as gay.”

“Oh,” was all I said, and in my head I was thinking, Well, that’s no big deal.

But Byron went on, “And so some guys jumped him after school one day and beat the living shit out of him.”

I stopped breathing for a beat. “Oh my God. That’s,” but I didn’t know what to say.

“Yeah. It is.”

“Was he okay?”

“He didn’t die.”

We listened to the crickets for a few long minutes. In the distance, I could hear a lone car drive off.

“Jeff?” I heard suddenly, and nearly jumped out of my skin.

“Yeah?”

“Um. Could – ?” I heard him sit up. “I’m sorry. But could you turn on a light?”

Chapter Text

I was still grounded when the snow came. It had been relatively warm in the morning, but apparently old man winter decided to come to visit sometime between English and Math. We were walking from school, in the freezing ass cold, when the sky opened up and these little flecks of white trembled down upon us.

“God,” I said, squinting up at them. “God.”

Byron glanced up too, but just for a second, clearly not as impressed with the sight as I was.

“Wasn’t supposed to snow yet,” he said, and reached into his coat pocket; his hand emerged holding a pair of gloves.

“That was smart,” I commented as he slipped them on.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t bring any.”

“I’m not even sure I bought any,” and I shoved my hands as deeply into my own pockets as they’d go.

“You’d have never made it through Boy Scouts.”

“Huh?”

“The Boy Scout motto. It’s, ‘Be prepared.’”

“Oh. Well, guess not. Never could build a fire with just a couple of sticks either.” I took my hands back out to breathe warm air onto them. “The weatherman said it’s supposed to heat up tomorrow anyway. I’ll be fine.”

But the weatherman was wrong. It didn’t snow for long, but it stuck, the temperature holding fast in the high twenties. At home, we consider anything in the fifties or below to be freezing; a day this cold would be illegal.

Byron shook his head at me and chuckled when he saw my bare hands again the next morning.

“Genius,” he said.

“Shut up,” I mumbled.

He turned a little so his back was toward me. “Here, go into the front pocket.”

“What?” I stared dumbly at the sturdy blue material of his Jansport.

“Just do it.”

Fumbling a little with my stiff hands, I unzipped the pocket and pulled out a pair of thick gloves. I stared at them for a second then glanced at Byron’s hands; they were already covered.

“Jeez. Thanks.”

I grinned at him as I slipped them on, instantly relieved by the warmth. He smiled back, then looked out at the empty street.

“I had a feeling you weren’t Boy Scout material,” he explained.

“Hey, I would’ve bought some gloves. Eventually.”

“Eventually! Save yourself the trouble of gradual frostbite and go stick your hands in the snow right now. You don’t need your fingers for anything useful, right?”

“Does frostbite really make your fingers fall off?”

“Yeah. My sister Claire almost lost a toe because of it, a couple years ago.”

“What the hell was her toe doing in the snow?”

“Margo dared her to see how long she could stick her foot in it.”

“How long did she last?”

“Oh, about half an hour, I think.”

“Jesus.”

“I know; it was impressive.”

The high school was looming in the distance, tall against the cloudy sky. I thought back to my old high school, Vista, which looked pretty much like every other high school back home – one story, with breezy, outdoor corridors and a minimum of walls. Old SHS, on the other hand, was a big, old-fashioned enclosed building, which always vaguely smelled like sweat and stale water. Not quite the same, right?

I sighed heavily, looking at it.

“What’s wrong?” Byron asked.

How could I explain it without completely dissing what would one day be his beloved alma mater?

“Macbeth test tomorrow,” I said, hoping he’d take it for an answer.

“Yeah, me too.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. I think I understand it.”

We made our way through the sporadic groups of people huddling out in front of the school, unwilling to go inside until the last possible minute. They parted for the two of us like the Red Sea parted for Moses, easily, without protest, and we slipped into the even more crowded and infinitely nosier halls of SHS. There, the people didn’t move away, but skimmed along side us, forcing us to push.

“We could get together and study,” I suggested.

His eyes flickered to my face. “You don’t mind?”

“Nope.”

“Would your mom mind?”

“Are you serious? When I tell her I’m actually studying, she’ll start doing cartwheels or something. Being grounded is irrelevant here.”

“Mine won’t care either. Um. Your place, then?”

We were headed toward his locker. It was our stop, every morning, and when we walked home I met up with him there. I don’t know how that happened, how an unspoken route was planned, considering my own locker was way the hell on the other side of the school. It was just something that was.

I shook my head. “Can’t. Richard told me that he’d really rather I informed him of any company I have over at least twenty-four hours in advance.”

Byron grinned wryly. “His words?”

“Duh.”

We stopped at his locker, and he began fiddling with the combination, finally opening it with a sudden click. He took off his gloves and tossed them inside.

“Well…” He hesitated, shrugging a little. “Mom won’t mind. It’s just – well, my house…”

“It’s crazy. I know.”

“But it’s been a while.”

“I was there for the car thing!”

“We were hiding in the garage for a reason.”

“So, we study in the garage,” I offered, grinning. “We can use the hood as a desk. That’s good for the paint job, right?”

Byron shook his head, laughing softly. “We’d probably just end up high off the gas fumes.”

“Hey, that’s not always a bad thing.”

He pulled off his jacket and balled it up, stuffing it into his locker. There was a rubber band around his wrist for some reason; I absently reached out to snap it. Byron watched my hand’s approach, but didn’t try to stop me; his eyes fluttered when it cracked against his skin.

“So. What time?” I asked.

His gaze lingered on his wrist for a second before he looked up and answered, “Right after school would work, I guess.”

“Okay, just don’t let me forget to check in with my mom when we get to your house.” He nodded. “Meet you here.”

He nodded again, and I adjusted my backpack before turning around and heading toward my own locker.

*

I could hear the screaming before we stepped onto the front porch. Very much a girlish screaming, but bloodcurdling, like someone’s puppy was about to get tossed into the fire or something. I stared up at the Pike house dubiously.

Byron smiled uneasily. “It’s okay, really. No one…no one’s dying or anything. Just sisters, you know?”

I nodded, even though my own sisters hadn’t ever shrieked like freaking banshees on an acid trip, but then, maybe they were the weird ones.

He tapped on the doorknob idly for a second, glancing over at me. “Um…yeah.” And he opened the door.

The screaming magnified, more shrill than anything else, but from this distance, I was surprised to find out that it actually contained words:

“GETOUTGETOUTGETOUT!

Byron winced and, dropping his bag on the couch, strode through the living room and into the kitchen. Standing awkwardly for a moment in the unfamiliar room, I decided to follow. There, pounding on a door near the entrance to the garage, was the source of the screams – a petite girl, maybe twelve or thirteen, who looked a lot like Byron.

“Margo,” Byron said softly, but firmly, going over to stand in front of her. “What the hell?”

She stopped screaming to take a deep breath and answer, “Nicky won’t let me in. I need in.”

“Where’s Mom?”

“She took Claire and Vanessa to get shoes. And I. Need. In.”

“How long’s he been in there?”

“Like ten minutes!”

He shook his head, sighing. “Well, jeez, Margo, that’s not – ”

“I’m on my period!” she shrieked suddenly, stamping her foot. “I need in!

Byron’s face flushed bright red, but then I couldn’t really blame him; I think mine did too. He leaned over and pounded on the bathroom door.

“Nicky, man, she needs in! Hurry it up!”

Now!

There was some angry mumbling from inside the bathroom, then a toilet flush. Byron walked away, not meeting my eyes as he brushed past me and toward the kitchen door.

“Let’s – my room,” he said, and it wasn’t until we were safely up the stairs, around the corner, and behind his closed door that he went on to say, “Sorry about that. Like I said…”

“It’s cool,” I laughed. “You warned me, right?”

He gave me a small smile. “Right. Well…oh, shit, you need the phone.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“Just…here, I’ll go get it.” And he was out of the room, footsteps pounding down the stairs. Faintly, I could hear him calling for something once he was in the living room.

Standing there, alone, I tossed down my bag and looked around idly. It was just a guy’s room, only magnified, considering it was occupied by four guys; Adam, Jordan, Nicky, and Byron all had to share. Two sets of bunk beds lined the walls, covers rumpled and unmade, pillows strewn around. Clothes and various random items just were kind of everywhere. I liked it. It looked lived-in, like mine.

I sat down on one of the bottom beds, the one with the thick blue comforter. It wasn’t all that uncomfortable, except that the bottom of the bed above me sort of grazed the crown of my head, tugging at my hair a bit. My hand brushed over something cool, and I found myself pulling a magazine out from under the pillow.

It all got a little surreal for me here. Slow-motion and everything. Unzipped, I remember thinking. Interesting title, and I started flipping through it, totally neglecting to notice that on the cover was a rather muscled dude, and inside, well, needless to say, the pictures were all of other dudes, in various stages of undress, sometimes with little more than sultry glares at the camera, and…yeah.

Eventually, I got it. Connected the dots. Because, well, one – a magazine that is hidden on the bed is hidden for a reason (I thought of my own illicit reading material in the dark recesses of under-the-mattress), and two – this wasn’t exactly Maxim. This –

And I heard footsteps again, coming closer. I shoved the magazine back under the pillow and practically vaulted to the far end of the bed, like I was a fucking gold medal gymnast or something, and was sitting there innocently by the time Byron walked in.

He closed the door behind him, his backpack over his shoulder, and held out a cordless phone to me. “Here.”

“Uh. Thanks.” I took it, looking down at the lighted buttons before asking, “It okay that I sit on the bed?”

He didn’t even look at me before nodding. “Yeah. It’s mine.”

And my stomach felt like it dropped out of my body and into places unknown.

While I called my mother, I kept my eyes on my legs, stretched out in front of me. There was a small hole starting in one of the knees, and I was probably doing more damage by staring at it so hard. By the time the call was ended and I looked up, Byron was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his textbook splayed open on his lap.

“All right?” he asked.

I knew he meant the call, but I wasn’t sure what I meant when I muttered, “Fine.”

And then I just picked up my own book and tried to study.

Yes, ‘tried.’ I mean, what can I say? Forgive me but, okay, I’d just had something of a shock. Hey, look, seems that my friend – male friend – my friend – really possibly my best friend in Stoneybrook – my friend was gay or at least liked to look at pictures of pretty much naked guys. Which, excuse me, kind of spells out gay.

It’s not a bad thing to be gay. I knew it then, and I still know it. It just…this was big. Did everyone know? I didn’t think so. Someone would have said something by now to clue me in.

“Who’s Banquo again?” Byron asked from the floor.

“Uh. Wasn’t that Hamlet’s friend?” I answered, eyes on my open book.

There was a long silence before Byron went, “What?” and I didn’t respond.

It also just weirded me out that I knew something he didn’t know I knew. Yeah, it was as confusing as it sounds. I mean, if he’d wanted to clue me in that he was – gay? – I would have known by now. He could’ve said something. Done something.

So I really didn’t know for sure. Hypothetically, there could have been other perfectly good explanations for that magazine. Maybe Byron was just confused and wanted to take a look. I could buy that. Maybe one of his sisters had left it there (gross), or, hell, even one of his brothers, as a joke or something. Maybe he was doing research on gay porn. Right.

Holy crap, my friend was gay.

There were several silent minutes of Byron probably actually studying and me freaking out (I don’t know why – there’s nothing wrong with being gay, I know, and I was freaking out even more because I knew it but didn’t know why I was upset in the first place) when there was a thundering up the stairs and outside the door. Adam and Jordan burst in, laughing at something one of them had said, and tossed their bags down. Adam looked at me in surprise.

“Oh, hey, Jeff,” he said. “I thought you were grounded.”

“I am,” I answered, and held up my book. “Mom doesn’t care if I’m studying.”

Jordan read the title and grinned.

“Helping our English idiot, huh?” he laughed, and leaned down to muss Byron’s hair affectionately. Byron smiled wryly.

“He’s the only one of all of us who’s not in honors English,” Adam explained. “Byron’s not really bright.”

“I’m good at math!”

“Yeah, thank God.”

“Byron does our math homework, and we do his Lit papers,” Jordan told me as he pulled off his sweater. “We have practically the same handwriting.”

“What about tests?” I asked.

“Then at least we have great homework and essay scores to fall back on.”

They all laughed, at once, and I saw for the first time in a while that they were triplets.

Adam leaned over a dresser and peered into a mirror, trying to smooth a patch of hair that curled near his temple.

“We’re getting together tonight at Scott’s,” he said to Byron. “You coming?”

Byron shook his head. “No, I really need to study.”

I frowned. “I thought you were grounded.”

“Byron’s been off the hook for days,” Jordan told me.

“He just says he likes walking to school for some reason,” Adam added.

They went on talking about something, but I don’t know what. It was kind of hard to concentrate with Oh my God oh my God oh my God running through my head over and over again.

Hello. Final dot? Connected.

I should have been telling myself that there was nothing wrong with this. I should have.

*

Funny that, when you’re looking for something, it’s so easy to find.

Like when I met up for Byron on the walk to school the next morning – he had his car privileges back, he didn’t need to – he grinned big at me, showed me his teeth. I wore the gloves he’d given me, protecting my hands, and he talked idly, more than usual, maybe because I wasn’t saying much. I was thinking of soda cans and paper cups and The Joker and Justin Forbes and nightlights instead, trying to figure out how I’d missed it. I hadn’t missed it with Mandy, or other girls, who just usually giggled a lot and touched my arm or something when they liked me. I couldn’t recall Byron ever touching me, never skin to skin, and I knew I would have remembered if he had, and how his fingertips would probably feel cool if he did, cool like his blue, blue eyes.

When we stopped to say hi to Sara right outside SHS, all she got from him was a close-lipped smile.

At lunch, he sat next to me, but we always sat together – that’s just the way things had been, ever since we played pool. I know I had sat down next to him before too. Our shoulders brushed once, just the brief ruffling of cotton together, and I turned away from him and focused on the rest of the table.

Haley was wearing a low-cut top, and when she leaned across the table to grab a napkin, all male eyes were on her. Specifically, they were on her cleavage. There were two exceptions – Byron, who didn’t even give so much as a cursory glance at the view and instead was looking around the cafeteria. And me. I was, of course, watching Byron.

For a split second, Byron’s gaze shifted. Our eyes met, and without hesitation I found myself staring down at Haley’s breasts, my stomach lurching.

*

It was going to get better, though. My grounding was almost over, and I was going to get my car back. My beautiful blue Cadillac, hidden away at my grandparents’ house since the day I was put on restriction. Then I’d be able to actually drive to school, away from the cold and snow and unbearable weight of awkwardness I was going to be carrying anytime I was alone with Byron.

I felt like a jerk about it. I still feel like a jerk about it. I kept telling myself that there was nothing wrong with it, and I believed it, but Byron was still different now.

Anyway, so I waited patiently waited all day, if patient means almost ready to jump straight out of my skin. By the time they got home from work, I felt like I had the proverbial ants in my pants. And I expected them to say something about it, make some sort of production about giving me my keys back and lecturing me on following the rules. I was prepared to nod and swear my undying loyalty to whatever fucking commandments they were going to tack on the wall. I just wanted that car.

Only they didn’t. They just started making dinner like it was any other night, like it was not the much-anticipated day of my liberation. But hey, maybe they were going to do it during dinner. My temper was what’d lost me the car. So I just kept quiet and set the table. I silently ate my zucchini casserole while Mom talked about whatever the hell she does at her job and Richard told her about some new client he had. Rather than listen, I thought of shining blue paint, and the clean black interior, and the smooth solidness of the steering wheel, and, despite myself, the only person I’d ever taken for a ride.

When Richard reached across the table to start clearing away the plates, I finally blurted out,

“Hey! I’m not grounded any more, you know.”

Richard glanced at my mother across the table; she looked away and absently slipped her rumpled napkin into her pocket. Optimistically, I went on,

“So, you know, my car. I mean, can I have the keys?”

That was my case, and, having finished with it, there were a few moments of silence. My stepfather looked at my mother, and I didn’t need to be a genius to see, Well, he belongs to you written all over his face.

“Jeff…” she started, hesitating. “No.”

“Huh?” was my brilliant response.

“We decided that now just isn’t the right time for you to have a car,” she continued. She tossed some silverware onto her dinner plate, scratching the floral design.

“Giving you more freedom was not exactly the point in you coming to Stoneybrook,” Richard added, really unnecessarily, because believe me, I got it.

“But…it was a present. From Granny and Pop-Pop,” I reminded them.

“We’ve explained a few things,” Mom answered wearily. “They understand.”

Translation: my darling grandparents now knew that I was a guy-slut. Oh, this was just getting better and better. My hands were clenching and unclenching beneath the table, fisting the hem of the tablecloth unconsciously.

“But it was mine.”

“Well, that ceases to be,” Richard said curtly, and really, I think it was the pretentiousness that got me.

I was surprised by how calmly I handled it.

“I really fucking hate you both,” I said quietly, and pushed myself away from the table.

Jeffrey!” Richard bellowed as I left the room.

“Don’t – ” was all I heard Mom say to him, her voice choked as she started to cry.

When I got to my bedroom, I closed the door behind me carefully. Then I lost it.

Ripped the posters off the wall, shook my dresser until the drawers rattled, yanked the blankets off the bed and left the mattress half-hanging off, kicked the wall until there was a dent and one of Dawn’s old ceramic dolphins fell off my shelf and cracked. The windows shook when I pulled off the curtains, and then I stood back, breathing hard; one of my hands was bleeding from something I’d done. And I still didn’t feel any better. Plus, you know, my shit was ruined.

All in all, I was still pretty pleased with how well I’d taken it.

I paced. There was still adrenalin pumping. I read somewhere that when you’re stressed, there’s this fight or flight response that gets triggered in the brain, and so you either have to run away or fight back or you can die. I don’t know if I felt like I was dying, but I sure as hell wanted to beat something up, and I couldn’t do either of those, and because it was winter and dark and cold out I couldn’t really run, and God God God, there was nothing left in my room that I could destroy.

I picked up the cordless phone on the nightstand by my bed.

But who the fuck could I call for a rant? Seriously? My dad? He’d agree with Mom and Richard, and he probably wasn’t even home from work yet. I couldn’t really handle talking to Granny and Pop-Pop now that they knew I had crumbled ungracefully under pressure from a girl to have sexual relations. Call Mandy and tell her how all this is her fault? She’d just want to know why I hadn’t gotten in contact with her since I’d gone to Stoneybrook.

There really was only one option.

“Pikes,” a girl answered after I looked up the number and dialed.

“Can I talk to Byron?”

“Yeah.” I heard a muffled brushing sound, then, “Byron! Phone for you!

A small tap from the phone being set down, then, “Hello?”

“They took my car away,” was my greeting.

“Oh.”

“Said it was too soon. Too much freedom. I mean, shit!”

“That’s fucked up, Jeff...”

“Can you come over?”

“What?”

“Come over. I need to talk to somebody.”

“Well – yes.”

“I’m going to yell.”

“I know.”

“Probably at you.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to be an asshole.”

“I can be there in fifteen minutes.”

And he was.

When the doorbell rang, I ran down the stairs. My mother and stepfather were in the living room, talking in hushed tones. I stood in the doorway, arms crossed.

“That’s Byron,” I announced loudly. “Can he come in, or is it too soon for me to have a friend?”

Richard opened his mouth to answer, but Mom wiped her eyes and broke in hoarsely, “No, it’s fine, it’s fine."

I answered the door. Byron and I nodded grimly at each other and went upstairs without a word. His eyes widened at the destruction that was now my room.

“Shit. You were mad.”

“No fucking kidding.” I closed the door behind us. “Can you believe it? I mean, Jesus, they didn’t even give me the Cadillac! What makes them think they can take it away?”

Byron sat down on the ruin that was my bed, the mattress threatening to slide onto the floor, his hands clasped in front of himself.

“It was a shitty thing to do.”

“I know! And you know what else?” I started pacing again. “They told my grandparents!”

“About what?”

“About Mandy!”

“Who’s Mandy?”

“My – the girl I – ”

“Oh.”

“I mean, what do they think of me now? I was their darling two fucking seconds ago, now, what? A freaking man-whore!”

“That might be stretching it.”

“Well, okay, maybe. But still!”

“It wasn’t cool.” He picked up the ceramic dolphin and turned the pieces in his hands, testing angles to see if it could be fitted back together.

“No, it wasn’t! And all because I made one mistake. One mistake! Fucking Richard said it was too much freedom – ”

“And you need freedom,” he broke in.

I stopped. “What?”

“You. You’re always moving, pacing and fidgeting. It’s like you’re in a cage or something. You need to room to move, and this town can’t – ” He stopped abruptly and shut his mouth; the very tips of his ears turned pink.

I stared at him. He stared at the blue and gray dolphin fragments in his hands.

“You get me,” I whispered, astonished.

He looked up me hesitantly, face flushed. “I – I just pay attention.”

And all of a sudden he ceased to the person I had just discovered as being gay, and was just Byron again. Byron, my friend, sitting in the middle of a room full of broken things, trying to put a dolphin statuette back together again. Someone who almost certainly liked me, not just like friends do.

For the first time in days, I didn’t need to tell myself that it wasn’t wrong, because I knew.

“I know you do,” I answered. I nudged the corner of the mattress with my foot. “Let’s watch a movie.”

“What?”

“Movie.”

“I thought you wanted to yell.”

“I did. I feel better,” I answered, and smiled.

Byron sat on the far end of the mattress, and I curled up on the other. We watched Thelma and Louise for some reason, and he shifted when Brad Pitt first came on the screen. About halfway through, the mattress finally gave away and slid onto the floor completely, sending him rocking forward; my knee brushed against his thigh for less than ten seconds, and he jerked away like I was made of fire.

I was the one paying attention now.

*

The next morning, long after he’d gone home, I ran downstairs to find my mother making me a western omelet for breakfast – my favorite. I kissed her cheek, and all the tension melted from her face.

When I went outside to get the newspaper, I found that the snow had melted a little.

Chapter Text

At some point, right before dinner, something happened that I hadn’t yet witnessed since coming back to live with my Mom – my sister called.

Okay, so I have two sisters, maybe closer to two and a half. Gracie’s the little one, six years old, the daughter of my dad and stepmom, Carol. She’s cute and all, but she’s only in the first grade, so she’s not even really human yet. Mary Anne is Richard’s daughter, my stepsister, from his first wife who died. (Seriously, how he convinced two women to marry him, and how one of them is my mom, I’ll never figure out.) But Dawn, Dawn is my sister sister, the one of the same parents, through good times and bad, coast to coast, the one there with me for my whole life. That, I call a true bond.

I hadn’t talked to her since August, I think. Maybe July. It was hard to remember.

“Jeff!” Dawn cried happily, once Mom could bear to part with the phone. “How are you?”

“Okay,” I answered. “You?”

“Great! I mean, I really think physical therapy is completely my calling. I love being able to help people,” and that I took as my cue to stop listening. I counted the stripes on the wallpaper for a while. The only thing I really caught after that, before passing the phone back to my mother, “I never would have thought I’d switch from Environmental Studies. It’s weird how life takes you places you don’t expect, isn’t it?”

*

"Party at my house!" Haley called out happily as I approached the lunch table.

I set down my paper bag and swung my legs over the bench, sitting next to Byron. We nodded to each other, he with a half-smile. My leg brushed against his, and he didn’t shift away for a few moments. On the inside, I had to smile wryly at that.

"When?" Shea asked Haley.

"Friday," she answered, beaming as she stabbed randomly at her salad. "Day after tomorrow."

I opened up my lunch bag and pulled out a Tupperware container of cold tofu stirfry. I'd given up with buying my lunch a while ago; SHS's vegetarian and health food options were seriously limited, and there was no way I was going to make due with the junk everyone else ate. Well, except chocolate - I have a weakness for chocolate. There was a chocolate pudding cup waiting next to Byron's elbow, and I glanced longingly at it.

"What about your parents?" Scott asked. "Will they be hanging around?"

Haley shook her head. "It’ll be just us. There’s some charity dinner my parents are going to in Stamford. They won’t be back until the morning."

"No way," James said.

Only half paying attention to the conversation, I took out a carton of blueberry yoghurt, set it down, and touched Byron's sleeve. He diverted his attention from his ham sandwich - he loves food, loves to eat - long enough to raise an eyebrow at me.

"Want to trade?" I whispered, nodding at his pudding cup.

Chewing slowly, his eyes travelled to the yoghurt I was offering up. He swallowed, then laughed in my face, shaking his head.

"So no parentals?" Adam asked Haley, grinning.

"None whatsoever," she replied.

Not for the first time, I thought to myself how it was really too bad that Byron was gay. Adam and Jordan were really popular with girls, with their outgoing personalities, and that had a trickle down effect for Byron. I mean, he got attention from girls - I'd seen girls flirting with him around school, and sometimes he even gamely flirted back. Sara and Haley both gushed about how nice he was, and while obviously most girls are into the bad boys, the Nice Guy angle was something he could play up for rebound action, if he wanted.

Also, I mean, he's not bad looking. He's tall and lanky, with a ballplayer's body, long legs and narrow shoulders, and his eyes are a really pretty, bright blue, like I've said before.

"Jeff?"

...okay, so I was snapped out of my reverie about Byron's attractiveness by Haley, whose stare matched that of the rest of the table. Well, jeez, good thing I’m secure in my masculinity.

"Huh?" I inquired ever so eloquently.

"My party," Haley said slowly, obviously fearful that she was going to lose idiot-me somewhere along the road to Explanation. "Are you coming?"

"Oh. Oh, yeah, sure."

"Awesome!" She beamed, but all the guys at the table glared at me, except for Byron, who looked away.

Wasn't my fault.

*

“We can drive you to the party, if you want,” Byron said later, just after the final bell had rung.

“I can walk,” I replied with a shrug.

“It’s like ten degrees outside right now,” he laughed, rolling his eyes. “It’ll be worse on Friday, after dark. We’ll drive you.”

It was a good argument, and what can I say, I’ve never been one to turn down charity.

“Thanks,” I said, as we wove through the halls of SHS, heading inexorably toward the doors. “What’re the parties like here, anyway?”

“They’re okay,” Byron said thoughtfully. “I mean, there’s always something to do. If you don’t feel like dancing, you can just talk. If you don’t want to make out in a corner or something, you can play video games. If you don’t feel like drinking – ”

“Drinking?” I interrupted. “Alcohol?”

“Sometimes. Depends on whether the parents are there, and to what extent.”

“So, in other words – ”

“There’ll definitely be some at Haley’s party.”

“How’re we getting home if we’ve all been drinking?” I asked.

“It’s Jordan’s turn to be the designated driver.”

I gave him a Look. “You do this often?”

He blushed. “Not really. Most parents won’t let their kids have an unsupervised party anyway, so it doesn’t come up. I mean, I’ve only ever even been wasted once.”

“I win; I’ve been wasted twice.”

“I’m jealous,” he said with a smile.

We were on the sidewalk now, moving away from school. That was a feeling I could never get enough of – the escape, the freedom, if only for a little while, me and Byron making our getaway. We spent a lot of time together after school, studying or running errands, or just hanging out, mostly. It felt…nice. I’d never had an actual close friend before; in California, we mostly just hung out in a pack. Not that we weren’t a clique at school, but – it was different, Byron and me.

It felt nice.

“Want to come over for a while?” I asked after a few minutes, once we met the crossroads. It was almost unnecessary to ask – one of us almost always went over to the other’s house.

“Can’t. I’m going to study for the French test with Scott in a little while.” Byron kept on down his own path, leaving me alone on mine. “See you tomorrow!”

I stared after him for a second before I reminded myself - almost.

*

Despite eating lunch with the guy every school day since I’d been back in Stoneybrook, I didn’t really know Scott Danby. He played football, yeah, and he’d dated Haley a couple of times, but it was the sort of thing that was over before it even began, though they were still friendly.

Somewhere along the line, though, I’d gotten the idea that he wasn’t very bright. Maybe it was the football player stereotype, or the fact that he looked like, as Mrs. Bruen would say, a lummox. But really, he just plain wasn’t very articulate. For fuck’s sake, the guy grunted more than he spoke actual words. If he could barely speak English, was he going to be any good helping Byron with French?

I’ve always taken Spanish, but they say it’s practically the same thing. In fact, I even cracked open Mary Anne’s old high school French book – I could pick out a few words, here and there. Le, for example.

I don’t want it to seem like I was obsessing, because I wasn’t. Definitely not. I mean, all I did was take the book off the shelf and leaf through a few pages. I’m not crazy or anything. I didn’t even think about it much afterwards.

The next day, in between classes, I was standing, talking to Byron when Scott ran up, grinning.

“Oh man, Byron, I know I just aced that French test! Thanks for helping me out!”

Scott clapped him on the shoulder as he ran past us, and Byron smiled at him, wide and open, teeth showing. I couldn’t do the same, not that I was trying very hard.

*

The Pike brothers pulled up outside my house on Friday night at a little after eight. They’d honked the horn twice before I made it down the stairs, struggling to pull on my jacket as I went.

“Curfew’s at one tonight, Jeff,” Richard said to me. He stood absolutely straight in the doorway to the kitchen, not even making use of the frame to lean just a little.

“Yeah, I’ll be on time,” I said, zipping myself up.

“We’ll be at that dinner with the Brewers, but we should be home before then,” he added.

My mother peeked over his shoulder. “If you need us, we’ll be at – oh, where’s their number…”

“I gave it to him, Sharon.”

Outside, they honked again.

“I’ll be fine,” I insisted impatiently, and opened the door, calling “Bye!” as I jogged down the front walkway.

I slid into the backseat of the Honda, next to Adam, who nodded at me in greeting. Jordan adjusted his mirror and pulled out.

“Designated driver,” he muttered. “This is shit.”

“We’re taking turns,” Byron reminded him.

“Best party of the quarter!”

“I drove last time,” Adam said.

“We could walk home.”

“When it’s this cold?” Byron asked. “And besides, you think Mom and Dad wouldn’t notice the car missing in the morning?”

“Jeff hasn’t driven yet.”

“It’s his first party here,” Adam laughed. “Would you seriously deprive him?”

“Shit,” Jordan repeated.

“Jeff’ll drive next time,” Byron said, and looked at me from the rearview mirror, smiling.

“Thanks a lot,” I answered. “Sounds like it was going to be your turn next.”

He just shrugged.

Haley’s house isn’t very far from mine. Well, nothing’s really far from anywhere in Stoneybrook; the town’s just kind of small all around. The drive only took about five minutes, anyway, and soon we were parking down the street, one in a line of several cars.

“Which one is hers?” I asked, and Adam pointed at it.

I couldn’t remember going there as a kid, but I might have, once; frankly, I can’t really remember anyplace too clearly here, other than my house, school, and the Pikes’ place. I got a sudden, flashing memory of Haley’s little brother Matt swinging a baseball bat, though, and had to shake it away before going inside. As soon as we were through the threshold, the four of us split up, going our separate ways in search of alcohol and conversation.

What can I say? It was a party, just like nine million others that were going on all over America that Friday night. The music was a little too loud and consisted a little too much of music that sounded like it came from someone named Britney or Ashley for my tastes, the bowls of food sitting out were mostly full of stale chips, and the drinks were cheap.

I talked to some new people, which was interesting. Most of them were just kids from my high school that I’d never run into before; a few of them said they thought they remembered me from elementary school, and a lot of them said one of my sisters had baby-sat for them at some point. Thanks for leaving me behind with the legacy, girls.

I kept drifting toward the same old people, though. Shea and I had a long talk about our crappy gym class – we’re both good at sports, but having to run a mile every morning is just ridiculous – and Sara bitched to me for a long time about her little brother. After a while, all the guys in our group clustered around the TV, playing Mario Kart on N64. There were four controllers, so all of us got to play at some point, but Byron played every game because he kept winning.

“How do you keep doing that?” I asked, the fifth time his Toad beat my Princess Peach. I struggled to sit up a little straighter in the too-soft couch, and only barely succeeded.

“Good hands,” he answered, half-grinning.

“Well, I’m drunker than you,” I retorted. “So I win there.”

“How many beers have you had?”

“Shit. Four or five? Maybe.”

“If you can’t remember, then you’re drunker than me.”

“So I win?” I kicked at his foot a little with mine.

“Yeah,” he laughed.

“Awesome!”

I flopped back down into the couch, leaning into Byron, our arms against each other. He squirmed a little, laughter fading, but there was nowhere for him to go besides Shea’s lap. So he let me lean on him, and as I sank in further my chest ended up against his shoulder, his elbow resting on my knees; I could feel it twitching there, every few seconds. When he laughed at something stupid Scott said about the shells, I kicked his foot again, and he quieted.

I knew I was teasing him. I guess maybe I’m a little bit of a mean drunk.

We played for a few more minutes before Haley came in and sat on the arm of the couch, right next to me. She watched the next game, obviously bored, until Toad came in first, Shea’s Yoshi came in second, Scott’s Bowser finished third, and Peach was last, then reached over and tugged my arm.

“Hey!” I protested.

She pulled again and said, “Come on. I want to talk to you.”

“Why?”

“Outside,” she answered, which wasn’t an answer at all.

Haley pulled me to my feet. I passed the controller over my shoulder to James and let myself be led through the crowd, an excited murmur from the guys and a big-eyed stare from Byron following me.

She pushed open some sliding doors in the kitchen, and we went into the backyard. It was too dark to see what it looked like, but even after drinking I could tell that it was cold – our breath was fog in the air, and the grass crunched under our feet. I rubbed at my arms.

“Do you like the party?” Haley asked brightly.

“Yeah,” I said. “Lot of fun.”

“You’ve been drinking. I saw you have a few beers.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, and smiled sheepishly. “Been a while; hard to pace myself.”

“I’ve been drinking, too. Not as much, but a couple. I’m a little drunk.” She looked at me expectantly, but I didn’t know what to say to that, so I stayed silent. I don’t think I would have known even if I wasn’t drunk. She went on, “I’m really glad you came, Jeff.”

“Oh, yeah. Me too.”

“We don’t see each other enough, besides school.”

“Well, I mostly hang out with Byron outside school. He’s like my best friend.”

“Yeah.”

“Never had one before.”

“That’s nice.” Haley took a few steps closer to me. “I really like you, Jeff.”

“So does Byron,” I replied.

“Well, yeah, we all like you a lot,” she said dismissively. “But I mean – ”

And I guess she felt like she didn’t need to say anything more, and she was right, because she’d closed the gap between us, her breasts pressing against my forearm. She smiled up at me; I could see down her shirt, and realized that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Haley was going to kiss me, and in the few seconds that passed a lot of thought went through my mind – sex, and how many months it’d been since I’d had any, Mandy, how it felt when she’d told me she might be pregnant, what Haley might look like naked, and behind all that, the Mario Kart background music, stuck in my head.

When she started to raise herself on her tiptoes and lean toward me, I panicked and found myself blurting out, “I was really sorry to hear about Matt.”

Haley faltered a little, shocked, and stood back on her flat feet again.

“Oh.”

“He was a real good kid,” I went on.

“Oh. Yeah, he was.” She touched her forehead with two fingers and looked away from me.

“Wish I’d known him better.”

“We all do.” She took a step or two back, then said softly, “Thanks.”

“Yeah.”

There was a kind of awkward silence; if it’d hadn’t been winter, crickets would’ve chirped. Haley crossed her arms over her chest.

“It’s cold.”

“Yeah.”

Then, out of nowhere, the house erupted with noise, people moving, talking, and shouting, and above it all a voice bellowing, “Haley!

Her eyes widened. “Oh, God,” and she did an about-face and ran into the house. I followed, confused, but the second I was in the kitchen again, Byron was pushing me back.

“Out, out,” he said, pressing my jacket into my arms. “We’ve got to go!”

“Why?”

“Her parents came home early.”

“Aw, fuck.” Getting caught drunk basically would mean house arrest until I was eighteen, under the loving supervision of Richard. I looked around the fenced backyard wildly. “Where – ?”

“I don’t know, I – ”

Suddenly, James came sailing out of the house past us, and scrambled up the wood-planked fence.

“G’day, mates!” he called as he vaulted over the side.

Byron and I stared for a second, then looked at each other.

“Can you – ?” he started.

“I can try.”

Jackets clamped under our armpits, we struggled up the side of the fence, sneakers slipping a little against the wood. With some effort, we fell over onto the street, Byron with just a wobble, me falling onto one knee. He grabbed my wrist and helped me up.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” I shook my head, trying to clear my thoughts. “Where’re Adam and Jordan?”

“Busted. They were right by the door.”

“Great. Now what?”

“You have any ideas?”

You’re the sober one!”

“Not completely! Uh. Shit. Maybe we’ll go to your house and pretend we’ve been there for a while.”

“Yeah, all right. Guess we’re walking home anyway,” and I laughed a little.

“Can you walk okay?”

“I didn’t fall that hard.”

“No, I mean, can you walk drunk?”

“I’ll be okay.” I paused. “Maybe take my arm, just in case.”

So he did. Really, I didn’t need any help. I don’t know why I said that; I guess I just like attention.

We walked home carefully, slowly, Byron watching me like a hawk for even the slightest stumble. Staying in the shadows of the street, eventually we started seeing cars zooming past, angry parents driving over to pick up their wasted offspring.

“My dad won’t take this route,” Byron mumbled, but his eyes were wide and worried. He clutched my arm, and my fingers pressed lightly against his chest, but there were no curves and slopes to get lost in, like with Haley.

When we got to my house, the lights were off, and there was only one car in the driveway. That meant, thank God, that they weren’t home yet. Byron let go of me so I could fumble with my keys and let us inside. He stopped by the phone immediately and started to dial.

“Hey Mom,” he said, after waiting probably no more than one ring. “Is it okay if I stay at Jeff’s tonight?” He paused, listening. “No, we’ve been here a while; it was pretty boring. No, I don’t know what Adam and Jordan did. They what? Oh God…”

Byron was a smooth liar. I laughed, shaking my head, and started up the stairs, heading to the bathroom.

After I came out, teeth brushed and mouth rinsed, albeit a little crudely, Byron was in my room, standing around with one hand in his pocket and another running his fingers through his hair.

“Are you okay?” he asked, and looked up at me. “Are you sick?”

“I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” I grinned, or maybe smirked. “That’s cute; you want to take care of me.”

“Well, yeah,” he replied slowly. “We’re friends.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re my best friend, Byron.”

“Uh, thanks.” He laughed a little, softly, laughed at me. “You’re mine too. Well, anyway, my mom bought it. Will your parents mind me being here?”

“No, they like you,” I answered. “Well, Mom does. Will your brothers cover for us?”

“Yeah, they’re good for that.”

“I bet they are.”

I started pulling off my jacket and shirt and, after watching for a second, Byron turned away and did the same.

“Where does your step-dad keep that folding bed?” he asked, kicking off his jeans and nudging them under a chair.

“I don’t know,” I answered, and flopped onto my bed. My arms and legs felt fluid, my skin very hot.

“Are you okay?” Byron looked at me, squinting a little.

I looked back. “I’m great.”

“Okay, good. Uh. Any spare blankets? I can crash on the floor.”

I snorted, shaking my head as well as I could, lying down. “Don’t be stupid; we can share.”

“Huh?”

“My bed.” I rolled over onto my side, making room for him.

“I don’t – ”

“I don’t mind.”

“I don’t want to hog your bed.”

“It’s okay. It’s fine, if you want to.”

“I – ”

“I want you to,” I said.

And we both went quiet, just looking at each other, just in our boxers. I really did want him to crawl in next to me. I don’t know why. It’s just that my skin was so hot, my heart pounding so hard, and he, he with his pale winter skin, I thought maybe he could –

I don’t know why.

“I’m still a little drunk,” I whispered, the words half lost into my pillow.

Byron opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, then smiled ruefully, painfully, with a single breath of laughter that didn’t sound very happy.

“I’m not,” he said, and pulled the blue comforter off my bed and onto the ground.

After he turned off the light and curled up on the floor beside my bed, I tried to stay awake for a minute, tried to think of something all right to say. Finally, I mumbled, “Did James really say ‘G’day’?”

The last thing I heard before falling asleep was Byron’s quiet, but genuine, laughter.

*

When I got out of bed the next morning, the first thing I did was trip over Byron.

“Fuck!” I hissed, stumbling and stubbing my toe on the bedstead.

“That was my forehead,” Byron muttered, more irritably than I’d ever heard him.

“Fuck, sorry,” I said, and sat back down on the bed. “I forgot.”

“No, it’s okay.” He rolled over, his palm pressed flat against one of his temples, and opened an eye to look at me. “Feeling all right?”

“I’ve got a headache, but I’ll be fine.” I looked down at him, feeling more than a little uncertain about things. “I’m sorry about last night, too.”

“It wasn’t your fault that her parents came home early.”

“I didn’t mean that. I meant – ”

“We all get weird when we’re drunk,” he interrupted. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I just feel like a jerk.”

“It’s really not a big deal. Let’s just forget about it.” He sat up and looked around the room, away from me. “Do you have any clothes I can borrow? Mine smell like beer and smoke.”

So I got up, more carefully this time, and pulled out clean clothes for both of us, only this time I went to the bathroom to change. Within a few minutes, we were both heading downstairs, relatively fresh and ready to face the world, though Byron was going to have to face the world in clothes that were too loose on him.

“Hi, boys,” my mom said when we entered the kitchen. “Did everything go all right last night? Richard and I peeked in your room last night when we got back and saw you both asleep.”

“The party was boring, so we came back a little early,” I answered.

“Sorry we didn’t ask you if I could spend the night,” Byron added.

“Oh, it’s fine, Byron,” Mom said with a smile. “We’re glad to have you over. Now, what do you two want for breakfast? I was just finishing up this omelette for Richard. He likes a little salt on top…” She absently picked up the sugar bowl, but I closed my hand over her wrist before she could start pouring.

“I’ll just have some toast,” I said, because saying something like, ‘if I eat anything savoury or with even the slightest amount of taste, I think I’ll puke,’ would probably clue in even my mother that something was amiss.

“Nothing for me; I’m just going to go home,” Byron said.

I looked over at him. “Are you sure? You don’t have to go.”

He wouldn’t look back at me. “Yeah, I should go see how Adam and Jordan – liked the party.”

I want you to stay, I almost said.

“See you!” Byron called as he went out the kitchen door.

I watched him go.

*

I spent the rest of the weekend trying not to think about anything. Saturday was kind of hard; Granny and Pop-Pop came over for dinner, and they asked me all about school and friends and things my brain was trying actively to avoid. Even the fifty they slipped me on their way out the door didn’t help a whole lot.

Sunday was World War II Day on the History Channel, so Richard claimed the TV in the living room for the late morning and afternoon. I had my own TV upstairs, but I didn’t feel like being alone, so despite myself, I stretched out on the couch and watched along with him. The only thing I really absorbed from it all was the fact that Hitler got off on having chicks piss and crap on him, though.

Mom came in some time after Hour Three and said, “Are you okay, Jeff?”

I nodded, and kept my eyes on a scene where someone was bombing somewhere.

“Are you sure?”

I closed my eyes for a second, then answered, in all honesty, “My stomach hurts.”

“Poor baby,” Mom said, rubbing my shoulder, and bless her, I felt a little better.

But I couldn’t sleep that night. I kept staring at the ceiling, still trying not to think about anything, but the more I tried, the more I thought. I mean, what the hell did I mean by trying to get Byron into my bed? Either I was a tremendous fucking flirting tease, and thus a complete drunken asshole, or. Or.

But the last time I’d been wasted, I challenged a friend to a Chinese leg wrestling match and ended up with a severely bruised shin. It’s not like I secretly want to leg wrestle all the time. I mean, I was drunk. Things don’t need to mean anything when you’re drunk.

Eventually, I did get to sleep, but in the morning I discovered that I’d had a wet dream. I couldn’t remember what the dream had been about, and that just made things worse.

*

On the walk to school the next day, I didn’t meet up with Byron, like I normally did. He was waiting by my locker when I got to school, though.

“Sorry, I had to drive my brothers today; they’re restricted from driving the car, and they swear it’s too cold for them to walk.”

“It’s cool,” I replied, a little relieved. “How are they?”

“Grounded for a month.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah…well, see you at lunch.”

That was the extent of our conversation that morning. We didn’t really talk the rest of the day either.

*

This was a different kind of situation to be in. In the past, when I’d had a fight with a friend, usually I could just go, ‘Well, fuck ‘em,’ and go on with the rest of my life, just fine. Only this wasn’t really a fight, and this was a friend that was actually worth keeping around. This was me just plain screwing up, as usual, proving Dad and Richard right.

So I needed to fix this, somehow, but I didn’t have too much experience in fixing anything. I sat around after school that day, alone, voluntarily thinking about it. I needed advice. Normally, you know, I’d just call up Byron and talk to him about it, but I figured that’d end up being a little awkward.

‘Byron, I think you’re disturbed by the vaguely inappropriate, drunken advances I made to you the other night. What can I do to make you feel better?’

Yeah, no thanks.

‘Haley, after I totally blew you off at your party, I tried to get Byron to sleep half-naked in my bed with me. I think he’s a little weirded out about it. What should I do?’

‘Sara, you’re the biggest gossip on campus, so can you give me some advice with this dilemma of mine?’

‘Hey Adam and Jordan, Byron has a crush on me, and – ’

‘So, Mom and Richard, let me come clean. I was really kind of wasted the other night, and when we got home I sexually harassed Byron a little bit. Do you think I’m being paranoid, or is he avoiding me?’

‘Dawn, before you tell me that gay is okay, let me ask you something…’

Okay, no, fuck, none of that was going to work, obviously. What I really needed to do was talk to someone who wasn’t going to judge. Now, there are very, very few people in my life who actively attempt not to judge me, and I could only think of one that I could reach right then. So I called long distance.

“Schafer-Olsen residence,” she answered.

“Mrs. Bruen, it’s me.”

Mrs. Bruen has been our housekeeper back in California pretty much ever since Mom and Dad split up. She’d be there when I got home from school, with a snack ready, asking questions my parents should’ve been asking on a daily basis. We kind of bonded. Really, she’s cool, most of the time, and keeps quiet about a lot of the crazy shit I make her put up with, finding her own ways to torture me instead of telling my parents.

“Jeff! What’s shakin’, bacon?”

“No bacon in this house, Mrs. Bruen. Only fried tofu-tamari strips.”

“Ah, of course. My mistake. So, how’ve you been?”

“Okay, I guess. How’re you?”

“Oh, pretty good. Daughter just had another baby. A little girl.”

“Cool. You wanted a granddaughter, right?”

“I’m already out buying little ribbons for when she grows hair. Now, why’re you calling…school must have just let out there, right? You know your dad’s not home yet.”

“Actually, I kind of wanted to talk to you.”

“Oh yeah? Shoot.”

“Okay, well, see, I have this friend – ”

“Hold on. If you’re not going to fess up to this being about you, let’s just forget it.”

“God, seriously, Mrs. Bruen, just listen. I have this friend. And he’s a pretty cool guy.”

“Does he drive around in those bouncing cars, smoke on the front lawn, or bring along girls with the really low-rise pants?”

“No, exactly; he’s nothing like my old friends. Anyway, so we’ve gotten to be pretty close. Only, well, this weekend – I fucked up.”

“Jeffrey, language!”

“Sorry. I mean, I messed up. I said something to him that I think made him feel weird.”

“What did you say to him?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“That makes it harder.”

“Just work with me, here.”

“All right, all right. Did he say you made him feel weird?”

“No, but at school today, we barely talked. We always talk.”

“So he ignored you?”

“Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“Well, he just didn’t talk.”

“Did you try to start up any conversations with him?”

“Not really.”

“Then maybe he thinks you feel weird about whatever you said.”

“Oh.”

“There you go. You should talk to him.”

“I don’t know.”

“Why? You want to keep this friend, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I just – I’m embarrassed.”

“By what you said?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you just speak without thinking?”

“Sort of. Mrs. Bruen, don’t tell Dad, okay, but I was drinking.”

“Oh, Jeff,” she sighed, and I felt so bad for how disappointed she sounded. “I won’t tell him, this time. A lot or a little?”

“Not a whole lot. It was the first time I had anything to drink since I moved here.”

“Maybe this’ll be something of a lesson, huh?”

“Maybe.”

“Well, Jeff, some people say that a person’s most like himself when he’s drunk.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Probably nothing, right?”

“Definitely nothing.”

“Well, good, then. I suppose if you’d been drunk, you might get some leeway from your friend. He might be more understanding that you didn’t mean it.”

“Yeah, maybe. Maybe. He’s mostly a pretty cool guy.”

“Then I hope he listens.”

*

But the next day at school, the first time I saw Byron was at lunch, and before I could sit down and say something, Haley grabbed me.

“Hey, can I talk to you?” she said.

I glanced over at Byron, who was concentrating pretty hard on peeling an orange.

“Uh…yeah, sure,” I said, and sat down next to her.

Procrastination never hurt anyone. Or, maybe it hurts everyone. It doesn’t matter.

“I’m really sorry about the party,” she said softly, so the others couldn’t hear, as she opened her carton of skim milk. “They’ve never come home early from something like that before.”

“It happens, Haley. It’s okay.”

“You got out, though, right? I didn’t see your parents pick you up.”

“Yeah, me and Byron hopped the fence.”

“Seriously?”

“James did it first. He was like a kangaroo or something.”

She chuckled quietly. “I can see that. Well, listen, I’ve been thinking, since the party, when we talked…no one really talks about Matt anymore, you know. Not even my parents and me. I guess it just, it hurts. But, I…I really appreciate you saying something. It meant a lot.”

“No problem,” I said, embarrassed.

“I was just wondering, I mean, if maybe I could talk to you about that kind of stuff sometimes? You didn’t know Matt as well as all of them, so maybe it won’t be so…bad, you know?”

“Yeah. Yeah, Haley, anytime you need to talk, I’ll listen, if you need me to.”

“Thanks, Jeff. That really – you’re a really good friend.”

I looked over at Byron again; he was talking to Scott, but his smile was small, eyes closed off.

“Thanks.”

*

When I got home that day, I ate a snack, cleaned up my room (well, sorted the piles of stuff in my room, anyway), and checked the mail three times before I finally psyched myself up to pick up the goddamn phone and call the Pikes’ house.

“Hello?” was the answer.

“Hey, is Byron there?”

“Who is this?”

“It’s Jeff.”

“Oh, hey Jeff. Yeah, just a second, let me go get him.”

I could hear the phone being set down, and I realized that I had no clue as to who I’d been speaking to. After a minute, it was picked up again.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” I said, feeling a little stupid. “How’s it going?”

“Good. You?”

“I’m good. Uh, do you want to come over, maybe?”

“Now?”

“Well, now is good. Or later. Whatever you want.”

“No, I can come over now. I’ll be there in a few.”

“Okay.”

We hung up. Dear God, I wanted to shoot myself, but I was way too busy having a heart attack, or maybe a mild stroke. Within ten minutes, I could hear a car pull up. I had the door open before he could knock.

“Hey,” I said again.

“Hey.” He smiled at me, but it was kind of twitchy, and gone in a second.

“Come in,” and he did, standing self-consciously, his hands in his jacket pockets. “Do you want something to eat or…something?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“All right. Uh, let’s go to my room, then.”

But when we were up there, things didn’t get any better. We both sat down on my bed, a good number of inches between us.

“What do you want to do?” I asked.

“You called me over.”

“Yeah.”

It was hard to concentrate. I was trying to come up with something to say, how to start off with saying I was sorry and that I didn’t mean anything by it, and to say thanks for taking care of me when I was obviously out of my head. I was also trying desperately to meet his eyes, and he was trying equally hard not to meet mine. It was a battle of wills, I guess. His tactic was mostly to just stare at his lap, but at some point curiosity got to him, I think, because he glanced up, and I caught him.

“You were talking to Haley today,” he blurted out, blue eyes wide.

“Uh, yeah, I was,” I answered, a little surprised.

“That’s good. I mean, it’s good that you’re getting friendly. She’s a really nice girl, even if she – well, you know, but that doesn’t matter. She’s really nice.”

He was wringing his hands in his lap, tapping his toe anxiously. He went on, “I saw you two, when you went out the other night, at the party. I didn’t really think you two would get close, but it’ll be good. I mean, you’re better than Scott. Better for her, I mean.”

Oh God. Oh God, I was so stupid. Byron knew I’d been drunk, he’d said as much the morning after. That wasn’t the issue here.

He thought I was getting together with Haley.

No wonder things had felt weird around him, and that he hadn’t had anything to say to me. Who knows what he thought I might say, what kinds of things I might brag about doing, and fuck, he would’ve felt like such crap.

“I think Sara’ll be pretty jealous, but she usually is. And the guys,” he was saying, but I wasn’t listening well.

I mean, he really, honestly thought I was with Haley, and I'd be like all the other assholes and go into detail about what I did with her, and he still came over when I called. He came, and here he was, babbling about how he was happy for me, how it was a good thing. Jesus fucking Christ.

My stomach was hurting again, and my eyes, and my throat.

I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just in the back of my head that Mrs. Bruen is always right, and I act accordingly. Maybe it was because his eyes were so sad, that I could tell what he was thinking for once, even when he was trying to be earnest and upbeat, and how he must have been feeling so bad all these days, with no one to talk to. Maybe it was just because he was my best friend.

My best friend.

“…and she’s really hot, I know, it just – ”

Byron,” I said, and he stopped and looked at me.

(I don’t know why.)

I leaned in and kissed him.

You know what? I changed my mind; this is where the story starts.

Chapter Text

Fuck, it was so still at first. Just me, leaning in a few inches, mouth on Byron’s. His lips were a little thin, and dry, and even though my eyes were closed, I could feel him blinking. There was no other reaction, and I was for some of the most terrifying seconds of my life, I started wondering which of my other theories as to why there was gay porn under Byron’s pillow was true.

But then - ah, God - he sighed, this shuddering, choked gasp, and I felt his eyelashes flutter against mine one last time, closed. A small breath against my mouth, and how couldn’t I press forward just a little more, take advantage and slip my tongue in, and -

He was kissing me back, tongue sliding against mine, wet and foreign, and every fucking hair on my body stood on end. God, it’d been so long since a kiss, since touching - and my arms slid around him, and his around me. He clutched the back of my shirt, and my fingers touched the spot just under the hem of his sweater, touched his skin, and he jolted, almost fell right into my lap.

I would’ve let him stay there, if he had.

Byron was the one who broke away, eventually, gasping and pressing the back of his fist to his mouth. I let go; I was breathing harder than if I’d just run the morning mile, and I couldn’t think of anything besides how my mouth was tingling.

"What the hell was that?" he said after a few minutes.

"I don’t know," I answered, swallowing hard.

"Aren’t you - I thought you were with Haley."

I shook my head vehemently. "I’m not!"

His eyes searched my face for a second, considering, maybe, before he asked, "Are you gay?"

"I…don’t think so."

"Then what - the fuck - "

"I just wanted to!"

And it was quiet again, for a few long moments, him just looking at me, me just looking back.

"I am," he said finally, slowly. "You know. Gay."

"I know," I replied softly.

"You know?"

Shit. I didn’t want to be caught, to let him know how I knew.

"Uh, well - the kiss," I answered lamely, and he accepted that, nodding.

"I…I should go," he said after another few moments, and stood up.

Quickly, I was on my feet too. "What? No, you don’t have to."

"Yeah, I do."

"We should - "

"I’ll see you in school."

And he walked out of my room, didn’t even slam the door. I stood there, watching him go as far down the hall as he could before the angle changed. Footsteps down the stairs, the front door opening and closing, a car driving away.

It occurred to me that I could’ve run after him, said something to him, but fuck, I didn’t know what to say to myself.

*

I tried not to think about it.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

After awhile, I dragged out a few choice magazines from under my mattress to reassure myself, but I was too nervous and distracted to really accomplish anything, if you know what I mean, and that just made me even more nervous, and -

God, God, God. Jesus. I kissed him.

*

"Jeff, are you feeling well?" my mother asked at dinner that night. She frowned slightly, concerned.

"I'm fine," I mumbled, staring at my plate.

"You're very pale," Richard noted.

"It's winter," I replied, but even I couldn't inject enough irony into the words to make him notice.

"And you've hardly touched your tofu...whatever that is," he went on obliviously.

Mom rolled her eyes at him, but didn't say anything as she stood up and walked around the table to me. She pressed her hand to my forehead, and I couldn't help but sigh and close my eyes; her fingers were so cool.

"You don't feel hot," she said doubtfully. "Are you sure you're all right?"

I didn't answer for a moment, just felt her fingers on my face, like a blessing.

"My stomach hurts," I finally said, honestly.

"Again? It hurt this weekend too, didn't it?"

I nodded, and she drew her hand away.

"Poor baby," Mom murmured, and I thought I was going to cry all of a sudden.

"I don't think I can eat," I said. "Can I go lay down?"

Mom and Richard exchanged a look before he gave me a short nod. "Go on," he said.

And I left the room, running up the stairs to escape their kindness.

*

I mean, was I really that desperate? Was that why I’d done it - too long without anything physical, and Byron was just convenient? Did I just feel sorry for him, pity a sad, hopeless crush?

Would I feel any better if that were true?

*

Sleeping that night really didn't work so well. I've never been the type to just fall asleep the second my head hit the pillow. My thoughts are too big sometimes, too interesting to ignore, so it usually takes me a while to pass out. But usually, once I finally get to sleep, I'm gone until the alarm clock goes off.

That night, I drifted in and out, tossed and turned, dreamed things I couldn't remember. Collectively, I must have slept for all of an hour. And I guess I looked like it.

"You still feel sick?" my mother asked me in the morning, leaning over the bed to touch my forehead.

"Yes," I mumbled. And it was true - my stomach was one solid, twisted knot, as gnarled as an old man's hands.

"You still don't feel warm," Mom said, standing up straight. "But maybe you should stay home today anyway, just to be safe."

I thought briefly of Byron, the ghost of our kiss, how awkward and terrifying seeing him was going to be, all at once.

"Maybe," I agreed cautiously, peering up at her.

She looked down at me, considering, maybe using some sort of mysterious mom-sense to determine whether I was faking or not. Finally, she nodded.

"All right. Stay home, but I want you to rest up, and don't eat anything that'll make you...well, sick. You can call Richard or me at work if you need anything."

I wouldn't call Richard to help me if I fucking burst into flames, but I just said, "'kay. Thanks, Mom."

I rolled over and closed my eyes before she could kiss me goodbye.

*

It didn't take long to realize that staying home might not have been the best move to make. At least at school, there'd have been classes and people to keep my attention for a while. In the empty house, there was nothing to distract me from thinking. I still couldn't sleep, so I started wandering the house aimlessly, eventually ending up in Mary Anne's room. Snooping around, I found a box of condoms, which was interesting, and a package of Hostess cupcakes, which I ate, longing for the forbidden taste of chocolate and fake, plasticy icing, and succeeded in making myself even sicker to my stomach.

The next several hours were spent in front of the TV, watching soap operas, then talk shows. They were all really stupid, though, so I just kind of zoned out. Besides, it's really hard to concentrate when, I kissed a guy. Jesus fucking Christ runs through your head every thirty seconds. It was my unwanted mantra for the day, consuming me, taunting me, though I wouldn't let the thought go anywhere beyond those words; it was too dangerous.

I think it was during Oprah that I finally fell asleep. Bless her.

I slept straight through until the next morning, only waking up for a few seconds when Richard draped a soft blanket over me and turned off the TV.

*

At breakfast, seeing me after about, oh, sixteen hours of sleep and probably too much rest than was good for me, Mom declared me fit for school again. She sent me off into the cold with half a toasted bagel in my hand, the gloves Byron had given me deep in my pockets, and my stomach still nervous and jumbled. I tossed the bagel into the trash can by the curb as I passed; there was no way I could eat.

On the long, freezing walk to school, I thought about Byron for the first time. I mean, yeah, I'd kind of been thinking about him continuously since - well - but only kind of. Now, I mean, I really thought about him.

What was he thinking right now, about this? Was he angry, or just confused, like me? Did he expect more? (Oh God, I hoped not - as far as I was concerned, that was not part of the plan.) Would he tell anyone?

I had no answers.

I wasn't very surprised when he didn't join me on the walk to school. Honestly, I was relieved, and as I made my way into SHS, I got more and more nervous that he was going to appear out of no where, like a gawky sort of Superman. Only, instead of saving Lois Lane, someone was going to pull out the awkwardness kryptonite and fuck us both up.

Yeah, well, that didn't happen, obviously, though I did see one of his brothers and almost had a heart attack before I realized it was Adam. Good thing I could tell them apart now.

He walked over to me and nodded. "Hey, Jeff."

"Hey," I mumbled, and kept on moving resolutely toward homeroom.

"Where were you yesterday? Sick or something?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, God, great," Adam drawled sarcastically, rolling his eyes. "Byron was out sick yesterday, too."

"He was?"

"I bet he caught it from you. Look, whatever it was you guys had, don't pass it to me - he looked like shit all day."

*

At lunchtime, I sat down at the usual table, with Sara and James.

Byron came a few minutes later, flanked by his brothers, and sat down as far away from me as possible.

The bottom fell out of my stomach.

I stirred my yoghurt. He ate the crusts of his sandwich.

We said nothing.

*

I don't want to go into a whole lot of detail into this. I'm not really interested in going point by point about how boring and crappy two weeks of my life was, and I doubt anyone else is much interested in it either. So I'll try to be brief.

In the mornings, I walked to school alone. Let me tell you, that walk is not nearly as pleasant when you're alone; I felt the cold ten times more than I ever did before, and for the first time in ages I started daydreaming about going back to non-frozen, mild southern California, where friendship was shallower and not so complicated.

At lunchtime, I could be social, talk a little bit; James, Shea, Sara, and Haley were as friendly as ever toward me, though I still couldn't stand Scott.

(On the third day, Adam and Jordan had caught up with me after second period.

"What's going on with you and Byron?" Jordan asked.

I tensed up immediately, mumbled, "Nothing."

They exchanged a look, brows furrowed.

"Look, we're not stupid," Jordan continued.

"We know you're not talking," Adam broke in. "So what happened?"

"You should ask Byron that," I told them.

They looked at each other again.

"We did."

"He wouldn't say."

After that, they didn't talk to me either, in some sort of weird triplet solidarity.)

When school got out, I walked home alone, again, and immediately did my homework, and Christ, did I feel like a complete loser. I needed to fill those hours of silence, though, before Mom and Richard came home, that I used to spend hanging out with Byron. My work was always completely done by the time they got home, written neatly, answers double-checked.

("Did Byron go home already?" Mom would ask when she got home.

I'd just shrug rather than explain, and she'd go on, "He's such a nice boy. I'm so glad you made friends with him; you need someone to be close to, who you can depend on. I just wish - "

She'd go on like that for a while. This lasted for three days, without her ever noticing that Byron clearly hadn't been coming over. Finally, Richard shushed her, and it dawned on me for the first time that he might not be a complete waste of a human being.)

After dinner, I'd help wash the dishes and then run up to my room, where, having finished my homework, I studied. I don't think I'd ever studied just for the sake of doing it before, without a major test the next morning or whenever. I reread, highlighted, made careful notes in the margins of my books, and contemplated suicide a couple times, I was so fucking bored. But TV wasn't as good at distracting me as my textbooks were, and I desperately needed distraction.

You kissed Byron, or something similar would pop into my brain at least once a night. With your tongue.

Then I'd read another chapter and go to bed.

*

So my life was boring again. Back to square one, with friends at school and absolutely nothing to look forward to once the bell rang. Definitely boring. But, if I'm going to be honest, more lonely than anything else. Actually lonely for people. I missed having someone to just hang around with, and I really couldn't figure out how to change that without looking like a total asshole. I mean, I just wasn't good friends with the others; Byron had precluded that.

Well, maybe that could change now, I thought.

So one afternoon, on my way home from school, I was kind of happy to run into Shea Rodowsky, who was headed my way with a younger boy in tow.

"Hey!" I called, and crossed the street to talk to him. "I didn't know you walked home."

He stopped in his tracks and grinned a little. "Always do. I just usually leave a little later. I have, uh, stuff I do after school."

Byron had told me that Shea had to go to tutoring in the resource room after school, since he was dyslexic. All of this was in the strictest of confidence, though, so I just nodded.

"But today I had to walk Archie here home," he went on, and the kid, whose hair was just as red, and face just as freckled, stared up at me. "Jackie usually does, but he broke his foot a couple of days ago."

"Oh, I'm sorry. That sucks."

Shea shrugged. "No big. He's done it a couple times already."

"Oh."

We stood there awkwardly for a few seconds before he asked, "So, uh, you want to come over for a while?"

"Sure!" I answered way too fast, but God, anything was better than a silent house and homework.

As we started walking again, Archie looked at me and asked, "So, which one are you?"

"Huh?"

"Of Shea's friends. Which one?"

"Oh. Uh, I'm Jeff."

"The one all the girls like?"

"Archie!" Shea hissed.

I grinned. "Yeah, that's me."

"How?"

"What?"

"How do you get them all? I mean, Shea can't even get one."

"Archie!"

"I just exude the power of positive energy," I told the kid.

"Oh." His brow furrowed. "Wait, what?"

Archie kept chattering at us - well, me, specifically - all the way to Reilly Lane, where the Rodowskys live. I didn't really mind it. I mean, I was that age once, too.

When we got to their front step, I thought I heard a muffled bark as Shea unlocked the door, and had about three seconds to wonder about that before the door was flung open and a huge black dog reared up, planting his front paws on my stomach.

"Whoa!" I shouted, taking a couple quick steps back. The dog kept with me, panting.

"That's just Bo," Shea said, shrugging and stepping inside. "He's harmless."

I have to say that I'm not really an animal person. We'd only had a pet bird when I was little, and Mary Anne used to have a cat, but apparently it'd developed feline leukemia during the last year and been put down. The Pikes had a basset hound, but he mostly kept out of everyone's way, just sleeping or eating. So, I could handle small, part-time, or uninterested pets, I guess, but giant, overly-eager ones?

I stared at Bo. He stared at me, unblinking.

"Uh. Down," I said.

He ignored me completely.

Archie snickered and tugged at Bo's collar. "Bo," he said, and the dog promptly dropped off of me and trotted indoors behind him.

Well, we were off to a great start.

I followed Archie into the house, closing the door myself. The Rodowskys had a nice, airy house that would've been even nicer if the carpet weren't all stained and the furniture weren't battered and old-looking. Seriously, I don't usually notice that kind of stuff. It was just...obvious.

"Hey!" Shea called from another room. I followed his voice and wound up in the kitchen, where he was standing in front of an open fridge. "Do you like ham or roast beef?"

I resisted the urge to throw up all over the floor. "Uh, neither, thanks. I'm a vegetarian."

He looked at me blankly. "You are?"

Gee, I only ate salads, cold tofu stir fry, hummus, and stuff like that every single damn day for lunch, right in front of him. Hadn't he noticed? I mean, whenever I went over to the Pikes', Byron always made sure to offer me things like granola and fruit (and chocolate, but like I said, it's my weakness).

"Well, mostly," I answered. "I still eat fish."

"Oh." He peered back into the refrigerator. "I'll keep looking for something for you, then."

Five minutes later, having declined offers of Trix yoghurt, V-8, a bottle of Evian (shit tastes like tap water), and a head of lettuce, I was sitting in the living room on the (also slightly stained) couch. Archie sat on the other side of the couch. Bo was between us, staring at me unwaveringly.

"Does he always look at people like that?" I asked, completely unnerved.

"Nope," Archie replied cheerfully. "Just you and the mailman."

Oh, great.

Shea was sitting in a love seat nearby, a remote in one hand and a sandwich in the other. He was flipping through the channels as he chewed slowly, like a cow with her cud. He stopped when he came to some movie I didn't recognize.

"Oh, cool," he said, swallowing. "Van Damme."

Van Damme? Cool? Uh, yeah, right. When Byron and I watched TV or movies, we tended to pick comedies. Not that it mattered, really, because we always ended up talking all the way through them anyway. In fact, we might've actually watched Van Damme, but only to goof on it. Shea looked...well, excited.

"This okay with you?" he asked me.

Fuck no, I didn't say.

Instead, I just shrugged and answered, "Sure."

I mean, what was I supposed to say? It was his house, his TV, and I'd never even been over before. So we started watching old Jean-Claude, even though the movie was a third of the way through already. I had no clue what was going on, other than some seriously terrible karate moves. The only positive things I could think of to say were sarcastic, but I was really trying to be on good behavior, so I kept silent. In about ten seconds I was bored senseless. And anyway, it wasn't like the Rodowsky boys were saying much, other than cheering Jean-Claude on.

At least they enjoyed watching the movie. Bo, apparently, enjoyed watching me.

The longer I sat there, bored, not paying attention, the more awkward I felt, and it didn't all have to do with the smelly, two-ton dog staring at me. It's just - well, it's hard to explain. I kind of just felt wrong being there. I mean, really, if I had any actual interest in doing so, I'm sure I could have learned to live with Shea and his cheesy action flicks and worked on a true friendship.

Fact is, of course, I didn't want to.

Why bother? I already had a friendship that (until recently) needed no work. I missed the easiness of it all, how we drifted into it and just got caught, like dolphins that swim into tuna nets. I missed being understood, and knowing someone just as well, all by accident, no effort necessary, just how it was supposed to be. I missed an easy silence.

I hadn't been lonely for people, I realized suddenly. I'd been lonely for Byron.

*

I thought more about it on my walk home later that afternoon, and by the time I set foot on the front porch, the decision had been made: this bullshit had to stop. I missed Byron, he probably missed me, and so we just needed to get the fuck over it. Period.

The kiss? Well, I'm a firm believer in that things just happen sometimes. There's no meaning behind them, they seemed like a good idea at the time, and that's that. That kiss was just one of those things. If Byron felt differently, well, he'd just have to understand. And I knew he would understand; he always did.

I felt so confident that I strode straight into the kitchen and picked up the cordless phone. I stared down at it for a second, eyes losing focus and blurring the lit buttons.

Okay, Jeff, I told myself. Time to grow a pair.

I dialed the Pikes' number quickly, so I wouldn't lose my nerve, and waited three rings before the click and, "Hello?"

It was a girl's voice.

"Uh, hi," I said. "Is Byron there?"

"Yeah, just a sec. Who is this?"

"This is Jeff."

"Just a sec."

And then I stood there in the kitchen, silent, waiting, for a good five minutes. I thought my nerves were going to grow legs and crawl out of my stomach. Finally, the phone was picked up again.

"Hey," the same girl said, sounding a little harried. "Sorry, but he's actually not home."

"He's not?"

"No. See, I thought he was home, but I guess I was wrong. It was really Adam."

"Adam."

"Yeah. They're identical, you know."

"Yeah, I know," I answered, a little rudely. "Guess I'll try back later."

"Okay, bye."

And I did call back, a few hours later, but I was told again, by Nicky this time, that Byron wasn't home still.

Well, great. It was going to be real fucking easy to be friends again when Byron wouldn't even talk to me.

*

At school the next day, I tried looking around for Byron before and between classes, but I wasn't really into it. It's one thing to be all brave when you're preparing to talk on the phone to a guy, another when you're going to be face-to-face. So, any searching I did was half-hearted at best. I never did spot him.

He wasn't at lunch either. I overheard one of his brothers say that he was having a conference with his history teacher, but, come on, seriously. I knew the truth, and any doubts I might've had about whether he was deliberately trying to avoid me faded away.

And really, that confused me. I mean, us kissing had been weird for me, but I was straight. Byron was gay. What business did he have avoiding me? It's not like I'd expected him to show up on my doorstep with a freaking bouquet of roses or something, but what'd I do that was that bad?

When I got home later, I tried calling again.

"Hello?" It was the same girl who'd answered the day before. Mallory, Vanessa, Margo, Claire. Who the hell knows?

"Hey, it's Jeff," I said, cutting to the chase. "Is Byron home?"

"Uh...no."

I sighed. "For real?"

"I'm - well, I'm supposed to - "

"Look," I interrupted, using this light, conspiratorial voice that girls like sometimes. "Maybe I didn't really call. How about you tell him it's Scott?"

She gave a surprised, but delighted laugh. "Well - yeah, okay. Sure. Just a sec."

Within a minute, the phone was picked up again.

"Hello?"

Byron.

"Byron, listen, don't be a - " I said in a rush, knowing he'd recognize my voice.

Click.

I stared at the phone dumbly for a few seconds. He'd actually hung up on me.

"Mother fucker!" I cursed out loud.

Of course, he'd just rushed to the phone for Scott.

*

At SHS the next day, I didn't still didn't see Byron, but, for the first time in a while, one of his clones acknowledged my existence. Jordan rushed over to me a few minutes before homeroom.

"Jeff," he said as I rummaged through my locker. "Byron said once that you already took European History in California. Is that true?"

Jesus Christ, did Byron forget anything?

"Yeah," I said, without looking at him.

"Oh, okay, awesome. Well, uh, I know I've been kind of a dick to you the last couple days - "

"Kind of?" I glanced at him, raising my eyebrows.

He grinned sheepishly. "Yeah. But, well, I've got this project for my Euro class, and I was hoping, you know, maybe you'd help me out?"

"What's it on?" I sighed.

"Medieval monarchy."

"That's vague," I remarked.

"It can be on anything having to do with medieval monarchy, I guess."

"Well...I guess I can help," I said grudgingly. See what a good friend I am? "It's not like I'm an expert on that, though."

He grinned wider. "Hey, you probably know way more than I do, which is nothing. Oh, and, uh, it's due tomorrow."

"What?"

"Yeah. Um, so can you come over after school?"

"I don't think - "

"Look, if you're worried about Byron being there, you two girls are just going to have to deal, okay? I really, really need help with this project."

I sighed again. Well, at least this way he'd have a harder time avoiding me.

"Fine."

"Great! So, you'll walk over? I'd offer you a ride, but Byron'd probably pee his pants if I asked to give you a lift." Jordan squinted at me, cocking his head a little. "Seriously, what the hell are you guys fighting about?"

"I don't even know."

"Huh. Typical."

*

As I walked over to Slate Street that afternoon, I really thought I was going to barf. Every step closer made my stomach churn just that much worse, my nerves were so shot. And this was because I was possibly going to see my so-called best friend? Go figure.

Jordan answered the door almost instantly when I knocked.

"Hey," he greeted me. "Thanks again for coming; I'm completely lost in this class."

"What's so hard about it?" I asked, stepping inside. A quick glance around told me that Byron was nowhere to be seen.

"Probably the nine thousand Henrys that've ruled one country or another so far. And the Edwards, and blah blah blah. It all just runs together." He nodded toward the stairs. "Come on, let's go to my room. I have my books and everything all spread out up there."

I followed Jordan up to his room, and as soon as I was in it:

"Jordan! What the hell?"

There, sitting on his bottom bunk, was Byron, gaping at us. Any confidence I had left flew right out the window, and I froze.

"Uh - " I started.

Jordan took a step in front of me, frowning at his brother. "Look, you big baby, calm down. I need help with my Euro project. You don't know shit about European history. Adam doesn't either. Mallory's a bitch and won't help me out. So I need Jeff here; he's my friend too, and this is just as much my room as yours. Okay?"

I think I looked way more stunned by that than Byron did. He just glared at Jordan, mumbled, "Fine," and looked back down at the math book in his lap.

Jordan sat down on the floor, where his books were indeed spread all over the place. After a quick look at Byron, I took a place next to him.

"So," I said.

He looked at me expectantly.

"Any idea on what this project is going to be about?"

He cleared his throat. "Uh, yeah. I was thinking, you know, maybe England."

"Okay. What about England?"

"Um. Medieval monarchy. In England?"

Across the room, Byron laughed a little meanly under his breath. Jordan scowled at him.

"Yeah..." I said slowly. "Okay. You might want to get a little more specific than that."

Jordan's face fell. "Really?"

"Well, maybe not. Do you have any other guidelines?"

"It's supposed to be written. Like a report. It's worth twenty-five points."

"Then definitely be more specific. Twenty-five points isn't worth summarizing every English king."

He nodded. "Okay. Well, maybe I can write about kings with a theme, then."

"Sure. What kind of theme?"

"You're the one who's already taken the class."

Byron laughed again, a little louder. He was acting kind of like an asshole, but hell, in his place, I'd have been laughing too.

"Well...let's look through a list of kings; maybe a theme will jump out at us."

"Oh, good idea." Jordan picked up a book and started leafing through it. "What do you know about...William the Conqueror?"

"He was the Duke of Normandy. Kind of the first real king, I guess. And he was a bastard."

"Okay...Richard I?"

"He was gay," I said automatically, and cringed when I saw Byron frown a little deeper as he stared down at his textbook.

"Edward II?"

"Assassinated by having a red-hot poker shoved up his ass."

That caught Jordan's attention. "Wow. Really?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I think that's what they say."

"That's so fucked up. Hey, you know, maybe that can be my theme!"

Asses or pokers? "Uh...what can?"

"Assassinations! I can do summaries of the kings who were murdered, why they got killed, how...that'd be sort of cool, right?"

"Sure, I guess. I don't exactly know how every single king of England died, though. I only remembered that one because it was so weird."

"That's okay. I can probably find a list of murdered kings on the Internet really fast, and you can help with the details." He stood up. "I'll go get that right now. I'll be right back," and he ran out of the room.

Leaving Byron and me alone. In silence. I couldn't help but glance over at Byron as the door closed, and found him doing the same.

It was now or never, I figured.

"Byron - " I started, hesitantly.

"Shit," he hissed, and closed his book.

"I just - I mean, I know what happened was...weird and everything, but - I'm sorry."

He gave me a funny look. "For what?"

I threw my hands into the air. "Fuck if I know! Why won't you talk to me?"

Byron stared down at his lap, passing the book hand to hand nervously. "I'm...embarrassed."

That was it?

I frowned. "What do you have to be embarrassed about? It's not like you even started - it."

"Yeah, but," he replied, face slowly but surely turning red. "I was all - enthusiastic." He whispered the last word, sounding miserable.

I shifted uncomfortably. "Well...so? I guess - I mean, this doesn't have to be a big deal. Seriously. I was embarrassed too - I mean, I'm not even, well, gay - but shit, I'd rather be friends than embarrassed."

He looked up at me, not speaking.

"And as for - you know - well," I went on. "Things just happen sometimes, right? No real reason why or anything, just does. That's all. Nothing between us has to change. Right?"

He nodded quickly, face fully flushed. "Right."

I let out a deep breath, relief racing through me. "Excellent."

"And you don't care?"

"About what?"

"About me being..."

"Oh! No," I answered. "Hell no."

He sort of half-smiled. "Good."

It felt like I should maybe, you know, ask him if he wanted to talk more about that in particular (or so Oprah would have me believe), but he seemed fine with letting the topic rest; I decided to move on.

"So...are we okay again? Are we cool?"

Byron laughed a little, sounding relieved, shoulders shaking a bit.

"I'm always cool," he answered, and I had to laugh, too, just as Jordan walked through the door.

*

During my solitary walk to school in the morning, two guys bumped past me roughly on the sidewalk, overlapping me. I almost started to tell them off when I realized it was Adam and Jordan, frowning darkly and shoulders hunched from the cold.

"Hey - " I started, confused by both why they were walking and why Jordan in particular was being such an ass after all the help I gave him on his project.

They kept on walking, though Jordan called over his shoulder, "We're still restricted from driving!"

Well, yeah, they were. But -

And I turned around to see Byron striding toward me, smiling.

I grinned back. Just like old times; nothing had changed.

Chapter Text

As usual, the house was pretty quiet when I came home after school on Friday. I unlocked the front door and walked in, dropping my backpack right in the middle of the hallway, which I knew Richard hated. Byron, following me in, was a lot more considerate; he closed the front door and hung his bag precariously on the coat rack, which threatened to tip over from the weight of it.

I kept on going, walking into the kitchen and throwing open the door to the pantry.

“What do you – ” I started to call over my shoulder, only to discover that Byron was standing right at my elbow. I flinched, surprised. “Jesus!”

“Sorry,” he said, and took a step back.

“It’s okay,” I answered, shaking my head. I turned back to the pantry and waved a hand at it. “What do you want to eat?”

“Is there anything with polysaturated fat?” Byron asked, sounding hopeful.

“No.”

“High fructose corn syrup?”

“No.”

“Yellow #6?”

“Nope.”

I turned to him and grinned; he looked more than a little pained.

“Byron, I promise that at least some of this food is good.”

“How can it be? It doesn’t have any of the ingredients that make it good.”

Eventually, he reached into the pantry and took out some wheatberry bread and honey, for toast. It was what he always ended up having. Me, I went for a slice of health loaf, because, I mean, seriously, you can’t beat the classics.

When I finished making my snack, Byron was already sitting in the living room, TV on, chewing his toast-and-honey combo and flipping through the channels. We’re not allowed to eat in the living room, technically – Richard’s stupid rule, of course. I’d never told Byron that, though, because, well, he hung his fucking backpack on the coat rack.

We watched in silence for a few minutes, at nothing and everything as Byron tested each of the channels. He paused on MTV, which was showing the new Aristotle Dukas video. I’m not really a fan of Dukas – too broody and emo – and I couldn’t imagine Byron liking that type of music. I wondered if he stopped to watch it because of the song, or because of the singer himself, who was all slim body, broad shoulders, and tight shirt. I wanted to know, for whatever reason, but it’s not like I could’ve really asked, even though we both knew that I knew. Seriously. I mean, ‘Uh, do you find him, like, hot, Byron? Is that your type, or do you just have crappy taste in music?’

No way.

The video kept going so long that I started to squirm a little. I mean, it was boring. I knocked my knee against Byron’s, and he jerked away quickly, too quick. Slowly, too casually to be genuine, he inched away from me and slid off the couch and onto the floor, in front of the coffee table.

He took the hint at least, apparently, and started channel surfing again. And if I didn’t think it could be worse than the Dukas video, I was seriously mistaken, because he stopped on, of all things, an old episode of P.S. 162: The New Class. And he actually watched it for a few minutes, and I thought I might die. This was way worse than Dashboard-wannabe Dukas. Hell, I’d have even preferred Van Damme.

“Can you turn it?” I pleaded. “This show is gay.”

…and I am a total fucking genius.

We both cringed, and Byron nodded shortly, switching the channel.

Okay, so apparently Byron and I hadn’t gone back to having a Happy Sunshine Perfect Friendship instantly. Even after a week, there was still this thick awkwardness that popped up randomly, surrounding us, and we still had to do a weird dance around the Issue. Whatever you want to define that as.

But really, these moments didn’t happen too often. When all was said and done, nothing between us had changed.

We settled on watching the Discovery Channel, and were peacefully watching a pair of lionesses rip apart a gazelle when my mother walked in the door.

“Jeff?” she called, dropping her coat and briefcase right next to my backpack, on the floor. “I’m home early, so I thought we could…” She stopped when she saw Byron and me. “Oh! I thought you two weren’t friends anymore!”

We both cringed.

Yeah. Nothing had changed.

*

“…do you think he’ll sleep in?”

“Probably ‘til tomorrow, if he’s allowed.”

“Hm. Maybe we should try to get him to clean his room.”

“I know, he’s always – hey, is that one of my ceramic dolphins?”

“Where?”

“There, on the floor, right – hey! It’s broken!”

“Oh, no. Do you think it can be fixed?”

“It’s in pieces. I can’t believe – ”

Anyway, this is what I woke up to. Well, not this exactly - I’d been awake for a while by the time they got to this part. No, when I woke up, the two of them were still whispering and tiptoeing around – in my bedroom, I might add – like it wasn’t going to wake me up. By now, they were just carrying on a full-out conversation, right at the foot of my bed.

I had no idea what they were doing in Stoneybrook at all, much less my room, but I wasn’t going to ask. Instead, I just pretended to be asleep, chanting Go away go away go away silently. That mantra had never worked before, but this time, who knew.

Eventually, though, one of them started to shake my bed, and said softly, “Psst. Hey, Jeff. Wake up, Jeffers. Jeff.”

Sighing, I gave in and cracked one eye open, staring up into my older sister’s beaming face.

“Surprise!” she said.

“Dawn,” I mumbled.

“Hi! We’re here for the weekend.”

“In my room?”

She rolled her eyes. “No, stupid. We’re home for the weekend. A surprise – we didn’t even tell Mom and Richard we were coming.”

“Nnngh.”

“You sound thrilled.”

“I’m sleeping.”

“You haven’t even said hi to Mary Anne.”

I raised my head a little and saw my stepsister hovering near the door. She smiled shyly at me.

“Hi, Jeff.”

Even though we’d been technically related for six years, Mary Anne and I had never really spent a lot of time together and by now I think I made her a little nervous. Frankly, sometimes she had the same effect on me, but I hid it better.

“Hi,” I answered. “I’m naked under my blanket.”

Mary Anne’s eyes widened, and she turned beet red. Dawn just shook her head.

“He’s kidding. He just wants us to go.” She turned back to me. “We get it, we’re leaving.”

“Good.” I lay back down and sighed, burrowing under the covers.

“But Mom says you have to get up now.”

“What?!” I raised my head again and glared at her. “It’s Saturday!”

“It’s time for breakfast,” she said. “A big, family breakfast. Well, closer to lunch, I guess.” She shook my bed and said, “Come on,” one more time before they finally left, leaving me groaning into my pillow.

*

Guess who talked all the way through breakfast? The chatterbox twins, that’s who. They just had so much to say about Dawn’s amazing sophomore year at college in South Carolina (she kept going on about how warm it was, and how everyone was so laid back, and seriously, if that’s what she was after, I don’t understand why she didn’t just go to Cal State Fullerton like Dad wanted). And Mary Anne, oh, well, there were her classes at NYU to rave about, and how wonderful it was to live in the city during the holidays (I hadn’t even realized it was December yet). On and on and on.

They talked so much that I couldn’t really tell if they were actually succeeding in shoveling food into their mouths between words, and maybe they didn’t, because while they were blabbing I ate all the soy patties, and Dawn yelled at me, and then Mom even yelled at me. Me! And I’m her precious boy!

“Honestly, Jeff, you could be a little considerate,” Mom grumbled.

“But they’d been just sitting there for, like, half an hour!” I protested.

“Even still, they were for everyone!”

“Mom, it’s all right,” Dawn broke in. “I’ll live. Hey, did I tell you what happened to my roommate?”

“Samantha?” Mom asked. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Okay, so, the other night, it was pretty late when Sam got back to the dorm, and – well, she was drunk.”

Richard sighed heavily, like, oh, what a world, what a world.

“And by that time, I was already asleep,” Dawn continued. “She woke me up, but I decided I didn’t want to deal with it, just I just kept quiet.”

“It might’ve been nice to help her,” Mary Anne said gently, and I had to agree.

Dawn ignored her. “So she went to sleep, and I went back to sleep. The next morning, when we wake up, she’s fine, but she’s lying with her head on the wrong side of the bed, which is weird, but she figures, hey, you know, drunk. Things happen.”

“Uh oh,” Mom murmured.

“Right. Well, later, she found at that, in the middle of the night, she’d gotten out of bed, walked down the hall – she sleeps in just her underwear – and tried to climb in next to our friend, Jason. Lucky for her, he just carried back to bed and tucked her in.”

Mary Anne was blushing again. “How embarrassing!”

Richard shook his head. “This is why I’m glad you were all taught about the dangers of alcohol. You’ve always known better than to let yourselves get into this sort of trouble, especially since you’re underage.”

I’ve been drunk! I wanted to scream. Under your roof! Where I’ve also kissed a guy!

Dawn and Mary Anne just nodded soberly.

“Luckily, my roommate isn’t any trouble like that,” Mary Anne started, reaching for a plate. “We’re in the same sorority, so we know each other pretty well, and – oh, are we out of toast?”

Mom turned and scowled at me; I was chewing on the last piece.

“What?” I said, my mouth full.

And, well, the day just continued like that, talk talk talk, constantly. Don’t think I’m some sort of weird compulsively quiet person – obviously I’m not – I just have never been able to stand this kind of talk – continuous, with hardly any subject changes; they could talk endlessly about anything – in this case, mostly school and their friends there. And they hardly ever let anyone else get a word in edgewise. It was all them, even Mary Anne, who could barely even speak two words to me.

Mom and Richard, though, they loved it, were eating up every word they were saying. I could just see the Christmas letters now:

Dawn and Mary Anne continue to be wonderful geniuses who are well-adjusted beyond compare. Jeff, who recently nearly impregnated a young woman back in California, is still a no-good, smart-alecky punk. We just pray that he doesn’t get arrested.

They used to not be so bad. I mean, when we first moved to Stoneybrook when I was nine, they became best friends in about ten minutes, but they still seemed pretty normal back then. Then Mom married Richard, and he and Mary Anne moved in – and the girls haven’t shut up since. Luckily, I’ve never actually had to live with them both for any real length of time.

“…Jeff?”

“Huh?” I’d been drowning out the conversation for a while; hearing my name startled be enough that I jumped.

“I asked how you were doing so far, at SHS,” Mary Anne said, across the room.

We’d moved to the living room by then; the rest of them were all clustered on the couch and the loveseat, while I sort of perched on this overstuffed footstool by the TV. Richard hated that – seats are for sitting, footstools are for feet, he said. So I made sure to sit there all the time.

“Uh, fine,” I answered.

“Who are your teachers?”

I rattled off their names, and Mary Anne nodded, making some neutral comment when she recognized any of them.

“Have you made any friends?”

What a stupid question. No, I’m a complete social reject, thanks for reminding me. But apparently, she’d decided to really make an effort, and the rest of them were all staring at me expectantly, all lumped together on the other side of the room. It was kind of a lot of pressure.

“Uh, nope,” I replied. “No friends.”

“I’m not surprised,” Dawn commented wryly.

“Don’t be silly,” Mom said. “Of course Jeff has friends. He’s friends with the Pike boys.”

“Oh, the Pikes!” Mary Anne exclaimed. “You’re still friends with them? I haven’t talked to any of them in forever – I love the Pikes. Did they go to Sea City this summer?”

“I…have no idea.” I didn’t even know what Sea City was.

“Ask them for me, all right?”

“Uh, sure. Okay.”

The phone rang just then, and Richard started to stand.

“That’s probably your mother and father,” he told Mom, “Telling us they’re on their way. I’ll get it.”

“Granny and Pop-Pop are coming?” I cried, as Richard picked up the receiver.

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Haven’t you been listening? We said they were at breakfast.”

“I was eating, unlike some people around here.”

“Ha. But, yeah, of course they’re coming. They haven’t seen Mary Anne and me since this summer. They’re taking us out to dinner later, too.”

Well, just perfect. Not that I don’t love my grandparents or anything – though they’d stopped slipping me Cadillacs since they’d gotten wind of my near-miss with Mandy – but their coming over just meant that my oh-so-urbane sisters were just going to repeat everything they’d already said today, plus more. I didn’t know if I could take it any longer, and my jumping out of a window to end it all would probably be a damper on whatever lovely dinner that was planned.

I thought fast.

“But I can’t!” I protested. “I have to work on my project.”

“Project?” Mom asked, as Richard settled back down in his seat. “What project?”

“My history project!” I sounded as incredulous as I possibly could. “Mom, I told you all about it last week.”

“You did?” She sounded doubtful, but her forgetting something like this wasn’t exactly out of the realm of possibility.

“Yeah. Me and a partner have to make a timeline about the causes leading up to the Revolutionary War.” Where the hell was I getting this stuff? “It’s got to be this big poster thing.”

“Who’s your partner?” Richard asked.

“Byron,” I answered without thinking, and immediately regretted it; Richard looked suspicious, and it wouldn’t have been out of character for him to check the roll sheets of all my classes, just to see what kind of influences I’d be under. And Byron wasn’t actually in my history class.

“We got to choose,” I added quickly. “And I told him I’d work on it today at his house.”

“When did you say you’d be there?” Mom asked.

I looked at the clock, like it really mattered.

“About fifteen minutes ago,” I answered. “But, you know, we were all talking to Mary Anne and Dawn.”

Mom sighed. “Well, you better get going, then. It’s rude to keep him waiting.”

“Yeah.” I stood up, and fought the urge to run out the door.

“You’re really going?” Dawn said, sounding disappointed. “But we were having a really good talk.”

*

A little while later, after a particularly freezing walk, I was standing on the Pikes’ porch, ringing the doorbell. Claire, the youngest, answered.

“Hey,” I said. “Is Byron here?”

“I thought you weren’t friends anymore,” she said.

“Unless you know something I don’t, we’re still friends,” I replied. “Is he here?”

“Yeah.” Claire turned around and walked off, leaving the door open for me. As I followed inside, she called, “Byron! Jeff’s here!” and then just sort of wandered off into the house.

I stood in the hall for a minute before Byron came in.

“Hey,” he said. “Did we have something going on?”

I shook my head. “No, I just need to hide.”

“Hide?”

“My sisters are visiting. They’re…annoying.”

“Oh, Dawn and Mary Anne?”

“Obviously. Hey, and Mary Anne wants to know if your family went to Sea City this summer, or something.”

“Yeah, of course.” He shrugged. “Well, if you need to hide out, we’re just watching the Green Bay game down in the rec room.”

“That sounds awesome,” and it did, really, in comparison to my other option – going back home.

“How long do you need to hide?” he asked, as he led me into the kitchen.

“For as long as I can; they’ll be here until Monday morning.”

“Ouch.”

He opened a door to the basement stairs, and we started walking down.

“How’d you get out of it?”

“Told them we had a history project to do?”

“What sort of project?” He sounded amused, and he laughed when I told him.

In the rec room, the TV was blaring, and Jordan and Nicky were lounging on the floor; Pow, the basset hound, was asleep with his head on Nicky’s chest. Adam was stretched out on the couch.

“Hey, Jeff,” he said, eyes never leaving the screen.

“You took my seat!” Byron cried. “I called the couch.”

“You moved. It’s mine now.”

“Oh, come on!”

“Fight me for it,” Adam suggested cheerfully, and Byron just sighed, shaking his head. We both sat down on the floor.

“Funyun?” Jordan offered, shaking a bag at me.

I shook my head. “No thanks.”

“We have food upstairs that you might actually like,” Byron told me, and really – I mean, it was just cool that he always remembered.

“No, really,” I said. “I just ate a little while ago.”

“Oh, come on, ref!” Adam yelled at the TV. “Be consistent!”

Byron turned back to the game sharply. “What happened?”

“He – well, look, instant replay.”

“Fucked up!” Jordan commented.

Nicky, I think, was as asleep as Pow.

I smiled. What an improvement – the conversation of men.

*

A few blissful hours of male bonding – if male bonding consists of cussing out referees and throwing stale, oniony snacks at the TV screen – went by before Margo clattered down the stairs, holding out the phone to me.

“It’s your mom,” she said, and dropped the receiver into my hands before turning to her brothers and saying, “And Dad says it’s time to give someone else time with the TV, so – ”

I clamped my palm over the mouthpiece, and said to Byron, “Shit. I bet I have to go home.”

He shook his head. “Here, let me,” and he took the phone. “Hi, Mrs. Spier? This is Byron. I’m good, how are you? Cool – no, Jeff’s kind of busy right now. Yeah, he’s drawing a picture of Samuel Adams.”

(I almost lost it right there.)

“No, we’re not done yet…a couple more hours, I think. Yeah. Yeah, okay, I’ll make sure he does. Bye.” He turned off the phone and smiled at me, the picture of innocence. “We’re still busy with our project, and you’ll call your mom when you’re coming home.”

“You are awesome,” I said, grinning.

“I know.”

“…and I want to watch the Justin Hart E: True Hollywood Story!” Margo shrieked, and I winced; the girl had a pair of lungs on her.

Fine, you simpleton,” Jordan hollered back, and threw a pillow at her face.

Adam got up and stretched. “Want to do a movie?” he asked. “We can call up the others.”

Jordan nodded. Byron looked at me, and I nodded too before he answered, “Sure.”

We ran upstairs then, feet pounding, like a herd of buffalo was charging through the house. In the kitchen, we found the rest of the Pike family milling around. Their parents were sitting at the table, trying to eat, but I don’t think they were doing too well.

“But Mom, I have to go,” Vanessa whined.

“Honey, I’m pretty sure you don’t have to go to New York all by yourself,” answered Mrs. Pike calmly, sipping an iced tea. “And you won’t.”

“But he only has three poetry readings there a year, and – oh,” and she stopped suddenly, glancing at me and running her hand through her dark hair. “Hi, Jeff.”

“Uh – ”

“Mom, would it be okay if Jeff spent the night?” Byron interrupted.

I raised my eyebrows, surprised.

“Sure.” She smiled at me. “How are you, Jeff?”

“I’m good.”

Adam went over and shoved Mallory’s shoulder. “Get off the phone, I need it.”

She glared at him and covered the receiver with one hand. “I’m using it, go away.”

“I need to make some calls!”

“No!”

“Now!”

“Mallory, you’ve been on the phone for half an hour,” Mr. Pike said. “Give someone else a chance with it.”

She looked stricken. “But this is an important call!”

“Come on, we won’t take long,” Jordan told her, rolling his eyes.

“And I won’t be on much longer, unless you keep bothering me.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.”

Nicky appeared in the doorway, rubbing his eyes and saying, “Who won the game?”

I was just thinking, wow, maybe my sisters aren’t that bad, compared to this, when, out of no where, Claire, who’d just been sitting there, eating Spaghetti-Os, opened her mouth and started to scream.

The rest of her family just kind of paused and looked at her, but Byron must have seen the panic in my face, or realized that I was frantically calculating which way out would be the fastest, because he leaned in and said, “Come on, we’ll let Adam and Jordan handle this,” and led me out of the kitchen in a hurry.

We ended up in the garage, and climbed into the backseat of the triplets’ car. Once the door was slammed shut, I could finally take a breath and ask:

“What the hell was wrong with her?”

“Claire? She, uh.” He cleared his throat. “She’s, uh, having her first period, and, well, Mallory says she’s not used to cramps.”

“Why do you know that?” I asked, completely horrified. As far as I knew, Dawn and Mary Anne had never gone through the menstrual cycle, and I didn’t want to be enlightened.

He shrugged. “In our house, word just kind of gets around.”

“God, then are you brave enough to have a wet dream?” and Jesus Christ Almighty, do I ever think before I speak?

Byron, at least, had the grace to blush. “I manage.”

We were both quiet for a few seconds, embarrassed, before Byron was kind enough to change the subject.

“Is it okay that I asked my mom if you could stay over? I figured you might want to.”

“It’s cool,” I said. “It’s a good idea – I want to stay away from the girls as much as possible.”

“Are they really that bad?”

I laughed. “Do you know my sisters?”

He looked a little confused. “Well…yeah.”

“Huh?”

“I mean…maybe you weren’t around enough to remember, but they baby-sat for us a lot, when we were little,” Byron said. “Nicky thought Dawn walked on water, and Mary Anne even came with us to Sea City in the summers to be a mother’s helper. And they were Mallory’s friends for a while, before she went to boarding school. So, yeah, I knew them, at least back then. They didn’t seem so bad.”

“I…feel stupid now,” I said.

He shook his head. “Don’t.”

“No, I mean, I remember their club and everything, but when I remember being here, I don’t think about being baby-sat. I think about you and me and your brothers, goofing around.”

Byron smiled, and suddenly I was very, very aware of how small the backseat was.

“Anyway, it’s just that they talk so much,” I continued quickly. “All they ever do is talk. Constantly. It just gets on my nerves.”

“Well, it’s not like they see you or your parents that often,” he pointed out. “They’re just excited.”

I hated Byron, a little, for rationalizing this.

“Well, yeah, okay,” I said. “I understand that. But half the time, they’re talking to each other, not with me or anyone.”

He scrunched up his nose, and said sympathetically, “Yeah, I know how that feels. That sucks.”

I was just going to ask him what he meant by that when Adam and Jordan came in and got into the car.

“Thanks for helping us call everyone, douches,” Jordan said, and adjusted the rearview mirror.

“Me?” I asked incredulously. “But I’m the guest!”

“Oh, fuck you,” Adam said, but he grinned.

It was already dark out, one of those early winter nights, as we drove downtown to the Stoneybrook Cinema, but at least it wasn’t snowing. When we’d parked and walked up to the front, Sara, James, Scott, and Shea were already there, waiting for us. Haley, of course, was still grounded.

“Hey, Jeff,” Sara said, ignoring the other guys completely. I mean, jeez, do they teach subtlety in girl school?

“Uh, hi.”

James held up a hand and waved around a bunch of movie tickets, spread out like a fan.

“We got ‘em already,” he said. “You owe us.”

For that, I was eternally grateful. It wasn’t snowing, but it was still cold as hell, and I’d forgotten my jacket at the Pikes’; I was eager to get inside fast.

“What’re we seeing?” I asked as he handed me my ticket.

House of Blood,” Scott said.

Byron’s eyes widened. “What?”

I looked at him curiously, but Adam frowned.

“Come on, Byron, don’t make a big deal out of this.”

“You know I don’t like those kinds of movies.”

“Yeah, and I also know you’re sixteen, and maybe I thought your testicles had descended by now, but I guess not, you wuss.”

Byron opened his mouth, then shut it quickly; I think he was trying to keep his composure, which I had to admire. God knows I would have punched Adam in the face for that one.

“Look, why is this always an issue?” Adam went on.

“Because I hate stuff like this – ”

“And how the hell are you going to get over that if you don’t watch a couple? Me and Jordan liked this stuff when we were ten. Even Nicky did.”

“But I don’t! I mean, you didn’t even ask!”

“Come on, look, everyone’s waiting. Let’s just see the movie.”

“I don’t –”

“God, why do you always have to be such a little kid?”

“Why do you always have to be such a fucking asshole?” Byron shouted, and whirled around, stalking back toward the parking lot.

I was shocked; this was the biggest outburst I ever saw from Byron, and judging by everyone else’s expressions, the same went for them.

I watched Byron stride off, his shoulders hunched, and looked down at the ticket in my hand. I really kind of wanted to see House of Blood, but, I mean, I couldn’t let my friend go off alone. Sighing, I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out a crumpled twenty, the only money I had.

“Here,” I said, and passed it to Shea. “For the tickets.”

“But, you don’t – ” Sara started.

I just shrugged, and turned around to follow Byron.

“Hey!” I called after him, but he didn’t slow down, so I had to jog to catch up, hoping all the ice from the last snow was gone.

I made it to him just as he reached the Honda. He fumbled around in his pocket.

“I thought Jordan had the keys,” I said, a little breathless.

“I have my own pair,” he mumbled, and produced them to unlock the door.

Before I got in, I glanced over my shoulder. The group was still outside, watching us, talking.

“Your brothers,” I said, a little stupidly. “How’re they – ?”

“I don’t care,” he answered shortly, and started the engine. “Walk, get a ride. Screw them,” and we drove off.

I watched him, a little warily, as we drove. He was frowning, chewing on his bottom lip, but not looking so upset that I thought he was going to drive us into a tree or anything.

After a few minutes, he said softly, “You didn’t have to come. You could’ve seen the movie; I’d understand.”

“Well…no, it’s okay,” I answered. “I mean, I already heard part of what happens. Cam Geary gets killed in the first ten minutes.”

“I thought he died of a heroin overdose,” Byron replied vaguely.

“That’s just an urban legend,” I said, and Byron laughed, but I wasn’t sure why.

After that, we didn’t talk. I didn’t know what to say, and I figured Byron would talk if he wanted to.

When we got back to the Pike house, it was surprisingly quiet. Mallory was sitting in the living room, snuggled up with her boyfriend, this jerk, Benny Ott, who was in my PE class. She didn’t look too pleased about being interrupted.

“Where’s everyone?” Byron asked, sounding really, really tired.

“Mom and Dad got fed up and went to the Rosebud for dinner, Vanessa’s out with friends, Margo and Claire are in the rec room, Jordan and Adam are wherever you left them, and you two,” she said, glaring, “Are in your room.”

“Yeah, okay.” Byron turned to me. “Maybe you should call your mom, if you’re still spending the night.”

I nodded, and picked up the phone, dialing as he went upstairs.

“Uh, Mom,” I said after she answered. “Don’t be mad, but I think I need to spend the night.”

“What!” she exclaimed. “Why?”

“We kind of misunderstood the assignment. We, uh,” and I have to say, I’m pretty proud of this next one. “It turns out that we weren’t supposed to write about the causes leading up to the Revolutionary War, but what the Revolutionary War caused.”

I don’t even think that made total sense, but she said, “Jeff, but your sisters are going home in the morning.”

“Yeah, I know, but this is, like, a third of my semester grade. It’ll mess up my GPA.”

“And you’ve been doing so well,” she said, sounding resigned, and I knew I’d won. “Just come home as early as you can tomorrow, okay? And we’re going to dinner right now, so if you call, we’ll be out.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“I love you too, sweetheart,” and I hung up.

When I got to Byron’s room, the main lights were off, but the nightlight was on. Byron was sitting cross-legged on his bed, staring into his lap.

“I really am a little kid,” Byron said softly, and I felt so bad for him.

I sat down on the floor, shaking my head. “Shut up.”

“I just hate horror movies,” he went on. “And it’s not like I think they’re stupid or something; they really freak me out. They scare me.”

I crawled over to him, shuffling on my knees, to kneel beside his bed. “You’re not the only one.”

“Yeah, right.”

“No, really. I mean, they’re supposed to scare people. That’s the whole point.”

“They don’t scare you, or Scott and them.”

“But at least they scare other people.”

He looked up, then, right into my eyes, and I could see everything he was feeling, and it just hit me, right in the gut.

“No one who counts is afraid of them,” he said slowly.

“I,” I started, but had to shake my head, get an answer together. “Well, but at least you didn’t let them talk you into it. You didn’t watch it, so you’re not going to stay awake all night, crying or something.” I shoved his knee a little and grinned, so he knew I was joking. “You told the truth, and that’s not bad. And you called Adam a fucking asshole. That was awesome, and it’s the truth.”

He almost smiled then. “You think so.”

“Are you kidding? Definitely.”

He laughed a little bit, then, but I could tell he still felt bad, so I went on, “You know, if Adam thinks you’re a little kid, maybe you should really act like one.”

“Well, I think we’re finally out of Huggies,” Byron said wryly.

“No, I mean.” I frowned. “What did we use to do when we were little? Climb trees?”

“Ride bikes.”

“Play tag.”

“Explore.”

“Baseball.”

“Build forts.”

I pointed at him, grinning. “There. That’s what we do.”

He looked completely puzzled, but amused, too. “You want to build a fort?”

“Yeah, why not? It was fun then.”

“We’re sixteen, for one.”

“So? That just means we’ll be better at it now.” I was trying really hard to be enthusiastic; I hoped the Academy had my address, so they could send me my Best Actor Oscar. I pulled on the sheet he was sitting on, which pulled him forward a little. “Come on, we need blankets.”

Then, like magic, Byron really did smile, and God, it really was a nice one.

We pulled the blankets and pillows off all four beds, and got to work. It took a few minutes, remembering just how we used to do this, but then Byron pulled over a chair, and after draping a blanket over it, it all came back. Pillows we stood precariously on their sides, to form a wall, while the dresser was the back, fortifying (oh, so that’s where that word comes from) the rear. We threw blanket over blanket to make a sort of half-roof, with the chair holding all that up and serving as the fourth wall. Textbooks were used to anchor down the edges of the blankets; we did that from the inside, laughing at our ingenuity like fourth-graders. By the end, it really had become fun.

We sat, kneeling, admiring our fort of soft things in the corner of Byron’s room. He looked over at me with a half-smile, that one corner of his mouth quirking upwards.

“Thanks,” he said, in his clear, quiet voice, but I could only nod, because his smile, eyes, they were blue, and I don’t even know.

Byron must have read me – always could, knew me so well, better than I did him – because somehow his whole face changed, in one instant, and suddenly this was serious. He turned to me slightly, swallowed hard, and reached out, hesitating a little, to touch my chin.

We kissed, and it was so natural, just like water crashing into the shore; our eyes closed, my mouth opened, waiting for his, and it was done, I was done, and I don’t even know.

I’d like to say that I pulled back, stopped it before it even started, or at least told myself I should stop, but really, it didn’t even cross my mind.

It was better this time, and worse, because it was different. The last one had been impulse, quick and wet, but this one was slow, long, deeper, and there was no mistaking the intent, that I wanted it.

We both leaned in closer, like instinct, like we were looking for something. Our knees bumped, and I could hear his shaky breath, or maybe it was mine, who knows. I felt something cool; Byron was touching the back of my hand.

And then – then, footsteps up the stairs, coming toward us. Byron tore away quickly, and we both gasped, searching for breath.

The door opened, and either Adam or Jordan, I don’t know, I couldn’t see them, said, “What the hell?”

Byron closed his eyes for a moment, then straightened a bit, peering at them from over the fort wall.

“You said I was a little kid, so we made a fort,” he said, with just the smallest waver to it.

I would’ve admired him for that, would’ve helped him, but I was too busy sitting there, hidden by the blankets, staring straight ahead and trembling.

There was a pause, like they were contemplating that one. Then one of them said, “Well, we got kicked out because James and Scott kept throwing Milk Duds at people’s heads, so we just went to Pizza Express for a while.”

“Oh,” Byron said, and it sounded like an echo.

I stood up suddenly, without even thinking about it. My shoulder caught the one wall, and I brushed blankets away.

“I need to go,” I said, and started moving toward the door.

“I thought you were staying over,” one of them said, Jordan, maybe.

“Yeah, I shouldn’t. My sisters – they’re leaving in the morning. Thanks for everything, bye,” and I was out of there.

I grabbed my jacket off the hook, and was on the porch before I realized that Byron had followed me.

“I’m sorry!” he said, shutting the front door behind us. “You don’t have to – I won’t do it again.”

It felt like I stared at him for a long time, still trying to get it together, before I answered:

“It’s not you. I just need to go.”

“I don’t want things to be weird with us again,” he said, and he looked completely lost.

“They won’t. I just need to go.” He looked so worried, though, that I had to add, “I’ll call you. Tomorrow. Okay?”

He nodded, and I finally turned away, walking down the street in the dark. I know he watched me the whole time, because, well, he was Byron.

*

When I got home, they were still out to dinner, and I was glad.

I went to my room, fell onto my bed, and slept thirteen hours straight, fully-clothed.

*

I woke up right before the girls left, rumpled, wearing the same clothes, but I don’t think they noticed.

“I thought you stayed at the Pikes’ last night,” Dawn said, surprised, as she shoved a suitcase into the backseat of Richard’s car.

I shrugged. “Wanted to see you off.”

Mary Anne’s eyes filled up with tears. “How sweet!”

“Well, I wish I’d seen more of you, but thanks, Jeff,” Dawn said. “You know you can always call me, right?”

“Yeah.”

She smiled then, her Sunshine smile, as Dad liked to say, and gave me a hug. Mary Anne gave me one too, a little more tentative, but well, I guess it was nice of her.

Mom and Richard drove off with them, to give them a ride to the train station. I stood in the driveway for a minute, watching them go. Then I went back inside, called up Sara Hill, and asked her out on a date.

*

It was a few more hours before I got up the nerve to call Byron, like I promised. He picked up before the first ring was even through.

“Hello?”

“Hi.”

“Jeff! Good. I just – I mean, are you – ”

“I asked Sara out.”

And there was this silence that filled up the phone; I didn’t need to be there with him to know exactly how he, his eyes, how they looked.

“Oh,” he said, eventually. “Oh, okay.”

“I need to go. I’ll see you in school tomorrow. We’ll walk together.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“Bye.”

And I hung up.

Chapter Text

“Hey,” I said to Byron when we met up the next morning, walking to school.

He nodded, his head covered in this blue knit ski cap I’d never seen before.

“Hey.”

Then I ran out of things to say.

Well, I mean, okay. The most obvious thing would’ve been to say, hey, sorry we keep making out for some reason, but I’m not like that; it’s okay if you are, though. But…I don’t know. Somehow I didn’t think that was going to help all that much, and I kind of thought, maybe, maybe, if we didn’t talk about it, it wouldn’t have to be a big thing.

And anyway, if we talked about it I’d have probably hurled all over his shoes.

We walked for a while in silence before I decided to try conversation again.

“Uh…so, I heard the Bengals won yesterday.”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t see that coming.”

“Hm.”

“Think maybe they’re the team to beat this season?”

“They’re okay.”

All right, awkward. And, well, his hat was freaking the hell out of me; it was pulled so low that I couldn’t really see his eyes, just this narrow space above his nose that was probably just enough for him to watch his step and not fall and crack his head open in the gutter or something. It was driving me nuts, and I was having trouble concentrating, but I kept trying.

“Or the Colts.”

“Yeah.”

“Undefeated, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Definitely need to pay attention to them.”

“Yeah.”

Jesus Christ, I don’t even like football! But I was undeterred.

“Who do you like?” I asked, a little desperately. A direct question, asking for a specific answer – that was the ticket.

“I don’t know,” he answered hollowly.

Well, Jesus fuck. Okay, or maybe I was deterred; I gave up. We walked the rest of the way to school in silence, eventually parting in the hallway without saying goodbye.

Okay, I told myself as I sat down in homeroom. This is going to get better. I mean, he walked to school with me. That’s something, at least.

But in the mean time, I was not going to think about it. No talking about it, no thinking about it. A damn fine plan. General Patton himself couldn’t have thought up a strategy better than that.

I took really good notes in class that day.

*

Then, of course, came lunch. And, well…fuck.

Things started off badly. As soon as I sat down, Sara appeared out of no where, like the psycho killer in a horror movie, only without the menacing theme music, and sat down next to me. Like, next to me – she was practically in my fucking lap, and, well, all right, how the hell am I supposed to eat with one of my elbows pinned to my side?

“Hi!” she said, grinning at me, all big teeth.

“Um, hi,” I answered, and squirmed away a little. I mean, I really wanted to eat my sprouts sandwich.

She edged right back up to me.

“Hi,” she said again, giggling a little.

See, and I’d thought we’d covered that end of the conversation already.

“Yeah,” I replied, and she laughed again, opening her lunch bag and pulling out a Slimfast. See, apparently you could do stuff like that when your dominant arm wasn’t denied movement. I flexed my arm, bumping my elbow with hers.

“Sorry, but could – ?”

“Oh! Yeah, sorry, I – ” and she moved about a half an inch away, still smiling like we had a secret or something. Well, it was a start at least.

I was just easing open the brown paper wrappings of my sandwich – paper’s so much better for the environment than plastic – when James sat down at my other side. And I about flipped.

Okay, wait. Don’t think James was a step away from being my Siamese twin, like Sara was – gross. I mean, the kid listens to Dashboard Confessional on a regular basis, for God’s sake; I probably would have had to beat the crap out of him if he tried to make a pass at me, but luckily for both of us, that wasn’t the case. There were a completely reasonable couple of inches between us. It’s just –

Byron sat there. Or was supposed to.

But when I glanced down the table, weirdly panicked, I saw that he was already there, on the other side, talking to Scott and not paying any attention to me at all.

And Sara just kept smiling at me.

I couldn’t finish my lunch.

*

After school, Byron walked with me again, but this time I didn’t even attempt conversation. I asked if he wanted to come over to my house for a while, though, but he said no, he had other plans.

Well, maybe some space between us right now was a good thing.

*

Adam and Jordan caught me in the hall between classes the next day. Kind of literally. I was heading to my history class when they came out of nowhere (what were they, ninjas?) and flanked me.

“What's going on with you and Sara?” Adam demanded.

I did a double take; I hadn’t noticed them, walking in step with me.

“I – ”

“We saw you two at lunch yesterday,” Jordan added.

“And I saw you two at lunch yesterday,” I answered. “Funny how that works.”

They rolled their eyes.

“Ha,” Jordan said.

Somehow, without me even realizing how, they were backing me into a corner, between the wall and a section of lockers. It all seemed casual, but there was no room for escape. They were good. It was just going to be easier to give in, I realized. I mean, it wasn’t like this was a big secret or anything.

“I asked her out,” I mumbled, looking away.

“You asked Sara out?” Adam asked, eyebrows raising like it was necessary punctuation in the sentence or something.

“No, I asked your mom out,” I answered, but they just ignored me.

“She said yes,” Jordan said, didn’t even have to ask.

“Of course,” Adam agreed. “When?”

“Thursday.” I said it like I usually say meatloaf or Stoneybrook, not exactly like I was on the edge of my figurative seat with excitement, but they didn’t notice.

“A date on a Thursday?” Jordan said.

“She’s going out of town this weekend,” I said with a shrug. “So. Thursday.”

“But where can you can you take her on a Thursday night?”

“Other than the library,” Adam said.

I frowned. “Hadn’t gotten that far yet. There’s kind of nothing in Stoneybrook, is there?”

“You could always drive out to Stamford.”

“Drive?”

Adam and Jordan glanced at each other.

“You did ask your parents to borrow a car, didn’t you?”

“You can’t make Sara drive. Then she’d totally be the guy!”

“Drive,” I repeated to myself, just as next period’s bell rang. “Shit!”

*

I kept waiting for an appropriate time to ask my mom – Mom, not Richard – about the car, but the night just wasn’t going my way. When she got home, a news report on teen sexuality popped on the TV, and at dinner Richard started talking about these people his firm was defending, a couple suing for custody of their fourteen-year-old son’s baby. Not really the best opportunities to ask, with great innocence, to borrow the car, considering what I’d come to be known for doing in the backseat.

After dinner, I did the dishes while Richard sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and supposedly looked over some notes. Really, I think he was trying to size up whether he thought he’d have to wash the dishes over again. But with my mom in the house, it’s not like I could blame him for being paranoid; one time, after she’d washed them, I opened the cabinet and found half a tuna sandwich still on a plate.

Seriously though, not everyone from Mom’s bloodline is a complete spacecase; after sixteen years of life, I was pretty capable of scraping food off a surface, thanks. At least Mom thought I was doing decently, because she walked in, gave me a sort of one-armed hug and said, “Such a good boy.”

Carpe diem, I guess, or, well, carpe moment. Now was the time.

“Can I borrow the car Thursday night?” I asked.

Richard glanced up from his notes. Mom cocked her head a little.

“What for?”

“Oh, um,” and I looked away to place a bowl in the rack, no big deal, no big deal. “I’ve got a date.”

There was silence for a minute.

“Oh,” she said eventually.

“Do you really think that’s well-advised, considering?” Richard asked, and I swear, I swear to God, the only reason I didn’t punch him right in the throat is because I was up to my elbows in lukewarm dishwater.

“Look,” I said quickly, turning to Mom, my real parent. “It’s not a big deal or anything, I promise. Like, dinner or a movie or something, that’s it. It’s just a first date.”

If Mom really thought I’d fuck some girl in the backseat of her car, on a first date no less, I was going to – but the only thing I thought of was run away to Byron’s house.

“With who?” she asked.

“Sara Hill,” and God was I glad I picked a “nice” one this time.

“Sara Hill,” Mom repeated. “Didn’t Dawn used to baby-sit her?”

Jesus, she did? Who the fuck didn’t my sisters baby-sit? But then I had to smile.

“You can remember who Dawn baby-sat, like, when she was thirteen, but I bet you don’t know where you set your earring three minutes ago,” I said.

Looking surprised, Mom reached up and touched her right earlobe, where a little dangling star still hung.

“Left,” I said, and she tried again, found nothing, and laughed.

“That’s just me, I guess,” she said, smiling back.

“So, I mean, can I go?” I asked. “Please.”

“We’ll have to – ” Richard started from the table, but Mom interrupted him.

“You can take my car,” she said. “If you promise to be home by curfew.”

“I have a curfew?” I asked blankly.

She frowned a little. “Did – didn’t we go over this?”

I shook my head.

“I thought – ”

“It’s ten on a weeknight,” Richard said tightly. I think he was kind of pissed that Mom just went over his head, but come on. It’s not like he was in labor with me for twelve hours. “Same as it was for Mary Anne.”

I thought about trying for a later time, but no, now was not the time. I wanted to walk away a winner this time.

“Okay, awesome, that works.” I set down the last of the spoons and wiped my wet hands before giving my mother a hug. “Thanks. No big deal, I swear.”

“I trust you,” she said, giving me a squeeze back, and God, I really, really loved my mom right then.

“You put your earring in the breadbox,” I told her, right before I ran out of the room, and right before Richard stood up, sighed, and rolled up his sleeves to do my dishwashing over again.

*

When Haley and Sara tried to sit down at lunch the next day, Adam shook his head and waved them off.

“Sorry, girls, not today. We need Guy Time,” he said.

For a second I think they and I all had identical What? expressions, but then Sara looked from him to me and smiled, turning on her heel and heading for another table with exactly zero protest. Haley frowned, but followed.

In less than a minute, all the other guys, even Byron, were at the table, clustered around me and leaning in like we were about to plan the Kennedy assassination or something.

“So, did you get the car?” Jordan asked me in a hush tone.

Involuntarily, I looked at Byron, but all of his attention was focused on staring a hole into his lunch bag, apparently.

“Um, yeah, I,” I started. “Wait, this is ‘Guy Time’?”

“Well, duh,” Adam said. “We’re your friends, right? We want to help.”

“Have you decided where to take her?” Jordan broke in.

“Not…no.” I hadn’t been thinking of anything, honestly. Trying not to, anyway. In fact, I’d watched three Lifetime original movies the night before, until I really thought I wouldn’t be capable of thinking again.

“Dinner,” Shea said. “That’s a given, right? The Argo’s pretty good.”

“Or the Rosebud,” James suggested.

“Gross,” Jordan said, frowning.

“Renwick’s is nice,” Byron said softly, the first real thing he’d said to me all week.

I glanced over at him, and he met my eyes, and just. Just.

“Way too expensive,” Scott said, tearing open a bag of Doritos. “For a first date. Take her to Pizza Express. It’s pretty cheap.”

A little shaken, I looked back at Byron, wanting to say, See, there’s your hero, Scott Danby, but he’d already lowered his face and begun unwrapping his sandwich.

But seriously, Pizza Express? What kind of loser would take a girl to Pizza Express on a first date?

“No, look, I’ve thought this through,” Adam said. “Stamford’s really the way to go. It’s not like she hasn’t been to everywhere in town a million times anyway.”

“Yeah. They could go to Lazer Tag,” Shea said.

Adam rolled his eyes. “Seriously, you think Sara’s going to be into that? Come on.”

Feeling kind of overwhelmed, my stomach in a knot, I said, “Look, do you want to date her?”

“Please. Been there, done that.”

That was something Byron hadn’t told me. “Serious?”

“Yeah, for like a week. Not worth it. I mean, her dad’s really protective. We had to tell him I was Byron before he’d let her go out with me.”

“Thanks for that, by the way,” Byron said dryly.

“But you, you’re like a mystery man,” Adam went on. “Nothing hanging over your head.”

That you know of, I thought, and again I had to look at Byron, and this time he looked back, but only for a second.

“Anyway,” Jordan said with great patience, bringing us back to the topic at hand. “I think you should take her to the Paragon.”

“Good idea,” Shea agreed, nodding.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a sixteen-and-over club,” Shea explained. “Sometimes there are old guys hanging around, but otherwise it’s pretty cool. You can dance, at least.”

“Is…is Sara even sixteen yet?” I had no idea.

They all got quiet for a second.

“Well, even if she’s not, they never card,” Adam said. “Hell, we got James in that one time, and he looks like he’s twelve.”

“Hey!” James protested.

“She’s sixteen,” Byron sighed, but no matter how hard I stared at him, he didn’t look at me again.

“Okay, so, awesome,” Jordan said. “Take her to the Paragon.”

“We’ll give you directions,” Adam added.

“But doesn’t it have a cover charge?” Scott asked.

“I think I can handle it,” I replied, sounding as tight as Richard had the night before. (Jesus Christ, was that disturbing to realize.) “Okay, cool. The Paragon. So it’s settled.”

Byron still wasn’t looking at me, but over his shoulder, at the other table, Sara and Haley were both staring me down.

Yeah, sure. Settled.

*

That night, I couldn’t get to sleep. I just kept staring at the ceiling, thinking about what the Paragon might be like, of Sara’s plain brown eyes, and just how fucking nervous I was about this date.

I’d never, ever been nervous about a date before. It’s not like I didn’t know Sara, and not like she was intimidating, like, at all, and I mean, seriously, what was the big deal? Mostly dating was just hanging out, and you hang out with a girl the same as you do a guy, except sometimes you end up making out, or better.

Unlike with a guy. Usually.

I kept wanting to call Byron and let him reassure me, but we weren’t really talking, he was barely even looking at me, and I was not going to think about this.

I took a pillow and pressed it over my face until my lungs burned, and that helped, a little.

*

“Come on, get in,” Adam called.

I looked up in surprise. The bell had just rung, school ended, and I was about to congratulate myself about thinking about the date, Sara, and Byron only minimally – so what if I felt like I was going to vomit all day and I had to wait out lunch in the library to avoid them – by having the world’s most awkward walk home with…Byron. Yeah, awesome.

But here I was, in front of SHS, staring blankly at the triplets’ Honda and Adam sitting in the passenger’s seat, waving me closer.

“Come on,” he repeated.

I sort of looked around like an idiot. “Me?”

“Mother fuck…yes, you! Get in!”

“But I walk home,” I called. “With,” but when I looked around, I couldn’t see Byron anywhere.

“We talked about this! I’m coming over to help you get ready.”

“For what?”

“For – isn’t today Thursday?”

“Oh,” I said. Maybe I was more like Mom than I thought. “We talked about this?”

“At lunch yesterday! God, you’re just – just come on, Jordan’s going to drop us off.”

Reluctantly, I walked over to the idling car and slid into the backseat.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I can dress myself.”

“Maybe for the beach,” Adam replied. “But not for the Paragon.”

“What, you’re going to tie my shoes for me too?” I asked, rolling my eyes.

“If I have to,” he shot back.

We turned onto Bradford Court, and there on the corner was Byron, making the walk on his own. It felt wrong to see him there - I should have been there with him, like I was almost every other day. It was like I was the goldfish, looking into the aquarium instead of out, and the old ‘I’m-going-to-hurl’ feeling came back with a vengeance.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed him.

“Byron,” Jordan muttered, and swerved abruptly to creep along by the sidewalk.

“Want a ride?” he called across Adam.

Byron looked up, startled, and opened his mouth to answer before slowly looking from them to me, and back again. His face went blank and he shrugged a little, tugging on his backpack straps.

“You know I walk,” he said.

“What, for the exercise?” Adam asked sarcastically, and Byron frowned.

“It’ll be faster,” Jordan reasoned. “Didn’t Mom want you to watch Claire today?”

“Yeah, I’m just going to rush home for that. I’ll – ”

“Come on,” I said quietly, and he stopped, sighed, and walked over to the car. I slid into the next seat to make it easier for him.

He slammed the door shut, and Jordan started driving again, Adam fiddling with the radio.

“Are you nervous?” Byron asked, staring straight ahead.

“Kind of,” I admitted, as equally interested in the back of Jordan’s head.

“You’ll be fine,” he said softly, and it felt like half of the ten thousand butterflies in my stomach dropped dead on the spot.

It only took a few minutes to get to my house, and Adam and I slipped out, Jordan tearing off without even letting Byron shift into the front seat. I started to turn to watch them go, and I just barely caught a glimpse of someone’s shaggy brown hair before Adam clapped my shoulder and started to sort of guide me up my own walk.

“Please tell me you’ve been shopping since you moved here,” he said.

“What, my wetsuit’s not going to work?” I asked, and shook my pockets for my keys.

Byron would’ve said something like, At least you’d make a splash, and I would’ve been like, That one’s going straight in the old joke book, and he’d sort of wrinkle his nose and we’d laugh.

But Adam just muttered, “Ha ha, funny.”

I opened the door and we dropped our backpacks in the middle of the hallway floor, heading right up the stairs toward my room. Adam sort of glanced around, and I realized that he probably hadn’t been inside since we were kids.

“Your house is nice,” he commented, and I just shrugged.

He gave my room the same brief once-over before walking to my closet and throwing it open. Immediately, about three tons of clothes spilled out at his feet.

Jesus!” he cried, and jumped a little.

“Don’t worry, they’re all clean,” I said.

“This is what you’re going to wear tonight?” he asked, waving at the pile. “I have to sort through this?”

“Well, I forgot you were coming.” Okay, I’d never known he was coming. But I wanted to play it cool.

He sighed and muttered something that might’ve been, “You’re worse than Nicky,” under his breath, but I wasn’t sure. He bent over and started to rifle gingerly through the clothes.

I just sat on my bed, cross-legged, and watched. Inexplicably, I missed Mrs. Bruen, but then she never would have let me get away with this.

“So, when are you picking her up?” he asked. I guess it was small talk time.

“Who?”

“…Jeff.”

“Oh. Uh, seven.”

“That late?” He picked up a white shirt, held it at arm’s length, and frowned.

“That’s what she wanted.”

“And your curfew’s when?”

“Ten,” I sighed.

He glanced at me, dropping a pair of holey jeans. “That’s cutting it close.”

“I know. But it’s, what, half an hour to Stamford?”

“Pretty much. Thirty minutes there, thirty back, two hours at the Paragon…you’ll make it.” He looked over toward my bed and did a quick double-take. “That’s kind of morbid.”

I had to lean over the side of the bed to see what he was talking out; it was Dawn’s cracked, smiling dolphin statuette that I’d broken a while back. Byron said he had some glue we could use to fix it, but he kept forgetting to bring it over.

But I just answered, “Yeah.”

Adam threw down a gray sweater and said, “God, how do you live like this?”

“Hey, I know where everything is in that closet,” I protested.

“Not that,” he said, but he shook his head too. “Well, okay, yeah, that, but it’s so fucking quiet in this house. How do you think here?”

Easily, I wanted to reply, but didn’t. Instead, I asked, “Want me to turn on the stereo?”

He nodded, a little gratefully, and I got up to find the remote. I’d never, ever had to put the stereo on when Byron was in my room, and when I turned it on, it was tuned into the oldies station Richard liked to groove to while he cleaned the house. It sort of made me angry, for whatever reason, and I ran through the stations until I found something loud and mean.

It made the time go faster, at least. When I wasn’t staring blanking at the wall, doggedly not thinking about anything in particular, I was busy vehemently rejecting whatever friggin’ psychotic thing Adam was insisting I wear. When he tried to talk me into a sweater that Mom had shrunk in the wash so it was a size too small and tight, I almost said, “And Byron’s the gay one?” but for once, thank God, I bit my tongue.

“Jesus,” he yelled, like it was a curse, kicking the sweater back into the pile. “You’d think you’d make it a little easier than this.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded.

“I mean, you dress,” and he paused, looking at me, like he was struggling for insight.

“You dress like a slob,” he finished finally. “I didn’t think you’d care so much.”

Well, God. If wearing the same pair of jeans four days in a row is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Eventually, we finally agreed that a pair of dark jeans and a black shirt with minimal tightness would be acceptable attire for the Paragon. By the time we went downstairs, we were both in a pretty bad mood.

“Are you hungry or something?” I asked reluctantly, ever the charming host.

“No, I need to go home for dinner,” Adam answered, scowling, reaching for his backpack. “I have stuff to do.”

Just then, my mother walked in the front door and promptly tripped over my bag, but recovered her balance so smoothly that you’d have thought she’d done it on purpose. If this were the Olympics, I’d have given her a nine at least, maybe a high eight if I were French.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said without missing a beat. She looked at Adam and smiled. “Oh, hi, Byron.”

I winced.

*

It was getting close to seven when I strolled back downstairs, freshly showered and dressed and whatever the hell is appropriate for a first date. No cologne, though; I had to draw the line somewhere.

Mom smiled when she saw me. “You look nice,” she said.

“Is that outfit appropriate for a date?” Richard asked.

He probably wore a bowtie and slacks to his first date with Mom, but rather than call him on it, I just said, “Yeah.”

“Oh. Well, you look…spiffy then,” he replied, and my eyes wanted to roll so badly that they almost popped out of my head.

“Where are you taking Sara?” Mom asked.

“Just some place in Stamford,” I answered, patting my back pocket to check for my wallet.

Mom frowned. “Oh, Jeff, no. Not Stamford. Not tonight.”

That stopped me. “What?”

“Not on a school night. It’s too far.”

“Curfew’s not for three hours!”

“Jeff – ”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Jeff, if you want the car, you’re staying in town, and that’s final.”

“Mom!”

“Jeffrey Charles,” she said in this warning tone she never uses, not since, like, she told me I couldn’t have a new Power Ranger or something after I begged and begged and begged. The voice that meant, ‘that’s it.’

“And we’ll check the odometer,” Richard added before the cogs in my mind could even start turning, and so, ‘that’s it,’ really became, ‘That’s It.’

“Dammit!” I cursed as I slammed through the front door and stalked down the driveway. I got into Mom’s car, buckled, adjusted the mirror, and all that, but the whole time I was thinking, Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit.

It’s not like I had a Plan B for this whole date thing. It was the Paragon, Paragon, Paragon…Christ, what were those restaurants the guys had been naming off? The only places we ever went to with any frequency were a take-out Chinese place and Cabbages and Kings, and I wasn’t really sure Sara’d be into a plate of baked eggplant ziti.

As I made the quick drive to Sara’s house – okay, really, what drive in Stoneybrook wasn’t quick? – my mind was racing with things like, I-hate-Mom-now-what-ask-Byron-stop-don’t-think-God-now-what-restaurants-movie-shit-shit-SHIT.

And then I was there, at her house. Pulled up smoothly, and according to my watch it was seven on the dot. The house was lit up, but quiet, and I started worrying if they expected me to run up and actually introduce myself, like I was freaking Ricky Nelson or someone, here to pick up Mary Lou. But then the door opened and Sara walked out, calling something over her shoulder before heading over to the car and hovering outside near my window.

“Hi,” she said, a little breathless, like she was shy for some reason, and smiling. She was wearing…well, okay, I don’t remember what she was wearing, but she was showing some cleavage.

“Hey,” I answered, grinning back like I was a man with a plan. Doubtful.

We sort of waited, a little awkwardly, until finally she ran over to the side of the car and got in. I realized I should have gotten out and opened the door for her. Well, too late to be a gentleman now.

“How are you?” I asked as I pulled back onto her street, hoping that she’d have some long story so I’d have time to think over the situation.

“Good,” she answered.

“Oh,” I said. “Good.”

“Good,” and she giggled.

Jesus Christ.

Restaurants, I thought desperately.

I ended up taking her to Pizza Express.

“Oh,” Sara said when we pulled up, in this funny little voice, like one you might use if you were expecting your sister to get you some imported surfboard wax for your birthday, but you end up getting a book on fun recycling tips instead. (Not that I know from personal experience or anything.)

“Look,” I said, sighing, and turned to her as best I could in the driver’s seat. “I was really going to take you…somewhere better than this, but…” My Mommy wouldn’t let me. “My mom was being weird about it.”

“Oh.”

“This is the only place in town that’s, like, okay, that I actually know where it is. If you want – ”

“No,” she interrupted. “This is fine. I…like it.”

“Are you sure?”

“This is fine,” she repeated, smiling like some brave little soldier, and God, I wondered how she fit her cross into her purse and why she wasn’t carrying it around on her back like all the other martyrs.

Byron would’ve just told me about somewhere decent to go. Well, he already had – I just couldn’t remember the name. No games or trying to impress me or whatever.

Stop.

Okay, so maybe I still wasn’t in the best of moods. This was going to change. Food would help this situation.

But when we got inside, the place was packed with other kids our age, loud, and smelled like grease and sweat. I probably turned pale in the face of dozens of arteries being clogged simultaneously, but Sara apparently saw someone she knew, because she smiled and waved.

Renwick’s, I thought suddenly. Too late.

Somehow, we found a table that wasn’t currently being occupied by ninety screaming teenagers and sat down; I tried to make up for not opening the car door by mopping up a puddle of soda that’d been left in the middle of the plastic tablecloth, but I don’t think Sara noticed, too busy looking around to see who else was there.

“There’s always someone to see here,” she said when she finally turned back to me, grinning.

“Yeah, I bet,” I agreed, though I didn’t really think seeing other people was exactly the point of a date.

“So you’ve been here before?” she asked, leaning forward.

“Just driven by,” I answered.

“Oh, okay.”

At least the conversation was riveting. Luckily, the waitress, who looked like she was about to fall asleep, came over and saved us.

“You two decided yet?” she asked, eyes drooping.

“Um.” I turned to Sara. “What do you - ?”

“I’m not picky,” she said quickly. “Whatever you want.”

“Well. Okay. Do you like mushrooms?”

“Mushrooms is fine,” she said with a big smile.

One time, Byron and I argued for almost an hour over pizza toppings – he’d wanted everything, with double pepperoni, and I’d wanted plain cheese. Eventually, we settled on black olives and onions, but both of us complained through every bite, even though the whole thing was gone in about ten minutes.

Stop.

“Medium,” I told the waitress, blinking a little, stomach twisting again. “With mushrooms.”

She scribbled something on her pad of paper. “And to drink?”

I looked at Sara, who said, “Diet Coke, no ice.”

“Just water for me,” I added.

“Won’t be too long,” the waitress said.

I looked around at the crowd. “Seriously?”

She shrugged.

“So they’re just here for the ambience?” I asked, grinning a little, and the waitress smiled back.

“Moochers,” she replied. “Just picking at breadsticks. Anyway, I’ll go put in your order.”

She walked away, and I turned back to Sara; she was scowling at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she answered quickly, but sat back and folded her arms across her chest.

I sighed and ran my hand through my hair. “Okay…Um.” My mind raced, searching for something to talk about. “How was House of Blood?”

She relaxed a little at the suggestion and started to tell me about it. Apparently, it was as stupid and cheesy as just about any other horror movie ever made, and she was just getting to the spectacular scene where Cam Geary gets impaled right after the opening credits when the waitress came back with our drinks.

Absently, trying my best to pay attention to the movie play-by-play, I picked up my cup and took a sip. Immediately, I started coughing. Sara paused.

“Something wrong?”

“This is Sprite,” I said, and I looked over at our waitress, who was giving some other table their bill.

She winked at me.

Oh Jesus.

“She really likes you,” Sara commented, with the slightest edge to her voice. She stared down at her cup, which was probably ninety percent ice.

“I…told her I wanted water. I mean, do you want this?”

“I guess you get free things when you flirt.”

What?”

“Look – nothing.”

“I wasn’t flirting.”

“Yeah, okay.” She half-smiled, but it wasn’t anywhere near genuine. “Sorry.”

“Just – the movie. What happened next?”

She started up again, waving her hands for emphasis occasionally, but I wasn’t really paying attention very well. I think it might have had to do with an Indian burial ground or something; I wasn’t very sure.

I remembered that Byron liked Sprite.

Stop.

Okay, so, what I’m trying to put out there is that this was basically the worst date ever. I mean, for me, at least. It took Sara eight minutes to get through the thrilling saga that was House of Blood - yes, I counted, and no, I don’t think I’m planning on cruising over to Blockbuster to rent it anytime soon – and then we just kind of drifted in and out of neutral topics. Stuff like:

“I really hate the book we’re reading in English.”

“Oh, me too. It’s kind of lame.”

“Totally. And what’s it about, like, a bird? Who cares about that?”

“A bird?”

“Yeah. Don’t you have Mr. Lerangis?”

“No, Miles. Our book’s about some kid during World War I or something.”

“Oh.”

And then the conversations would just…die. Really, it was more humane to put them out of their misery, I think, and we’d just sit there, staring at each other or our hands or other people until one of us could think of something else completely stupid.

After almost an hour, the lying, cradle-robbing waitress finally showed up with our pizza. “Won’t be too long,” yeah, sure. The pizza was lukewarm and sort of droopy, and as I watched Sara pick every single mushroom off the one and a half slices she ate, it sort of dawned on me that I wasn’t exactly looking at the future Mrs. Jeff Schafer.

It just wasn’t working, and I didn’t know how to make it work. I was sitting with a girl I’d had lunch with practically every day since I’d gotten to Stoneybrook, and I didn’t even know enough about her to have a real conversation for more than two minutes without falling into dead silence and looking away awkwardly.

And I mean, what did she know about me? That she thought I was cute or something? It wasn’t like she was enquiring into the deep inner workings of my mind, asking about my hopes, dreams, and aspirations or anything.

I was just really, incredibly spoiled, because I’d had Byron, who I could talk with and think and not think all at once. I knew him and he knew me, and that’d been sort of enough.

But now I was here, and he was, what, probably talking to Scott or someone right at this instant.

Stop, I tried telling myself, but I realized it hadn’t stopped me any other time the whole night.

My stomach was starting to hurt again, a lot, all the butterflies trying to tear their way out of me. I finished about half a slice of pizza before I looked up at Sara and said, “I don’t feel very good. I think I need to go home.”

“Yeah,” she said softly, looking just as embarrassed about everything as I felt.

We’d hardly been there an hour, the pizza barely touched, but I asked for the check and left the money on the table. Sara offered to pay half, but I said no, because hell, it was still a date, even if it was the first and last one.

*

After I dropped Sara off – no goodnight kiss, believe it or not – I just sort of drove. I didn’t even know what direction I was going. It wasn’t very much past eight, and I kept thinking of how Sara was going to tell Haley how bad the date was, and Haley was going to tell the guys, and I was never going to hear the end of it.

I shouldn’t have cared, I know, but I did. You just can’t help it sometimes, I guess. And plus, I was going to get home way, way early, and Mom and Richard were still going to be up, and they’d ask me what I was doing back so soon, and then they’d think I was a total loser.

Richard, I mean, he was going to pity me. He’d probably, like, be nice to me because of it, and that I just couldn’t live with.

But I knew that someone was going to understand. If he could stand to look at me for a minute or two.

I turned down a street, and suddenly I knew exactly where I was headed, and it wasn’t home.

When I got to the Pike house, there were no cars in the driveway and it seemed unnaturally quiet, but there were a few lights on inside. Walking up the front steps, I didn’t know whether I should be worried that no one was home or that Adam or Jordan were going to answer the door and demand to know why I wasn’t at the fucking Paragon.

But when I knocked, it was Mrs. Pike who opened the door and greeted me.

“Oh, hi Jeff,” she said, smiling.

“It’s quiet,” I replied without thinking. Immediately, I felt like a total idiot, but she just laughed.

“Almost everyone’s gone,” she told me, and then her voice dropped to a whisper. “It’s my birthday this weekend, so they’re out on a field trip to the mall. They think they’re being sneaky.”

“Oh…happy birthday.” I still felt like an idiot, and my stomach hurt even more. ‘The mall.’ Huh.

“Thanks. Well, I don’t know who you’re here for, but Byron was watching Claire for me, so he’s around.” She sort of nodded toward the stairs. “You can go on up to his room, if you want.”

“Yeah, okay, thanks,” I said, and practically ran up the stairs like I was still a little kid. I felt…not excited. Relieved, maybe.

But from the hall, I could hear the shower running in the bathroom, and the bedroom Byron shared with his brothers was dark except for the nightlight in the corner. It filled the room with huge, looming shadows, and as I sat down on Byron’s bottom bunk, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about pillow forts for a second.

When he came in a few minutes later, I could see the surprise in his face, even in the dark. He must’ve known he couldn’t escape me there.

“Your mom said I could come up,” I told him.

He nodded. He was wearing dark sweatpants and an undershirt with holes in the seams, so old and thin that I could see the dark hint of a nipple through the fabric. There was water still dripping from his hair, curling down his neck as he stared at me, and this, this I can remember even when I can’t picture the color dress Sara was wearing.

“I thought you had a date right now,” he said.

“It didn’t go very well.” And that I guess was the time when I could’ve gone into detail, poured out everything that’d been bothering me and that’d gone wrong that night. And I could’ve paused, and Byron could’ve patted me on the back or something, and I could’ve felt better. But the words just didn’t come out.

“Well,” Byron said, tilting his head a little. “At least you’re dressed for a party.”

I had to laugh at that, a little. “Adam said I dress like a slob.”

“You dress like you don’t care who’s looking,” he corrected, and then he looked away, and I could tell he was embarrassed.

He sat down next to me on the bed, I don’t know if I actually thought he was going to lean over and kiss me or if I sort of hoped he would, but he didn’t. Instead, he just said, “I’m sorry your date sucked.”

Seriously, Byron was the last person who should’ve said something like that, and I don’t know if he actually meant it or not, but he sounded like he did, and that was…I don’t know, big. I don’t think I could’ve said it, if our situations were reversed.

And maybe that was why, instead of, you know, saying thanks I blurted out, “Do you like Scott Danby?”

Byron’s eyes widened. “What?

He sounded shocked, but he couldn’t have been more surprised than me. “Shit!” I said, stomach dropping. “Sorry! Sorry, I don’t – God, my date went so bad,” like that was an excuse, and I leaned forward a little and rubbed my face with my hands.

History’s longest minute passed in silence. Then, out of nowhere, he said, “I don’t.”

I turned and looked at him, didn’t say anything. He was staring at his hands, saying, “I mean, he’s okay, he’s my friend. But I don’t like him.”

This wasn’t why I’d come over, I swear to God. I’d come over to talk out the bad date, be comforted, assured that Byron and I were still friends or whatever. I hadn’t come for this, I don’t even know how it happened, but here it was, just happened.

I guess I should have figured out that this had never been about Sara. It’d never been about anyone but him and me.

My heart was beating so, so hard, my face hot.

“So who do you like?” I asked, and it wasn’t much more than a whisper.

“Jeff, this is stupid,” he said, sounding sort of fed up, and he squeezed his eyes shut for a second. Then he sighed, looked at me. “You know who I like.”

“Yeah,” I said, and we just looked at each other for a few seconds before I went on, painfully, “I just…this.” I waved a hand vaguely between him and me. “I don’t even know what to call this.”

“It,” Byron started, then stopped, bit his lip, thinking it over. “It doesn’t always have to have a name.”

And it – he was so Byron, sitting here in the dark in an old wet shirt, staring at me with the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, like he could see right into my skull. I thought of the one hundred and one times he’d probably crossed my mind that night alone, and how my stomach hurt so much every single time something went wrong with our friendship, and how, if he were to smile right at that instant, one of his bottom teeth would be crooked.

“I like you,” I said suddenly. I had to fight back the urge to press my hand over my heart to keep it from thumping out of my chest. “I – I think.”

Byron’s eyes were big, and he opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but closed it, just waited, listening.

“But – I’ve never – I’ve never done anything like this before,” I added quickly, hoping I could be understood. “You know that. So it’s – kind of weird.”

“So…you just want to stay friends?” he asked slowly.

He was already more than that, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t say that, so instead I just said, “I don’t think so.”

“Okay,” he whispered, nodding a little.

Hesitating, Byron reached out and touched the back of my hand. I turned it, and our fingers laced, palms fitting together as perfectly as the broken pieces of a dolphin statuette.

“Slow,” I said, but I couldn’t stop staring at our hands. “I think we have to go slow.”

“Okay,” he repeated, and I didn’t have to look at him to know he was smiling.

I really think he might’ve wanted to kiss me then, but the moment was already big, too much, and I probably would’ve exploded or something if he had.

“I should probably go,” I said. “Curfew.”

It was a stupid excuse; my curfew wasn’t up for more than an hour. But I think he understood.

“Yeah,” he replied. He let go of me and stood up, and I followed. “Do you want me to walk you to your car?”

“I think I’ll make it,” I said wryly. But he did walk me to his bedroom door, and I opened it a crack before I turned back to him; my hand had suddenly felt empty, so I reached out quickly and caught his.

Byron squeezed my hand, and from the light of the hallway he looked so solemn.

“Um,” I said, feeling awkward, embarrassed by impulse. I let go, and then there was nothing right to say, so I just tapped the doorframe, nodded, and left.

***

When I got home, my stomach still hurt, but there was a new reason now. I decided that I didn’t mind it so much.

I turned off the car, and only then did I put my hand on my heart, close my eyes, and let myself think.

Chapter Text

After I woke up on Friday morning, I untangled myself from my blankets and sat on the side of the bed, clutching my stomach. I felt all knotted up inside, with a weird mix of excitement and, well, dread.

Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t exactly regretting telling Byron I liked him or anything. It was true, and the more I thought about it – and I assure you, I had thought about a lot the night before, I probably managed to fall asleep just from the exhaustion of thinking about it so much – the more obvious it became. And when you like someone, you tell them, especially when you know they like you back. Unless they have a bigger, scarier, jealous boyfriend, and it wasn’t like Byron and I had ever talked about this explicitly, but I had a hunch he was available.

But just – wow, okay. I liked a guy. Never mind that he was my best friend – I liked him. I said it, I meant it. This was real. This was something I never expected of myself.

And how was I supposed to deal with? What did that make me? Was I, like, bi or whatever, or ‘curious’ (whatever the hell that meant), or gay this whole time but just never realized it? I always liked girls, dated them, and though it seemed like a million years ago now, I had really kind of enjoyed having sex with one. How did I go from red-blooded, all-American heterosexuality to kissing Byron?

It was terrifying, because I didn’t have any answers. All I knew was that I was probably going to become the first-ever sixteen-year-old with an ulcer. My stomach really hurt.

Before I went down to breakfast, I crept into Mom and Richard’s bathroom and took a swig from the Pepto-Bismol bottle they kept in the medicine cabinet, like I was an old man. An old, boy-liking man. Christ. And making my appearance at the kitchen table really didn’t help my nerves, either.

Richard was seated already, reading the paper. Mom was at the stove, cooking something that was apparently burning, and the first thing she said to me was, “Hey, sweetie. How was your date last night?”

No, seriously, what planet was my mother from? Even if my date had gone well the night before – yeah, newsflash, it hadn’t – what guy my age was really just going to sit down and gossip with his mom about his love life? Afterward, would she expect us to bond over some mutual hair-braiding too? I was not Dawn.

“Fine,” I muttered. I might as well have been telling her how school had gone.

“What’d you and Sara end up doing?”

“We just went to dinner.” I opened the fridge and peered inside, but there was nothing that wasn’t going to screw up my stomach even more. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

“Oh yeah?” She picked up the pan and started scraping off the burnt part into the sink with a fork. “Nothing else?”

She was trying to keep her tone light and casual, but it was so obvious that she was fishing for clues to potentially sordid boy-girl date activities. It sort of hurt my feelings that she didn’t trust me after I practically swore on a stack of Bibles that I was going to behave myself, but I guess when you nearly impregnate one girlfriend, you’re bound to lose your credibility for a while.

“Yeah,” I said. I closed the refrigerator door. “I think I’m just going to head out.”

“Oh, no no no,” Mom said. “You have time; you need breakfast, or you’ll starve before lunch. Sit down. Do you want me to make something for you?”

I glanced at the pan she was holding, which was giving off not quite the best odor in the universe, and sighed. “I’ll just have cereal.”

Actually, to be honest, I wasn’t exactly unhappy about not racing out the door. I was really nervous about seeing Byron. Like, really. A lot. I mean, yeah, there was a lot of, like, feelings and stuff the night before, and I kind of got caught up in it, but if things were going to be instantly, drastically different between us, it was going to be torture. So, if I ate a nice, leisurely breakfast, maybe I’d miss walking to school with him and have a viable excuse. It’d be taking the coward’s way out, but if I could put off that weirdness, I did not care.

I chose Grape Nuts so I could give my churning digestive system some actual work to do, and poured myself a bowl. I was sitting across from Richard and just starting to slowly chew, like it was cud, when he lowered his paper and took a look at my meal.

“Grape Nuts,” he mused. “There’re no grapes involved, and no nuts. I’ve always wondered how they came up with the name.”

What the hell? Did he expect me to know the answer to that burning question? This just in – Grape Nuts is a weird name! More at eleven. I mean, shit. Or did he just expect to respond somehow?

I just shrugged. It was the safest answer I had.

He turned to my mom. “Dear, do you know where the name Grape Nuts came from?”

“Well, I don’t know.” She walked over, still carrying the pan and now eating straight from it. “It sort of tastes nutty.”

He squinted a little. “Perhaps, but that doesn’t explain the grape part.”

“Maybe there’s grape extract in it?”

“No, I’m quite certain there isn’t.”

“Well, let’s look at the ingredients...”

I just sat there and watched them, spoon raised halfway to my mouth and forgotten during this riveting conversation. From my perspective, I had two options. I could go on to school, meet with Byron, and possibly writhe with embarrassment over the night before, second-guessing myself and causing my abdomen to be eaten away by nerves. Or I could finish my cereal and stay for the rest of this exchange.

I dumped my bowl in the sink and got the fuck out of there.

But almost as soon as I was out of the house, I began to long for the comfort of the Grape Nuts debate. That was safe. This thing with Byron? Was not. Even though I’d told him right out that we needed to go slow with this…whatever, it was kind of hard to tell a person you liked them, and then not acknowledge it. And – this was just my imagination, but I felt pretty confident about this – especially when the person was your best friend, and a guy.

Also, I guess I was kind of worried that Byron was going to get up in, like, the emotion of our mutual like and do something stupid. Not like he was going to try to hold my hand in public or anything, but...I don’t even know what. But I was still worried. I’d said I wanted to go slow, and I meant it.

It wasn’t long before I could see him in the distance. He was staring off in the opposite direction, wearing a thick, warm-looking jacket that was red, the color of...passion? Oh my God. I mean, if his jacket was roses, he’d be telling me he was in love with me. Obviously, I was thinking crazy, and I knew it, but I was still panicking again. But there was no turning back now; every step brought me closer, and then he finally turned and spotted me.

He smiled, but it was close-lipped, not wide or particularly joyous or whatever. Also, he did not, needless to say, grab me by the shoulders and try to tenderly stick his tongue in my mouth.

Instead, he just hitched up his backpack, nodded, and said, “Hey.”

Just like any other day. Already, I could feel myself relaxing.

“Hey,” I replied, and we kept walking.

By the time we got to the end of the street, I was feeling mostly calm again, at least until he said, “So.”

I was still moving, but inside, I froze. Well, this was it. Now was the time to Talk about the night before and, like, clarify what we had going on together, whether it was a relationship or whatever. Or else he was going to tell me that I looked hot (fuck), or that he made dinner reservations for us at Chez Maurice, or ask my opinion about what we should name the baby we were no doubt going to adopt from China someday. Okay, yeah, maybe I was getting irrational again, but still.

“So?” I repeated warily.

“Rams versus Seahawks,” he said. “You watch it?”

Oh, Jesus fucking Christ, he wanted to talk football. Immediately, I felt all the tension drain out of me again, and I laughed with relief. I probably sounded like a giddy little girl, but I didn’t care.

“Hell no,” I said. “I never watch the Rams. It’s against my morals.”

“What?” He looked at me like I crazy, but no, that’d passed about fifteen seconds ago.

“They moved from L.A. to St. Louis. I mean, come on.”

He rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “They didn’t win the Super Bowl until they relocated.”

“Please!” I waved a hand. “Details. Their time was coming anyway.”

“Yeah, right! Like Los Angeles was going to pay the big bucks and score Vermeil as head coach.”

“Oh, come on - ”

We were still debating by the time we got to school and went our separate ways. I felt a lot, lot better. So far, whatever we had was anything but uncomfortable. We were just…normal, like any other day. No weirdness, no attempted hand-holding. I felt great.

But really, why was I so surprised? This was Byron; it wasn’t like he was going to disappoint me.

*

When I got to lunch later that afternoon, Byron was already there, sitting next to Jordan near the end of the table.

“Move over,” I said to him, and hit him on the arm with my lunch bag. I could’ve just sat across from him, but I...didn’t want to, I guess.

Jostled, a forkful of the macaroni and cheese he’d been aiming toward his mouth fell back onto his plate with a wet plop. He gave me a funny look. I didn’t know he took his mac and cheese so seriously, but he shoved over and let me have some room anyway.

I was just pulling out my box of all-natural mango-papaya juice when a shadow fell over me. If it’d been a horror movie, this would’ve been when I’d looked up and the bad guy’d run a chainsaw right down the middle of my skull, killing me mid-scream. Instead, it was just Sara Hill, holding her lunch tray in front of her and looking incredibly stiff.

“Hi, Jeff,” she said softly, and for God’s sake, you’d think we’d just broken off an engagement or something, the way she said it.

“Hey,” I replied, nodding. What else could I say?

We just looked at each other awkwardly for a few more seconds before she turned away abruptly and rushed to the opposite end of the table and sat next to Shea. Adam, seeing all this, raised his eyebrows at me in a silent question, but before he could decree another guys’ meeting or whatever, Haley flounced over and sat down, grinning so hard that it looked like her face was going to shatter.

“I have the best news!” she announced.

Most of us were too busy eating to take the bait – well, Sara was too busy being brave in the face of having to suffer through an entire lunch period with me - but Haley was clearly waiting for a response, so finally James said, “What?”

“My parents are finally letting me off the hook for the party!” she cried excitedly.

There was a murmur of congratulations all around the table, but Adam almost looked offended. “How the hell did you get out of that?” he asked. “Didn’t they ground you for the rest of the semester?”

She smirked a little, looking pleased with herself. “Oh, I begged nonstop, and I cried a little. Crying is a girl’s secret weapon.” Sara, despite the fact that she was clearly suffering from our post-disastrous date aftermath, nodded knowingly in agreement, and I was suddenly even more thrilled that our date hadn’t evolved to anything like a relationship.

“Fucking stupid girls,” Scott said, but he managed to sound like a total caveman and affectionate all at once. What a winner. “If we tried crying to get our way, we’d just get laughed at.”

“More than you already get laughed at?” I muttered, just low enough for Byron to hear me; he elbowed me in the ribs, but I thought I saw a hint of a smile.

“Well, and there was one more thing, I guess,” Haley continued. “They told me I had to clean out the garage, which hasn’t been done in years. It’ll take me practically forever to do, but they said I could get help if I needed, and I thought, maybe, since I know all these really strong boys, they might want to…”

By this time, we were all staring at her, but it was Jordan who voiced our collective sentiment: “Oh, hell no.”

“Come on!” Haley whined, bouncing in her seat a little, which, considering that most of the guys at the table immediately got distracted and stared at her chest, was probably an argument worthy of Perry Mason himself. “The faster I get it done, the faster I can have a life again! If we all work on it, we could get it cleaned out in one day.”

Obviously, I didn’t exactly want to help clean someone else’s garage – I wouldn’t even clean my own room – but I felt kind of sorry for her. I mean, she sounded really pathetic, and besides that, I guess I felt bad about her brother being dead. It wasn’t like it’d happened yesterday, but it still.

I glanced at Byron to see what he thought, and he shrugged and warily asked, “When?”

“Sunday afternoon?” she suggested.

“Oh, yeah, right!” Adam laughed. “Why should we give up half the weekend – ”

“That’s not half!”

“ – to help you clean?”

“Because I was throwing a party for all of you when I got busted.”

“Some of us got busted too,” Shea reminded her.

“But none of you are still grounded!” Her eyes looked desperate, like a caged animal’s. “I just need to get out of the house. I really, really need help, and you’re my friends, and I would really appreciate this.”

Silence.

She sighed. “And I’ll buy you all pizza.”

Now we were all sort of looking at each other, but it was pointless. We all knew where we were going to be on Sunday.

“Fine,” I said reluctantly, speaking for the group.

Haley’s face lit up again. “Oh, you guys are awesome.

“But I’ll out of town until Sunday night,” Sara said, looking alarmed. Personally, I would’ve been happy to have a built-in excuse like that.

“Then I guess you’re off the hook,” Haley said sweetly, but there was a little edge to that, and suddenly I realized that it would be Haley and just the guys, alone, all to herself. I guess that explained why Sara looked like she was about to puke.

It probably wouldn’t help at all if she knew that Haley had no chance at stealing away at least one of us. Well, two now, I guessed. That was kind of a scary thought.

I turned back to my lunch; under the table, my thigh brushed against Byron’s. And he, seriously, he jerked away, and maybe if I’d, like, worn my barbed wire pants to school that day, it’d be understandable, but jeez. I’d kind of been under the impression that he liked that sort of thing.

It really wasn’t something worth dwelling on, though (I decided, after several minutes of dwelling on it), and I was mostly back to vaguely dreading Sunday – I mean, I had never cleaned out a garage in my whole life - when the warning bell rang. We all started to gather our trash and throw it away. I was smoothing out my brown paper sack so I could recycle it for next week when Adam caught me by the upper arm.

“What happened last night?” he asked in a hushed tone, and I had a minor freak out before I realized that he was asking me about my date with Sara, not my little talk with his identical brother.

“Oh, yeah,” I said. I glanced around, but Sara was long gone. “It didn’t go so good.”

“No shit.” Adam rolled his eyes. “What happened?”

I sighed. “Well, my mom wouldn’t let me drive out to Stamford, so I had to take her to dinner in town, and it was just...”

It didn’t feel right, probably wouldn’t fly as an acceptable excuse as to why my hand hadn’t found its way into Sara’s bra. Neither would, I sort of realized that I have a thing for your brother.

“Weird,” I finished.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he exclaimed.

“It just wouldn’t work out, okay?” I scowled at him. “Why do you care so much?”

“Why do I – well, how about because I practically dressed you and changed your diaper last night? I’d like to know if I wasted all my time.”

Because, oh my God, perish the thought he spend a couple hours helping a friend out! Never mind the fact that I didn’t even ask for his help.

“I guess you did,” I said, and I started to head out toward the hall. He walked with me. “I’m not exactly saving up to buy our prom tickets.”

Adam was still frowning, but at he grudgingly admitted, “Well...she’s kind of high maintenance, huh?”

“Definitely.”

“It’s why she can’t hold a boyfriend, basically.” He grinned at me. “But if you’d taken her to the Paragon, maybe at least she’d have let you get to first base.”

I didn’t tell him that I could probably get to first base any time I felt like it, with Byron. It would’ve only ruined this touching moment in our friendship.

*

Well, that was what I thought, anyway. I wasn’t so sure later that afternoon, during the walk home, when I asked Byron if he wanted to come over and hang out for a while and he reluctantly answered, “I guess.”

No, you didn’t misread that. Reluctantly. I guess. This from the guy who’d been so excited to kiss me that he’d practically crawled into my fucking lap. And after what I told him – I guess I just expected hanging out with me to be pretty high on his list of priorities.

I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, though, and asked, “What, did you already plan something?”

He hesitated, then answered, “No.”

The least he could’ve done was lie to me.

“Well, if you don’t want to - ” I said, maybe snapping a little more than I should’ve.

“No, I want to!” he protested quickly.

“You really don’t have to come over.”

He hesitated again – again, what an offense, he might as well have called my mother a whore – before saying, “Let’s – no, let’s just go to your place.”

He started walking again, and I watched him for a second, wondering if I should continue protesting, if that would be, like, polite or something, but I didn’t want to beg him not to come over when that was what I really wanted him to do. So I just followed him, turning onto long, winding Burnt Hill Road and toward my house.

“When’s your mom getting home?” he asked as we stepped onto the front walk, staring at the empty driveway. Like he didn’t know; he was at my house practically every afternoon.

“Not for a couple hours.” I fished my house keys out of my jacket and unlocked the door, holding it open for him. Just call me Jeeves.

“What about your stepdad?” He barely brushed past me, getting through the door.

What, did he want to organize a fucking tea party or something? What did he care? But I just answered, “Probably around the same time as my mom.”

As I closed the door behind us and got enveloped in that big, empty house, it suddenly dawned on me how very alone we were. In fact, we were alone for the first time since – the thing – last night, really alone, with very little chance of a neighbor or the mailman to see us if we accidentally started making out, or overhear us if we tearfully started talking about our feelings. Oh, Jesus.

“Want to watch TV?” I asked suddenly. “In the living room?” In other words, where we’d have no privacy whatsoever.

“Yes,” Byron answered immediately. No hesitation about that.

“Okay.” I dropped my backpack on the floor and headed to the kitchen. “I’ll be back in a second.”

I brought him honey on toast and milk – didn’t need to ask, that was what he always had – in the least sexually stimulating mug I could find, this old chipped one of my mom’s with a picture of a little girl stacking round things on a chair; it said Life is just a chair of bowlies. I think Mary Anne got it for Mom one Mother’s Day, and it was kind of horrible. Apparently, it did the trick, because when I brought our snacks (we were out of the good yoghurt, so I had to make due with the half-edible Trix shit Richard gets talked into eating every once in a while), Byron didn’t fling himself at me or give me a heated look or anything. Nodding faintly, eyes firmly on the TV show he’d already turned on, he just took the food and did not look at me.

I sat next to him on the couch and started half-heartedly eating my yoghurt. I mean, this stuff was neon blue raspberry - what neon blue raspberries have you actually seen in nature? I was kind of grossed out by it, but I needed one more serving of dairy that day, so I ate it with great concentration, staring down into the cup and barely listening to whatever the hell we were watching on MTV.

But when I finally finished – and believe me, it took a while – Byron had apparently used my distraction as an opportunity to get as far away from me as possible, crammed into the far corner of the couch. And, I mean. I’d showered the night before, so it wasn’t like I stank. I wasn’t being annoying, and my yoghurt wasn’t that disgusting. There wasn’t really anything to offend him and send him to the far corners of the couch to get away from me.

No, I hadn’t wanted to end up rolling around with him on the floor or anything, but would it have killed him to paw at me a little?

Just to make sure it was me and not some weird Byron thing that I had not yet figured out, I shifted over, just a bit, and let my knee brush against his.

He jumped to his feet. “I need more milk,” he announced. “Do you want anything?”

“Uh, no,” I said, and watched him rush into the kitchen. When he came back, he settled into the loveseat, safe from any contact with me.

Stupid show after stupid show rolled across the television screen, but I wasn’t paying attention. Instead, I thought about Byron. I could not figure him out. He’d seemed to like me enough last night, holding hands and sitting together in the dark. But now every time I even laid a fingertip on him, he made me feel like I was Mr. Acid-Touch. I mean, what? Was he just as nervous about the bigness of this whole deal as I was? Was he having second thoughts? Or was he weirded out for a reason that had nothing to do with me?

I watched him out of the corner of my eye, stealthy ninja-style. I caught him looking back once, but as soon as our eyes connected, he snapped his attention right back to the TV. He left not long after that, even before Richard got home, leaving me wondering.

*

Actually, I wondered about it all night. I got so distracted by it that I could barely eat any dinner, and afterward I broke a plate while clearing the table, so Richard yelled at me. My mom – and I swear, I am not joking – my mom even asked me where my head was, and considering the fact that she had absently stuck a roll of toilet paper in the freezer earlier that night, I took this to be a sign that I was in pretty bad shape.

By the time I went to bed, I was really getting kind of mad. How completely unfair, if Byron decided he didn’t like me – like that - after all, right after I figured out what I thought about him. I mean, like, what was it, the thrill of the chase that excited him? It was an amazingly crappy possibility, but it made some sense. Other than him being allergic to me, what would explain his sudden decision to not go near me?

Late the next morning, I finally decided that I needed to know what the hell was going on. I took a shot of Pepto, for courage, (it was probably wasn’t a good sign that I was starting to acquire a taste for that stuff) and headed over to the Pike house.

During the last few days, it’d been warming up a little and the snow was melting, so the grass squished under my feet as I crossed the Pikes’ lawn. It wasn’t exactly a sound that inspired much bravery, but I made it across anyway and rang the doorbell.

Nicky answered the door, but before I could even open my mouth, he said, “Byron’s in the kitchen,” in a dull, sort of sulky tone, and turned around and stalked off, leaving the door open for me. I had no clue what his deal was, but I guess it wasn’t much of a secret to his family that Byron was the one I came to see most often.

The walk from the front door to the kitchen probably took all of half a minute, but I used it to psyche myself up. No, I really didn’t want to talk about...things...but I had to find out what the fuck was up with Byron. I was definitely not planning on sitting around while he made up his mind, or dealt with stuff, or whatever. It was now or never. That was the plan.

But my plan did not factor in my reaction after walking in and finding Byron wearing huge flowered oven mitts on both hands and intently reading the back of a tube of Toll House cookie dough. Yeah, kind of caught me off guard.

“Byron?” I ventured.

He practically jumped a mile. “What - Jeff?” He set down the cookie dough and tore the oven mitts off his hands. “I – did we have plans?”

“No, I just came over,” but somehow this was no longer really the right time to finish with to confront you and maybe beat you up a little, so I just let it rest. I went over to the counter, where a couple of pans were laid out. “I didn’t know you could cook.”

“I can’t.” I looked pointedly at the pans, and the tube of dough that was resting nearby. “Come on, scooping some dough onto a sheet and sticking it in the oven isn’t exactly cooking.” He picked up his discarded cookie dough again, glancing at the wrapper. “I mean, this stuff isn’t even homemade.”

“You’re baking,” I couldn’t help but tease, grinning. It just wasn’t something you’d normally find a guy our age doing, and even though teasing was probably the opposite of what I’d come over to do, Byron was grinning too.

“I’m baking,” he agreed, nodding and laughing a little, but his cheeks were kind of flushed. “But only for my mom’s birthday. It’s a special request thing.”

“It’s her birthday?” I asked, and then I felt really, really stupid – she’d told me it was her birthday this weekend, just the other night. Maybe that explained everything; maybe Byron had been acting weird because he was distracted with plans or something for his mom. I mean, he seemed totally fine now. I was suddenly very glad that I’d been too hypnotized by his oven mitts to say anything I’d have regretted.

“Yeah,” he answered. “Everyone else is doing something for dinner tonight, and I got stuck with making the cookies. Mom was really specific about the kinds she wanted, too.” He shrugged.

“Oh.” I felt kind of guilty about rushing over, ready for a fight, when he was just doing something nice for his mother. “Do you...need any help?”

He looked sort of surprised, and I was worried he was going to start acting weird again, but instead he just kept smiling and said, “Well, I don’t know…it depends. Are you really good at cookie-making?”

Which – I think he was actually flirting with me. It wasn’t really the kind of flirting I was used to, but it was a lot better than him fleeing in horror from my very touch.

“I’m not sure,” I answered, and then it was time to reveal the terrible truth. “I’ve actually never made cookies before.”

What?” Byron seemed completely in shock. “You’ve never – what kind of childhood did you have?”

“One that was filled with tofu.”

“That’s straight-up child abuse. Well, okay, we have to fix this. The oatmeal-raisin and peanut butter ones are in the oven right now.” He tapped the oven lightly with his foot for emphasis. “But the chocolate chip batch wouldn’t fit, so I was just going to start on those. The pan’s all ready.”

“So what do I do?”

“Well, take off your jacket first.”

So I did, draping it over the back of a chair while Byron started peeling back the wrapper that encased the cookie dough. It made a slow, sticky sound as the plastic was pulled away from the dough, and my stomach turned a little. Why would people do this when they could just buy cookies in the store? But rather than ask that and look like a total dick, I just went back and stood at Byron’s elbow, waiting for instructions. He handed me a spoon.

“Just scoop out a ball of dough like this – ” He helpfully demonstrated. “And put it on the pan.” He shook the dough ball onto the pan, then nodded at me. “Now you try.”

I dug my spoon into the tube, pulled it back out, and with a little effort – shit was sticky - dropped a wad of dough onto the tray, just to the left of Byron’s. I looked to him for approval.

“I can see you’re a natural at this,” he commented, smiling.

I grinned back. “I guess my help really isn’t crucial, huh?”

“Maybe not, but it’ll make the time go faster. Just don’t get them too close together, or we’ll have Siamese twins.” We started to dig into the dough, placing clumps of it into the beginnings of a horizontal line on the pan. “Nicky won’t help me with this. He says it’s girl stuff.”

“Even if it’s just for your mom?”

“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I guess I don’t really know what he was implying.” He grimaced.

I glanced over at him. I figured I already knew the answer, but I had to ask, “Does anyone, uh, in your family know - ?”

“No,” he answered quickly. He met my eyes for just a second, then looked away and scratched his cheek.

I waited for him to say something more about it, I don’t even know what, but he didn’t, so I just let the matter lie.

“So this is what I’ve been missing,” I said, shaking the spoon repeatedly to try to get the dough off it. Seriously, the stuff could give Krazy Glue a run for its money.

“Yep.” Byron, having more experience than me – well, in cookie-baking...I wasn’t so sure about what else - was just scraping off the dough with his fingers when it didn’t want to succumb to gravity.

“I don’t see the big thrill, I guess.” Really, it wasn’t as exciting as it’d been built up to be. As a little kid, I’d sort of wistfully dreamed about maybe making cookies to leave out for Santa, like all the other kids, but Dawn and I always just left him a protein smoothie and carrot sticks for the reindeer instead. A strawberry-banana shake never quite had that Night Before Christmas feel to it, but I wish I’d known then that this cookie business really wasn’t a big deal.

“Well, you’re not excited about getting to eat one. When they’re done – ” His eyes widened. “Oh, shit!”

He dropped the spoon, tugged on one of those godawful flowered mitts, and rushed over to the oven. Pulling it open and peering inside, he gingerly reached in and pulled a pan of cookies forward. Immediately, the sweet smell in the kitchen became overpowering; I could practically taste them. Gross.

“Are they burned?” I asked.

“No, they’re okay.” He set the pan on the cooling rack, then reached in the oven to grab another. “As long as everyone likes them a little crunchy.”

“How much is a little?”

“A lot.” He let out one small breath of laughter, shaking his head at himself. “Fuck.”

I felt kind of bad, like I’d distracted him from remembering to take the cookies out on time. I mean, of course I was obviously helping – I’d added three and a half lumps of dough to the pan already – but I walked over to him anyway.

“I don’t think they’re going to be that bad,” I said, looking down at the pan still in Byron’s hand.

“They’re hot now, but once they cool they’ll get really crispy.”

“They’re not supposed to?”

“Not this much.”

“They look fine to me.”

“Jeff, you grew up eating sprouts. You probably haven’t had a cookie in your whole life!”

“But I still know what they’re supposed to look like, Byron.”

“Yeah, but – ” He set the pan on the cooling rack and accidentally touched the first with his bare hand for just a second. He hissed, shaking his fingers. “Oh, fuck,” he cursed again.

“Are you okay?” I asked, taking another step closer to him.

“Yeah,” he said, sounding more frustrated with himself than anything else. Frowning, he stuck the tip of his left ring finger, the one he’d burned, into his mouth and sucked on it.

I...had to look away. Just. Yeah.

“It’s fine,” I heard him say, and when I looked up he was moving back over to the job we’d abandoned, the chocolate chip cookies in progress. “Let’s finish this up so we can get them in the oven.”

I nodded, following him and picking my spoon up again. Byron was practically a dough-slinging machine, decimating the tube while I gingerly tried to finish my fourth lump. We didn’t talk as we worked, just dug into that dough, and within a couple minutes the tube was no more.

Byron had done most of the work – I’d contributed, like, four dough balls – but even still, as he slid the tray into the oven, he said, “Thanks.”

“You did all the work.” I went to the sink and scrubbed my hands with Palmolive, but even still, there was probably going to be cookie dough under my fingernails until the end of time.

“No, you helped,” he insisted, leaning against the counter. “Like, I said, it made the time go faster, at least.”

“Well, that’s something, I guess.” I dried my hands on a towel hanging limply from the handle of the refrigerator and walked over to him. “Are you sure your hand’s okay?”

“It’s fine.” He looked down at his hand, wiggling his ring finger, and his eyelashes were dark and thick against the hollows under his eyes, like a girl’s. It was...sort of pretty.

“Good,” I said, a little distracted.

Then Byron looked up at me and smiled, and I got even more distracted. There was a tiny streak of chocolate on his jaw, from when he’d scratched his cheek.

“Oh,” I said. “You have a…”

And just – it would’ve been very, very easy and actually logical to remove that smudge of chocolate with my tongue, but I didn’t. I reached out and rubbed my thumb against the spot, though, and that was enough, because Byron just froze, let me, the smile melting from his face with surprise.

I really wanted to kiss him then, and every time I’d wanted to kiss him before, I had, so I was sort of shocked when he just murmured, “Um, thanks,” and pushed away from the counter, away from me, and started cleaning up the baking supplies.

“I – ”

But then the door slammed in the living room. Byron looked in the direction of the sound, and there was a muffled, “Anyone home?” It was his dad.

“Maybe you better go,” Byron said, not looking at me. “We’re probably going to start with my mom’s birthday stuff soon.”

“I...okay,” I said. I felt confused, a little off-balanced. Everything had gotten tense again, so quickly.

“But, um, thanks, and – oh! Here, you should take a couple of these.” He grabbed a spatula and scraped a couple of the cooling cookies off a pan, slipping them into a plastic bag. “I mean, you helped, so...and they’re oatmeal-raisin, so that’s kind of health food, right? Close enough.”

“Okay,” I repeated. I just felt a little dumb, my mind muddied.

“Here.” Byron pressed the bag into my hands, half-smiling nervously. “So. Thanks again. I’ll see you tomorrow, at Haley’s, right?”

“Right.” I picked up my jacket, pulling it on as I went out through the back door.

“Bye!” I heard him call after me, but I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to say.

The problem, whatever it was - it wasn't the birthday thing at all. I mean, shit, shit, fuck, what the hell was going on? Was this thing really going to end before it even started?

I got home in time for lunch. I wasn’t hungry, but I ate some soup with my mom and stepfather anyway. Afterward I gave the cookies to Richard because I knew no one else would want them. He was surprised, but pleased, and kept thanking me as he ate them for dessert. He said they were a little crunchy, but delicious.

Chapter Text

At a quarter to noon, I was on Haley's front porch, ringing the doorbell. It wasn't like I meant to be early, just that the only times I'd been there or back were by car or drunk and hanging on Byron. I sort of overestimated how long I'd need to walk over, and now I was forced to be the first one to show up for the Haley Braddock Garage Cleaning Extravaganza. Yeah, awesome.

Less than a minute later, Haley answered the door. Her face lit up when she saw me, and it was so embarrassing that I couldn't help but look over my shoulder, hoping that the rest of the guys had magically shown up at my heels. Nope.

"Jeff!" she cried. "Come on in." She stepped aside and let me enter. "You're early. Not even the pizzas are here yet."

"Yeah, sorry about that," I said uncomfortably as I pulled off my jacket and hung it up on the rack. I really didn't want her to get the wrong idea. "I just - "

"No, it's okay," she said. She had this big smile, teeth and gums and everything. Shit. "Since we have a couple minutes, I want to show you something."

"Um." Hopefully she wasn't talking about her tits. "Okay - "

Haley motioned me over to the stairs and called out, "Mom, I'm taking Jeff upstairs for a second."

"Doors open!" a voice, presumably Mrs. Braddock's, said in answer.

As we walked up, Haley rolled her eyes at me and said, "My grounding might be over, but they don't trust me to be alone with you guys yet."

"She thinks we're going to break open a few beers and ravish each other or something?" I asked, and hey, note to self, Think before you talk. She just giggled, though.

We stopped in front of a closed door, and she rested her hand on the knob, looking away from me as she said, "Um - you were - well, the last time you were here, you were really nice about stuff, so I thought..." She shrugged and opened the door, nodding me inside.

I crossed the threshold and immediately had to bite back an Oh shit.

"This is Matt's room," Haley said unnecessarily, because it who else could it have belonged to?

The furniture was still that of a younger kid, with a comforter covered with baseballs and bats draped over the bed. There were trophies propped up like bookends on a set of shelves, and on a dresser, an old family photo from back when he and Haley were little kids, when I had first known them. I picked it up and couldn't help but grin - Haley'd had the most horrible rattail back then.

"You sure rocked the mullet," I commented, trying to find my way out of the moment of emotional reverie like a litter of kittens struggling out of a lake-drenched sack.

She laughed a little. "Yeah, I - yeah." She cleared her throat, then continued, "I don't ever really bring anyone in here, but like I said, last time - you were really cool about it. You are cool."

"Thanks," I said, torn between feeling touched and deeply uncomfortable. I was so not the person to share this with.

"No one ever talks about him," she went on. "I guess it's - well, it's sad. Obviously. But I'm glad you do. I'm glad you even remember him. I mean, it's not like you were here all the time."

"He's easy to remember," I replied honestly, and she smiled so brightly that she actually looked happy.

I didn't know what else to say, though. What could I? When it really came down to it, I was still just the new guy, standing around in the dead kid's room, feeling ridiculously awkward. It shouldn't have been me there. But Haley shouldn't have had to feel like that either.

"I just - " she started to say.

"Haley!" her mom called from downstairs. "Some of your friends are here! And the pizza!"

"We better go," I said quickly, and put down the photo.

"Yeah," she answered, and we retreated from the room, the door shutting quietly behind us.

At the bottom of the stairs, a small crowd had gathered. It seemed that that Pizza Express delivery guy and the Pike triplets had all arrived at the same time, and Mrs. Braddock was standing around with them. They looked up as Haley and I came down the stairs, Adam smirking a little.

"You work fast," he whispered as I joined them.

I glanced over at Byron, who was pokerfaced. He was already acting like he'd suddenly developed an allergic reaction to me. I did not need him thinking I'd succumbed to Haley's feminine wiles.

"It wasn't - " I started to protest, but the pizza guy interrupted me by announcing the price of two larges.

Haley paid, and once he'd left, smiled brightly at the four of us. "Come on, let's take these in the kitchen. Mom already had lunch," she added sternly, shooting her mother a look.

So we did, Jordan carrying one pizza, Byron with the other. They set them on the counter and flipped the box tops open when Haley said, "Let's get started while they're hot. The others can eat when they get here."

Everyone grabbed a plate and started piling slices on them before retreating to the kitchen table. Everyone but me, that is. I stood there for a minute, staring at the large with pepperoni and the supreme with sausage, contemplating the possibility of starting a support group for the vegetarians of Stoneybrook, except my mom would probably be the only other member. With a sigh, I gingerly picked up a slice with pepperoni and put it on my plate.

James had shown up, and he was at the table with everyone else, all eating and laughing about something already. The only seat left was the one next to Byron - whether that was due to chance or him saving it for me, I had no idea - so I sat down and stared glumly at my pork carcass pizza. There was no way I was going to eat it, but I hadn't wanted to be the only one not to take some. I didn't want Haley to start fussing over me, trying to find me some lunch that didn't involve flesh, but this was gross.

And - it shouldn't have been a surprise, wasn't really one at all - Byron understood why I was just sitting there.

He rolled his eyes and said, "You're such a baby," peeling the cheese and pepperoni off my slice in one solid, putrid mass, leaving only dough and traces of sauce behind. He was saving me from the evils of meat, and I was glad he wasn't ignoring me, but Jesus Christ.

"That's so gross," I said. "How can you people eat that?"

"It's good," Byron said with a shrug, and crammed the whole wad of processed cheese into his mouth. He only needed to chew, like, twice before swallowing. "Besides, I've seen the kinds of things you put in your mouth."

Like your tongue? I didn't say. I didn't think his brothers would really appreciate the little joke. So instead, I thanked him by very sweetly stomping on his foot under the table and choking down my pizza, trying desperately to forget about how close pork had been to it. Byron looked the other way.

A few minutes later, and all of the pizza was gone except for two cold, congealing pieces. We cleaned up quickly and headed outside to the garage, bumping into Shea and Scott on the way to the front door.

"Hey, we only just - " Scott began to protest.

"Get your pizza and some napkins," Haley said. "We need to get started." I had to admire anyone who could boss around Scott Danby so effortlessly.

But when she opened the garage door, I wasn't so sure. I mean, it wasn't exactly a Level Five disaster area in there, but it sure wasn't the neat stack of old newspapers I was naively hoping for. It wasn't going to be an easy job. There were a bunch of cardboard boxes, some so old that they were starting to crumble, bags of recyclables, a big cluttered tool chest. A couple of bikes needed to put someplace out of the way, there was some gardening stuff that definitely wasn't going to be used this winter, and there was even a little red Big Wheel laying on its side. Plus, the floor was a dusty mess and was definitely needing to be swept.

"I'm not in the mood for this," James said, a whining tone to his voice, and hell, I had to agree with him.

"Come on, it's not so bad," Haley said brightly. "Seriously! My mom said that those boxes have been in here so long that we probably don't need whatever's in them, so we just have to stack them outside for the Salvation Army to pick up tomorrow, and the other stuff's not going to be hard to deal with. It's not going to take forever."

Yeah, but it was still going to take more time than I wanted to give. Apparently, though, this kind of crap is what friends are supposed to do for each other, because we all just sort of shrugged, stepped into the garage, and got to work.

I figured I‘d deal with my personal area of expertise, the recyclables, since they seemed to need sorting; growing up with Dawn for a sister left me painfully conscious of waste management. As I knelt amongst bins of sticky soda cans and plastic bottles, everyone else settled into tasks. Jordan and Shea started trying to figure out how to hang up the bikes, and Adam and Byron sorted through the tool chest. Being gentlemen, we left Haley to do the heavy lifting; only Scott was helping her move the stuff for donation outside. Meanwhile, James seemed to decide that snooping through the boxes would be way helpful.

“Power Rangers!” he exclaimed, rifling through some toys. “Connect Four!” He let out an outraged gasp and pulled out a Ouija board, holding it over his head and shaking it for emphasis. “You cannot donate this. We have to Ouija.”

“No way,” Scott said, eyes fixed on the box he was about to pick up. “I said I’d help clean out the garage. I’m not washing windows too.”

There was a pause while we all tried to figure out what the fuck that meant. Finally, Jordan rolled his eyes and laughed.

Ouija, not squeegee, you moron,” he said.

“Look, if you want it, just set it aside,” Haley told James.

“Hey, Haley, does this go outside too?” Shea asked, nudging the Big Wheel with his foot.

“No way,” Adam said. “How else is she going to get to school?”

Haley just laughed and walked over to me, gently resting her hand on my biceps. “How’s it going, Jeff?” she asked, smiling.

I glanced up at her. “Do you recycle your newspapers? I don’t see any.”

Her smile faltered. “Um, I don’t think so.”

“Well, you should,” I said shortly, and looked back down at the bins. Haley pulled away her hand quickly, like I’d smacked it, and rushed over to her boxes. Dismissed.

I glanced over at Byron to make sure he’d seen. That, yeah, this totally hot and actually kind of nice girl was really into me, but I was willing to give her the brush-off for him. She'd shared something really big with me, up there in Matt's room, and she thought I was cool. I wasn't cool, not even a little bit. I felt like an asshole, but I just needed him to think that, hey, maybe whatever reason he’d been acting so weird around me wasn’t worth the effort.

He was looking at me, his gaze blue and steady. Our eyes met for a moment, and then he looked away.

“I think it’s a Phillips-head,” he told Adam, who was frowning at a screwdriver.

And I was equally dismissed.

But he’d seen.

*

It really didn’t take long to deal with the garage. In less than an hour, we’d gotten everything organized, leaving just basic cleaning to do. Once he saw that he could no longer bullshit his contribution to the job, James announced that he really needed to go home and help his little brothers with their homework. He gathered up the Ouija board, an old scarf, and three paperback novels and took off.

“That little bitch,” Jordan muttered as he watched James go, but he said it affectionately.

“Why do you put up with his crap?” I asked.

He shrugged. “What are we supposed to do? Kill him? He’s always pulling stuff like this.”

“Yeah, and if I’d had to deal with that shit for years, I’d have beaten the crap out of him by now.”

“We all grew up together. I guess we just have a high tolerance,” and he walked away to help Haley sweep the floor.

A high tolerance.

I looked over at Byron, who was emptying a dustpan into a trash bag. We’d been friends as kids, but we hadn’t grown up together. Now he was my best friend - more than that - but I didn’t know his quirks, all the stupid little nuances that the others understood. And I sure as fuck was new to liking a guy and to all the baggage that came with that. If we really wanted to go ahead with this thing we had for each other, it was very likely that I was going to have to develop a high tolerance for the misunderstandings, the tiny estrangements, the nervous stomachaches and confusion.

God, was he even worth it?

When he headed outside to take his trash bag to the curb, I picked up a box of miscellaneous garbage and ran out after him.

“Hey!” I called. “Hey!”

He looked over his shoulder at me, but didn’t stop until he got to the bins by the side of the road and dumped the bag into one. I was just a few steps behind him, dropping the box at our feet.

“Sorry,” he said, a little breathless. “Bag was heavy. I couldn’t stop.”

I looked down at the bag. It did look heavy, but while I was relieved that Byron wasn’t actually running the fuck away from me, I was still confused about why he was being so cold.

“What’d I do?” I demanded.

“I - what?” Byron asked. He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You’re barely talking to me!” I shouted angrily. He glanced over at the garage nervously, so I lowered my voice. “You’ll hardly even look at me. So what’d I do to piss you off?”

“Nothing!”

“So what the hell - ?”

“You’re not making it easy,” he said, sighing.

“What are you talking about?”

He glanced around again, then said quietly, “Ever since you came over on Thursday to tell me you...” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Like me, I can’t stop...I keep thinking about you. About - ” He hesitated. “Kissing you. And you practically hanging on me all the time is not helping.”

He blushed, and I could feel my own face heating up, even as slow tendrils of warmth seemed to uncoil low in my stomach. God, it was good to know I wasn’t the only one suffering, that he wanted it too.

“You want to kiss me?”

“Um, yeah.”

“So why don’t you?”

“You said you wanted to take it slow.”

What the fuck?

All that worry, for this? I mean, I wasn’t one-hundred percent sure what I’d meant when I’d said we should go slow, but I was pretty sure I did not mean, ‘Please, Byron, act like I have an ebola-infected monkey strapped to my midsection. I know I keep making out with you at really inappropriate moments, but I’m just not into it.’

Looked like the road to hell really was paved with good intentions. God. I didn’t know who was the stupider one, him or me.

“Not this slow, you fucking tortoise,” I hissed, but I started to laugh, too.

Byron was gaping at me incredulously, mouth open, looking like a goldfish. “You mean you want to? To - ?”

“You idiot! If I’m hanging on you all the time, what do you think I want to do?”

“I thought you were just being an asshole,” he said.

“No! Well, I mean, yeah,” I said. “I’m totally an asshole. But not about this.”

"Okay." He smiled slowly, and his eyes were bright and relieved, crinkling at the corners. It was impossible not to notice how good he looked right then, and that feeling down in my stomach intensified, twisting and hot.

My laughter died down, and I said, “So, just so we’re clear, you can. You know. If you want.”

His smile widened, and I could see that goofy crooked bottom tooth of his.

“Yeah?” he said. “All right.”

Apparently, I took that as some sort of invitation, because I leaned toward him, just an inch or two.

“Not out here!” Byron cried, taking a step back.

“Oh,” I replied. “Yeah. Sorry.” Yeah, stupid, I know, but Jesus Christ, I’d missed him, even after just a couple days. And I really missed making out. “Um, do you think we’re done in there?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much.”

“Do you want to go to my house?” I knew I was being pushy and probably more than a little desperate, but I couldn’t help it. I mean, he wanted me. “My parents are out antiquing and - "

"Yes," Byron answered quickly. I guess he was feeling it as much as I was. "Let me just go tell my brothers we're leaving."

When we walked back into the garage, it was clear that things were pretty much wrapping up. The place was clean and tidy, and everyone was just standing around, talking.

“We’re taking off,” Byron announced, and I was amazed at how composed he sounded. I felt jittery, excited, like we were about to run off and do something profoundly illicit. Fuck, maybe we were.

“You’re leaving?” Haley cried. “But - ” She looked around the garage, like she was just now noticing that it was all cleaned up.

Byron glanced at me, and I shrugged and said, “I have some stuff I’ve got to do at home.” My heart was pounding like crazy.

“And I said I’d help,” Byron added quickly. Good thinking.

Adam looked at him for a long moment, then said, “Well, have fun. I’m done doing chores today.”

“We totally will,” Byron laughed, and his mouth curved into this funny, crooked little smile, his eyes shining. There was no doubt that he was just as excited as I was.

When we headed through the door to the house to grab our coats, they all called out goodbyes to us. Haley’s voice trailed behind the guys’, a sad, sweet, and distant sound.

*

A few minutes later, we were slamming my front door closed and dropping our jackets in the hall. We hadn’t exactly run all the way from Haley’s. I mean, we weren’t that lame. But if someone had been timing us, I think it probably would’ve turned out that we’d broken the world speed-walking record.

“My room,” I told him. Mom and Richard weren’t supposed to be home anytime soon, but this was definitely not the day for a surprise.

Byron nodded silently, and we raced upstairs, allowing ourselves to run those last few steps. I walked into my room first and turned around just in time to see Byron close the door behind him. He was smiling again, eyes locked on mine, and there was a flash of something predatory in them. He starting slowly crossing the room toward me, and the way he moved, like liquid, with the slightest swagger, and the way he was staring at me - he was so fucking hot all of a sudden.

There was a twinge in my stomach telling me that this was still a foreign concept, looking at another guy this way, and suddenly the whole moment felt totally surreal. This thing that was about to happen - it was big, but Byron was the picture of confidence, and somehow that was incredibly intimidating. My head spun a little, trying to understand that this was really happening, and it occurred to me that we'd come here without agreeing on what we'd be doing, exactly.

When he stopped, just a few inches away from me, I panicked and said, “Hi,” like a complete idiot.

But he just laughed. “Hi.”

He leaned in close, closer, his lips about to touch mine...

And suddenly I remembered all that pepperoni he’d eaten earlier that afternoon.

“Um.” I took a step back. “Sorry. But could you rinse your mouth out or something?”

What?” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was just completely confused or if he wanted to punch me in the face. If he did, I couldn’t be surprised.

“I’m sorry! It’s just that it was really gross, and you ate a lot of it.” I felt like a total jerk, but really, the idea of making out with someone who tasted like pig carcass was not very appealing. “Please?”

He still looked a little shocked, but he nodded dumbly and said, “Uh, okay.” He blinked a few times, I guess trying to figure out what the fuck was wrong with me, before leaving the room.

I sat down on the edge of my bed and let out a shaky breath. I liked Byron, and I wanted to kiss him, but he was full of pepperoni, and besides, suddenly the whole thing felt like a lot of pressure. Scary, even. Maybe this hadn’t been the greatest idea.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, trying to get a grip on myself and knowing I only had a minute to do it.

Except it wasn’t just a minute. Time stretched longer and longer, and I still sat around, alone. It did not take a guy five minutes to rinse his mouth out. I started to wonder if he’d decided he was fed up with me and just left, and seriously, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had.

But then there he was, closing the door again. When he looked at me this time, his expression was more one of worry than animal magnetism.

“I rinsed with mouth wash,” he said. “And then I flossed, just to be safe.” He smiled at me, his eyes shy and uncertain, and lingered awkwardly by the door.

All of my anxiety drained away. Here was the Byron I knew, was comfortable with, not some strange, stalking sex beast. Not just a hot guy, but Byron, and all of a sudden, I really, really wanted this again.

“Um, okay,” I said. I grinned slowly. “But if you don’t get over here right now, I’m going to have to hit you.”

His eyebrows rose in surprise and, laughing softly, he came over and sat down next to me. He leaned in and kissed me once, quickly, like he was testing the waters, like I might run away or burst into flames or something. But no, I was still sitting there, knee nudging his gently, and he leaned in to kiss me again, his sigh a small puff of breath fanning across my mouth as we both closed our eyes.

This second time, it was a real, proper kiss. The tip of his tongue swiped tentatively at my bottom lip, and I opened my mouth to let him in. Byron shifted closer, our chests touching, and his palm curved to cup the back of my neck as he licked his way inside my mouth.

He tasted sharply of spearmint and his skin was still cold from being outside, but it was his lips, his teeth, his tongue that were making me shiver. I didn’t know where to put my hands, so I gripped his shoulders, but that didn’t feel right, so I tried wrapping my arms around his waist. That worked; I could pull him in tighter, my fingers spreading over smooth planes of muscle, and I kissed him back.

Just - to touch him, to get to lose myself in something like this. It was good. It was really, really good.

When we finally pulled back, breathless and shaky, he pressed his cheek against mine for a long moment, and I felt this little flutter in my chest, like something was stirring to life, but it was gone almost before I noticed it.

I let go of him and, laughing a little, flopped back on the bed, my legs dangling over the edge. Byron followed my lead, his hands folded primly over his stomach like an old woman. We lay next to each other in this nice, comfortable silence for a minute or two. I wasn’t thinking much of anything, just enjoying being close to him, and the afterglow, and not having a belly full of nerves for once.

“Do you think this is really going slow?” Byron asked, and it sounded a lot more sudden than it probably was.

It was a good question. I didn’t exactly think that kissing was exactly the same as us exchanging promise rings or moving in together, but I could see his point. Not that I wanted to. When I glanced over at him, his cheeks were flushed, his lips very red. That was all I wanted to see right then. I wasn’t in the mood to analyze this.

Because, I mean, come on. Hadn’t over-thinking fucked us up enough already?

“I don’t know,” I finally answered. In a momentary burst of confidence, I added, “But we’ll find the right speed.”

Byron opened his mouth to say something. Argue or agree, I don’t know, because when I leaned over to kiss him again, he shushed.

Chapter Text

Obviously, things changed after that.

School was pretty much the same; we weren't exactly going to kiss goodbye in the halls between classes or anything. We walked together in the mornings and sat with everyone else at lunch, talking and laughing at stupid jokes. And maybe sometimes I'd look over at him and our eyes would meet and yeah, I'd be gone, but if I’m going to be honest, that wasn't very different from before.

What really changed was after school. We never went to Byron's house anymore—it wasn't even an option, unless we wanted his parents, all nine hundred siblings, Pow, and the ghost of his dead hamster to figure out about us. No, it was always my house. We'd slam the door closed, walk right past the living room—no way we were going to stick around there, not when my mom came home early sometimes—and headed right up the stairs to my room, which was now like the best place ever, as far as I was concerned. Better than my room in California, better than fucking Disneyland, because as soon as the door was closed, we'd drop our stuff—the sight of Byron shrugging off his backpack had suddenly become such a goddamn turn-on, I don't even know—and climb onto my stupid high bed, and make out.

It was really just kissing, more or less—we barely touched. I don’t know who decided that was a good idea, or if it was something that just happened, but even when we leaned in close, there was always this careful gap between us on the bed. Between our hips, to be exact, and I don’t know if this was our concession to going slow or what, but it was always there. It was probably a good thing—God knows I didn’t need another excuse to freak out.

And anyway, it wasn’t like we even needed that part of it. Not yet. Because, Jesus, just kissing Byron wasn’t even close to old yet. The heat of his mouth, and the way he always tasted like something sweet – I realized I really sort of liked sugar when I tasted it on his tongue – and how he kissed harder and more intensely than any girl I’d ever been with.

And sometimes he’d stop just to look at me and smile, his cheeks flushed and eyes bright, like we had some big awesome secret. Which we did, and…I don’t know. Right then he was more my best friend than ever, and I’d just have to kiss him again, again, and he never said no.

That wasn’t ever going to get old. I could tell.

*

“Here,” James said, handing me an index card. It was a Thursday morning, just a couple weeks after Byron and I started—I don’t know what to call it. I guess you could say I was participating in afterschool activities for the first time ever. Anyway, Byron and I had just gotten to school, and he was waiting for me while I dug around in my locker for some history notes when James wandered up.

I looked down at the card in my hand. In red Sharpie, he’d written, YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO WAKE THE DEAD, FRIDAY 8 PM, CASA DE JAMES. He’d even scribbled a little Pacman-esque ghost on the bottom, as if that’d clue me into whatever the fuck this meant.

“Uh – what?” I said, glancing over at Byron. He was looking down at a card of his own, a similar what-the-fuck expression on his face.

“Remember when I found the Ouija board at Haley’s?” he said, grinning ear to ear. “I figured we should use it.”

“What for?” I’d seen the Parker Brothers logo on the side of the box—I didn’t have high hopes of, like, asking my dead parakeet if they had tofu in Heaven.

James, on the other hand, wasn’t so much a skeptic. “To, like, call on the dead and talk to demons and whatever you do with a Ouija board.” There was a pause before he added, “My parents will be gone, and my older brother can get us beer.”

Which, all right, was a much better argument, but it still sounded lame. I mean, essentially James was inviting us to come over and play board games, and I had a lot of better things to do with my time. Like, oh, I don’t know. Sleep. Stare blankly into space. Watch a Golden Girls marathon. And come on, it was tomorrow? Way to plan ahead, Captain Kangaroo.

So I was just about to open my mouth and politely decline when Byron piped up with, “Okay. I’m in.”

My mouth maybe dropped open at this point. Not so hot, I know, but I’d figured one more item—hang out with Byron—had been a given on that list of much better things to do with my time. Mom and Richard usually went out to dinner on Fridays, so the house would have been ours.

But I guess he did realize that, because he just gave me this quick sidelong glance, like a warning, so reluctantly I said, “Yeah, me too.”

James’ grin grew even wider, which was kind of embarrassing, for me at least. “Great! Well, I need to give the rest of these out.” He waved his handful of cards like a fan. “See you at lunch.” And he dashed off into the crowd, his carrot-red hair making him stand out like a target.

As soon as he was out of range, I turned to Byron and hissed, “I told you that my mom and stepdad are going out on Friday.”

“Yeah, I know.” He looked away, absently tugging on the ends of his backpack straps. “But we’ve been, um, hanging out on our own a lot lately.”

“So?”

“Don’t you think that might be…” He lowered his voice a little. “Suspicious?”

“Oh.” I hadn’t really thought of that. Or, okay, I hadn’t thought of it at all. I mean, I always tried to be careful not to get caught, and I always timed things so no one else was around when we were making out, but the idea that someone might put two and two together without seeing us had never crossed my mind. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

He nodded. “So we should go. It won’t be so bad – James can be a lot of fun. And besides,” he added, with a wide, open smile, “we’ll have some time to kill before it starts.”

And God, I was such a sucker for that smile.

With a smile of my own that I just couldn’t fight, I said, “Yeah, well, I still think Golden Girls would be better.”

“Huh?”

“Uh, nothing.”

“Okay.” Byron paused, blinked a few times. “But for the record, I like Rose the best.”

*

Much to my complete and utter total fucking shock, James somehow managed to talk the rest of our group into trying to talk to the Ghost of Christmas Past too. But by lunch, I’d sort of figured out his main selling point.

“Budweiser,” Adam was telling James firmly, slapping the tabletop for emphasis. “Or maybe Miller, or Coors. No light beer, that’s gross, and no Foster’s. I don’t care if you’re Australian, it’s nasty.”

“Yeah,” Shea agreed. “And can your brother get us vodka too?”

“And Red Bull,” Scott added.

“We can get our own Red Bull, moron,” Jordan said, rolling his eyes.

“I heard Rihanna drinks whisky and apple juice,” Haley piped up.

Sara looked appalled. “That sounds disgusting.”

James, meanwhile, was taking notes on all this, furiously scribbling their orders at the bottom of a page of math notes. He looked up at Byron and me and asked, “What about you guys?”

We glanced at each other—I don’t know why we were always giving each other an eyeball consultation – before Byron said, “Beer’s fine for me.”

“Rum,” I said. “I’ll bring my own Coke.” Not that soda was a healthy choice, but at least it made the rum go down easier. Ultimately, I figured that was more important than health.

“Rum and Cokes are my favorite!” Haley said with a little gasp, like this was the most amazing coincidence ever. She was sitting to my right, and on my left, I could feel Byron tremor a little with a silent laugh.

Which made me smile as I told her, “I’ll bring enough for you.”

She brightened, encouraged by my smile, I guess, and said, “You know, my parents just got a huge flatscreen—it practically takes up the whole wall. You should come see it sometime.”

Oh Jesus. The table had gone quiet, not so subtly listening to Haley put the moves on me (also not so subtly). There was no way I could tell her no without a) looking like a dick, b) embarrassing her, and c) making everyone think I was totally gay and therefore probably having a torrid gay romance with Byron, who was also gay. Fine, maybe that one was a stretch, but still.

“Yeah, okay,” I said awkwardly, forcing the smile to stay put.

“What are you doing after school today?”

Jesus Christ, this girl moved fast. Normally I liked that, but this was like the worst timing ever. I glanced over at Byron again, but this time he seemed really involved with staring at his cup of blue Jello.

“Um, nothing, I guess,” I said slowly.

“Great! I’ll meet you at your locker, okay?”

“I – ” But then the warning bell rang, and everyone started getting up and gathering their things.

“Bye!” Haley called out cheerfully as she dashed off, Sara close at her heels, scowling.

I just kind of sat there—what had just happened? But then Adam slapped me on the back, grinning.

“Nice one!” he said. “Only here a few months, and you got dates with both of them!”

A what? “It’s not a date,” I said quickly, looking at Byron again. But he wasn’t looking back—again.

“Haley thinks it is,” Adam said confidently. He ruffled my hair good-naturedly—thanks, asshole—and added, “Tell us how it goes!” before he headed toward the door.

The other guys were gone by then too, but Byron was still there, sliding his three-ring binder into his backpack.

“It’s not a date,” I whispered to him urgently, touching his arm. We didn’t touch a lot at school, or at home really, with that stupid unspoken rule; he stiffened, but didn’t pull away. “I didn’t have an excuse, other than—you know. It’s like a cover thing, like you said.”

“Yeah, I know,” Byron answered, but his voice was a little cool. In one quick motion, he zipped up his backpack and swung it onto one shoulder, stepping away from me. My hand just sort of slipped off his arm. “So I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess.”

He walked away, and I stood there for a while, feeling stupid and confused and annoyed with him, honestly, until the bell rang.

I was late to class.

*

True to her word, Haley was hanging out next to my locker after school. Her face sort of lit up when she spotted me, which, God, was kind of embarrassing, and she waved. “Hey, Jeff!”

Like I would’ve missed her? But I just smiled a little, already feeling exhausted by whatever the hell this ‘date’ would bring. “Hey,” I said, opening my locker and grabbing the novel I was reading for English.

“Ready to go?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

She didn’t really catch my lack of enthusiasm. “Great!” Barely waiting for me to slam my locker shut, she grabbed my arm and half-led, half-hauled me down the hallway. I panicked a little, wondering if she was going to try to hold my hand, but she let me go once we reached the exit.

The walk to her place wasn’t so bad. Haley lived pretty close to school, so it didn’t last long, and she got caught up in telling me all about this bitch of a teacher she had for PE, so really all I had to do was nod and say, “Uh-huh.” Which was good, because seriously, all I could think about was how Byron was mad at me, even though this so wasn’t my fault. He was the one who said hanging out too much might seem suspicious, not me.

“…so she gave me a detention! Even though I was like, Ms. Green, it’s nine billion degrees below zero today—do we really have to dress out?” Haley was saying as we walked in through the kitchen door.

“Uh-huh,” I added eloquently.

“Anyway.” She dumped her backpack on the table and ran her hand through her long, blonde hair; it was sort of pretty. “Do you want a snack or anything?”

“I’m cool,” I said with a shrug, mostly because I’d learned not to trust anybody in Stoneybrook with the concept of vegetarianism, not even Byron (hello, Altoids totally have gelatin, though I appreciated the effort he went to to make sure my mouth tasted like curiously strong medicine).

“Yeah, you are,” Haley answered with a flirtatious little grin, then took me by the wrist and led me out of the room. “Come on, I’ll show you the TV.”

It was in the den, the set of our Mario Kart tournament, only now it was complete with, no joke, the biggest screen I’d ever seen outside of a movie theater. It hung there, taking up almost half the wall, silent and black, and as I stared at my own reflection in its surface, I wondered why Haley had never told us that her parents were freaking millionaires.

“Well, here it is.” She sat down on the couch with a sigh, pulling along; I fell against her a little, then inched away a couple inches. Picking up the remote, she flicked the TV on and started scrolling through the channels—they must have had hundreds of them. “What do you want to watch?”

“Uh, MTV I guess,” but when she switched over to channel 502, it was one of those shows where blonde girls talk shit about each other. But I didn’t really feel invested in channel surfing, so we just started watching in silence.

After a couple minutes, she got close again and slipped her arm through mine, resting her head on my shoulder. Which—DANGER, DANGER, Will Robinson, but after a little while of me sitting there as tense as a mother fucker, she didn’t try anything else, and I relaxed. It was totally baffling to me that Byron and I felt like we shouldn’t touch even when we kiss, but Haley could just snuggle right in. But I figured it wasn’t like it was cheating or anything, and—cheating?

It occurred to me, sitting there, staring blankly at a bunch of blonde girls I couldn’t tell apart, that Byron and I had never really said what we were to each other. Best friends, yeah, but the whole making-out-I-am-so-gay-for-you part made it a little more complicated. I felt like I shouldn’t be, you know, hooking up with anyone else, but it’s not like we’d ever made that an official rule.

But what if Byron took that to mean he could do whatever he wanted? And, oh God, I thought, what if he’s at Scott Danby’s house right now? Sure, Scott was pretty much the definition of heterosexual future frat boy douche, but I’d been pretty girl-centric too, until now. Eventually, Scott’s tiny dinosaur brain was going to comprehend that Byron’s eyes were really, really pretty and his bottom teeth were crooked, and then what?

I was so deep into this horrifying thought that I didn’t notice for a few seconds that Haley had turned her face in toward me and was slowly nuzzling my neck.

Shit! I practically fell to the floor, I shoved myself away so fast. She stared up at me, blinking, confusion already dawning across her face.

“Uh,” I said out of nowhere. “How are you?”

What?” Just as quickly, confusion turned to annoyance. I couldn’t blame her—if I were some hot girl getting rejected for no apparent reason, I’d be pissed off too.

“I mean…” I had no idea where I was going with this, so I thought fast for an excuse. “I mean, you said you have no one to talk to about, um, your brother. So I was just wondering how you were doing with that.”

Immediately, I felt like the biggest asshole on the face of the Earth. I felt even worse when her face softened, eyes going sad.

“Oh.” She shifted back, away from me, thank God. “It’s, you know. It sucks. It always sucks. And his birthday is coming up, and Mom and Dad always get so…” Haley looked down for a second, fiddling with her bracelet absently. When she looked up again, her eyes were wet. “Actually, you know, can we not talk about this right now?”

Christ. “I’m really sorry.”

“No, don’t be,” she said quickly. “Nobody ever asks. It’s really cool of you. And I do want to talk, just—not now.”

“Okay, yeah, sure.” I tried to sound caring, tried not to sound like a jerk.

“I’ll come to you—or call you or something, when I’m ready. Would that be all right?”

“Definitely.”

She smiled suddenly, and it wasn’t her big, fake smile she flashed around school. It was something genuine, and it was horrible and beautiful all at once. “You’re a really nice guy, Jeff.”

But I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t. And if she knew I’d just used her dead little brother to cover up why I didn’t want to mess around with her, she’d realize that. She wasn’t going to, but I did.

Now firmly on opposite ends of the couch, we went back to watching TV. The stupid girls on this show, they had much easier lives.

*

“So, what’d you guys do?” Byron asked.

It was Friday afternoon, and we were hanging out in my room, wiling away the hours until James’ idiotic ghost thing. He was trying to act all casual, but it wasn’t working. I mean, I’d seen him at lunch when the other guys were all trying to get me to talk about my “date” with Haley—he’d gotten quiet, as usual. And it’s not like I even told them anything.

Or maybe he was worried because I hadn’t told them anything.

“Are you jealous?” I was stretched out on my bed, grinning over at him. He was sitting at the foot, back against the wall with a book in his lap, trying to pretend like he was going over Othello. That wasn’t working either.

“No,” he said, totally unconvincing. Which, I don’t know, made me feel kind of good. Good in a fucking awful way, but good.

“You so are,” I said, teasing, and nudged his thigh with my toe. He slapped at me in protest, but it was light, good-natured, and then he wrapped his hand around my foot, squeezing lightly.

And why would a move like that go straight to my dick? I curled over onto my side, trying to hide it, and said, “We watched a Corona del Mar marathon, and then her dad came home and started cooking pot roast, so I left.”

Byron raised his eyebrows. “Seriously? That’s it?”

“Yeah.” I couldn’t bring myself to bring up the Matt thing—I felt too ashamed—but he squeezed my foot like he was comforting me anyway.

“She didn’t try anything?”

I hesitated. It would probably be easier on everyone to say she didn’t, but it was kind of obvious that she was into me. “Well…I mean, she tried to cuddle with me or whatever, but I moved away.”

I hadn’t even realized how tense his shoulders were until they relaxed, just then. “I guess I can’t really blame her,” he said with a half-smile.

“For trying to cuddle with me?”

“Yeah.”

You’ve never tried it.”

I couldn’t even believe I said that.

I don’t think Byron could either, because he sort of went quiet for a second, still holding onto my foot. But then he tossed the book on the floor and—I really couldn’t believe he was doing this—crawled over toward the head of the bed and lay down facing me.

So much for our no-touching rule. We were stock still, two parallel lines, until Byron draped an arm around my waist. Automatically, I shifted in closer to him, all body instinct, knocking our knees together and staying there. I prayed to God that he couldn’t feel what was going on below my belt.

“Like this?” And he smiled, and his eyes were so damn reassuring and sweet that I couldn’t help but grin and nod.

In fact, I did more than that—I wrapped an arm around him too. His shirt had gotten hitched up a little, so when my hand found the small of his back, there was warm, smooth skin that I couldn’t help but stroke.

But it was just touching. We were still going slow.

“So what’d you do yesterday?” I asked, voice casual. “Scott Danby?”

I guess I’d been kind of distracting him, because it took a second for his eyes to un-glaze, and then he laughed. “Um, yeah, if by ‘Scott Danby’ you mean ‘my chem lab report.’”

“Same thing.”

My thumb found the dip of his spine, and I liked the way he arched toward me a little as I traced it upward. “What’s with you and Scott anyway?” he asked. “You’re so weird about him.”

“He’s an idiot,” I said, but the thing was, it was more than that, but I didn’t know what, exactly. He just grated on me—it was like this chemical, visceral reaction whenever I was around him. Hate at first sight.

“He’s not that bad,” Byron said. His hand had found its way under my shirt, running all the way up between my shoulder blades and back down again. I couldn’t believe a touch so simple could feel so fucking nice. “But I’m still not interested in him, not like that. Not even if you weren’t here.”

Seriously, that was such a relief to hear that I leaned in and kissed him, soft and sweet. It lingered for a second, but didn’t go any deeper. When I pulled away again—not very far—Byron was smiling.

“Mm,” he murmured, and Jesus, that was so hot that I couldn’t help but shift in closer to him and kiss his shoulder.

“If you weren’t here,” he went on, “you’d still be with that girl.”

I lifted my head. “Huh? Mandy?”

“Yeah.”

“Um, I doubt it.” I lay back down so we were looking at each other again and went on, “She was cool at first, but after a while she got really annoying. She liked to play head games, and she wanted to be with me all the time. We would have broken up no matter what, even without the, uh, pregnancy scare thing.”

I’m with you all the time.”

“Yeah, but I like it with you,” and when I leaned in I kissed the first thing my mouth came in contact with, his chin.

I guess that was a good answer, because he slid his hand from my back to my chest, petting lightly. His thumbnail grazed one of my nipples, and I had to close my eyes and suck in a breath. He was polite enough not to acknowledge it.

“What about you?” I asked. “Is there anyone you’d be with if I weren’t here?”

“No.” I liked that answer, so I kissed a line along the curve of his neck. And okay, maybe I bit a little, but just once or twice. Byron shivered and made this sound, this little, “Oh,” and okay, that was the hottest fucking thing ever.

Apparently, he agreed, because when he hugged me in a little tighter—oh God, oh God, oh Christ, I could feel him, if you get me. And while before I’d been worried about him noticing my hard-on, the other way around, I was totally fine with.

Maybe that was weird. I’d never been with any other guy before, and maybe I should have been freaked out by it, or at least more nervous, but I wasn’t. I was too excited, by the touching, by going further than I had with anyone since Mandy, by the fact that he was so turned on by me.

But still, we were going slow. Slow.

Reluctantly, I said, “Maybe we should stop,” but I didn’t move away.

“Yeah,” Byron agreed, and neither did he.

His hand was running along my stomach, touch gentle, but fingers bigger and rougher than any girl’s. My hips jerked reflexively, pushing against his leg, and yeah, hello, now he had to know how into this I was. And I knew that if we were going to keep going slow, we needed to hit the brakes fast.

Shit, shit, okay, I thought. We should just keep talking. Distract ourselves.

“What’s the most you’ve ever done?” I blurted out.

Jesus Christ, was I awesome at picking the wrong things to say.

His hand stilled, but just for a second. “You mean, like, sex?”

No, like on Mario Kart, but I couldn’t say that. “Yeah.”

Honestly, I expected him to say something like, ‘what we’re doing now,’ or ‘making out with you,’ but what he really said was, “Um…stuff.”

Stuff? “With who?” I demanded.

“Just some guy…you don’t know him, he doesn’t live in Stoneybrook anymore. We weren’t even really—it was just for a couple weeks, we were just messing around. I didn’t even like him that much.” He kissed me, reassuringly, it felt like, which actually did help.

But when I didn’t say anything for a while, he asked, “What, are you mad?”

“No.” And really, I wasn’t. I’d just had this expectation that Byron had been in a tower, dressed all in virginal white and waiting for me, and it was kind of hard to wrap my head around the fact that it wasn’t true. Plus, his thumb had skated over my nipple again, which was sort of distracting. “So what’d you do?”

“Jeff…”

“Did you go all the way?” I felt like a hypocrite, because Byron knew I had, with a girl, anyway, but I just needed to know whether I should feel totally intimidated or not.

“No!” he answered emphatically, and yeah, hypocrite, but I was relieved.

“Did you go down on each other?”

His face turned such a bright red that he really didn’t need to answer, but he nodded anyway.

“Whoa. I’ve never done that.”

“Seriously?”

Sad, but true. It was something Mandy flat-out refused to do, and I’d been so thrilled about being allowed to do other things that I’d never pushed her. But now, God, all I could think of was Byron, doing that, only when I pictured the scene with pristine, aching clarity, I wasn’t seeing him with that faceless Other Guy.

I was seeing him with me.

It was too much to think about, and all this while he was touching me, and I was touching him. And—shit shit shit, how could I have ever thought I didn’t like Byron this way?

When I pushed my hips into his abruptly, he gasped.

“What’s it like?” I asked, breathless.

“I—God, Jeff.” Byron’s face was still flushed, blue eyes bright and jewel-like in contrast. And even with all the other times he’d surprised me that afternoon, he made my head spin when he said, “I could show you?”

And he touched my belt buckle lightly, then hesitated, waiting for my answer.

This wasn’t going slow. This was not going slow.

But what could I do but nod? And I kept nodding, breath growing faster, as he pushed me back flat against the mattress and undid my buckle with a beautiful little click.

And, look. I’m sorry, but a guy has to keep some things to himself. A guy has to have some privacy, and this, this moment, it’s mine, okay? Mine and Byron’s, and I can’t share it.

But I will say this—he kissed me, first.