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Under the Table and Dreaming

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The first time Andy saw Sid, he was four years old. His father had just run away to California, and his mother had moved Andy and his sister into a new, smaller house. She put up blue wallpaper with fluffy white clouds to make Andy feel better about the fact that his dad was gone. Andy spent most days feeling confused, increasingly losing himself in his imagination, playing alone in the backyard. One day, a shadow fell over his toys, and he looked up to see a boy in a black t-shirt scowling at him.

“What are you doing?” the boy asked. He seemed angry about something.

“Playing,” Andy said, blinking up at the boy, who was pale and dark-haired.

“Duh,” the boy said, though he was the one who'd asked. “How old are you?”

“Four years.”

The boy scoffed. “I'm five,” he said. Andy sat down and stared up at the boy, holding Woody the cowboy in one hand and Rex the dinosaur in the other.

“Want to play with me?” he asked, not sure what this kid wanted if not that. Sid gave Andy's toys a once-over.

“No,” he said, but he sat down with Andy and watched him play for awhile, his eyes narrowed as if he was trying to translate a foreign language. Eventually, he grabbed Rex and made him into a mad rampaging dinosaur who ate everyone in town.

“That's not fun,” Andy said, pouting. “If everyone's dead then it's like they can't play anymore.”

“Yeah, well, this game is dumb anyway,” Sid said. He stood up and kicked at the dirt. “Have you ever lit fireworks?” he asked.

“No,” Andy said.

“I have,” Sid said, looking up at the sky wistfully. “It was awesome. I wish I had some fireworks.”

Andy didn't really know what to say. He picked up Woody and the others, brushing dirt from them.

“You're a big dork, kid,” Sid said, and Andy glared at him.

“Shut up,” he said, and Sid stomped off, disappearing through a loose plank in the fence that separated his yard from Andy's. Andy huffed in annoyance and turned back to his toys, but he couldn't really concentrate on imaginary games for the rest of the day, his heart still beating fast from his encounter with the neighbor boy, whose name he'd forgotten to ask.

*

Sid started showing up on a regular basis after that, and if he didn't show, Andy would slip through the loose plank and kick around Sid's messy backyard until he emerged from the back door of his house. Sid's games mostly made Andy mad, and he wasn't sure why he bothered playing with him at all. Sometimes they would get in bad fights and avoid each other for weeks. Sid went to Andy's school, but among the other kids he ignored Andy, who mostly played house with the girls. They would always fight over which of them got to be Andy's wife before eventually deciding that they would rather have him be the baby. Andy was terrified of them, so he went along with whatever they wanted.

Sid's favorite games were doctor and interrogation. They were both played in the very back of his yard, underneath the rotting old picnic table, which was shaded by a tree with purple leaves that Andy liked to climb when Sid allowed it. Sid was bossy and even mean, but Andy would show up anyway, to see what sort of mischief Sid was getting into, even after Andy's mother forbade him from going over to Sid's house. Sid's father was a 'bad man,' according to her, and a 'drunk,' according to Sid, who didn't have a mother, only a step-mother and step-sister, both of whom he hated. Andy didn't have a problem with Hannah, Sid's little step-sister, but his step-mother was mean during Andy's few encounters with her, once making a rude remark about his cowboy hat.

By the time Andy was eight and Sid was nine most of their games dissolved into wrestling matches. Usually Sid won, and on some days Andy wouldn't bother putting up a fight, would just lie there under the picnic table while Sid sat on top of him, threatening to spit into his mouth if he didn't divulge the secrets of whatever government agency Sid's terrorist organization was planning on bringing down.

“Hand over those blueprints,” Sid would say, mostly using tickle torture until Andy's eyes were watering, his sides aching. Andy would get so angry, trying to push Sid off, mad at himself for thinking that playing with Sid would actually be fun for once. Trying to struggle free was always hopeless, Sid's thighs pinned tightly around Andy's hips and his hands pressing Andy's shoulders down. He always looked frighteningly happy when he had Andy trapped like this, pretending to be his sadistic doctor or ruthless captor.

One day when they were playing interrogation, Sid threatening to shove a beetle that he'd trapped in a glass jar up Andy's nose if he didn't give him the access code to a government computer, the back door banged open and Sid went as rigid as a startled squirrel, turning toward the house.

“Sid!” his father shouted, sounding furious and unwell, stumbling a little as he came out onto the cracked back patio. “Where the hell are you?”

“Don't say a word,” Sid whispered, dropping down over Andy, the jar with the beetle rolling away. Sid clamped both hands over Andy's mouth and stared down at him with his eyebrows pinched, as if Andy wanted to be found. Andy was afraid of Sid's father, who was rarely awake during the day but never in a good mood when he was.

They stayed like that while Sid's father paced around the patio, ranting and kicking Sid's broken toys out of his way. Sid was breathing hard, his eyes locked on the patio as he crouched low over Andy, hiding from his father. Andy was afraid to even look at the patio, so he kept his eyes on Sid, watching a thin bead of sweat run from his temple down to his chin. Finally, Sid's father banged back inside, muttering a string of curse words that made Andy's heart pound. Sid let out a huff of breath and looked down at Andy, unable to hide the fear in his eyes quickly enough to keep it from him.

“You're lucky you don't have a dad,” Sid said, removing his hands from Andy's mouth but still leaning over him, his back hunched and his elbows in the dirt beside Andy's ears.

“No, I'm not,” Andy said. He realized that he could issue a surprise attack and knock Sid off of him, but the game seemed to be over, anyway. They both just laid there for awhile, their chests pressing together as they drew panted breath, wind rustling through the purple-leafed tree.

“What's your problem, anyway?” Sid asked when he finally sat up. “Why do you come over here just so I can beat up on you?”

“Maybe I won't anymore,” Andy said, surprised to find that he was hurt by this. Sid scoffed and slid off of him, flicking at the jar with the beetle in it. Andy got up with an indignant sniffle and crawled out from under the picnic table, heading for the loose fence plank without looking back.

*

For a couple of weeks, Andy didn't go over to Sid's yard, and Sid didn't come to his. Andy tried to be glad about this, because he didn't miss Sid's tyrannical games or stupid insults, but something about playing by himself wasn't as fun if he hadn't just recently escaped the grip of Sid, feeling like he'd barely made it out with his life. Still, even at eight years old he had pride, and Sid had called him on something he'd worried about for some time. Why did he go over there when he knew Sid was just going to tease and overpower him, eventually dragging him under the picnic table to sit on him while he wore himself out with attempts to get free? Andy decided that he'd just been dumb before, and that he was smarter now.

A few nights after he'd come to this conclusion, Andy was awake in his bed, trying not to be afraid of the thunderstorm that he could hear rumbling in the distance, moving closer. He heard a tapping sound and jumped a little under the blankets, afraid to look at the window, which was where the sound had come from. He gasped and pulled his blankets up to his chin when he saw a dark figure crouched outside the window, sitting on the roof of the back porch.

“Open up, dummy,” the figure said, and Andy let out his breath when he realized it was only Sid. He tossed his blankets aside and went to the window, his heart still pounding. When he opened the window he could smell the rain in the air, though it hadn't started yet. Sid pushed his way inside without waiting for an invitation.

“What are you doing?” Andy asked in a whisper. “I'm supposed to be in bed – I'll get in trouble!”

Sid was agitated, breathing hard and pacing around the room. Andy wanted to tell him to get out, but that thing that drew him to Sid despite his better instincts was growing inside his chest, making him curious.

“My stupid fucking dad had the cops called on him,” Sid says. “I just need to lay low here so they don't – take me away or anything.”

“What?” Andy said. He went to the window, which was still open, the wind blowing that rain-smell in hard. He could hear voices from the front of Sid's yard, and he could see a flash of blue light. When he turned around to gape at Sid in disbelief, he saw that Sid was sitting on the floor with his back to Andy's bed, his knees pulled to his chest and his face buried in his folded arms.

“Who – who called the police on him?” Andy asked, feeling disoriented and nervous. He thought of calling for his mom, but she would just get mad at him for letting Sid inside. Andy wasn't supposed to talk to him, let alone have him in his room.

“Who do you think?” Sid asked, his voice broken as he lifted his wet face, trying to scowl but only managing a sob. “His dumb wife, my step-mother. I hate her – and him. They're so worthless.” He sobbed and hid his face again.

Andy was dumbstruck. He never, ever thought he would see Sid cry, no matter what happened. He walked slowly across the room, moving with caution, afraid to set Sid off but unwilling to let him sit there crying all by himself. Sid seemed so much smaller than he usually did, curled in on himself as his shoulders shook with sobs.

“It's okay,” Andy said softly as he sat down beside Sid.

“No, it's not,” Sid cried, the words trembling as he pushed out more tears. Andy scooted closer, patting Sid's back very carefully, afraid that Sid would snap up and tell him to get away. When he didn't, Andy slid his arm around Sid's shoulders, resting his knees against Sid's side. Sid was wearing pajama pants and his usual black skull t-shirt, and he didn't have any shoes on. The fight between his step-mother and father must have woken him. Andy moaned a little at the thought of how scary it must have been, bad enough to involve the police. He hugged Sid to him, and to his surprise, Sid didn't push him away, just leaned down to hide his face against Andy's chest, clutching at him.

“It's okay,” Andy said again, because he didn't know what else to say. He pet Sid's hair and hugged him tight, which was what Andy's mother always did when he cried. It seemed to work on Sid, too, his crying quieting to just a few sniffles, and eventually he went quiet, his fist closed in the front of Andy's pajama top.

“I hate them,” Sid said after awhile, the thunder outside getting louder. The wind was making the branches on the trees toss wildly, leaves thrashing. Andy began to feel glad that Sid was safe inside with him.

“You can stay here,” Andy whispered. “If you're quiet.”

Sid didn't say anything, just scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. He looked unrecognizable, soft and scared, and though Andy had indulged some fantasies about making Sid cry, giving him a taste of his own bullying medicine, he wasn't enjoying this at all. He went over to shut the window as the rain arrived outside, pelting the roof of the porch. When he turned back to his bed Sid was climbing into it, turning toward the wall. Andy sighed and climbed in behind him, pulling the blankets up over Sid first, then arranging them over his own legs. He settled down onto his pillow, watching Sid's back as he continued to sniffle and rub at his face.

“Are you okay?” Andy whispered as thunder crashed loudly outside, the kind of thing that would scare him if he wasn't so distracted by the fact that the neighborhood bully was crying in his bed.

“Yeah,” Sid said, his voice smaller and squeakier than Andy had ever heard it. He rolled over, not looking at Andy, just pressing his face to Andy's chest, worming into his arms. Andy wrapped Sid up tightly, thinking he might cry again, but Sid was quiet, his wet eyelashes tickling the hollow of Andy's throat.

Sid never thanked Andy for letting him stay that night, or for holding him while thunder rattled the windowpanes and rain pelted against the house. Andy stayed awake for a long time, petting Sid's short hair while he slept. He'd always liked the idea of caring for someone who needed saving, being a hero, and he also liked the way the short spikes of Sid's buzz cut felt as they tickled against his palm. He fell asleep with his hand cupped around the back of Sid's head, and woke to the feeling of Sid climbing over him, rubbing his eyes and heading toward the window. Andy turned to watch him go, wondering if he should ask Sid to stay, though he knew that wouldn't be a good idea. Sid stopped when he had one leg on either side of the window and looked back at Andy. He seemed like he wanted to say something, then just looked down at his hands and left without speaking. Andy could hear the wet thump of Sid's feet hitting the muddy the yard as he jumped from the roof of the porch.

A couple of weeks later, Andy's family moved to a new house. He didn't see Sid on moving day, too preoccupied with making sure he had all his toys, but he did think about him as the car pulled from the driveway for the last time, and wondered where Sid would go to if he needed shelter from another storm.

*

Andy was zoned into a new elementary school after the move, even though the new house was only a few streets over from the old one. Making friends wasn't easy; Sid seemed to have been right about Andy being a dork. It didn't take him too long to find the school's other dorks and join their ranks, and soon he had some pretty good buddies among them, guys who were considered weak or babyish by the cool kids who used curse words and held hands with girls.

Andy didn't care much about being cool, though sometimes he and his friends pretended they were, cursing and trying to act tough around each other. This charade usually ended when one of the cool boys walked by and smashed the offending dork into a wall before strolling causally away. Aside from these social complications, Andy liked school, especially math and history. He hated grammar, and science could go either way. In fifth grade he decided he wanted to be a geologist and started collecting cool rocks. His friend Tim showed him how to play Dungeons and Dragons, and his friend Paul helped him make a skateboarding ramp. Life was pretty good.

Middle school changed everything. Suddenly their school was three times the size of their elementary school, with three sets of elementary kids all dumped together, the firmly established social hierarchy completely screwed up. Tim almost immediately got a girlfriend, a dorky girl who played an elf mage in their weekend games of D&D, and this horrified Andy, who still had no interest in girls. Paul somehow got cool over the summer and was suddenly smoking cigarettes with his older brother, rolling his eyes at Andy when Andy wanted to pretend they were pro skateboarders who were competing for the world championship. It was like everyone was suddenly infected with a disease that made them try to act older. Tim was talking about first base and second base in a way that didn't relate to baseball, and Paul wasn't talking to Andy at all.

Andy refused to take part in his former friends' attempts to seem cool. It was dumb, and pointless, because the eighth graders still laughed at them and called them babies on the school bus. One day, Andy decided to rebel by wearing one of his faded old Buzz Lightyear t-shirts. He hoped that some of the kids would get a kick out of it and remember what it was like when they weren't pretending to be grown-up all the time.

His masterful shirt plan didn't really work out. Instead, it made him a target at the bus stop and again in the hallways at school, girls laughing loud and boys shoving his shoulders and asking him if he was five years old. Andy was on the verge of calling home sick as he headed for the boys' bathroom after lunch, and when someone grabbed his t-shirt and yanked him backward, he knew he was in for more humiliation at best, a beating at worst.

The last thing he expected when he turned and raised his red-rimmed eyes was Sid. Andy's mouth fell open, and goosebumps rose all over his body. Just looking at Sid made his stomach feel heavier, like Sid was sitting on it the way he always used to. Sid laughed, shaking his head.

“Gimme that,” Sid said, grabbing Andy's bookbag.

“Don't,” Andy said lamely, knowing that he couldn't stop Sid from doing whatever he wanted. Sid had gotten bigger and taller since the last time Andy saw him, and his eyes were just as mean as they'd always been as he threw Andy's bookbag to the ground and grabbed the hem of his shirt.

“Hey – don't!” Andy said, struggling feebly as Sid pulled his shirt off. Andy moaned and crossed his arms over his naked chest, his bottom lip trembling. Everyone else had filed into their classrooms and the hall was empty, but if Sid made him go back to class with no shirt, the laughter would never stop.

“Here, dummy,” Sid said, turning the t-shirt inside out. “Lift up your arms.”

Andy hesitated, then did as Sid asked when he narrowed his eyes. Sid slipped the t-shirt back on him, the smiling Buzz Lightyear hidden on the inside now. Andy was relieved for a moment, but he sucked in his breath when Sid pulled a knife from his back pocket and flipped it open.

“You need to develop some basic survival skills or you'll be dead by Thanksgiving break,” Sid said. He turned Andy around and used the knife to saw off the tag that was poking up against Andy's neck.

“Everyone's going to know I just turned my shirt inside out,” Andy said, his face burning red when Sid turned him around to face him again. “It's like they won or something.”

“Big deal,” Sid said. “If you think you're going to get far in middle school by trying to make a statement or go against the crowd, you're dumber than I thought.”

“I hate you,” Andy said softly, but it didn't feel true, and only made his face burn hotter. Sid grinned, still holding Andy by the shoulders. His braces were gone, and his buzz cut had grown out. His hair seemed darker than Andy remembered.

“Are you in seventh grade?” Andy asked, taking his bookbag when Sid handed it to him.

“Sixth,” Sid said. “For the second year in a row.”

Andy huffed, imagining that Sid had gotten himself held back just so he could torment Andy. This was only Andy's third week at school, and things just kept getting worse. Except that, in a strange way, he was kind of glad to have Sid around again. He wondered if Sid smoked cigarettes and had girlfriends. Probably. He'd always liked lighting things on fire, and he'd gotten kind of good-looking, the sort of boy who girls would have crushes on.

“Do you want survival lessons?” Sid asked as the bell rang, warning students to get into their classrooms.

“What do you mean?” Andy asked, though was pretty sure he understood what Sid was offering. It was embarrassing, and stupid, but Andy had been lonely since he lost his friends to coolness.

“I'll be at Pizza Planet after school,” Sid said. “Meet me there if you want to learn how to not act like a loser.”

Later that night, Sid slapped his forehead and gave Andy his first pro tip: don't show up at Pizza Planet with your mom and your baby sister.

*

With Sid on his side, middle school got better. Sid showed Andy how to dress in looser jeans and cooler t-shirts, and told him which shoes he should beg his mother to buy. The crowd Sid hung out with was mostly comprised of seventh graders who were way too cool for Andy, but they tolerated Andy because Sid vouched for him. Andy wondered all the time why Sid was being nice to him, and all he could come up with was that Sid was still secretly grateful for that night when Andy let him sleep in his bed. When Andy thought about it he got that heavy feeling in his stomach, the same one he got when he watched Sid blow smoke rings. Sid smoked cigarettes, but he didn't have a girlfriend, though one of the girls who hung in their crowd seemed to want him to ask her out. Her name was Jill, and she wore dark eyeliner that made Andy nervous.

“Do you like Jill?” Andy asked one day when he was walking home from school with Sid. Apparently the bus was for losers.

“No,” Sid said without hesitation, and Andy had to chew away a smile. He was glad.

Sid was still a jerk. He made fun of Andy for not knowing anything about music, and brought Andy over to his house after school to play mp3s for him. He showed Andy how to download music for free, and impressed him by finding downloads of movies that had just been released.

“Isn't this stealing?” Andy said one afternoon when they were lying on their stomachs on Sid's bed, watching the newest James Bond movie on Sid's laptop. Sid just laughed. Andy had learned when to drop certain subjects, and he put his chin on his folded arms, feeling guilty as he watched James Bond jump off an exploding yacht.

“When you're ready, I can show you how to download porn,” Sid said after they'd both moved up to the seventh grade, Sid barely passing and Andy on the honor roll.

“Gross,” Andy muttered. There were jokes about porn told at school, but even the jokes made Andy feel queasy.

“I knew you weren't ready,” Sid said. They were walking home from school, Sid twirling his lighter between his fingers like a magician, waiting until they'd gotten far enough from the main road to light a cigarette. “I bet you don't even beat off.”

“Shut up,” Andy said. He did, actually, but this was a very recent development and he didn't want to discuss it with Sid.

Seventh grade was better than sixth, the social hierarchy reestablished. Andy was still friends with Tim, but Paul was long lost to them, a druggie who hung out with high school freshmen on Friday nights. Tim had broken up with his girlfriend and gained about twenty pounds. He was usually pretty depressed and annoying during their D&D games.

“Why do you hang out with that loser Sid?” Tim asked Andy one night when Andy was spending the night at Tim's house, in a sleeping bag on the floor of Tim's bedroom. It was an old sleeping bag with Buzz Lightyear on it, but Tim would never make fun of Andy for such a thing.

“Sid's not a loser,” Andy said, though he knew this wasn't true. Sid smoked, which was stupid, and he didn't care about school, which was going to cost him. He lived alone with his dad now, the step-mother and Hannah long gone. Their house was never clean. At school, Sid outranked both Andy and Tim, but in the real world, Sid was the track to loser-hood.

“He's a freak,” Tim said. “He's always setting stuff on fire, and Jake Vale told me that he told his math teacher to fuck off and got suspended for two days.”

“Yeah.” Andy knew about that already. The math teacher was mean to Sid; she made fun of him for not being very good at math, and made the honor kids twitter with laughter, which made Sid want to burn the whole school down. The walk home from school hadn't been pleasant that day.

“How'd you even get to be friends with him?” Tim asked, and Andy smiled a little in the darkness, because Tim sounded kind of jealous. Andy was officially cooler than Tim now, mostly because of Sid, but also because Tim had bad acne and Andy's face was still clear.

“We lived next door to each other when we were little,” Andy said.

“Well, everyone's going to think you're a freak, too, if you keep hanging around with him.”

“I don't care,” Andy said. “Good.”

It worried him, though, and sometimes Sid didn't seem to fit into his life at all, unless it was just the two of them, alone together in Sid's room after school, staring at the glow of Sid's laptop. Sid stole almost everything he owned, laptop included, and Andy got itchy when he thought about it, feeling bad for the victims of Sid's thefts. Andy was in the science club and played on a rec basketball team, and Sid rolled his eyes when Andy talked about extracurricular activities of any kind. Andy still liked to play make believe, with his D&D friends and sometimes just in his own head. Sid had never liked that, unless their games involved him pinning Andy to the ground and laughing evilly.

“Remember when we used to play doctor?” Andy asked one afternoon when they were in the comforting dark of Sid's room, the shades pulled while Sid scrolled through Youtube videos of people setting off homemade bombs.

“Yeah,” Sid said, muttering, his eyes still on the screen. Andy rolled onto his side and tucked his hand under his cheek, bored by the videos and tired from school. He shut his eyes and marveled at the fact that he was here with his childhood tormentor, who had somehow become his best friend. He fell asleep thinking about those old games of doctor, when Sid would make him do the breath-holding test and the pain threshold test, which involved Sid flipping Andy onto his stomach and twisting his arms behind his back until he screamed. When he opened his eyes Sid was staring at him, his eyelids lowered like a calculating Bond villain. He was pulling at his bottom lip, seemingly lost in thought, and he startled a little when he realized that Andy was awake.

“You fell asleep, stupid,” Sid said, turning back to his laptop, which had faded to the screensaver.

In eighth grade, the gap between Sid and Andy widened. Andy was less scrawny and awkward than he'd been the year before, and was starting to get attention from girls. He also had more friends, boys from his basketball team who were already training with hopes of making the team next year in high school. His grades were good, and he liked watching TV and eating ice cream with his mom and his sister on Friday nights. Sid had started getting stoned with Paul's crowd on Friday nights.

By Thanksgiving, Andy had stopped walking home from school with Sid, instead taking the bus, where he and his friends ruled, occupying the seats at the back and laughing about whatever had happened during the school day. Andy had agreed to go out with a girl named Katrina who was pretty, but he was afraid of her and stammered whenever they were alone together, coming nowhere close to kissing her. The only fun part about having a girlfriend was holding her hand while everybody waited to go to the buses at the end of the day. It made Andy feel envied and cool, and he liked not having to come up with things to say to her; they could just laugh along with their friends.

A couple of days before Christmas, Andy woke up early and padded downstairs in his pajamas to play video games, snow falling outside and the house cozy with heat. He heard voices in the foyer and figured his mother was talking to a repairman or something. When he came to the bottom of the stairs he started to skirt past his mother and the guy she was talking to, and stopped in his tracks when he realized they'd both gone silent and were staring at him. He turned toward them, an eerie sense of semi-recognition passing through him.

“Andy,” the man said, and that's when Andy realized it was his father.

They had an awkward conversation, standing there in the foyer. How was school? Fine. Was he playing any sports? Yes, basketball. Did he still have that old cowboy doll that he'd loved so much? Yes. Woody had been a gift from his father, the last birthday present Andy got from him. As they talked, Andy's mother stood beside him stiffly. Andy could tell that she was mad, that his father wasn't supposed to be here, but that she didn't want to say so in front of Andy.

While his father had a similar awkward meet and greet with Molly, who had no memories of him at all, Andy sneaked up to his room and dressed in his coat and boots, pulling on a hat and scarf. He had to get away before his mother cornered him and made him talk about his feelings or something. His heart had been slamming since he realized that the man downstairs was his father, and he felt like he might throw up as he wondered what this sudden reemergence meant, if he would have to visit that guy on the weekends, if he would have to pretend to love that stranger who'd left them. He climbed out the window and landed in the yard as quietly as he could, muffled by the snow.

He had tears frozen in the corners of his eyes by the time he got to Sid's house, snot under his nose. No one ever came to the door at Sid's house, so Andy didn't bother knocking. He got the key out from under the front mat and let himself in, creeping up the stairs to Sid's room as quietly as he could. They hadn't even spoken in over a month, but Andy figured Sid owed him one.

“Sid?” he whispered as he pushed into Sid's room. Sid was in the bed, turned toward the wall under a pile of blankets, fast asleep. Andy shut the door behind him and wiped his nose and eyes on his gloves, pulling them off along with his boots, coat, and scarf. He left his knit hat on as he padded over to Sid's bed, still wearing his pajamas.

“Wake up,” Andy whispered, pulling on Sid's shoulder. Sid rolled onto his back and glared at him, making Andy regret his decision to come for a moment. His face softened when his eyes focused on Andy, then hardened again. Andy hiccuped a sob and Sid sighed.

“What the hell is this?” Sid said.

“My dad,” Andy said. Sid moved aside as if he didn't need to hear any more, lifting up the blankets for him. Andy let his face pinch up with tears as he climbed under the blankets, the heat trapped underneath them making him think of hibernation, bears sleeping through winter. These were the same unclean sheets that Andy had spent hours on after school, and the slightly dank smell of them was a tremendous comfort as Andy hid his face against Sid's chest and cried hard, ready to turn his whole bloody heart over to Sid as Sid's arms wrapped around him.

“He just s-showed up like I'm supposed to – ” Andy choked out before breaking into tears again. Sid put one hand on the back of Andy's head, his other arm tight around Andy's waist.

“Fuck 'em,” Sid said. “Five more years and we can forget they ever existed.”

“I should have stayed,” Andy said. “Molly – poor Molly, she doesn't even know him.”

“Calm down,” Sid said, his thumb moving on the back of Andy's head. “You're alright.”

“And I miss you,” Andy cried, everything pouring out of him, liquefied. Sid laughed.

“Jesus, Andy,” he said.

Andy stopped talking then, humiliated by that admission and by his crying. Sure, Sid had done this once, but they'd been much younger then. Andy couldn't imagine Sid crying now. He sniffled and squirmed closer, pushing his leg through Sid's, which were bare. Sid was in boxers and a t-shirt, and Andy tried not to think about how good and warm and solid he felt, but it was impossible. He closed his eyes and let out his breath against Sid's shirt, which was damp from his tears.

He didn't mean to fall asleep, but he was so comfortable, and Sid's heartbeat seemed to pull him under. When he opened his eyes they were crusty with salt, his eyelashes stuck together. Sid seemed wide awake, and he shifted back a little as Andy rubbed his eyes clear.

“What time is it?” Andy asked. It was still dark in Sid's room, only a faint grayish glow coming from behind his closed blinds.

“Almost noon,” Sid said.

“Shit.” Andy sat up. His mother would be frantic, Molly panicked. His father would feel rejected, and Andy knew he shouldn't care about that, but he did. “I have to go.”

Sid didn't say anything. Andy slipped out from under the blankets, shivering as he pulled on his boots and coat, then his gloves. He looked back at Sid, who was watching him from the bed.

“Thanks,” Andy said, blushing.

“For what? I didn't do anything.”

Andy rolled his eyes. He stood there in the middle of the room for a few seconds, staring at his shoes.

“I guess I'll see you later,” he said when he could think of nothing else.

“Whatever,” Sid said, rolling back toward the wall. Andy wanted to yell at him, to make him not act like this, but he knew Sid was never going to change. He left through the front door, and the relentless white of the snow had never felt more cruel than it did as he walked back toward his house. He thought of Sid under the blankets in his bed and wondered if he'd gone back to sleep. Probably he was just lying there, scowling at the ceiling. Andy wanted to go back, but he didn't know what he would do or say if he did, so he kept walking, closing his eyes when the wind pushed against him, snow blowing from the trees like pieces of shattered crystal.

As soon as Christmas was over, Andy's father disappeared again. Molly wrote him a few letters that went unanswered, but Andy didn't bother. He was nicer than usual to his mom for awhile, and even tried to be polite to her boyfriend, a douchebag real estate guy named Steve.

School started up again, and instead of going to the bus stop, Andy went to wait for Sid in their usual place. When Sid didn't show, Andy figured he'd just missed him, or maybe Sid was cutting class. He walked to school alone, kicking at the dirty snow. He'd spent a lot of time thinking about Sid over winter break, because even that was easier than thinking about his father. At night, in bed, he pretended that Sid was there with him, under the blankets.

As soon as he returned to school, these feelings stuck out as dangerous and frightening, and Andy tried to get rid of them. He didn't wait for Sid again, taking the bus instead, and he tried kissing Katrina for the first time. It was awkward and weird, and when he reached into his pajama bottoms at night he didn't think about her, or any girls. He thought about the weight of Sid on top of him, how he'd seemed like the heaviest thing in the world when they were kids, and the way Sid's eyes darkened when he smiled. Sid's name was always on his lips as he finished, but as soon as he was done he would feel guilty and weird and determined not to let himself think about Sid that way ever again.

Eighth grade seemed to grow more serious as everyone prepared for high school, and Andy broke up with Katrina around springtime, when he decided he needed to spend more time practicing his basketball. None of the girls in his homeroom would talk to him for awhile, but he didn't really care. It was a relief when Katrina started dating someone else and everybody seemed to forget that she'd ever been with Andy.

He saw Sid in the halls sometimes, usually hanging out with his druggie friends, smirking like he was the only who knew that none of this mattered. Andy's chest tightened whenever their eyes met, and he began to wonder if he was a jerk for avoiding Sid, or if Sid really didn't care. He certainly didn't act like he did, his eyes passing over Andy easily in the halls at school.

When summer finally came, it was a relief to be away from school. Andy spent most of his free time with his friend Brian, who was obsessed with basketball, and with Tim, who was obsessed with anime pornography. He ended up being the one who showed Andy how to find it on the internet. Most of it made Andy feel vaguely sick to his stomach, and he avoided it until he felt desperate to get off on something that didn't involve Sid, that picnic table, the smell of dirt and the sound of those purple leaves rustling.

He was riding his bike by himself one day when he ran into Sid, who was wandering around aimlessly, looking stoned. He grinned when he saw Andy, then jumped out in front of him so he'd have to brake hard on his bike.

“What's up, dork?” Sid asked. His eyes were red and he looked pretty out of it. “Enjoying your summer?”

“Yeah,” Andy said, narrowing his eyes at Sid. “What's wrong with you?”

“Huh? Oh, nothing, I was just smoking with Jimmy Wills.”

“Jimmy Wills is a sophomore.”

“Yeah? So? You know I was always mature for my age.” Sid grinned slickly and Andy recoiled.

“What's that supposed to mean?” he asked, blushing.

“Nothing, man, forget it.” Sid walked over and sat on top of a sewer cover, rubbing at his eyes, yawning. Andy knew he should ride away, but he never wanted to get away from Sid, and would probably never figure out why. He dropped his bike into the grass and sat beside Sid, not looking at him. They both stared at the house across the street.

“You shouldn't be smoking with Jimmy,” Andy said, knowing that Sid would just laugh at him. One of Sid's sneakers was untied, and Andy wanted badly to kneel down and tie it so he wouldn't trip. Sid moaned and rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes.

“Jimmy's an asshole,” Sid muttered, and something about this statement made Andy laugh. Sid grinned at him like he was glad he'd gotten the joke.

“All of my friends are assholes,” Andy said, maybe just trying to impress Sid, though he had been thinking about this all summer. “My friend Brian, he thinks he's Kobe Bryant or something, he's so full of himself. Every time I outplay him he acts like it was just a lucky shot, and then he won't look me in the eye until he's taken the ball from me. And Tim, God, Tim is a disaster. He doesn't know anything about sex but he's always talking about it like he does, he's so gross.”

Sid laughed, letting his shoulder slump against Andy's, which made Andy sit up straighter, though he didn't move away. Sid was a disaster, too, but there was something more honest about him than any of the other guys Andy knew.

“Nobody wants to play your innocent little games, is that it, Andy?” Sid said. “Shit, you're a real piece of work. Nobody's good enough for Andy.”

“Fuck you, that's not what I meant.”

“I got a game for you, Andy, you want to play a game?”

“What?” Andy asked, his heart pounding. He could smell Sid's sweat, and feel the heat of his skin through the shoulder of his t-shirt. Pathetically, this was the most exciting thing that had happened to him in months.

“It's called gay chicken,” Sid said.

“What the hell is gay chicken?” Andy asked, still so far away from applying that word to himself that his guard wasn't up yet. He was fixating on the 'chicken' element, imagining that stupid dance that people did at weddings.

“It's where we act like we're going to kiss each other, and whoever balks first loses,” Sid said.

“That's stupid,” Andy said. He stared down at his hands.

“You're just saying that 'cause you know you'd lose, 'cause you're an innocent little flower.”

“I am not!” Andy scowled at him, half-ready to tell Sid that he jerked off almost every night now.

“Then let's go,” Sid said, his face already close to Andy's. “Let's play.”

“Fine,” Andy said, his hands curling into fists. The street was quiet and empty, a sprinkler running in the yard across from them. Sid's eyes were boring into Andy's like this was a staring contest, too. Andy didn't let himself blink.

“Ready?” Sid said, moving closer. Andy nodded, staring at Sid's lips, determined not to lose. He moved closer at the same rate that Sid did, both of them checking each other's eyes before looking down at each other's lips again. Sid licked his lips and Andy did the same. He could feel Sid's breath, hot against his mouth, then Sid's wet lips were pressing against his, firm and unafraid. Andy pressed back, pinching his eyes shut, his hands closed tightly over his knees. Sid licked Andy's bottom lip, his tongue stroking against the tip of Andy's when Andy's mouth opened around a shocked little gasp. They pulled back, not far enough, and looked at each other. Sid seemed as stunned as Andy, his eyes suddenly wide and clear.

“I guess we both won,” Sid said. Andy nodded slowly. His lips were buzzing. He wanted Sid to kiss him again. They sat there for awhile, fidgeting as the sun beat down on them.

“Want to go to the pool?” Andy asked, desperate to stay close to him. Sid smirked.

“No,” he said. “Want to go back to my room and make out?”

“No!” Andy said, scowling.

They ended up doing both, the pool first, wrestling each other for a plastic football in the shallow end, then walking to Sid's house in silence, the sun drying them as they went, their towels hanging around their shoulders. The house was empty when they got there, and Andy was shaking by the time Sid shut his bedroom door.

“It's okay,” Sid said, and it was, because Sid held his face while they kissed, backing off when Andy got nervous about how hard they were kissing, and how hard he was inside his bathing suit. All he could think as Sid licked into him was This is the best thing that's ever happened to me, right now, the best thing, nothing will ever be better than this. His chest was fluttery with nerves and he had a death grip on Sid's sharp hipbones, just over the waistband of his bathing suit.

“What do you want to do?” Sid asked as they caught their breath. His hands slid down to Andy's shoulders, squeezing over his sunburn.

“Would you s-sit on me?” Andy asked, and Sid grinned.

Andy spent the rest of the afternoon stretched out on his back in Sid's bed, Sid sitting on his hips and leaning down to kiss him. It was like they'd been practicing for this all along. Maybe Sid knew that the whole time, but Andy didn't, though it was hard to believe now that he seemed to have found exactly where he belonged: pinned under Sid, his head framed by Sid's elbows, Sid's hands in his hair, tongue in his mouth, belly pressed flat to Andy's. Andy pretended not to notice when Sid came inside his bathing suit, his whole body going tense and then incredibly loose above Andy's, his breath ragged. Andy hugged Sid's shoulders and wondered if Sid had only been pretending not to notice when Andy did the same thing.

*

In high school, they had to avoid each other or risk being found out. There was no reason for them to run in the same social circles, and Andy was sure that people would see it on their faces if they sat together in the lunch room, Andy swooning toward Sid without noticing and Sid looking at Andy in that way that made him swoon, like he was going to eat Andy for dessert. After school, when Andy was finished with basketball practice and Sid with track, something Andy had convinced him to join so that they'd at least have sports in common, Andy would go over to Sid's house, telling his mother that he was studying with his basketball friends. She seemed to know that something was up, but Andy's grades were good and he wasn't coming home stoned like some of the neighborhood kids, so she didn't complain. Andy knew she'd go through the roof if she knew he was dating the kid who had told her to go screw herself when she asked him if his parents knew he was playing with fireworks.

Sid's room was Andy's favorite place in the world, his guiltiest pleasure. Most days they were freshly showered after their respective practices, but sometimes they'd show up still sweaty, just to make what they in Sid's bed even dirtier. Andy was usually wound pretty tight during the day, especially as high school went on and college started getting talked about, the SATs looming and basketball intensifying, but when he was lying under Sid he was bonelessly relaxed, reduced to pants and whimpers, happy to be held down. He gave Sid his virginity during their junior year, there in Sid's bedroom on a hot Saturday afternoon, the blinds closed against the sun. It didn't even occur to Andy until Sid was inside him that Sid was losing his, too, clinging to Andy so hard that his arms shook.

“Feel different?” Sid asked when they were lying together afterward. It was unremarkable afternoon in every other sense, not prom night or Andy's birthday or anything special. Andy wasn't sure what had made this the day, except that he'd wanted it for awhile and couldn't wait any longer.

“Yeah,” Andy said. “Kind of. Do you?”

Sid just shrugged and smiled. He looked happy, which was becoming pretty rare outside of that bed. He'd quit the track team because they had the nerve to ask him to get up at seven in the morning on weekends for competitions, and he was flunking most of his classes, still technically a sophomore despite the fact that he was seventeen. He talked about quitting school all the time, and Andy begged him not to. He didn't want to lose the only thing they had in common away from the afternoons in bed.

“So where are you going for college?” Sid asked him one night. They were on their way home from Pizza Planet, which was still their favorite restaurant in town. Sid was driving, lighting a cigarette while they were stopped at a red light. Andy looked up from his attempts to find a decent song on the radio.

“Somewhere close to home,” he said.

“Why?” Sid asked with a scoff. Andy glared at him.

“Not 'cause of you,” he said, though he knew Sid would recognize the lie. “My mom – she still needs help around the house with stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Like – moving heavy furniture. I don't know – I – why do you care where I go to college?”

“'Cause I'd kind of like to spend the rest of my life fucking you, if you don't mind too much,” Sid said, muttering. Andy stared. It was by far the most romantic thing Sid had ever said to him.

They went back to Sid's house to have sex, walking past Sid's father on their way upstairs. He was passed out on the couch as usual. Andy always wondered how much Sid's father knew about them; probably nothing, but he'd caught Andy sneaking out the door a few times and had given him knowing, slightly disgusted looks. It was hard to know if he'd remember seeing Andy in the morning.

“Can't tell me you don't want to ride this dick for the rest of your life,” Sid said when they were closed inside his room, Andy bouncing on Sid's lap, his head thrown back and his dick hard in Sid's hand. Andy laughed and then groaned, slamming himself down harder, their skin slapping together.

“Yeah,” he said, letting his head roll back onto Sid's shoulder. “Every night. Every day. God, fuck, feels so good.”

“That's fucking right,” Sid said, sounding proud of himself, and also weirdly tender. His hand moved on Andy's cock in a maddeningly slow pace, like he was trying to draw the moment out. Andy rode him harder in response, grunting with every downward thrust, until Sid got fed up with not being in control and pushed him forward, onto his hands and knees.

“Beg for it,” Sid said, pulling out almost all the way, holding Andy open with just the fat head of his cock. Andy shouted in frustration, thinking of their interrogation games, Sid's talent for torture.

“Need it, please,” he said softly, humiliated, his head dropping between his shoulders and his ass clenching around Sid's cock, trying to pull him back in. “Please, Sid, please.”

“That's a good boy,” Sid said, rubbing the small of Andy's back and pushing in slow, too slow. Andy tried to ram himself backward and Sid grabbed his hips, holding him still. “Steady, little cockslut,” he said, and Andy's hands fisted Sid's sheets. His whole body throbbed with hot embarrassment, and it felt painfully good, being at Sid's mercy, like always. He put his forehead against the mattress and went still, submitting.

“What are you gonna do when you're off at college, huh?” Sid asked, dragging his cock in and out of Andy slowly, teasing him. “How are you gonna get through the days without me around to fuck your greedy ass? Gonna let some other college boys fuck you?”

“No,” Andy said, the word sticking hard in his chest, because it was true and he knew it. “Nobody – no one but you, you –”

“Say it. I own this ass, don't I?”

“Yes, you do, please, please –”

“You want me to fuck this ass like I own it?”

“Yeah, oh, please – ahh!”

Sid gave him what he wanted then, fucking Andy so hard that he slid forward on the bed, biting the blankets to muffle his screams. He didn't even need to jerk his cock to get off; Sid found his prostate and slammed against it with the head of his cock until Andy was reduced to a gibbering mess of nerves, flopping down onto the bed when he came. Sid wasn't far behind, dumping himself down onto Andy's back and burying his long, low groan against Andy's shoulder as he pumped him full.

They stayed like that for awhile afterward, something they normally didn't do. Sid didn't even pull out, just licked at the back of Andy's neck like Andy was his sated mate. Andy laughed at the thought and Sid sighed against his skin.

“When we were kids you were always the best part of my day,” Sid said. “And I couldn't figure out why.”

“Figured it out yet?” Andy asked, half-asleep against the mattress.

“Not really,” Sid said, and Andy laughed. He knew that Sid got something different from this than what he gave to Andy. For Sid, Andy represented hope, some sort of better life that lived on the other side of a tall fence. To Andy, Sid was someone he wanted to rescue, tied to the train tracks of a life that was leading nowhere. He had nightmares all the time that he couldn't get there in time to cut Sid loose.

*

Andy's senior year was a train wreck. Sid dropped out of school three days into the first semester, still technically a sophomore. They had a fight about it, and Sid told Andy to stay out of his fucking business. Andy called Sid a loser to his face for the first time ever, and actually thought Sid was going to hit him for a minute, actually kind of wanted him to. Sid just smirked like he didn't give a shit and walked off, lighting a cigarette. Andy went back to his house and cried into his pillow until his mother came in and rubbed his back, her voice wavering as she begged him to tell her what was wrong.

“I guess I'm gay or whatever,” Andy said, speaking into his pillow, sobbing again once the words were out. His mother just kept stroking his back, and he was afraid to turn and look her in the eyes.

“I know, baby,” she said softly. “It's okay.”

“You – what?” Andy spun around, giving her a betrayed look. “How could you –”

“You're too cute not to have a girlfriend, Andy.” His mother smiled and brushed his tears from his cheeks, making him feel five years old. “Also, Molly saw you at Pizza Planet with your boyfriend.”

“He's not – I,” Andy stuttered, trying to remember anything incriminating Sid might have done to him in public. Maybe it was just obvious when they were together, from the way they looked at each other. His face pinched up with tears again but he fought them away. “He broke up with me,” Andy said, wishing he wasn't having this conversation with his mother, but there was no one else he could talk to about this. “I think.”

“Oh?” His mother looked like she was trying to decide whether or not to be worried. “Well – you'll be graduating soon, going off to college. Maybe it's for the best? Who is this guy, anyway? Molly said he looked kind of – um. Tough?”

“He's – he's nobody. A high school drop-out, as of today. He's got no real family, no goals, no scruples. He's a thief, and a pothead.” The tears welled up in Andy's chest again, but he stuffed them back down. “And I love him. Which is stupid, I know.”

“Whoa,” Andy's mother said, sitting back for a moment, her eyebrows raised. She took a deep breath and slid her arm around Andy's shoulders. “Andy – oh. I hate that you've been going through all this alone. You know – you know I met your father when I was in high school, right?”

“Yeah, I know.” Andy sniffled, wiping at his nose with the back of his hand.

“It's – not a great time to fall in love, generally. You're still figuring things out, and it's all very exciting, but that can cloud your better judgment. I'll always be glad that I loved your father, because he gave me you and Molly, but I wish I had been smarter about who I gave my heart to. Just – be careful, baby. It's good that you recognize this guy's – shortcomings. You're smarter than I was at your age. It's probably a good thing that you broke up, even though it hurts. Now you can focus on your college applications and your AP classes, your basketball, all the other things that are important to you. Right?”

“Right,” Andy said miserably. He put on a happy face for his mother so that she'd leave him alone, then put his face in his pillow again, wincing at the memory of what he'd said to Sid. He tried to convince himself that his mother was right, but he couldn't imagine his life without Sid, those afternoons in his bed, panting and sweating and collapsing together, the way that Sid held him loosely while he dozed. But if it was all about sex, it was better to end it now. Still, Andy felt like there was a throbbing hole in his chest, and he wanted to grovel at Sid's feet and beg forgiveness, but he was afraid Sid would just sneer and dismiss him.

It wasn't hard to avoid Sid now that he wasn't at school, and Andy did everything he could to stop thinking about him, but he couldn't. He missed Sid so much that it was like a weight he was always dragging behind him, making him feel slow and hopeless. He stopped calling his other friends and started spending all his time at home, alternating between studying and staring listlessly at porn on his computer. After basketball practice, instead of heading to Sid's house, he stretched out in his bed and listened to his mp3 player until dinner, every song reminding him of Sid. Sometimes he rolled toward the wall and jerked off, wanting the hand on his cock to be Sid's, unable to imitate his rough palm and slow, certain strokes. He'd fuck himself on his fingers, frustrated enough to cry when they felt nowhere near as good as Sid's cock, missing the feeling of Sid's hands gripping his hips as he worked his way in.

He'd expected to miss the sex, but he also missed sneaking looks at Sid when they passed in the halls at school, Andy's chest tightening with the sweet pressure of their secret. He missed watching stolen movies on Sid's laptop, lying on his side and letting Sid feed him Twizzlers. He missed the way Sid looked at him, like he thought Andy was kind of hilarious but also amazing, worth staring at. He began to feel more and more hollow, longing for the sardonic laughter and irreverent comments, the smell of Sid's sheets and that rough little attempt at a beard rubbing against his balls when Sid lapped at the base of his cock.

One night, a few weeks before winter break, Andy went to a party thrown by one of his basketball teammates. The guy's parents were out of town, and there was a keg, a liquor cabinet, and plenty of pot. Andy didn't want to embarrass himself by trying to smoke, so he opted for vodka, because it mixed easily with Sprite. A couple of hours later he was drunk and alone on the back porch, snow coming down in pathetic little flakes as he dialed Sid's cell phone number.

“Yeah?” Sid said when he answered, and Andy was taken off guard. He'd been composing a long voicemail message in his head, hadn't expected Sid to still be sober enough to pay attention to his phone.

“Hey,” Andy said, slurring. “S'me.”

“No shit. Saw your name on the caller ID.”

Knowing this, Andy was even more surprised that Sid had answered. Maybe Sid wasn't as mad at him as he'd thought. He sat there in silence, his mouth hanging open as he tried to decide what to say.

“I got my college acceptance letters,” Andy said, hoping he wouldn't sound like he was bragging. “I think I'm going to go to UCLA. They have a pretty good geology department. Also, palm trees.”

“Palm trees.” Sid snorted. “Good for you. And I should give a shit why?”

“I didn't say you should,” Andy said, that rage that made him call Sid a loser building in his chest. He was so tired of being dismissed as if he'd meant nothing to Sid all along. “Just – thought you might like to know. Since we fucked for three years.”

“Barely one year. You held out on me until last year, remember? And it was just fucking. You were a sweet piece of ass. Thanks for the memories. Have fun with your palm trees.”

“Sid, wait,” Andy said, afraid his voice would break, but it just wavered. “I – I'm sorry, I just wanted you to stay in school with me, and then you acted like you didn't care what I thought –”

“Yeah, probably 'cause I don't. You done now?”

Andy hung up, shaking with anger. The yard was dark and quiet as he listened to the party raging on inside the house, people with normal high school experiences having a good time. He wanted to be like them, wanted to go back in time and never fall under Sid's spell, wished he'd never slipped through the plank in the fence and into Sid's fucked-up world. He thought about nine-year-old Sid and what would have become of him if Andy hadn't let him into his room that night, then pushed the thoughts away. Sid didn't need him, just wanted to get off, whether it was on bullying him or fucking him. All he'd wanted was to be on top, and Andy had let him win every time.

The rest of his senior year passed quickly, and he did all he could to forget Sid. This became more difficult when Andy took the recycling out to the curb one morning, delirious and wearing nothing but his pajama pants, and found Sid there, loading their garbage into a truck that he was apparently driving. They stared at each other for a moment, and Sid grinned.

“I figured it was fitting,” Sid said, holding his arms out. “Probably exactly what you thought I'd end up doing.”

“What –” Andy said softly, still mostly asleep, still holding onto the recycling. Sid looked different, his hair longer and his beard thicker. Even his chest seemed broader, and he was hiding behind tinted goggles, a fat set of headphones looped around his neck.

“I'll take that, sir,” Sid said, giving Andy a smart ass smirk as he ripped the recycling bin out of his hands. “Tips are not expected, but they are appreciated.”

He tossed the contents of the bin into his truck, then chucked the empty bin onto the grass. Andy was still dumbstruck, staring. Something about the fact that Sid was wearing short sleeves with heavy gloves made him flush.

“Why are you all comatose?” Sid asked, waving his hand in front of Andy's face. “You're really that surprised to see me here?”

Sid didn't seem embarrassed, and he actually seemed happier than Andy had seen him in years, without the frustrations of school and the teachers who'd given up on him, and without Andy around, rubbing his accomplishments in Sid's face. Andy had thought he was over Sid, but he suddenly felt desperate for him, even with the reek of the idling garbage truck close by.

“I'm glad you're okay,” Andy said. “I haven't heard from you.”

“Hard to believe I could live without you, is that it?” Sid said, still joking, but he pushed the goggles up onto his head and showed Andy's his eyes. They were as dark and coolly disinterested as ever, but there was a calmness in them now, and Andy couldn't believe how much older Sid seemed.

“School has sucked without you,” Andy said, though what he really meant was that life had sucked, since he'd hardly ever seen Sid at school even back when he was attending.

“Yeah, well,” Sid said. He seemed at a loss for a moment, as if he hadn't expected Andy to offer him anything resembling kindness. Andy was only half-awake, and too stunned by the sight of Sid to have his defenses up.

“I gotta go,” Sid said, gesturing to the truck. “Trash ain't gonna collect itself.”

“Sid.”

“What?”

Andy just stood there with his mouth open. He watched Sid's eyes rake down his body for the third time, and remembered that he was half-naked. He flushed, folding his arms over his chest, and Sid smirked.

“You look all grown up,” Sid said. Andy was surprised; he hadn't noticed any difference in himself in the past six months.

“So do you,” Andy said. Sid snorted and headed for the driver's side door of the truck.

“I always have been, compared to you,” Sid said.

Andy wanted to shoot back with something like, Yeah, well, you were still a virgin until I came along, but he didn't bother. Sid climbed into the truck, and Andy watched him pull down to the next driveway, load the trash and then the recycling. It was weirdly mesmerizing. Sid looked back and laughed when he saw Andy staring.

“Was I the most exciting thing that ever happened to you or what?” Sid said in a shout, shaking his head.

Andy flicked him off and walked into the house, his face on fire. He hurried into his bedroom, ignoring his mother's announcement that breakfast was ready, locked the door and shoved his pajama pants down, kneeling onto the bed. He bent down with his head to the mattress and pinched his eyes shut, gritting his teeth and jerking his cock as he gave himself over to a fantasy about Sid fucking him while wearing those dirty gloves, that rough leather closed around Andy's hips. He came hard and fast, groaning into the mattress and slumping over, panting. He hated being a slave to this, but he couldn't deny it. He wanted Sid so badly that his bones were burning. He punched his pillow in frustration, listening to the sound of the garbage truck through his open bedroom window.

*

The rest of the school year felt inconsequential, with everyone's college plans already set. Andy ended up going to his senior prom with Katrina, though they went as friends, and Andy got the feeling that she'd somehow figured out that he was gay. He started to suspect that more people had noticed him sneaking around with Sid than he'd realized, girls no longer pursuing him. Prom was fun, but the whole exercise felt kind of hollow. Andy got drunk at the party afterward, but not drunk enough to call Sid, though he did sit in Pete Niehauser's living room reading through old text messages from Sid while the others watched Back to the Future on TV, drunkenly proclaiming it to be the best movie ever. To Andy, they all seemed hopelessly immature, nice enough but not interesting. He walked home alone and stayed up until sunrise, staring at his bedroom window and listening to his mp3 player, favoring old songs that Sid had introduced him to.

All summer, every Wednesday morning, Andy woke to the sound of the garbage truck outside, snuck to the window and peeked out at Sid. He seemed to get bigger and stronger every week, hoisting the garbage bins onto the truck more easily as the months passed. He was usually listening to music, singing to himself obliviously, as if he didn't even remember that this house was Andy's. Andy kept waiting to catch Sid rooting through his garbage in some desperate attempt to catch a glimpse of Andy's life, but Sid just threw the trash into the truck without hesitating.

The time came to pack for college, and Andy was reluctant, everything about his life at home feeling unfinished. His mother told him to sort through his old toys, and just the thought of throwing them away gave him an uneasy pang, though he knew there was no point in saving them; even Molly had outgrown that stuff. When he opened his toy chest to sort out what to trash and what to put up in the attic, he felt a crushing pressure between his ribs. It was a million years ago, those days when he would spend all morning in his own little world, trotting his toys around the backyard, his eyes sneaking to the loose plank that led to Sid's yard and his heart pounding as he tried to talk himself out of going over there. He picked up his cowboy Woody doll and couldn't even bring himself to relegate it to the attic; it was too depressing. Andy's father gave him Woody just a few months before leaving, and when his father was gone Woody became something sacred, a piece of his father that he could still cling to. Later Woody became something else, a sort of friend who would never let him down the way his father had.

Andy sighed and put Woody in the box of things he would bring to college, not sure what his roommate would make of a cowboy doll sitting on his bookshelf but unable to let his old friend go. He thought of the Buzz Lightyear t-shirt he'd tried to wear to middle school and tossed the rest of his old toys into a garbage bag bound for the attic.

It shouldn't have stung so badly to learn that his mother had taken the bag out to the garbage by mistake, but it did, maybe for the thought that it was Sid who had yet again tossed all of Andy's childhood memories into the trash. Andy went up to his room and slammed the door, determined to be angry at his mother and not at himself. Again he'd been reckless, and again something that had once meant a lot to him had been trashed. So what if those things had no place in the life he was headed for? He moaned and sat down on his bed with his head in hands, resisting the urge to pull Woody from the box on his desk and take comfort in the sight of his old toy. He was too old for this sort of shit.

On the day before he left for college, Andy finished packing up his room. He was planning on hitting the road early the next morning for the twelve hour drive to California, wanting to get the whole thing over with in one day. He found a box full of the toys his mother thought she threw away, and while his mother was relieved, her guilt about accidentally trashing them alleviated, Andy felt guilty at the thought that his nostalgia was preventing him from donating the toys to kids who would actually enjoy them. The idea of his old toys collecting dust up in the attic was more depressing than the slightly panicked feeling he got at the thought of giving them away, so he drove them to the address his mother gave him, which ended up being the home of one of the women who ran the daycare. Andy had thought he'd be donating to the daycare itself, but after showing the woman's young daughter all of his old toys he was pretty sure she'd be keeping them herself, which was okay by him. She was adorable, and smart, and he knew his old toys would be in good hands. Even Woody, who somehow got mixed in with the others. Andy didn't want to give him up, but the little girl seemed to know him somehow, and he didn't have the heart to take Woody back from her, knowing that he would only collect dust on his bookshelf at college.

Still, driving away was hard, as if he was leaving his whole childhood behind, severing that part of himself for good. He flipped on the radio and tried to find a song that wasn't sad, not wanting to return to his empty childhood bedroom. When he ended up parked outside of Sid's house, it felt like he'd been drawn there against his will, but that was always how it was with Sid.

He got out of the car, prepared to be rejected, still feeling a little tender after parting with his old toys. The day was bright and hot, and it felt a little bit like the end of the world. Andy knew that Sid was the last person he should expect comfort from, but he also seemed like the only person who could give it.

He knocked on the front door, no longer welcome enough to just walk inside. There was no answer, and the whole street was deadly quiet. It was after noon, and Andy wondered if Sid was still on his garbage route, or if he was out with friends, or up there fucking somebody else. After waiting almost three minutes for an answer at the door, he turned away, feeling drained and small, the prospect of driving to California alone in the morning making him queasy.

“You still here?” someone called as Andy was heading down the cracked driveway, and he looked up, squinting in the sunlight until his eyes focused on the window over the garage. Sid was holding his blinds open, looking down at Andy from his dark bedroom.

“Thought you would have shipped off for college already,” Sid said.

“I'm leaving tomorrow,” Andy said. His whole chest went tense with hope. He wanted to be up in that room, in the cool dark, Sid on top of him, kissing him like it meant something while the little floor fan blew against them. He waited, his hands curling into fists as Sid watched him, his mouth quirking like he was still thinking about how he should handle this development.

“Leaving tomorrow,” Sid said. “So you came for your farewell fuck?”

“I wanted to see you,” Andy said. He had nothing left to lose, and he'd been stripped bare by the simple act of giving his old toys away. Sid was something he could still get back.

“Well, come up,” Sid said, sighing as if this was putting him out. “Door's open.”

Andy walked inside, his vision tunneling as he made his way up the familiar stairs. There was never a single light on inside Sid's house, and the whole place smelled like old pizza and cigarettes. Andy was afraid that Sid would smell like garbage, but when Sid opened the door to his room and grinned at him, he smelled more like Fruit Loops and soap, his black hair damp like he'd just come from the shower. He looked sleepy, and he was zipping a pair of jeans over his boxers as Andy stood there looking at him, begging with his eyes.

“Shit, Andy,” Sid said, sounding a little bit impressed. “C'mere.”

Andy whined a little, mostly at the realization that it could have been this easy all along. He walked forward and put his arms around Sid's shoulders, pressing his face to Sid's neck. Sid's arms wound around his back, one of Sid's thumbs stroking over his t-shirt, and Andy sighed hard, his last, paltry defenses dropping away as he went soft in Sid's arms.

“It's been a weird day,” Andy said, pulling Sid closer, pressing their chests together.

“Been a weird year,” Sid said. He reached up to rub the back of Andy's neck. “Know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” Andy pulled back, keeping his face close to Sid's, wanting to taste his Fruit Loop breath. Sid grinned, still trying to be cool, but Andy could feel his hands shaking.

“I shouldn't have had such a shit fit when you left school,” Andy said. “You seem happier now. I just thought you'd regret it. I know you're going to laugh at me, but I fucking care about what happens to you, alright?”

Sid studied him for a minute, his face unreadable. Andy could see the tan lines that Sid's garbage-collecting goggles had left on his face even in the low light of the room.

“Not gonna laugh at you,” Sid said. He pressed his face to Andy's, holding his gaze for a few seconds before kissing him. Andy let out a breath he felt like he'd been holding all year, pushing it between Sid's lips as they opened for each other, tongues sliding together.

“God, fuck,” Sid said, moaning and reaching down to squeeze Andy's ass. “You taste better than I remembered.”

Andy sort of whimpered, not caring how pathetic he seemed; Sid always forgave him for that, even if he teased him for it, too. He surged up onto his toes as Sid kissed him harder, growling with satisfaction, and Andy laughed against Sid's lips when Sid lifted him off the floor, pulling Andy's legs around his waist.

“Yeah,” Andy said hoarsely as Sid carried him to the bed.

“Yeah?” Sid said, pulling back to smirk at him. “Yeah, that what you came for?”

“Need it, please,” Andy said, already tearing off his clothes as Sid dumped him onto the bed.

“Fuck, I know you do,” Sid said, looking kind of dangerous as he undressed. Andy didn't care; he wanted it all, as hard as Sid would give it.

Sid wasted no time getting Andy's cock in his mouth, and Andy groaned and punched the headboard, his legs opening wider as Sid's beard rubbed over his balls. It had been too long, and Andy was going to come so hard, his hands closing into Sid's hair. Sid moved up to drag his teeth over Andy's nipples and Andy arched, wanting to press every part of himself into Sid's hot mouth. He grabbed Sid's head and yanked him up for a bruising kiss, both of them breathless and sloppy, hungry for each other.

Andy pushed Sid onto his back, knowing that Sid was letting him do it only because he was anticipating his blow job. Sid had gotten much stronger since the last time Andy had been pinned by him, and Andy's cock was leaking just from the sight of Sid's body, his new muscles tightening as he groaned and shoved himself deeper into Andy's mouth.

“Yeah, shit, suck that dick,” Sid said, taking a handful of Andy's hair. “Fucking – ahh, Andy, God. Missed the way you drooled for it, little cocksucker.”

Andy moaned around Sid's cock, trying to take him deeper. It had been awhile, but he hadn't forgotten this feeling, the squeeze of Sid's fat cockhead at the back of his throat as the width of the shaft stretched his lips. He liked the impatient hand in his hair, the filthy words, the way Sid bucked his hips greedily, and he was panting for more when Sid pushed him off.

“Gotta fuck you now,” Sid said, fumbling for lube, looking a little crazed. Andy nodded and flopped onto his back, holding his legs open, his swollen lips parted as he watched Sid slick himself.

“You need to be opened?” Sid asked, crawling forward.

“Nuh-uh. Just do it. Hard, please, I need you so hard.”

Sid just groaned, and Andy loved seeing him fall apart for this. He was slow going in, watching Andy go crazy for the feeling of being stretched, his thumbs working his nipples as he arched and cried out. Sid grabbed both of Andy's hands and pinned them over his head, leaning down to work on Andy's nipples with his mouth as he sank in deeper. Andy was out of his mind with how good it felt, that familiar push, being filled, fucked open by Sid. Maybe he would never figure out why he needed this, but he did, and he groaned into Sid's mouth as Sid covered Andy's lips with his, kissing Andy like he was a thing Sid owned. Andy wanted it, to belong to Sid, still his favorite toy.

“Fuck, you're tight for me,” Sid said, breathing the words into Andy's open mouth. “So fucking tight, Andy – no one's ever been in you 'cept me, have they?”

“Hell no,” Andy said, staring up at Sid, panting. “You f-fucking know I'm yours.”

“That's right,” Sid said, though if the lost look in his eyes was any indication, this was news to him. He kissed Andy again, sighing into him and beginning to roll his hips. They were both sweating already, sliding together so well, like no time had passed at all, Sid's elbows sinking down around Andy's ears, his mouth so hungry and wet that Andy felt like he'd drown. He wanted to drown, to disappear inside this feeling, blown apart by how good it was to get fucked again, to have Sid pounding into him, hovering over him, staring down at Andy with those dark, possessive eyes, like Andy was his captive.

“Fucking look at you,” Sid said, holding Andy's jaw with one hand, his other hand in Andy's hair, tipping his head back. “Blushing under your fucking freckles. Such a little boy.” He licked across Andy's lips, moaning as if he could hardly stand it, and Andy came when Sid reached between them to grab his cock. His fingers were rougher than Andy remembered, hardened during their year apart, and Andy's eyes were leaking as his cock went off in Sid's hand. He reached up and pulled Sid down to him, hiding his wet face against Sid's shoulder as Sid huffed and snapped his hips, driving in deep.

“D'you miss my come s'much as you missed my dick?” Sid asked, barely getting the words out; Andy could hear how tight his jaw was, how hard he was trying to make this last, to hold himself back.

“Yeah,” Andy cried. “Please, fucking – fill me up, make me dirty.”

“Unghh,” Sid groaned out, his hips pistoning crazily now, and Andy knew he would be sore but he didn't care, just opened his legs wider as Sid's face pressed to his neck.

“My dirty boy,” Sid said with a weak laugh. His teeth closed over the slope between Andy's neck and shoulder as his orgasm ripped out of him, and Andy screamed again. He wrapped his arms around Sid's neck, his legs around Sid's back, and listened to Sid pant as he pumped his load into Andy, his teeth slowly dislodging from Andy's skin. Sid sighed and let Andy run his fingers through his hair, which hung in sweaty strands around Andy's face when Sid lifted his head. Sid seemed kind of out of it, his eyes still closed, and he rested his cheek against Andy's.

“Shit,” Sid said, breathing the word out, sounding astonished and so tired.

“Yeah,” Andy said, and he kissed the corner of Sid's eye. Sid bent down to lick over the bite mark he'd left on Andy's shoulder and Andy let his head drop back, his eyes sliding shut as the broken skin throbbed. It was a good throb, like the burn in his ass, Sid's cock still pushed inside him.

“Fucking pretty boy,” Sid muttered as he licked his way up Andy's neck and along his jaw. He sounded kind of irritated, but Andy still took it as a compliment, smiling lazily until Sid found his mouth, kissing him with a softness that could only be attributed to exhaustion. They stayed like that for a long time, and in Andy's mind they were under the picnic table, the purple leaves moving like music in the wind. He wanted this every day, to be reduced to Sid's sated captive, Sid's tongue soothing him back to consciousness, his cock going soft in Andy's opened ass.

“You need a fucking haircut,” Andy said when he finally cracked his eyes open, pushing Sid's hair behind his ear. Sid grinned, but it was a pathetic imitation of his usual smugness, his heart not really in it. His eyes locked on Andy's, and Andy knew he was thinking about what he'd said before, thinking that this was the last time. He still hadn't pulled out.

“Don't let anybody fuck with you at college,” Sid said, his face growing stern and serious. “Don't let the assholes push you around. And don't wear your fucking Buzz Lightyear shirt.”

“Whatever,” Andy said. “It'd probably be cool now, right? Nostalgia, irony, that sort of thing.”

“You'll never be cool, man,” Sid said, still huddled around him, smiling more genuinely now. “You'll always be my little dork.”

“Then you'd better come with me,” Andy said, his heart pounding. “Keep the cool kids from beating me up on the playground. That sort of thing.”

Sid snorted and rolled off of Andy. He cast around on the windowsill and cursed when he found that his pack of cigarettes was empty, throwing it across the room. Andy rolled onto his side and stared at Sid, who was looking up at the ceiling, pushing his hair off of his forehead. He tucked one arm behind his head, his mouth twitching as if he was fighting the urge to say something.

“I mean it,” Andy said. He propped himself up on an elbow and spread one hand across Sid's chest, unable to believe how strong he was now, how easily he'd hoisted Andy off the floor. “Have you got any money saved up? From your job?”

“Some,” Sid said. He scratched at his elbow. “But that's bullshit. I can't fucking move across the country just because we had a good fuck for old time's sake.”

“Don't be a dick,” Andy said. He touched Sid's jaw and turned his face, forcing him to meet his eyes. “Please? Don't you want to get away from your dad?”

“Of course I fucking do. But –”

“But what? I've talked to the guy who's going to be my roommate, he's from Ohio. He said he won't be there until Monday, he's got some baseball tournament or something. That would give you almost three days to find an apartment. You could crash in my room while you looked.”

“Jesus,” Sid said, moaning and rubbing his hands over his face. “You're crazy. You think they'd just let me into your dorm with all the other clean cut darlings?”

“We could make you cleaner cut-looking, temporarily,” Andy said, touching Sid's short beard. “But, believe it or not, there are guys with goatees and long hair on college campuses, too.”

Sid scoffed and looked at the ceiling again, his mouth still twitching. Andy kissed his closed lips, then licked against them, coaxing them open.

“Come with me,” Andy said. “Please?” He thought of putting Woody in the box bound for college, and the reason that he did it. “I want to bring something from home, something I love.”

Sid jerked his eyes to Andy's, looking like he'd been slapped. The shock drained from his face, and Andy's heart slammed in his chest. He never could conjure a real mental image of driving his car across the country by himself, and now he was picturing Sid in the passenger seat, the window rolled down, a cigarette wagging between his lips while he ranted about Andy's music choices.

“Please?” Andy said again, rubbing his thumb along Sid's jaw. He didn't want to make the same mistake that his mother had, but he didn't want to live like he had for the past year, and some part of him had always trusted Sid not to hurt him. It was why he'd submitted to those games as a kid, because he liked being brought to the very edge, his heart pounding, breath stuttering, and then being set free. It was why he always came back for more.

“You really need me that bad, huh?” Sid said.

“Yeah,” Andy said. He closed his eyes and rested his head against Sid's chest, the anxiety that had been twisting him into knots for the past year beginning to drain away as Sid's fingers scratched through his hair. “Need you to turn my t-shirts inside out. Show me how to download free porn. Stuff like that.”

Sid laughed, and Andy could hear the relief in it. The blinds were still bent a little from where Sid had held them open when he called down to Andy, and one thin beam of sunlight was streaming through, streaking across Sid's chest and Andy's shoulder.

“Alright, then,” Sid said. He cleared his throat. “If you need me.”

“Yeah. I do.”

They fell asleep, Sid tired from his shift and Andy emotionally drained, glad to wake up to Sid's warm skin and irritable groans. He rolled Sid against him, hugging him hard while he slept. In a few hours they would pack up whatever Sid wanted to take with him: the laptop and the mp3 player, maybe an ashtray or two. Andy craned his neck, taking a last look at the room where he lost his virginity and had his first real, hard kiss. He thought about walking to the other window and looking out at the picnic table where he used to stare up at Sid, but he stayed where he was, afraid that if he saw that picnic table now it would seem much too small. In Andy's memories it was an abandoned warehouse and a sketchy doctor's office, a place big enough to hide in, the first room they ever shared.

Chapter Text

They left for California around sundown. Sid wanted to be out of there by the time the old man got home from work. His heart was slamming as he collected the dirty clothes from his bedroom floor and shoved them into a duffel bag. Andy was sitting on the bed, probably regretting the hell out of his post-fuck offer to bring Sid with him.

“It's a fifteen-hour drive,” Andy said. “I figured we could stop after five hours or so.”

“Stop?” Sid said. He needed a cigarette; his hands were shaking. He'd tried forcing himself to sit up in his room until Andy stopped knocking and went away forever, but he couldn't do it, and now this, almost definitely a terrible idea, but also so good and perfect and right that he felt like he was going to explode from a sudden glut of hope.

“Stop, yeah, at a motel or whatever.” Andy was pink-cheeked, still flushed from sex, or maybe blushing at the word motel. Sid had forgotten how to act around him, had never really known what to do with him even when they were fucking on a daily basis. He wasn't sure if he should kiss him, pat his head reassuringly, or carry him out the door to the car before he changed his mind.

“A motel,” Sid said. He smirked, trying to make this some sort of joke about Andy needing to get fucked again in five hours, planning it out. Andy gave him a queasy smile.

“You don't have to do this,” Sid said, because he wasn't okay with getting out the door on the force of Andy's good will alone. Andy's hands flexed over his knees.

“But I can't,” he said. “I can't go without you. I really can't.”

Sid had never understood why Andy kept coming through that plank in the fence. As a kid, Sid was always testing him, waiting for him to get fed up. For weeks at a time he would, and Sid would sit and stew in his backyard, alone, feeling like he'd won and lost some game that he was playing with himself. He was tired of testing Andy, who now looked like he was going to burst into tears if Sid didn't throw him a bone. Sid crossed the room and bent down to cup Andy's face in his hands. He tilted his head up, kissed him on the forehead, and left the room without meeting his eyes.

In the bathroom, he swept all the toiletries he could find into a plastic bag. He didn't have money to waste on a new tube of toothpaste, a new comb. He dug for the electric razor and added it to the bag. He'd started growing his hair out around the time Andy dumped him, in defiance of something that he had not successfully defied. Now, with Andy back, he wanted it gone.

He almost crashed into Andy as he walked back into the bedroom. Andy looked nervous, and Sid was wound so tight he was afraid they'd both combust if they touched. He gave Andy a fake cocky grin and squeezed past him, threw the toiletries into his duffel. He lovingly placed his stolen laptop on top of everything else, winding the power cord up before adding it. He grabbed his pillow from the bed, then felt stupid, but kept it tucked under his arm. After they broke up, he would bury his face in it and imagine that it still smelled a little bit like Andy. If shit went awry he would want to do that again, and whatever happened, he was never coming back here.

“Can't forget these,” he said, grabbing a half-empty pack of cigarettes from the top of his dresser. Andy made a face; Sid wasn't supposed to smoke in his car. That was one thing that would have to change, if they were actually doing this. Sid hoisted his duffel and slung it over his shoulder. “Last chance to change your mind,” he said.

“You, too,” Andy said, and Sid shook his head.

“Too late,” he said. “I already packed.”

They grinned at each other. Sid's anxiety only increased as they headed down the stairs, like maybe the front door would stick, the house wouldn't let him go. Andy was the one who turned the knob and threw the door open.

“It's weird,” he said, standing in the doorway, silhouetted. “I actually have a lot of good memories here.”

“That's nice for you,” Sid said. He ushered him out the door, slamming it hard behind him.

“I mean, we lost our virginity here,” Andy said, like Sid had managed to forget that. It had been a Saturday, one of those weekend mornings when Sid woke up to Andy coming into his room, locking the door behind him and stepping out of his shoes on the way to the bed. They did their usual half-awake rolling around, and somewhere between the regularly scheduled hand jobs and oral Andy announced that he'd been 'thinking.'

“We should do it,” he'd said, pulling back to meet Sid's eyes. “I mean, I want to.”

“It?” Sid said, afraid to hope. For years, every beat off had been about fucking Andy, and in Sid's fantasies Andy would beg Sid to do it harder, would whimper when Sid did. Sid had forgotten to fantasize about how good it would feel, too obsessed with the worshipful noises Andy might make, so when they finally did it, Andy on his back, Jergens for lube, Sid was taken off guard and ended up making humiliating noises himself. He punched the mattress when he heard himself, and still kept moaning, couldn't stop. Andy mostly huffed in his ear and held on so hard it hurt, red marks left across Sid's back like tattoos.

“You're thinking about it,” Andy said as they walked to the car, grinning.

“You can read my mind now?” Sid said. Andy laughed.

“Um, no,” he said. “But I can tell when you're thinking about sex. You have this look.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Like, I don't know. Like you're sad or something.”

“Sad?” Already, they were entering new terrain. Sid felt ten years older than he had when he left for his shift that morning. He threw his duffel into the backseat of Andy's car, which was already packed full of Andy's stuff, boxes overflowing with books and sneakers, a skateboard. Sid put his pillow on top of Andy's, which was wedged behind the passenger side seat.

“Like you're sad that it's over,” Andy said. He pulled open the driver's side door, and Sid felt like objecting. Usually he was the driver. “Like you're afraid you'll never have it that good again.”

Sad and afraid. Sid said nothing. He dug his cigarettes out and lit one as soon as his ass hit the passenger side seat. Andy turned on the radio, and Sid changed the station to sports talk, though he didn't care about any pro teams. He needed some inane chatter to ignore as they pulled out of the driveway, through the streets of their quiet neighborhood. He was afraid his father would drive past, and that now would be the moment when he decided he gave a shit about Sid, enough to yank him out of the car and keep him from leaving. Just to spite him, to keep him for silent company in that house where they smoked and drank themselves to sleep before the alarm jolted them into their next shift.

“What am I going to do for work?” Sid asked as they neared the highway. As if Andy would know. He was driving with both hands on the wheel, pretending to listen to the radio while Sid chain smoked and stared out the window.

“You'll find something,” Andy said. “Better. Something better.”

“Who says I don't love collecting trash?” In a weird way, he did. He could be alone with his music, and nobody cared if he slung their discarded shit around, because it was trash, already worthless. It was a fitting career path for the loser Andy had thrown away.

“Well, whatever,” Andy said. “You can do that again if that's what you want. I just think you might like something else more.” He had that look again, the one that made Sid kiss his forehead back in the bedroom. Sid reached over and squeezed Andy's thigh, trying to thread something threatening into his attempt at reassurance.

“You're gonna, what?” Sid said. “When you finish college? Collect rocks?”

“I don't know,” Andy said. “I haven't decided what I want to specialize in. But yeah, geology. That's my major.”

“That pay good?” Sid was already worried about being taken care of. He had no memories of what that was like, and wouldn't know who the fuck he was if he didn't have to fend for himself.

“Sometimes,” Andy said. “I mean, I hope so.”

They didn't talk for awhile. Career aspirations were a sensitive subject, and Sid had a habit of digging in his heels when he could tell that Andy was uncomfortable, but Andy didn't deserve that today. They were breaking free of the city traffic on the highway, out toward the wide open skies. The sun was mostly gone, cars glittering past them in the opposite lane. Sid changed the sports talk to music, and there was nothing but Top 40.

“I've got a hookup for my mp3 player,” Andy said. “If you want to listen to something else. I mean – most of my music is yours, anyway. Stuff I got from you.”

“You saved my songs?” Sid said. After they broke up, there were certain ones that he couldn't listen to anymore, not unless he was in the mood for torturing himself.

“Yeah, here,” Andy said. He dug his player out of the glove compartment, reaching across Sid to get to it. Just the smell of his hair made Sid a little bit hard, and he was already thinking about that motel, how the bedsprings would scream for mercy, how he could fall asleep with Andy still under him and not wake up to the sound of his dad throwing open the front door like a warning. He knew what Sid was doing with Andy, and sometimes made sneering comments about it that Sid pretended not to hear. He once suggested that someday somebody was going to beat the shit out of Sid for this, but never volunteered for the job himself.

Sid was in charge of the music after the mp3 player came out, rediscovering songs he'd forgotten about as he scrolled through Andy's player. Only a few of the old metal standards were there, but Andy had kept every sad song Sid had ever sent him. The highway emptied out and the stars became visible overhead.

“Want me to drive for awhile?” Sid asked when Andy had been quiet long enough to make Sid worry that he might fall asleep at the wheel. Andy shook his head and yawned.

“You can drive in the morning,” he said. “Let's rest for awhile. I saw a sign for a Red Roof Inn back there, Exit 9.”

Sid was taken off guard by the idea that morning would come, that he would wake up with Andy beside him and they would keep driving until they hit the coast. He'd spent the whole night imagining that this part of the drive would go on forever, both of them endlessly fidgeting and muttering about bands they used to like while faceless towns glowed in the distance. He started to feel nervous when Exit 9 came into view, like maybe they would get there and Andy would finally realize, out here in the real world, that Sid wasn't really that good in bed. He didn't have any technique. He'd never had anyone but Andy, and he'd invented everything they'd ever done from scratch, ideas he got from porn and from the slope of Andy's spine, the way his hips twitched when Sid did something he liked.

“I'll get the room,” Sid said when they'd parked in the motel's mostly empty lot. He wanted to be productive in some way, and expected Andy to fight him on this, but Andy just nodded and rested his head on the steering wheel. Sid kept the corner of his eye on the car while he dealt with the night manager, worried about Andy sitting alone out there. He thought of what his father had said about somebody wanting to kick his ass for this, but the night manager seemed too tired and disinterested to notice that two teenage boys were getting a motel room together at quarter til midnight. When they walked to the room, Sid told himself that people might assume they were brothers, though they looked nothing alike. Nobody would mistake them for friends, which was why they couldn't even talk to each other in high school. It made no sense; they had nothing in common except how badly they wanted each other. Or needed. Andy had said he needed him here.

Sid knew that if he seemed lost here at the outset Andy might be spooked into regretting this, so he didn't even let him set his bag down before grabbing him and kissing him hard, walking him backward toward the bed. Andy gulped down Sid's kisses with surprised little sounds, but his eyes stayed shut and his hands twisted in Sid's shirt, trying to push it off. By the time Sid had him on his back, Andy was hard, and Sid ground his knee against Andy's trapped erection, laughing to himself when Andy arched into it, his mouth falling open, eyes still closed.

“Yeah,” Andy said. He grabbed Sid's leg, held it in place. “Ngh, ah, yeah.”

“Are you all tensed up from driving?” Sid asked. He moved up to pin Andy's shoulders to the bedspread, which didn't look entirely clean. “Need a deep tissue massage?”

Andy laughed, and Sid grinned down at him. They used to watch porn together when they were bored, sometimes to get hard again after the second or third time they'd come for each other, sometimes just to make fun of it. One regular contributor to the free porn network was a studio that specialized in guys getting rubbed down by fake masseuses who would eventually part their customers' ass cheeks, finger them until they were squirming and then fuck them face down on the table. Andy always got a kick out of these. Sid preferred real amateurs, though when Andy was gone they just frustrated him, because none of them were as sweet-faced as Andy, and he'd had the real thing, once.

“Yeah,” Andy said, flinging his t-shirt away. “Give me the rub down.”

“Psh. Hasn't been that long since I was in you. You don't get the full treatment.”

“Just gonna shove in?” Andy's eyes flashed like he was daring him. Sid grunted and reached down to tear his jeans open.

“If you can take it,” Sid said. “If you didn't get all fragile without me.”

“I can take it,” Andy said.

“You sure?” Sid lowered his mouth over Andy's, stopping just short of kissing him. “Maybe I got rougher without you.”

Andy whimpered, and Sid could have laughed, but instead he just kissed him, fucking Andy's mouth with his tongue. Andy opened wide for it and squeezed Sid's ass with both hands, scrabbling at his jeans as Sid wriggled out of them.

“You want to use my come for lube?” Sid asked, watching Andy's pupils get fatter. “Still got enough of it in you? Did I fill you up deep enough last time?”

“Sid,” Andy said, whispering, begging, because that was too rough for him, but Sid wasn't being serious. Once, when Sid was still a little drunk from the night before and Andy showed up looking to get plowed, Sid jabbed him at some awkward angle and Andy shouted in pain. He didn't even want Sid to pull out, just repositioned himself, but Sid was rattled and couldn't finish. That was the thing, even back when they were kids and Sid was threatening to shove bugs up his nose. Sid never really wanted to hurt him.

They got lube from Andy's bag: sunscreen, the smell making Sid think of the neighborhood pool. His father didn't pay dues, so Sid wasn't technically supposed to go there, but he spent all of his summers there anyway, sleeping off hangovers and watching Andy from behind a stolen pair of expensive sunglasses. They went there together before that first afternoon in Sid's bed, after that first kiss. Postponing the inevitable; as soon as Andy's lips touched his, Sid knew they'd be humping the shit out of each other before long. Andy was nervous at the pool that day, laughing nonstop, slippery against Sid's palms when they wrestled in the shallow end. The walk to Sid's house felt so long, and they were dry as dust from the scorch of the sun by the time they got there. Sid felt like he was bringing Andy to a cave that he wouldn't be able to escape from, and felt almost guilty, but then Andy asked Sid to sit on him. He wanted it just as bad as Sid did, which sort of blew him away.

“Please,” Andy whispered as Sid sunk into him, and Sid wasn't sure if he was begging him to keep going slow or to let go and give it to him good. Sid kept his eyes locked on Andy's, still got hot from the back of his neck and all the way down his spine when he was on top of Andy like this, staring down at him, telling him without speaking that he was in control. Andy would always look scared for a second, then curious, submissive, and finally desperate, pulling Sid back into him when he dragged his cock out slow.

“Calm down,” Sid said. He kissed Andy's cheek, the corner of his eye. “You're gonna get fucked, don't worry.”

“Sid,” Andy said, his voice breaking. He reached up and looped his arms around the back of Sid's neck, pulling him down, his hips wiggling as he tried to get him deeper. Normally Sid would grunt and pin Andy's wrists, remind him that he was calling the shots, but it felt too good, tonight, far from home, to press his face to Andy's neck and let his breath out until their chests pressed together.

“Damn,” Sid said, all the fight leaving him as his body locked into Andy's, everything inextricable at last.

“So good, feels so good,” Andy was whispering, crazed with something that was probably nine-tenths exhaustion, his hand moving through Sid's hair.

“Think you could come like this?” Sid asked. “Just from having me in you?”

Andy made a disapproving noise; he didn't want that, he wanted to get pounded. Maybe all guys his age who liked it up the ass were as good as taking it as Andy, but Sid liked to think that he was especially good at this, or needy, or trusting. It had bothered the hell out of him to think of someone else taking advantage of this, but maybe Andy would be cautious and tense for anybody else.

“C'mere,” Sid said, though Andy couldn't get any closer. They kissed, tongues still buzzing from the Altoids they'd chewed on in the car. That peppermint would have felt good around his dick; Sid even liked the sting of mouthwash if he was in the right mood. But tonight he had no time for blow jobs. This was exactly where he wanted to be: buried deep in Andy and still able to kiss him.

“You got all strong,” Andy said, squeezing Sid's biceps with both hands. Sid flexed for him, laughing like this was a ridiculous comment and not the highest compliment he could have asked for. He'd been hoping that Andy had noticed.

“Want it vertical?” Sid asked. “I could hold you up while you take it.” It was too close to saying hold you, maybe, which was what Sid usually did anyway, even if it was a growling fuck from behind.

“No, just like this,” Andy said. His voice was small, his eyes soft, like there was nothing to be afraid of now. Ha. Sid rubbed his thumbs over Andy's freckles, glad that at least one of them thought so.

“Pretty boy,” Sid said, whispering. He kept saying that without meaning to. He hadn't forgotten what Andy looked like, but it was catching him off guard anyway. Andy squeezed around him, hard, trying to get him to move. Sid let his eyes fall shut, swallowed down most of his moan.

“I've never done it in a motel room before,” Andy said. Something about his tone made Sid think of the first time they shot off fireworks together. Andy had been scared. Sid gave him a sparkler to calm him down.

“So I'm taking your motel room virginity, too?” Sid said, as if this was actually news to him. Andy snorted.

“You took every kind,” he said. “Everything.”

That word set them both off, and they kept kissing the whole time, something they hadn't done since the first time, when they were both afraid to stop, afraid to meet each other's eyes. Sid tried not to think about anything while their bodies slapped together, but he couldn't turn his mind off, and he wondered if the night manager could hear them. He slid his hand over Andy's mouth.

“Shh,” he whispered, and for some reason this made Andy go off, moaning against Sid's palm as he sprayed his chest with come. After that, Sid had to think, or he was going to blow his load, too: he made himself consider the morning, the drive, the palm trees, and the future that was as hard to picture as the Pacific Ocean. As any ocean.

“Sid,” Andy said when he took his hand away. Andy was as wrecked by this as ever, panting and pink-cheeked, fucking cute. Sid kissed him until he couldn't concentrate on anything but snapping his hips as hard as he could, and he let Andy shout and curse while he took it, didn't cover his mouth again. Sid moaned into Andy's hair when he came, let the room spin around him without trying to remember where he was. Andy kissed his face, soft, like he needed comforting.

“Shit,” Sid said. He lay there listening for any hint that they'd been overheard. Andy wasn't jailbait anymore, but something about this had to be illegal. He lifted his head and looked down at Andy, who grinned.

“I haven't spent the whole night with you since I was eight,” he said.

Sid pulled out of him, away from him, not appreciating the reminder. He headed for the bathroom with his bag of toiletries and shut himself inside, heart racing. He still had bad dreams about that night. In the dreams he tried to climb up to Andy's window and couldn't get there, or found it locked when he arrived, sometimes with Andy on the other side, trying just as desperately to get to him, both of them crying when the window wouldn't budge. Sid couldn't remember ever crying in front of anyone else. In middle school he had told himself he was only being nice to Andy because Andy was keeping his secret: Sid had cried. He had let somebody hold him.

He took a long shower, expecting Andy to intervene and assuming he had fallen asleep when he didn't. When he got out he rubbed the fog from the mirror and took his pocket knife from his jeans. Hacking off his hair wasn't as easy as he'd thought it would be, but buzzing the remains of it away felt so good that he dug out his straight razor and shaved his face, too. When he was done, he had less than half an inch of fuzz on his head, nothing on his face but a scowl. He felt a stab of regret as he rubbed his hand over his chin. There was no point in denying it: all his armor was fucking gone.

He left the bathroom expecting Andy to be curled up on his side, fast asleep, but he was sitting on the edge of the bed looking anxious, and he stood when Sid walked out. Sid watched the surprise register on his face.

“Oh,” Andy said. He was wearing flannel sleep pants; they were too big for him, sagging around his hips.

“What?” Sid said, fidgeting.

“I forgot what you look like with a buzz cut,” Andy said. He grinned and took Sid's wrists, pulled him toward the bed. “C'mere.”

When Sid was properly installed under the blankets, Andy turned off the lamp. He leaned up over Sid for a long time, kissing his face and rubbing his hand through Sid's hair. Sid let him do it, drifting in and out of sleep. It was like the sparklers. Sometimes Andy needed to be calmed down.

“That night,” Andy said, because he could never take a hint. “I remember – I always thought about it. The way your hair felt. Just like this.”

Sid pretended to be asleep. It was the same thing he had done that night, until Andy fell asleep for real, still wrapped around him. Sid had stayed awake and listened to the storm, Andy's heartbeat, the quiet of the house. He'd been afraid someone would show up, pound on the door, take him away. In the motel room, three hundred miles from anyone who knew their names, he was still waiting, clinging hard to Andy as soon as he fell asleep.

No one came. In the morning, the room was still dark at nine AM, and Andy threw the heavy drapes back to reveal blazing sunlight. Sid sat up in bed and squinted at the window, confused. He couldn't remember which state they were in, and it took him some time to even remember where they were going: toward the ocean, a place where they would wake up together like this every day. He stayed in bed, hands in his lap, blankets pooled around his waist, and watched Andy repack his bag.

“So?” Andy said. “Did you sleep well?”

Ten years ago, Sid would have lied. He took off running that morning, after the storm had cleared. Knew he'd be back, though.

“Yeah,” he said. “Slept pretty good.”

Andy grinned. Sid used to get such a kick out of watching him squirm, which meant one thing when they were kids and another when they were teenagers. Making him happy was a different sort of victory, transferable like solar energy, powering him up. He got out of bed and walked naked to the window, slapping Andy's ass on the way there.

“I'm driving today,” he said.

“Awesome,” Andy said, and that was the thing about Andy. He liked it when Sid was behind the wheel, but he could still drag Sid to the other side of the country without breaking a sweat. Sid gave his clean-faced reflection a sneering smile. He didn't know what state they were in or how much longer it would take to get where they were going, but: fuck it. He knew he was in the right place.

Chapter Text

The first fifteen times Andy asks Sid to make the trip home with him, Sid says no. Andy doesn't pressure him, and he pretends not to notice the new tattoos that Sid has every time Andy returns from one of these homecomings. Three years pass, and by the time Sid says yes, he's got two full sleeves that are beginning to creep onto his chest and back.

"You could write those things off as a work-related expense," Andy says. Sid halfway knows what he means. Something to do with taxes, which Sid has never filed. He gets paid under the table at the clubs he works, and tells Andy that he needs more tattoos so he can be a more intimidating bouncer. It's partially true.

"I guess I'll have to cover these up while I'm being a good house guest," Sid says when they're in the shower together, two days before they leave for what could technically be referred to as Sid's hometown. He flexes one arm, and Andy reaches up to squeeze his bicep.

"What, the tattoos?" Andy says. Sid just came off shift, but Andy is still half-asleep, not due in his morning classes for another two hours.

"You think your mother will appreciate them?" Sid says with a snort.

"She'll just be glad you're there," Andy says. "And I won't have to answer five thousand questions about you and how you're doing. You can tell her yourself."

"Yeah, great."

"It won't be that bad," Andy says. He presses against Sid, begging with his whole body. It's usually a good look on him, but he's begging for something that Sid doesn't want to give him, which has never been the case before.

"It's not like I'm going to see my old man or anything," Sid says. He peels Andy off of him so that he won't feel Sid's heart pounding. Sid keeps catching himself thinking they're going to visit that house Andy lived in when they were little kids, the one next door to where Sid's father may or may not still live.

"I wouldn't expect you to," Andy says. He plasters himself to Sid again, pressed against his back this time. Sid picks up the shampoo and snaps open the cap before remembering that he already washed his hair. He pours some into his palm anyway, and turns to rub it into Andy's hair as if that was his plan all along. Andy grins and closes his eyes. He likes being taken care of. Sid kind of gets off on it, too.

"It'll be fun," Andy says. "You'll see."

Sid grunts and works his fingers harder against Andy's scalp. Andy keeps his hair just long enough to cover his ears, and Sid's has been buzzed short since they came to California, Sid with nothing to show for the first seventeen years of his life except a stolen laptop and Andy's inexplicable devotion. He told himself that he'd mostly left the state with Andy to get away from his father and start a new life somewhere else, but Andy is the beginning and end of him, and Sid would have stayed in that shithole suburb forever if Andy had wanted him to. He would have stayed anyway, waiting, even if Andy had moved on without looking back.

Sid is starting to fade by the time they get out of the shower, his just-home-from-work adrenaline burning off. Andy is still yawning but beginning to come fully to life, rubbing himself against Sid's side while the electric toothbrush whirs in his mouth.

"I offered an hour ago," Sid says. He pinches Andy's ass and walks out of the bathroom. "You snooze, you lose."

"C'mon," Andy says, his mouth still full of toothbrush. "I like it when I can smell you on me in class."

He's pretty good at breaking Sid down, especially when it comes to sex. Sid flops onto the bed and maintains the position: on his back, stroking himself, Andy grinning from the bathroom doorway.

"Fine," Sid says. "But you have to do all the work."

"As usual," Andy says, and Sid snorts. Andy flips the light off in the bathroom and their apartment is almost dark again, dawn glowing just faintly through the blinds. It's Sid's favorite time of day, the only hours when their schedules effortlessly overlap.

Andy climbs on top of Sid and bends down to kiss him: he's always been a big kisser. Sid never had much use for it before Andy, but trying it with him rearranged Sid's every particle in an instant, and the memory of what that felt like, sweet little Andy opening his lips for Sid's tongue, has made Sid a big fan of this stage of sex. He reaches down to grab Andy's ass with both hands, and Andy laughs into Sid's mouth when he squeezes.

"I thought you were just going to lie there limply?" Andy says, pulling back. His eyes always look so blue at dawn.

"Limply?" Sid says, bucking his hips so that his erection slides against Andy's ass. Andy gives him a brainless grin and sighs, rolling his hips back for more contact.

"Motionlessly, I mean," Andy says.

"That what you want?"

"No."

"Didn't think so."

Sid was going to lie back and get blown, let Andy ride him, but suddenly being on top seems like a great idea, and he swipes the lube from the bedside table as he pushes Andy down to the mattress, kneeling up over him.

"I guess there won't be any fucking while we're there," Sid asks. He eases Andy's knees apart and leans back to look at him, shaking his head. "A whole week," he says.

"We can do it while we're there," Andy says. Just the mention of his childhood home and having sex becomes doing it. "Quietly."

"I'm not the one who has problems staying quiet," Sid says.

"So gag me," Andy says. He's actually blushing, and Sid knows he's picturing his mother downstairs, wondering what that thumping sound is. He fucks Andy especially hard, thinking about the days ahead when he won't be able to. Andy squeaks like a mattress spring and clings to Sid's shoulders, already quieter than usual.

Afterward, Sid is quickly close to sleep, and he lies on his side letting Andy lick his cheek with sated gratitude. The sun is coming up steadily now, and Andy will have to dress for class soon. Sid slings an arm around Andy's back and holds him in place. It's stupid, but he hates this part. It seems like one of them always has to be somewhere else.

"You need to shave," Andy says, running his fingertips over the stubble on Sid's cheek.

"Would that make me look like less of a convict?" Andy's mother is going to wheel backward when she sees him. He's six foot four now, thick with muscle, a thimble-sized tattoo of a skull on the back of his neck. Andy says it looks like a button, and he presses his thumb against it sometimes in bed, making a sound like a doorbell ringing.

"You don't look like a convict," Andy says.

"Your mother will think I do," Sid says. He's not used to caring what mothers think. He has only one memory of his own: a flannel nightgown he was once pressed against after a bad dream.

"Mom and Molly will love you," Andy says, and he seems serious, so Sid laughs.

"They already don't like me for taking three years to come out there."

"Well, whose fault is that? It'll be fine. Just be nice."

"I'm always nice."

Andy snorts and rolls out of bed two minutes before the alarm starts blaring. Sid slaps it off angrily and watches Andy dress, his eyes slitted. He thinks about Andy in his geology classes, smelling like sex, smiling to himself as he jots notes. For the past three years, Sid has worked to support Andy, but when Andy finishes school it will be the other way around. Sid isn't looking forward to being a kept man, a curiosity among Andy's straight-laced, college educated friends. He fantasizes about kicking their asses, but none of them has given him a good enough reason yet, though one called Greg has come close.

"You could start packing for the trip," Andy says as he's zipping himself into his jeans.

"We don't leave for two days," Sid says. He's not ready for packing. He might back out of the trip at the last minute. The thought that he could makes him feel giddy and sick.

"Never too early to start packing," Andy says. He leans over the bed and kisses Sid's ear like Sid is his invalid son. Sid closes his eyes so he won't have to watch him walk out of the room. Ten minutes later, the front door opens and shuts, and there's the scrape of Andy's key as he locks it behind him.

Sid dreams that he's imprisoned in a cedar box with a velvet interior, just the glow around the rim of the lid for light. It's not a coffin, more like a jewelry box. He's comfortable but anxious, pacing around and wondering when he'll be released, and what dangers the world outside the box will pose now that he's been miniaturized.

*

On the morning that they leave, Greg comes over to the apartment to get instructions for watering Andy's plants. They have a little balcony that overlooks the building's crummy courtyard pool, and Andy has a large assortment of cacti out there, along with the beginnings of a lemon tree and two narrow troughs full of herbs.

"The cacti should be fine," Andy tells Greg while Sid leans in the patio doorway, trying to look threatening. "And the lemon tree shouldn't need a ton of water, just make sure the pot doesn't totally dry out. The herbs, well - it's summer, so - once a day, if you're in the area."

Andy is visibly nervous, looking at the giant basil plant that he always bends down to sniff when he walks out onto the porch. Sid usually takes care of the plants while Andy is away. It's the only time he touches them, except to poke at the tiny lemons that the tree produces. Andy wants to plant it in their backyard when they have a house. Last year it grew one very sour lemon that was big enough to actually consume, and they split it in a couple of glasses of iced tea.

"I can come every day," Greg says. His smug smile is almost reason enough for Sid to clock him. "It's no problem."

"I know it's a lot to ask for some herbs," Andy says. "I really appreciate it."

Greg wants to fuck Andy. Sid could see it within the first five minutes of their initial meeting, which was an awkward dinner with Andy's Geology department friends. Sid teases Andy about it like he's not worried at all, and Andy tells him he's crazy.

"I'm glad to help," Greg says. He watches Andy like he's expecting a goodbye hug, then glances at Sid. "You guys have a great trip," he says, and it sounds like a taunt. Sid has often wondered if Andy complains about him to Greg. He won't meet my mother, he got another tattoo, he laughs when I tell him he should get his GED. Greg would reach across the coffeehouse table to pat Andy's hand, would tell him that he could do better. Mothers love douchebaskets like Greg, with their reasonable Toyotas and plans for graduate school. Sid tries to console himself by assuming that Greg has a small dick. If Andy is still with Sid just because he fucks him particularly well, that's fine. Sid will take it.

Andy slides his apartment key off its ring and gives it to Greg. The sight makes Sid queasy, so he ducks back into the apartment and starts hoisting their bags onto his shoulders.

"I can take something," Andy says when Sid is standing at the door with all four.

"No," Sid says, and he can feel Greg's eyes on them. Andy flushes and doesn't ask again. Once, drunk, Andy confessed that he likes it when Sid gives him orders. As if Sid hasn't known that since Andy was six years old.

Greg drives them to the airport. The interior of his car is spotless; Sid sits up front to make Greg nervous, but he ends up feeling nervous himself. He's never been on a plane before. The traffic is terrible and the radio is inane.

"Good weather for it, huh?" Andy says. He's leaning between their seats, and he rubs Sid's shoulder as if to ask him to be a good sport. It will probably happen a lot during this trip. Suddenly Sid has no idea why he's doing this, what the hell he was thinking, and he makes himself turn to look at Andy. There's the face that could make him do goddamn anything, especially when his eyebrows are arched like that, his eyes full of anxious hope. Sid kisses him quick on the mouth, and turns in time to see Greg's hands tighten on the steering wheel. It's enough of a victory to squash Sid's fear of flying until they're unloading their stuff at the curb. Greg wishes them a safe trip, and Sid is glad to be rid of him.

"He's not that bad," Andy says as they head inside the airport.

"I didn't say anything."

"You don't have to."

Sid doesn't want to start in on the Greg Conversation right now, so he tugs Andy against him, leaving his arm around his shoulders. It's something they won't be able to do in public once they're back in the Midwest. Sid never expected to grow so accustomed to it, but Andy is always too far away when he's not under Sid's arm, and Sid likes the way his tattoos look against Andy's pastel polo shirts.

"I'm really happy you're coming," Andy says. He actually looks like he might cry, and Sid knows he's just as worried about his mother's opinion as Sid is, maybe more.

"I know you are," Sid says.

Everything about the airport is new to Sid, but he tries not to let it show, following Andy's lead when he takes his shoes off in the line for security. He's not sure if Andy realizes that this is Sid's first ever trip on a plane, in addition to his first ever attempt to make nice with Andy's family. Sid remembers Andy's mother just vaguely, from when they used to live next door to each other: she was small but fierce, and he would sling back talk at her when she peered over the fence to ask him if his father knew he was playing with matches. As far as he knows, Andy has never told her that his mysterious boyfriend is that same scrawny kid who blew things up in the yard next door.

Their seats are near the back of the plane. Sid's heart pounds as he pushes their bags into an overhead bin. He feels like he's about to be asked to do something, to participate in takeoff somehow, like the plane is a Flintstones' car that will be set in motion by the passengers' feet. He anticipates crashing guiltily; if it happens it will somehow be his fault, for being the one person on board who didn't belong.

He gives Andy the window seat and sits pressed between him and a lady who smells like fried chicken. His knees are smashed against the seat in front of him, and his elbows look ridiculous on the arm rests, a spiderweb fanned out over the left one and a galaxy-type design spiraling over the right. He should have worn a long sleeved shirt, but he doesn't own one. Andy pushes the arm rest up and puts his hand on Sid's leg.

"You okay?" he asks, his pinkie finger sneaking over to touch Sid's as the lazy speed of the runway taxi picks up, the engines firing to life.

"I'm fine," Sid says, but when the cabin starts to rattle he grabs Andy's hand and squeezes hard. Andy puts his head on Sid's shoulder and squeezes back, watching the window as the plane leaves the ground. Of course he knows that Sid has never flown before. He's known Sid his whole life.

*

When they land, Sid immediately goes to the smoker's lounge and lights up. He usually only smokes on the way home from his shift, five AM and the streets mostly empty, the windows in the car rolled down. He stares out at a gray Friday afternoon and tries to calm himself down by thinking of those drives home, the sweet anticipation of sliding into bed with Andy before pulling him into the shower, the slow drag of smoke into his lungs and the noise of the club receding to a dull ring in his ears. He turns and sees Andy waiting for him on the other side of the glass box that contains the smokers and their poisoned air. Andy is on his cell phone, grinning, miles away already.

"Mom and Molly are waiting at the baggage thing," Andy says when Sid emerges, realizing too late that he'll reek of smoke when he meets them.

"Terrific," Sid says, and he actually didn't mean to sound so sarcastic. Andy's mouth quirks with annoyance. They're in his territory now.

"Don't be such a defeatist," Andy says.

"I'll try to work on that," Sid says. He's angry and guilty and wants a drink. It's three o'clock in the afternoon, around the time Sid usually wakes up and has a beer with his Tabasco-drenched scrambled eggs, waiting for Andy to get home from class or study sessions with Greg. As they walk, Sid keeps imagining that he sees Greg's face in the crowd, that smirk peeking out at him from under the ball caps of anonymous men. He wishes he were here with me, Greg says. We both know you should be the one left at home with the plants.

Sid recognizes Andy's mother and sister as they approach, familiar to him from the framed pictures on Andy's desk. His mother looks tense and has one of those purses that all mothers have. The sister, Molly, looks haughty in the way that sixteen year old girls do, and much more blond than she does in her pictures.

"Dude," Molly says, walking forward to hug Andy. "Your hair."

"It's not that long," Andy says.

"No longer than it was last time," his mother says as Andy passes into her arms. Molly's eyes sneak to Sid, and some of her self-certainty seems to evaporate. He's not sure if he should speak.

"Mom," Andy says, pulling back. "Molls. This is Sid."

There's an excruciating moment of no one knowing what to do next, then Andy's mother steps forward and stands up on her tip-toes to hug Sid lightly. Sid pats her back, looking to Andy for help, but Andy is looking at Molly, smirking.

"Welcome home," Andy's mother says as she steps back, and Sid feels his face get hot. Maybe Andy has told her more than he thought, though knowing that Sid grew up here doesn't mean she's been informed of his full history as a delinquent.

"Good to meet you," Molly says, putting out her hand. Sid shakes it and nods.

"Yeah," he says. "Sorry, I --" He doesn't know how to continue, so he looks at Andy again. He's not used to being the one who needs direction.

"Don't be sorry," Andy's mother says. "Let us help with the bags."

"It's okay," Sid says. "I've got 'em."

"Don't be silly." She forcibly removes one from his left shoulder, and Molly takes one from his right hand. He thanks them, feeling robbed.

"So you're a security guard, right?" Molly says. She seems less intimidated by Sid now that she's witnessed his awkwardness.

"Sort of," he says.

"He works at a nightclub," Andy says. "Keeping creepy guys from harassing the women."

"Are there a lot of creepy guys in L.A.?" Molly asks, and Sid feels stupidly flattered when he realizes she's directing this question to him.

"Yeah," he says. "But they're all -" He barely catches the word pussies. He's never censored himself before; even in school he said whatever he wanted. "They're no problem," he says. "In terms of, uh. Fighting."

"You fight them?" Molly's eyes bug out, and she grins.

"One time this guy's ring cut him on the cheek," Andy says. "Can you see the scar?"

They all stop and look at Sid like he's one of those pictures that turns 3-D if you cross your eyes right. He feels like he should tap dance or something, but he just stands there looking scary, because it's all he really knows how to do.

"Sounds like a dangerous job," Andy's mom says.

"It's not that bad," Andy says, though he's always telling Sid that it is, and that he needs to get a day job. Sid knows the sort of day jobs that are available to guys without high school degrees: making sandwiches for the Gregs of the world. Beating down drunken hipsters is slightly more dignified.

His home state is just as he remembered it: gray and endless, chain restaurants trying to look cheerful along the highway. The people all have the quality of passengers on a long and unpleasant voyage, not just at the airport but everywhere, as if this is limbo and they're ready to arrive elsewhere. Leaving the state certainly felt that way for Sid, as if he'd passed a grueling test and the rest of his life would be the reward. He'd never even seen the ocean before Andy brought him there.

Being back here feels like tempting fate, as if he might not be allowed to leave again. The ride to Andy's house is quiet, Sid and Andy in the backseat with their bags, Molly up front messing with the radio and Andy's mother at the wheel. The bulky old van she drives makes her seem even smaller.

"Are you guys gonna go to Pizza Planet?" Molly asks, turning back to grin at them. "I used to see you on dates there."

"They weren't dates," Andy says. "I mean." He looks at Sid. "I guess they kind of were."

"Kind of," Sid says. He never thought of it that way, back then. Andy was letting Sid fuck him. Sid was trying not to want anything else.

It starts raining just before they get to Andy's house, and Sid's throat tightens as the driveway comes into view. He used to feel like he was going to have to take sniper fire every time he collected the garbage here. On the morning when Andy walked out in nothing but sleep pants Sid was forced to remember that Andy hadn't been trying to kill him all along. Andy isn't the killing type, and he was so soft and stunned on the driveway that morning, the recycling bin in his hands. Sid wanted to pick him up, put him in the truck and take him home, not even for sex, just for bed.

"Does it look like you remember it?" Andy asks Sid as they carry the bags inside. Behind them, the rain picks up, making the muggy air cooler.

"Pretty much," Sid says as he walks inside. The exterior of the house is the same, but he doesn't remember this: the foyer, the living room - was he ever inside? He must have been, because he remembers Andy's bedroom, the toys on the floor and the wallpaper with the clouds, but no, that was the other house. That was the night when Sid climbed in through the bedroom window.

"Andy's room still has a twin, I'm afraid," Andy's mother says. "So we can set you up down here on the couch, Sid. Unless Andy wants to be a good host and give up his bed?"

"That's alright," Sid says. "The couch is fine." He's not sure why he should feel relieved that they won't be sharing a bed while he's here, but he does. Andy is trying to catch his eye, to communicate his exasperation with his mother's need to separate them, but Sid avoids looking back at him.

"I'm making your favorite tonight," Andy's mother says. She walks to Andy and takes his hands, holding them out as if they're about to start dancing. "Lasagna."

"Awesome," Andy says. He leans forward to kiss her temple before letting go of her hands. There were times in my life when my mom was my best friend. Andy said that once. Sid suspects that those times were the years when Sid wasn't around, too proud and scared to admit that Andy owned him anyway, even when he tried to stay away. He feels challenged, by Andy's mother - hilarious - and by the town itself. He keeps looking down at his arms in surprise, not at the tattoos but at the muscles that he didn't have when he lived here. When he was eleven, he eavesdropped on a meeting between his teacher and principal as they tried to decide whether to suspend or expel him following a fight that he doesn't remember the details of now. The principal had suggested abuse in the home as a root cause for Sid's behavioral problems.

"I don't think so," the teacher said. "As far as I can tell, it's more of a neglectful situation. He's not getting beaten, he's just - weather-beaten."

Sid had looked the term up when he got home from school, following their disciplinary ruling, which was only suspension, to his disappointment. Weather-beaten was defined online as bearing evidence of wear or damage as a result of exposure to the weather. For the remainder of Sid's childhood and adolescence, until he had his first real growth spurt, he thought of himself this way: a skeletal orphan who was always coming in out of the rain, teeth chattering. Pitied.

They all wash up and move to the kitchen, where nobody offers Sid a drink. Andy is only twenty, but Sid turned twenty-one back in November. He does a cursory examination of the countertops and fridge, looking for so much as a Smirnoff Ice, and there's nothing.

"So, Sid," Andy's mother says while she rips chunks from a big ass head of lettuce, tossing them into a silver mixing bowl. "What are your interests?"

"Mom," Andy says, groaning. Molly giggles.

"Here's his number one interest," she says, taking Andy's shoulders and turning him toward their mother. "I can't believe you guys have been together since like, middle school," Molly says, looking at Sid. "That's so romantic."

"Middle school?" Andy's mother says.

"Molly!" Andy says. He's not blushing; he actually looks kind of proud of himself. Sid tries not to think about how old Andy was when he first crawled down between Sid's legs to blow him, but he feels like he has the number fourteen and a lewd stick figure approximation of oral sex tattooed on his forehead.

"You want me to go pick up a bottle of wine or something?" he asks. Moms like wine, he's heard.

"I've got some," Andy's mother says. She looks up from her lettuce, and Sid can't tell if she's annoyed or impressed. "Do you want to open it for me? It's up in those cabinets over the fridge."

"You're like, the only person who's ever opened them without a foot stool," Molly says as Sid reaches up to find the wine. It's one bottle, red, but he'll take what he can get.

"I get some, right?" Molly says. She's improvising what might be ballet steps, twirling herself around like a much younger girl. "Mom? Right?"

"I'll think about it," Andy's mother says.

"It's a special occasion!" Molly says. She stops her dance at the kitchen sink and looks out the window at the rain. She doesn't look much like Andy, but she's got his eye catching butt, which Sid feels guilty for noticing.

They all end up drinking a glass of the wine, which means only one for Sid, which means nothing resembling a buzz. Dinner is fine, except that he's forced to answer the question about his interests. Working out, he tells them. Lifting. Sometimes basketball, if the guys hanging around the court at the gym aren't assholes. They usually are. He censors that part.

"I think he should be a self defense instructor," Andy blurts at one point, close to drunk on a single glass of wine.

"I'm not exactly certified," Sid says. This goddamn conversation again, and here of all places.

"Yeah, but you could be," Andy says. "You're smart enough." He leaves off the rest of that sentence. To get your GED. Silence descends, and Sid knows they're all thinking it. If they didn't know he was a high school drop out, there would be more pointed career questions. He also hasn't failed to notice that the subject of his parents hasn't come up at all. Andy must have warned them not to say anything.

After dinner, everyone pitches in to clean up. Molly hands Sid dripping dishes to wipe dry with a towel, and sweat gathers under his arms when he can't get the glasses dry without leaving ugly streaks. Molly is talking about her last track meet, suddenly Sid's best friend, and Andy and his mother are laughing about some dog they used to have. Sid feels like pitching every dish he's handed to the floor and walking out into the rain, and it's made worse by the fact that he has no real reason to want to flee. These people are nice, they're fine, they're great. They're responsible for making Andy into the one good thing Sid has ever had.

"How about we play Scrabble?" Andy's mother says, and Andy must know that this is like nails across a chalkboard for Sid, because he gives him a sympathetic look and shakes his head.

"I think we're too tired," Andy says. "Long flight and all."

Sid gets the first use of the hall shower, according to house guest etiquette. He feels weird being naked in Andy's childhood home, but he stays under the water for a long time, wishing he was drunk enough to get a number of things off his mind. He's no longer relieved to be sleeping alone on the couch, and he touches his cock glumly. He wants to be back home, on the couch after dinner with Andy stretched out on top of him, both of them staring at the TV as Sid's lazy back rub segues into a proper groping. Sid thinks of Greg there, tending to the plants and snooping through their shit. It makes him feel like his life has been stolen from him, as if some other, truer Andy is back in L.A., watching Greg water the lemon tree.

When he gets out of the shower he dresses in the bathroom, which also feels strange. He usually goes straight for the bed after a shower, naked and damp and waiting for Andy to follow. It's not just the sex that he misses, it's the knowing where to go. He feels like an asshole for rubbing his balls dry with the fluffy blue guest towel Andy's mother set out for him.

The house is quiet, and he follows the sound of conversation down the hall, to the half-open door of Andy's room. He's inside with Molly, and Sid lingers in the hallway, not sure if he should interrupt.

“He's cuter than I remembered,” Molly is saying. “But man, you weren't kidding about the tattoos.”

“They've grown on me,” Andy says.

“Does he have one with your name somewhere?” Molly asks.

“No.”

“Why not? Maybe he could get an 'Andy' on the bottom of his foot, like the way you used to write on all your toys.”

“Don't be stupid.”

“Why's it stupid? You're gonna be together forever, aren't you?”

Sid doesn't want to hear the answer to that question, so he makes a big production of walking down the hall, clearing his throat so they'll know he's coming. Andy and Molly are sitting on the bed. Andy is flushed, embarrassed either by being caught talking about Sid or being forced to think about their future.

“I'll give you two some privacy,” Molly says, and Andy throws a pillow at her as she leaves the room. When she's gone, Sid shuts the door as soundlessly as possible.

“Sleep up here with me,” Andy says, patting the bed. He's wearing sweatpants and a too small t-shirt, no socks. “My mom won't care.”

“I don't know,” Sid says, thinking of Molly going downstairs to her mother, the discussion they'll have about him. “I was thinking about going out.”

“Out?” Andy snorts. “Where to? It's raining.”

“So? I was thinking about Jimmy Collins, this guy I used to smoke with. I think he still lives here.”

“And?” Andy scowls in a way that makes Sid think of all their worst fights.

“And I thought I'd go find out,” Sid says, sharply, because that look always makes him claw at the air like a cornered animal. “I feel like getting high.”

“Why?” Andy asks. His face is turning red, like always. The best Sid can figure is that he's humiliated by how disappointed Sid can still make him. “I think things are going really well.”

“Sure,” Sid says, though he doesn't think that. They're being nice to him, he knew they would be, but even if they've been coached not to ask about certain things, they're definitely thinking about them. “What else am I supposed to do?” Sid asks. “Go to sleep? It's ten o'clock. If we were home I'd be leaving for my shift.”

“You could get in bed with me,” Andy says. “It's kind of nice – with the rain – we could, I don't know. Talk.”

“Nothing to talk about,” Sid says, already backing toward the door. “You saw your people, I behaved myself, now I'm gonna see my people.”

“Your people?” Andy glares at him. “You're comparing Jimmy Collins to my family?”

“Closest I had when I lived here,” Sid says. He's halfway through the door before Andy jumps up and grabs his arm, yanking him back inside.

“What are you going to do, walk there in the rain?” Andy asks. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“I'm bored,” Sid says. He jerks his arm free. “And I can walk, yeah. It's not far from here.”

“Why are you doing this?” Andy asks, but the question comes out so quietly that Sid allows himself to ignore it. He walks out of the room and Andy follows, stepping into his shoes on the way.

“You're coming?” Sid says. He scoffs as if this is ridiculous. It's actually a relief.

“What am I supposed to do, let you go off by yourself?” Andy looks like he might cry, and Sid is going to back down, but then the scowl is back. “How would that look?” Andy says. “I have to come. I'll tell them we're seeing an old friend.”

“That is what we're doing,” Sid says. “What I'm doing, anyway.”

Andy shakes his head and pushes around Sid, heading for the stairs. Sid follows, feeling as if he's been possessed. He'd rather be in that twin bed with Andy, under the blankets, letting Andy talk about whatever the fuck he wants. Like old times, in Sid's bedroom, when they would lie on their stomachs and Andy would talk while Sid stared at his mouth, wanting to lick his lips apart. But they can't do that here, with Andy's mother and sister downstairs wondering what they're doing, and what Sid is going to do with his life, and why they're not allowed to ask about his parents, unless of course Andy has told them why, which would be worse. Sid will suffocate if he has to spend another full minute in this house, and he's almost jogging by the time they reach the foyer.

“We're going out,” Andy tells his mother, who is setting up a makeshift bed for Sid on the living room couch. “We'll be back – we won't be long – just going to see some old high school friends.”

“Oh.” Andy's mother frowns. “Anyone I know?”

“I don't think so,” Andy says, following Sid out onto the porch. “We'll borrow the van, if that's okay?”

“Of course – ah. Be careful, the storm is pretty bad.”

Andy insists on driving, and he's silent in the car as Sid mutters the directions to Jimmy's house. Sid wants a cigarette, but knows that Andy would make him walk in the rain before he let him smoke in his mother's van. He puts the window down anyway, just a crack, so that he can smell the rain. It was just on the verge of raining that night when they were kids, when Sid climbed up and knocked on Andy's window. He really didn't think Andy would let him inside, but he didn't have anywhere else to go, and it was worth a try. Everything in his life would be different if Andy had left him out there to get soaked by the rain.

"I don't know what more you want from them," Andy says, both hands tight around the steering wheel. "I think they're being great, considering that you haven't even bothered to meet them in three years – or, fuck, ten years, if you could all the ones before."

"You never fucking asked me to meet them," Sid says. "Back then."

"I knew you'd say no. And you weren't even – I was never even sure that you were my boyfriend."

Sid just scoffs and stares out the window, because it feels that way now, again, and he knew that it would as soon as they stepped off that plane. It's the real reason he's never been back here, more than having to make nice with Andy's mother and Molly, who aren't hard to make nice with. Sid has paid for Andy's college textbooks for the past six semesters, but barely six hours back here and he's not really sure that Andy belongs to him.

Jimmy's house looks just like it did back then, and Sid sits staring at it from the passenger seat, surprised that it's still here. This is where he used to come when Andy was inaccessible and Sid wanted to forget his own name. It's strange to be here with Andy, to be here again at all, but everything is fucked up and he might as well go with it. He throws the door open, half expecting Andy to peel away in the van and leave him, but Andy follows him through the rain, toward the door.

"I won't be long," Sid says. Andy doesn't look at him.

"You're not bringing pot back to my mom's house," he says when Sid knocks.

"Duh," Sid says, though that was kind of what he was hoping to do, so that they wouldn't have to hang around with Jimmy.

Jimmy has gained a lot of weight, and he's starting to lose his hair. There's something off about his teeth, though Sid can't put his finger on it in the dimly lit interior of the house, which is as incongruous as he remembers it: Jimmy's mother's cat figurines on top of the television and Jimmy's drug paraphernalia brazenly spread out on the coffee table, amid ashtrays and crushed Bud Light cans.

"Mom's asleep," Jimmy says as he passes beers to Sid and Andy. "She's got to work in the morning." He gives them a warning look.

"I wasn't gonna play my trombone," Sid says. "Just wondering how you've been, and. You know. If you've got anything."

"Nothing I want to sell," Jimmy says snottily. He looks back and forth between them. "Is it true you guys moved to San Francisco and got married?"

"No," Sid says. He digs his cigarettes out and lights up. "That what people are saying?" Not that he cares. Not that any of these assholes would have the balls to say that to his old man, and not that Sid would give a shit anyway. Jimmy shrugs.

They take the rest of the Bud Lights down to the basement, Jimmy's cave. Sid half expects to see the rest of the losers he used to hang out with in high school down there, fatter and balder but otherwise unchanged. There's nobody, just reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel Air on Jimmy's old TV. Sid tries to catch Andy's eyes, but Andy still won't look at him. He's examining the curling posters on the walls as if this is some kind of fucked up museum.

"I've been working up at Yogurt World," Jimmy says. "Assistant manager." He flicks his chin at Andy. "I guess you're a senator or something?" he says, as if Andy snickered at Jimmy's career choice.

"I'm in school," Andy says. He kills his beer and grabs another one. "Sid does private security."

This is what Andy tells his friends, to inflate Sid's station, either for Sid's benefit or his own, Sid can never tell. Sid snorts and leans back onto Jimmy's futon, throwing an arm around Andy's shoulders just to see if he'll shrug it off. He doesn't, but he's tense, despite the beer he's chugging.

"Private security," Sid says, shaking his head, because they don't need to put on those airs for Jimmy, which is why Sid wanted to see his loser ass more than anything else tonight. "I'm a bouncer, fucking graveyard shift. Everyone I work with is an ex-con."

"They know about your situation?" Jimmy asks.

"My situation?"

"The butt buddy situation," Jimmy said, nodding to Andy.

"Fuck you," Andy mutters. He crumples the beer can in his hand and reaches for another one.

"Jesus, what's your hurry?" Sid says, wondering if Andy is just trying to force him to be the designated driver. Andy shoots him a look.

"I thought we came here to get fucked up?" Andy says. He looks at Jimmy. "Certainly didn't come for the company."

"Ha," Jimmy says. "Nice manners."

"Ignore him," Sid says. He pulls his arm from Andy's shoulders and gets another beer for himself. "He's pissed off at me."

"What are you guys doing back here, anyway?" Jimmy asks.

"Visiting his family," Sid says.

"Oh?" Jimmy snorts. "Looks like that's going well. You seen your dad yet?"

"No," Sid says. He can feel the nervous jolt that moves through Andy, even though they're not touching. "I got nothing to say to him."

"We all thought he threw you out," Jimmy says.

"He still living over there?" Sid asks, examining his beer can.

"The fuck should I know?"

"We could drive by if you want," Andy says. "See if his car is there."

"Hell no," Sid says. He stands up. "I need to piss. Bathroom?"

"You seriously don't remember where it is?" Jimmy says, laughing. Sid shrugs.

"My memories of being over are pretty fucking hazy."

"Shit, man. I'm wounded." Jimmy jerks his thumb over his shoulder. "Can's over there."

Sid is way too far from anything resembling a high, but the tiny, rank-smelling bathroom makes his head spin when he shuts the door and turns on the light. He wants Andy to be more pissed off than he is, wants to fight and blow up and fly home alone. He thinks of seeing his father's car in the driveway at that old house, and what that would mean. Sid wouldn't be surprised if his father hadn't even noticed that Sid had gone, if he'd just ask him to take out the fucking trash if Sid sauntered in through the front door. That's your life's calling, huh? Right? Your main talent? He imagines a three year accumulation of rancid black trash bags piled up in that never-used kitchen, waiting for Sid to show up and collect them.

When he opens the door Andy is standing there, swaying on his feet. Fucking lightweight. Sid steadies him, and Andy smirks, his eyelids heavy.

"Have to pee," Andy says, slumping against him. "Move."

"Need me to help you get your pants open?" Sid asks, and Andy laughs wetly against his shoulder.

"Uh, no."

Sid waits outside the bathroom door, listening for a crash, but everything sounds like it's in order. He walks back into the main sitting area and stares down at Jimmy, who is squinting up at him, his foot bouncing on the carpet.

"I guess I kind of knew you were a fag," Jimmy says. "You never looked twice at any of the chicks we had over here. You could have fucked Penny Gale," he says, like this might change Sid's mind about everything. Sid shakes his head.

"Yogurt World, man," he says.

"Yeah, well." Jimmy finishes his beer and lets the can drop to the floor. "Here's to realized potential." He looks like he's going to fall asleep any minute, and Sid thinks about all the times he passed out down here in the middle of the afternoon. He would wake up confused, disoriented, wanting to be in his bed with Andy asleep beside him, Andy's fist curled over his mouth and his t-shirt rucked up so that his boxer shorts peeked out. Even if they'd dry humped each other into a stupor before falling asleep, Sid would still be nervous about touching him, as if it wasn't allowed. He would reach over to run his fingertips over the crinkly waistband of Andy's boxers, his heart pounding while he watched for any sign that Andy might wake up.

Andy comes out of the bathroom, yawning and buttoning his jeans. Sid swallows down a shock of panic at the realization that he's brought Andy to a bad place, a trash heap that he's too good to have to see. He sometimes used to wish Andy was here with him, passed out and napping on his chest, but Andy has never needed to erase himself for a whole afternoon the way Sid did when they were kids. He grabs Andy's elbow and pulls him toward the stairs.

"Thanks for the beers," he calls to Jimmy, who waves a hand through the air.

"You're not welcome," he says.

"Why are we leaving?" Andy asks as Sid helps him up the stairs, Andy moving like he's got cinderblocks for feet.

"'Cause you're a cheap drunk," Sid says. He kisses Andy's temple and checks the hallway for Jimmy's mother when they reach the top of the stairs. She used to scare him, not because he thought she would bark at him for smoking or skipping school, but because she was a kind of blank space where an adult should be, which reminded him of his father, who terrified him, back then. Back then, not now – back then.

"That guy's an asshole," Andy says as they push out through the front door, back into the rain. "He said we were married." Andy laughs and stumbles, and Sid catches him before he can faceplant in the muddy grass.

"He's who I would have been without you," Sid says, because Andy won't remember this in the morning. Andy flops against his side, nosing at Sid's neck like he might settle in for sleep right here.

"No way," Andy says. "Don't be crazy."

Andy dozes in the passenger seat on the way back to his house. Sid thinks about turning down Sycamore, heading toward his father's house, but he doesn't, 'cause why the fuck would he? Just to get called a garbageman for old times sake? Or a fag, for a change of pace? It doesn't make any sense, not even his curiosity. He shouldn't even give a shit if the bastard is alive or not.

There are very few things he remembers about his father from before his mother died: a swimming pool, either on vacation or in the Michigan suburb they lived in when Sid was very little. He remembers the smell of his father's chlorine-soaked shoulder, and holding on tight, scared of the water but not of the old man. He was the safe place, once.

When they come through the front door, Sid really doesn't expect Andy's mother to be there, but she is, in the kitchen doorway, a dishtowel slung over her shoulder. Sid and Andy are soaking wet, and Andy is drunk, laughing at nothing.

"He had a few beers," Sid says as Andy's mother walks forward, her frown coming slowly, like she's still fighting her instinct to interpret this badly. Everything about her is miniature, and Sid wants to apologize for being too big, so obviously out of place that he feels like an rhinoceros at a tea party.

"Mom," Andy says, reaching for her. "It's raining. Can I have ice cream?"

“Honey, you're drenched.” She gives Sid a questioning look that breaks him in two. He's never been good with mothers. If Greg were here they'd be on their fifth round of Scrabble.

“No, it's okay, because, um.” Andy laughs, hugging his mother's shoulders. “We drink all the time.”

“Not really,” Sid says, though they kind of do, beers on the couch and gin on Sunday, when Sid is off of work and Andy is finished with the week's classes and homework. It's nice, it's cozy; it's not like what Andy's mother will think, seeing this.

“Okay, let's just – get you upstairs,” Andy's mother says, speaking to him like he's eight years old, which isn't inappropriate considering how he's giggling and flinging water everywhere. Andy is a ridiculous drunk, always has been. Normally Sid loves it, especially on Sundays, when Andy will sit in Sid's lap on the patio and make plans for the lemon tree while the sun goes down over the city. This, however, is excruciating, because they just got here, and Sid couldn't even get through one night without drenching the festivities in booze.

Andy's mother walks upstairs with Andy leaning on her, still talking about ice cream, and Sid is left alone and awkward in the living room. He looks at the couch that's been made up as a bed, the flower print pillowcase and a quilt that looks homemade. He steps out of his shoes, not wanting to get the carpet wet, and wonders if he'll have to put them back on when Andy's mother comes back downstairs and tells him to get lost.

When she returns she's carrying a pair of sweatpants, a t-shirt and a towel, everything folded in a neat stack. She presents it to him like it's a birthday cake with glowing candles.

“These were my ex-husband's,” she says, nodding to the clothes. “I don't know why I kept them, but I guess it's good that I did. I don't think you'd fit into Andy's stuff – I didn't want to go through your bags.”

“No – I – thanks,” Sid says, staring down at the stack of clean, dry things. He opens his mouth to say something else, and then it just hangs open. He can feel her eyes on him as he takes the clothes from her.

“It's not a very common name,” she says. “Sid.”

He looks up at her, all the comfort of his size sucked away from him when their eyes meet. He's the orphan again, out of the rain, accepting charity that he doesn't deserve.

“I remember you,” she says. “And your father. Andy didn't want me to tell you.”

“Sorry,” Sid says. He should hand the clothes back to her and slink off into the night, but her eyes hold him in place. They're blue; Andy's eyes.

“No, I'm sorry,” she says. “Andy probably hasn't told you – he protects you, it's sweet, but – when you were kids, I told him he wasn't allowed to be your friend. That was wrong of me. Judgmental, and small, and I'm glad he didn't listen.”

Sid is stripped down to nothing by that, skinned to his waterlogged bones, and he has to look again at the folded clothes, can't meet her eyes.

“Maybe you think we don't talk about you, but he tells me everything,” she says. “He told me you taught him how to change the oil in his car, and you pay his cell phone bill, and you brought him Toaster Strudels in bed when he had the flu.”

“That's -” Sid says, embarrassed, shaking his head. “I just -”

“Go get changed,” Andy's mother says, guiding him toward the guest bathroom. “Before you catch a cold. And get some rest. It's been a long, weird day.”

So for the second time tonight, he's standing in front of a bathroom mirror, dizzy. This bathroom is much cleaner than the one at Jimmy's house, faintly cinnamon-scented, a basket of decorating magazines beside the toilet, but he's no less disoriented. If only Jimmy had sold him some pot. After what just happened, he might have offered to smoke with Andy's mother. He dries off and dresses in the clothes she gave him, which feel itchy and too clean, like someone else's good intentions. He's afraid she'll be there when he walks back into the living room, waiting with more devastating kindness, but the room is dark and empty. He sits on the couch and stares at the cold fireplace for a long time, the rain calming to a patter against the windows. He's got a feeling like he forgot something, a toothbrush or a stick of deodorant, and when he realizes what it is he stands up and heads for the stairs: Andy, he needs Andy.

It's autopilot, the same thing that brought him to Andy's room that night when Sid's father got arrested. He'd woken to the sound of plates breaking, his step-mother shrieking, the growl of his father's voice, and when he heard the sirens he bolted toward the only thing that felt safe anymore. He reaches the door of Andy's room and finds it just barely open, which is enough of an invitation to slip inside, quiet as smoke. Lightning flashes as he closes the door behind him, and he walks toward the bed, where Andy is asleep on his stomach, stripped to his boxer shorts, hugging his pillow.

“Hey,” Sid says, sitting down beside him. Andy moans but doesn't stir. Sid pulls his fingers through Andy's damp hair, and Andy sighs into his pillow.

It rips through him just like it always did, even when they were kids, before Sid knew what he wanted it to mean: you're mine, you're mine, you're mine. Andy's mother might want to give him credit for the Toaster Strudels, fine, but Sid really does all of that for himself. Taking care of Andy is what he's good at, the only thing he really likes to do. When he can't do it anymore, when Andy is a geologist with an office and a salary and a tie rack, Sid won't know how to fill his days.

“'Idy?,” Andy says, mumbling, his eyes still closed. He gropes for Sid, taking a handful of his t-shirt. “Where are you? C'mere.”

Andy is asleep again as soon as Sid rolls him against his chest, but Sid is wide awake, his heart pounding. He tries to lose himself in the smell of rainwater on Andy's skin, and presses his face to the warmest spot on Andy's neck, just under his jaw. He wants to sleep, feels even smaller than he did last time he was in this bed, but it's not as easy as it was that night, when he was still a secret that Andy was keeping. Now he's a known contaminant, bringing Andy back here wet and ragged, trying to pretend that they can live an orphaned life together.

In the morning, Andy is pouty and hungover. How he manages this after three beers and a glass of wine, Sid has no idea. They squirm against each other at dawn, and Sid pets Andy's cheek with his thumb.

"I should go back downstairs," Sid says. Andy shakes his head.

"Stay," he says. "I'm sick."

"You're not sick." Sid puts the back of his hand against Andy's forehead. He does feel warm, but that's only because they're pressed together under the blankets on this tiny fucking bed. He kisses Andy's nose.

"Now you're being all sweet," Andy says.

"I'm always all sweet."

Andy grumbles something unintelligible and nuzzles at Sid's chest, sweaty and bedsheet-scented, making Sid hard inside his borrowed sweatpants. He thinks of waking up here when he was nine years old, humiliated to near death by the memory of crying and letting Andy hold him. Still, he had the feeling Andy would never tell anyone. He looks down at Andy now, and knows he's thinking about it, too.

"Did you climb in through the window last night?" Andy asks.

"Nope. Came up the stairs."

"I don't even remember getting in bed."

"Your mother hauled your drunk ass up here. How do you get that wasted off of that shitty beer?"

"I guess I'm just lucky," Andy says. He winces when he lifts his head. "Also, I drank 'em pretty fast. And I may have sneaked some brandy before dinner."

"Brandy? Where was the brandy?"

"In the dining room," Andy says. He sits up on one elbow and looks down at Sid, studying him. "Should I not have told you?"

"I won't drink any," Sid says, scowling at him. "Unless I'm offered. Which is the polite thing to do, usually."

"Sorry," Andy says. "I was nervous."

"Nervous, what? That I'd get drunk and stupid?" He doesn't have to lie here and listen to this, his growing irritation making his dick deflate. Andy catches his wrist and tries to keep him in bed, but Sid is stronger, and he vaults over Andy like he's a crack in the sidewalk.

"That's not what I meant - shit." Andy sits up and rubs at the bridge of his nose. "My head - can you shut the blinds?"

Sid does so, and exits the room as stealthily as possible, which proves useless, because Molly is in the hallway, smiling up at him while she ties on a pair of sneakers.

"Want to come running with me?" she asks. "I only do three miles."

Sid agrees to join her without hesitation. There's nothing he wants more right now than to run.

They jog down streets that are distantly familiar to Sid, getting close to his father's old house before Molly makes a right turn in the opposite direction. Sid isn't sure if he's relieved or disappointed. The air is muggy, making his bones feel heavier than normal.

"When you guys invite me out to L.A., we can run on the beach," Molly says.

"So you got a standing invitation now?" Sid says, and he jabs her with his elbow so she'll know he's kidding. She grins.

"Andy said you were on the track team in high school."

"Briefly. I'm not great with teams."

"Too cool for them?" Molly says, and she gives him an elbow jab. Sid huffs a laugh, embarrassed, because yeah, that was kind of what he was going for, image-wise.

"Race to the end of the road?" she says when they're almost back to the house. Sid doesn't answer, just bolts, and she shrieks with laughter, tearing ahead and beating him easily. She's still spry as hell when they come to a stop, Sid panting and Molly bouncing around like a cartoon rabbit, punching the air.

"What are you on?" Sid asks, bracing his hands on his knees.

"Nothing," she says. "You shouldn't smoke. It shrinks your lung capacity, or something."

"You don't say?" Sid straightens up, a head rush making his vision tunnel for a moment. "Tell me more, doctor, this is fascinating stuff."

"Do you really get in fights at work?" Molly asks. She's still bouncing, throwing a few fake-out punches in his direction.

"Sometimes," he says. He starts walking back to the house, hoping she'll follow his lead, and she does.

"That's so hardcore," she says. "But what if somebody had a knife or something?"

"I'd take it from them."

"A gun?"

"Same deal. They train us, you know. For situations."

"Like, self defense?" She makes a gun with her fingers and sticks it in his ribs. "You're good at it?"

"Yeah." It's the only thing he'll claim to be good at: staying calm in a fight, throwing the other guy to the floor. Last year he started looking into cage fighting, dreaming about the big cash prizes, but Andy found out and forbade it.

"So how come you don't teach a class or something, like Andy said?"

Sid could get pissed off and defensive, but he's too tired, and he can't imagine anyone getting pissed off at this kid. He sits down on a sewer cover that might be the same one he sat on the first time he kissed Andy. Molly sits beside him, tucking her knees to her chest and staring at him, waiting for an answer.

"There's more involved with teaching self defense than just being good at it," Sid says.

"No, there isn't," Molly says. She wrinkles her nose. "What do you mean?"

"Degrees. Certificates. Employment history."

"Uh, you have an employment history."

"Not technically."

"Huh?"

"They give me cash at the end of the night," Sid says. "I'm not on payroll. I don't have health insurance."

"Whoa!" Molly grabs his arm. "Seriously? What if you got hurt, though? Like when you got this." She touches the scar on his cheek, suddenly looking very much like Andy.

"Your brother patched me up," Sid says. He rubs his fingers over the scar while Molly stares at him, her eyes still wide with Andy-like concern. That was actually a pretty terrible night, when he came home from work early with a sliced-open cheek. Andy went white-faced and tried to take him to the emergency room, then turned green when Sid reminded him that emergency trips weren't exactly within his budget. A box of butterfly stitches from the drug store worked well enough, but Andy was in a panic over the whole thing anyway. They fought, and Sid waited to hear that word that had ripped the ground out from under him when he was seventeen: loser, you're such a loser. Andy didn't say it, but Sid let himself assume that he was thinking it, and it made him mean. He heard himself start to sound like his father, and went for a long walk until it passed. When he got back Andy was wet-eyed and quiet, and he skipped his morning classes in favor of curling up in Sid's lap on the couch and letting Sid rub his neck until they'd both stopped shaking.

"Let me see your tattoos," Molly says, and he puts his arm out so she can examine them. She does so with passive interest, turning his arm over like she's reading the life story that is written on his skin.

"I added it up once, and it was like four thousand dollars total for all of 'em," Sid says. He's not sure why he's telling her this, because it's not something he wants Andy to know. He's afraid of the way Andy's eyes would bug out with something akin to betrayal, even though it's not his money, not technically.

"This is my favorite," Molly says. "The fish."

"It's a koi," Sid says. "They swim upstream. It's supposed to mean something about, like. Adversity, I guess."

"That's neat," Molly says. "You should get one, as a pet."

"Andy wants to. He wants a pond full of them. He's got this whole yard planned for the house we don't have." Last year he told Sid that he wants one of those trees with the purple leaves, like the one in Sid's backyard when they were kids, by the picnic table. Sid was surprised he remembered. After Andy moved away, Sid would go out there and sit on the ground under that tree, bored as hell, staring at the loose plank in the fence that Andy was never going to walk through again.

"Andy's got a lot of plans," Molly says. She sighs and picks at some dry skin on her elbow. "Me, I've got no idea what I want to do."

"I know the feeling," Sid says. She looks up at him and raises an eyebrow.

"That's not true," she says. "You've got Andy."

"Yeah. I guess I'll be cleaning scum out of the koi pond for the rest of my life."

"Andy wouldn't make you clean things."

"Why shouldn't he? But you're right, he'd hire someone. He's gonna make big money. Him and his rock loving friends, they're gonna start a surveying company. Maybe they'll let me answer the phones."

"Here, practice," Molly says, making her hand into a phone and holding it up to Sid's ear. She makes a ringing noise that scares a bird out of a nearby tree. Sid stares at her in disbelief, but she just beams at him, waiting for him to play along.

“Hello,” he says, speaking into Molly's thumb. “Andy Davis' office. His servant speaking.”

“No, no,” Molly says. She takes the pretend telephone away and puts it to her own ear. “Say, like: Good afternoon, Davis Enterprises, Mr. Phillips speaking. How may I direct your call?”

“Nice. Got a pen? I should write that down.”

Molly smiles. She puts her hands on her knees and studies Sid like her mother did last night in the living room, like he can puff up his chest as big as he wants but he's not fooling her. Sid thinks of Andy in bed, pouting and hugging his pillow, and he loves him so much for being fooled.

“I'm probably gonna be a secretary,” Molly says. “Andy got all the brains.”

“What are you talking about? You're smart.”

She looks at him like he just regurgitated last night's dinner and told her it was caviar.

“I'm failing Geometry,” she says. “Again.”

“There's different kinds of smart,” Sid says.

“I know,” she says. “But I'm still the secretary-becoming kind.”

“So what? My mother was a secretary.”

“Seriously?” She looks down at her chewed-up fingernails. “What happened to her?”

“Andy didn't tell you?”

“Well. He said she died. That's all.”

“There was this blood clot.” Sid touches his leg every time he thinks about it, because that's where it started, working up its murderous nerve until it rocketed up to her lung. His former step-mother was the one who finally told him the details, when he was eight years old. “This totally random thing.”

“Is she buried here?” Molly asks, and Sid appreciates her not saying I'm sorry. Andy said it a thousand times when they first had this conversation, which was an hour or so after sex, naked in Sid's bed on some weekday afternoon, five years ago. Sid had looked everywhere but into Andy's eyes, until he finally did, and he put all that bright blue sympathy into a box that he keeps next to his memory of his mother's flannel nightgown.

“No, her grave's up in Michigan,” Sid says. “I should go. I've never. So.”

Molly is quiet, and when Sid looks up at her she seems like she's elsewhere, her eyes unfocused and her shoulders hunched.

“Did you ever meet my dad?” she asks, like maybe Sid and Andy have tea parties with him out in L.A. Andy never even talks about him, and Sid has wondered if he should ask.

“Nope.”

“Okay, well. He's an asshole.”

“So's mine.” Sid puts out his hand, and they shake on it, then he helps her up.

“Race you to the house?” Molly says. He should say no; he's exhausted and lightheaded, barely slept for two hours last night, but he takes off when she does, and runs full speed until they get there, losing badly again.

 

*

In the kitchen, Andy is slumped at the table, looking greenish. His mother is making waffles, batter dripping over the edges of the iron. There are fat strawberries in a white bowl, and what must be bacon folded into a stack of paper towels, grease stains leaching through. Molly drops to a seat at the table and helps herself to orange juice – a fucking glass pitcher of orange juice, Jesus Christ. Sid stands in the doorway until everyone is staring at him.

“I should take a shower,” he says.

“Where were you?” Andy asks, glaring at him.

“We went for a run,” Molly says. She kicks Andy under the table, and he kicks her back.

“Guys!” Andy's mother says. She looks at Sid, and waves him toward the stairs with the spatula she's holding. “Help yourself to the shower,” she says. “It's all yours.”

Sid wants to stand outside the kitchen and listen to what they'll all say about him, but then again he doesn't. He goes upstairs and strips free of his borrowed clothes, realizing only when he's standing under the water that he doesn't have anything clean to put on when he gets out.

Leaving the bathroom with only the too-small towel wrapped around his waist makes him feel subject to arrest. He looks up and down the hallway, startled when he hears footsteps on the stairs and relieved when he sees that it's only Andy.

"Which way is your room?" Sid asks. Andy is grinning, but he looks deathly, his hair matted and his eyelids heavy.

"This way," he says. He puts his hands on Sid's hips and pulls him forward like they're going to make out right here in the hallway.

"You're delirious," Sid says. Andy's cheeks are flushed, hot to the touch, and he smells like maple syrup. "You're really sick, aren't you?"

"I dunno," Andy says, sniffling. "Sorry I was a jerk. Molly told me you guys bonded."

"Oh, yeah. We braided each other's hair."

Andy rolls his eyes and pulls Sid toward his room. Sid digs through their bags and dresses while Andy flops back into the bed. Normally Sid kind of likes it when Andy is all feverish and helpless, just for the excuse to be the adult while Andy plays the kid, but now he feels terrible. It's his fault Andy is sick, from the rain and the booze and the stress of last night.

"What are we doing today?" Sid asks, already starting to feel antsy.

"I think I need to sleep," Andy says. "Mom wants to go see this art exhibit in the city. You should go with her."

"Alone with your mother?" Sid scoffs. "At a museum?" His cooperation with this attempt at normal human relations will only go so far.

"Molly will go, too," Andy says. "I bribed her."

"With what?"

"Promised her she could come visit us this summer." Andy moans and rolls onto his back. His eyes are all gummy and sick-looking, and Sid wants to stay here and watch him sleep, but he knows that's not what Andy wants, and Sid owes him one.

"Fine," Sid says, and Andy smiles.

"I'll show you where the brandy is tonight," he says.

"You don't have to," Sid says, too sharply. He doesn't need to be paid off for making an effort, though, if he's honest: yes, he wants to be. He leans down to kiss Andy's forehead, and lingers there with his face hovering over Andy's, feeling like he should make some sort of formal apology for the condition he's left Andy in, but Andy looks pretty content, curled up in bed, still in his pajamas, exempt from this field trip. Andy has never been big on art, at least not the kind that hangs in museums or gets inked onto Sid's skin. Andy thinks rock formations are art. They spent three days in Arizona back in March, just wandering around looking at boulders. Sid sort of loved it, not for the rocks but for the way Andy got excited over them, and attempted to explain their intricacies, and got sunburned enough to need Sid to rub aloe on him back at the hotel.

"Have fun," Andy says as Sid heads out of the room, his chest tightening with dread. He turns back to give Andy a withering look, but he's already wrapped himself around his pillow and closed his eyes.

The rain is gone but the clouds are still hanging around, and Sid daydreams about those days of blinding sun in Arizona as they drive into the city. The streets remind him of soggy newspaper, and of first arriving here with his father, still confused about where his mother was exactly. Molly is reading from a brochure advertising the exhibit they're going to see.

"Discover splendid tapestries, painted portraits, altarpieces, stained glass, exquisite illuminated manuscripts, and monumental sculpture made to express the power and prestige of the kings of France and their court." She turns from the passenger seat and grins at Sid. "Sounds like your kind of thing."

"Sid, you really didn't have to come," Andy's mother says. She seems irritated with him, maybe because he skipped breakfast, which he's regretting now.

"No, it's okay," he says. "Sounds good." Molly snorts.

"I hope they have princess crowns," she says. "Sparkly ones."

The museum is crowded, which reminds Sid that it's Sunday. The one off day that he shares with Andy: if they were home they'd be falling back asleep after a first round of half-awake sex, and in an hour they'd either have each other again or get up to eat Toaster Strudels. Andy would want to go to some state park to look at rocks or birds or just talk Sid's ear off about how being out West in the wilderness makes him feel like a settler or a gold rusher or a cowboy. They'd have lunch at a place with decent beer and Andy would put his head on Sid's shoulder while they stared up at a ball game playing on the bar television, and Sid would get that panicked affection-in-public feeling before letting the thrill of holding public claim to Andy replace it. Back at the apartment: a nap, then the gin, the porch, the sunset, Andy in his lap, the plans for their someday backyard. Today, instead, he's filing past pictures of pale-faced royals, thinking about returning to the house and submitting to Scrabble.

"Were you raised with religion?" Molly asks when they're standing in front of a stained glass window featuring a bleeding Jesus.

"Not really," Sid says, though he was, and their church was the liquor store on the corner of Sycamore and Fifth, where his father was among the most devout parishioners. Sid preferred to worship in basements like Jimmy's, melting his mind away on dirty mattresses while the television played sitcom rerun sermons.

"We weren't raised that way, either," Molly says. "Maybe that's why Andy's all science-y. I think it would have been kind of nice, though."

"I always said you could go to church with your friends if you wanted to," Andy's mother says. Molly shrugs.

"I didn't like the going to church part so much," she says. "Just the believing part."

Sid and Andy have never really talked about this. For Andy it seems like a non-issue, and Sid's general feeling has always been that whatever order the universe may or may not have is none of his business. His personal beliefs about it aren't going to change whatever's true. He does think about his mother sometimes, and could get behind the idea that some part of her isn't just gone forever.

"Look at this," Andy's mother says when they're stopped in front of a huge tapestry that's hanging from the ceiling. "See anything familiar?"

"Huh?" Molly says. "Where?"

"Keep looking," Andy's mother says, smiling. Sid laughs when he sees what she's talking about. Toward the bottom right there's a very symmetrical little tree with a snake wrapped around its trunk, almost identical to the one on Sid's right arm, just under the sleeve of his t-shirt.

"Oh, cool," Molly says when she sees it. She puts her finger against the one on Sid's arm. "That's Adam and Eve's tree, right? With the apple? Why'd you get a tattoo of it?"

"'Cause that's whatever the girl at the shop wanted to put on me," Sid says. "They show me what they're gonna do before they start, but I always let them pick. I wouldn't know what to ask for."

"That's brave," Andy's mother says, but he's sure she means something else. Uncreative. Pointless. Fake.

"I did design one of them," he says, and he points to the back of his neck, the little skull. "Well, I mean, sort of. It's based on this t-shirt I wore all the time when I was a kid."

"I remember that t-shirt," Andy's mother says, without needing to look at the tattoo. Molly leans up onto her tiptoes to examine it.

"Oh, yeah, the skull," she says. "Cute."

Sid snorts, because cute wasn't what he'd been going for. It was the first tattoo he got, simple and small enough that Andy had no objection. Andy has a habit of tracing its outline with his finger when he's deep in thought. The feeling always makes Sid shiver a little, happily, and he does now, thinking of it.

They go to lunch at a lacy tablecloth place near the museum, and Sid is one of like three guys in the entire dining room. He gets some long looks, and wonders if the gawkers are thinking that he's too young for Andy's mother or too old for Molly. He couldn't be mistaken for a relative: they're so small, so blond, so delicately freckled. Molly's phone buzzes as the waitress is clearing their plates, and she laughs when she reads the screen.

"Got a text from Andy," she says. "He wants to know if everything's going okay."

"He worries too much," Andy's mother says.

"I'll tell him it's a complete disaster," Molly says, smirking at Sid, her thumbs poised over the little keyboard on her phone. "That you guys are fighting about politics."

"Don't," Andy's mother says, sternly. Her tone makes Sid wonder if Molly knows that Andy is the favorite. They exchange a look that tells him yes, she does.

"Andy asked us to be nice to you about a million times," Molly says. "Like usually we're these evil witches."

"Molly," Andy's mother says.

"He gets stressed about shit," Sid says. "Things, I mean. About things."

"He loves you," Molly says, cocking her head. Her mother groans.

"Quit making Sid uncomfortable," she says.

"He's not uncomfortable," Molly says, frowning. "You're not, right?"

"Uh." Sid laughs nervously. He's starting to sweat under his t-shirt. Molly is staring at him, looking wounded, like why wouldn't he want to hear that Andy loves him?

"We should go," Andy's mother says. She balls up her napkin and tosses it onto the table. "Tell your brother everything's fine. He'll get an ulcer if he doesn't hear from you."

The ride back to the house is painfully quiet at first, but then they all sort of sink into it and it becomes relaxing. Molly has the radio on Top 40, and the insipid love songs make Sid think of Andy. This happens at the club sometimes, during a boring shift, the hard-thumping music about wanting to fuck making Sid imagine Andy's heels digging into his back. Andy still listens to the mp3s that Sid emailed to him in middle school. Sid remembers when they split up in high school, the first time he downloaded something Andy would have liked and couldn't send it to him. No amount of Jimmy's product could get that out of his head.

When Sid slips back into Andy's room he's asleep again, his cell phone lying on the mattress beside him. His skin isn't as hot as it was earlier, but he still feels a little clammy when Sid bends down to kiss his face. Andy moans but doesn't wake, and Sid goes over to his desk to kill some time on the laptop. He searches "purple leaf tree" and clicks on an info page for the Purple Leaf Plum, which looks like he one he remembers from his old backyard. Apparently it grows edible fruit, something he never knew. He does remember making "poison" by squeezing the little plums into a jar, and threatening to make Andy drink it while they played some stupid game about a captured spy. He spreads his legs under the desk at the thought of their shared fondness for role play, which has taken on a whole new dimension in recent years.

Purple leaf plum is a fairly fast growing tree. Unfortunately, it also has a short lifespan - 20 years on average. Figures. If Sid counts back from the very start and doesn't subtract the hiatuses, Andy has been his captive for about sixteen years. He scrolls down the page, past watering instructions and average height. Remember the short lifespan when planning your garden.

He takes off his shoes and gets into bed with Andy, feeling defeated. Andy sighs and flops his arm across Sid's back, still mostly asleep. There's some noncommittal thunder happening outside and regular household noises from downstairs: a drawer closing, a television commercial blaring before being silenced. Sid listens to Andy breathe, and tries to keep his eyes open, to watch him sleep. Andy's eyebrows are creased, his lips parted. He looks like he's solving math problems in his dreams.

Sid dreams about trees shedding their leaves. A tiny purple tree grows on his leg, and he knows he'll die if he doesn't catch every purple leaf that falls from it, but there are so many, and they're falling so fast. When he wakes up, the thunder has grown more serious, and Andy is at the laptop, checking his email and blowing his nose.

"Feel better?" Sid asks. Lightning flicks through the clouds outside, and the power goes off for a flash, the electronics in the room reviving with an irritable thump.

"Sort of," Andy says. "I'm in the mucus phase now." His voice is thick with it, and he looks like he needs to go back to sleep. Sid pulls himself from the bed with a groan, wishing that he could stay there until morning himself, but he should probably try to be sociable. He wonders if Andy's offer to show him the location of the brandy still stands.

"Who're you talking to?" Sid asks. He stands behind Andy and rubs his shoulders, watching gchats pop onto the bottom right corner of the laptop's screen.

"Greg," Andy says. Hearing this is like having a small knife gently inserted into Sid's side. "He says the weather's great there."

"The weather's always great there. Are your plants still alive?"

"Of course. And the storm's kind of romantic, right?" Andy tilts back in his desk chair and puts his head against Sid's stomach, grinning up at him. He's trying to look seductive, maybe, but mostly he just looks like he needs another tissue. Sid leans down to press his face to Andy's cheek, hugging his shoulders.

"Your mom's mad at me," Sid says, though he knows this will just give Andy that ulcer she was worried about.

"What? No, she's not. Why?"

"I got you sick."

"You did not."

"I did. The rain, and Jimmy's fucking basement. I don't think he's cleaned it in ten years. Crawling with germs."

"Well, whatever," Andy says, almost losing the whatever in a cough. "I'm fine. Mom's making chicken soup. Sounds good, right?"

"Sure."

They go down for dinner, Andy barefoot in his sleep pants and t-shirt. It's still early, barely four thirty, but the dark of the storm makes it seem like dinnertime. Molly is lighting candles in the dining room, and Sid spots what must be the brandy on a side table, in a crystal decanter. Nobody offers him any.

"Poor thing," Andy's mother says when Andy slumps over to watch her stir the soup. "Do you need anything? I got you Gatorade and ginger ale, they're in the fridge."

"Thanks, Mom," he says. "I'm okay. Just - my throat's starting to hurt a little."

"Oh, Andy. And on your vacation."

Guiltily, Sid slips into the dining room. Molly is at the window, watching the trees whip around in the wind. He stands beside her and waits for her to make him feel better about everything, because that seems to be her role here.

"I have to go to school tomorrow," she says.

"Sucks," Sid says.

"Yeah, it does. But after we should go to Pizza Planet, you know? I haven't been in a long time."

Sid snorts. "Me either," he says. "Andy might be too sick, though."

"Then me and you could go. Please?" She tugs on his arm and he looks over at her, remembering what it was like to be sixteen and bored out of your mind. He'd at least had Andy. He remembers Andy cursing and pulling him into the hallway near the bathrooms at Pizza Planet once, lest they be spotted by his sister. Sid has no memory of her at that age, whatever age it was - eleven, twelve? - but he imagines what they must have looked like to her: grown up, appealingly disobedient, off having a good time without her. Her friends would lose their shit if they saw him pick her up after school, one inked-up arm hanging out the window of her mother's mini-van.

"Don't you have a boyfriend or anything?" he asks. He's never wanted to fuck girls, but it's not like he can't tell that guys who do must give her a lot of attention.

"No." She seems offended by the suggestion. "Boys at my school are dumb."

"Every single one of them?"

"Yes, every single one."

"Fair enough. We can go to Pizza Planet if you want. If your mom will trust me to bring you back in one piece. And if Andy doesn't, you know. Need me here."

Molly swats his arm. "You're so cute," she says.

"Quit saying that."

Bolstered by her admiration, Sid makes it through the dinner without incident. There are grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches in addition to the soup, plus another salad. Andy's voice is increasingly hoarse, but he's in good spirits, leaning against Sid's shoulder while Sid tells a story about the first apartment they lived in when they moved out to L.A.

"There was this coyote that used to come in and drink from the pool," Sid says. "I would get up when Andy left for class and go sit out on the porch, and almost every morning I'd see him. He was real timid, skinny, nervous - I don't know why I thought they were supposed to be scary or whatever. I guess I was thinking of wolves."

"We called him Roadrunner," Andy says. "He was kind of like our pet."

"I'd leave bacon and stuff out for him," Sid says. "We got in trouble for that, actually."

"Kicked out," Andy says, smiling.

"How have I never heard this story?" his mother asks. Andy laughs.

"'Cause you thought I was living in the dorms at the time," he says. "I mean, I guess technically I was. My stuff was there. Some of it."

"Well, that was three thousand dollars well spent, then," Andy's mother says. She winks, smiles, but Sid gets the impression she's actually kind of pissed. Andy goes quiet, and his mother gets up from the table, bringing her plate into the kitchen.

"Ooh, you're in trouble," Molly whispers, grinning. Andy balls up a napkin and tosses it at her.

"I didn't realize it cost that much," he says, muttering.

"I think it's really sweet," Molly says, her voice still low. Water is running in the kitchen, plates clattering into the sink. "You guys just like knew. About each other. You know? You're so lucky."

Sid and Andy look at each other. Did they know anything, that day they drove to California together? Just that it was what they wanted. Sid had been terrified, almost certain that as soon as Andy got there and met the other smart kids he'd start trying to come up with polite ways to tell Sid to go home. Three years later, part of him is still waiting for that day to come.

"Maybe when you have your house, a coyote will come drink out of your koi pond," Molly says. "Though I guess he might also eat the fish."

"You told her about the koi pond?" Andy says, grinning. Sid shifts in his seat and glances at the side table, at the brandy.

"She asked about the tattoo," he says. The fucking koi pond. Andy has already picked out what kind of rocks he wants to line it with. Special ones, from the desert. They can collect them on a weekend, when they have the pick up truck that they will of course have to buy, for rock-related activities. Andy's got an itinerary for every day of the rest of their lives, and the problem is that Sid wants it all to come true. It means too much to him, more than even Andy could understand, enough to make him feel like he's being vivisected as Molly and Andy joke about how they might coyote-proof the pond.

After dinner there is television. Sid makes an attempt to help with the dishes and is shooed away. Molly sits with a Geometry book open in her lap and stares at the TV, pinching her bottom lip with her thumb and forefinger, her eyes glazed and her expression fish-like. Andy falls asleep on Sid's shoulder, wheezing loudly near his ear.

"I'm going to take his temperature before he goes to bed," Andy's mother says after Molly has gone upstairs. She approaches with the thermometer, and Sid isn't sure what to do: hand Andy over to her? Take the thermometer and offer to do it himself? He ends up awkwardly shuffling aside while she nudges Andy awake. Andy groans and squints at his mother in confusion.

"Mom, geez," he says, but he takes the thermometer and sticks it in his mouth. The three of them are silent while it takes its reading, Sid pretending to be interested in the TV, Andy hunched miserably with the thermometer sticking out of his mouth, and his mother with her hands on her hips, her face stern and tired. The thermometer beeps and she takes it right out of Andy's mouth.

"A hundred and three," she says, shaking her head. "Not good."

"I just want to sleep," Andy says. He stands feebly and Sid gets up to help him, but his mother is there first, slinging his arm around her shoulders.

"I'll take him up," she says. "You get some rest. You'll sleep better down here, without him coughing and wheezing on you."

"Sure," Sid says. He gives Andy a look that's meant to be goodnight, love you, feel better, whatever, but Andy is too out of it to catch it, half asleep again as his mother helps him out of the room.

On the couch, in the dark, Sid watches the ceiling as the second floor of the house gradually goes quiet. The storm was brief and the rain is gone, every noise from upstairs in stark contrast to the silence of the street outside. Andy coughs, Molly calls goodnight to her mother, faucets are turned on and off. Sid can hear the last light switch when it's finally flipped off, the creak of someone's mattress, then nothing. At home, there would be traffic sounds, neighbors' doors opening and closing, music from the street. Sid would lie awake with Andy curled up under his arm, and he'd think about how he would be at work on a normal night, miserably watching people file into the club. He always feels so lucky on Sunday nights, standing guard while Andy sleeps. But maybe he's fooling himself that he's doing Andy a favor, keeping him safe. Maybe he's just got him trapped, like one of their games as kids, pinned down. He keeps hearing the number one hundred and three in his head, in Andy's mother's voice.

Just a little brandy and then he'll be able to sleep. He gets up and looks around the dark living room, his eyes fully adjusted now. He feels like he can see the house's whole history, and it's keeping him awake: Christmases and birthdays and Andy running around in that cowboy hat he used to wear, his arms full of toys.

There are two crystal glasses beside the brandy decanter, turned upside down. Sid rights one of them, takes the stopper from the decanter and pours a little, then a little more. It's not like Andy's mother is measuring it nightly. And Andy drank some, too. It's not like Sid has broken into the place. He's a fucking house guest, here.

The brandy is an immediate comfort, something transcendent compared to the single glass of wine and the shitty beer at Jimmy's house. Sid walks around the dining room, examining framed pictures in the light from the street lamp through the window, and after one circle of the room's perimeter he's back at the decanter for a refill. He never drank much in high school, preferring pot or just unfiltered rage, but as soon as they reached California he understood the comfort his old man took in the stuff. There are the things that he needs and the things he doesn't want to think about, and they're too close together, but after a few beers they can coexist without heartache.

He's laughing to himself after a few more refills, wandering around the kitchen. He eats a handful of dry roasted peanuts and some Goldfish crackers. Fish, ha – there's a particular koi pond that they want to model their imaginary one after, at a Japanese restaurant Andy loves in L.A. It's expensive, a special occasion, and Sid usually brings Andy there for his birthday. Andy always gets drunk on plum wine and talks about going to Japan, visiting temples with giant koi ponts, hundreds of fish. Sid wants to tell him that the koi tattoo was picked out by some random inker, that it doesn't mean anything, but because of Andy, now, it does.

Back to the decanter, but it's empty except for a few drops. How did that happen? And with the night still young? An antsy feeling builds low in his stomach until he's at the front door, lacing up his boots. He'll walk to the liquor store, buy their finest brandy, replace what was left in the decanter and drink the rest himself. It's a great plan. He's proud of himself, smiling. He closes the front door quietly behind him, not wanting to wake anyone. He'll be like this magical, brandy replacing elf. No one will ever know.

The streets have the quality of being not rained on well enough. They were promised a storm and given only some noise and lights and a sprinkling. It kind of pisses him off, and he aims for the puddles, stomping through them. His head feels kind of loose, not screwed on, like something he's only borrowing, but the town is like an old friend now. He remembers that fence, that tree, that sewer cover – must be the one where he first kissed Andy, yeah, that's the one. The first bar he finds is O'Shaunessey's, the Midwest suburban version of a real dive, and there's actually a live band playing covers, which makes Sid laugh. He goes to the bar and orders gin, because that's the only drink that's ever made him happy, there on that porch with Andy in lap and their stupid fake never gonna happen plans.

"Gin and tonic?" the bartender asks. She's cute, a girl, the kind of girl he'd want to fuck if he wanted to fuck girls. And why didn't he, why doesn't he? It was Andy, all Andy, his fault. He showed up and was so sweet between Sid's legs when they were kids, when they were just pretending to be the adults they wanted or didn't want to become. Andy ruined Sid for anything else, made him a slave, but Sid is the one who's going to be a secretary at best, which is funny, because he wasn't designed to belong to anybody.

The bartender is listening to something: him, talking about this? Sid laughs and orders another. The bartender's hair is that shade of orange that brown becomes when you try to make it blond. When she comes back with a fresh drink she puts her elbows on the bar and her head in her hands.

"You ever see anyone in here who looks like me?" Sid asks. He can feel how hard and drunkenly he's squinting, and it's funny. "An older guy?"

"Not really," she says.

"That's funny. My dad lives here, in this town, and he's like, an all-state champion drunk, last time I checked."

She shrugs and straightens up. "Where's that boyfriend of yours now?" she asks. "Back in California?"

Did Sid get as far as California, telling her everything? Andy once told him he should see a psychiatrist. Oh, what a fight. He laughs and pushes his glass toward her, a passive aggressive demand for a refill.

"He's sick in bed," Sid says. "My fault."

"You serious?"

"Sure. You ever feel like you're a virus that was sent to Earth to pretend like it was human?"

She smiles vaguely and backs off, maybe to get him another drink. He throws some cash on the bar, leaves. Has learned his lesson about giving up too much sensitive information.

The night is young. It always is when you're wasted, he remembers that. Andy looks at him askance if he drinks too much or wants to get some pot – like it's even a big deal in California, Jesus Christ – but, well. He had a thought process that involved Andy's judgment, and hmm. Not there anymore – but here's Oscar's, another bar, one his father went to back in the day, with poker tables. He slams in the door like he owns the place. No one seems to notice.

"What'll you have?" the bartender asks, and Sid asks for a beer, because he's not a drunk and drunks don't want beer when they could have something harder. He takes his time with it, staring at a TV that's playing baseball highlights.

"I like your tattoo," the bartender says. This one's a guy, not cute, but the kind of dude Sid would have fucked on an off night if he'd ever fucked anyone but Andy. "The dice?"

Sid looks down at his arm with curiosity – oh yeah, the dice, a whole cup full of them spilling down his right shoulder.

"My guys pick them out," he says, shouting over the music. "My tattoo guys. I don't – I don't know what it means or anything."

He says so loudly, and it's embarrassing, even, what, five drinks in? He orders another.

At some point, Bohemian Rhapsody comes on, and Sid talks about how it's the greatest song of all time with a drunk blond lady while some frat-like guys near the pool tables sing along. For an hour or so, he loves everyone in the bar. He asks more people if they know his father, and ignores their answers, launching into stories that he hasn't even told Andy. How his father left Sid alone in the house for five days when he eloped to Vegas with his second wife. How they were the greatest five days of Sid's childhood until they returned, with Hanna, who got to go along since her mother refused to leave her, and who came home with all sorts of shiny plastic shit and a suntan, smug as hell. Sid hated her. She friended him on Facebook last year! Why? He wanted to delete his profile in response, never wanted the stupid thing anyway, Andy forced him to do it, saying it might be good for networking with the meatheads at the gym who talk big about starting their own self defense studio, like that's really going to happen, and what is this world Andy lives in where you get handed three thousand dollars for your fucking dorm room that you don't even use, and that's Sid's fault, too, isn't it?

The blond lady he thought he was talking to is actually a rough looking young guy, or maybe the blond lady left hours ago, but anyway Sid needs another drink. The bartender is starting to look at him like he's on his nerves, but fuck him. He hates bartenders. They think they're so cool. Someone asks him to leave - a bouncer, oh God, hilarious - and he realizes as he walks out, laughing to himself, that he was saying that out loud, preaching the truth about bartenders.

He walks the streets for awhile, trying to remember what he meant to do out here in the first place. A liquor store - right, to replace the brandy. And maybe he'll pick up a six pack. Finish the night off right, sleep like a baby. In the morning he'll feel better. Not that he feels bad. Fuck this town, anyway, it never meant shit to him. Except that Andy was here, and is here, still, as long as his family is here some part of him will be, and Sid can't say the same, or maybe he can. He kicks a pile of leaves in someone's front yard. Where is he? A neighborhood? Fancy looking one, too. Well, he'll find the liquor store eventually. No hurry, really.

Except that when he gets there it's closed. Enraged, beginning to panic about how he'll replace the brandy before someone notices, he grabs the bars on the liquor store's front door and shakes them. Nothing happens. He's not sure what he expected. He stands there feeling worthless, his hands around the bars, and then he sees it reflected in the glass on the store's front door, across the street, behind him: a tattoo parlor, its OPEN sign still blazing. He smiles at his reflection. Perfect. Like a sign from God.

*

He got the skull tattoo on his neck when Andy went home for Thanksgiving that first year. He wasn't sure why it made him feel better; something to do with showing Andy that he couldn't count on Sid not to change while he was gone. It felt like armor. But Andy loved it, because Andy loves most of the stupid, pointless shit Sid does, at least in small doses. Every time Andy returned to find more tattoos, he would smile a little less enthusiastically, and finally he just stopped commenting on them.

The tattoo shop people are great. They always are. Sid continues ranting about bartenders, but catches himself before he can start talking about his father. He wants this to be a wholly positive experience. It's only the second time ever that he's walked into a tattoo parlor knowing exactly what he wants.

He falls asleep in the chair. The guy who inked him says it's a good thing he's not driving, laughs, and gives him water. Sid is bleary when he wakes up, kind of confused. The new tattoo gets a bandage, he pays with his credit card, and he's out the door. Before he can make it across the parking lot the lights of the tattoo shop go out behind him.

It's late. There's a cold, post-rainstorm wind blowing down the empty streets. He's got to find a liquor store that's open, even if he has to walk all the way into the city. Or maybe a bar would sell him a bottle. It's an emergency, after all. He's yawning, stumbling in his steps. He can feel the headache that will pound between his temples in a few hours, now just a distant ache at the back of his skull. He wants to get in bed with Andy, to climb through Andy's window, and it feels like an even better plan than getting the tattoo, but he ends up at the wrong house. This was Andy's old house, now with unfamiliar cars in the driveway and a sailboat mailbox. Which means, well. Sid looks to the left.

There are no cars in the driveway. His father usually parked in the garage, unless he was too drunk to figure out how to work the opener. The house is dark, the lawn overgrown. The mail box is hanging open, and the recycling bin is on its side in the front yard, caked with mud. Sid can feel his father in that house, sleeping it off. He sits down in the middle of the road.

The headache stays perched at the back of his skull, waiting. His vision tunnels; wind seems to blow through his ears, in one and out the other. He waits to know what he wants to do. His father might be afraid of him if he saw him now. Sid has thought about that. He was a pretty big guy, but Sid is bigger now. Sid used to have grand plans for what he would do if the old man ever gave Andy a hard time when he was over at the house. He knew they were fucking; there were comments made to Sid, but they were easy enough to ignore. If he had said anything to Andy - threatened him or teased him or even looked at him wrong - Sid would have killed him. That was the plan, anyway. He's glad he never had to find out what he really would or wouldn't have done.

His father never said anything to Andy because he didn't care. Andy could have been a fifty-year-old man Sid brought up into his bedroom after middle school: his father would have kept his eyes on the television. If he was bored, he'd pick on Sid, mostly about the garbage collecting job. His father was in the Air Force before Sid's mother died. He was a fucking pilot. Trusted with billion dollar equipment. Broke the sound barrier. Keep looking at me like you're better than me, you little shit. You're picking up people's trash. Doing God knows what with that limp-wristed kid. It's good your mother's not here. You'd break her fucking heart.

He knows he'd turn into his father if he lost Andy. He knows he'd be worse.

He's so dazed that he thinks the headlights are the sunrise. He starts to get up, but his body suddenly weighs about six hundred pounds, and the van is driving around him anyway, slow enough to make him wonder if the driver is going to stop and ask him if he's alright. He really hopes not.

The driver doesn't ask him if he's alright. She just puts the window down and stares at him, the van idling. It's Andy's mother.

They watch each other for awhile. Sid is too drunk and tired to know what to expect. He tries to get up again, and this time it works.

"How'd you know I'd be here?" he asks. His voice is full of cobwebs, like he hasn't spoken in days, which is weird, because he's pretty sure he told everyone he met tonight his whole life story.

"Just a guess," she says.

"Andy worried about me or something?"

"Andy's asleep. He doesn't know you left." Her thumbs tap the steering wheel, and she studies him, her mouth quirking just like Andy's does when he's trying not to show how annoyed he is. "Getting in or not?" she says.

He climbs into the passenger seat, buckling himself in place and staring straight ahead as they pull away from his father's house. If he'd sobered up completely his heart would be slamming with embarrassment, but he's still pretty wasted and everything inside him is just sluggish and sore. He waits for Andy's mother to say something, to impart some wisdom or judgment or forgiveness, but she only drives, doesn't speak. By the time they reach a 24-hour gas station he expects to be asked to get out of the car, given a twenty dollar bill and told to find his way back to L.A. She fills up the tank and heads into the convenience store. Sid checks the clock on the van's dash while she's in there: almost half past four in the morning. His new tattoo stings, and his headache has arrived, tightening his temples until they feel like they're screwed into his head. When Andy's mother reemerges she has two cups of coffee.

"Thanks," Sid says when she hands one to him. She nods and drinks from her own cup before starting the van again. Sid is glad to leave the neon bright glare of the gas station pumps, the van sliding back into darkness.

"There was this tree," Sid says, because she's still not talking. "In my backyard. I didn't want to see my father or anything. I wanted to see if the tree was still alive. They only live twenty years, so it's gotta be dead. I guess I just couldn't make myself look."

Still, she doesn't say anything. He drinks the coffee, burning his tongue. What do you want from me? he wants to shout. What the fuck did you expect?

"Your father was part of the reason we moved," she says, finally, when they're sitting at a red light.

"Yeah? Can't blame you. Was I the other part?"

"I remember that night he got arrested," she says. Sid looks up at her, but she's staring out the windshield. The light turns green and she doesn't pull ahead. There's nobody else on the road.

"I broke into your house that night," Sid says. "Sort of. Climbed in through Andy's window."

"I know you did," she says.

He's surprised. "Andy told you?" He thought that was still their secret.

"No. I knew that night. I knew you were in there with him."

"What? How?"

She closes her eyes and shakes her head. The light turns red again, reflecting off the hood of the van.

"A mother knows what goes on in her own house," she says. "I remember being conflicted. I knew you must be scared, and I felt for you, I did, but I thought, 'I could get in trouble here. Or Andy could be hurt by this.' So I went to his bedroom door to collect you. I was going to bring you over - I don't know. To the police, I guess. But you were crying - I heard you crying, and I heard Andy trying to calm you down. Telling you it was going to be okay. I couldn't take you over there, back to that nightmare. I thought, 'I'll deal with it in the morning.' But you were gone in the morning, and Andy didn't say a word about it. I think I convinced myself that I'd dreamed it. Your father got released, and you were still over there, with your fireworks, whatever - I thought, well, there's nothing I can do."

"Except move away," Sid says. It's not like he's got any right to be angry about that. He remembers the day it happened. He had some kind of crazy nightmare about toys coming to life.

"Alright, well, that wasn't the only reason we moved," she says. "But, yes, it was part of it - you were part of it. The way Andy -" She stops there, makes a frustrated noise and finally pulls forward, though the light is red again. "I fell in love with my ex-husband when I was very young," she says. She's driving a little faster than necessary. "Very young. And Andy is a lot like me."

"And I'm like him?" Sid says. "Your ex?"

"No," Andy's mother says, and she laughs. Sid isn't sure if he should be offended or take that as a compliment. "He was a liar. I don't think you're one of those."

Sid considers it. No, he's not a liar. If anything he's too honest. It gets him in trouble more often than not.

"He's very charming, Andy's father," she says. "He was captain of the basketball team. I was a cheerleader. Et cetera. I got pregnant with Andy when I was twenty. We got married, he cheated on me, we broke up, got back together, he cheated on me again, this time while I was pregnant with Molly. His family had money, and I got accused of being a gold digger when I asked for alimony. My parents weren't happy with me, wanted me to stay with him rather than try to raise the kids by myself. He was never much of a father, anyway. So no, I don't think you're anything like him." She pulls to a stop again, this time on the side of the road, and looks at him. "I don't think you're anything like your own father, either."

"You're wrong," Sid says. "I'm mean like him. And I'm a fuck up, more importantly."

"You indulge in your self pity," she says. "Maybe you have that in common with him. But I think that's all."

Sid laughs angrily and looks out the window. Self pity, right. Like he hasn't earned a little bit of that. He chews the inside of his cheek, feeling eight years old, but not like the orphan boy who's taking shelter while he can. Andy's mother has never been willing to treat him like that weather-beaten kid.

"I'm sure you can understand why I worry about Andy," she says. "It might seem like it's the other way around sometimes, I know you moved out to California for him, but he's really built his whole life around you."

"I'll never leave him," Sid says. He feels the new tattoo searing his skin like the needle is burning it into him all over again. "I won't."

She stares out the windshield for awhile, her wrists flopped over the steering wheel. He watches her for a response until he starts to feel uncomfortable, and turns to look out the window instead.

"I'm the one who'll get trashed," he says. "Bet you a million fucking dollars."

"You think Andy would trash you?" She sounds so offended on Andy's behalf that Sid laughs.

"Not on purpose," he says. "He'll just get tired of me. I mean, you know - he'll grow out of me. I won't look that impressive when he's thirty and making buckets of cash, when everyone else he knows is smart and successful, and then there's me, and everyone's like, 'how do you even know that guy with the tattoos?' And he'd have to tell them, you know. Boy next door. Charity case."

"You underestimate yourself," she says.

"Jesus. That's what Andy always tells me."

"Well, you should listen to him. He's pretty smart."

Sid picks at his coffee cup, pulling apart the heat safe sleeve. A car passes them on the road, and they both look up like startled rabbits. It's quarter past five in the morning now, city commuters starting to leave for work.

"You want some advice?" Andy's mother asks.

"Sure." Strangely, it's true. He actually wants some advice, maybe for the first time in his life.

"Don't be so afraid to see a dead tree," she says. Sid snorts. He expected something about getting his GED, or reaching for his dreams, or trusting Andy to love him forever.

"Okay," he says. "But it's definitely dead. They only live twenty years."

"Says who?"

"The internet."

She rolls her eyes, and Sid laughs, looking down at his coffee cup again. This is his favorite time of day: just before dawn. Usually he's leaving work, headed home to Andy.

"First of all," Andy's mother says. "You're barely twenty years old yourself, so not every tree you've known has been around that long. And, more importantly, symbols aren't oracles. You can interpret something however you like, but that doesn't determine your fate. Am I starting to sound like I've had too much caffeine?"

"A little, yeah."

"Fun fact," she says, pulling back onto the road. "I have to be at work in three hours."

"What do you do?" Sid asks, and she laughs, loud and authentic.

"Andy never told you?"

"Maybe, but. I don't know, I guess I forgot. Sorry."

"I'm a lawyer," she says. "In the midst of getting pregnant and cheated on and divorced, I was also going to law school."

"Damn."

"Indeed." She gives him a look, that Don't underestimate yourself look that he knows well from years of getting it from Andy, and he shakes his head.

"I need to see about getting some health insurance," he says. "I don't want Andy listing me as a dependent when he's rich."

"You're so sure Andy is going to be rich," she says.

"What, you think I'm wrong?"

"No, I just think it's cute, how much faith you have in him." She reaches over to pat Sid's knee. Something about the gesture makes him think of his own mother, a vague memory of sitting in the backseat and seeing her reach over to touch his father's shoulder while he drove.

Back at the house, Sid sits at the kitchen table, his hangover starting to swoop in, full force. Andy's mother sets a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats in front of him and he eats it while she stands at the sink, spooning yogurt from a big tub.

"I'm not gonna see him," Sid says, dragging his spoon through the last of the sugary milk. "My dad. I don't mean ever. Just, not now."

"That seems smart," Andy's mother says. She touches the back of Sid's head as she passes behind him to put the yogurt away. "That would be a little much for one week. Us and him."

"You guys aren't so bad."

"Well. Thanks."

Sid gets up and rinses out his bowl. Outside, the sky is starting glow blue. He's so tired that his eyes are burning, and his legs feel noodle-like. A strong wind could probably knock him over. He heads for the couch, wondering how long he'll be able to sleep before Molly bounds through on her way to school and makes him renew his promise to take her to Pizza Planet.

"Will you go check on Andy for me?" Andy's mother calls before he can get there. "His fever had gone down before I left, but, well. Can't hurt to make sure he's okay, right?"

"Right." Sid could kiss her feet for the excuse to get in bed with Andy. She smiles at him like she's well aware. He gets up the stairs in about three heartbeats, noodle legs and all.

Andy's room is dark, the laptop making aquarium sounds on his desk. Andy is just as Sid usually finds him at this hour: on his stomach in bed, pillow hugged to his chest. Sid steps out of his shoes and yanks off his jeans, leaving his t-shirt and boxers on. Normally he would be naked, and so would Andy, and that first contact would make Sid moan and Andy sigh. Even now, through their clothes, Sid almost whimpers for how good it feels to slide down against the heat of Andy's back.

"Hey," Andy says, his voice muffled and gravelly. "What time is it?"

"I don't know, six?" Sid reaches up to touch Andy's forehead. It's warm, but not boiling. "You on the verge of death in here?"

"Mom gave me NyQuil," Andy says, sighing. "Slept pretty good. How was the couch?"

"Nn. I'll tell you later. C'mere."

Sid rolls Andy onto his side, against his chest. Andy is squirmy and surprisingly hard against Sid's leg, which makes him laugh. They grind together lazily, and Sid winces when his new tattoo drags against Andy's chest. This is another reason Sid always gets them when Andy is out of town: no painful sex during the recovery period.

"What's wrong?" Andy asks. He touches Sid's chest and frowns when he feels the bandage under his shirt. "You hurt yourself?"

"Uh. Ha. Kind of. I got a tattoo."

Andy stares, blinks. Sid raises his eyebrows, trying, for the first time in his life, to look cute.

"Are you joking?" Andy says. "When?"

"Last night. It's a long story. Look -"

"Last night?" Andy pushes Sid's t-shirt up and goes for the bandage with the determination of someone who is checking a cell phone screen for evidence that they're being cheated on. Sid's heart pounds, right underneath the tattoo. He'll have to explain it, but he's not sure he can, not properly. He watches Andy's face, his attempt to figure out what it is.

"A leaf," Sid says. "It's stupid, I know, I was drunk, I just -"

Andy looks up at him, his eyes wet. Sid didn't think he'd take it this badly. It's a small tattoo, barely bigger than the skull on his neck, a little purple leaf. Andy won't be able to see it in this light, but his name is written across it in black, just barely visible against the dark purple.

"Andy," Sid says, soft, because Andy is crying, really actually crying over this. "I'm sorry, I -"

Andy kisses him, hard, pushing a choppy breath into Sid's mouth. Sid is so taken off guard that he feels like he's been punched, then Andy's tongue finds his and he kisses him back, both of their mouths soaking wet for it. Sid tries to think of the last time they kissed like this - forty-eight hours ago? He rolls on top of Andy, who is still holding Sid's face with both hands, tears slipping down his cheeks.

"The purple tree," Andy says, his voice shaking. "From your backyard."

"Yeah," Sid says. His voice is all fucked up, too, but it's not like he's going to cry, Jesus Christ, no way. "They only live for twenty years. You have to - you have to plan for that, okay? Garden-wise."

"What are you talking about?" Andy asks, laughing, and Sid can't remember him ever looking better than he does right now, wet-faced and grinning, his hair a mess on the pillow. Sid doesn't really know what he's talking about, so he doesn't answer, just kisses him. Andy tastes like cherry NyQuil, liquid sleep.

"You've got coffee breath," Andy says, pulling back to give him a disbelieving smile. Sid never drinks the stuff.

"Your mom bought it for me," he says.

"Bought it for you? Jesus, what all did I miss while I was in my NyQuil coma?"

"A lot. I'll tell you, you know, after."

"After," Andy says, nodding. He arches when Sid kisses his neck, his hands pushing up through the spikes of Sid's hair. Sid's heart is beating hard under the purple leaf, and he can feel it all the way down to the head of his dick, like his heartbeat is egging him on, telling him how badly he needs this and how good it's going to feel, getting it.

"I dreamed about you," Andy says, his legs wrapping around Sid's back. "I dreamed you came in through the window."

"I did," Sid says, pushing the words into Andy's mouth, and Andy kisses him, doesn't make him explain.

They leave their shirts on, kicking their boxers to the end of the bed. Andy has an ancient bottle of wanking lotion in the top drawer of his bedside table, and he laughs when Sid teases him for it, his lips on Andy's neck.

"You ever jerk off to me, back when you lived here?" Sid asks. Andy snorts.

"Uh," he says. "No comment."

Sid sits up on his knees to slick himself, thinking about how zealously he used to jerk off to Andy, before he even knew anything about sex. He would just think about the way Andy's skin smelled when he was lying in the dirt under that picnic table, under Sid, staring up at him like, What are you going to do to me next? After he'd come, Sid's fantasies would get so soft: Andy panting and tired and cuddled in his arms. Relieved, saved, clutching at him.

It feels like they haven't fucked in two months, and the way Andy's eyes flood with astonishment makes Sid afraid that he'll come in thirty seconds like a sixteen-year-old. He sinks in balls deep and buries his face against Andy's neck, thinking about their first time, how easy it was, Andy like a present that was left on Sid's doorstep, Sid almost afraid he was on candid camera, because things that good didn't happen to people like him. Afterward they were all punchy and smug, ragging on each other for the faces they'd made. Sid fed Andy Twizzlers, and it became a thing, having Twizzlers nearby after sex, pressing them to Andy's lips. Funny, the random details that become sacred.

"Jesus, yeah," Andy says, and he arches like a porn star, his neck exposed for Sid's teeth. He gasps when Sid bites at him, just gently, just a tease, and moans when Sid starts fucking him hard.

"Gonna have to gag you," Sid says, panting, grinning. Andy laughs, his eyes pinched shut, his whole body tipped toward Sid's, everything on offer.

"Gag me, okay, gag me," he says, gasping between every word. "Oh, but – fuck yeah, right there – don't stop."

He makes Sid feel like he's doing important art, every time. It adds a dimension to coming that Sid likes to think few people have known. When Andy goes off Sid has to bury his head in the pillow to conceal his groan, because God there's nothing better than the way Andy's eyebrows knit like he's worried he won't survive how good he feels. Sid is like two seconds behind him, and it's only been a few days, but it feels like remembering how to breathe, that relief.

Andy pets him, and Sid pants, the new tattoo on fire against Andy's chest, fucking blazing. It feels good, adding a weird and amazing layer to the winding-down of his orgasm, his dick still buried in Andy, their chests still heaving against each other. Sid lifts himself up onto his elbows with some effort, and rubs his nose against Andy's, 'cause he knows Andy likes that, and 'cause he kind of likes it, too.

"So tell me everything," Andy says. Sid pulls out, flops onto his side, and tells him: everything.

Toward the end, he actually falls asleep, possibly in mid-sentence. Andy is kissing his face, stroking his side, coaxing it out of him. Andy is a fucking magician when it comes to getting the truth out of Sid, or anything out of him, everything. Sid would resent that if Andy didn't take such good care of his secrets, keeping them in jeweled boxes and using them for nothing more than the occasional skin-stripping look of understanding. Sid dreams about fish, possibly is one, slippery brothers sliding against him. He's amazed that he can breathe underwater, that doing so is so incredibly easy.

He wakes up alone, disoriented and hungover. He can smell Andy but can't see him. He buries his nose in the sheets and remembers: they're at the Temple of Andy, the origin, and Sid has not yet been destroyed as an infidel. His dick is out, leaking on Andy's bedsheets, and he feels stupidly proud as he lopes across the room toward their bags – their bags, containing a mixture of Andy's clothes and his, the shirts and socks that live together in the same drawers at home. He fishes out a clean pair of boxers, steps back into his jeans and heads into the hallway, the quiet of the house making him optimistic.

Downstairs, at the stove, Andy is making pancakes. His mother is at work, his sister at school. Sid glues himself to Andy's back, sucks in the smell of his neck and laughs when Andy does, because it's a joke, it's gotta be, how good they've had it.

"Is it healing properly?" Andy asks. "Your tattoo?"

"Yeah," Sid says, his hands sliding down to Andy's hipbones, which are on this top ten list when it comes to Andy's body. "Healing just fine."

"I'm making pancakes," Andy says.

"I can see that."

"You need Advil or something?"

"Uh," Sid says. "Yes. Hey."

"Hey?"

"Last night was kind of – not terrible, but, um. Something close to that. And then there was you, so." Sid isn't going to actually say thank you, but he wants Andy to hear it.

"And then there was you," Andy says. Sid can feel his smile against his cheek. "Okay, yeah. I know."

"You know?"

"I do."

They eat pancakes, their feet tangled up underneath the kitchen table. There is no glass pitcher of orange juice, but there is orange juice, from a regular plastic bottle. After breakfast Andy puts the dishes in the sink and they retire to the couch.

"This is like, the only Monday I've ever spent with you," Andy says, his body flexing toward Sid's until he's basically in Sid's lap. "The only one I've spent like this, anyway. In my boxers, no place to be."

"No place to be," Sid says understanding that this means everything, and that it wouldn't mean anything if this was true for very long. Oh, the ways to earn happiness: his father hated them, found them unfair. Without Andy, Sid would agree, but in the meantime the world seems completely just. What does it mean: the love of Sid's life is here on earth, and the love of his father's isn't. Well, here Sid is anyway, motherless and alive. He likes to think that he'd give his own son credit for that, if such a person were possible.

Sid sleeps again while Andy watches TV, and around noon they cram into the too-small hall shower together. They get out, towel each other off in Andy's room, and Andy checks his email while Sid dresses. Sid can hear him getting gchats.

"That lemon tree still alive?" Sid asks.

"I think it'd be kind of rude to ask," Andy says.

"Oh, Jesus, well. Wouldn't want to be rude to Greg."

"He's really jealous of you, okay?" Andy says, turning from the computer. Sid snorts.

"Yeah, no shit. And you say I'm crazy when I say he wants to fuck you?"

"No, no," Andy says. "He's not jealous of you for having me, I mean he's jealous of you, of me having you. He wants a Sid."

"What the hell?" Sid says, laughing. "Stop talking shit."

"I'm serious!" Andy says. He's beaming, and Sid shouldn't have gotten dressed, 'cause he's probably going to have to fuck Andy again. He looks too good sitting there at his desk in nothing but his towel.

"Greg wouldn't know what to do with me," Sid says.

"Well, he doesn't want you specifically – I'd kick his ass if I thought he did – but, you know, he's lonely, and he wishes he had an awesome boyfriend who he's known forever, and who looks like he could throw a guy through a window, and who, you know. Moved to California for him."

"Goddamn," Sid says, because he might have to actually like Greg, if that's how he sees him.

"See?" Andy says. "You don't know everything." Somehow this smugness only makes him look better, so Sid steals his towel and lifts him out of his chair. Andy laughs and lets himself be carried to the bed.

"I still can't believe I'm getting ravaged here, of all places," Andy says, dropping back to look at the glow in the dark stars on the ceiling as Sid unbuttons his jeans. "I played with tinker toys in this room, dude."

There's a dirty joke in there somewhere, but Andy looks so sincerely wistful that Sid won't let himself make it.

"Well," he says, shoving his jeans and boxers down. "I'll ravage you nice and slow, if that'll make you feel better."

Andy looks up at him and nods, his pupils fattening like the very suggestion has hypnotized him.

Eventually, they leave the bed. Andy wants to walk around the old neighborhood, and though it makes Sid a little nervous – so many ghosts, and stupid memories of picking up the trash at the end of every driveway – he does it, for Andy.

"I know the kid who lives here," Andy says, stopping in front of a house with fat stone pillars on its porch. "I gave her a bunch of my old toys before I left her college – her mom was my day care teacher a million years ago."

"What, you want to say hi or something?" Sid asks, his tone communicating how enthusiastic he'd be about that idea. Andy shakes his head.

"No," he says, looking a little dazed. "Just – it's funny. There was this one – this toy my dad gave me. She still has it, I guess."

"The cowboy thing?" Sid says, suppressing a groan. Andy was weirdly sentimental about it when they were kids, and Sid always figured there was a dad-related reason. Sid had found the thing kind of creepy, especially after that one weird dream. Andy looks at him and grins.

"Man," he says. "Sometimes it's like I forget – you really were around for everything."

"Yeah," Sid says. He takes Andy's elbow and pulls him along, away from the house with the pillars. "That was me, the whole time."

Back at the house, Andy pulls out old home video tapes and they sit on the couch watching them, Sid pulling Andy closer and closer as he remembers Andy the way he was, the boy who made the sky seem a little brighter whenever he came through the loose plank in the fence. That's a talent Andy still has, and Sid is pretty sure it's his eyes. They really bring out the blue in the sky.

Molly comes home around three, dramatic complaints about the horrors of high school bursting from her before she's all the way through the door. Andy's mother doesn't get home until six thirty, and she immediately asks about Andy's cold, how's his throat feeling, has he taken his temperature today?

"I'm fine, Mom," Andy says. "I feel a lot better." He's still on the couch, under Sid's arm. Molly is at Sid's other side, showing him videos on her phone.

"Stay right there," Andy's mother says, stepping back. "I'm gonna get my camera."

"No," Molly says, touching her pony tail. "My hair looks stupid."

"Stay right there!" her mother calls, undeterred.

"I guess you can tell by the eight million home videos that she's obsessed with capturing precious moments," Andy says.

Sid laughs. He's a precious moment? Part of one, anyway? Hard to believe. He does his best not to look threatening when he smiles for the camera.

They go to Pizza Planet for dinner, and Sid can't believe how stupidly satisfying it feels to put his credit card in the token machine and get as many of them as he wants. He used to know a way to rig the thing so that it would just spit tokens until it needed a refill; he used to be such a good thief. He used to always feel like the world owed him one.

"I got a Buzz Lightyear out of this thing once," he tells Molly when they're playing the alien claw machine.

"Seriously?" she says. "Out of this thing?"

"Yeah," he says. "It was buried under all the aliens. I don't know what happened to it, actually."

"Are you telling the Buzz Lightyear t-shirt story?" Andy asks, appearing over their shoulders to watch Molly work the claw.

"No," Sid says. "Totally different story. Did you steal a Buzz Lightyear out of my yard when we were kids?"

"What? No! I had my own. Remember?"

"I've heard the Buzz Lightyear t-shirt story," Molly says. "It's like my second favorite Sid story."

"Jesus," Sid says, his face actually getting hot.

"What's your favorite?" Andy asks.

"Are you kidding?" she says, turning to gape at him. "The one where he drives to California with you at the last minute. Of course!"

"I told Molly about you moving out with me there before I told my Mom," Andy says, and he's blushing now, too. "So. I mean, I had to tell someone. All those stories."

Sid kisses him between his eyes, right in the middle of Pizza Planet. What's anybody here going to do about it? They own this place, anyway. He walks back to the table, where Andy's mother is looking at her camera, scrolling through more pictures she's taken tonight.

"Do you have any pictures of your mother?" she asks.

"Uh huh," he says. He digs for his wallet. "One." He takes it out and shows her: he's two years old, laughing in his mother's lap.

"She was really beautiful," Andy's mother says.

"I know."

He puts it away, and laughs to himself when sees the other ancient relic that still lives in there, at the back of his wallet: the tag he cut off of Andy's Buzz Lightyear t-shirt. He remembers being twelve years old, no idea why he couldn't just throw it away. The air-punching Buzz Lightyear insignia is almost completely worn off, from years of Sid digging the tag out and rubbing its silky material between his fingers, thinking about Andy.

"What's that?" Andy's mother asks.

"This, uh. T-shirt tag. It was Andy's."

"Ah, the infamous t-shirt incident," she says, smiling. "I remember him coming home with that shirt inside out, that story – I thought, oh, God. Here we go again."

"Hadn't gotten rid of me," Sid says.

"I think that was when I knew you'd be around for awhile," she says, nodding.

Sid grins out at Andy and Molly, who are celebrating a successful claw grab. He's starting to get that impression, too, but it still feels good to hear it out loud, from Andy's other most important person. He's gonna be around for awhile.

Chapter Text

Molly has been envisioning her return to Los Angeles since she left last summer. This time she's come prepared: pre-tanned and dressed more carefully, though not too carefully, her hair close to perfect after a cut and dye job that would bring her mother to tears if she knew how much Molly paid for it. She's been working at Pizza Planet part time, and so far she likes it much better than school. There are older boys who are actually worth flirting with, and the paycheck, the spending power. She feels grown up as she steps off the plane, and she should. She'll be graduating from high school in just a little over a month.

Though her whole ribcage is electrified with excitement, she tries to look as bored as possible as she walks through the airport, a pair of designer sunglasses hiding most of her face. They were a gift from Sid last time she was here, and he wouldn't tell her how much he paid for them, but she looked it up online when she got home and make a frog-like sound of surprise that brought her mother into the room. She's vain about them, at least keeping them on top of her head whenever she can get away with it. She pushes them there when she sees Andy and Sid standing near the baggage carousels, and her attempt at being too cool to care about being at LAX is gone as soon as she meets her brother's eyes.

"I thought you were some movie star for a second," Andy says. Molly laughs and jumps into his arms. She reaches around him to pull Sid against Andy's back so she can hug them both at the same time. Sid is smirking, trying not to seem overly happy to see her.

"I have about a billion things I want to ask you," she says to Sid, shifting over to hug him more completely.

"It's not really that exciting," Sid says.

"Um, yes it is?"

"She's gonna flip out," Andy says, smiling at Sid. "Can I tell her?"

"Tell me what?" Molly is bouncing in her platform heels, being totally suburban, but she can tell by Andy's face that she's about to get some very good news. "Tell me what?"

"Seneca is having a party tomorrow night," Sid says. He shakes his head like he can't believe he's been lowered to caring about this. "I'll be there, doing security, whatever. She said you guys can come."

"Me, me and Andy?" Molly says. "We can come? To the party? Like, as regular people?" She's still bouncing, pulling at Sid's arm.

"As regular people, yeah," Andy says. "We don't have to dress up like caterers or anything."

Seneca Considine is the singer who hired Sid as her private bodyguard back in December, when she was impressed by the way he handled what she viewed as an attempt on her life at the nightclub where Sid was working. Sid claims that she exaggerated both the seriousness of the situation and his own impressiveness, and that her hiring of him was only part of playing the situation for all it was worth in the press. Seneca wasn't really a big deal before the 'Potentially Lethal Nightclub Attack,' which Sid says was only a drunk guy trying to grab Seneca's chest. Seneca seems to believe that he was going for her throat, obsessed and murderous, and the court case against her attacker is still pending. The news about the incident has mostly been forgotten, but Seneca's career has taken off in the aftermath. Molly hears her singles on the radio on a regular basis back home. She's not a particularly impressive singer - pretty standard Top 40 love songs - but the fact that she's opened the door for Sid to circulate among the rich and famous has made her the most fascinating person in pop culture, to Molly.

"I can't believe this, oh my God - what am I going to wear - who's going to be there?" Molly is aware of the ridiculous volume and pitch of her voice as she walks out of the airport, holding on to Sid's arm.

"No idea and no idea," Sid says. "Wear whatever you want, it's not fancy or anything, it's just at her house."

"At her house? Oh my God!"

"And I don't know who'll be there, but I'm sure they'll plenty of creepy ass coke head guys who'll be all over you within two seconds, so you're not even going to the bathroom without me or Andy to escort you, got it?"

"Anything, okay, anything!" Molly has to call Amanda, and Courtney, and Michele. They'll faint with envy. She gets out her phone with the intention of calling her mother first, then decides against it, imagining the questions that might get asked. Will there be alcohol at this party? What time will you be home? Can I speak to Andy about this, please?

L.A. is just as she remembers it: hazy and hot and fantastically loud. Sid is driving a car that is much nicer than Andy's old Corolla, and Molly knows it's suburban to be impressed with leather interiors, but she is. She sits up front, and Andy leans between their seats while Molly examines the features on the dash, pressing a button that opens the moon roof.

"Is your new apartment as nice as your new car?" Molly asks.

"No," Sid says. "But it's less of a dump."

"It's a scene," Andy says.

"A scene?"

"Sid can't take the garbage down without getting hit on." Andy doesn't look happy about this. He looks just like he did when he left home, with his collar shirt and khaki pants, the same haircut he had when he was in high school. Andy loves rocks, and old Western movies, and owned at least one John Mayer CD as a teenager. Molly never thought he'd be remotely cool until she saw him with Sid Phillips at Pizza Planet when she was ten years old, and even with Sid as his boyfriend, Andy has mostly remained a dork. Their mother once described living in L.A. as 'somewhat trying' for Andy, and Molly never really thought about what that meant until now.

The traffic is horrendous, but to Molly even this is glamorous: real L.A. traffic. She spends the car ride texting the news about the party to her friends and asking Sid all the questions she's saved up since she heard about his new job. Sid doesn't do Facebook or email and doesn't even really do the phone, so aside from a few scattered texts she hasn't talked to him since he and Andy came home for Christmas, which was just a week before Seneca came along and changed their lives.

"Is she like, totally a bitch in real life?" Molly asks.

"No," Sid says. "She's just kind of dumb."

"Dumb like how?"

"Dumb like someone who's never had to fend for herself."

"She was a child star," Andy says, like Molly doesn't know that.

"She was a Mousekateer," Molly says, and Sid snorts. She gives him a jab in the ribs, almost as excited to be here with him as she is about the prospect of a real celebrity party. Sid is kind of like a celebrity, to her. He's definitely the most exciting thing that's ever happened to anyone in her family.

"I bet this car can go really fast," Molly says.

"In a perfect world," Sid says. They're boxed into a sea of cars on the freeway, presently.

"Don't give him any ideas," Andy says.

"Do you have any new tattoos?" Molly asks, ignoring her brother.

"A couple," Sid says.

"Where?"

"On my back."

"What are they of?"

"Molly, take a breath!" Andy says. He's just jealous that she's not asking a billion questions about him. She looks at him in the rear view, pushing her sunglasses down over her eyes.

"So Mom told me that you're celebrating your graduation by going to more school," she says.

"I have to get my Master's," Andy says. "Everybody in my program does. You don't get an undergrad degree in geology and just stop. Plus, smart ass, you're doing the same thing."

"We'll see," Molly says.

"We'll see?" Andy sounds like her mother, as usual. "What are you talking about? Mom said you're going to Western."

"I got in, anyway," Molly says. "Not like it's hard." She looks over at Sid, expecting him to either tell her to appreciate this opportunity or smirk at her with shared academic disinterest. He's just driving, his eyes hidden behind his own pair of sunglasses, which are vintage aviators.

"You'll like college better than high school," Andy says. Molly affects a yawn and reaches for the radio.

"I bet the sound system's good," she says.

"It's decent," Sid says. Andy scoffs.

"It cost almost as much as the car," he says.

Molly puts the window down to peer at their new apartment building as they approach, driving past landscaped waterfalls and a security gate that opens with a code. She has fond memories of their last apartment, with its little porch full of potted plants and the kidney-shaped pool with palm fronds clogging up its vents, but this is place is definitely an upgrade. It's a proper high rise, closer to the coast, and Sid's car fits in among other nice ones that surely have leather seats and expensive sound systems.

"Damn, guys," Molly says.

"I knew you'd love this place," Andy says. "It's so corny."

"I'm corny, then?" Molly reaches back to hit him.

"No," Andy says, deflecting the attack. "You're just young."

"Oh, God. You're only four years older, Mom. What floor are you guys on?"

"The tenth," Sid says. "Race you up the stairs?"

"Not in these shoes!" Molly says. She beams at him, the distracted sort of crush she has on him re-solidifying. He was a runner in high school, too, sort of, and they have a recurring joke about racing each other. Molly hasn't lost yet.

Sid carries all the bags, and on the walk to the elevator they pass the sort of people Molly remembers from strolling Rodeo Drive last time she was here: their expressions of transcendent boredom put Molly's attempts to shame. It's a very different kind of boredom from what she's seen at home, not frustrated but achieved. She's texting this to Courtney as they ride up to the tenth floor, but Courtney isn't getting it.

"I bet the pool here is awesome," Molly says.

"It's crowded," Sid says.

"Who cares? Good! Can we go?"

"He only got like two hours of sleep before we had to come get you," Andy says.

"No, it's okay," Sid says. "I'm getting used to not sleeping."

"I guess you could use some sunlight," Andy says. He leans over to kiss Sid's shoulder, and Molly turns back to her iPhone. Her own first kiss came just a few months ago, embarrassingly belated and generally disappointing. She made Andy tell her about his first kiss with Sid once, and he got red-cheeked and flustered just talking about it. It started out as a dare, apparently. Her brother claims to know how lucky he is, but Molly is pretty sure he never could, not unless he went back and endured high school without a boyfriend.

The apartment is lovely, though underfurnished and cluttered with the artifacts of Sid and Andy's daily routines. There are empty energy drink bottles lined up on the counter in the kitchen, sweatshirts thrown over the back of the couch and shoes piled up behind it. Andy's geology lab work is spread across what might have otherwise been a dining room table, rock specimens laid out over newspaper. There's nothing hanging on the walls.

"You guys need a woman's touch in here," Molly says.

"Volunteering to clean up?" Sid says.

"Uh, no. Just saying."

She walks out onto the porch, glad to see Andy's plants still alive and well. The view is good, though she can't see the ocean, and the hot wind makes her feel like she's stepped into a movie. Andy follows her out onto the porch and gives her a hug from behind, which makes her forgive him, partially, for all the good luck he's had.

"It's like your lives are actually starting," Molly says. "It's so exciting."

"Yeah," Andy says. "Except, I don't know."

"Except what?"

"He's gone a lot." Andy turns to look at Sid, who is mixing drinks for them. "I don't want him to do this forever, this personal security stuff. It's been kind of hard."

Molly wants to ask what he means, but Sid is headed toward them with the drinks, which are fizzy and pinkish.

"We got this girly shit in your honor," Sid says, handing one to her. "Raspberry liquor and champagne."

"Don't tell Mom we let you drink," Andy says.

"Duh." She kisses her brother's cheek. He actually looks kind of sad and exhausted, though just subtly. "Thanks, guys. This is, like. Already the best week of my life."

They dress in swimsuits and head to the pool after another round of drinks. Molly has only ever been allowed to have the rare glass of wine with dinner, though she once tried beer at a party. It was kind of like kissing: a lot of buildup to something that tasted funny and didn't alter her state of existence at all. This champagne cocktail, however, is wonderful, and the slight floaty feeling it has brought on is the perfect accent to arriving at the apartment complex's pool, which is on the roof, surrounded by planters with fat little palm trees and flowers that cascade down onto the deck. There's music playing, some kind of retro hotel lobby jazz, and the pool is crowded but not noisy, everybody either sunbathing or hunched over their phones, trying to see the screens in the glare from the sun. They find three chairs together and set out their towels, which are three ratty old bath towels, the only ones Sid and Andy own.

"Nobody's swimming," Molly says.

"They never swim," Andy says.

"I do sometimes," Sid says. "In the morning, if I'm not half dead after work."

"What are your work days like?" Molly asks.

"They're work nights, mostly," Andy says. "Though, yeah, I guess sometimes there are day jobs, too. It's kind of like. Twenty-four hours."

"That part of it sucks," Sid says. "I just show up wherever and whenever she calls me. But she's paying for it, so."

"All this money would be nice if we could actually use it to, you know, do stuff together," Andy says.

"It's not permanent," Sid says. He reaches over and touches Andy's knee. "I just need to get established. Then I can get a more regular gig."

"I know," Andy says.

"Aren't you going to take your shirt off?" Molly asks Sid, who laughs.

"Jesus, Molly," Andy says.

"What? I want to see the new tattoos!"

She was picturing a few small ones on his back, and she gasps when she sees the blue dragon that's now slithering across his spine, waves crashing around its slender body.

"I wasn't gonna get one this big, but this artist is really good," Sid says. "It's Leviathan."

"Who?" Molly asks, running her fingertips down over the dragon's shining scales.

"A sea monster from the Bible," Andy says. "He's one of the seven princes of hell."

"Holy crap," Molly says.

"I used to play this video game where you fought him," Sid says. "It's not a hell thing. Though 'the seven princes of hell' is kind of a rad concept."

"Sid says 'rad' now," Andy says when Molly smirks at him. "It's alarming, I know."

"Does he get it from Seneca?"

"No," Sid says.

"Yes," And says, and he laughs when Sid slides over to his chair to tackle him. Andy cringes into a position that's half defensive, half hug, his arms around Sid's shoulders as he squirms. Molly catches his ankle and gives it a tug.

"Let's throw him in the pool," she says.

"No way, I'll kill you!" Andy says. Apparently this constitutes a different sort of scene here in the land of rooftop pools, because people are looking up from their phones with disapproving stares, but Molly doesn't care. She's just glad to be here with them. It's been lonely at home, where her mother's lack of a boyfriend makes her own that much more hard to bear. Molly tries not to be at home on Friday or Saturday nights, the television and take out pizza routine too depressing, but she hates the thought of her mother going through that by herself.

"I think that girl is sneaking pictures of you with her phone," Molly says to Sid when they've all migrated into the pool, Andy treading water and Sid leaning against the wall with his arms stretched out.

"No, she's not," Sid says without looking.

"Actually, I think Molly is right," Andy says. He swims over to Sid and rests his chin on Sid's shoulder, staking his claim. Sid wraps his arm around Andy's waist and holds him there. It still makes Molly nervous, seeing them touch each other in public. Back home they would at least be gawked at.

"You're getting weird tan lines," Andy says, and he eases Sid's sunglasses up onto his head.

"I don't care about my tan lines," Sid says.

"But you have to, you're famous now." Andy kisses him on each cheek, then checks to see if the girl is still sneaking pictures.

"He gives me a hard time about this," Sid says, looking at Molly. "But they never even released my name, and nobody cares anymore."

"Just wait until the trial of this alleged murderous psychopath," Andy says. "Sid is going to have to testify. Then it'll all be a matter of public record. Cameras at the courthouse, of course - Seneca will make it into the biggest deal possible, free publicity."

"So what?" Molly says. "It'll turn out okay. Everything always turns out perfect for you, Andy."

"Oh, Christ!" He lets go of Sid and sinks a little, pretending to be overcome with hilarity. "Are you serious?"

"Um, yeah." She's not bitter or anything. She just wants to hear him say out loud that he won the luck lottery.

"You've got no idea," Andy says. "No idea how hard I worked on my grad school application, and that's only the start. This is one of the top programs in the country."

"Poor you," Molly says. She glances at Sid, but he's pretending not to pay attention, squinting up at the cloudless sky.

"I only mean to say it's going to be brutal," Andy says. "The workload, and the pressure, the competition, and - and, yeah, you just. You have no idea how hard it is to be an adult."

Molly doesn't want to fight, so she splashes him and swims backward, soaking her hair before thinking about how hard it will be to get it looking good again, now that it's been chlorinated. She closes her eyes and floats, the water filling her ears. She wants to move out here, to California, but she doesn't have a scholarship or the love of her life as an excuse. Andy had both. She doesn't want to think that it isn't fair, but it really just isn't.

On the way back down to the apartment, Seneca calls and asks Sid if he's free to escort her to a spa in thirty minutes. He says yes.

"He always says yes," Andy says.

"Maybe she'll burn out early today and let me have the night off," Sid says. "I told her my sister-in-law's in town."

"Sister-in-law?" Molly smacks her hand over her mouth. "Did you guys get married?"

"No, no," Andy says.

"That's just how I think of you," Sid says. He shrugs and hurries out of the elevator when the doors open. Molly glances at Andy, and he smirks.

Sid dresses for work without showering the chlorine smell off, but it actually goes well with the cologne that he sprays on himself. Seneca has requested that he wear it whenever he's working.

"I like it," Molly says, and it's true, it suits him, a kind of wood and leather smell.

"She picks out his clothes, too," Andy says. He's in the kitchen, making more champagne cocktails.

"She doesn't pick out my clothes," Sid says. "She just bought me a bunch of these shirts." He pulls on the hem of the one he's wearing, a simple gray t-shirt that looks finely made. "It's nice. They're good shirts."

"Well, here's to our wealthy benefactor," Andy says. He drinks from his glass of champagne. Sid looks at Molly and shakes his head.

"Don't let him get wasted," he says, and she laughs, but he looks kind of serious.

When Sid is gone, Andy and Molly lounge on the couch and finish off the last of the champagne, still wearing their swimsuits. They talk about their mother; Andy is worried about her, too, and Molly doesn't point out that worrying out her from the West coast isn't quite the same as finding her asleep at the kitchen table with her face pressed to one of her client's files. Because they've both been drinking, they also talk about their father.

"Mom told me he called the house," Andy says.

"Yeah." Molly pulls a section of her damp hair forward and holds it in front of her eyes, braiding it clumsily. "It's so stupid that I feel like I have to be nice to him."

"I know," Andy says. "But it was the same with me, last time I saw him. Jesus, what did he say?"

"Nothing much. How am I, blah blah. Am I going to college, where, what do I want to major in. I don't know why he bothers. He asked about you."

"Yeah?"

"I told him you were brilliant and successful and living out in California. I didn't say anything about Sid. I wasn't sure you'd want me to."

"No, yeah - I wouldn't." Andy looks down at the champagne glass, turning it in his hand so that it reflects the blazing late afternoon light in angry sunbursts. "Not that I'm ashamed or anything."

"Oh, I know -"

"I just - he doesn't know me. And he doesn't care to, not really. So he doesn't get to know what I really care about. Right?"

"Right." Molly leans over until her head is on Andy's shoulder, and they both watch the light show that the champagne glass is making. She closes her eyes for a moment, remembering when she can't wrench them open again that she got up at five o'clock this morning to catch her flight out here. She falls asleep, waking only partially when Andy extricates himself and drapes a fleece blanket over her. They've got the air conditioning blasting full force, and it feels good to huddle under the blanket, her wet hair hardening to a helmet as she sleeps.

She wakes up with a headache, and the apartment is quiet. Outside, the sun has just started to sink, the haze in the air taking on an orange glow that makes her think about how close they are to the desert. She goes to the fridge and pulls out a fat bottle of the kind of water she became addicted to last time she was out here: Fiji, outrageously expensive and just as delicious as she remembered. She peeks into the bedroom and sees Andy sprawled out on his stomach in bed, hugging a pillow. Her head is still a bit swimmy from the champagne, and her eyes get wet as she lingers in the bedroom doorway. She knows she shouldn't throw Andy's enviable fortune in his face; he deserves everything he has, everything good in the world.

She's missed five calls from her mother. She takes the Fiji bottle out onto the porch and listens to the calming sound of distant sirens before dialing.

"Finally!" her mother says. "I've been worried, you didn't call."

"I know, I'm sorry, I just got wrapped up. Mom."

"What?"

"Sid called me his sister-in-law! But they're not married. But oh my God. Did Andy tell you about the car? And the apartment, the pool on the roof? It's so awesome. I love it here."

"Yes, it's all very exciting," her mother says. "But I'm a little worried about, you know. The two of them getting involved in that world."

"That world?"

"With that singer lady, buying Sid all of these fancy things - I don't know. Andy is worried, too."

"Of course he is. That's what Andy does. But Mom, c'mon. This is so much better than where Sid was working before. And the hours are kind of weird, but it's temporary. He's just doing it until he can find a regular gig."

"I see. I just worry that this is not exactly a pathway to a 'regular gig.' Especially if he gets used to the kind of money she's paying him."

"Did Andy tell you how much?" Molly asks. She turns to check over her shoulder.

"No, and don't you dare ask them."

"I wasn't going to! Mom, you should come out here. Everything is, like. I don't know. It feels like things are happening here, you know?"

"Mhm. I've been to L.A., it's not really my town. I'll fly out there when they have a house. Or - did he really call you his sister in law?"

"Yes! I almost died. And Andy looked all moony afterward, too. So cute."

"Well, good. I mean - he seems okay? Your brother?"

"Of course! Mom, God. Don't worry about Andy. Sid takes awesome care of him. You should see this place."

"And Sid? He doesn't seem too changed, by this new lifestyle?"

"Not at all! He's the same as ever. Actually, he seems calmer, like, happier. Oh, and he has a new tattoo. This crazy water demon thing. That sounds bad, but it's really awesome. It reminds me of those Japanese mafia tattoos."

"I'm not familiar with those. Molly?"

"Yeah?"

"If you come back with a tattoo -"

"Mom! No way! I wouldn't!" She hadn't considered it, but it's not a bad idea.

She hangs up with her mother and stays out on the porch while the sun goes down, texting and browsing Facebook, mostly looking at Andy's page, his pictures of Sid. Where is her tough-looking but tenderhearted boy who will dare her to kiss him? Seventeen years is too long to have to wait for such a thing.

Andy doesn't wake up until the sun is almost completely gone, a few very bright stars appearing over the city. He walks out onto the porch and finishes off the water while Molly texts Courtney to say she has to go, her evening is beginning.

"When's Sid getting home?" Molly asks. Andy shakes his head.

"She took him to some restaurant," he says. "Then they'll go to a bar. Who knows. He'll be back late, he always is."

"So we can have sibling bonding time!"

"Yeah."

Molly tries not to show her disappointment as they primp for dinner, sharing the bathroom mirror. Andy shaves while Molly dries her hair, and she wonders if Sid is having fun or miserably watching the clock. She wants to talk about him, to ask Andy what he meant before about things being hard, but she doesn't want his mood to get any gloomier, so she hums under her breath instead.

They take Andy's old Corolla to a restaurant in town, and it looks ridiculous in the hands of the crisply dressed valet. At the hostess stand, Andy tells the four beautiful girls who attend it that his reservation has been downgraded from three to two. The hostesses make no comment about the change. The girl who will take them to their table simply replaces one of the menus she had collected before leading them through the dark, noisy dining room.

"This place is awesome!" Molly says when they're seated at a tiny table in an alcove near the back. The decor is a mix between a retro tropical-themed pool deck and a modern nightclub, palm leaves backlit with red lights.

"It's okay," Andy says. "I forgot how loud it gets in here." They have to shout across the table to hear each other over the music and chatter from other tables.

"It's cool," Molly says. "Better than Chili's or Pizza Planet." Actually, she wouldn't mind being there instead if it meant Sid could be with them. She looks down at the menu. "No prices?"

"If you have to ask." Andy shrugs. "Get whatever you want. Sid gave me money before he left. I guess he knew he wouldn't be able to come."

"Let's get fancy drinks," Molly says, not wanting to linger on that subject. "They have organic cocktails with fresh fruit." She's mostly kidding, expecting Andy to remind her that she's underage and will be carded, but he just nods, and the waitress doesn't even look up with Molly asks for a guava-orange martini. Andy orders beer.

"So tell me about your rocks," Molly says when the conversation lags.

"You don't want to hear about that."

"Yes, I do! Those ones all over the table? What's going on there?"

"Just - it's a project I'm doing. Let's talk about you going to college. You have to, okay?"

"I have to?" She's not in the mood for this conversation, either. "I don't have to do anything. I'll be eighteen in two months."

"Molly." Andy rubs his fingers over his eyes. "You know what I mean."

"Why can't I just work in a flower shop or something?" she says. "I'd like that. Doing the arrangements. I'd be good at that."

"A flower shop? I don't know, fine, but you should still give college a chance. In case the flower shops aren't hiring."

"There's got to be one hiring somewhere. I can live anywhere I want. I could even move to another country." She says this without conviction. Her mother has promised to help her pay for college, but if she decides not to go, she's on her own.

"You're being silly," Andy says. "You should live with mom for the first few years, save some money."

"Don't give me money advice."

"Huh? Why not?"

Molly raises her eyebrows, and Andy scowls.

"If it were up to me we'd be saving every dime he's making," Andy says. "But it's not my money and I can't tell him what to do."

"Um, duh, and how can you be so negative about this?" Molly says. "That car is, like. A good investment."

"Nothing depreciates faster than the value of a car. And we're throwing away money on rent at that place -" He rubs his hand over his eyes again. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Well, I don't want to talk about college."

"Great!" Andy gulps the last of his beer. "Talk about something else, then. And don't pretend you want to hear about rocks."

"I wish Sid was here," Molly says, drumming her fingers on the table.

"Yeah, no kidding," Andy mutters.

They're both quiet for the rest of the meal, Molly pushing decorative greens that look like the clovers around on her plate. Her fish is good, and Andy's duck is 'fine,' according to him. Molly switches to water after finishing her martini, and Andy has another beer.

"Look," he says when they're waiting for the valet to bring the car around. "I know you don't want to hear this, and, believe me, this is my least favorite position to be in, advice-wise, but I really think you'll regret it if you don't go to college."

"Why are you so worried about this?" Molly asks.

"Because I love you!"

"Do you still fight about this with Sid?" she asks, beginning to realize why it's bothering him so much. "The GED thing?"

"Hell no," Andy says. "I gave up that ghost as soon as moneybags came along and bought him nice shirts."

Back at the apartment, Sid is still not home, and Molly doesn't again ask when he will be. Andy changes into sweatpants and a t-shirt and checks his phone obsessively while they watch Back to the Future on TV.

"What time is the party tomorrow?" Molly asks.

"I don't know," Andy says, thumbing something into his phone. "Night time?"

"Ask Sid, okay? Is that who you're talking to?"

"Uh huh. We mostly talk on these things lately. It's like a long distance relationship."

"Quit complaining and ask him my question. I need to get my hair done, and shop, and all that."

"Oh, boy. He says the party is at six. That's weird. Seems kind of early for this sort of thing."

"As if you go to Hollywood parties all the time," Molly says.

"Only vicariously," Andy says.

When the movie ends, Andy takes his phone to bed and shuts the door behind him. Molly lies on the couch in the dark and watches the ceiling, unable to sleep. She's sure Andy is awake, too, texting with Sid or maybe just moping. Before she's finally able to sleep, a sense of dread overtakes her, and she wonders if they have to go to the party tomorrow or not, which is ridiculous, because of course she wants to, why wouldn't she? Whether or not she and Andy go, Sid will have to, so at least they'll all get to be together.

She wakes up to unfamiliar noises and panics for a moment when she doesn't know where she is. Recovering from the shock of waking on a couch that smells vaguely of spilled beer, she sits up and looks into the kitchen. It must be close to dawn, enough bluish light coming in through the windows that she can see Sid drinking from a huge bottle of Gatorade.

"Hey," he says. "Sorry. I didn't want to wake you up."

"What time is it?" Molly asks. She tries to put her hair in order, but it's hopeless, and she flushes when she thinks of how she must look right now.

"I don't know, five?" Sid says.

"And you're just getting back?"

"Yeah." He puts the Gatorade away and walks into the living area. "She always fucking does this to me. Can I come for a few hours? Sure. Then the day, you know. Progresses."

"Dang. You worked like -" She counts the hours on her fingers. "Fifteen hours?"

"I know. I'm dead on my fucking feet. Two hundred bucks an hour, though. Can't say no to that."

"Two - are you serious?" Fifteen times two is thirty, plus two zeroes. "Oh my God!"

"Yeah. Here." He digs out his wallet and hands her a stack of hundred dollar bills. "Andy said you want to go shopping."

"Sid! I can't - holy - this is like a thousand dollars!"

"Shit is expensive in L.A. I'm gonna go to bed for awhile. Sorry I woke you."

He leaves her sitting there with her mouth hanging open and her hands full of money. She blinks down at the bills, feeling as if she's in a dream. When she looks up Sid is closing the bedroom door quietly behind him.

Unable to get back to sleep, she tucks the money into her purse and heads for the shower. Something about what just transpired bothers her, and she can't put her finger on what. She tells herself she'll feel better later, when she's at Seneca's house, glimpsing the behind the scenes elements of Sid's job. Andy says Seneca just wants to pay people to hang out with her, that she likes having Sid around not because she thinks her life is in danger but for the same reasons Andy always wants him near.

"You think she wants him?" Molly had asked when they talked about this on the phone a few weeks before her trip.

"I know she does," Andy said. "But it's not like I'm worried."

"Yeah. 'Cause he's gay. And totally devoted to you."

"Exactly," he said. He'd sounded worried, but Molly thought he was just being paranoid. Now - the cologne, the shirts - but it doesn't matter, because Sid would never be taken in by someone like Seneca, no matter how much cash she threw at him.

Sid is still asleep when Andy emerges for breakfast. He doesn't look very well-rested, and he's silent over his bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats.

"Want to come shopping with me?" Molly asks.

"I have to work on my project," Andy says, nodding to the rocks. "Sid can take you. He actually has the day off. I guess Seneca has to sleep sometime."

"What all did they do last night?"

"Nothing. They never do anything. They hang out with the rest of her entourage - bars, clubs, rich people's houses. He gets so bored."

"I bet," Molly says, and Andy gives her a look like she expressed doubt over this.

"He's not a people person," Andy says. "Not those kind of people anyway."

"I can't wait to meet them," Molly says. "I bet they're super hilarious."

"Yeah," Andy says, and he puts his face back in his cereal bowl.

After breakfast, Molly kills time on Andy's laptop while he works with his rocks. She glances up at him occasionally, trying to figure out what he's doing. He explained it as 'measuring simulated seismic activity in a variety of commercial grade concretes' which means exactly nothing to her. When Sid comes out of their bedroom he's wearing jeans and a t-shirt that does not look expensive, just thin white cotton. He stands over Andy for awhile, watching him scrape dust from one of the concrete chunks onto a slide.

"You only slept five hours," Andy says.

"I'll drink a Red Bull." Sid says. He bends down and kisses the top of Andy's head. Andy keeps working, his eyes narrowed and his forehead creased.

"Ready for shopping?" Molly asks when Sid walks over to her.

"What now?" Sid says, and Andy laughs.

"I said you'd take her. I'm too busy, especially if this party starts at six."

"It'll be fun," Molly says, tugging on Sid's wrist. "We can get our nails done and everything."

"You think that's funny?" Sid holds up his hands to show her his perfect cuticles. "She makes me do it once a week. Fucking humiliating."

"Okay, so we'll skip the nails," Molly says, actually kind of horrified by that mental image. "Will you take me to the tar pits instead?"

"Sure, fine." Sid looks at Andy. "You really can't come?"

"I really can't," Andy says. He still won't look up from his work. Sid stares at him for awhile before turning back to Molly.

"Let's do this," he says.

Out in the city, the day is the same as the one before: uncomfortably bright between the cement and the sky, stuffy with heat even with the wind kicking up the dust. Molly has her hair done first, just a blow out, but it costs a hundred dollars after tip. Sid is reading a magazine when she reenters the salon's lobby, and he's found a toothpick somewhere. He chews on it, flips it over with his tongue, and chews on it again. He looks up at Molly when her shadow falls over him, and she does a twirl to show off her hair's new bounciness.

"Will I fit in?" she asks. "With this hair?"

"Jesus, don't worry about that," Sid says, standing. "You'll be the youngest person there. In this town, that means you win."

They shop for clothes next, and Molly makes Sid pick something out for himself. He groans through the whole thing, but allows her to use some of the money he gave her to buy him a black button-up shirt that suits him. Molly gets a long skirt that makes her think of fortune tellers at carnivals, but in a good way. She tops it off with a tiny white t-shirt that costs eighty-eight dollars. It feels marvelous against her skin, like all along she only thought she was wearing t-shirts, but this is the real thing. A pair of new platforms and a clutch purse later, the money is almost gone.

"I could live here," she says as they walk past the tar pits, her new purchases secure in the trunk of Sid's car. "It's just - the air feels different, you know?"

"Yeah, full of grime," Sid says. "But I know what you mean. This place, I don't know. I feel sane here."

"Right! Everything that happened with Seneca, and how well you're doing now, it's like it was meant to be."

He says nothing, stoic behind his sunglasses, and they walk on, past school groups and tourists with cameras. Molly thinks of taking pictures with her phone, but the tar pits aren't really that photogenic. She takes her phone out anyway, to check the time. Just three hours until the party.

"So Andy seems kind of stressed," she says.

"I told him he should take the summer off instead of starting his grad courses right away," Sid says.

"You think he will?"

"Hell no. And I guess he'd get bored, with me working so much."

"Hmm, yeah. How much longer do you think you're going to do this, with Seneca?"

She doesn't expect him to answer right away, but she can barely get the question out before he speaks.

"I just want to save fifty thousand dollars," he says. "Can I show you something?"

"Um, sure."

They head to the car, and Molly thinks of asking where they're going, but as they pull away from the heat and clutter of the city she gets the feeling that Sid wants her to wait and see. The quiet between them and the cold blast of the air conditioning is so cozy that Molly wonders if this is what being driven around by a father feels like. About twenty minutes outside of town, they're in rolling hills where the air again feels different, lightened by the scent of the ocean and the desert.

"It's this one right here," Sid says, and Molly has guessed what they're looking at by the time they pull up to a retro ranch house with a very neatly kept yard and a FOR SALE sign by the mailbox.

"It's been on the market for like a year," Sid says. He parks the car by the curb and gets out, throwing his sunglasses onto the driver's seat. "It's got a pool," he says as Molly follows him toward the house, which looks like it was built in the sixties, bright olive green with little diamond-shaped windows in the front door.

"A really small pool," Sid says, "But still, a pool. And houses are real cheap right now, you know, like, it's a buyer's market. There's three bedrooms, so he could have an office and I could have a gym, and we'd put futons in them so you and your mom could have your own rooms if you came to visit. And I only need like three more months of saving and I can get it, and Andy doesn't know, and I'm not gonna buy it without asking him but I still don't want to bring him out here to see it until I have all the money, so don't tell him, okay? What? What's wrong?"

Molly laughs so she won't start crying. She flings her arms around his shoulders and hugs him hard, her heart pounding like she's the one who just got surprised with a house. He hugs her back before setting her down, his cheeks going pink.

"I moved us into that apartment 'cause I thought he would like it," Sid says. "But it was stupid, that place is a joke. This is, like. This is somewhere he'd want to live."

"It is," Molly says. She turns to the house and clasps her hands under her chin, imagining Andy opening the front door to collect the newspaper, Sid mowing the lawn. "Can we look in the windows?"

The house has a stone fireplace and a stainless steel appliances that look new. The pool is tiny but adorable, kidney-shaped like the one at their old complex, shards of palm fronds floating in the shallow end. The yard itself is large and fenced in, and Sid narrates its details obsessively as they peer over the fence.

"See where that kind of rock garden thing is? We could do a pond there. And I think that's an avocado tree. And those over there are yucca plants. We could plant that lemon tree we have over there, and then maybe if I save some extra money we could get an in-ground jacuzzi put in. I have this friend who I used to work with at the club, his day job is installing pools. He'd give us a good price."

"It's perfect," Molly says. She kisses Sid's cheek. "Perfect, he'll love it."

Sid talks about the neighborhood on the ride back into the city, how the commute to UCLA wouldn't be too bad, and how he hopes to find work as a personal trainer after Seneca. Molly is so excited on her brother's behalf that she can't stop tugging at her seat belt and tapping her heels against the passenger side floor mat.

"You guys are going to be so happy," she says, in awe of how true this feels.

"Don't jinx it," Sid says, but he's smiling. "I've still got to get through three more months of this personal security shit if I have any hope of making the down payment. And that trial, goddamn. Andy's right, that'll suck."

"You'll be fine," Molly says. "Seneca loves you, right? She'll take care of you."

"Loving something and taking care of it are two different things."

"You sound like a fortune cookie. Relax! Everything's gonna work out."

*

Back at the apartment, Andy is in the shower. Sid disappears into the bedroom, and Molly can hear them talking over the sound of the water, though she can't make out the words. She has a missed call from her mother, but she decides not to answer it. The party starts in an hour and she's nervous. She wishes they hadn't finished the champagne yesterday.

Sid and Andy emerge thirty minutes later, both damp-haired and dressed for the party. Sid is not wearing the new shirt he bought today, but one that looks like the gray shirt he wore to work yesterday, only a slightly darker shade of gray. Andy is in his usual uniform: polo shirt with a frayed collar, khaki pants. Molly changes into her new outfit and Andy applauds sarcastically when she emerges.

"Don't even tell me how much you paid for all of that," he says.

"I wasn't gonna," she says, stepping into her shoes. She wonders if Andy knows that Sid was the one who funded their shopping trip. Money seems to be a sensitive subject between the two of them. She smiles at Sid, thinking of that house that's waiting for them, the avocado tree's shadow dropping over the pool as the sun sinks.

"Remember what I said about sticking to me or Andy the whole time we're there," Sid says, pointing a finger at her. He no longer seems to be in a good mood.

Molly lets Andy ride up front with Sid on the drive to Seneca's house. The traffic is bad, and Sid curses, saying they'll be late. Andy stares out the window and doesn't say anything until they're almost there, Molly with her nose pressed to the window as she gawks at the mansions on the palm-lined streets.

"Will there be food at this thing?" Andy asks.

"No telling," Sid says. "Want to stop and pick something up?"

"God, no. You're already late."

"I texted her. She knows I'm on my way. Molly, you hungry?"

"Forget it, Sid," Andy says before she can answer. "We'll just - hope for the best."

They both go silent, and Molly's heart beats faster. She's more nervous about whatever is going on between them than about meeting celebrities. She tells herself it's nothing; Sid is just dreading his work day, and Andy knows he won't fit in with these people. He's only coming along to chaperone Molly.

Seneca's house is gated, like all the other enormous dwellings on this road. Molly puts her window down and peers in through the gate while Sid enters his access code. The house is angular and modern, lots of glass and dark wood. It's right on the beach, and Molly can hear the crash of the ocean as they pull up the driveway.

"This place is crazy," Molly says. She has to pee pretty badly; she'll be able to tell Courtney and the others that she used the same toilet Seneca Considine sits on. Thinking of this, she finds herself wishing that they were simply touring the house instead of meeting the woman herself.

"Where are the other cars?" Andy asks as they climb out. There's no thumping music, no people spilled out onto the lawn with red plastic cups. Not that kind of party.

"Maybe people got dropped off," Sid says. "None of these people drive themselves anywhere."

"Sure they do," Andy says. "They're always getting arrested for DUIs."

"Quit being such a grump," Molly says, starting to feel panicked about the way her brother is behaving. Did they manage to fight while showering together? They climb the stairs to the front door, and Molly forgets that she has to pee, distracted by a queasiness that has her worried about throwing up on Seneca's feet as soon as she answers the door. She's afraid she'll make the gossip pages as a disappointing party guest.

The person who answers the door is not Seneca, but she so closely resembles her that Molly is fooled for a moment. They must be sisters; this woman looks just slightly younger, more tan, and less pretty. She leans up onto her tip toes to hug Sid.

"Have you recovered from last night?" she asks, ignoring Andy and Molly.

"Yeah - Chrissy, this my boyfriend, Andy, and his sister, Molly," Sid says, gesturing to them with his sunglasses. "This is Seneca's sister, Chrissy."

Chrissy looks at them and nods, smiling vaguely. She's got her hand on Sid's bicep.

"Adorable," she says. "They've got freckles."

"Yeah." Sid gives Molly an apologetic look. "Can we come in?"

"Can you come in?" Chrissy walks into the house, laughing, and Sid follows, motioning for them to join him. Molly and Andy exchange a look.

"Just wait til you meet the main attraction," Andy says, whispering.

The house's rooms are huge and airy, an open kitchen dumping into a main sitting area with a boxy fireplace on the far end. Sliding glass doors are open on an enormous porch, which is covered with more seating, everything bright white and pillowy. Before they can reach the porch, a tiny woman who is stretched out on the couch sits up and regards them blearily, rubbing her eyes as if she's just woken up. It's Seneca, and she's so small in real life that Molly lifts a hand to cover her mouth when she stands. She brushes her bottom lip with her finger, trying to play the gesture off as an itch.

"Sidney," Seneca says, her irritable expression evaporating as she walks toward him. She hugs Sid around his middle; she's almost literally half the size of him.

"Where is everybody?" Sid asks. He puts his hand on top of Seneca's head and pats her there.

"Oh, you know," Seneca says. "Late."

"I brought Andy, and this is his sister, Molly," Sid says, ushering her toward them. She's smiling like someone who is still half asleep as she reaches out to shake Andy's hand.

"Nice to meet you," she says.

"We've actually met," Andy says. Seneca nods as if she didn't really hear that and moves on to Molly, gasping and clapping her hands against her cheeks.

"Oh my God," she says. She takes Molly's hands and pulls her arms out as widely as she can. "She's so cute!"

Molly laughs self consciously and looks at Sid, who rolls his eyes. When she turns back to Seneca she sort of leaps on Molly and hugs her shoulders, rocking her back and forth. Molly sneaks a look at Andy, feeling like she's just been attacked by a leprechaun. Seneca isn't even that much shorter than her, or even that much skinner, she's just sort of miniature in her proportions. Molly reaches up to pat her back, then thinks better of it, her hand frozen in mid air.

"Great to meet you," Molly says when Seneca pulls away to beam at her. "I'm a big fan of your music." That's a lie, and Molly sees Andy cover his face out of the corner of her eye, maybe to hide a laugh.

"Oh, you're sweet," Seneca says, grabbing Molly's hands again. She looks at Sid. "She's sweet."

"Yeah," Sid says. "I thought you were doing the party here?"

"I am, I am, but like I said, everyone's late. Guys! Let's have a drink. We can sit out on the porch. Archie and Tran are out there. I think. Chrissy?"

"Yeah?" Chrissy is in the kitchen, pouring a glass pitcher full of something greenish into martini glasses.

"Are those the cucumber thingies?"

"Yep. Here, everybody take one. They're super healthy for you."

They head into the kitchen, and Chrissy hands out the drinks. Sid shakes his head when he tries to offer her one.

"I'm on the clock," he says. Seneca makes an exasperated noise and tugs him forward by his wrist.

"Don't be silly," she says. "You can have one or two. We didn't make them that strong."

These words are leaving her lips just as Andy is choking on the first drink he took from his glass. He wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand, his face turning red.

"There's alcohol in these," he says. "I didn't know." He coughs. "You said it was healthy - I kind of gulped it." His eyes are watering. "Sorry."

"I meant they're healthy except for the vodka," Chrissy says. Molly sniffs her drink and coughs. Seneca laughs.

"Vodka's not that bad for you," she says. "It really isn't."

They take their drinks out onto the porch, where Archie and Tran, who Molly for some reason expected to be small dogs, lift their hands in greeting. They're heavily styled and flamboyantly accented, their skinny jeans so tight that just looking at them makes Molly want to adjust her underwear. She doesn't dare, sitting down on a plush white sofa beside Sid, who is already halfway finished with his drink. Andy sits next to him, and Sid tugs him against his side, which Molly is happy to see, especially when Andy slides his hand over Sid's, their fingers locking together.

"It's really beautiful out here," Molly says, admiring the ocean and the sprawling infinity pool down on the level below the porch they're sitting on.

"This is my favorite bar," Tran says as Chrissy refills his drink.

"You're a shitty tipper," she says, and he gives her a smack on the ass that makes her laugh.

"Molly," Seneca says when she's seated across from them, beside Archie. She reaches over to take Molly's hand. "Has Sid told you about how he saved me?"

"Oh - sure, I mean, I read about it. And Andy told me." She doesn't want to mention Sid's version of what happened, which apparently differs a lot from Seneca's.

"It was the most terrifying moment of my life," Seneca says. "And I was in New York when the towers came down."

"Geez."

"That man wanted to kill me. I thought I was as good as dead. I don't even know where Sid came from, but suddenly he was there. He's like an angel."

They all turn to look at Sid, who seems to be working hard to remain expressionless, his jaw clicking. Andy is chewing his lip, grinning like he finds this hilarious. Molly can see Sid's fingers squeezing in around Andy's as if in warning.

"I would have died without him," Seneca says. "Right there on the floor at the club."

"Can we talk about something more cheerful, darling?" Archie says. Tran is picking at his nail beds and Chrissy and brushing sand off of the sofa cushions.

"Something cheerful." Seneca thinks for a moment, sips from her drink, then throws up one hand, her fingers spread open. "My new album."

Whenever Molly's glass empties, Chrissy is there to refill it, and soon she's the closest to drunk she's ever been, laughing at everything and talking loudly about her friend Courtney's boyfriend troubles. Andy is drinking a lot, too, wandering around the pool area as more guests begin to arrive. Sid has been stationed at the front door to make sure no shady characters get in.

"Are you going to swim?" Molly shouts over the wind as she makes her way down to Andy. She left her shoes up on the porch, not wanting to risk them on the steep staircase.

"Swim? Huh? No." Andy looks sort of stately compared to the others, his hands in the pockets of his khakis. Molly stands behind him and rests her chin on his back, staring up at the purplish evening sky.

"I have something awesome that I want to tell you," she says, thinking of the house. "But I can't."

"Well, as long as it's awesome, I won't worry about it."

"Ha, you, not worry about something? You must really be drunk."

"I'm not drunk," Andy says. "And didn't I tell you these things were boring?"

"I'm not bored!" Molly says, so loudly that she laughs and hides her face against Andy's shirt. Her brother smells like soap and sweat, and faintly of home.

"You need to eat something," Andy says. "C'mon, let's go raid the kitchen."

They ask Sid for permission to root around in the fridge, and he laughs. He's able to keep an eye on the door as he cuts slices from a roast chicken and a block of fancy-looking cheese. The party is beginning to get crowded, music playing from speakers that Molly has not been able to locate.

"They just got this stuff yesterday," Sid says. "So it's still good." He hands them each a paper towel loaded with food. Molly's eyes get wet as she accepts hers; she loves Sid so much. She wants to spoil the surprise about the house, badly, but she won't.

"You okay?" Sid asks, reaching over to jostle her shoulder.

"She called you Sidney," Molly says, making sure that Seneca is not in earshot. She's on the other side of the sitting area, near the stairs, laughing with some newcomers.

"Better not catch you calling me that," Sid says. He taps her on the chin, turns to kiss Andy's cheek, and goes back to the door.

"He shouldn't be affectionate with you while he's on the job," Molly says, her mouth full of chicken. "It makes him less scary."

"No one here is scared of him," Andy says. He's making himself a drink, vodka and ice cubes.

"They should be, though," Molly says. "He could beat them all up."

Andy doesn't respond, just throws back half the drink and makes a sort of tower out of chicken and cheese. He bites into it like it's a sandwich.

"You're drinking a lot," Molly says.

"So? I'm not driving."

She reaches for his drink and tries it. He laughs when she makes a face. It's like drinking ice cold nail polish remover.

"I'll make you something you'll like," he says, and he turns to the fridge, pulling out a bottle of pomegranate mineral water.

The crowd gets thicker and the music louder. Andy keeps his hand on Molly's back or shoulder as they move from room to room, snooping. Molly is fascinated by everything: the framed pictures of Seneca with other celebrities, the scented candles that are burning in the bathrooms, Seneca's disastrously messy bedroom. She can feel a headache coming on, so she switches from pomegranate mineral water and vodka to plain tap water. Andy keeps taking her on detours to the kitchen so he can make more drinks for himself. Sid is no longer standing at the front door.

"We should text Sid," she says, shouting to be heard while Andy takes handfuls of ice cubes from the tray in the freezer. "I haven't seen him in awhile."

"He's fine," Andy shouts back. "He's in his element."

"No - you - but you said he's not a people person? Not these people, you said."

"No, he just likes being admired by them," Andy says. "C'mon, let's go sit outside."

The ocean-scented air feels much better than the stuffy atmosphere inside the house. There are people in the pool, shrieking with laughter, and at least one of the women is completely naked. Molly won't let herself look. She goes to a quieter edge of the porch and leans her elbows on the railing, looking at the house next door.

"Do you think someone famous lives there?" she asks. Andy shrugs.

"I don't really care about famous people," he says. "When I go to the movies, I want to see the characters. I don't want to be thinking about who's playing them, and the last time they got divorced or arrested or whatever."

"You're smarter than me," Molly says, straightening up to look at him. She's still drunk. He rolls his eyes.

"Not necessarily," he says.

"Andy, you're mad," she says, patting his arm. "At Sid. Why? For this job?"

"I'm not mad about the job. He's making a lot of money. He claims to be saving some of it. I'm mad that he likes it, and that he won't admit that he does."

"I don't think he likes it that much."

"Yeah? You don't know him like I do."

Molly feels both offended and charmed by this, and the combination makes her sit down heavily on the cushioned bench that runs the length of the porch railing. Of course it's true, nobody knows Sid as well as Andy does. She's often tried to imagine what they're like when they're alone together, talking in bed or cleaning up after dinner. She knows one thing that Andy doesn't: the house, the little diamond-shaped windows on the front door, the way Sid's guard went down as soon as they came near it.

Andy drains his drink and slams the empty glass on the porch railing.

"This is the beginning of him leaving me, you see," he says.

"Oh, Andy. You're wrong." She should tell him about the house. She must. But something stops her. Sid would be so angry, but more than that, something precious would be ruined. His pure happiness about that place.

"You sound like Mom," Andy says.

"Ha!"

"Even the way he's all - the kissing me on the cheek thing. It's like he's apologizing for something."

"Yeah, he's apologizing for you having to put up with this. But it's temporary. You're his whole life."

"I was," Andy says, mumbling. "I don't know - fuck, don't listen to me. I'm just jealous."

"Let's do something more cheerful," Molly says, popping up from her seat.

"Like what?" He turns toward her, his wrist slipping against the glass. It goes sailing off the porch and lands with a thud down in the sand. Andy doesn't seem to notice this, so Molly doesn't mention it.

"We should dance," she says. "People are dancing in there." She does not expect Andy to entertain this idea at all, but he nods tiredly.

"Let me get another drink first," he says. He reaches for his glass, and looks a little heartbroken when he can't find it.

Molly considers telling him not to have another, then she thinks of what he said. You sound like Mom. Back in the house, a club remix of one of Seneca's songs comes on, and Molly pulls Andy toward the massive crowd of dancers, who've managed to make her warehouse-like living room seem small and cramped.

When they were kids, they used to go nuts for the spinkler in the backyard, laughing and shouting as they jumped through those moving spokes of water. This feels like that did, the two of them lapsing into mindless joy, bouncing with the crowd and shouting out the inane lyrics in a sing along that doesn't make a dent in the noise inside the house. Still, Molly can read Andy's lips, knows that he's either intentionally or inadvertently memorized the words, and it's so funny that she falls against him, cracking up. He grabs her hand, twirls her, and yanks her back before she can crash into one of the seemingly hundreds of damp bodies that are packed into Seneca's living room. Where did they all come from? Who are they, exactly? She finds that she doesn't care, and she can't see anything but her brother, both as he is now and as he was when he was the second biggest person in her world, when she was small enough to be lifted easily into his arms.

The music ranges from heavy metal riots to violently cheerful Japanese pop and songs that seem more like jokes than music, one featuring a guy imitating Chewbacca. Andy is ecstatic over that one. He recognizes it, sings along, and Molly's face hurts from laughing, her calves beginning to get sore from dancing.

“My shoes!” she shouts over the noise of the crowd, pulling Andy forward until she's speaking directly into his ear.

“Huh?” he shouts back.

“My shoes! I left them out on the porch!”

“Do your feet hurt?” Andy asks. “Do you want to get up on my shoulders?”

“No! But yes!”

Everyone cheers her just for being above the crowd. She raises her arms up over her head and cheers back at them, her hair slapping her shoulders in sweaty strands. Andy has a vice grip on her legs, and she holds on to the top of his head with one hand while giving high fives with the other. Everybody here is the best, everybody is so nice, raising their drinks to her. Other girls get up on other guys' shoulders, and Molly starts to feel dizzy, but she doesn't want to come down yet.

Sid appears, and Molly expects him to look up at her with the same admiration that the others are offering, but he's talking to Andy, pointing at the floor. Andy says something and backs away, stumbling. Sid steadies him, and eases Molly into his arms when she slides down Andy's back. She hugs him, giggling, wants to put her head on his shoulder and fall asleep.

“C'mon,” he says, guiding her through the crowd, toward the stairs. Molly turns to make sure Andy is following.

“Where to?” she asks.

“The V.I.P. room,” Sid says. He's sweating, too, and she wonders if he was dancing. Doubtful. He's stronger than he looks, and he looks pretty strong. She feels like she's been filled with helium as he pulls her up the stairs.

“What time is it?” she asks, because she wants to text Courtney, and she can't remember the time difference between here and home right now, but she's pretty sure it's even later there.

“Late,” Sid says. “After three.”

“Three? Three?” She was out until one o'clock in the morning once, after a football game, and she got grounded for a month.

They come to a guest bedroom with a giant bed, red and black sheets, and lamps that make Molly think of the stalagmites in a cave on a field trip that once bored her. A man and a woman are standing in the doorway of the attached bathroom, arguing, the woman holding a beer bottle like she wants him to know it could be a weapon if necessary.

“Get out,” Sid says to them, and the guy glares at him, then seems to realize that Sid is bigger than him. He scoffs and walks off, the woman following.

“Rodney!” she screams, and Molly laughs, because that name is hilarious. Sid puts her on the bed.

“Watch her,” Sid says to Andy. “I have to clear this crowd out of here.”

“What, by yourself?” Andy laughs. “Good luck.”

Sid says nothing, and closes the door hard behind him. Molly slumps down against the bedspread, which feels nice against her cheek, expensive, like everything here. She touches the hem of her eighty-eight dollar t-shirt and moans when she feels how damp it's gotten, maybe ruined. Andy pushes her hair off of her forehead.

“I'll get you some water from the bathroom,” he says. “Don't move.”

“I'm fine,” she says, though she can feel something new and evil building in her, like when she knew last year that there was no point in continuing to deny it: she had bronchitis, and was going to miss the track team trip to Salt Lake City. Andy returns and makes her sit up to drink water from what might be a toothbrush holder.

“Andy,” she says as she sinks down again, her eyes closed against the bedspread. “I want to dance more. That was so fun.”

“Tomorrow, okay?” he says. He kisses her temple. “You're – I forgot how young you are, I think.”

“No, no – you said. 'Cause I liked your apartment. You said I was young.”

“But you're smarter than me,” Andy says, which makes her laugh. “You are. You know how to be happy. I keep trying to learn how to deal with it.”

“Is Sid mad at us?”

“No.” Andy remembers, just barely, what it was like to see their parents splitting apart for good. Molly was still inside her mother when it happened. “No, everything's fine.”

That's how she falls asleep: with Andy stroking her hair, telling her everything is fine. She sleeps deeply but not well, and wakes up feeling like elephants have trampled her during the night. There's light coming in through the windows, and Andy is asleep beside her, one of the red pillows hugged against his chest. She watches the rise and fall of his breath for a few minutes, and her stomach lurches into seasickness rather suddenly. She runs for the bathroom and gets sick into the same toilet that, she would wager, Seneca Considine gets sick into.

When she no longer feels like she's stumbling across the deck of a rollicking ship, she drinks water from the tap, bringing it to her lips with her hand. Throwing up has never been such a relief before; she feels remade as she wipes her mouth on one of Seneca's towels. Out in the bedroom, Andy is still fast asleep, and the clock says it's almost ten o'clock in the morning. The house is quiet. She walks to the bedroom window and squints out at the beach, looking for the seagulls that she can hear screaming in the distance. She can't find them, and the emptiness of the beach unnerves her.

She opens the door, expecting to find some remnant of the party still raging on, despite the buzz of silence in the main living room. There's nothing, just a collection of people sleeping on the sofas. Sid is not among them, so she pads down the stairs, still barefoot, to find him. The house doesn't look as wrecked as she thought it would after such a crowded party, and she wonders if Sid has cleaned up.

Seneca is among the people on the sofas who are sleeping. She's draped across Chrissy's lap, her face completely hidden by her hair. Archie and Tran are cuddled up together on another couch, and there are a few people Molly doesn't recognize sprawled across arm chairs and piles of cushions that have been pulled onto the floor. None of them stirs, and Molly feels like a ghost, her skirt blowing in the ocean breeze that comes through the doors that are still open to the porch. On the black lacquer coffee table there's a Ouija board, an empty pack of cigarettes, and some white dust that she actually mistakes for sugar before she remembers where she is.

Sid is out on the porch, his back to the house and his hands on the railing. Molly glances at the spot where she left her shoes and sees nothing. Maybe Sid secured them somewhere for her. He turns when he sees her coming.

"You alright?" he asks, and she nods. She stands at the railing and looks down at the pool. There's a pair of cheap-looking, pink-rimmed sunglasses floating in it.

"What were they doing in there?" Molly asks, curious about the Ouija board.

"Coke," Sid says.

The sick feeling returns, but it's sharper now, something she won't get rid of as easily. She looks up at him and feels like the question is already outside of her, like he's already heard it, but she asks anyway.

"You don't do that, though?" she says. "Right?"

She sees him wishing that he could lie, a flicker of resentment for the fact that he can't. The apology in his eyes comes so fast and hard that she knows he not only does it, he did it last night, and the night before. She turns away from him, her hands curling to fists on the porch railing.

"It's not like I do it to get high," he says. "I can't do these fifteen hour shifts without it, it's impossible, I tried, and Red Bull doesn't cut it sometimes, okay? Okay?"

He reaches for her shoulder, and she steps out of his grip, her eyes clouding over so thickly that she expects to feel cotton when she reaches up to clear them.

"It's just for a few more months," he says. "It's not – I'm not addicted. I'll be able to quit."

She walks back toward the house, trying to hold in the sob that's built to a painful pinch in the center of her chest. Her hands keep opening and then curling into fists, and she's not sure what she wants to do with them: hit something, or drill her knuckles into her eyes, or tear what's happening away like scrap paper from a notebook, crumple it up and throw it away, start over.

"Molly," Sid says, hissing as they walk past the sleeping people. "Wait. Hang on. Where -"

She reaches one of the guest bathrooms before he can finish the question, shuts and locks herself inside. For a few seconds she thinks she's going to throw up again, but she's got nothing left on her stomach. She slides down to the floor with her back to the door and covers her mouth with her hands. The door buckles as Sid sits against it, on the other side. She hears him sigh.

"Fuck," he says.

"You can't do this," she says, not even sure he'll be able to hear her with her voice so small. "You'll wreck everything."

He doesn't respond, which is as good as acknowledging that this is true. But he knew it before she said so, and in every way that matters, he's already done it. For a long time they just sit there, and Molly feels as if his back is pressed to hers, no door between them. She can feel the scales of that dragon and the curve of his spine, the push of his breath. She listens for noises from the house, the partiers rousing or Andy looking for them, but there's nothing.

"We should go," Sid says after immeasurable time has passed. Molly's legs are stretched in front of her, and she's staring at her feet, which need washing, sand stuck between her toes.

"Go where?" she says, as if everything has been erased. It has: that apartment, the car. The house with the avocado tree. It's all just dust now.

"Breakfast," he says. "I bet you're starving."

Strangely, it's true. She sniffles and pulls her knees to her chest, lets out a shaky breath.

"C'mon," he says. "Andy will be worried. Is he still upstairs?"

"Yeah," she says. There's a long stretch of quiet, both of them thinking the same thing. "I'm not going to tell him," she says.

Sid doesn't say anything, and she's glad, because she's not sure what she wants to hear. She stands on trembling legs and opens the door. His eyebrows arch when he sees her face, and she's not going to let him hug her, but then she does. She clings hard to his shoulders, her face hidden against his sleeve.

"I promise it will be okay," he says. It doesn't sound the same as it did when Andy made the same promise, last night, before she fell asleep. Andy said so like he believed it was true.

They go upstairs, but when they reach the guest bedroom, Andy isn't there. Molly's panic builds slowly as they go from room to room, finding nothing. She can see Sid beginning to get worked up, too, can hear his breath start to come harder as he checks behind shower curtains and inside closets. When they can't find Andy anywhere in the house, Sid heads toward the back porch, and Molly follows.

"Sidney?" Seneca says as they pass the sofas, her Top 40 voice a witchy little scratch of a thing. Sid ignores her and jogs out onto the porch, and Molly doesn't look back. Sid reaches the porch railing first, and when he curses she knows he's relieved, not angry. She comes to stand beside him and sees Andy sitting alone on the beach, watching the sea birds scurry in the surf.

Sid gets down the stairs first, but once they hit the beach Molly bolts ahead. She's never lost a foot race to him. When she reaches Andy he turns in surprise, and she drops to her knees and hugs herself around his back.

"Hey," Andy says. He turns to look at Sid. He must have seen the white residue on the coffee table; he walked right past it. But Andy doesn't always notice things like that. He doesn't care about the personal lives of celebrities, might have averted his eyes. And in some ways he's still so innocent.

"Are you okay?" Andy asks, frowning when he sees Molly splotchy face.

"Yeah," she says. "I got sick, but I'm fine. Sid helped me."

They both look up at Sid, who seems like he doesn't know what to do next, his hands open at his sides, lips parted.

"Are you okay?" Molly asks Andy.

"I'm fine," he says. He's pallid, hungover, and she knows he's not stupid. He might not know exactly what's wrong, but he knows enough. She thinks of what he said to her in the pool. You have no idea how hard it is to be an adult. She's never really seen him as one before now.

"Did Seneca release you?" Andy asks, tipping his head back to look up at Sid.

"I released myself," Sid says. "And. Anyway. I don't think I can do this anymore."

"Me either," Andy says. They hold each other's gaze, and Molly gets up, brushing sand from her skirt.

"I'm gonna go down to the shore for a minute," she says. "Look for shells."

She knows she won't find any shells, just waterlogged plastic bags and maybe some driftwood. She startles the birds, who fly off to pick over another section of the beach, ten feet away. The ocean is violent enough to make her think of the first time she saw it. She was maybe four years old, holding Andy's hand. They were both afraid of the waves, and they would wade in until the water swirled around their ankles, then run for it when a new wave came crashing toward them. Their mother didn't take them in that year. They built sandcastles instead, and swam in the hotel pool, Molly with floaties on her arms. Years later, on a beach trip with a friend, Molly watched her friend's father walking into the water with her friend's younger brother, who clung hard, laughing when the waves broke against them. She remembers being fourteen, seeing that, thinking: so that's how it's done.

She turns back toward Sid and Andy, afraid she'll see them fighting. Sid is sitting behind Andy now, wrapped around him. They're talking, Sid's arms locked across Andy's chest, his legs clamped around Andy's sides. Sid kisses the corner of Andy's eye, and Andy leans back against him. She's afraid they'll catch her watching them, but they're too absorbed in each other to notice. They're probably only talking about where to go for breakfast, or what Sid will do for money if he really quits working for Seneca. Andy touches the stubble on Sid's cheek. Probably just telling him that he needs to shave.

The bottom of her skirt is getting wet. She'll have it dry cleaned, but it will always smell a little bit like the ocean. She's not sure this is a good thing, or that she wants it to be. There are so many new anxieties to unravel, but for a moment, looking out at the smooth stretch of the ocean beyond the waves, all she can think about is how she can't wait to fall in love. There will be disasters and disappointments, revelations that could unmake the whole thing in an instant, but that's part of what she wants. The beginning of her real life.

Sid and Andy are calling for her. If Sid quits working for Seneca, Molly will have four whole days with the two of them. She could be one reason for him to stay clean. It's not a solution, but it's something: four days. She pulls her soggy skirt from the water, wrings it out, runs back to them.

Chapter Text

Andy is late, or maybe Greg is early. He starts spreading out all of the paperwork they're supposed to go over and orders black coffee when the waitress comes. This is the same restaurant where they've had a standing lunch date since they started grad school and their schedules became complicated enough to require more intentional planning: Saturday at quarter til noon. Andy will order the chicken salad sandwich. This is one of the only sit-down places in L.A. that has one on the menu. Greg always orders the special, which is usually a fritatta of some sort. He checks his phone, though he hates people who can't sit alone for two seconds without staring at their phones, especially at restaurants. He has no messages from Andy about running late.

He puts his phone away and studies at their draft Operating Agreement, unable to really concentrate on the dense legal language. Their friend Rena who has almost passed the bar drew it up for them, then redrew it when Thomas had his pseudo mental breakdown and backed out of the partnership. In the initial plan Thomas was their main source of funding, probably the real reason for his cold feet. Now they've got to rely on another financier, and Greg is not thrilled about it, but it's this or nothing.

"Sorry! Sorry. I'm here."

Greg looks up to see Andy tumbling through the tightly packed tables, a bike helmet swinging from his hand and a briefcase with papers exploding out the sides under his arm. Andy will be thirty in two years, but he still looks almost exactly like he did when Greg sat down next to him in Advanced Chemistry ten years ago. Andy was a freshman, Greg a sophomore, and Greg thought he had recognized in Andy a near-doppelganger: clean cut, serious about school but not a cutthroat academic, easygoing, gay, lonely. The lonely part proved true only in the sense that Andy was looking for friends in the program. Greg remembers their first lunch together at the school cafeteria, when he learned with a combination of disappointment and envy of Andy's boyfriend, strong silent Sid, who had just gotten a job as a bouncer in a bad part of town. It was apparent about thirty minutes into Andy's monologue about their romantic history that he had never before had a friend to confide in about these particular details. Greg has, since that moment, been that friend. The one who hears everything about Sid.

"I rode my bike," Andy says, as if that isn't obvious. He's breathless and red-cheeked, his hair a mess. "It's not a bad trip from the house."

"Good to hear." Greg touches his stomach under the table. He cannot claim to look exactly like he did when he met Andy; he's put on weight. How Andy has the time and energy to be athletic with everything else going on, Greg has no idea, though he supposes Sid could get some credit for that.

"Sid's working today, I assume?" Greg says.

"Oh, yeah. The usual lineup of old ladies. You know, the weekend crowd. Is that coffee?" Andy takes Greg's cup and drinks from it, having the audacity to make a face when he finds that it's gone cold.

"Anybody famous?" Greg asks, though it's not really a fair joke, considering what happened last time Sid had famous clients.

"No," Andy says. "Just bored rich people."

"Fat bored rich people," Greg says, touching his stomach again. Andy shrugs. Sid has been working as a personal trainer for three years now. Andy says all of his clients are in love with him. He's probably right.

"Fat or not," Andy says. "They're funding our company."

"Hmm. Yes." More to the point, Sid is funding their company. It wasn't the plan, and Greg isn't comfortable with it, but Thomas has thrown them into chaos, and here they are.

"He doesn't need to be here to sign these?" Andy asks. He grabs for the papers that Greg has laid out, disordering them. Andy is a talented geologist and a hard worker, but he has no love for organization, which makes Greg nervous, considering they're about to go into business together.

"These aren't the financial documents," Greg says. "And we're not signing anything today, necessarily. I just want another round of review."

"God, it's not that complicated, is it?" Andy says. "I mean, we're still working out of our houses."

"The complication arises elsewhere," Greg says. "When we were doing this with Thomas, he had sixty percent ownership because of his investment. Now, well. We need to discuss it."

"Won't it just be fifty-fifty?" Andy says, blinking at Greg with the blue-eyed innocence that has, at times, seduced him into fantasizing about how things might have gone if Sid weren't in the picture.

"That's not really fair, is it?" Greg says. He toys with his fork. "Considering - you and Sid - you're the main investors now."

"Well, he is," Andy says. The two of them aren't married. Greg isn't sure why, though he has a few theories. It's the one Sid-related subject they do not discuss.

"Right, but, Andy - without him there is no company, and he's, well, yours, in whatever capacity. That is, you brought him to the table -"

Andy laughs, and Greg makes himself stop talking. His father would call him a fool for not having Andy sign over fifty percent of the company to him - it's not as if Sid has the business acumen to object - but Andy has become more like family to Greg than anyone else in the past ten years, and Greg would never forgive himself for taking advantage of his naive sincerity.

"At the very least, you should have fifty-one percent," Greg says. "For purposes of stockholder voting and such."

"Stockholder voting?" Andy grins. "We have one client, and he's our professor."

"Fine, yeah, I know, but personally I'm planning on this company someday being successful -"

"I know, me too," Andy says. "It's just funny, talking about stockholder voting with you." He smiles in his Calm down, Greg way. "How's Dillon?"

"Oh, he's, you know." Greg rubs his fingers over his eyes, a mannerism that he picked up from Andy during study sessions. "He'll be at the party tomorrow."

"Good. Did that show - that gallery thing - it went okay? I'm sorry we couldn't make it, but with the house, there's so much we had to do before the party -"

"I know, it's fine - and yeah, it went okay. He sold a few things."

"Good!" Andy is leaning forward now, waiting for more. "So. Yeah. He'll be at the party?"

"I said he would, Andy." Greg is tired of talking about Dillon. He enjoyed their boyfriend trouble discussions more when Andy was sobbing about the fact that his was addicted to cocaine. Which is not to say that he enjoyed that at all, of course he didn't, but it was the one time in their long history that Sid and Andy weren't perfect. "How is Sid?" he asks, though they've already covered this: he's working, among his biggest fans.

"He's so obsessed with the landscaping," Andy says. "It's really cute. He keeps talking about how he might go into it, like, as a career. He's getting tired of the rich people, I guess. He wants to work with trees."

"Ha." Greg tries to picture Sid nurturing a rose bed. He can't.

"Or something about, like, landscape security?" Andy says, narrowing his eyes. "Like, he has this friend who owns a security company, and he keeps trying to get Sid to work for him, but I don't want him doing security again, and anyway he makes a lot of money with this personal training thing because it's all him, nobody else gets a cut, but I guess he feels like a servant sometimes? I don't know, he's always dissatisfied with his job, that's like the theme of his life. We should hire him to do the books for us, if we can ever afford an employee. He's really good with money. Weirdly."

"Why weirdly?"

"Because I don't think he ever passed a math class after freshman year of high school," Andy says. He grins. "He does my taxes for me. Did I ever tell you that?"

"Yeah, you told me." Greg remembers the first time he went out with the two of them, how Sid paid for everything, parked the car while they got the table, sat in dutiful silence while they talked about their professors and classmates. Greg had tried to convince himself that it would end up being miserable, having a boyfriend like that: he would be controlling, especially about money and probably about sex, and it would become degrading. But he still wants what Andy has.

The waitress arrives, and Andy orders his chicken salad sandwich with a beer. Greg gets the goat cheese and asparagus fritatta and a Diet Coke.

"Obviously I'm back on caffeine," he says, regretting this as soon as he hears it. He didn't mean it as any sort of commentary, but now the air between them is a bit heavier, so he might as well broach the subject. "Is Sid, ah. Were you ever able to persuade him to go to meetings again?"

"No," Andy says. He sits back in his chair and shrugs. "But he's good. I mean, he's clean. Four years. I guess he knows what he's doing. He's back to smoking fucking cigarettes, though. I found some in his car last week."

"Ah, well. A lesser evil."

"Not really. I don't care that he drinks, he probably drinks less than I do, but those things will kill him just as surely. Slower, maybe, but. God, he's been smoking them since he was, like. Ten? I have this distinct memory of the first time I saw him smoking. It terrified me. Then when we were in high school he would smoke after we had sex, and, uh. I guess I kind of liked it, then. Stupidly."

"He had quit, though, for awhile?"

Andy huffs. "Yeah. When he was doing coke. Cigarettes weren't an issue then. That was how I could tell, actually, when he was on it again. So now it's almost a comfort to find cigarettes in his car? But not really." The drinks arrive, and Andy gulps from his beer. "So Dillon's definitely going to come tomorrow?"

"Fuck, Andy. Yes."

"I'm just trying to get a head count! For the food."

"Of course." Dillon has been Greg's unreliable plus-one for the past two years. He's a photographer slash video-artist who works as a lighting supervisor on the sets of big budget porn films as a day job. They met in a therapist's waiting room. Dillon has a lot of self worth issues; he still sees the therapist twice a week, while Greg quit after five sessions. Dillon is three years younger than Greg, and soft in a way that makes Greg feel okay about his own expanding girth. He occasionally suspects that Dillon is the love of his life, which is worrisome, because he's flaky and moody and doesn't want to be 'tied down right now.' Greg is the one who always picks up the bill and parks the car. He does his own taxes, and in fact helped Dillon with his last year. Dillon is easily overwhelmed by paperwork.

"Did you tell him thank you for me?" Andy asks. He has a habit of talking with his mouth full that is particularly disgusting when he's eating chicken salad. "For helping us move?"

"Yes, I told him."

"That was a big help." Andy was impressed that Dillon actually showed for such an unglamorous social occasion. Greg was pretty surprised himself, but lately things with Dillon have been fair to good.

"He keeps trying to get me to go back to Dr. Bederman," Greg says.

"What? Why?" Andy has a rather Midwestern sense of suspicion about therapists. Sid blew through at least five of them before giving up and going it alone.

"I don't know." Greg sighs and pokes at the fritatta, which grew unappetizingly cold too quickly, as they always do. "He thinks I'm unhappy."

"Are you?"

"No," Greg says, and it's true. "It's just that I'm not - I don't know. I feel like I'm lacking something that I can't put my finger on."

"Well." Andy snorts and looks down at his plate, collecting stray bits of chicken salad with his fork. "I could tell you why. You don't have to pay a therapist."

"It's not Dillon. He doesn't dictate my happiness."

"Seems kind of like he does."

"Andy."

"Greg. Look, do you want my advice?"

"About this? No."

"You need to date someone your own age. Or older. You're mature, you have your shit together. He doesn't, and that's okay, he's twenty-five -"

"Twenty-six. Two years younger than you."

"Whatever - look. I like Dillon, he's great."

"You do not like him, you never have."

"Uh! What? Yes, I do! Hello, did I not buy one of his pictures last year?"

Greg rolls his eyes and looks skyward. It's a pretty day, cloudless and warm. Dillon is probably still asleep in Greg's bed, unless he let himself out. He has a shoot later today, something at a producer friend's mansion. It involves a famous porn star who just divorced from a less famous musician. Sid and Dillon are always able to have a dialogue about this sort of thing; they know people. Andy and Greg will mutter about their research in the meantime, defensively.

"Can we skip the portion of the conversation where we evaluate each other's romantic choices?" Greg says, feeling especially testy today. Maybe it's the paperwork that he's had to anchor with flatware and sweating water glasses. Andy raises his eyebrows.

"Romantic choices?" he says. "What, you have some evaluations about mine that you want to share?"

"Never mind." Greg has always tried to stay neutral on the subject of Sid. He bit his tongue even through the very expensive rehab-drugs-rehab years. It's not his place.

They're both silent for awhile. Andy picks up some random documentation and pretends to read it. Greg extracts pieces of asparagus from his fritatta and eats them, sighing.

"Let me ask you something," Andy says after he's stewed for a few minutes. He's always quick to forgive. Hence the success of his romance with Sid.

"Ask away," Greg says. If he's honest, Andy's forgiveness has served their friendship well, too.

Andy stares at him for a minute, blinks. He looks like he's not sure if he can trust Greg with what he's about to say, which has never happened before.

"Do you think you'd ever want children?" he asks. Greg frowns, watching the blush spread across Andy's cheeks.

"I'm flattered," Greg says. A dumb joke. Andy rolls his eyes.

"I'm serious," he says.

"I can see that. Hmm. I don't know, it's possible? I certainly don't want them now. Why?"

"I don't know." Andy picks up his empty beer glass and regards it sadly. "I think I want them. Maybe not now, but. Soon, I think."

"Understandable." Greg can easily picture Andy has a father. He's responsible, caring, attentive. He still eats candy, and collects miniature plastic toys that live on his desk. He has, as they say, a lot of love to give. "How does Sid feel about this?"

Andy scoffs. "Are you kidding? I'd never ask him."

Greg waits to understand how one follows the other. "But he - I presume he is the person you would raise these children with?"

"In a dream world, I guess." Andy flicks his empty glass. "I'm afraid, um. Well, he'd laugh, wouldn't he? If I even asked about this?"

"You know him better than I do," Greg says. He's guiltily pleased by this turn in the conversation, and he tries to hide it by staring down at his dissected fritatta. "It's something you should at least talk about. Whether he'd laugh or not."

"Well, that's what I'm really asking you, I guess," Andy says. "Would he laugh? Do you think?"

"So now you do want my evaluation?"

"Don't be a dick. I can't stop thinking about this. Especially now that we have the house."

"Like I said, you need to talk with him about it. Would he laugh? I doubt it. He doesn't often laugh at you, seems like."

"That's true," Andy says, mumbling. "But. I'm still too scared to find out what he wants. In that area. Because I'm pretty sure what he wants is 'nothing.'"

"Why are you so sure? He certainly enjoys providing for you."

"Well. I've told you about his father."

"Somewhat." As a person with father issues on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Greg has always been curious to know more. "He's an addict, too, is that right?"

"Right. And just. Sid didn't have a very happy childhood."

Greg finds that hard to believe, considering Andy's stories about their time together as children. Greg would have quite enjoyed being kissed and stroked and sucked off by the hopelessly devoted neighbor boy at the height of his adolescent frustration.

"I just - I don't know." Andy rubs his hand over his eyes. "Don't tell him I said anything about this, please."

"I'll try to avoid the subject during our daily chats."

Andy smirks. "Okay, smart ass. I mean don't mention it at the party when you're drunk."

"Ah, well. I'll see what I can do."

"Greg, I'm serious." Andy grips the side of the table, nearly upsetting the water glasses. "I'm not ready to have this conversation with him. I don't want it brought up - I shouldn't have even said anything."

"Jesus, I was kidding. I won't say a word, cross my heart."

Andy stares at him for a moment, then nods and gulps down half his glass of water. Greg feels for him. He's got all his eggs in the Sid basket, for better or worse. He opens his mouth to ask Andy if he thinks he'll ever marry Sid, then thinks better of it and motions for the check.

"What time should we be over there tomorrow?" he asks when they're standing on the sidewalk out in front of the restaurant, Andy unchaining his bike.

"Five?" Andy says. "Unless you want to help us set up."

"I don't know if I'll be able to liberate Dillon from his porno shoot until six, but I'll try."

"What sort of movie is he doing?" Andy asks, grinning. "Straight?"

"Sadly, yes. Something about alien sex pollen, I don't know. It depresses him to talk about it."

"Why? It's honest work. I think it's kind of awesome."

"Just don't give him a hard time about it at the party, okay?"

"A hard time - no, that's not - alright, alright. I'll ask him about his gallery show."

"Actually, don't mention that either. I think it went fine, but he's decided it was a failure."

"Oh, boy." Ten years in California and Andy still says this unironically. "Well, what can I ask about?"

"The Dodgers. Unless they lose tonight." Greg leans forward to hug Andy goodbye. "Be careful on that thing," he says.

"You sound like Sid," Andy says. "He's not a fan of the bike. He would drive me around in a tank if he could."

"And you really think he won't want children?" Greg was going to let the subject drop, but Andy is being really dim. Of course Sid would raise children with him. He'll give Andy anything he wants, everything he asks for. Andy is fooling himself, but not Greg, claiming that's his only concern about the endeavor. Andy shakes his head and mounts the bike.

"I shouldn't have said anything," he says.

"No, I'm glad you told me," Greg says. "You can confide in me, you know that. I won't say anything to him."

"Or Dillon," Andy says.

"Dillon! Why would it come up with him? Fine, I promise, Dillon won't hear about it. Quit looking at me like that."

Andy quirks his mouth and studies Greg for a moment, his feet braced on the ground as he wheels the bike back and forth.

"Fifty-one percent," he says. "Okay. That's what we'll do."

He pushes away from the curb then, pedaling along with the flow of traffic. Greg feels outsmarted, though he was the one who offered fifty-one percent, and by all rights Andy could ask for seventy-five. He stands there watching Andy on his bike until he can't see him anymore, then heads for his car, which has a neon pink parking ticket tucked under the front wipers.

*

"We have to get them a housewarming gift, really? Even after we helped them move?"

On the way to the party, Dillon's mood has taken a turn for the worse. He had to work later than they thought, and they're stopped a small nursery twenty minutes from Andy and Sid's new house, perusing the cacti section.

"Just something for the yard," Greg says. "Apparently Sid is into landscaping. Apparently it's cute."

"Cute." Dillon snorts. He's still dressed for work, in black track pants and a sweat-stained gray t-shirt. He's been in the sun all day and his cheeks are bright red. "I wouldn't call that guy cute. Not to his face. Or otherwise, really."

"He's attractive, though, don't you think?" Greg has worried about some of Dillon's conversations with Sid in the past. They get along well.

"If you like that type," Dillon says.

"That type?"

"That Byronic hero, recovered addict type."

"Recovering. There's no cure. So they say."

"You think he'd start using again?" Dillon looks wounded by this, and Greg feels guilty, then annoyed.

"I don't know," Greg says. "Possibly not, but it's something that will always be on Andy's mind. In terms of, you know. The future." He thinks of mentioning Andy's desire to have children, but can't bring himself to break a promise to Andy, as ever. "What about this?" he gestures to a planter packed with cacti, landscaped with little stones. Dillon groans and puts his hand over his face, as if this question is too much for him to handle right now.

"I don't know shit about plants," he says. "Get whatever you want, it's your money."

"I'm asking for your opinion. It's polite to offer one when you're asked."

"Fine, yeah, great." Dillon is bellowing now, his hands on his hips. "Whatever, just pick something. I need a fucking beer."

Greg ends up selecting a net full of elephant ear bulbs. They always had them in their garden when he was young, and he used to hide under them, a book open on his chest while he daydreamed about living in a jungle. He tries to envision Sid and Andy's child doing this, but he just ends picturing Andy as he is now, full grown, smiling up at the giant green leaves.

"There aren't going to be a lot of people at this, are there?" Dillon asks as they turn onto Sid and Andy's street, which is lined with cars.

"It's a party," Greg says. Dillon sighs.

"I've been around people all day," he says.

"What do you want? You want to turn around and go home?"

"No, no, God. Calm down. I was just hoping it wouldn't be that crowded. Are these geology department people or what?"

"I have no idea. There's a chance Sid's contingent will show up. Bouncers and gym rats and Narcotics Anonymous associates."

"Why do you say that like it's an incentive for me?"

"I didn't! I don't! Suspend your volatility, please. We're here."

Sid and Andy's first house together has been a long time coming, but what they've ended up with was worth the wait. It's modern but understated, in the hills, a view all the way to the distant ocean. There's a pool with a disappearing horizon, a kitchen that would suit a professional chef, and a basement that will serve as Sid's personal gym. Even and maybe especially during the coke-addled years, he's always made money hand over fist.

"You know he never graduated from high school," Greg mutters when they're at the front door with its impressive iron work and custom glass, waiting to be let in.

"That's everything to you, isn't it?" Dillon says. Greg was aware that the comment was unwise, but he doesn't regret it. Dillon never finished college and has a tremendous chip on his shoulder about it. Greg is tired of tip-toeing around that particular subject.

Sid is the one who pulls open the door, beer in hand, grinning. He looks good, in his uniform of jeans and black boots, white t-shirt, tattoos his only accessory. Greg holds up the net of bulbs.

"Congratulations," he says. "The place looks great."

"What the fuck is this?" Sid asks, laughing as he takes the elephant ears from him.

"A present," Greg says. "Bulbs. Andy told me you're into gardening now."

"Well, shit," Sid says, still examining the bulbs like they're shrunken heads. "Thanks." He drops them to his side and grins at Dillon. "What's up, man?"

"Just got off of work," Dillon says. He leans forward to hug Sid, slapping his back. That's new, or maybe it's just for the sake of irritating Greg.

"Got a boner, then?" Sid says. Greg startles, thinking he's referring to the hug. Dillon laughs, and Greg remembers what work means for him.

"Nah, too many fake tits swinging around," Dillon says. "Kills the mood."

"I hear ya," Sid says. "Well, c'mon in. Need a drink?"

"You know it," Dillon says. They have this shared language that makes Greg's skin crawl. Dillon played football in high school. Sid smoked post-coital cigarettes while Andy dozed on his chest. Greg was president of the astronomy club, virginal and greasy.

Greg is relieved to see that, yes, the party is mostly made up of their geology department friends, including a few professors who adore him. He makes the rounds, noting that Sid and Dillon are sticking together by the bar. When he finally locates Andy it's out on the pool deck, where Andy is lighting some outdoor lanterns that Greg helped him pick out at the mall last weekend.

"Finally!" Andy says. He pulls Greg into a hug. "I was starting to worry. You're never late!"

"Blame Dillon," Greg says.

"Oh, I do." Andy grins. "Well?" He throws his arms out. "What do you think?"

"I'm really proud of you," Greg says. He's surprised to find that his throat is a little tight. Andy has wanted this for a long time, and at some point Greg managed to forget how badly he wanted to see him get it. "It's beautiful. I brought you elephant ears, I'm not sure what Sid's done with them."

"You what?"

"Never mind - I'm going for a drink."

Andy follows him to the bar. Sid and Dillon are bullshitting about porn stars, laughing. Greg makes himself a Crown and Seven while Andy thumbs open a beer. Greg can tell he's already had a few; his smile is permanent and he's in touchy-feely mode, squeezing everybody's shoulders before gluing himself to Sid's side.

"There's food, did you guys get food?" Andy asks.

"Priorities," Dillon says, lifting his beer. Andy laughs harder than necessary.

"Check it out," Sid says, hoisting the net of elephant ear bulbs for Andy to see. "For the backyard."

"Oh, that's awesome, thank you guys." Andy taps the bulbs with his finger so that the bag swings in Sid's grip. "Did we show you the lemon tree? It's the first thing we planted."

"The lemon tree, oh Christ," Greg says. "You don't know my anxiety surrounding this thing," he says to Dillon.

"Greg took care of it for us whenever we were out of town," Andy says. "For, what? Seven years? I can't believe it's still alive."

There's an awkward pause wherein at least three of them think about the other things that they sometimes can't believe are still alive after the past seven years.

"Anyway," Sid says. "These are great." He puts the bulbs behind the bar. "Thanks again."

Dillon avoids Greg for most of the party, probably still mad about that comment he made at the front door. Greg does his best not to care, drinking too much and exchanging ass kissing remarks with his colleagues, who are all curious about the surveying company, and, more so, about the drama with Thomas.

"I heard he's in India?" Rena says.

"No telling," Greg says. "He claimed to be headed there, but I can't see it lasting long. He's so germ phobic. And picky about what he eats, God. I can't imagine him surviving in a country where everything is spicy."

"What set it off?" Rena's boyfriend asks. Greg forgets his name; he's a fellow law student, too short for her.

"He claims it was this comment I made about the fact that he hasn't finished his degree yet," Greg says. "I only meant that it was relevant to getting grant funding, which was something we were considering when we were still trying to figure out the direction we were going in. But I really think he just didn't want to commit financially. He wants to run around collecting degrees forever, no real responsibility."

"So who's funding you now?" Henry Chup asks, appearing at Greg's shoulder.

"It's the host," Rena says before Greg can offer something less specific. "Sid. Andy's boyfriend."

"Oh, fantastic!" Henry says. "He's independently wealthy, I take it?"

"In a sense," Greg says. He actually has no idea what Sid's net worth is, and sometimes gets the sense that Andy doesn't, either.

"Lucky Andy. Where did they meet?"

"In pre-school," Rena says.

"Shut up," Henry says. "You're joking." They all look to Greg for confirmation. He is the Sid and Andy historian of the group, after all.

"They grew up together," Greg says. "Next door neighbors. High school sweethearts. The whole thing."

"Oh, my God," Henry says. "That's fucking spectacular."

"Yes, well." Greg drains his drink and searches the room for Sid or Dillon, finding neither. "It wasn't all wine and roses."

"No?" Henry seems especially interested. Greg always thought he had a crush on Andy, though he's nominally straight. Rena and her boyfriend have drifted off into the crowd.

"Well, it's a long story," Greg says. He pauses, weighing his options here. Everyone has seemed so bored with him tonight, and he detected hints of smug pessimism in some of the 'encouraging' comments about the company. "There was a drug thing."

"Oh?" Henry actually looks disappointed with him, or maybe it's just the light in here, which is too low for a housewarming party.

"Well, you remember when Sid was with that woman. Employment-wise, that singer."

"Sure, yeah, sort of. Samantha?"

"Seneca. She was trying to get someone accused of attempted murder, for attention or whatever. I guess the case got dropped eventually. She was nuts. Anyway, it got intense."

"Damn." Henry sips from his drink; he's using a straw, absurdly. "When was this?"

"Oh, years ago. Four years ago. It was tough. I was sort of the rock there for awhile. Andy was close to quitting school, but I wouldn't let him."

"You mean - Andy?" Henry says, frowning. "Andy was the one - with the drugs?"

"No, no, but you're still, you know, involved, when your romantic partner goes through such a thing. It still drains you, especially when you're trying to get an advanced degree. Sid was actually very calm about it, he compartmentalizes, or anyway doesn't express much emotion, but Andy was a wreck. They almost broke up. I put Andy to bed on my couch one night, and in the morning I walk in and guess who's there with him? Right on my couch, Andy asleep in his arms like everything's great. It was kind of a relief, though. There's a certain, you know, level of guardianship in that relationship. If you know what I'm saying."

Henry seems leery, and Greg is aware of the fact that he's starting to sound like an asshole. He needs to eat something more, but he hasn't got an appetite. He mumbles something about finding the bathroom and makes himself scarce. Before he can get there he runs into Andy, who is just as lit as Greg, though more cheerfully.

"Let me show you something," he says, pulling Greg through the crowd by the hand.

"Have you seen Dillon?" Greg asks.

"Dillon? No, it's the lemon tree, let me show you."

Greg doesn't want to see the lemon tree, but he lets Andy take him there. It's planted at the eastern edge of the yard, surrounded by pine straw and a little circle of stones. It's barely two feet tall, stunted after years of being confined to its ceramic pot, and bears no fruit.

"That's terrific, Andy," Greg says when Andy stands there staring at him and smiling, waiting for a reaction. "Very cute."

"I just hope it does okay," Andy says. "In the ground, I mean. I hope the shock of a new, you know, environment won't hurt it. I hope it takes root well."

"That's a lot of hope."

"Is everybody asking you about Thomas?" Andy asks, turning to look at the house. It's the sort of place that seems designed to be lit warmly from within at this hour of the evening, party guests spilling from the open patio doors.

"Yes, they're asking about him, and I don't know what to tell them," Greg says. "It's all just gossip. I haven't heard from him. Have you?"

"No." Andy is watching the house so intently that Greg thinks he must be looking at something, someone, but there's nothing special going on in the area he's staring at. "I think we're going to be okay," he says.

"Sure." Greg doesn't know if he's talking about the company, the house, Sid, or everything in general. "Hey, you know what I was just thinking of? For whatever reason?"

"What?"

"That night when you slept on my couch, and I woke up in the morning, went in to make you coffee, and Sid was there with you."

"Oh, yeah." Andy takes a deep breath and pushes it out, as if to detoxify. "I wasn't going to let him in. But then I did. I can't believe we didn't wake you up. We must have talked for three hours. That was when I knew he could get clean for good. 'Cause he came to me instead of going out to get fucked up and then coming to me, which was what he used to do." He looks at Greg, frowning a little. "You're still thinking about that?" he says. "That was, what?"

"Four years ago," Greg says. "I suppose. Approximately. Don't you still think about it?"

"Well, obviously, but." Andy shrugs. "We've been through a lot. We grew up. The lemon tree's in the ground. Right?"

"Right. Was there any sort of ceremony? Between the two of you? When you planted it?"

As if it's his right to know. But Andy smiles at him.

"Yeah," he says. "We went inside and had sex. You want another drink?"

Greg accepts, and wanders the house with his fresh Crown and Seven, looking for Dillon. He finds him down in the basement with Sid and three guys Greg doesn't recognize. They're playing darts. Greg sits on a bar stool and watches the game without interest, thinking of Sid and Andy having sex in the middle of the afternoon, that tree fresh in the ground. Greg was still a virgin when he met Andy, and used to grill him about sex without shame. All of Andy's experiences were with Sid. He would brag, also without shame, or maybe just obliviously. Greg regrets having asked all of that, now.

"You gonna play?" Dillon asks. Greg isn't sure if he's being teased or sincerely invited to participate in what he's embarrassed but resigned to think of as the boys' club. He shrugs.

"I'm not much of an athlete," he says.

"Don't be snobby," Dillon says. He's kneading Greg's shoulders with painful enthusiasm.

"I'm not being snobby, I'm being honest. I don't have hand-eye coordination."

Dillon starts karate-chopping Greg's shoulders instead, which actually feels good. Greg was never satisfied with any of his bed mates until Dillon, which is probably the reason he's so far been the only contender for the potential love of Greg's life.

"How important is sex?" Greg asked Andy once, when he was dating an adjunct professor who only ever wanted blow jobs. "To a relationship?"

Andy seemed to consider the question seriously. They were twenty-one years old; this was before Greg found out about the drug situation. Andy might have already known.

"I don't know," Andy said. "To me it's pretty important. But I've always had it really good. In that area."

Before Dillon, Greg never liked being the fuck-er as opposed to the fuck-ee. He was actually disappointed the first time, when things started heading in that direction, but then Dillon went so nuts for it that Greg felt like he'd spent all of his twenties being underappreciated in that area, and the fact that Dillon cuddled up to him post-fuck and fell asleep with his head tucked under Greg's chin didn't hurt, either. Dillon has the softest hair Greg has ever felt on a grown man's head, and he's become overly accustomed to rubbing his face in it after sex. He doesn't know that he could enjoy whatever came before if he didn't have that to look forward to.

He plays darts with Dillon on his team, and they lose to Sid and a guy with a backward baseball cap and a tattoo of the Queen of Hearts on his left arm, but it's fun, and Greg begins to actually enjoy himself. He listens to Sid's plans for the gym, and tries to explain the concept behind the company he's founding with Andy to the Queen of Hearts guy, who keeps thinking that he understands until finally Greg just pretends that yes, they are simply surveying for construction sites and not providing long term consultation to urban planning agencies. Andy appears to ask them where they've all been and announces that the party is already breaking up on the first floor.

"That's the geology department for you," Greg says.

"Yeah, I've heard chemistry has way better parties," Andy says. He hangs on Sid's shoulders and laughs when Sid squats down so that Andy can climb onto his back. It would be awkward, maybe, if everyone wasn't drinking, or if Andy didn't look so happy to be lifted off the floor, his legs winding around Sid's waist.

"You gonna carry me back upstairs?" Andy asks, nuzzling Sid's neck.

"He's showing off," a guy who was introduced as Barney says. Barney is the only one here bigger than Sid, a friend who either owns or attends Sid's gym.

"If he was showing off he'd bench press him," Queen of Hearts says.

"Don't," Andy says, softly. He squeezes himself more tightly around Sid in a way that makes Greg wonder if he has a boner that he doesn't want everyone seeing.

"Wasn't gonna," Sid says. He kisses Andy's chin and carries him upstairs like he's weightless. Barney and Queen of Hearts follow, and Greg turns to Dillon, who is still throwing at the dart board.

"Had enough of people yet?" Greg asks.

"Nah, I'm good," Dillon says. "These are my kind of people, you were right. The basement dwellers."

"Ha. You hold your own pretty well with the geology folks."

"Gee, thanks."

"That was meant to be a compliment. Or an expression of gratitude." Greg thinks of the first time Andy brought Sid out with the department crowd. Andy was visibly nervous, Sid obviously uncomfortable and trying to seem like he didn't give a shit about what they thought about him. Every question was met with a one word answer, and he drank throughout the meal, though at the time he was only nineteen.

"If I could afford a place like this, would you move into it with me?" Greg asks. He used to be better about not humiliating himself when drunk.

"I already basically live with you," Dillon says.

"Huh? In what sense? Just because you have a toothbrush there?"

"I'm over there all the time."

It doesn't feel that way to Greg. He's tired of sleeping alone, and going out to dinner with Andy and Sid, having no one to bring along. Dillon will go through moods when he needs to spend whole days in his darkroom, or camped out in front of the computer playing video games, or 'off the grid' in the sense that he won't answer Greg's calls.

"So basically you're saying no, you wouldn't move in with me, mini-mansion or not."

"Greg." Dillon turns from the dartboard and gives him a look that could only be owned by someone who spent the whole day watching marginally attractive people have sex for money.

"What?"

"If you could afford this place, you wouldn't be with me," Dillon says.

"Excuse me? By what logic?"

"Never mind." He pitches a dart at the board, missing the bullseye by ten inches. "You're starting to sound like one of your professors. 'By what logic.' By jove, Watson! Suspend your volatility!"

Greg is flattered. People don't usually listen to what he says closely enough to quote him.

"I don't consider you the Watson to my Holmes," he says, though now he will always be tempted to.

"Why not? I'm fat enough."

"You? Look at me! The problem is, we're both Watson. Though actually I don't find that to be a problem."

"See, there you go again," Dillon says. He walks to Greg and slaps his hands onto his shoulders. "You don't find that to be a problem, actually."

"Is that supposed to be a British accent?"

"You're obnoxious tonight," Dillon says, but then he kisses Greg like it was a compliment.

"Here's a question," Greg says. "Sid and Andy: who is Watson?"

Dillon snorts. "Uh, if you're asking who's getting plowed, I'm gonna guess Andy."

"Well, of course, but there's more to it than that. Holmes was the scientist. He was the more rational mind. Watson was his support system. Though actually, I think Holmes was a coke head?"

"You're so obsessed with that," Dillon says. He actually looks kind of mad. "Give the guy a break."

"What are you talking about? Give him a break? Look around you, Dill. He's gotten a few breaks, I'd say."

Dillon shakes his head and backs off. Greg wants to retract what he said, but he's suddenly furious. Sid has made a small fortune off of being admired by people like Dillon: people who can, in one way or another, afford it.

"You weren't around in those days, okay?" Greg says. "You didn't see what he put Andy through. He was so humiliated by the whole thing, and so panicked at the thought that people would find out, that his mother would find out -"

"Maybe if you weren't so fucking in love with Andy you'd be able to forgive Sid for not being perfect," Dillon says. It comes out unnaturally, like a line he'd been saving up for the right moment. Greg stares at him.

"You don't know what you're talking about," he says. He feels as if he's been caught, though he's not in love with Andy. The truth is worse: he's allowed his life to revolve around his best friend's. Greg wasn't even a declared geology major until Andy came along. He was going to do astronomy, but then rocks just made more fiscal sense.

"Whatever," Dillon says. "I'm sick of it. Who's Watson, Sid or Andy? We were talking about me and you, I thought. Jesus Christ."

He walks upstairs, and Greg sits there on his bar stool, sobered as if struck. He thinks of the day he met Dillon, in Dr. Bederman's waiting room, Dillon staring at a magazine that he obviously wasn't reading, his knee jiggling crazily like he'd never been to a therapist before. He's been seeing them since he was twelve years old, when his father caught him masturbating to a particular scene in D2: The Mighty Ducks where somebody is shirtless. He grew up in Wyoming and moved to L.A. because the Dodgers play here. Greg laughed when Dillon told him that, in the way that you laugh at charming hyperbole, and Dillon just smiled uncertainly like he didn't understand why that would be funny.

Greg heads upstairs, afraid that he'll find Dillon being consoled by Sid in some fashion, but Dillon is in the kitchen scooping ice cream from a giant tub into a blender. Andy is supervising, wielding Kahlua. Sid and Barney seem to be organizing a card game.

"Where did that other guy go?" Greg asks. He feels suddenly ill, and the violent sound of the blender makes his stomach lurch. "With the hat?"

"McCallister?" Sid says. He's got an unlit cigarette clamped between his lips. "He took off. He's married."

"Ah." Greg stands there between the kitchen and the dining room table, waiting to be asked to leave. So Dillon doesn't place any blame on Andy for what he views as Greg's obsession with him. They're laughing together in the kitchen.

"Don't even think about smoking that in here," Andy says when Sid stands and grabs his lighter from the kitchen counter.

"Wasn't gonna," Sid says. He walks out onto the back patio, where the lanterns are still burning. The clock on the oven says it's after midnight. Greg tries to catch Dillon's eye, but he's busy drinking a milkshake.

"You alright?" Andy asks Greg.

"No – yes. I'm gonna. Get some air."

Sid is standing on the far side of the pool, staring out at the view of the hills, the distant ocean. An abandoned plastic cup is upended by the wind as Greg walks across the stone patio, and it sails into the lawn like a tumbleweed. Sid turns and looks at Greg without surprise, blowing smoke. He holds his pack of cigarettes up when Greg comes to stand beside him, and Greg shakes his head.

"You know I don't smoke," Greg says. Sid shrugs.

"Just being polite."

"Ha."

They've known each other for almost as long as Greg has known Andy, verging on ten years. Greg was introduced to Sid before the rest of the geology gang got to meet him. He was at the library on campus with Andy and it was pouring down rain; Sid came to pick them up in Andy's car. Andy had told Greg all about Sid by then, but Greg had still been expecting someone more like Andy. Sid had the energy of a carjacker, and a cut on his lip from some incident at work. When they stopped at a red light, Andy moaned regretfully and reached over to touch the cut, which was still bleeding a little. Greg wanted to warn him off of it: Don't, you'll make him angry, he looks like he could go off at any minute, but Sid just sat there like the lion with the thorn in his paw and let Andy brush his fingers over his lip, his cheek. Greg has never forgotten that, the way Sid's shoulders softened when Andy touched him. He's never been more jealous.

"Andy showed me the tree," Greg says. He came out here looking for a fight. Sid could hammer him into the ground with one closed fist, but maybe that's what Greg wants right now.

"The tree? Oh, yeah, uh huh. Thanks for your help with that. Over the years."

"Over the years." Greg snorts, then doesn't know what he's trying to find funny, or infuriating. Behind them, in the kitchen, the blender whirs again.

"Dillon's a good guy," Sid says.

"I know," Greg says. "He's probably the love of my life."

"You drunk?"

"Yes, but even so."

"Yeah, I guess I could see that." Sid is quiet for awhile, smoking, squinting at the lights from the city. Greg tries to picture him ten years old, awkwardly bringing the lighter to the end of a cigarette, coughing and puffing and scaring the shit out of Andy.

"How can you do this?" Greg asks. "The house, and helping us with the company - how can you have this much money to throw around? After everything? How?"

"You think I'm dealing coke, that it?" Sid is grinning, but it's a threat.

"No." It's certainly occurred to him as a possibility. Sid laughs and taps ashes into the wind. Greg once dated a total idiot from the journalism school just because he had tattoos all over his arms. He was never in love with Sid or Andy, but for a long time he was deeply and dangerously in love with their particular alchemy, the solid thing that comes into existence whenever they're in the same room. That morning when he woke up to find not just Andy but Sid on his couch was like witnessing the product of some type of photosynthesis, like Andy had worked out the formula for turning miserable devotion into comfort, no matter what the circumstances.

"Forget it," Greg says, muttering. "Sorry. It's none of my business."

"No, I'll tell you," Sid says. He scratches at the corner of his eye with his thumb, the cigarette balanced between two fingers. "It's basically hooking without the sex."

"I'm sorry?"

"I get paid to keep people company," Sid says. "Make them feel better about themselves. They call me a personal trainer 'cause that's a nice name for it. And yeah, they do some sit ups, arm curls, whatever. But I'm not a fucking trainer. I'm for rent. It's just luck that I got in with all these lonely rich fuckers. Met half of them in rehab, shit."

"Well, luck, yes," Greg says, processing this slowly, his brain still resting in a puddle of diluted Crown Royal. "It's a pretty fantastic line of work to luck into. Companionship, ah, without the sex. It's like you're a courtesan."

"Sure," Sid says. Greg doubts he knows what that word means, but Sid has never been one to ask for clarification. "But I still feel like a whore at the end of the day. Still want to stick around every time they start putting down lines."

He gives Greg a look, daring him to tell Andy, or to ask if he's stuck around recently. Greg takes the cigarette from Sid and drags on it.

"Thought you didn't smoke," Sid says, staring at him. Obviously impressed. Greg snorts.

"Not this corporate swill," he says, passing the cigarette back. "But fuck, dude, I grew up in San Francisco. My mother is a Women's Studies professor at Berkeley. Been smoking pot since I was twelve."

"I thought you just had that medicinal shit for your back or whatever."

"My back." Greg scoffs. "It's called working the system from the inside. You know a little about that, yeah? Don't be so down on yourself. You've accomplished a lot. People like you."

Sid considers this for a moment, his tongue moving over his teeth.

"They like me as currency," he says. "They think I'm street. That's bullshit, though. I grew up in the suburbs. I married my high school sweetheart."

"You guys got married?" Greg says, coughing the word out.

"Figuratively," Sid says.

"Well," Greg says. He's at a loss for a moment, dizzy. "I like you. Not as currency. And despite the fact that you were a dick to me for years."

"Hey, sorry." Sid elbows him. "Thought you wanted to fuck Andy."

"Ha. Incidentally, Dillon seems to think that now."

"Oh yeah?"

"Don't get your panties in a wad. It's just his insecurity. Or it's just - inevitable, I mean, I kind of thought Dillon wanted to fuck you. For a moment there. Or be fucked by you, at any rate."

Sid snorts and shakes his head. He turns toward the big window that looks in on the kitchen. Dillon is at the table with Barney, trying to demonstrate a card trick. Andy is washing dishes, his sleeves rolled up. He looks up from the sink and grins sheepishly when he sees them looking at him.

"What was he like when he was a kid?" Greg asks. Sid must have loved him right away. There's no other explanation.

"The same," Sid says. "Same as he is now."

"How so?"

Sid is still staring at Andy, who is putting glasses in the dishwasher.

"Dumb enough to think I know what I'm doing," Sid says.

"That's a little harsh," Greg says, surprised.

"Well, that's always been his one flaw," Sid says. "Me." He picks up his boot and puts out his cigarette against it.

"Do you really think so little of yourself?" Greg asks.

"You saw what I did to him," Sid says. "Once. Back then. You were there."

"Yes, but." Greg didn't expect to feel so disheartened by this, Sid's secret shame. But of course it's not much of a secret. Greg just wouldn't let himself see it before. Give the guy a break.

"I'm just trying to keep my promises," Sid says. He gestures to the lemon tree with his cigarette butt. "That's my higher power. I'm gonna do that for a living, I think."

"Keep your promises?" It doesn't pay as well as hanging out with the kind of people who will offer him coke after their personalized work outs.

"No, man." Sid looks at him like he must be deaf. "Landscaping."

"Oh. Sure. Alright."

"Anyway, you and Andy'll be rich," Sid says. "The company. It's a good investment."

For the first time since they started talking about the idea in undergrad, Greg feels this is true.

"What was rehab like?" he asks, because he's always wondered, and conversations like this, with Sid, are likely to only happen once every ten years.

"There was this surgeon chick who was in with me," Sid says. He's still looking at the lemon tree. "Not the first time, the second time. She said it was like waking up in a hospital and being told that you'd died. And everyone's trying to make you feel okay about it, and you keep trying to tell them, 'no, it's not fucking okay, I'm dead,' but they don't want to hear it. Then you learn to stop trying to tell people that. You just start pretending, like they're pretending, that you're still alive."

"Damn."

"She said it better than that," Sid says, waving his hand through the air. "She was a lot smarter than me. Went to Yale or some shit. She was wrong, though, about what you learn. You learn that you just thought you were dead when you woke up there, in rehab. You learn that you really came back to life, and that's why you feel like shit all the time. Not because you're dead - dead people don't feel anything. Which was the point of the drugs. So what you learn is that you were killing yourself."

Greg is staring at the surface of the pool, greenish lights glowing from below. He can feel Sid looking at him, waiting for him to contribute something to this conversation, but he's afraid to try.

"I know you're like, 'no shit, dumb ass,'" Sid says.

"I'm not like that," Greg says. "I don't think you're a dumb ass."

"Well, that's progress. Should we go in? Barney wanted to play cards. We could make it interesting. You ever gamble?"

"No." Greg looks at Dillon, who sneaks a glance at him over his shoulder and quickly turns back to the card deck he's shuffling. "Not really."

"Well, it ain't hard."

"Hey, wait," Greg says when Sid starts to walk toward the house. "Whatever happened to the surgeon chick? Did you tell her - I mean, did you share this revelation with her? Did you tell her she was wrong about being dead?"

"Nah, man. She left before I figured that out."

"But you could see her now, talk to her. Couldn't you?"

Sid shakes his head. "She's dead," he says. "I mean, for real. Drove her car off some bridge in Ponoma. Saw it in the paper last year."

"Oh." Greg has a disturbingly vivid mental picture of this woman, skinny and beautiful in a mean-eyed way, oily blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, fine blue veins visible at her temples, sitting Indian-style beside Sid in some meditation garden, her Ivy League vitriol the only thing that had made him smile in weeks. "Did you go to the funeral?"

"Nuh-uh. Wasn't invited."

"I don't think you have to be invited. To funerals. I think you just go."

"Oh." Sid looks lost for a moment, and Greg feels guilty for pointing this out. He walks forward, wondering if they should embrace. Probably not. He settles for patting Sid's shoulder.

"So teach me how to gamble," he says.

They play cards for three hours, drinking coffee with Kahlua and eating the remaining party food out of the tupperware containers that Andy packed it into when everyone else left. Greg loses seventy dollars and feels like he's got chipmunks running around inside his head from all the caffeine and late night eating, but he enjoys himself, touching Dillon as often and as casually as possible, never getting rebuffed. Andy is by far the worst poker player any of them has ever known. He mostly folds and sits in Sid's lap, whispering advice into his ear. Sid's tell is his reaction to Andy's whispering: when he's got a good hand, he grunts and keeps his eyes on the cards, and when he's got nothing he laughs.

"Who taught you how to play cards?" he asks Andy at one point.

"You," Andy says. He puts his head on Sid's shoulder and smiles. "You did." Greg can't remember the last time he saw Andy this happy. He tries not to think about what Sid said out by the pool, about his clients offering him drugs. Andy must either know or have guessed. Anyway, Sid seems clean. Not that Greg could ever tell. He's smoking cigarettes, and apparently that's a good sign. Greg probably isn't going to mention it. He likes the idea that he and Sid are actually friends.

Barney leaves around four in the morning, and when Sid goes out back to smoke again, Dillon joins him. Andy puts his head down on the table and yawns while Greg keeps his eye on Sid and Dillon, who seem to be having a serious conversation about the patio, Sid pointing to the tiling around the pool while Dillon nods down at it, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Sid likes Dillon," Greg says. "He told me."

Andy lifts his head from the table and turns to look at them. "Sid likes everybody," he says.

"Um? Hardly?"

"It didn't used to be true, but it is now," Andy says. "He's very forgiving these days. I guess it's a byproduct of NA. Not that he liked NA. He liked the people, though. That McCallister guy is his sponsor, sort of. Informally."

"Anyway," Greg says, not surprised that the topic of Dillon's likability has come round to Sid's opinion of Narcotics Anonymous. "I guess you still think I could do better?"

"I didn't say that. Just." Andy shrugs and looks at them again. Sid has brought Dillon over to a hedge on the westerly side of the property, and they're both squatting down to look at something. A particular leaf? Maybe a bug, one of those giant grasshoppers that appear at night, leaping out of nowhere like someone threw them, like weapons.

"He's just such a kid," Andy says. "That's all. I think you might have a better time with someone older."

Greg thinks of all the times he withheld similar advice. When Sid left their apartment unlocked and someone came in and stole everything, even the scientific calculator Andy had owned since middle school. When he tried to fight a valet who demanded a tip. When he totaled the BMW and had his junkie friends bring him coke while he was still in the hospital with a broken collarbone.

"You just don't want to see me in a serious relationship," Greg says. "You're afraid that would mean I might not be there to pick up the phone the next time Sid fucks up his life and you need someone to talk to."

The words are like some animal that's just come in through the crack in the patio door, haunches up, hissing, but they seem to sneak past Andy, who stares at Greg, expressionless.

"Wake up, Greg," he says. "You're the one who's afraid of that."

Sid and Dillon are heading back to the house, laughing. Greg stares down at his hands as they walk inside. He remembers thinking, before his ass even hit the chair beside Andy's in class that day: Don't get your hopes up. He looked like somebody else's happy ending.

"Have you guys had any coyotes sniffing around your trash yet?" Dillon asks Sid.

"Haven't seen any," Sid says. "I wouldn't mind if they were out there, though. I kind of like 'em."

"They're a nuisance," Dillon says. "Scavengers."

"I like scavengers," Sid says. "Like those birds that hop around in fast food parking lots."

"Those are his favorite birds," Andy says, nodding. He looks at Greg, maybe apologetically. "You guys can sleep here if you don't want to drive home."

If Greg were less sober he would make a speech about how we're all scavengers, really. Nobody cultivates anything himself anymore. And look at how they'll be funding their company. He thinks of Thomas, awake in front of a computer screen at this hour, thinking he got away with something. The rich don't often gamble. Greg's father, a Harvard-trained economist, calls the lottery a tax on the stupid. Greg once repeated that to Marc Harmon, a boy he had a crush on in high school, hoping to impress him, and he could see as soon as the words were out that it had hurt him.

"My mom buys the scratch offs when she stops for gas," Marc said. He took hold of his right elbow with his left hand, a gesture Greg usually loved, Marc's subconscious attempt to shield himself from the other kids. "Somebody has to win."

There's no guest bedroom yet, though Sid tells them there will be futons in the office and basement eventually. Andy gets them blankets and pillows and sets them up on the living room couch, which is big enough to contain them but small enough to force them to cuddle, Greg's face buried in Dillon's hair. They lie there in silence, arms around each other, and listen to the sounds of Sid and Andy retiring to bed. There are no barely concealed sex noises, just some drawers opening and shutting, water running, then quiet.

"Sid told me that you said I was the love of your life," Dillon says as soon as it feels like they're truly alone together.

"Interesting." So much for being real friends, sharing confidences, whatever. Dillon is so close; he'll feel Greg's heart pounding. "Well. I might have implied as much. How did this come up? It looked like you two were talking about gardening and pool maintenance. What were his exact words on the subject?"

"I don't know how it came up. We were complaining about gas prices, I think, and he said, 'So Greg tells me you're the love of his life.'"

"Oh, Christ. Fucking classic. He's an asshole. What did you say?" Greg feels his body temperature rise along with his heart rate, the air under the blanket becoming humid with his panic.

"I said you must have been drunk."

"Dillon." Now his eyes are wet. Thank God it's dark. Fucking Sid. Greg squeezes Dillon closer, so that there's no chance of being face to face with him. "And? I suppose he said I was drunk."

"He said he didn't think so. Not as drunk as you thought you were, he said. But he was just trying to make me feel, I don't know. Good, I guess."

Dillon does feel good, to Greg, right now, soft and warm and milkshake-scented. His mouth probably tastes incredible, but Greg has to blink away the moisture in his eyes before he can kiss him. It shouldn't matter; they've both seen each other cry. Dillon isn't particularly embarrassed by it and cries every time he drinks too much, talks about how he knows his father hates him. Greg forgot how to care about his father's opinion years ago, and the one time he cried in front of Dillon it was over a movie, when a dog died. It was horrible, chewing his tongue, trying keep it in, and finally just collapsing into it, his hands over his face. Dillon had wrapped him into his arms without any hint of surprise, and he made a sympathetic sound under his breath that was maybe partly triumphant. That was just a couple of months ago.

"I, um," Greg says. Trying to speak was a mistake. His voice is teetering on the edge of utter ruin.

"Shit, I'm sorry," Dillon says, and he scoots up to press his face to Greg's, cupping Greg's cheeks in his pudgy, sunburned hands. "About before. What I said about Andy. I don't blame you if you love him. I didn't mean to tease you for it."

"I don't love him," Greg says, this accusation going a long way toward steadying his voice. "Or – I do, he's like my family, the kind you can't choose, but I'm not in love with him. Why would I tell Sid that you're the love of my life, even if I was drunk, if you actually weren't? Aren't?"

"So I'm not?" Dillon's coolness about accepting Greg's feelings for Andy evaporates, anger and disbelief jerking his features, and Greg laughs with relief.

"Dillon," he says. "Try to keep up."

"You think I'm so stupid." But he's surrendered, limp in Greg's grip, maybe just exhausted.

"Everybody who I really admire ends up saying that to me," Greg says. "What does that tell you?"

"I don't know," Dillon says. His breath is just as heavy with milk and sugar as Greg expected, sharpened by the scent of alcohol.

"I guess what I meant to say before is that I want you to move in with me," Greg says. "And that I'm sorry my place isn't this nice. I just, um. I didn't expect this, but I want to take care of you. I want to do your taxes."

"You did do my taxes," Dillon says, smiling mostly with his eyes, the way he did when they first looked at each other in Dr. Bederman's waiting room.

"I know," Greg says. "But I mean, again. Next year."

"Okay," Dillon says, nodding and moving closer, though there's really no where to go; they're as tangled up as they'll ever be. "Okay, yeah. Please."

They kiss for awhile and fall asleep breathing each other's air. At home, Greg is usually careful to give Dillon his space in bed: he gets so hot, and Greg hates to sweat. Here, under the high ceiling of Sid and Andy's living room, they keep hold of each other like there's a tornado in the room.

In the morning, Greg's tongue is bitter with leftover coffee and alcohol. Dillon is snoring lightly, his face hidden against Greg's neck. Greg turns him over so that he'll stop snoring, a trick he learned three boyfriends ago. When he wakes again the light on the ceiling is bright, approaching an afternoon-like pallor. He tries to go back to sleep, Dillon still deep within his own, and when he can't he watches Dillon's face for awhile, the flush of yesterday's sunburn faded to a tan that makes him look raw, like his skin might stick to Greg's lips if he kisses it. Greg tests this theory, still tired enough to really wonder. Dillon huffs in his sleep, as if Greg just said something Holmes-like and pompous.

Greg hears noises from outside and gets up, his legs achy inside his jeans, surely criss-crossed by seam marks. These jeans are too small, he should get new ones, or start wearing track pants like Dillon. The light blinds him momentarily, until the remains of the party come into focus: the playing cards scattered on the table, crumpled napkins and empty tupperware containers resting on top of their overturned lids, coffee mugs with sediment dried inside them. There's someone in the pool, the patio door open to a searing afternoon. It's Andy, swimming, wearing red trunks. Greg smiles and starts to walk out onto the patio, stopping when he realizes that Sid is in the pool, too, waiting in the shallow end, his arms stretched out along the ledge. Andy reaches him, breathless from swimming laps, and hugs himself around Sid, gets hoisted up so that he's sitting on Sid's hips. Sid hums something, a song Greg doesn't recognize, and Andy laughs like it's their inside joke.

Greg goes back to the sofa, back to Dillon, who is still asleep. He flops down onto Dillon's back and rubs his hand through Dillon's hair. He's a deep sleeper, motionless, his nose whistling. There are things they both have to do today: Greg needs to see his lawyer about the company's incorporated articles, Dillon has a shoot, both of them need a shower. Greg dozes on the couch, his face pressed to Dillon's shoulder, and listens to the water slapping the sides of the pool, indecipherable bits of Andy and Sid's conversation. When he gets up, he'll retrieve the elephant ears from the bar, bring them out and show Sid a good place to plant them. Or not; he'll thank them for the party and take Dillon home. They could stop at the nursery on the way. Dillon doesn't know shit about plants, but only because no one's ever trusted him with one. It's the difference between people who grow things and people who don't: somebody gave them a tree once.

Chapter Text

Sid and Andy are two hours earlier than she expected, ringing her doorbell before the streetlights have come on. They only have one bag, and Kate feels anxious as she hugs them hello, as if they're running away from something and she's giving them spontaneous shelter.

"I thought you were on the eight o'clock flight?" she says, holding her son by the shoulders. Andy is thirty years old now, which must make her fifty, though that can't be right.

"I didn't want to make you drive all the way out to the airport by yourself at night," Andy says. "But I knew you wouldn't let us get a taxi. So, surprise. We were on the six o'clock."

"It's just so expensive," she says. "The taxi trip. Isn't it?" She hugs Sid again, feeling dizzy. She doesn't think she's ever seen him in long sleeves; he looks exhausted.

"It wasn't that bad," Sid says. "Fifty bucks." He shrugs. She can remember when he used to spend that on a bottle of wine, thinking it would impress her. She's always liked him better like this, penniless, though she knows he'd prefer to be providing for Andy as garishly as possible.

"I can't believe we have to fly again tomorrow," Andy says. He walks into the kitchen and makes himself at home, pulling out a beer. She never drinks the stuff herself but made sure to get some for them, though they'll all be leaving in the morning, early. Sid shakes his head at the beer Andy offers and pulls out a bottle of water.

"The flight to D.C. won't feel as long," Kate says. "It is early, though. I just thought it would be nice to have time for a few museums before the rehearsal dinner, especially since Sid's never been."

"He's not huge on museums," Andy says.

"It's fine," Sid says. He gives Andy a look that she probably wasn't supposed to notice. "There's the space one, right? That'll be good."

"Yes," Kate says, though the Air & Space Museum wasn't exactly her first choice. She'd prefer the Freer Gallery, and actually so would Sid, probably, since he doesn't like crowds. "You guys hungry? I didn't really do a dinner, but I have all sorts of snacky things. Or we could get a pizza, since it's still early?"

"I'm not hungry," Andy says. He goes to the window over the sink and looks out at the dying evening. She realizes that it's getting dark and puts the overhead light on.

"What kind of snacks have you got?" Sid asks, taking a seat at the table. Kate touches the crown of his head on her way to the cupboards, grateful to him for being willing to eat. She's not one of those mothers who takes it personally when her children don't want food, but she always over-shops for their visits and ends up with a pantry full of things she doesn't particularly like. She makes Sid a plate of cheese and crackers, some prosciutto, and a pile of roasted red peppers. Andy joins them at the table and eats half of it.

"Heard from Molly today?" he asks.

"No. You know I'm hardly in the loop when it comes to this wedding. You've probably heard more about it than I have."

Andy shrugs. "She doesn't seem stressed or crazed or whatever brides are supposed to be," he says. "I guess they hired a wedding planner."

"And she's got a million friends helping her, I'm sure," Kate says. "And Luke does whatever she wants."

"He's whipped," Sid says. Andy thwacks his shoulder.

"You guys are too hard on him," he says. "Just because of the way things started."

Luke Bannister was Molly's World History professor during her second semester at college. Molly, never an enthusiastic student, asked for private study sessions. Luke, twenty-seven years old and awkward enough to be a stranger to the attentions of beautiful young women prior to his first year of teaching, agreed to tutor her. Molly started her sophomore year but didn't even complete the fall semester, something Kate only learned about when Luke had a moral crisis two years later and wrote her a long letter about the history of their deception. They had claimed, when Molly brought Luke home for the holidays, that he was a fellow student, then a grad student. Luke was young enough to pull it off, though he always seemed nervous, jumpy, and annually broke a dish while helping wash up. Sid was suspicious of him from the start, and since the great reveal Sid and Kate have bonded over their distrust.

"Luke always wanted to be honest," Andy says. "Molly was the one who lied."

"She lied because she knew what she was doing was wrong," Kate says.

"She knew you'd disapprove," Andy says. He didn't tell her that Sid had followed him out to California until they'd already been living together for two years.

"I don't know why you're both so afraid of my opinion," Kate says. She takes the empty plate of snacks, refills it, and puts out olives and pistachios, too. "You've always done whatever you want anyway. I've never tried to stop you."

"Mom." Andy groans.

"He shouldn't have let her quit school," Sid says.

"Oh, you should talk!" Andy says, laughing. He seems mean tonight; maybe he's just tired.

"I know you tried to talk me out of it," Sid says. "But if you'd been ten years older than me I might actually have listened."

"That's rich. And he's not ten years older, he's, like. Nine."

Kate tries to give Sid a sympathetic look, but he's got his eyes on the table. She once thought he would barrel over Andy, but both of her children seem to have secured partners who, while originally in a position of authority, will defer to them.

"So is Molly's old bed still up in her room?" Andy asks when they're picking over the last of the snacks, Kate eating pistachios though she's not hungry.

"No," she says. It's an odd question. Something Molly wanted him to ask? Kate was afraid Molly would take it personally if she found out her old bedroom had been turned into Kate's home office, but she needs the workspace, and Andy is the one who visits, the one who is sentimental about his old wood frame bed. He and Sid always sleep there together when they come to see her, though Sid must have trouble fitting into it even on his own. "Why?"

"Sid's back has been bothering him," Andy says. "We were thinking maybe he could sleep there. But no big deal."

Kate looks at Sid. He's got his arms folded on the table, shoulders hunched as he watches Andy push olives around with a toothpick. "You could have the couch," she says.

"That's alright," he says. "It's just one night."

The past few years have visibly humbled him, a few silver hairs already beginning to grow in over his temples. Andy's company is still finding its legs and their financial situation is not great, though for them that probably only means eating in once or twice a week instead of sticking credit cards in restaurant billfolds without glancing at the check. It's not as satisfying to see them accept financial reality as she expected it to be.

"I thought you weren't hungry," she says as Andy pulls a purple-stained olive pit from his mouth. He's nearly finished with his third beer of the evening.

"I'm a nervous eater," he says.

"You're nervous?"

"Well, yeah." He glances at Sid. "I've got to walk Molly down the aisle and everything. Do you think I'll have to dance with her? Like, that corny first dance thing where it's just the two of us on the floor?"

"I'm sure she would have warned you about that." Kate learned that Andy would be walking Molly down the aisle from Andy, who mentioned it casually, as if it would have no impact on Kate's feelings. Apparently she's not qualified to stand in for Molly's father, who was not invited to the wedding. Mike must have heard about it somehow - Facebook? - because he called Kate two weeks ago and pretended not to know anything. He's always been a bad liar, ironically. She hasn't called him back. He's gotten divorced again, if the gossip she's heard from her sister is accurate.

"It's gonna be crazy tomorrow," Andy says. "Picking up the suits and everything. Shit - will I have to do a toast?"

"I don't know," Kate says. She rubs her hands over her eyes, tired already. "You'd better have something prepared, just in case."

Andy groans. Kate gets up and collects the dishes, shooing Sid away when he attempts to help her. He's always trying so hard with her, and she suspects it's because she's the first authority figure who ever gave him the benefit of the doubt. Or maybe he just needs a mother in whatever shape or form. She's come to appreciate his efforts in the past few years, with Andy and Molly progressively less interested in pleasing her.

"Do you take anything for your back?" she asks Sid when he leans beside her at the sink, Andy busy with his phone. "I've got some codeine leftover from when I sprained my ankle."

"No, no," Andy says. "He's allergic."

Kate looks at Sid, who shrugs.

"It's true," he says.

"Muscle relaxers?" she says. "For the plane tomorrow, at least?"

"No thanks," he says. "It's not really that bad."

"Did you hurt it at work?" He's doing landscaping now, unless his job title has changed yet again. It seems to every time she sees him.

"Yeah," he says. "But I'm alright."

"I put an ash tray on the back porch for you," Kate says, careful not to let her disapproval show in her tone. Sid shakes his head.

"I quit," he says. Andy makes a doubtful noise, then busies himself with throwing his balled up napkin in the trash when Kate stares at him with censure. She looks at Sid, but he's just staring down at his hands like he doesn't believe it's for good this time, either.

The three of them migrate upstairs without even putting the TV on, thinking of the six o'clock alarm that will wake them for their nine o'clock flight. Kate readies herself for bed in the master bathroom, listening to the sounds of the boys unzipping their bag, brushing their teeth, padding down the hallway. She forgets to miss having other people around until their visits. The noises from the other rooms are not so much a comfort as a pleasant surprise, like snow flurries on a Saturday morning or a flock of migrating birds in the yard, a gentle reminder of the world outside of her own.

She pokes her head out to say goodnight and finds Andy rummaging in the hall closet, barefoot in his khakis and undershirt. He's got the faintest beginnings of love handles, which is startling.

"Need something?" she says.

"Just some blankets and stuff," he says. He's got a pillow tucked under his arm, and a heavy comforter.

"Really? Have I got the air conditioning turned down that low?"

"Sid's gonna sleep on the floor," Andy says, still rummaging. "It helps his back. Our mattress at home is really firm, so. He's used to that."

"Oh." She walks to Andy and tries to get him to look at her, but he's fussing with the blankets, holding some back while he yanks at others.

"He's always had these physically demanding jobs," Andy says. "On his feet all day. I tried to get him to see a chiropractor, but he's so weird about doctors."

"Your work is going okay, though?" Kate says, pulling at the quilt Andy is trying to liberate. It comes free, an avalanche of place mats that she looked everywhere for last Christmas landing at their feet. They both bend down to collect them.

"Work's fine," Andy says. "We still can't afford to hire any help, but we anticipated that. Anyway, it's good to be busy all the time. You know how that is."

He sneaks a look at her like he's not sure he should have phrased it that way. She smiles and tucks a tuft of hair behind his ear.

"I noticed that Sid has some gray here," she says, touching the hair over Andy's temple.

"Working with his hands has aged him a little," Andy says, softly, as if this is a secret to be kept from him. "He likes it, though. And it's good for him."

"Away from all those flashy people," Kate says.

"Sure. Right."

"Everything okay?" She wasn't going to ask, but Andy is lingering. Seeing him like this, in the hallway at night with pillows and blankets hugged to his chest, makes her think of him at six years old, when he would come to her bedroom during a thunderstorm with Woody tucked under his arm.

"Yeah, of course." He laughs like the question was uncalled for. His height and his inability to lie convincingly are the only things he inherited from Mike, thank God. She leans up to kiss his cheek.

"We'll have fun this weekend," she says.

"I can't believe Molly's getting married," Andy says.

"She knows what she wants." Kate almost asks about if he thinks he'll ever make it official with Sid; it's legal in California at last. Something stops her, and she only touches his shoulder before turning for her bedroom.

"See you bright and early," she calls when she reaches the doorway.

"Bright and early," he says, and she didn't expect to take that in the chest like an arrow, but it's what they always said to each other on school nights when he was a little boy. Her eyes are wet as she closes her bedroom door behind her, and she goes to the bathroom sink to wash her face. She's really upset about Molly. There's a tone in Molly's voice now when they talk on the phone, a guardedness. The wedding is bringing it all into excruciating focus. Kate shouldn't have been so hard on her when she left school. She should be nicer to Luke. You let Sid off the hook pretty easily. This was Molly's accusation during their first fight about Luke, years ago. She was really scolding Kate for trusting Andy's decisions more than hers, whether they came with tattooed arms and a checkered past or not. That was true once, but she's worried about Andy now. She gets into bed and listens for the murmur of conversation from his bedroom, but they're quiet, maybe asleep already.

*

On the flight, Kate gives Sid the aisle seat and expects Andy to sit in the middle, but he asks her if she wants the window and takes it when she says she has no preference. Sid reads in the in-flight magazine and Andy falls asleep with his head against the wall of the plane.

"Anything good in there?" Kate asks Sid when they've been in the air for an hour.

"Not really," he says. He's been staring at the same page for maybe twenty minutes, Kate doing the same with her novel.

"Did you sleep alright last night?" she asks.

"Yeah, fine. Thanks for letting us crash. The flight from the west coast would have been rough."

"You know I'm always glad to have you guys." She considers mentioning the fact that he slept on the floor, but maybe he's not aware that she knows that. "Work's going okay?"

"Yeah, it's pretty good," he says, brightening. "My friend who owns this landscape company, he lets me do some of the planning with him. It's cool - I got a consulting job a few months back, freelance."

"Really! That's exciting. I should have you do my yard next time you're in town." She expects him to laugh, but he nods.

"I have some ideas," he says.

She hasn't been out to L.A. to see their place in almost a year, but she's seen pictures sent by Andy of their elaborate yard, the pool and the airy kitchen. It's all so idyllic, a Pottery Barn catalogue of a life, sun-kissed and well-landscaped. The only things missing are bedrooms painted pale pink and baby blue, wooden toys scattered artfully across the rug, pictures of smiling elephants over the little trundle bed, the crib. Molly will have that; she already talks about names she likes, to Luke's apparent delight.

"What bothers me," Kate says, checking to make sure Andy is still asleep. "Is that she was nineteen when he started pursuing her."

"She says she went after him," Sid says.

"You believe that?" Kate asks.

"Hell no."

They've had this conversation too many times, but, like her, Sid doesn't seem to tire of it. Andy is usually the voice of dissent, or defense, maybe, of his sister.

"Molly can be kind of aggressive," Kate says. "Or ambitious? No, I don't like either of those words, at least not in this context. But she was never that way with boys. She shrunk away from them all through high school. She pretended to think they were beneath her, but I think she was terrified."

"At least they've been together a long time," Sid says. "That kind of proves something."

"Maybe. Luke's just such a pushover. Not that I wanted her with an alpha male type. He's just so sort of - the kind of professor I rolled my eyes at in college. Stuttery, too interested in having his students like him. And I don't mean admire him, that's a different sort of asshole. It's just that, well. I imagine him letting his students push him around, too. Letting them talk him into higher grades because he wants to think the jocks are really his friends. Does that make sense?"

"Totally. I can see that."

"Andy must not have slept well," Kate says. They both look at him. He's still asleep, his arms crossed over his chest as if he's cold. If they'd been provided with one of those itchy airline blankets she would drape it over him.

"He'll bounce back once we land," Sid says.

"He's working so hard," Kate says. "You both are, sounds like."

Sid shrugs. "Sometimes I feel like I've never had a real job. But I've worked sixty, seventy hours a week since I was twenty-two."

"We have that in common," Kate says. She'll be killing herself to catch up when she gets home Sunday night. She's just made partner and her caseload is out of control.

"That's funny," Sid says, grinning.

"What?"

"That we have stuff in common now. Other than Andy."

"Oh, well." She pats his arm. He's wearing long sleeves again, which troubles her as much as the sight of the tattoos once did. "I had a feeling we would, eventually."

Andy wakes just a few minutes before landing, when their elevation starts to decrease rapidly, their ears popping. He puts his forehead against the seat in front of him and closes his eyes again. Sid has rolled up the in-flight magazine and is drumming it against his knee. Kate feels him tense up as they make their final descent.

"This was my favorite part as a kid," she says, hoping to calm him down. He laughs nervously without looking at her. She wants to thump Andy into action, to make him reach across her to touch Sid's leg, but Andy just sits there looking miserably tired until they're on the ground.

Obviously they're having problems. It's normal, even overdue. But she feels panicked as they leave the plane.

"It's supposed to be hot here this week," she says, desperate for conversation while they wait for her bag. Andy yawns and Sid nods as if underwater, his unfocused gaze pointed in the direction of the circling bags.

"So who's hungry?" she asks. Sid raises his hand.

"I could eat," Andy says. "But we should check in to the hotel first."

Molly has put them up in the Mandarin Oriental, which will also host the reception. She's getting married in Luke's family's church, though neither of them are religious. The Mandarin is lovely and close to nothing but the river, an island in the middle of parking lots. Kate is relieved to be alone in her room for a moment after check-in. She tries calling Molly and gets her voice mail.

"It's Mom," she says. "We're here. Probably going to get something to eat, then the boys have to pick up their suits. I don't know about this dress I brought. It was between this dress with a cardigan and one that made me feel like an old lady, but maybe this one will just make me feel like an old lady who's trying too hard to seem young. What is Luke's mother wearing? You'll be mad at me, but I forgot her name. Call me, okay?"

She hangs up and stretches out on the bed, listening to the peaceful drone of the empty room. Andy has promised to come get her when they're ready. She hopes he'll take his time, though she's in danger of falling asleep. If he's being cruel to Sid she'll have to have a talk with him. Unless Sid has done something to provoke this coldness. She has a hard time imagining that he has, maybe because she's come to see him as a person who needs rescuing. She's gotten the sense, for years, that something happened out in L.A. that no one wants to discuss with her, and that Molly knows all about it. If Andy were her daughter she would suspect a miscarriage, the kind of tragedy that can be unmentioned but not forgotten.

She's retrieved by Sid and Andy only ten minutes later, and they take a cab to an Italian restaurant near the zoo that's not very crowded at noon, which isn't a good sign. It does have a nice patio, and the afternoon is warm but not hot, perfect weather for white wine with lunch.

"Look at you," Andy says after she's ordered. He's asked for beer, of course, and so has Sid.

"I'm on vacation," she says. "Also, your sister is not taking my calls."

"Mom, she's just busy."

"What's Luke's mother's name?"

"Olivia."

"How is it that he knows that and I don't?" she says, looking at Sid, who shakes his head.

"I don't know his father's name, if that makes you feel better," Andy says.

Predictably, her linguine is nothing special, but she has a nice time listening to Andy talk about work, and orders a second glass of wine. Sid is mostly quiet, which is not unusual.

"Where's your next big trip?" she asks. They're always going somewhere to look at rocks.

"Who knows," Andy says. "We need to get back in the black before we think about that."

Kate is actually embarrassed - in front of Sid? But she raised Andy not to talk about money that way.

"How's Greg?" she asks, to change the subject.

"In my ear every five seconds," Andy says. "He's a very needy business partner, but I guess I saw that coming. Did I tell you he got married?"

"No! To - it's a boyfriend, right?"

"Yeah, this guy he's been with forever. He's one of those 'well, I do this or that but I'm really a photographer' types. But, hey. Good for them, I guess."

"Were you in the wedding?"

"I was the best man, yeah," Andy says. "It was a weird ceremony. Greg's dog was involved. Molly says hers is going to be very traditional."

"I'm just excited to see the dress," Kate says. "I've seen pictures. Jaws will drop. Both of my children turned out so good-looking." She reaches across the table to pat Andy's cheek.

"Mom's drunk," he says, and she laughs.

They go to the rental shop and Kate sits in a chair out front while Andy and Sid try on the suits they were measured for back in L.A. Sid looks adorably uncomfortable in his, like security at a casino. Andy knots Sid's tie and fixes his hair for him in front of the three-way mirror.

"I have to wear this all night?" Sid says.

"Yes, even to bed," Andy says. He kisses Sid's nose, obviously not immune to the sight of him in formal wear.

"Guys, hold on," Kate says, digging into her purse.

"No pictures, Mom," Andy says. "You're gonna be taking them nonstop tomorrow."

"You don't have to pose," she says. "Just pretend I'm not here."

Andy snorts, and Sid pulls him against his chest, trapping him there and giving her a hammy smile. She laughs at Andy's petulant expression and takes the picture.

"Andy, show me how to send this to Molly," she says. "This will make her sorry she's not here with us."

"Mom, she's getting married tomorrow," Andy says. "You shouldn't want to make her sorry about anything."

"Oh, for God's sake," she says, wounded. "Don't take me so seriously."

After the suits are safely back at the hotel, they go to the museums, the Freer Gallery first. Kate says she only wants to peek in quickly, but they end up spending hours strolling through its softly lit rooms. She turns off the flash on her camera and sneaks pictures of Sid and Andy when they stand together in front of Buddhist sculptures, Sid with his hands on Andy's shoulders. She was right to suspect that Sid's done something to irritate him recently: every gesture asks forgiveness. Andy keeps close to him, seems willing to give it. She remembers suspending her fury toward Mike when they went on vacations. Their problems, their whole history, always seemed to remain at home. The best time of her life was when they took Andy to Disney World, stayed in a cheap motel and bought him every bauble he went near at the parks. He was three years old and doesn't remember it, which breaks her heart. At least she has a lot of pictures.

They walk to the Air and Space Museum, through crowds of school children wearing matching neon t-shirts. It's almost four o'clock, and still no call from Molly. Andy goes into scientist mode at the museum and starts explaining everything to death, but Sid is adoring if not interested, rubbing Andy's shoulders while he lectures them about lunar geography.

The boys are hungry again as they're leaving, so they stop at the museum cafe, and Kate drinks an enormous coffee while she watches them devour personal pizzas. She can't stop picturing them here with children, how Andy would either bore or thrill them with scientific facts while Sid wiped the pizza grease from the corners of their mouths. It's the landscaping job that's set her imagination on this course. He's so good with plants, Andy says, even the temperamental ones that have trouble with the heat.

"Do you think Molly will have kids right away?" she asks as they leave the museum, hoping that the conversation she really wants to have will follow naturally. Andy shrugs.

"She's only twenty-six," he says.

"You were six years old when I was that age," Kate says. "And, God, I guess the two of you already knew each other."

"Yeah, Sid was already torturing me on a regular basis," Andy says.

"You were asking for it," Sid says.

"Why did you never ask to invite him to your birthday parties or anything?" Kate asks. She doesn't remember forbidding Andy to play with Sid until Sid was eight or nine and lighting things on fire on a regular basis.

"He was probably afraid I would steal his presents when he wasn't looking," Sid says.

"Yeah, something like that," Andy says. "I think I was afraid you wouldn't be nice to me in front of other kids. Which is weird, because you weren't that nice to me when we were alone."

"He wasn't?" Kate says, alarmed. She hasn't heard many stories about the two of them as kids; Andy is still keeping most of those secrets. She's not sure when exactly their friendship developed into a romance, and has decided that she probably doesn't want to know.

"I had to toughen him up a little," Sid says. Andy huffs.

"More like I softened you up," he says.

"Yeah, you were sneaky." Sid pulls Andy to him and kisses the side of his head. "Turning me into your slave."

"My slave! A-ha. I wish."

Kate isn't sure if they're on the verge of fighting or retiring to the hotel bed, maybe some combination of both. They take a taxi back to the hotel and she parts from them in the hallway on the eighteenth floor, glad that they don't have adjoining rooms.

She's in the middle of reading through the day's emails when Molly finally calls. Evening is beginning to descend outside, but it's still several hours until the rehearsal dinner.

"Are you alone?" Kate asks. She expected to hear a crowd of giggling women in the background.

"Yeah," Molly says. "I'm out back at Luke's parents' place. It's nice - you should come for brunch tomorrow morning."

"There's a brunch? Where will Luke be?"

"Golfing. It's totally not his thing, but his brothers are making him. Are you alone?"

"Yes. I told you I wasn't bringing anyone." She hasn't dated in years. For some reason this bothers Molly, but Kate is fine with it. She's been infatuated with a young lawyer at her firm for almost a decade now, has seen him marry a girl his own age and be promoted from associate to of counsel, partly due to her efforts on his behalf. It's been a satisfying non-romance, a fantasy that she keeps at a safe distance.

"Sid and Andy are elsewhere?" Molly says, gamely dropping the subject of what she perceives as Kate's loneliness.

"They're in their room, I suspect. Andy seems a little tense."

"How does that continue to surprise you?"

"I meant more than usual. Sid has his tail between his legs, I have no idea why. Does Andy tell you anything?"

"Not usually." There's a pause; she's trying to decide if she'd rather gossip or retain the satisfaction of keeping her mother in the dark. "The hotel is okay?"

"Of course it's okay, it's a five-star hotel. The location isn't great, but we're only here for a few days."

"Did you do tourist stuff?"

"Yes, just a few museums. I took pictures."

"Of course you did. Ugh, here comes Luke's sister. They're driving me crazy."

"They are? Who? Just the sisters or the whole family?"

"We'll talk later, at the thing," Molly says. "Gotta go, see you soon."

She hangs up before Kate can respond. Kate tries to return to her email but has a hard time concentrating, feeling miffed. She eyes the mini fridge, but takes only a pack of peanut M&M's from it after surveying the contents. For the rehearsal dinner she wears black, a business-casual dress she's had since she was Molly's age. It still fits, still flatters her: she never gained weight, even after her pregnancies. Cravings have always come to her in small and manageable quantities.

"You look awesome," Andy says when she meets them in the lobby. They're at the bar, finishing what appear to be real drinks, ice cubes melting in them. Andy might have dressed up a bit more; he's wearing the same polo he had on earlier. Sid looks nice, still in long sleeves.

"I like this longer hair on you," she says, touching Sid's bangs.

"Andy wants me to buzz it off," he says.

"I do not," Andy says. "It's your hair, do whatever you want. I'm just sentimental about your buzz cut."

"I remember when his hair was really long," Kate says. "When you were working for the sanitation department?"

"Oh, yeah, sanitation," Sid says. "You recognized me then?"

"Of course! You were always on my radar."

"Had to keep an eye out for me?" Sid says, smirking into his glass.

"That's right." She remembers looking out the window one morning after sending Andy out with the recycling. A thoughtless move, especially with Andy half-dressed. She had been afraid that the 'tough looking' boy Molly saw Andy with might be Sid, though it was really an irrational fear. By what ridiculous circumstances would they have reunited? When she saw them talking to each other at the end of the driveway that morning her heart lurched, and when Andy jogged back into the house and slammed his bedroom door she knew her fears were founded.

"Did Molly ever call you?" Andy asks.

"Yes, we talked for about thirty seconds before she was called away. But that's fine. She's busy."

"I hope we'll get to see her some tonight," Andy says. "She'll be in high demand."

The rehearsal dinner is at a restaurant called The Blue Duck Tavern in Foggy Bottom. A cab takes them there, and Sid pays the fare before Kate can dig out her credit card. The restaurant has been rented out for the event and is crowded by the time they arrive, guests spilling out onto the patio, wine glasses in hand. There's no one to direct them where to go, strangers mingling cheerfully around them. Andy makes a beeline for a bar and grabs glasses of wine for everyone.

"Molly always had a lot of friends," he says, shouting to be heard.

"She was always impressed by people like this," Kate says, thinking of Molly's trips to L.A. when she was in high school. This is a different class of fancy people, presumably mostly Luke's relatives. Kate's parents declined to attend; they've been senders of gifts from afar ever since Kate went against their wishes and struck out on her own with the kids. They would fit in here, actually. Her father was a Oklahoma congressman for two terms.

"When's Aunt Beth flying in?" Andy asks.

"She's not," Kate says. "Brody is sick again."

"Brody is my cousin," Andy says to Sid. "He's got some kind of - disorder?"

"Epilepsy," Kate says. It's a strange word to shout over the noise of a crowd. "It runs in her ex-husband's family, not ours."

"Good to know," Sid says, grinning. Andy gives her a look of hellfire as soon as Sid turns away, as if she's made some sort of obnoxious male pregnancy joke, which maybe she has.

"So are we gonna be the only people sitting on the bride's side?" Andy asks.

"Just us and her eight million friends," Kate says. She spots Molly in the crowd and waves her over. Her dress is much too short, billowy, a pinkish red that calls to mind spiked punch. It's more suited to a party in California than Washington D.C.

"Where's Luke?" Kate asks as Molly hugs everyone hello.

"He ran off with another woman," Molly says. "I figured I'd have a party anyway."

"Hilarious," Andy says. He takes her straight, glossy hair in his hands and gives it a tug. "You look like a Barbie," he says.

"Then my life's work is complete!" She pounces on Sid. She had such a crush on him when she was a teenager, talked about him nonstop between his first visit and her first trip out to California. Sid indulges her even now, lifting her off the floor for a moment while she gives him an overlong hug.

"I like this city of yours," he says. "Free museums."

"And we all know you're a museum fanatic." She looks down at his shirt and rears backward. "What is this, long sleeves?"

"I thought I'd try to look respectable."

"On my account? How flattering." She whirls on Kate. "Mom, you have to meet Luke's department head. I think you have one of his books."

"Oh?" The last thing she wants to do tonight is be subjected to the academic windbags who work with Luke at George Mason. "What's the book called?"

"I don't remember, something about history. Have you guys seen any caterers circling? I'm starving. Luke's mother is having a fit, she says we didn't order enough food. I'm like, we? You planned the whole thing, lady. Mom, that dress again? But it looks good." She turns as if hearing her name from across the room. "God, I'd better go check on Courtney. She's been drinking champagne since like ten o'clock this morning. Her boyfriend broke up with her five days before my wedding, the asshole. Be right back!"

She disappears into the crowd. Kate finishes her wine and puts the empty glass on the bar.

"She's mad at me," she says to Andy.

"Mom, no. She's just enjoying being the center of attention. Don't take it personally."

"She'd better not be trying to set me up with that department head guy. I don't care how good his book is."

"I think she gave up on setting you up with people long ago," Andy says. He pats her back in a condescending fashion. Kate reaches for another glass of wine and watches women take note of Sid as they approach the bar. He seems oblivious to it, surveying the crowd like he's been hired to do security. He waves to someone, and Kate turns to see Luke approaching.

"Hey, guys!"

Kate no longer views Luke as threatening, and often finds herself embarrassed for him, such as now, when he doesn't seem to know who to embrace first and chooses Sid. It's like watching the Hulk pardon a henchman. Luke is not unattractive, but he's five years from forty, only fifteen years younger than Kate, and he's starting to put on weight around his middle. It shows in his face, too, though actually it's charming there.

"Have people mistaken you for Molly's sister?" Luke asks Kate. She laughs and glances at Andy, who makes a face that begs her to be kind. "Really, that dress is great," Luke says. "You should meet my uncle, he's a lawyer."

"What sort of law?"

"Uhm, I don't know - construction malpractice? So maybe kind of boring to you. How's work going? Molly says you made partner, that's so awesome."

She wants to put her hands on his chest and tell him to calm down, that she's not going to stand up tomorrow and object to the wedding if he doesn't kiss her ass hard enough.

"Work's fine," she says, smiling her most benevolent smile. "And yours?"

"Oh, pretty good, summer semester's almost over. Everyone's like - really, a wedding in August? But that's the only time I could get free for the honeymoon."

"You guys are going to Italy, right?" Andy says.

"Yep, Rome and Tuscany and Venice. Not in that order. Molly planned the whole thing. She's got the Italian Rosetta Stone and everything. She's pretty good!"

Kate has her doubts about that, but maybe she should be less cynical. It's not as if Molly doesn't have plenty of time to lounge around listening to Rosetta Stone recordings and plan which gelatto shops to visit while in Rome. She works part time at a cushy reception job that Luke secured for her on campus, and fills the remainder of her days with maintaining her model-esque physique: jogging and yoga and sunning herself in the garden. Kate has been waiting for her to become bored with this, and is beginning to suspect that she won't.

"We should go to Italy," Andy says to Sid when Luke is pulled away by relatives.

"With them?" Sid says. Andy rolls his eyes.

"Sid doesn't do international travel," he says to Kate.

"Whyever not?"

"I don't like long flights," he says. "But I'd go." He looks at Andy, touches his hip. "I'd go if you wanted to go."

"Someday," Andy says.

People don't sit down to eat until nine o'clock, and Kate feels lightheaded from the wine and the stuffiness of the overcrowded dining room. Andy has moved past jubilant drunkenness and into yawning, his cheek finding Sid's shoulder as soon as they're seated together. Kate sits across from them and puts a napkin in her lap, though she suspects they won't actually see food for another hour. A large woman who is fragrant with fruity perfume sits beside her.

"Are you a friend of the bride or the groom?" she asks Kate.

"The bride," Kate says. "I'm her mother."

"Oh, my God! Really? The famous Kate? The lawyer?"

"That's me."

"Well, look at you! You're tiny! Molly is so tall."

"Her father is tall. And she wears high heels."

"Her father?" The woman, who still hasn't mentioned who she is, looks around the table, then back at Kate when she fails to locate any fatherly looking men. "Is he here?"

"No. He's not, um. In the picture."

"I'm Andy, I'm her brother," Andy says, reviving himself to rescue her. He puts his hand across the table and the woman shakes it.

"Oh, I've heard about you, too," the woman says, her voice taking on an air of sympathetic admiration. "I'm Lucy, the aunt." The aunt. "I heard you're walking Molly down the aisle?"

"Yep," Andy says. "I'm kinda nervous. I missed the rehearsal, we were sightseeing. I'll have to wing it."

"You'll be fine," Lucy says. Her gaze slides to Sid. "Is this your fella?"

"Yeah, this is Sid," Andy says, taking hold of him like he's a prize trout. Sid salutes, and Kate snorts into her wine glass.

"You're not off the hook!" Lucy says, wagging her finger at Sid. "We've heard all about you!"

"Molly is his biggest fan," Andy says.

"Andy's only my second biggest," Sid says, and Kate laughs again, realizing as she does that she's not just lightheaded, she's drunk.

Lucy talks throughout the meal, which is delicious, if overly rich for a hot evening in August. Molly makes the rounds, and stops behind Kate when she comes to their table, combing her fingers through Kate's hair while she gives Lucy the latest details of her friend Courtney's heartbreak.

"She's such a great girl," Molly says. "So great. And so pretty. She's better off, really. The timing is just terrible. And here I am, leaving the country in two days. I almost want to take her with us. Luke would kill me!"

"Honey, that man will do anything you say," Lucy says, winking at Kate, who laughs in agreement.

"He's a sweetheart," Molly says. "He wanted to write his own vows. I was like, no way! Then I'll have to!"

She drifts on to the next table, and Kate has to fight back an unexpected surge of emotion. She thinks of returning to the house after having dropped Molly off at college, making tea, working on a brief, microwaving popcorn for dinner. She didn't get upset until Molly called to tell her, with great excitement, that the cafeteria had a soft serve yogurt station with peanut butter flavored yogurt, her favorite.

The trip back to the hotel is a blur. Kate hugs Sid and Andy goodnight in the hallway and heads into her room. She doesn't drink often, and every time she does she gets the urge to call Mike. They talk on the phone once or twice a year, things between them strangely amicable now. She feels as though they went to war together and both got out alive, though of course that's not right. She fought that war alone, even if his family's money provided for her armory, early on.

Not allowing herself near her phone, she changes into a tank and sleep pants, watches a Simpsons rerun and falls asleep with the television on, the sound of an infomercial startling her awake at three in the morning. She has a tremendous headache, and can't get back to sleep. At four AM she puts on her cardigan and the slippers provided by the hotel, pads down to the front desk and asks for Advil. They handle her wraith-like appearance with five star grace, treating her as if she's wearing mink and perfectly coiffed. She heads for the elevators with her pills and feels like she's dreaming when the doors open to reveal Sid, who is wearing baggy swim trunks, a towel slung around his shoulders.

"What are you doing?" they ask each other in unison. He laughs, seems nervous.

"Couldn't sleep," he says. "I'm looking for the pool."

"Will it be open?"

"I'll figure a way in. You alright?"

"Yeah, I'm just -" She holds up the mini bottle of Advil. "Hungover."

"Shit, me too. Wine, Jesus. Not worth it. Hope you feel better." He pats her shoulder as he walks out of the elevator.

She returns to her room, trying to form an opinion about what just happened. Eventually she just falls asleep, her head still pounding, and dreams that she's marrying Mike for a second time. Molly is furious and Andy is thrilled. He's got that Woody doll that Mike gave him, the one he wouldn't let out of his sight for years after Mike left.

"Will you sign this?" Andy asks, presenting Woody to his father as if he's a celebrity. Mike does, and this is what convinces Kate that Molly is right: she cannot marry this asshole again.

*

In the morning, Kate takes a long shower and texts Molly when she gets out: Today is your wedding day. She doesn't expect a response, but one arrives almost immediately:

OH CRAP I ALMOST FORGOT!!! I'd better find a dress!!

Kate smiles and puts the phone down, then picks it up again when it buzzes against the hotel desk. There's another message from Molly:

love you mama

She weeps for a good ten minutes, feeling ridiculous, and better than she has in months, despite the lingering hangover.

Sid and Andy meet her down at breakfast as planned, and only then does she remember seeing Sid heading for the pool the night before. She meets his eyes over the table, wondering if she should ask how his swim went. He smiles sort of queasily and she decides she'd better not say anything.

"What's the schedule?" Andy asks. "Do we have time for another museum?"

"I'd rather see the zoo," Kate says. "But you guys can do whatever you like."

"Zoo sounds good," Sid says.

"Fine, alright," Andy says. "God, why am I so nervous about tonight?"

"Because you think everyone will be looking at you," Kate says. "But they'll all be looking at Molly. Relax. You'll be virtually invisible."

"Even though I'm obviously not her father?" Andy says.

"That will hardly be news by the time the two of you are walking down the aisle."

"Did Dad even send her a card or anything?" Andy asks. Kate shakes her head. It always ruffles her to hear him call Mike Dad.

"He called me," Kate says. "A few weeks back. I suspect it was related to the wedding. I should call him."

"No, you shouldn't," Andy says, scoffing.

The zoo is not as crowded as she feared, a well-designed park that has little in common with the depressing enclosures she watched animals pace around in as a child. She hangs back and studies Sid's behavior, but he doesn't even yawn, and Andy seems so cheerful, easily in step with him. Still, she ends up feeling guilty for keeping what might be Sid's secret, as if he's become her favorite child, and when he goes to get them sodas from a concession stand she takes Andy by the arm and pulls him in close.

"I was downstairs getting aspirin last night and I ran into Sid," she says. "He didn't break into the pool, did he?"

"I don't think he had to break in," Andy says. "They'd turned the lights out but the door was unlocked."

"You were awake, too?" She's relieved, glad to have brought it up.

"I woke up when he got out of bed," Andy says. "He has trouble sleeping. Goes back to when he was working at night. His sleep rhythm's all weird."

"Does he take anything for it?"

"No, Mom, and don't try to give him the idea that he should, God." Andy is suddenly irritable, and she's taken aback. Sid returns with the sodas before she can ask what she did to deserve that.

"So you did your swimming in the dark?" Kate says to Sid.

"Yeah," he says. "I pretended I was a Navy SEAL."

"See, that's why I let him torture me when we were kids," Andy says, poking Sid in the stomach. "He was real imaginative about it. Only imagination in the neighborhood that could compete with mine."

Kate has to bite down on the tip of her tongue to keep from asking if they want children, when, and how many?

Only when they're sitting down to lunch at a restaurant across the street from the zoo does she remember the invitation to brunch. But Molly won't care; she would hardly have had time to acknowledge Kate in the midst of her preparations. Still, she calls Molly as soon as they finish.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" she asks. Today, there are a myriad of voices behind Kate's, though they sound more frantic than giggly.

"Come here now," Kate says. She doesn't sound angry, or at least not angry at Kate. "Total crisis, Mom. Total."

"Oh, boy. Where is here?"

"The Four Seasons, the one attached to the restaurant where we were last night. Google it. Room 784. Leave Sid and Andy at the Mandarin. Hurry." She hangs up.

"Looks like Molly needs me," Kate says. "Right away, apparently."

"Everything alright?" Andy asks.

"Probably. Brides use the word 'crisis' too freely, right?"

"I've never heard Molly use that word," Andy says, his eyes widening. Kate glances at Sid, who raises his eyebrows.

"Good luck," he says.

Kate checks her phone a thousand times during the taxi ride to the Four Seasons, but Molly doesn't send any emergency texts. Kate hasn't experienced this combination of terror and adrenaline since taking the bar exam. The lobby elevator seems to take years to arrive, and she lets the doors close before a couple whose arms are full of shopping bags can get in and slow her down.

She finds room 784 - a suite, it seems, double doors - and can hear the commotion of excited female voices behind it. She knocks as loudly as she can and still has to wait almost a full minute before someone hears and comes to answer the door. It's Luke's mother, Olivia, and she doesn't seem to recognize Kate, who tries to spot Molly over her shoulders. There are maybe twenty women in the room, their hair in curlers, many of them on cell phones.

"I'm Molly's mother," she says, putting out her hand. "Kate. Olivia, right? We've met."

"Oh, of course!" Olivia slaps her hand over her face and closes her eyes. "I'm so sorry. Come in - we've just had some bad news."

"Not about Luke, I hope?"

"Oh, God, no!" Olivia laughs loudly. She seems Texan, and reminds Kate of Lucy, who must be her sister. "Luke's been as good as married to her since they met. He's probably waiting on the church steps already, looking at his watch. No, this is maid of honor related."

"Ah. Molly's here, though?"

"Yes, she's sequestered in the bathroom at the moment. Come along, right this way." She takes Kate's hand and pulls her through the crowd, telling wispy bridesmaids to move aside. She knocks on the door, and Molly's Yeah? is the kind of thing Kate would have scolded her for as a girl.

"Your mother's here, dear," Olivia says. "All is well."

"Mom, come in!" Molly shouts. She sounds like she's sitting in an empty bathtub. "It's not locked."

Kate is afraid she'll find her in tears, having second thoughts about Luke, but she's sitting in the giant, open shower stall, wearing tiny shorts and a t-shirt that says RACE FOR THE CURE 2009! on it. She's got a towel wrapped around her hair, no makeup, her legs splayed out in front of her, and she beams as Kate shuts the door behind her.

"Thank God you're here," she says, patting the floor of the shower. "I'm so sick of everyone else. Courtney broke her ankle in the midst of her drunken stumbling last night. So I don't even know if I have a maid of honor."

"Who are you talking to?" Kate asks. She sits down on beside Molly and watches her thumb things into her phone.

"Lucas," Molly says. "He says his best man could carry Courtney down the aisle. He thinks that might be cute."

"I agree with him. It's just crazy enough to work."

"He says he could have her crutches waiting for her at the altar and hand them to her. I don't know, though, Courtney is in a poisonous mood. And on lots of painkillers." She looks up at Kate and lets the phone drop into her lap, thumbs still poised over its keyboard. "But whatever, right? I'm just ready to go to Italy."

"Did you really learn Italian?"

Molly scoffs wetly. "Um, no. But I've managed to convince Luke that I have, with a little freshman-level Spanish and some added flourish."

"That'll be interesting once you're there."

"It will be! Talking to Luke before the wedding doesn't count as seeing him, right?"

"I don't think so."

"Did you see Dad before the wedding?"

Kate laughs. "No," she says. "I didn't see him until I walked down the aisle. He was so hungover he was green. Those were the days when you had your bachelor party the night before your wedding."

"Not the best idea. You were pregnant with Andy, right?"

"Yes, he was in attendance. My dress had an empire waist. It worked wonders."

"Why doesn't he marry Sid?" Molly asks. She puts her head on Kate's shoulder, still typing with her thumbs.

"You're asking me? I don't know. I think they're married for all intents and purposes. I want to ask them when they're going to have a baby."

"Oh, Mom, don't! Andy's really sensitive about that."

"He is? Oh." She thinks of the tension between them, Sid's sheepishness. "Sid doesn't want to be a father?"

"I have no clue, but Andy is petrified of asking him."

"Oh, that's silly. Why? I think he'd be receptive to it."

"Just don't even bring it up," Molly says. "Andy wants it so bad. He has this whole secret Amazon wish list full of kids books that he wants for his imaginary baby."

"That makes no sense!" Kate's heart pounds at the thought of her son going through this, saying nothing. "You're telling me he's never even asked Sid? Really, you're sure?"

"Positive." Molly sighs. "There's other stuff, though."

"Other stuff? In what sense?"

"Stuff, Mom. Lotta ins and outs to consider." Suddenly she shrieks and thrusts the phone into Kate's lap. "Luke sent me a picture of his shoes! He's making fun of me for being superstitious. Delete, delete! Don't let me see!"

They stay in the bathroom for another hour, Kate doing Molly's makeup and then her hair. She puts it up in a Grace Kelly bun, and helps Molly carefully remove her t-shirt, leaving the hair undisturbed. People begin to get antsy, knocking on the door.

"Courtney is conscious again," someone calls out. "Sort of." There's twittering laughter. Molly smiles at Kate in the mirror, her arms tucked over her chest.

"I should just get married like this," she says. "Topless in daisy dukes."

"That's more of a second marriage getup," Kate says. "Want to walk out there, or should I bring the dress in here?"

"I'll walk out there. I have no shame. Hey, Mom?"

"Yeah?"

"You like Luke now, right?"

"Yes, baby." She smoothes one errant hair back in place. "He's a good man. I'm sure he'd carry every one of your bridesmaids down the aisle himself if that's what it took to marry you."

"But do you like him as much as Sid?" Molly asks. She knows the answer to that question, and smirks mischievously.

"Do you?" Kate asks, and they both laugh hard.

Kate takes a thousand pictures during the ceremony, knowing that those taken by the team of professional photographers will be available to her, and better. She doesn't cry until Andy gives Molly away at the altar. He takes his seat between Kate and Sid, kisses Kate's cheek and pats Sid's thigh.

"That was a long fucking aisle," Andy whispers, flushed, and Kate swats him for the curse.

Kate finds religious ceremony tiresome, but Molly looks so beautiful, Kate could watch her take an hour-long mass and still be sorry to have to blink. Luke is nervous, his hands shaking as he slides the ring on her finger. Molly is more articulate than Kate has ever heard her, and she's sorry that Molly didn't write her own vows. She underestimates herself; she would have charmed everyone with ease.

The guests are shuttled to the reception at the Mandarin in a series of taxis, and Kate sits up front with the driver, whose son happens to be attending Kate's old law school. When she looks up from her conversation she sees that Sid is asleep with his head on Andy's shoulder. Andy is stroking his hair, and she's sorry to be caught looking; Andy blushes.

"So he is human after all," Kate says.

"I love it when he sleeps," Andy says, sounding almost choked up. "I mean, when he can finally get some rest."

"I know. I knew what you meant."

The reception is elaborate: live music, a cocktail hour already in full swing as they arrive. Kate takes a glass of champagne and mostly just holds it. Sid drinks beer and Andy has a gin and tonic, purportedly to calm his anxiety about a toast that he'll have to make later.

"I know you said to come up with something just in case, but I'm so bad at this," Andy says when the three of them find their seats at an assigned table.

"Why should you be bad at it?" Kate says. She's nervous for him already, trying not to show it. "You've always been very creative."

"Yeah, but not in a speech writing kind of way," he says. "What should I talk about? Luke? Should I make stupid jokes about their age difference?"

"No," Kate says. "Please don't."

"The teacher student thing?"

"Andy! Of course not!"

"Well! I don't know!"

Molly and Luke arrive to wild applause, Luke less shaky now, flushed with elation. Molly is queen-like as she leads him to the dance floor. She had joked months ago that their first dance would be to "Don't Stand So Close to Me," and Kate is relieved when the band plays "Unforgettable" instead. When they're finished with their dance, camera flashes sparkling amongst the circling crowd, the band leader invites Olivia out to the dance floor to have a first dance with her son as a married man. Kate is afraid Molly will be ushered away by photographers or swallowed up by well-wishers, but she makes a beeline for their table, holding up the froofy skirt of her gown with two hands. Kate will have to take her somewhere private where they can bustle it properly.

"I'm furious," Molly says. She falls into Andy's lap and he receives her with an oof. "Livid. They said they weren't going to do this. Ugh!"

"Do what?" Kate asks, offering her champagne. Molly takes it and throws it back in one gulp.

"This mother-son dance shit," Molly says. "What am I supposed to do when they're done? Dance with Andy? That's so depressing."

"I can't dance right now," Andy says. "I think I'm gonna hurl. Do I really have to do this toast?"

"Andy, Molly." Kate takes the empty glass of champagne from Molly's hand and puts it aside. "Everybody calm down. Your toast doesn't have to be high art, Andy, just say something sincere about how much you love your sister and wish her a happy marriage. Molly, if you want - well, I could dance with you?"

"That's even more depressing," Molly says. "No offense, guys." She looks at Sid, distractedly, then smiles, her eyebrows shooting up.

"Man," he says, shaking his head. “C'mon.”

"Oh, please?" She reaches across the table and grabs his hands. "Please? It would be hilarious. It would be so perfectly hilarious."

Sid looks at Andy, then Kate.

"I think you have to do it," Kate says.

"It makes sense in a weird way," Andy says.

Molly beams, claps triumphantly and pulls him up from his seat, toward the dance floor. Kate feels sorry for him for a moment, but he's laughing, shaking his head at Molly as she leans up to whisper something in his ear.

"And now we'll have the bride's first dance with her, ah," the band leader says as Molly and Sid take the floor. The band leader pauses, his smile a little stiff.

"Brother in law!" Molly shouts. Some people in the crowd laugh, others just look confused. Luke at least appears charmed, and Molly blows him a kiss. The band plays an old Glen Miller song that must be their default when no one has given them instructions. Molly is radiant, Sid smiling down at her, and Kate barely stops herself from remarking to Andy that this could happen again someday, with Sid's actual daughter, and would the two of them take turns having a first dance? Andy looks queasy, certainly fearing the approach of his toast, so Kate only pats his wrist before taking a hundred more pictures of Molly and Sid dancing.

Dinner is served by white-gloved waiters, and the quality of the food is worth the pretentiousness. Kate briefly feels guilty for having paid for nothing here; she bought Molly her dress, which was not inexpensive, but otherwise was not asked and did not volunteer any financial contributions to the gala. Luke's father is an heir to the inventor of the mechanical pencil, and it seemed to go without saying that the groom's family would foot the bill.

"Oh, God," Andy says when Luke's father stands up to tap his champagne glass with his fork. "Oh, shit. Okay, okay."

"Calm down," Kate says. "You'll be great." Andy nods glumly. Sid reaches up to rub the back of his neck.

"You'll probably never see most of these people again," he says, and Andy snorts.

"He's got a point," Kate says.

Luke's father's toast is by the book: humorous at the outset, sincere but not overly emotional. He reminds Kate of Mike's father. At their wedding, he gave a somber toast that came off as a ringing endorsement of their marriage, which was funny, because he didn't approve of Kate at all. He didn't like that she had plans for law school, that she wanted to work after having children, that she had 'trapped' Mike into a marriage with her pregnancy. Mike married her mostly to piss him off. He bragged to his horrified mother that Kate was a feminist.

"Now I think the bride's brother would like to say a few words," Luke's father says, gesturing to Andy. He's red-cheeked, and Kate has to stop herself from helping him to stand when he gets up on shaky legs.

"Um," Andy says. Kate is sweating a little under her cardigan, feeling as if all eyes are on her, too. Sid is examining his unused salad fork as if he can't bear to watch.

"So when Molly was seventeen she used to tell me that she couldn't wait to fall in love," Andy says. People laugh warmly, and Kate is impressed: not a bad opening. She turns to look at Molly, who has her elbows on the bridal party's table, her hands clasped together. She looks pensive, like she's afraid Andy will make her cry.

"She wanted to know everything about being in love, she used to grill me," Andy says. "And I never knew what to tell her, you know, I'm not that great with words, believe it or not." There's some uncertain laughter.

"But I think, um, if she asked me again now, which she wouldn't, because now she knows - but if I could go back in time and tell my seventeen year old sister what it's like to be in love, I think I'd say that it's like realizing that you're only the second most important person in the world. You know, when you're a kid, when you're young, before you find that - that person, it's all about you, what you want, what you care about. And when you fall in love, when you fall in love for real, someone else becomes the most important person in your world."

He pauses for a minute, his lips still parted. The ballroom is silent. Sid touches the back of Andy's knee, as if to remind him where he is.

"And that can suck!" Andy says. People laugh with relief: at least he's speaking again. "You know, even if you decide, no, hey, I love this person and all, but I still want to matter most to me. If you're really in love you can't swing that, you're just stuck being second best forever. But the really great thing about that kind of love is that, if you're lucky, you give up being your own most important person so you can be the most important person in the world for someone else. And if you're really lucky, they'll take better care of you than you would have anyway. So congratulations to my sister for finding her most important person, and to Luke for finding his. I know you guys are going to take really good care of each other."

He lifts his glass, and everyone else in the reception hall follows, cheering. Molly doesn't cry, but she holds Andy's gaze in a way that makes Kate's eyes get wet.

"Okay, I need a real drink," Andy says when he drops back into his seat. Everyone at the table laughs, telling him he did well. Sid beckons for a waiter and orders Andy a scotch. His cheeks are pink; Kate was so caught up with praying that Andy wouldn't stumble that she hardly thought about Sid hearing all of that and knowing Andy was talking about him.

The reception continues on with dancing and drinking, Kate not participating in either activity. She takes pictures, makes small talk, and keeps Sid company while Molly and Andy flit around the ballroom together, both drinking enthusiastically enough to make Kate want to give them a lecture about class. It's good to see them having fun together, even if Molly is laughing loudly enough to be heard from clear across the ballroom.

"What are you, the designated driver?" Kate says when Sid shakes the waiter off after two beers. He laughs.

"Saving room for cake," he says, patting his stomach.

"Good idea. I'm running to the ladies room - watch my purse?"

"You got it."

She winds through the crowd, feeling sleepy and knowing that Andy won't be persuaded to head up to his room until most of the guests have gone home. She'll have to drink some coffee if she wants to make it to the cake cutting. Their flight leaves at ten in the morning, and Sid and Andy will stay with her for one more night before heading back to L.A. She feels slightly panicked at the thought of her children returning to their lives on opposite coasts, Kate somewhere in the middle, hoping for phone calls.

She's finishing up in the bathroom when the door bangs open, and she pauses before leaving her stall, because that's Molly's laugh, and, though this is the ladies room, Andy's.

"Dude, it's fine, c'mere," Molly says. "This is the only place we can hide and talk."

"I'm gonna get arrested," Andy says, moaning, and Molly cracks up. Kate wonders if she'll want to overhear whatever conversation they're about to have, but it's too late to leave her stall now.

"Your speech was so, so great," Molly says. "Makes me glad they got a videographer."

"Thanks. I was totally winging it. I had nothing until the last second."

"It was really heartfelt. Really great."

"Uh-huh."

"So?"

"So? What?"

"So what's the situation?" Molly asks. "The Sid situation?"

"The situation, oh, well. The situation is that I told him if he did this to me again I'd leave him, and he's doing it again, and I don't want to leave him. So my threats are just, you know, as empty as he knew they were, I guess."

"Andy, it's not the same. He has a prescription, right?"

"Uh, for now? And you don't know him and doctors, his arm could fall off and he'd say he didn't want to pay the premium, that he'd just live with it. This isn't about his back, and if he thinks I'm stupid enough to buy that, well. It's about getting high."

"But he seems fine? This weekend? Yeah?"

"Whatever, yeah - with Mom here, of course he's not going to pull that shit. And he's making these faces like, putting on this whole act about how his back is hurting him without the pills."

"Maybe it really is! He does the actual hard labor right? Building retaining walls and stuff?"

"I don't know." Andy groans. "Hey, look, obviously he can do what he wants. He knows I'm not going anywhere. He's working with three different crews to pay the mortgage on that place, my company is just sinking us deeper into debt. He owns my ass, like always. God, what I'd give to be the one paying the bills for even like, one fucking month."

"I had no idea you were this unhappy." Molly sounds crushed. Kate has her hands pressed over her mouth, afraid they'll hear her breath as it gushes from her shakily, her heart racing.

"I'm not unhappy," Andy says. "Don't - hey, c'mon, don't get upset. I'm drunk, I'm complaining too much. You know how I get. The company is just - it's more stress that I anticipated, and I anticipated a lot of stress. But it's not just the work me and Greg wanted to do, it's like, dealing with vendors who send us the wrong shipment and answering phones and running out of paper clips. We can't afford an assistant and, and Sid comes home from these ten hour shifts sunburned and sweaty and offers to sit there answering the phone and I'm like, look. Let me have this one thing! Let me at least pretend I can handle one thing without your help. Shit, never mind. I can't stand to hear myself talk about this. I just sound ungrateful."

"Yeah, you do," Molly says, and they laugh. "But I get it. Luke has his big, important, tenured job and I'm doing twenty hours a week on Facebook in the business department, waiting for the phone to ring. He tried to help me plan the honeymoon and I flipped out on him. Poor Luke."

"Poor Sid," Andy says. "I keep punishing him for six years ago. God, he put me through hell. You really think he can handle taking pain pills?"

"I don't know,” Molly says. “I mean, yeah, on the surface it sounds like a really bad idea. But he seems to do okay with beer and stuff. Why doesn't he just smoke pot for the back thing?"

"He says it doesn't work as well. Look, I know him. He likes the pills because they make him bounce off the walls. He's exhausted without them, but when he's on them he can't sleep at night, he gets up and does crunches to try to wear himself out. And I still love him, fuck, I love him so much. Are you ready for that, for Luke to drive you crazy? I guess that's what I was trying to say in that little speech. You could have your own shit all figured out and it wouldn't matter. You're inheriting someone else's shit for life."

"That's slightly less poetic than what you said out there," Molly says, laughing. "But I know that, geez, I've lived with Luke since I was twenty. He does this thing when I'm zoning out in the car, trying to listen to the radio, daydreaming - he'll get anxious about how we're not talking and start describing some article he read about how the Mayans were the first civilization to have plumbing, and he'll like, Andy, he'll describe the fucking mechanism they used, in detail, and tell me how many houses it could have supplied with running water, and I'm just like, Jesus, I like this song, can you shut up for a second? But then I love it, too. It's also the sweetest thing in the world."

"Yeah, see, you know what I'm talking about," Andy says. They're quiet for a moment, except for a slight swishing sound, Molly's legs swinging inside the many skirts of her gown. She's sitting up on the marble counter by the sinks; Kate can just make her out through the crack in the stall door.

"Mom seems okay," Molly says.

"Mom's fine. She's indestructible. I can't believe grandma and grandpa didn't come."

"They're dicks. They sent me a check for five hundred bucks, though."

"Damn! That almost makes me want to get married. Though I guess we'd have to tell them Sidney was a girl if I wanted a payout."

Molly laughs. "Why don't you, though?" she asks. "Get married?"

"We kind of did."

"What?" She hits him, hard by the sound of it. "When? Why didn't you tell me?"

"'Cause it was just this me and him thing. It was like a year after we moved to California, the first time we went camping in Anza-Borrego. We made up our own ceremony. It involves Battlestar Galactica and sex, so it's kinda hard and embarrassing to explain."

"I'm almost curious enough to ask," Molly says. She sighs and slides down off the counter. "But maybe some things should be kept between the two of you."

"I think so, yeah."

They leave, and Kate leans against the door of the stall, her hands still over her mouth. She's struggling to put together a plan of action, suggestions and discussion points, follow-up questions, reassurances. But it's too late; they've gone. Her children have grown up.

When she leaves the restroom the cheer of the party seems both ridiculous and important, a task on her to-do list that's being ignored. She's tired, but she doesn't want the night to end, because tomorrow she'll go home, and the next day Andy and Sid will depart. She'll remember what it's like to be in the house without them, with her photographs and home movies, the unlandscaped yard.

Sid is still at the table watching her purse, sitting alone, Molly and Andy nowhere to be found. Kate touches his shoulder and he seems to come out of a trance. He smiles up at her.

"You're free to go find Andy now," she says, taking her purse. "I'm going to make a phone call." She studies his face, his coffee-colored eyes. He put me through hell, I love him so much. This man is her son's whole life. She'll never know what that feels like, or if she's right to be glad that she won't.

"I have to tell you something," she says, dropping into the seat beside him, her purse clutched in her lap. "I've wanted to say it so many times this weekend, and I stopped myself, but that was stupid of me. You should hear it."

"Okay." He seems to brace himself for a scolding.

"I think you would make a good father," she says. "Andy, too. I think you would be good parents, together. And I think you both need it. You've taken care of each other for too long. It's driving you both crazy. You need to be each other's second most important people for awhile."

She leaves before he can react, walking toward the French doors that line the ballroom. The night is hot and thick with moths that bounce off the lanterns lining the patio, and most people have remained inside. A few smokers and others on cell phones wander the hotel's garden. In the distance there's light from the city, noise from the freeway. Kate walks toward the river and finds a sturdy tree to lean against before calling Mike. She doesn't really expect him to answer, but he does, on the third ring.

"I'm at our daughter's wedding," she says.

"My God. That's today?" He sounds like he's alone and half asleep. She imagines the television in the background, the volume turned all the way down.

"Yes, it's today. Molly is married. I'll send you a picture."

"Yeah, please. How's the guy?"

"He's great. Almost ten years older than her, gives her everything she wants. Can't imagine why she'd go for that type."

"Don't yell at me, Katie."

"I'm not yelling. I don't even know why I'm calling you, except that the ghost of you has basically been my date here tonight. There are little mementos of your absence everywhere."

"I should be there," he says. He's not accusing anyone for not inviting him. He's referring to some other version of himself.

"I know," she says. "But they've become the people they are because you weren't there, and I love who they are."

"Who walked her down the aisle?"

"Andy did."

"Good, that's good. Andy's okay?"

"Andy's fantastic."

"He's still with that guy? The neighbor kid?"

"Yes, the neighbor kid. They're thirty years old now, by the way."

"Goddamn. What does that make us?"

"Fifty, Mike."

"Seems impossible."

They grew up together in Edmond, Oklahoma. They were in the same second grade class: Michael Davis and Katherine Hoffecker. He didn't pay much attention to her until middle school, but he was the one who told her of the existence of a town to the south of Edmond called Slaughterville. She was so sure he was making it up that she thought he'd doctored the atlas somehow when she went to the school library to prove him wrong.

"You probably don't remember this,” she says. “But I was thinking the other day about when we took Andy to Disney World."

"Of course I remember," he says. "We drove down, God. Can you imagine doing that now?"

"Would cost a fortune."

"You could fly there and back twice for that gas bill."

"I liked that, though," she says. "The highways at night and the little motels. Andy was such a good baby. He was so good at entertaining himself."

"I should call him," Mike says. She laughs.

"I had a dream about the two of you the other night," she says, leaving off the part about her remarrying him in this dream. "You remember that sheriff doll you gave him, the cowboy with the pull string?"

"Yeah, of course. That was my favorite when I was a kid. He still have it?"

"No, I don't think so - maybe?"

"It's a family heirloom, I guess. He should give it to his kids. If ever he has any."

"I think he will." What she said to Sid was a risky move, the kind that she made partner for at her firm. With a gamble like that it's always clear right away if it was the right thing to do, not in the response she gets but in hearing herself say it, the shape the words take when they leave her mind and hit the air.

"You won't believe this," Mike says after some quiet seconds pass, Kate watching the light from the hotel on the water, "But I did what I did because I knew you were too good for me."

"Thanks for still being full of shit after all these years," she says. "It's reassuring somehow."

"I knew you wouldn't believe me. It's the truth, though. You never used to curse, Katie."

"I still don't, unless it's particularly called for. So you're saying I alienate the people who love me by pretending to be perfect? Is that what you're saying?" It hasn't bothered her at all that her parents and sister didn't show for the wedding. It's almost a relief.

"I'm saying you were too good for me," he says. "That's a compliment. I was a dumb jock, knew my old man would take care of me no matter what. You were going places. You went places."

She laughs, annoyed by his kindness. He's still charming in his hayseed way. He was so cute in high school, tall and dirty blond, always smiling.

"Well, I should get back," she says. "I just - damn you, Mike."

"I know, alright. You called to say 'damn you, Mike.' You get one of those once a year, free of charge."

"At least once." She looks back at the hotel ballroom, chewing her lip. They'll be cutting the cake soon. "I guess I wonder why you answer when I call to say that."

"Because you were my prom queen, Katie Hoffecker. Two years running."

"Mike, for God's sake."

"Well, you were."

She hangs up with him and walks back toward the party, taking the long way through the garden. It's pretty, the sort of thing she would have imagined wandering through in the moonlight as a girl, back when she loved romances. She turned out not to have the patience for her own, though she and Mike did do some things under the moonlight as teenagers that she recalls fondly even now. That both of her children fell in love for good as teenagers has not escaped her. It must be something in their genetic makeup, or maybe it's less visceral than that, the universe's compensation for her own teenage romance falling flat early on. She would rather see their dreams fulfilled than her own. That's what she would tell Andy if she hadn't been warned of his sensitivity to the subject: Darling, you think you know now what it's like to have your own needs eclipsed by someone else's? You have no idea.

Sid and Andy are on the far end of the patio as she walks up, Andy sitting on the ledge of the short wall that looks over the garden. Sid is standing between Andy's dangling legs, smoking a cigarette. So he hasn't really quit. Andy leans down to rest his forehead against Sid's, his hands cupped around Sid's ears. They're talking, grinning: they look happy. She slips back inside without interrupting.

Chapter Text

The start of the summer used to mean freedom. She would mark the days off on her calendar with a red sharpie and become restless anticipating those glorious weekday mornings when she would be able to sleep until she couldn't ignore the sunlight through the window any longer. Now, on the first real day of summer, she wakes up too early and stares at the window, watching the sunlight sharpen into afternoon. It's the first day of summer, but it's also the first day of her life as a high school graduate. Her parents have allowed her to take a year off before starting college, but only if she works. This was fine with her, in the planning stages: she wants to save money for a trip to Europe. Now, however, staring out at the day of job hunting that awaits her, she just wants to stay in bed and daydream about riding in a gondola.

She gropes for her laptop and pulls it into bed with her. It's a quarter past noon; she's surprised her mother hasn't come knocking yet. She checks her email, which has five new messages. Two are from Facebook: Josh Arden has requested to add her as a friend, which is not surprising, since they spent three hours talking last night at Hilary's graduation party. The other Facebook notification is a message from an Andy Davis. The name sounds vaguely familiar, and when she sees his profile picture she recognizes him: the son of her mom's lawyer friend. The title of his message is: "(Kind of) Weird Request." She's anxious as she opens it. She had a (kind of) crush on this guy when she was a little girl.

Hello! Do you remember me? My mom says you will. I'm Kate Davis' son - our moms go to the movies together on Tuesdays. Actually, haha, your mom was my pre-school teacher back in the day. I heard you just graduated from high school - congratulations! Anyway, this is going to sound crazy, but a million years ago my mom told me I should give you some of my old toys, and I did, and I was wondering if you still had any of them? I'm kind of sentimental about a few of them, and I have a daughter now, and was just wondering if you'd be willing to re-donate any of them to her? Anyway, just thought I'd ask on the off chance that you still have them. Hope you're doing well!

Bonnie crawls to the end of her bed and opens the wicker chest that still houses her old toys. Surveying them, she tries to remember which ones came from Andy. The cowboy dolls, definitely. And their horse, and the slinky dog. The Buzz Lightyear, something she never would have chosen herself, though it eventually became one of her favorites. Bonnie's sister is eight months pregnant, and she was planning on giving all her old toys to her nephew, but if Andy Davis wants his back, he can have them. She slips back into bed and pulls the laptop over again. Andy's Facebook profile doesn't offer much information outside of his alma matter, UCLA, and a link to Davis & Gehrhart Geologic Consulting. She clicks around on the company's website, impressed. Andy can't be that old - thirty-five at the most? - and he's already got his own company. The website features a dorky picture of him and his co-founder at a work site, making authoritative gestures while some businessmen in yellow hard hats listen intently.

Bonnie clicks back over to Facebook and writes a response to Andy's message:

Hi! Yes, I remember you. I still have all my old toys, and yours, and you can come pick yours up whenever. It looks like you live in California now? Just let me know when you're in town!

She sends the message and visits her usual sites, mostly comics-related. Someone has uploaded the newest issue of Japanese series she's following, and she's in the middle of reading it when she gets a new email. It's a response from Andy:

Great! I'm actually asking now because I'm in town visiting my mom. Are you free today or tomorrow? I can stop by anytime. Thanks so much for this! One in particular (the cowboy doll with the pull-string) is kind of an old family heirloom, so I wanted to pass it along.

Bonnie tells him he can come this afternoon. It's a good enough excuse to spend the day lounging around the house instead of handing out resumes. She puts on a gray cotton dress that she wears constantly during summer and opens her toy chest again, pulling out toys that she knows were always hers, things she wants to give to Rachel for her baby. She ends up setting aside a few to keep for herself, too. The giant Totoro will definitely come with her to college, and maybe to Europe. She imagines it beside her in the gondola.

Andy arrives around three o'clock, when Bonnie is out on the front porch reading, barefoot in her gray dress. There's a flutter of the nervousness she experienced as a girl when she saw him around town. She doesn't normally find anyone over twenty-five attractive, but his eyes are really blue.

"Hey, good to see you!" he says. They give each other a quick hug on the steps of the porch. "Dang," he says, pulling back. "I think you were about ten years old last time I saw you."

"Something like that," she says. She can feel herself blushing. Belatedly, she remembers to suck in her stomach. This dress is comfortable but hides no sins.

"I really wasn't sure how you'd respond when I sent that message," Andy says, following her up onto the porch. "I was afraid I'd sound like a crazy old man."

"Nah, I get it." Bonnie picks up the cardboard box full of Andy's toys. "I think all these were yours," she says, presenting it to him. "Here's your cowboy." She picks up Woody - that was what she always called him, she can't remember why - and laughs when Andy's eyes light up at the sight of him.

"Oh, wow, you kept him in really good condition," he says, taking him from her with the tenderness required for handling baby chicks. "He's a really old toy."

"Kept the hat and everything," Bonnie says, and Andy nods, adjusting it. "You want some lemonade or something?"

"Yeah, sure, that'd be great."

They sit out on the porch with their drinks, the box of toys between them on the wicker couch. Bonnie's parents are both at work, and she feels quite grown-up, entertaining a guest.

"How's your mom doing?" she asks. A very grown-up question.

"She's good," Andy says. "She works nonstop, so she's actually dating one of her clients now, I guess that saves time."

"Whoa! Is that ethical?"

"Probably not, so we figure she really likes him, 'cause usually she's all about the ethics. But he's okay, I just met him yesterday. His name is Donny and he does sports medicine. All the high school athletes go to him, apparently they call him 'Dr. Donny.' Which is charming, I guess."

Bonnie laughs. "I guess. What does he need a lawyer for?"

"He's got this long-standing feud with his neighbors and they're suing him for removing trees that they claim were on their property. It's not normally the kind of stuff my mom does, but her firm represents his insurance company, who his neighbors are also trying to sue, so she's repping him personally, too. Can you tell I got to hear lots of really exciting legal details all last night?"

"Yeah, riveting! Was your little girl bored?"

"No, she was being entertained by her dad - her other dad." He smiles sheepishly. "It's a two dad kind of situation. She's adopted."

"Oh, right, cool." Bonnie remembers hearing something about how Andy had moved out west with his boyfriend, and something else about his boyfriend saving a movie star's life, but she wasn't sure how serious her mom was when she said that. "How old is she, your daughter?"

"She's three. Her name's Casey - here, I'll show you a picture."

He gets out his phone and shows her not one but twelve pictures of his daughter. She's adorable, but Bonnie is not quite grown up enough to be enthralled by this show and tell. She coos over the pictures politely.

"I think she's going to love these," Andy says, reaching into the box of toys. He picks up the cowgirl doll, Jesse, and Bonnie finds herself hoping that Casey won't rename her.

"These were some of my favorites," she says, touching the T-Rex's nose. "I think it's awesome that you want to pass them down - she'll treat them good, yeah?"

"Oh, yeah," Andy says, grinning. "I had to teach her dad to play nice with others, once. I think I can swing it again. Her dad - uh, my partner - we grew up together, right around the corner."

"Seriously?" Bonnie grins, and entertains a brief fantasy about being able to say this about Josh Arden someday. "That's so awesome. Whoa, wait - he's not the guy you founded your company with, is he?"

Andy laughs harder than she expected him to. "No, no, that's my friend Greg. Sid does consulting, too, but for event security. And landscape design, sometimes. And he teaches self defense, occasionally. He has like eight hundred different jobs on any given day, but they're all really flexible, so it's good as far as one of us always being home with Casey."

"She must love that." Bonnie had always felt so lucky, compared to the other kids at the day care, to have her mother within reaching distance.

"Yeah, she's spoiled," Andy says, grinning. "Really sweet, though. Sid took her for a walk with my sister just before I came over here. I thought about bringing them with me, but I didn't want to ambush you with the whole family."

"Your sister's still living around here?"

"No, she's just visiting. She's six months pregnant and her husband is at a conference in Prague, so she's staying with my mom til he gets home."

"My sister's pregnant, too," Bonnie says. "Eight months. Did you know Rachel?"

"I don't think so - she's older?"

"Yeah, eight years older than me. I was a surprise."

"Wow, so you'll be an aunt at eighteen. Is she having a girl or a boy?"

"Boy."

"Hey, so's Molly. She won't tell us the name she picked. She's insanely superstitious."

"My sister says she's gonna name the baby 'Benjamin,'" Bonnie says, making a face. "So boring and stodgy. I told she should pick something more creative, like Ulysses. Why'd you guys pick Casey?"

"We didn't, actually, that was already her name. I guess we could have renamed her after adopting, she was only ten months old, but something about that seemed cruel?"

"No, totally, I agree!" Bonnie says, sitting up straighter. "And, this is kind of stupid, but can I tell you their names?" She lifts Woody and Jesse from the box. "I mean, she can change them of course, but I was kind of attached -"

"I remember their names," Andy says, grinning. "Unless you renamed them. Woody." He points to Woody's sheriff star. "And Jesse."

Bonnie's eyes get wide. "You - how did you know that?"

"I'm the one who told you, I guess," Andy says, laughing. "Don't you remember? You got a proper introduction to all of them."

"I kind of remember," Bonnie says. She remembers that the next time she saw Andy, when she was eight years old, she felt inexplicably attached to him.

"That's why I felt kind of bad about taking them back," Andy says. "But I figured, you're a teenager now, they're probably just collecting dust."

"They were," Bonnie says. She touches Jesse's braid. Once, during a fight, Rachel threatened to cut it off, wielding a pair of scissors. Bonnie had sobbed at the very idea.

"I remember being kind of sad that mine were just sitting there, going to waste, but I had this impulse to hold on to them for some reason," Andy says. "Maybe some part of me knew I'd want Casey to have them someday."

"That's a nice thought," Bonnie says. "For me it's like - I don't know, almost like they were friends I grew up with. Only they didn't grow up. Sometimes I think they must be sad about watching me get older." She laughs. "Which is crazy."

"Not crazy. And at least we can pass them on. You'll give some to your sister's kid, I guess?"

"Yeah, with a few exceptions. He can have my porcupine but not my unicorn."

Andy laughs. "I actually didn't mean to give this one to you," he says, fiddling with Woody's hat again. "He was my dad's, from when he was a kid."

"Oh, gosh, and I stole him from you!" Bonnie says.

"No, no," Andy says. "I'm glad he hasn't been buried in a box somewhere for sixteen years. And anyway, my dad - giving me his old toy was about the only thoughtful thing he ever did for me."

"I've heard them talk about that a little," Bonnie says. "Our moms. About, you know. How she raised you guys herself."

"Yeah, she's amazing," Andy says. "And I guess her taste in guys has improved since she picked my dad back in the day. Hopefully, anyway."

They talk for awhile about Bonnie's college aspirations, and Andy recommends places in Europe for her to visit. Only when Bonnie's mother pulls into the driveway does she realize that they've been talking for over an hour. Her mother hugs Andy hello, and there's some further chit chat between the three of them before Andy says he'd better get back.

"I hope Casey will like her new toys," Bonnie says, walking with him on her way to the mailbox, where she's expecting more cards, and hopefully a little more graduation money.

"Thanks again for being willing to give them up," Andy says. "Sid and Molly were teasing me for even thinking about asking you, like you were still three years old and I was snatching my stuff back."

Bonnie laughs. "It's weird," she says. "That was fifteen years ago that you showed up with these guys. And you were leaving for college, so. In another fifteen years I'll be your age."

"You'll have to take it up with Casey if you want your toys back at that point," Andy says. He winks and opens the back door of his car, setting the box inside. Bonnie feels kind of strange, and wonders if she should have hidden Jesse back in her room, but what for? She hasn't touched her old toys in years. She gives Andy a hug goodbye.

"Can I ask you a weird question?" she asks before he can walk around to the driver's side of the car.

"Weirder than 'can I have my old toys back?"

"Maybe. You said your boyfriend - I mean, partner - husband?"

"Sid," Andy says.

"Right, Sid - you said you grew up together, here?"

"Yeah, we were neighbors for years. My mom actually moved us down the street to another house 'cause she thought he was a bad influence on me."

"Oh, gosh! Well, um. Without going into detail - there's this boy, and he's leaving for college in three months, and I don't know - I was thinking, 'why bother,' right? But you guys are still together, so. I guess I want your advice?"

Her face is bright red by the time she stops talking. Andy looks confused.

"Advice, oh." He smiles. "Well, here's a story. I always tell people I've been with Sid since I was about, I don't know, I guess I was thirteen when I first kissed him. But we had a hiatus during my senior year of high school, and through that whole summer before I left for college, too." He pauses, turning to look at Bonnie's house. "Jesus, actually - I was going to drive out to California alone, but that day, after I came here, after I gave you my toys? I went over to his house. I could have been totally humiliated, heartbroken, whatever. But I had to try, and it was so easy once I did, such a relief, I couldn't believe how long I'd waited. So I think you should go for it. Providing he's a nice boy."

"He's a nice boy," Bonnie says. They'd never talked much before last night, but Josh once held a door for her while she wheeled her cello through it, and then ran ahead to get the next door for her, though he wasn't even going that way.

"Good." Andy grins. "Though, to be honest, I don't think I could have said that about Sid back then. Except that he didn't break my heart when I showed up that day. That was pretty nice."

When Andy has gone, Bonnie collects the empty lemonade glasses from the front porch and brings them inside. She goes into her bedroom and flops across her bed, dragging her laptop forward. Just three minutes after she accepts Josh's friend request, she gets a message from him:

I forgot how boring summer is. I've been staring at this computer screen pretty much all day. Want to get ice cream?

Bonnie chews her lip, a flush spreading from the back of her ears and down to her chest. She made it all through high school without ever being asked on a date. Is this what that is? She shouldn't accept; it's such short notice, she'll seem desperate. She hasn't washed her hair. She'd have to change out of her gray dress, and she hates all of her other clothes. She taps her fingertips over the keys, not pressing any of them. Last night, they talked for an hour just about cartoons they used to watch as kids, and her cheeks are still sore from laughing. She opens up the response box, stretches her fingers, types and sends.

Heck yes.

Chapter Text

On Tuesdays they serve a couple of sausage links with the usual tasteless egg scramble and triangles of toast, and Lane wakes up to the smell, lying in bed and listening to the carts roll down the hallway. Why Tuesdays? Why not rotate the inclusion of sausage? What criteria determined that Tuesday should be sausage day in the first place, and why is it such an unshakable rule? He's asked the nurses, but they just shrug at him. They don't make the rules, they tell him. Yeah, no shit. Most of them weigh approximately one metric ton. Probably there should be three pieces of sausage on his plate every Tuesday, and some nurse helps herself to one.

He thinks of this place as the VA Hospital, though he didn't make the cut there, not having ever seen combat. He was a test pilot, graduated from the Academy, the whole fucking thing, and now they're too good for him. But fuck 'em, anyway, 'cause he's using their pension money to put himself up here, which is probably better digs really, and as soon as he's well he's going back out to Colorado to live as he pleases.

After breakfast and a little television, he has some whiskey and takes his smokes out to the courtyard. He's supposed to quit, but if they can't patch him up on pack a day maybe he'll just walk on out of here and at least die in peace. It's about ninety degrees outside, somehow already noon, and he's alone in the courtyard: good. The other residents piss him off. It's like the Air Force all over again, too many people too close at hand all the goddamn time. He misses that place he used to have out in the suburbs, the street that always seemed empty and the neighbors who were never in their yards.

He's having a second cigarette and watching a skinny mockingbird pick through the mulch beds when he hears his name on the intercom.

"Lane Phillips, please report to reception for visitor registration. Lane Phillips to reception. Thank you."

He waits to hear more, confused. There was something about a visitor, which for him can't be good. Maybe they're trying to trap him, finally throwing him out for keeping alcohol on the premises, or smoking in the courtyard. There's a yellowed, windowless room for dead-eyed employees and visitors down on the first floor, and he's been instructed to go there if he must have a cigarette. Twenty trips to that dungeon a day, with that company, and he might as well just hang himself and be done with it. He hurries to put out his cigarette and buries the butt under some mulch. The mockingbird eyes him like he's already planning on unearthing it.

The announcement sounds again, an added edge of impatience in its tone, and Lane could hide out in his room, but if they're going to kick him out they'll look there first. Anyway, he's sick of this place. He'll scrape together whatever money they haven't sucked out of him and go someplace where he can eat Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits every goddamn morning without interruption. How hard would it be to steal a supply of his pills? Not hard. He was a top-notch thief as a child. If he hadn't been busted for it and sent to military school at fourteen he might have continued on with that way of life. Probably would have been better off, shit. Wouldn't have met Deanna, though.

If he's going to collect a supply of pills he should do it before they give him his official walking papers, but he goes down to reception anyway, and peeks around the corner. There are no strong-arms in white jackets waiting to throw him on the curb, no social workers checking their watches. The reception area is a wasteland as usual, except for some Asian's granddaughter standing at the counter, waiting with her arms folded over her chest. Now there's a culture that values its old people. The kid hasn't even got her face buried in a cell phone. She meets Lane's eyes and seems afraid; he'd forgotten what it was like to have that affect on people. He's still a big guy, but this kidney situation has hobbled him, and he shuffles more than walks.

"Lane Phillips?" the girl calls when he turns to leave. He looks back at her, wondering if he's mistaken her voice for the receptionist's, but it's the girl who's walking toward him, the receptionist still chewing her cud and staring at her computer.

"You calling me?" Lane asks. He gives the girl a once-over: she might be a social worker, though she looks like she's in high school. She's wearing a blue jean skirt and a sleeveless blouse, sandals with platform heels. Better dressed, actually, than most social workers he's known.

"Hi," she says. She puts her hand out. "I'm Casey. I came to see you."

"Yeah?" He shakes her hand. Some kind of school project? Are they randomly assigning teenagers to geezers, forcing them to appear interested? What torture! He feels badly for the girl, who looks like she wants to bolt.

"Can we sit down somewhere?" she asks. He gestures to the sagging couches in the waiting area. She shakes her head. "More private?" she says.

"What's all this about, miss?" He feels as if he's being accused of something, is backing away from her already.

"I'm your granddaughter," she says, defiantly, though she quickly deflates and begins to look uncertain about this. Lane snorts. She's got the wrong guy. Her grandpa's one of those stooped little squint-eyed pricks who talk too loud on the elevators, always sounding like they're ready to peck each other's eyes out, though for all he knows they're the best of friends.

"That can't be right," Lane says. He laughs. "Unless - you're Sid's?" He was under the impression that his only child was a lifelong queer, but apparently he had an Asian woman somewhere along the way, because the girl nods.

"He's my Dad," she says. "Sid Phillips."

"Well, if you're looking for him, I hadn't seen him in - shit." Lane does some approximate calculations. "Twenty-five years?"

"I know that," she says.

"If it's money you're looking for, I'm near broke."

"I don't want money." The hot-headed look that jumps into her eyes does remind him of Sid, though otherwise she looks nothing like him. "I just wanted to talk to you."

"Fair enough." Sid probably hit the road while this kid's mother was still sleeping it off. Lane was easier to find, seems like. His goddamn luck. He takes her out past the courtyard, to the garden, which is the only place really worthy of visitors on the complex's pathetic grounds. There's a bench under a plum tree that offers some shade, and today the seat is mercifully clear of bird shit. Lane sits, which is something of a humiliating production, and the girl - Casey - sits on the other side of the bench, regarding him with distaste.

"Well," Lane says, staring back at her. "You here to interrogate me? I promise you, girl, I got no clue where he is."

"I know where he is," Casey says.

"That so?" Something twists in Lane's chest. Kidney-related, probably.

"He's at my grandmother's house," Casey says. "We're in town for the week, visiting. He's the one who doesn't know I'm here. I told him I was going to Stuckey's for a milkshake."

"Your grandmother?" Lane says. He thinks of Dee, but never could picture her older than twenty-five.

"Yeah," Casey says. "She still lives here. We're out in California."

"Sid married your mother?" Lane says, surprised by all of this. He remembers Sid dragging a lanky boy in and out of the house like he was Sid's property, but maybe that was just recreational. God knows what passes for normal with that generation.

"My mother is dead," Casey says. She stares at Lane, stoic. "I just found out."

"Jesus Christ. Well, you have my condolences."

She shrugs, and it's Sid shrug exactly, that aggressive indifference he always put on for Lane's viewing pleasure. Alarming.

"I never met her," she says. "Or my biological father. That's the point of me coming here, kind of. I'm trying to decide if I want to meet my real dad, now that I'm eighteen. I don't know, though, he might be in jail or something. They were crackheads, basically, my birth parents."

"You've lost me," Lane says. He pulls out his cigarettes. "Mind if I smoke?"

"I don't care."

"Want one?"

She seems to consider it, then shakes her head. Lane's hand shakes as he lights up. Crackheads? The mother dead? But wait.

"You said - birth parents?"

"Yeah," she says. "I'm adopted."

"Hmm." Now this makes a bit more sense, except that it doesn't, at all. Lane can't imagine Sid choosing to be a father. The last time Sid showed his face he was spouting some 12 Step bullshit, offering Lane an angry apology for leaving home without a note. He starts to ask the girl if Sid stayed clean, but maybe she doesn't know about all that.

"I guess he's still with that kid, then?" Lane says. "Or some other - ah. Gentleman?"

"Andy," Casey says. "My other dad. Yeah. You remember him?"

"Oh, sure." Lane blows smoke, hates talking about this. Not that he ever has before. When Sid came knocking twenty-five years ago, they didn't discuss his living situation. Lane heard "California" and had all the mental pictures he cared for.

"Don't you even want to know how he is?" Casey asks after some silent seconds have passed, Lane squinting out at the lawn and thinking about that night, the last time he saw his son.

"How is he?" Lane asks, dryly. She scoffs and crosses her arms over her chest. No way she's eighteen. She reminds Lane of one of those ballerina figures that twirl inside jewelry boxes. She's too dark to be Chinese, must be southeastern, or maybe Filipino. He wants to ask, but if she really is Sid's daughter she might storm off as soon as she's offended.

"He'd kill me if he knew I came here," Casey says.

"He tough on you? Strict?"

"Not really. Well, kind of." She picks at the edge of her skirt, which is fraying. "He's protective, I guess. I have a curfew, still. My friends think that's hilarious. But if I wanted to fake sick, you know, when I was a kid, I'd always go to him. He'd let me stay home from school, even though he knew I was lying."

"Never was a big fan of school," Lane says. "What's he do for work?"

"A lot of stuff," Casey says. "He was doing consulting for awhile, but now he's mostly helping my pop - Andy - run his company."

"Those two running a company?" Lane scoffs. He thinks of how they used to jog up the stairs together and lock Sid's bedroom door behind them. He could have put a stop to it, but he didn't want to think about it. "I'm afraid to ask what they sell."

"They don't sell anything, they're geologists," Casey says. "Well, my pop and my uncle Greg are. My dad - Sid - he does accounts receivable." She grins. "Scares people into paying up."

"Sounds about right," Lane says, muttering. Sid cut a pretty impressive figure last time he showed up. He'd started getting big just before he left home, and apparently California made him bigger.

"He does really well," Casey says. "You should be proud of him. Though I guess you can't really take the credit." She wilts when Lane smirks at her.

"He told you all about me, huh?" he says.

"No. My pop did."

"Ha! I'm sure that was a ringing endorsement." That kid all but lived in Lane's house during Sid's formative years, and never spoke a word to him.

"Did you ever remarry?" Casey asks.

"No." He puts out his cigarette and flings the butt into the grass. "Didn't make that mistake again." Gloria still sends him Christmas cards. She'd take him back if he'd have her. Crazy old drunk. He'll never forgive her for getting him arrested. When he looks up at the girl he can tell that's what she's wondering about, her lips quirking like she's trying to hold the question in.

"Your pop embellish those stories at all?" Lane asks. "He tell you I hit my kid? I didn't." He wanted to, many times, but Deanna would have come back from the dead just to kill him for it. "Didn't hit my ex-wife, either, she's the one who was laying into me when she decided to get the police involved."

Casey shrugs. She seems embarrassed by this information, and gets back to picking at her skirt. She's prettier than he realized at first.

"Your parents were American?" he says.

"Yeah," she says. She sighs and flops back against the bench, staring off into space. "I just got this whole folder of information about them. It's my right, or whatever, now that I'm eighteen. My mom's parents were Colombian. They might be alive, I don't know. My dad was like third generation Korean. He was kkangpae. You know what that is?"

"I do not."

"In a gang." She looks at Lane like she dares him to doubt this. "Low level, a thug. I've got a copy of his arrest history. Drugs, theft, drugs. At least he didn't kill anybody. Or didn't get caught for it, anyway. He was twenty-one when I was born. My mom was nineteen."

Lane isn't sure what he's supposed to say to this. "You got any memories of them?" he asks.

"What, my biological parents? No, I was pretty much confiscated from my mother at birth. I weighed four and a half pounds. Crack baby." She smiles like she's proud of this, which makes a kind of sense. She survived.

"Got any health problems on account of that?" he asks.

"Other than having the body of a twelve year old boy? No. I was in the hospital for a long time, though. My parents adopted me when I was ten months old. It's weird to think I was alive before I knew them."

"I guess you don't get picked on," Lane says. "Out there. For that."

"For what? Being adopted?"

"No, for, you know." He makes a vague gesture. "The two of them. Both men."

"Oh." She laughs. "No, not really. I mean, a little bit, when I was really young, but there were like three other kids in my high school who had gay parents."

"I figured."

She sniffs, somewhere between amused and annoyed. "You don't like that he's gay?"

"I don't care for that word," Lane says, bristling. Does Sid call himself that? He doesn't want to know. "What's this pal of his like? Andy. He treat you okay?"

"Are you seriously worried about how they treat me?" She laughs. "Yeah, he's great, they're both great. They drive me crazy, but I love them. I'm gonna be kind of sad when I leave for college."

"College." Lane lights another cigarette. "They can afford to send you?"

She raises her eyebrows like that's a nervy question. "Yes. I'm going to Cal Tech, for computer science. So, not too far from home."

"Computer science, eh?" Lane says. "I've known a computer or two in my time. Your pop tell you that I was an Air Force pilot?"

"Yeah," she says. "Test pilot."

"You sound unimpressed. That's fine. I was a pretty big deal, back in the day. Going places, in the Air Force."

"So why'd you quit?" She's a smart ass, but there's no way she wouldn't be, with Sid for a father.

"I quit because my wife died," he says. "Sid's mother. And there was the boy to look after."

This can't be anything she doesn't already know, but it silences her. She looks out across the lawn, at some old hag pushing herself around on a walker. Lane drags on his cigarette and thinks about leaving this place today. What's more valuable, extended time in this hellhole or fewer days out there in the real world? It's been a long time since he spoke with a young person.

"I've only seen one picture of her," Casey says. "My dad's mom. Deanna."

Strange to hear her name out loud. He nods to himself, the twisted thing in his chest tightening. Deanna died at the supermarket. Collapsed in the ladies room. Brain aneurysm. The doctors told him he was lucky not to have seen it.

"Sid was there when she died," he says.

"He was? I didn't know."

Lane shrugs. "He always said he couldn't remember anything. What happened with your mother, do you know?"

"Um, yeah, she overdosed. Just a few years after I was born. I have this letter she wrote to me." Her voice trails off, and Lane doesn't pursue the subject. He thinks about that night when Sid showed up. Hulking, pissed off, said he was getting over a coke habit. They had a beer and a smoke together on the back patio.

"I can't believe that tree's still there," Sid had said after maybe ten minutes of silence, both of them sipping and dragging and staring out at the yard.

"What, that thing?" It was a fat little plum that attracted pain in the ass squirrels. "Why wouldn't it be?"

Sid just shook his head. He'd seemed older than twenty-five. Lane stared at him and tried to envision the boy he'd been, rail thin and crazy for setting things on fire. Mouth full of braces.

"That's the same goddamn hair cut you had when you were eight years old," Lane said, gesturing with his beer. Sid ran his hand through his buzz cut as if checking to see if this was true.

"I shaved it the day I left," he said. "In a motel room."

Lane stewed in silence for awhile. The day he left. Only took his clothes, that computer he was always staring at, and the pillow from his bed. Lane didn't notice that the hair trimmer was gone until he looked for it weeks later. He thought it was lost somewhere, never considered that it might be something Sid wanted.

"You had that hippie hair," he said. "And that scruff on your face. Trying to look tough." Sid's arms were covered in tattoos, knuckles fat from years of fighting, a scar on his cheek. He looked good, though, strong. Lane felt proud, that night, sitting beside him. He'd thought he might hear from him again someday, that they could inhabit the earth together as men more effectively than they had as a man and a boy.

"If you came here to tell me I was a son of a bitch when my kid was growing up, it's not news to me," Lane says. Casey seems startled. She frowns.

"My pop said you mostly ignored him."

"That's fair." Maybe even charitable. Lane used to give him hell about that garbage collecting job, hoping it would drive him back to school. Gave him hell, too, about that boy he was always locking himself in with. Now they run a company together. Rescued a crack baby and turned her into a computer whiz. Funny. Dee would laugh.

"I think I want to see my biological father just to ask him about my mom," Casey says. "I don't care about him, I already have two fathers, but I never had a mom, and I want to know what she was like. Or, I guess - I want to know what it was like when they were together. If it was just this gross drug thing or, like, they really cared about each other. I've made up this whole romantic story about it in my head. I usually subtract the drugs. In the story."

"Sure." Lane fidgets, uncomfortable with this. He wants to ask her if she thinks Sid would see him.

"So that's why I came here," she says. For a moment it seems like she might reach over to touch his arm, to recapture his attention, but she doesn't. "To practice, I guess. Because my biological father is this strung out thug and he probably sucks. But you're actually not as mean as my pop made you sound. So maybe there's hope?"

"Your pop's the only one who told you about me?" Lane says. "Sid never -?"

"He's mentioned a few things, I guess," Casey says. She seems to be struggling to come up with an example. Lane watches the old hag across the courtyard, still trucking. Good for Dee that she escaped the indignity of old age. Looking forward to sausages on Tuesday, Jesus Christ. He wishes she'd been around when Sid was growing up, though. Lane never knew what to do with the kid. Surly, willful, smart in a way that made him lazy. Lane used to wander around Sid's room when he was out, looking for something, never finding it. He still did it after Sid left, realizing eventually that it was Sid he was looking for in there.

"You gonna tell him you came to see me?" Lane asks. Casey laughs.

"No," she says. "Like I said, he'd kill me."

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong, but I just think he'd be mad. That I did it behind his back. Also, you know. They don't know that I'm thinking about meeting my biological father."

"Ah. They wouldn't like that, huh?"

"I don't think they'd mind." She flushes; a bad poker player. "It's just - I'm not even sure I'm going to do it. What if he's all - what if he's a total asshole? You know?"

Lane nods, now understanding the purpose of her trip here. He was a test run, like she said. He studies her, trying to pick out her Colombian features. Her eyes are an odd shade of brown, almost coppery. He's trying to see Sid in them, though his son doesn't share a single gene with the girl. Sid's eyes were Deanna's exactly, especially as he got older.

"You want to hear about Sid's mother?" Lane asks. "In case this thug won't tell you about yours?"

"Okay." She pulls her tiny feet out of her shoes and tucks her legs to her chest, hugging them. Lane taps out a fresh cigarette.

"We met when I was in Colorado," he says. "She was a waitress at the bar where all the cadets hung out. She was eighteen and still had her baby fat, but I liked that about her, it was cute. Some asshole airman made a comment about it one night and I decked him. Everybody called her my girlfriend after that. She would get all red-faced. One day I come in there after being away for a month and she's dropped twenty pounds and dyed her hair red. Kind of broke my heart. I told her I liked her hair the way it was before. I think she knew I meant I liked everything, the whole package. She didn't go back to her real hair color til we got married, though."

She didn't gain the weight back until she was pregnant with Sid. That was when they moved to Michigan, where Dee found work as a secretary and Lane took a desk job at Battle Creek. Test pilots were young, single, childless. He didn't miss it as much as he thought he would, and he wanted the baby more than he'd expected to, just because she wanted him so much. Sidney. Lane told her any kid with that name would get picked on.

"Not this one," she said. "He's a tough guy, I can tell." Sid was always kicking her. She loved it, though, would grab Lane's hand so he could feel it, too. Their son wasn't such a tough guy, though, not while Dee was alive. He was quiet and cautious, always holding on tight to one of them when they were in public. He would have been different if he'd grown up with her.

"So he's alright?" Lane says. "Your dad? My kid?"

"Yeah," Casey says. "He's alright. You want me to give you his cell number?"

"He doesn't want to hear from me," Lane says. He stands with some difficulty, cursing under his breath. He'll rest up today and leave tomorrow. They're serving the lasagna tonight, which isn't bad, comparatively.

"Come with me," he says to the girl. "I got something you might want."

He takes her to his room, considering its unimpressiveness only after they've arrived. At least his roommate is off somewhere, probably watching TV in the common room. These old people like to sit silently in each other's company all day long; he suspects it makes them feel less lonely. He prefers the quiet of his room.

"You can keep this," he says, easing the photo album out from the box of personal things he keeps under his bed. The words are like four bullets in his back, but he's not getting much use out of the thing anymore. He's afraid of it, almost, can't look at it without getting upset and hasn't opened it in years. The girl is gracious enough to accept it without protest.

"You could show it to your dad, too, if it won't get you in too much trouble." Lane can't remember ever letting Sid see it when he was a kid. He was greedy with his memories of Deanna, as if Sid would steal them from him. Sid was a natural thief, like Lane, would come home from school with stolen treasure. Lane could have sent him to military school. It would have gotten him out from behind that locked door with the neighbor boy. But Sid just would have run off, tuition money wasted. He had an acute sense of not owing anybody anything, particularly when it came to Lane, who admired that about him even when he wanted to backhand him for it.

"I should go," Casey says. "They'll wonder where I am." She looks a little broken up. Lane supposes she has a lot on her mind. He pats her shoulder.

"You remind me of Sidney," he says. She smiles.

"Really?" So she admires him, too. That's good.

"Yep," Lane says. "Take care of yourself. Good luck with your computers."

She laughs, and lingers in the doorway. Maybe if they lived out here, she'd come by again. Probably best that they don't, so that he doesn't sit around expecting her to. Anyway, he's leaving this place tomorrow.

"I'm glad I came," she says.

"That mean you're going to see your real father?"

Her face falls. "I don't think of him as my real father."

"Well, okay. You know what I meant."

She shrugs. It might be the last time he sees his son, in that jerk of this tiny girl's shoulders.

"I don't know," she says. "Chances are good that he's terrible. I might try to visit my mom's parents, if they're still alive. I just don't want to show up and break their hearts, you know what I mean?"

He knows. They say goodbye, and he has to stop himself from calling out for her to come back with that book, just for a minute, so he can look through it one last time. He wouldn't have the nerve to open it up while he had an audience, anyway.

He goes to sit on his bed and stares at the television but doesn't turn it on. He'd been so taken off guard when Sid showed up that night, tattooed and talking about the Steps. They sat together for a long time, not saying much. Lane couldn't ask about Sid's life without hearing things he didn't want to know. Sid didn't seem particularly interested in volunteering information.

"I guess you haven't bought into the Steps completely," Lane said, nodding to Sid's beer. Sid looked down at the can in his hand like he wasn't sure what Lane meant.

"Guess not," he muttered. They both knew Sid wasn't there to atone. Lane couldn't picture him sitting through a full meeting, except for the excuse to chain smoke.

"I look at it this way," Lane said. "There's gotta be a reason you can pack any church basement in any town with the same sort of sad sacks. We're not the thing that's broken, you know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I don't really want your advice on this," Sid said. It was the closest he came to letting the fury in his eyes show in his voice. Lane scoffed.

"You never wanted anybody's advice," he said.

"You think so? Just 'cause I never wanted yours?"

They sank into a quiet period after that, just tending to their beers, ashing cigarettes. Lane wanted to say something about Deanna. They never talked about her, like she was a secret they were both trying to keep from each other. But what was there to say? She was gone, and they didn't fit together without her. They were a dream she had that wasn't going to come true.

"California," Lane said when he spoke again. He supposed it was a kind of frontier for people like Sid, where they could live as they pleased. He was happy to see that it hadn't sissified him.

"I should move," Sid said.

"Yeah? Where to?" New York? Key West?

"Somewhere where there's less coke."

"There's an idea." Lane almost asked if he wanted to move home. Maybe he'd left that lifestyle behind along with drugs. Maybe he'd been abandoned by it, had come home looking for a place to stay. Sid stood up before Lane could figure out how to phrase the question.

"I gotta go," he said.

"You okay to drive?" Lane asked. Sid laughed like that was rich, coming from him.

"I walked," he said.

"Walked? Where from?"

"From the house where I'm staying."

Lane knew then that he was still with that kid. He imagined the kid at his mother's house, in town for the weekend, the whole family waiting anxiously to hear how the visit to the devil's lair had gone. He walked Sid to the door, wishing he was less drunk, and glad that he wasn't drunk enough to say what he was thinking.

"Most of your old shit's still upstairs if you want any of it," Lane said, hoping to keep him there longer. Sid shook his head and opened the front door.

"I took everything I wanted," he said.

They held each other's gaze for a moment, then Sid lifted his hand and held it there, like a peace offering or a pledge of allegiance. He was just waving goodbye. Lane nodded and watched him walk halfway down the driveway before shutting the door. He sat in the dark for awhile and drank more, thought about Dee's funeral. She was too young to have made any plans, and her parents made all the arrangements while Lane sat in stunned silence, Sid squirming in his lap. At one point Sid stood up on Lane's thigh and whispered in his ear, Where is my mom? He sounded so hopeful, like he trusted Lane to know when everyone else didn't. Lane didn't answer, just stared into space. It became his default pretty quickly.

Lane doesn't really need the photo album to remember Deanna. He stretches out on the bed and shuts his eyes, thinks of her rushing toward him as soon as he got off work, telling him about some amazing thing Sid had done during the day. On the weekends Lane would try to teach him how to catch, take him to the rec pool on the base and walk him around in the shallow end while Dee took pictures of them. She had that red bikini and was always sucking in her stomach, wrapping a towel around her waist to hide her thighs. She was perfect, and that she wasted even a moment of her short life worrying that she wasn't still crushes him flat. He fixes himself a drink and thinks about Sid, wonders if he got home alright. But no, it wasn't Sid who was just here. It was that girl, his little daughter. So he must have gotten home alright. Seems that way, anyhow.

Chapter Text

Casey pulls over into the parking lot of Burger King to look at the photo album, unable to wait any longer. The pictures are what she expected: Lane younger and happier, smirking from behind aviator glasses like the ones her dad wears when he's driving, looking just like him in some pictures. Deanna is her dad's softness; it's all there in her eyes, unhidden. Her dad was a cute baby, though his head was a bit oddly shaped at first. Her eyes blur with tears as she turns the pages. Everyone who made her is unknowable in some way: the biological mother she'll never meet, her dad with this untold family history and her pop with his secret suffering over her dad's other, more secret suffering. She closes the photo album before she comes to the end and cries into her hands, overwhelmed by the events of the afternoon and the opportunities that have sprouted around her like giant beanstalks that might lead to houses where she would not be welcome. She doesn't want to meet her biological father, but what if he dies, and someday she decides that she should have known him? She doesn't want to know the complete and occasionally horrible history of her dad and her pop, but what if she's the only one who ever could?

The knock on the window makes her gasp. There's a boy in a Burger King uniform looking in at her.

"Are you okay?" he asks. She wipes at her face, embarrassed, and rolls down the window.

"I'm fine," she says. He stares at her, his eyebrows arched like he doesn't believe her. He looks maybe sixteen, freckles and dark eyes, his Burger King visor shading his face.

"Do you need me to call someone?" he says, and she laughs, then feels guilty.

"No," she says, sniffling, wishing for a tissue. "I'm just. I'm adopted."

It's a psychotic thing to announce to a stranger, but he's still bent down toward her window, seemingly unfazed. It's a blazingly hot day, and he's got sweat beaded on his upper lip. He smells like french fries.

"Did you just find out?" he asks.

"No. I've known. My parents told me when I was six. 'Cause kids at school, um. My parents are white. It wasn't really news to me, in one way. But I hated that word. It didn't really fit – shit. Sorry. I don't know why I'm telling you this." She makes herself laugh.

"You want a shake or something?" he asks. "I can get them for free."

She opens her mouth to say no, then thinks of returning to her grandmother's house with her face like this, splotchy and red from crying. They'd all pounce on her and demand to know who to hunt down in retaliation for hurting her. She wouldn't be able to explain the visit to Lane, or the reasoning for it. Her pop might understand why she's sought information about her biological father, but her dad would be crushed. He's always been the only gangster in her life.

"Yeah," she says. "Have you got strawberry?"

"I can make you a strawberry chocolate combo if you want," he says.

"That sounds good. Are you just going on shift?"

"Coming off. But that's okay. I'll be right back!"

He sprints for the Burger King. Casey watches him go, confused. He didn't tell her his name, but she read it on his name tag: Ben. She gets out of the car, which is rapidly becoming too hot to sit in. If she was home, a hot wind would be blowing across the asphalt, the ocean would be vaguely detectable over the smell of tar, and she would be able to go back to the house and stand on the pool deck, stare at the far away city and wonder if some flesh and blood of hers was stalking around in it, causing trouble. She feels responsible for this rogue father, that's all. She imagines sometimes that she, his lost daughter, might be the reason he's still marauding, still twenty-one years old.

Ben returns with the shake, and she's surprised that he didn't get one for himself, too. Maybe he's only allowed one free shake a day. He grins and presents it to her.

"Thanks," she says, not sure what to do next. She drinks some and gives him an approving smile.

"I'm the shake guy," he says. "For the summer. Promoted from french fries."

"Are you in high school?" she asks.

"Yeah. I go to Brookwood. Where do you go?"

"Cal Tech, starting in September. I just graduated. I don't think you'd know my high school. I live in L.A."

"Seriously?" His eyebrows go up. "How long are you in town?"

"Just until Sunday. We're here visiting my grandma. My parents grew up here."

"Oh. Do you want to sit down?" He gestures to the curb. It seems more inviting than the sweltering interior of her car or the inside of the Burger King, where his co-workers would gawk. They sit down together, and the closeness of him is oddly comforting. For awhile she just drinks her milkshake, expecting him to fidget or stammer, but he seems calm.

"What are your parents like?" she asks.

"Divorced," he says. "My dad's kind of a piece of crap. My mom's okay, she's a biology teacher. Are your adoptive parents nice?"

Casey grins around her straw, chewing on the end of it. When was the last time someone asked her if someone else was nice?

"Yeah," she says. "We're really close. They're gonna be sad when I leave for college. I'm not going very far from home, though. I'm kind of a wimp. I guess that's obvious, though. Since you saw me bawling in my car."

"What were you crying about?" he asks. He doesn't seem concerned that this might be a personal question. He's harmlessly cute, one of those boys who hasn't yet figured out how to use his looks like currency. Maybe he's self-conscious about the softness of his cheeks, or the freckles.

"I met my grandfather for the first time," she says. "My adoptive dad's father."

"Oh. He was mean?"

"Yeah, but – no. Not to me. I was ready to hate him, and then he was just this kind of sad old man. My dad never talks about him, and my pop – uh." She looks up, remembering that she's not in California. "My adoptive parents are both guys."

"So you call one pop and the other one dad?" he says. She sucks on her milkshake and studies him, trying to read something into his non-reaction. "How'd you decide who was who?"

"I don't know, I was a little kid. It just came out that way."

"I called my grandma Pitty when I was little," he says. "It kinda stuck. So I know what you mean."

She isn't sure how to continue the conversation, and he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to do so, staring out across the parking lot, his hands dangling between his knees. She points the milkshake straw toward him.

"Want some of this?" she asks. "I can't drink it all."

He leans over to drink from it while she's still holding it, which makes her flush, the heat of the day seeping into her bones. He licks his lips when he's done, looking out across the parking lot again.

"So how come you were crying, though?" he asks.

"Because I don't know if I want to meet my biological father," she says. "And my not-biological grandfather, he gave me these pictures of my adoptive dad as a baby, and – just." She'll never see this boy again, so she might as well tell him what she hasn't been able to tell anyone, not even her best friend. "I found out last year that my dad – my adoptive dad – went to rehab twice, before they adopted me."

"Dang," Ben says. "Rehab?"

"Yeah. For cocaine. I was looking for paperwork about my adoption, 'cause I didn't want to wait until I turned eighteen to know about my birth parents, and I found the release forms."

"But he's not doing that now?"

"No, but – he and my pop were the parents I thought I knew, you know? But I didn't – I don't – I don't know any of them, not really. I asked my pop about it and he made me promise to never tell my dad that I'd found out. And he said it was hard for my dad to quit, and they almost broke up, because he almost couldn't." She folds her arms on her knees and rests her chin on them, no longer willing to look into this boy's earnest face.

"My dad made a secret bank account for gambling," he says. "We had to move back in with my grandparents 'cause he bankrupted us."

"Shit.” Casey lifts her head. Ben nods.

"Yeah," he says. "My mom just moved us into our own apartment, but we both have to work to keep it. I have another shift in two hours, at the water park."

"As a lifeguard?"

"No, at the frozen lemonade stand."

She leans toward him without thinking, her shoulder touching the sleeve of his Burger King uniform. They both stare down at the cracks in the asphalt, trading sips from the milkshake. When it's gone, Casey knows she should leave. Her legs are starting to burn, the shine of the asphalt aiming the sun directly at her shins.

"You could come to the water park," Ben says. "I could give you a free frozen lemonade." He grins at her like he knows she'll say no, which she appreciates.

"I gotta go," she says.

"What are you doing tonight?" he asks.

"I can't go out with you," she says, laughing.

"Why not?"

"'Cause you're, what? Sixteen?"

"Yeah." He might be lying; he could be younger.

"And I don't live here."

"So? What are you doing tonight?"

She groans and puts her hands over her face, laughs into them. Her eyes are dry now, her cheeks just slightly salt-stained. No one will be able to tell that she was crying.

"I'm having dinner with my parents and my grandma," she says.

"Well, the water park closes at eight."

"Yeah?" She can't look at him, blushing. She never really dated in high school, on her aunt Molly's advice, not that many boys pursued her. She's flat-chested, too serious about school, prone to frowning at boys' jokes with confusion or disgust. Still, she's not about to date a barely-sixteen-year-old. She's a woman now, technically, old enough to be trusted with the truth about all of her parents. But maybe he's been trusted with that, too, or forced to deal with it, anyway.

"Look me up on Facebook," he says, standing. He offers her a hand, pulls her up. Is surprisingly strong. "My name's Ben Hahn. H-a-h-n."

"Are you the only Ben Hahn on Facebook?"

"The only one in this town."

Something about the way he says so makes her want to hug him, and reminds her sharply of her own loneliness, even at home, in the company of her attentive parents and surrounded by the noise of the city. She reaches up and takes his Burger King visor off. He grins.

"You want to try it on?" he asks.

"No." She rubs her hand through his hair, which is sweaty, which should be gross. It's endearing, just the fact that the heat has made him sweat. He stands there, hands at his side, and lets her smooth his hair back into place. "I just wanted to see what you look like without it." She steps back to get a better look. His hair is still pretty messy, dark brown, almost the exact same color as his eyes.

"You should see the hat I have to wear at the frozen lemonade stand," he says. It's not the kind of statement that should make her want to kiss him, but it does. She gives his visor back, keeping her distance, careful not to get close enough to do something stupid. Maybe it's heat stroke.

"I've gotta go," she says again, gesturing to her car. "You want a ride somewhere?"

"You could take me to my grandma's house. She gives me twenty bucks to mow her lawn."

"Shouldn't you have a nap or something?" she says. "Cool off a little?" She thinks of her dad, the way he jumps from job to job, then home to fuss with the plants in the garden, fix the clogged pool skimmer, change the light bulb in the oven. Her pop has always said that it's good for him to keep busy. She hates that she now knows why that's true.

"I'll have a nap when I'm done at the water park," he says. "Unless you want to go out."

"I wouldn't want to disturb your sleep schedule," she says. She goes for the car, and he follows, pulling his visor back on. The photo album is in the passenger seat. He picks it up and hands it to her without opening it. She turns to put it in the backseat, wondering what she'll do with it, and how she might explain the way she got it without mentioning Lane.

Ben gives her directions to his grandmother's house, and it's closer to her own grandmother's house than she expected. He tunes the radio to the second preset in her grandmother's van, an oldies station. She drives slower than she should.

"We could see a movie," he says.

"I can't." She wants to. She looks at his nails while he adjusts the volume on the radio. Chewed up, and he's got a burn mark on the back of his hand. "What's that?" she asks, touching it.

"From the fryer," he says.

"You should sue for worker's comp."

"I think they promoted me to milkshakes so that I wouldn't."

She grins and looks out the windshield, can feel him smiling at her. The chocolate and artificial strawberry are still on her tongue, and she knows that his tongue must have the same lingering flavor. So, if they kissed, the aftertaste would be neutralized. They would only taste each other.

"This is it," he says, pointing to a house with fat stone columns on its porch, taking her off guard. She brakes too hard, and they both jerk forward against their seat belts. She turns to check the backseat. The photo album is still safely in place.

"Sorry," she says. She's breathing faster than she should be; it's the heat. He looks at her, toying with his seat belt, not unbuckling it.

"Do you remember how to spell my last name?" he asks.

She laughs, can't seem to maintain eye contact with him. "I can't go out with you."

"But in case you change your mind," he says. "Do you remember?"

"Yeah. H-a-h-n. I never told you my name, did I?"

"Nope."

"It's Casey. Casey Davis Phillips. Two dads, two last names."

He nods, taking off his seat belt. "Thanks for the ride." He opens the door and pauses, one leg out of the car. "Good luck with everything." Suddenly he seems to have accepted that she won't be Facebook messaging him. She's disappointed, though she didn't want him to beg, and can't deal with this boy right now, not with everything else that's going on.

"Thanks for talking to me," she says. "And for the milkshake."

He smiles, climbs out of the car, and is gone, walking up the front walk to his grandmother's house. It seems familiar, not just a place she's driven past but somewhere she's been before. She realizes she's staring as he walks up to the porch, and she pulls away fast, tires squealing. Something uncomfortable opens in her chest, and she's afraid she'll cry again, but this is different from the pressure that's been building since she found out about her dad's addiction and her biological parents' history. This anxiety doesn't belong to any of them. It's hers alone, and she lets it grow between her lungs until it becomes something else. She turns up the oldies station, sings.

By the time she reaches her grandmother's house, the sky has clouded over, and thunder rumbles overhead as she climbs out of the car. It's been this way for most of their visit: blistering afternoons, then a short rainstorm that transitions the day into evening, steam rising from the wet streets. She wonders if the lemonade stand at the water park will close early on account of rain, and thinks of Ben in a t-shirt and shorts, dripping sweat as he pushes a lawnmower across his grandmother's yard, trying to finish before the storm begins.

"Jesus, there you are," her dad says when she walks into the house. He's on the couch with her pop, who is leaning against him, reading a book. She realizes as soon as she sees them that she left the photo album in her grandmother's van. She'll sneak out to get it later, when they're all busy with dinner.

"That must have been quite a milkshake," her pop says, giving her a suspicious look, and her mouth drops open with surprise before she remembers that her excuse for leaving the house was Stuckey's, a milkshake. How did that happen? How did that boy know what she needed? She'll have to look him up on Facebook just to make sure he was real. H-a-h-n.

"I ran into this kid," she says. "We were talking. Sorry."

"This kid?" her dad says. She's afraid he'll see it on her, the betrayal she knowingly committed by going to see his father. She wants to ask him to go back with her tomorrow. They could all look at the photo album together. It would never happen that way; the very suggestion would be disastrous. Her dad has a short fuse, and she was never afraid of pissing him off before she found out about the drugs. She never thought there was anything truly sinister behind how angry he can get.

"Just this kid," she says. She walks to the couch and sits down beside her pop, leaning over to look at his book. It's something boring, geology-related. "Where's grandma?"

"At the store, getting stuff for dinner," her pop says. "Do you want a sandwich?"

"Nah. I'm not hungry."

"You can't just have a milkshake for lunch."

"Yes, I can."

"This kid was somebody you know?" her dad says, and she laughs. She takes her pop's book and pretends to read it.

"No. He was working at the Burger King."

Her dad makes a disapproving sound. Ironic. He was a high school dropout garbage collector when he ran away to California with her pop.

"Where did you guys hang out, when you lived here?" she asks.

"Not Burger King," her dad says.

"Your dad's bedroom, mostly," her pop says.

"Jesus, Andy."

"What?" Her pop's cheeks go red. "I meant – we watched movies. On his laptop."

"What movies?" Casey asks, laughing.

"All kinds of stuff. The old movies we're always trying to get you to watch."

"I watch them sometimes," she says, muttering, flipping through the book to the glossy pictures in the middle. They're boring, too, even for rocks. Years ago she asked her pop what drew him to rocks in the first place. He credited her dad, said he grew up with a fondness for studying seemingly impenetrable things. She hands him his book and sits forward on the couch, looking at the two of them. They stare back, her pop quizzical and her dad frowning, their shoulders pressed together.

"What?" her dad says.

"How come everyone in this family ends up with whoever they were with when they were a teenager?" she asks. There's a lawnmower buzzing in the distance, but it can't be Ben's. His grandmother's house is too far away.

"They don't," her pop says. "Your grandma ended up with Donny, not my dad."

"Yeah, but Donny doesn't even live here." She met her pop's father once, when she was six years old. She doesn't really remember him, except that he was very impressed with the sheriff Woody doll she was toting around at the time. When he said that it used to be his, she didn't believe him. Later, her pop confirmed this, and she hugged the doll to her chest, afraid that it would be taken from her.

"Why do you want to know?" her dad asks.

"Just curious." It's not only her adoptive family: her biological mother was a teenager when her life cemented into what it would always be. Her biological father was just a few years off, but maybe nothing ever cemented for him, anyway. She took an art class last semester for an easy senior year elective, and for her final project she cut one of her biological father's mug shots into a heart shape and glued it to a piece of paper, painted a cheesy gold locket around it. The other side of the locket she left empty, blank white, to represent her missing mother. She didn't turn it in, mostly because she didn't like the blank place, or the fact that it was white, but didn't know what else to put there.

Her grandmother arrives with the groceries, and her dad gets up to help her put them away. Casey stays on the couch with her pop, turns on the TV and watches the local news with him. Outside, the storm has become more of a direct threat, trees whipping in the wind.

"Did they have a water park here when you were a kid?" Casey asks.

"Yeah," her pop says. "Your grandma wouldn't let me go. She said it was redneck and dangerous." He grins, elbows her. "Your dad took me, though, when we were older."

"If there was a thunderstorm, did they close it? The water park?"

"I guess so. Why?"

"No reason."

He elbows her again. "Are we still talking about Burger King boy?"

"No! God." She glowers at the television. In the kitchen, her grandmother is laughing about something that her dad is saying about Molly's kids, Casey's cousins. Casey puts her feet up on the coffee table, annoyed by her pop's presumptuousness, his ability to read her.

"Can I tell you something?" she says, lowering her voice, still staring at the television.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong." She sits up. "I have to get something out of the van before it starts raining. Can you make sure they're distracted?"

"Casey, what are you talking about?" He frowns, seems tired. This is the only vacation her parents have taken all year, and it hasn't been especially relaxing. Her grandmother puts them right to work, her dad in the garden and her pop on the ancient desktop computer.

"I went to see Lane Phillips," she says, whispering. It takes a moment for the name to register with her pop, and when it does he shoots off the couch, takes her arm and pulls her up.

"Come with me," he says, as if she has a choice. She trips after him, toward the front door.

Outside, the weight has been sucked from the air by the gathering clouds, and there's actual coolness in the wind. Her hair whips around her face, and she thinks of Ben when lightening flashes. She stands under the awning on the front porch with her pop, who shuts the front door behind him and threads his hands through his hair, staring at her like she's crazy.

"Are you joking?" he says. "Was that a joke?"

"No," she says. "I'll show you." She walks to the van, which is parked beside the newer car that her grandmother actually drives. The van is a relic from her pop's childhood, and her grandmother credits Sid for keeping it running. It's one of his eight million hobbies, one of the things that keeps him busy: fixing old cars. She gets the photo album from the backseat and brings it to her pop. He opens it, frowning with confusion for just a moment. As he turns the pages his face softens, and softens, until she's afraid he'll cry harder than she did. He shakes his head slowly.

"You can't show him this," he says. He sighs, shuts the album, closes his eyes. "But. You have to."

"I know," she says. "And. I know."

"Are you out of your mind?"

"No." She curls her hands into fists, could say some horrible things. If he didn't look so tired, she might, but none of this is his fault. "I wanted to find out. You know. I wanted to meet him. There's so much I don't know."

She watches the progress of her pop's understanding, the hurt in his eyes that fades to sympathy. He pulls her to him and hugs her with one arm. They watch the trees fight the wind, small branches already dropping into the neighbors' yards.

"I guess you contacted the agency," he says.

"I'm sorry," she says.

"Don't be sorry, baby, come here." He hugs her fully, the album pressed between them. Her forehead only comes to his shoulder, and she hides her face in his shirt. "I'm not upset, I think it's good. If you're curious. Of course you're curious."

"I had a letter from my mom." She doesn't want to cry again, makes herself think of Ben Hahn at the water park, in his ridiculous lemonade stand hat. She lifts her face from her pop's shirt and looks up at him, takes a deep breath.

"That's good," he says, softly. "That she wrote you a letter."

She realizes then that he's not going to make her tell him what it said. It seems crazy now that she thought he would. The letter wasn't much of anything, easy to translate by the time she'd finished freshman year Spanish. I love you, I'm sorry, please be good.

"So how was the old man?" her pop asks, straightening her windblown hair. He holds it in place like two pigtails. "He wasn't a jerk to you, was he?"

"No. He was asking about Dad. I think he's lonely."

"Serves him right. Did you – what did you guys talk about?"

"Nothing." She wipes her face, though she's not crying. She can smell the rain now, and she feels like she's a cloud looking down on Ben's lemonade cart, his freckled face open to the sky, waiting to see how things will go. "I told him you guys were successful. That you were good parents."

"I'm sure he was skeptical. He used to look at me like he wanted to kick my ass, if he ever bothered to make eye contact."

"Yeah, but Dad looks at people that way a lot. It doesn't always mean what they think it does."

Her pop laughs and lets go of her hair. It blows across her face, tangles up like a tornado. She sweeps it away and looks out at the street as the rain starts to pelt the asphalt. She can feel her dad's concern through all the walls that separate them, his wondering what they're doing outside, exposed to the storm.

"It's been so weird," she says, very quietly. "Since. I mean. I don't think I would have even asked about my biological parents if I hadn't found out. About Dad." But that's stupid, because she was looking for information about her biological parents when she found his rehab release papers. Her pop scrubs his hand over his face.

"I probably made it sound worse than it was," he says.

"How could you? Coke? Rehab? Twice?" Secretly, terribly, she would have rather learned this about her pop. She's always been okay with the idea that he's fallible. He's the one who wears embarrassingly dorky clothes and opines about rocks while people smile tightly, pretending to listen. If he'd had a secret wild streak she would have been almost impressed. Instead, he nursed her dad through actual self destruction. Her dad, who is supposed to be impenetrable. Nearly brought down to the level of her crackhead origins by white powder.

"I didn't know this was bothering you so much," her pop says. He squeezes her shoulders. "I guess I should have known it would. I never got over my dad – what he did to my mom, to us. But that's a terrible comparison. Your dad never – once we had you, he never went near that stuff, and for years before, too. You know that, right? This was all ancient history."

"Everything about me is ancient history," she says. "Stuff I'm not allowed to know."

Her pop opens his mouth, then doesn't seem to know what to say. He gathers her hair into a neat bundle again, brushing stray bits away from her face.

"I didn't mean to hide anything from you," he says. "It was just so long ago. I hope you're not worried – it would never happen again. I used to worry that it would, that's why I waited so long to talk to him about wanting to adopt. But it was good, right? Because we waited, we found you."

"Everything happens for a reason," she says, though she's not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the sentiment. Thunder drops loud and low over the house, and they both startle. Her pop opens the front door, ushering her inside. The house smells different already, like garlic and onions frying in oil. Her grandmother is making lasagna, has been talking about it all day as if it's a great wall she has to build.

"I support you, you know," her pop says, touching the small of her back before she can retreat to the room upstairs where she's staying, the room that used to be her aunt Molly's. She turns to look at him, and he hands her the photo album.

"If you want to see him," he says, more quietly. So they must have been informed when her mother died. She nods, hugging the photo album, walking backward up the stairs.

"I want to go back in time," she says. "To the day when they met." As she says so she realizes that it's not true, or not as true as the alternative. She wants to go back in time to the day when her dad met her pop. They were four and five years old. They were playing with plastic toys in her pop's backyard.

"Sweetheart," her pop says, watching her walk backward up the stairs.

"I'll be right back," she says. "I'm just gonna put this in my room. Check my email."

Up in the room, she realizes she's shaking. She didn't mean to say any of that to her pop, didn't mean to eat nothing but a milkshake for lunch. She hides the photo album in her suitcase, under some clothes. Her laptop is sitting on the unmade bed, overheated from nesting in the blankets all day. She opens it and goes to Facebook, ready to think about something else.

H-a-h-n. There is only one Ben in her parents' hometown. His profile picture is him at a zoo, smiling at a toucan. He looks like he's trying not to laugh. The bird's head is cocked optimistically.

She looks at his profile: single, student at Brookwood High School, favorite book is The Great Gatsby. He must have just read it in English class. She thinks of the billboard with the spectacles, and the movie that they watched in class, Daisy crying when she said that she hoped her daughter would be a beautiful little fool. She's going to click away, embarrassed to be here, as if he'll know somehow, and a picture on the sidebar catches her eye. It's her pop's profile picture: he's on their pool deck at home, grinning self-consciously. She was the photographer, had insisted he needed a new, better picture. The previous one had been the two of them, her pop holding her in his lap on her sixth birthday. She had a gap-toothed grin, a pink party dress.

The sidebar tells her that they have friends in common. She feels dizzy, leaning closer to the screen as rain batters the window. She's been drunk only once in her life, at a graduation party, and that's what this whole day has felt like, a haze of activity that she'll have to parse in hindsight. She clicks through the connections that Facebook has drawn her attention to until she sees the friend that her father and Ben Hahn have in common: a woman named Bonnie Ramos Arden. She's younger than her father but not by much, clutching her husband and children in most of her pictures. In others she's with Ben and Rachel Ramos, who must be her sister. They have the same eyes, Bonnie's face rounder while Rachel's is longer, more tired. Casey clicks and clicks until she's worked out every relationship except her pop and Bonnie's, and when she hears footsteps on the stairs she realizes she's been hunched in front of the screen for an hour. The rain has slowed down outside, just sliding down the windowpane now.

"Case?" It's her grandmother. She thinks of her parents downstairs, alone together, and wonders if her pop will say anything, if he'll even need to. Her dad knows something is off; she can feel it from up here.

"I'm coming," she says. "Sorry."

"No hurry," her grandmother says. "Just, if you're hungry."

She closes the laptop and lets out her breath, confused. She knows she shouldn't be; it's a small town, and if her pop and Ben's aunt grew up in the same neighborhood, it makes sense that they would know each other. She feels cornered by their connection, and irritated. This was supposed to be something she could keep for herself. She never should have asked about the water park, about all the people in her small world that have found one person and kept hold of them for the rest of their lives.

The first floor is humid with the smell of the lasagna, and Casey's stomach whines with interest as she walks into the kitchen. She tears off a chunk of garlic bread and dips it in the excess sauce. Her pop is chopping carrots for a salad, her grandma setting the table.

"Where's Dad?" she asks.

"Out back, smoking," her pop says. "Go tell him dinner's ready."

She watches him to see if he's setting her up for a conversation she doesn't want to have, but he keeps his eyes on the carrots. He would have given her some hint if he'd said anything to her dad; her pop is a terrible poker player. It's a family joke. Still, when she goes for the sliding glass door that leads to the back porch, she feels nervous, like she'll have to answer for something.

There's no more cool wind, the rain headed toward another town. It's left behind a sheen that glows against the sunset, which seems to have arrived past its deadline, the dark clouds evaporating. Her dad is leaning against the back of the house, one boot braced against the siding while he drags on his cigarette. He holds his arm up and she slips under it.

"Dinner's ready," she says after a few silent seconds have passed, both of them watching the sun go down. He's careful to blow the smoke in the other direction, but she's poisoned by her drug-addled genesis, or by him, whatever: she likes that smell. She just doesn't think she could swallow it, swill it around in her lungs the way her varied makers have.

"I should drive you by the house I grew up in," he says.

"Yeah." She's asked him to before. "You should."

"I'm just afraid." He stops there, and she tenses up, doesn't want him afraid, ever. "There was this tree."

"Huh?"

"It would be different." He takes a drag, blows smoke rings. She thinks of her pop saying he was impressed by that as a kid. They would lie in the dark in her dad's room after school, and her dad would blow smoke rings for her pop, pretending that he wasn't showing off.

"Your dad wouldn't be there, though," she says, maybe unwisely. She's afraid to look at him, but she does. He doesn't seem mad.

"I know," he says.

"Where do you think he is?"

"Doesn't matter."

"I know. But. He's your dad."

He grins, looking out at the dying sun like it knows something she doesn't. He has gray hair over his ears, always has. She pictures him at eight years old, gray hair already sprouting over his ears. He had braces, her pop says. Mean eyes that could turn into broken egg yokes, then back again.

"I didn't know what that meant," he says. "Until you."

"What?"

"That word. 'Dad.' You know? Never mind."

"Don't say never mind." She leans into him, her fingers drumming over his wrist. He's a mountain that belongs to her. Snow-capped, but that part of him has always been very far away.

"Well," he says. "You know what I mean."

She does. She thinks of her grandfather-but-not-really offering her a cigarette. She almost said yes, but her dad would have nailed her to the wall if she came home smelling like one. He wants her to be better than he was, but he doesn't know what he was, what he is, will always be too close to see it clearly. He was the bravest boy in the world, is the tallest mountain she'll climb.

"How'd you know you loved Pop?" she asks. The fact that his face showed up on the sidebar of Ben Hahn's Facebook feels like an omen she knew she would encounter, the inevitable fourth leaf that eventually appears in a field full of clovers.

"How'd I know?" her dad says. He always repeats the question when he doesn't know what to say. He smells like garlic, must have helped her grandma chop it for the pasta sauce. "I knew because, uh. This one night. I climbed through his window."

"Seriously?" She thought she'd heard every story.

"Yeah. It was raining. My dad was getting shoved into the back of a cop car. I didn't want to do it, I didn't want to go there and find out if your pop would let me in or not. But I had to. And, uh. I knew he would."

That's what it is: she knew it. Being certain when certainty should be impossible. She bounces on her heels, under her dad's arm, thinks of the way Ben leaned over to drink from her milkshake while she held the cup.

"What if you hadn't gone?" she says, because she shouldn't, can't, it's stupid, impossible. Her dad throws his cigarette into a puddle and rolls it under his boot for good measure.

"That's like saying what if there was no Ben Franklin. Someone else would have discovered electricity. You know what I mean? Electricity was always there."

She laughs and hugs him, because he's good at this, acting like he doesn't know that he's saying the perfect thing. Or not knowing, really not knowing, and saying the perfect thing anyway. He smoothes her hair down, and they're both quiet for awhile, listening to her pop and her grandma talking, their words just barely indecipherable.

"So you think everything happens for a reason?" she says. She thinks of the drugs, the ones that made her a person and the ones that made her real parents wait until she was the available baby, the baby that became their daughter. Her dad purses his lips, nods slowly.

"I think everyone who deserves a reason gets one," he says. "For better or worse."

"For better or worse." She slides out from beneath his arm and toes at a puddle that's formed on the patio. "Did you guys say that at your wedding? You and Pop?" It's an old joke, their secret wedding ceremony. Her aunt Molly has told her some things, but she wasn't there. Her dad snorts, grins at her.

"We were for better or worse by junior high," he says.

"Do you recommend that?" she asks, though she's long past junior high.

"What's going on?" he asks. He sounds really worried, which makes her grin. It's as good as an answer: yes, he recommends it. She jumps into the puddle and her dad takes her hand, twirls her like they're on a dance floor.

"Nothing's going on," she says. "I'm just starving. Mad with hunger."

"Lasagna time?" he says, and she can't believe she was ever afraid of him. When she spilled marinara sauce on the living room carpet, when she found out that he'd snorted ten thousand dollars worth of coke: okay, fine. He was always her dad, even before she knew him, even when he wasn't unbreakable.

"Yep, lasagna time," she says, stretching out her hand like she's a queen accepting an invitation to dance. He laughs and twirls her again. She thinks of his father, and how she'll have to tell him everything. It doesn't seem so difficult now, though tonight is not the time. She remembers his baby pictures and laughs, still twirling. It's still an hour from eight o'clock, and she'll never forget how to spell that name: H-a-h-n. It's like a constellation that's always traveled overhead, a sure thing that should have felt more obvious. Sometimes it takes a milkshake, a loose plank in the neighbor's fence, a key on a kite string. Whatever the details, it was always going to happen. She sees her pop watching them through the sliding glass door and grins, dizzy from spinning. She stumbles and her dad catches her.

"Careful," he says. She wants to promise that she will be, but it's not really necessary. She's surrounded by safety nets. She can spin without fear.

Chapter Text

He's been in the downstairs rec room for years when the lid opens unexpectedly: midday, midweek. It's not one of the grandchildren reaching for him, it's Andy. He seems interested only in Woody, his hands shaking as he lifts him out. Something's wrong; the house is too quiet. Andy takes him upstairs and shuts the bedroom door behind him. He's sniffling, holding back tears until he flops onto the bed, where he hugs Woody to his chest and starts crying hard.

Alarmed, Woody lies motionless and wonders what happened. Andy doesn't cry often, and Woody hasn't been the one Andy goes to for comfort since he was a little boy. He waits for the sound of Sid's footsteps on the stairs or a ringing phone, something that would offer an explanation for this outburst, but hours pass and nothing comes. Andy's crying quiets to an exhausted whimper, and finally he drops into sleep, Woody still clamped under his arm.

Outside, the color of the sky matures into the particular mix of powder blue and pale orange that Woody had never seen before Sid and Andy moved here, to the desert, where Andy has been doing independent research since retiring from the teaching position that he took after he sold his share of the company to Greg. They've been happy here, the grandchildren visiting from California and sometimes staying for weeks at a time, when Ben joins Casey on her business trips. The grandkids haven't developed the kind of bond that Andy once had with Woody, but it's always a treat to see them. Taylor is five years old now, and he's good at embellishing the stories that Andy starts for him, the two of them on their stomachs on the rec room carpet, entertaining Taylor's little sister, Anna, who laughs and claps for Woody's pull string voice.

A car pulls into the driveway, and Woody would dash to the window if he could, but Andy is holding him too tightly. It still feels good, being needed like this, but he can't really enjoy it, not with Andy so upset. Andy is twitching in his sleep, his eyebrows knitting the way they did when he had a bad dream as a boy.

The heavy footsteps on the stairs are unmistakable, and Woody is so happy to recognize them that he would laugh at himself if he could. There was a time when he would never have believed he could be so relieved to realize that Sid Phillips was about to burst through the door.

Sid comes in frowning, clearly concerned about the silence of the house. Andy wakes with a sharp intake of breath, lifting his head from the pillow. He lets go of Woody and reaches for Sid.

"Hey," Sid says. He drops to the bed without taking off his boots and pulls Andy to him. Andy's face is red and splotchy, new tears already gathering between his eyelashes.

"What's wrong?" Sid asks. "What happened?"

"My Dad," Andy says, and his face pinches up again. He hides it against Sid's chest, sobs once. "He died."

"Shit," Sid says, softly. He squeezes himself more tightly around Andy, pets his hair and lets him cry. Woody feels something small but sharp descend through his chest. Mike was his first owner, and while he was never as close to him as he was to Andy, he still remembers Mike introducing him to so many things: the feeling of grass blades against his back on a sunny day, music from the little radio Mike kept beside his bed, and, most importantly, Andy.

"I didn't think it would hit me like this," Andy says. He's clinging to Sid, rubbing his face dry against the sleeve of Sid's t-shirt. "I got through the whole conversation with Molly without breaking down. I haven't even seen him in ten years. But maybe that's why - God." He takes a deep breath, turning his face into Sid's neck.

"You should have called me," Sid says. "I would have come home sooner."

"No, it's okay." Andy sniffles and sits back, lets Sid wipe his cheeks dry with his thumbs. "I needed to just, I don't know. Be alone with it for awhile, I guess. I feel better." He turns to look at Woody. "I didn't really lose it until I went downstairs and dug this guy out of the toy box. It's funny." He picks Woody up, adjusts his hat. "This is my best memory of my dad right here, and it was basically a goodbye present."

"I'm glad you got it back," Sid says. He still looks at Woody kind of warily. Andy smiles.

"I thought you said he was creepy?" he says, setting Woody down against the pillows.

"Yeah, but - you should have something of your dad's. It's good."

"I just can't believe the window is finally shut," Andy says. He leans back onto the pillows and Sid follows, stretching out beside him, his chin on Andy's shoulder. "I guess some part of me always thought I still had time to get to know him. You're lucky, you know? That you sort of reconciled with your dad before he died."

"Sort of," Sid says. "But, yeah. I know."

"I haven't talked to my mom yet. She'll try to act like she's not that upset. Did I ever show you that picture of them? Prom King and Queen?"

"Yeah, you did."

"She pretended to be embarrassed by it, but they were so - I don't know, they were like, flawless. Not in real life, but in the picture. They were so happy, for a little while."

"He had a pretty good life," Sid says. "Your Dad. I mean, hell. He did whatever he wanted."

"Yeah," Andy says, softly. He traces the tattoos on Sid's arm. "You think that's a good life, though?"

"For him, I guess," Sid says. "I would have hated it."

Andy sniffs like he doesn't believe this, and Sid rolls him into his arms. Woody can't see it, but he can hear them kissing, the soft, wet little noises that baffled him during the few afternoons Sid and Andy spent together in Andy's room during high school. He remembers feeling betrayed: how could Andy have picked Sid, of all people, to cuddle up to in that bed, in the spot where Andy used to tuck Woody in beside him? Eventually he accepted that Sid had changed, and he likes to credit himself at least somewhat, though Sid only remembers their confrontation as a bad dream he had as a kid.

"I used to be so afraid that you'd want to run away," Andy says, his face still pressed to Sid's. "The way my dad did. I knew you wouldn't actually do it, would never leave us, but I was afraid some part of you wanted to."

"Jesus," Sid says. "What did I do to make you think that?" He sounds horrified, regretful. Andy moans and shakes his head.

"Nothing," he says. "It wasn't you. That was just my fear - that was my dad's other goodbye present to me. That I'd always worry that I wasn't, I don't know. Exciting enough to hold the attention of a guy who could be having more fun, you know. Elsewhere."

"You don't think you were exciting to me?" Sid huffs in disbelief. "I would think about you and my hands would shake. If your mom had fixed that loose plank I would have torn it off again, to get to you."

"Past tense," Andy says. He laughs a little, at himself. "I'm not talking about when we were kids. That was a whole different ball of anxiety. I wasn't even sure if you liked me. Later, when we had Casey - I knew you loved us but I used to wonder, you know. If sometimes you wished - never mind. It's stupid."

"Yeah, it is," Sid says, and Andy laughs again, more authentically now. "I'd have been stupid as hell to want anything else. Andy - baby - what the fuck? You never figured out that I'm obsessed with you?"

Andy laughs again, and there's a tremble in it, but he doesn't cry. He presses himself to Sid's chest and moans, the sound of it muffled by Sid's shirt.

"Don't listen to me," he says. "It's been a weird day."

"Yeah, I figured, when I found you in here with your cowboy doll." Sid rubs his hand through Andy's hair. Andy is calmer, nuzzling at Sid like he's going to fall asleep again, but Sid is still tense. It's news to Woody, too, that Andy felt that way. When Andy left him a Bonnie's house, Woody assumed the Sid phase of Andy's life was over, and that it was for the best. Being reclaimed by Andy all those years later was wonderfully unexpected, and even more unexpected was being brought home to meet Andy's daughter and finding her in the arms of grown-up Sid, tattooed and taller but unmistakable, the boy who blew up toys and broke Andy's heart.

Andy sleeps, and Sid stands guard over him, propped up on one elbow, staring into space. He's still stroking Andy's hair with his thumb, like he needs to keep reassuring himself that Andy is close. When Andy's cell phone vibrates against the bedside table Sid rolls over and silences it with the urgency of a man pushing a pin back into a grenade. He takes good care of Andy. Woody accepted that years ago, and he wishes, like he knows that Sid does, that Andy wouldn't worry about being left alone.

Andy's second nap is more brief, and when he wakes up it's grown darker in the room, the afternoon shaded by the start of the sunset. Sid kisses Andy's face as he wakes, and Andy moans just like he did as a kid, when his mother came to wake him for school. He sits up, yawns and rubs at his eyes. Sid moves to the edge of the bed, his legs hanging over the side.

"Was it the drugs?" he says.

"Hmm?" Andy is still rubbing his eyes, his shoulders hunched.

"Is that why you thought I was going to take off on you? Or - that I wanted to? You thought I was always thinking about getting high?"

"Sid - no, hey." Andy scoots to the end of the bed and sits behind Sid, hugging his shoulders. "Forget what I said, really. I was just upset about my dad, talking shit."

"I know you worried about it," Sid says. His voice is hard, but it's so intentional that he sounds more vulnerable than ever.

"Of course, but not after we had Casey."

"But you said. That's when, you thought. After we had her, that's when you thought I was dreaming about - whatever. Leaving. Goddammit, Andy. I wasn't, I swear to God, I never -" His voice is rapidly deteriorating. Woody hasn't seen Sid cry since he was eight years old, that night when he climbed in through Andy's window. That was fifty years ago.

"I know, I know, I know," Andy says. He tries to turn Sid around so that they're facing each other, but Sid won't budge. He leans forward and puts his elbows on his knees, his hands over his face.

"I fucked everything up," he says. "I wanted to act like I fixed it, but I knew I didn't, I couldn't, you were worried all that time -"

"I wasn't really, I was exaggerating - hey, c'mere." Andy wraps his legs around Sid's sides and leans against his back. He kisses Sid's cheek, and whispers things that Woody can't quite make out. Sid keeps one hand over his eyes, his breath coming out rough and shaky.

"It's just to do with my dad," Andy says. "It's just leftover childhood anxiety bullshit."

"No," Sid says, thickly, though he's still trying to keep his voice hard. "It was me. What I did to you. I never told you - there was this house. I wanted to buy you this house."

"I know. Molly told me."

"She did?"

"Yeah," Andy says. "Not back then. Just a few years ago."

"I was such an idiot," Sid says, muttering. "I thought I had it all figured out. Like getting high with those people was a fucking investment plan." He scoffs hatefully, narrowing his eyes like he's looking at his former self. Woody was still in Bonnie's toy box when all of this happened. Most of it is still a mystery to him, one that he doesn't particularly want to investigate.

"You were a kid," Andy says. "Me and you - it was like we were handed this epic responsibility to each other when we were barely out of diapers. And we were both a couple of hammers short of a tool box, you know, emotionally. We always wanted to fix each other, but we had to learn how. You learned. You took care of me. God, just. You make me so happy. You know you do."

He watches Sid for a reaction, then nibbles on his earlobe when Sid only sits there looking like he just went forty rounds with a heavyweight. His eyes are bleary, his hands tensed over his knees. Andy's kisses move down his neck, to the collar of his shirt.

"Sorry," Sid says. "Your dad - fuck. I don't mean to make this about me."

"Everything's always been about you," Andy says. "For me, I mean. I like it that way. You're my life story. You know?"

"You don't ever hate me for that?" Sid asks.

"No. 'Cause I know I'm yours."

Sid grins and turns to kiss Andy's nose. They sit there for awhile, Andy's hands moving slow over Sid's arms, down to his wrists and then back up again. Sid seems embarrassed, and when he stands he groans, stretching until his back pops.

"Careful," Andy says. He stands and rubs the small of Sid's back.

"I'm so fucking bullet-riddled," Sid says, wincing. "Serves me right, pretending to be a trainer for all those years."

"You weren't pretending," Andy says. He lifts up Sid's t-shirt and runs his hands over his chest until he laughs and cringes. "Look at these muscles! Pretty good for an old man. Total professional quality."

They go downstairs, and Woody can hear the sounds of them making dinner more clearly than he ever could from down in the rec room. He'll fill everyone else in on what's happened when Andy brings him back to the toy box.

But Andy doesn't bring Woody back. After dinner, he comes into the bedroom while Sid is brushing his teeth, takes Woody from the pillows and brings him to the window. He straightens his hat, smiles.

"Here you go, Woody," he says, softly enough that Sid won't hear him over the running water. He puts Woody on the window sill, his legs dangling over the edge. Sid raps his toothbrush against the edge of the sink, and Andy drops into bed to wait for him. Sid is undressed and climbing under the blankets before he notices Woody on the sill.

"Great," he says. "That thing's going to give me nightmares."

"He will not," Andy says. "Anyway, we should really have him on display when the kids aren't here. He's a collector's item, I'm told."

Woody never goes on display, not formally. A few days pass and he remains on the windowsill, only making trips to the rec room for company when Andy and Sid are both away. The days become weeks, then months.

He never thought he'd enjoy quiet afternoons spent on the second floor, but maybe he's getting old. It's nice now that Andy mostly works from home, moving between his office and the kitchen down on the ground floor, visiting the bedroom to charge his phone or nap after lunch. Even when Andy is absorbed in his work, there's the window to peer out of, though their street doesn't get much traffic. Lizards sun themselves on the sill and children sail by on bicycles. The trash trucks come and go, the menacing noise of their compacters making his heart clench. Sid has no real routine but is always going someplace: to the gym or the grocery store, sometimes leaving the house on foot and returning hours later, sunburned. Andy will bring him into the bedroom and rub aloe lotion on his skin, fussing at him about sunscreen.

"It helps me sleep," Sid says.

"Cancer baiting helps you sleep? It's bad enough you smoked for all those years."

"It's not cancer baiting, it's vitamin D. You should come with me."

"I can't go wandering around in the desert for hours. I'm not retired yet. Not completely."

They don't have real fights anymore, at least not any that Woody is privy to, and if they pick on each other they'll temper their criticisms with affection. Andy kisses Sid's forehead, Sid pulls Andy into his lap. Sid has bad knees, but Andy's still bend easily enough. Sometimes Andy goes back to work after tending to Sid's sunburn, leaving Sid to snore into the sheets, and sometimes he stays and sleeps next to him until the sun starts to go down. There's not much naked wrestling anymore, but it happens on occasion and always seems to put them both in a good mood.

Woody expects Andy to forget that he's there, but he sometimes looks at him when he's working on his laptop in bed, grins and hums the Woody's Roundup theme while he types. Woody is recruited for playtime when Casey and Ben bring the kids to the house for Thanksgiving, and he assumes he'll go back into the toy box with the others after the visit. He's sad about this, has grown accustomed to listening to Sid and Andy talk to each other in the dark at the end of the day. On the day the grandchildren depart with their parents, Woody is on the floor amongst the other toys that the children left scattered across the carpet, and when Sid is the one who begins straightening up he's sure that he's bound for the back of the toy box. He's as surprised as he ever was about any Sid-related development when Sid takes him upstairs and sets him back on the window sill.

"You brought Woody back up," Andy says when they come to the bedroom that night.

"I thought that's where you wanted him," Sid says, defensively. He retreats into the bathroom while Andy grins and drops onto the bed. It's the first time Woody can remember Sid using 'him' instead of 'it' to refer to him.

For Christmas, they invite the whole family to stay with them. They've been talking about it for weeks, Andy stressing and Sid sighing, though Woody thinks they're both looking forward to it. Their house is too small to host more than a few guests at a time, so Molly has arranged for a nearby rental. They live in a golf resort community with other retirees, though neither of them has ever, to Woody's knowledge, played golf.

Andy has always gone overboard with decorations, and as he strings colored lights along the foot board of the bed, Woody thinks of Andy's mother, the way she would transform the house for Andy's birthday parties. The kisses that Mike gave her were the first ones that Woody ever witnessed, from a dusty shelf where he lived for a few years. Now little Katie is an old woman, and it makes Woody nervous, because Mike is gone, and he still doesn't know what he'll do without Andy, even after everything and especially since they've been spending time together again.

He expects to be brought down to the toy box before the grandchildren arrive, but between cooking and cleaning and everything else that has to be done, Andy forgets. Woody can distantly hear the arrival of Ben, Casey and the kids, then Molly and Luke, their children and grandchildren, Andy's mom. He wants to get up and dash out into the hall, fall into a heap and wait for one of the kids to find him, but Andy put him on the windowsill, and he'll stay where he is until Andy comes for him.

At night, the guests depart for the rental house, except for Andy's mom, who is staying the guest room. Woody is sure that Andy will notice him when he comes into the bedroom, laugh to himself for having forgotten to include him with the other toys and bring him down to the living room, where the presents are piled under the Christmas tree. Maybe Casey, who never quite belonged to him but loved him for awhile, has asked where he is.

Sid comes into the bedroom first, and Woody can hear the water still running downstairs in the kitchen. The room is dark, but Sid doesn't put a light on until he reaches the bathroom, where he splashes water on his face before moaning with exhaustion and heading for the bed without brushing his teeth. The water shuts off down in the kitchen, and Andy pads up the stairs, coughing. He walks into the bedroom and closes the door behind him, undresses in the dark. Woody considers taking a tumble off the sill, onto the floor. They'll never notice him in this light.

"You asleep already?" Andy says.

"Nuh," Sid says, which is like saying yes and no at the same time. Andy laughs and pulls off his sweater. He slides into bed in his undershirt and boxer shorts, lying against Sid's back, his cheek coming to rest between Sid's shoulder blades. The moon is bright through the window, but neither of them looks in Woody's direction.

"Molly kills me," Andy says. "You know?"

"She makes Lena crazy," Sid says, muttering into his pillow.

"I know. Do you remember how she was when Lena was born? She started crying when I tried to show her how to give her a bath. Lena was wailing, and Molly was a mess. She was so terrified that she'd be a horrible mother, just because she didn't know how to give a baby a bath by instinct or whatever. She doesn't remember that, of course."

"I don't remember being scared about Casey," Sid says.

"You? God, no, you were fearless. I was the one who helped raise my little sister. I thought I'd have a leg up on you for once, but no. I remember -" He laughs. "You looked like a postcard when you held her. Or not even a postcard – something better. You'd both have this expression on your faces, this exact same expression, like – 'now what?' Like you were just waiting for the world to impress you, and you were losing your patience."

"You drunk?" Sid says, and Woody can hear his smile, slanted against the pillow.

"Maybe," Andy says. He rolls off of Sid and onto his back, moans. "My mom is depressed," he says.

"She's not depressed. She just misses Donny."

"I think she misses my dad," Andy says. He snorts. "Is that a childhood fantasy that I can't let go of? Like them getting back together? That she'd miss my dead dad more than her dead boyfriend?"

"I don't know, man," Sid says. "I think she's okay."

"You think everybody's okay. I think Casey's pregnant again. Or trying to get pregnant. She wasn't drinking, did you notice?"

"She would have told us."

"I don't know. Maybe. I feel like I'm forgetting something. Did I turn the oven off?"

"Yes. Go to sleep."

Me, Woody wants to shout. Me, you're forgetting me! It's been years since he missed Christmas, and he never got used to the feeling. They would try to celebrate from within the box, or Andy's room, or whatever they could get away with, but it wasn't the same as being down there amid the wrapping paper.

In the morning, he's sure that Andy will remember him, but Andy and Sid oversleep and wake up to the sound of rapid knocking on the front door. Andy gets out of bed with his eyes still half-shut, groping for his robe.

"What the hell is that?" Sid asks, lifting his head from the pillows.

"Molly, I think," Andy says. He walks over the window to peer down at the front walk, and Woody's heart soars: there's no way Andy will overlook him now. But Andy just grumbles about his sister's insistence on putting the turkey in at six in the morning and cinches the belt of his robe as he walks out of the room. Sid stays in bed, and he's snoring again within minutes. By the time he wakes again, hours later, Woody has given up hope on being taken downstairs. Sid sits up and scratches the back of his neck, yawns, and steps into a pair of jeans before leaving the room.

It's Christmas Eve. As the day progresses, the rest of the family reappears, and Woody can hear the children shouting, laughing, playing games with the other toys. He hears Andy laughing, too, and he sounds happy, complete. Woody should be happy, too. It would be selfish to feel anything else, but the Christmas music that someone puts on around dinnertime tugs at him.

Night falls early and the desert grows cold. Woody can feel it through the window, and in the heightened level of coziness that envelopes the house, lights glowing from the first floor. The bedroom is dark, and he tells himself that he should be grateful to be even this close to the activity downstairs, able to hear the clink of dishes and the tipsy chatter of the adults as the children begin to drop off to sleep, but holidays are one time when he wouldn't normally be confined to the toy box. Still, he's glad for the last few months. It was worth it to be close to Andy again, to hear him whispering his secrets to Sid before falling asleep.

They come to bed late, laughing under their breath in a way that makes Woody wonder if naked wrestling is in the cards. They wrap around each other as soon as they collapse into bed, but they stay like that, still dressed. Sid pushes a hand up under Andy's shirt and leaves it there.

"The turkey was dry," Andy says. He sounds like he's talking in his sleep.

"No, it wasn't," Sid says, and then they're quiet. Sid starts snoring seconds later, and Andy's breath is heavy with sleep. Woody thinks about sneaking downstairs, checking in with the toys that are surely spread across the floor near the Christmas tree, but he stays put, maybe a little bitterly.

By morning, he's in a bad mood. He can hear the children sneaking down for presents even through Sid and Andy's closed bedroom door. It's the kind of sound he's particularly attuned to, and what good is it doing him, up here with adults who are too busy to remember that he exists?

There's a knock on the door, but Andy and Sid are fast asleep. The door opens, and Andy's mom pokes her head into the room. Woody tries to reconcile her with the tow-headed girl Mike kissed, and he can still see her there in places: her eyes, and her fearless posture.

"Andy," she says, hissing his name in a whisper. "Hon?"

"Hmm?" Andy sits up, startled, looking in the wrong direction. He orients himself and turns toward the door, pushing his hair off of his forehead. "Mom?"

"Sorry to wake you," she says. "But the kids are up. And I can't find the coffee. Or my camera. Did you do something with it?"

"Ah – hang on." Andy slides out of bed. Sid reaches for him, still mostly asleep, his arm flopping onto the mattress when he can't find Andy there.

"Molly gets them too many presents," Andy's mother says, whispering. "Don't you think? It's a little showy."

"Just – hang on," Andy says, mumbling. He gets his robe and guides his mother gently from the room, shutting the door behind him. Woody again considers taking a noisy tumble off the sill, but Sid would just replace him and go downstairs, or back to sleep. Andy could have at least left the door open so Woody could hear the kids' reactions to their gifts.

Sid gets up an hour later and seems disoriented when he sits up, alone in the middle of the bed. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, he and Andy talked about their childhood Christmases. Sid's were not especially happy.

"I still remember the first Christmas present you ever got for me," Andy had said, trying to make him feel better, directing him away from the bad memories.

"You do?" Sid said. "I don't."

"Seriously? When we were sixteen? The backseat of your car?"

"Oh, yeah. The iPod thing. I stole it from someone at school."

"I figured as much. But you put all that music on it, your music. I used to get so sentimental, listening to songs that you wanted me to hear. After you dropped me off, that night, I don't think I slept at all. I just listened to those songs until the sun came up. It was like – ha. It was like you were in bed with me." One of them kissed the other then; Woody couldn't see. "I think that was my life's great ambition, in high school," Andy said. "To be in bed with you more often."

"Well done," Sid said.

"Thanks."

"I'd give you another one of those things if I had any new songs," Sid said. "I stopped collecting them."

"The old ones are still good," Andy said. "They make me feel like I'm in bed with teenage you."

Sid takes a shower and dresses in a clean flannel shirt and gray pants, black socks. He takes Christmas seriously, as if it's a somewhat alien cultural custom and he doesn't want to appear disrespectful. He leaves the door open, at least.

The sounds of wrapping paper shredding and children exclaiming with excitement are heartening, but too far away. Woody looks out the window, but the street is empty. He's so distracted by his disappointment that he almost forgets to turn back toward the bed when he hears someone coming up the stairs.

The footsteps are slightly uncertain, and quiet, and Woody knows it must be one of the kids. He hears a closet door open, then the door to the hall bathroom. The door to Andy and Sid's bedroom opens more slowly, as if the interloper knows that this is someone else's secret place. It's Lena's older daughter, Amy. She's all blond curls and wide eyes, like Molly when she was young, but she's much quieter, more cautious.

She looks directly at Woody, like she was looking for him. This is the first year that she's really been old enough to appreciate toys, though she's never been rough with them. She tiptoes into the room, her chin slightly lifted, the sleeves of her red sweater pulled down over her hands, and makes a beeline for Woody.

"Hey," she says, not as if she's speaking to him but as if she's lodging a complaint, because this colorful thing has been hidden away. She looks over her shoulder and watches the door, then turns back to him and smiles. When she lifts him from the windowsill he thinks of the way Andy cupped him in his hands when Mike offered him. It was different from the way Mike had handled him, and it's different from the way Casey did, too, closer to the way Bonnie held him, though still more like Andy, almost uncannily.

Amy takes him over to the unmade bed and walks him across it, humming to herself. She touches his pull string but seems afraid to use it, as if she's willing to wait until she has permission. When she hears footsteps on the stairs she tucks Woody to her chest and goes rigid.

"Amy?" It's Lena, who was never interested in Woody as a kid, when he was part of Casey's toy box. Lena was crazy for horses and ended up adopting Bullseye. Woody wonders if he's in Amy's room now, or downstairs in her backpack.

"There you are," Lena says when she peeks into Sid and Andy's room. "What are you doing up here?"

"Look," Amy says, lifting Woody. "He was on the window."

"Oh, yeah," Lena says. "I remember this guy." She kneels down and cups her hand around Woody's boots. He's still pressed against Amy's chest, and she seems unwilling to let him go.

"Can I play with him?" Amy asks, whispering, as if she's afraid the answer will be no.

"I guess so," Lena says. "You'd have to be careful. That's a really old toy. I think he belonged to grandma's dad. C'mere, let's ask Andy if it's okay." She lifts Amy up into her arms. It hasn't really been that long since he was played with, but Woody had managed to forget what it felt like, riding in the arms of a child, seeing the world pass by from this particular vantage point. Maybe it's the way Amy is hugging him, like he's precious cargo.

Downstairs, the living room is just as he pictured it: crowded with family, shredded wrapping paper littering the floor like multi-colored snow, the grandchildren absorbed in playing with their new toys. The adults are drinking coffee and clearing breakfast dishes. Luke is asleep in an armchair, an empty plate balanced on his stomach. Ben is reading Lego castle instructions while Taylor looks on, leaning against his shoulder. Lena carries Amy into the kitchen, where Andy is putting plastic wrap over the remains of a casserole.

"She was up in your bedroom," Lena says, and Andy looks up, grinning when he sees Amy clutching Woody. "She found this – I hope it's okay?"

"Oh, yeah, of course," Andy says. "Do you know his name?" he asks Amy. She shakes her head.

"Woody," Andy's mom says, looking up from her coffee cup. "The famous Sheriff Woody. Oh, gosh. I haven't seen that in years."

Andy puts his hands on his mom's shoulders, and Woody knows they're both thinking of Mike. He remembers knowing that he'd found someone special when Mike gave him to Andy. He feels that way now, Amy's heart beating fast under his ear as she clutches him tighter, as if she's afraid Andy will take her away.

"He's pretty cool, huh?" Andy says to Amy. "And probably bored, sitting up there on the window."

Amy nods enthusiastically, toying with Woody's hat. Lena sets her down and walks over to the dishwasher to help Sid load the dirty dishes.

"Woody was my best friend when I was a kid," Andy says, kneeling down so that he's eye level with Amy. "I think it's about time he found a new best friend, though. I'm so old, I can't keep up with him anymore. You think you could?"

"Yeah," Amy says, shy but certain. "I could."

Woody remembers this feeling, too: watching Andy drive away, headed for college. At least, that's where Woody thought he was headed when he left Bonnie's house that day. He was really headed for Sid, and that's who he goes to now, walking over to take the dish rag that Sid is holding. He doesn't really want the dish rag; Woody knows him well enough to understand this, and Sid does, too. Sid wraps his arm around Andy's shoulders, and they watch as Amy sits on the floor and slips Woody underneath one of the dining room chairs, still holding him around his waist.

"I have to break out of this prison," she says, as Woody, giving him a shake to emphasize this statement. "I was framed!"

The afternoon wears on, and Amy's other toys are integrated into the story: a doll with long green hair breaks him out of prison, and they wage battle against the dragon who imprisoned Woody under false pretenses. Amy's sister and cousins play together, tag and board games, but she drifts through the house without paying them much attention, absorbed in her own world. Woody is absorbed in it, too, almost forgetting to dread the moment that he knows will come, when he leaves Andy's house for the last time.

But dread isn't really the right word. He can't sit up on that windowsill forever. He's glad that he didn't join Andy at college, wouldn't have belonged there. He knows Sid will take care of Andy, and it's amazing, even after all these years, how unbelievable that would have been, once. It makes him wonder, with more excitement than trepidation, what the next fifty years will bring.