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after plaid shirt days and nights

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There is a secret that JJ and Kie have kept from the others. Before this, Kie hadn’t known that JJ was the type to keep a secret. Words had seemed to spill from him like an untamed flood, most of them meaningless. She’d learned not to trust him with the majority of the things she held close to her chest. 

The secret was this: she’d kissed JJ around midnight at a party three weeks before everything had gone to hell and she hadn’t known quite why. Other than he was standing there, his smile like summer and they were both a little tipsy. 

He’d looked down at her, hands deep in his pockets and said, “I dare you to kiss me,” It was something JJ had always said to her, his flirts going over her head. But she’d looked back at him and something in her stomach had pulled. In a life where she’d thought everything through, she’d been desperate to do something wild. Nothing had seemed quite as wild as kissing JJ. So she’d stepped up and twisted her arms around his neck before capturing his mouth with her’s. He’d tasted like beer and weed and she’d felt butterflies spring to life in her stomach. 

The kiss had been sweet and short and JJ had gasped against her mouth in surprise. She’d pulled back and his eyes had widened to comical proportions. Kie had laughed, despite herself and JJ had pulled her back toward him, his hands looping around her waist. 

That had belonged to another life though, one that evaporated as soon as they heard Pope and John B approaching. She’d spun away from JJ, laughing and he’d let her, eyes distant. 

Kie thinks she’s been spinning ever since. 

***

 

Maybe Kie has gotten used to this, the scattered motley of scars and bruises that map JJ’s body like careful markings on an old atlas. She’d never had reason to consider them, really. JJ’s mouth moved quicker than any of them could keep up with and often he used his fists in place of any real causes to action.

There is a sort of fragility to him as he stood from the hot tub, bruises blossoming across his abdomen. 

That night, when Kie closed her eyes, instead of seeing anything else that happened recently — instead of seeing gold bars in a cave, Sarah’s laugh in the cold night air, John B’s fractured body — she saw JJ, standing up from the hot tub and placing his heart in her hands. 

She wasn’t sure if she should keep it.

***

The day after the kiss, she’d watched JJ coming up the drive to John B’s house. His head had been down, his hands swaying at his sides. 

She’d been to an art museum on the mainland a few times. If JJ in this moment was a painting, she thought, he’d be cast in shades of blue. Then he had looked up and smiled and she’d chided herself for thinking something like that. This was JJ she was talking about, the same JJ who’d ripped up his math homework to make a makeshift blunt. 

“Kie!” He said, smiling. “Looking fine as ever!”

Kie had flipped him off. She’d been feeling oddly guilty about kissing him and not just because there was the no Pogue’s macking on other Pogue’s rule. Something about his flippant attitude had soothed her. This was JJ, after all, he’d probably forgotten already. Either that, or he’d blabbed to everyone else in their group and Kie was about to hear about it from Pope and John B. 

 

***

That night in the police tent, an officer had offered to drive JJ home. 

“No,” Kie said, “Mom, can’t we —“ 

Her Mom is shaking her head. Her relief at first had been obvious, but there was anger in the lines of her face now. After all, Kie had driven off and left her mother standing in the dirt dust of the road and had gone to aide a potential criminal, even if he was her best friend. “We’re going home Kiara,” her mother had said sharply. Pope’s parents had already left.

“It’s fine Kie,” JJ said and she can see that his shoulders trembled. 

She took one last scattered look back at him, framed in the police tent, head bowed, fingers curled into fists.

 

***

“He — he can’t go home,” Kie is still protesting. “When his Dad finds out that he took his boat — “

“His Dad has a right to be angry,” her Dad says, his grip tightening on the steering wheel. “We’re going to talk about this later, Kiara.” 

And what was she supposed to say? That she’s seen the bruised interior of JJ’s home and that she’s terrified for what she’ll see on his face next? That her friend was dead, gone, swallowed by a storm and she didn’t want to lose anymore friends?

  JJ’s home has been a secret unspoken by all of them for so long, tucked under the blanket. Put away. After all, bruises faded and so did memories. Kie leans her head against the car window. Another tear slides down her face, but she’s not sure for which boy it’s for this time.

 

***

She finally escapes her parents by allowing them to track her location using her phone, promising to only go to JJ’s house. Her entire body feels like an empty cavern that’s about to cave in and her parents have no words. They’d like to punish her, but haven’t they all been punished enough already? There was no lesson quite like the one that they had earned and Kie can’t go to sleep without seeing drowned bodies floating in the marsh.

JJ’s house is quiet, the grass swaying softly in the wind. She feels ridiculous, for a moment, why would JJ be here? He’d never stayed here before. But he’s not at Pope’s and John B’s gone and where else would he go? Where else did he have to go? 

They’d gone to hell and back for John B and Kie had promised herself that she’d do that for any of them, her summer boys. So she stomps up to the door with as much presence and force as she can muster. She bangs on the door. “JJ!”

A rattle inside. “JJ! I know you’re there! Open the door!”

A moment later the door is wrenched open with such force that Kie almost falls into the house. JJ’s father is there, his mouth screwed into a frown, his eyes burning hot as coals. 

“JJ isn’t having visitors,” he says, moving so that he’s filling the doorway. “Were you one of the little fuckers who helped steal my boat?”

Kie refuses to take a step back, even though her insides are quivering. In the last month alone, she’s been shot at, she’s been chased, she’s found everything and lost everything. She doesn’t have any fear left anymore. She’s empty.

“John B took your boat,” she says, which is not the whole truth. 

His father scoffs and slams the door so swiftly in her face that a few strands of her hair get caught in the crack of the door. Kie releases a breath, counted to ten, and devised a plan. She retreats to her car and drives around the block. She wants his father to think she’s gone. If he’d really known her, had taken the time to get to know any of JJ’s friends, he would have realized that Kie was not one who just gave up.

She ties her hair back as she moves around JJ’s house, looking for a sign of him. She catches his father’s shadow in the corner of her eye and ducks down. She crosses her fingers like there’s any luck left in this damn island and hears him pass by. 

She stands on her tiptoes and carefully looks inside one of the windows. She sees a flash of blonde hair, a figure curled on the bed. She carefully, quietly, taps at the window. 

The effect on JJ is automatic. He twists around, panic stretching his face. His eyes widen in surprise when he sees her and he shakes his head. Kie nods. JJ shakes his head. Kie nods. Their entire friendship has been this, two iron wills squaring off. Kie pushes at the window until JJ walks over and carefully pushes it up only a crack. 

“What are you doing here Kie?”

This is not what she expected to find. He doesn’t look upset, he doesn’t look sad. He looks — blank. Carefully blank, as if he’s taken an eraser to his face and erased all emotion. He looks hollow, too. Kie hadn’t realized how much she’d been counting on JJ supplying all the rage, torrents, the everything until now. Until now, when she looks into his face and sees her own hollowness staring back at her.

It’s then that she notices the bruise peering out from the collar of his shirt, already yellowing. “JJ —“ she reaches out before she knows what she’s doing and her fingertips touch the glass.

JJ looks down as if he’s forgotten that the bruise was there.

“Go home Kie,” he says. “Don’t worry about me.”

He slides the window the rest of the way down and Kie can’t help but feel like she’s failed somehow. That whatever had existed between them, fragile as glass, was lying in crumpled remains at her feet. 

 

***

“Look,” Pope says, studying his hands. “It’s not like we can do anything about it. We’ve done enough already, don’t you think?”

Pope’s parents have always liked Kie the best and Kie’s parents have always liked Pope the best. Perhaps that’s the reason they’re allowed to be alone together right now, sitting in the parking lot of the restaurant. Kie has her head propped on her knees.

“You didn’t see him Pope,” she says. 

“We can’t help him,” Pope says. 

Kie wonders how many times they’ve said that to themselves over the years. How many times they had cupped the fragile truth of JJ’s home life between their palms and chosen not to engage. She feels like she’s holding it now, has been holding it since the hot tub and since John B and since, well, everything.  How could Pope have looked at the crumbling ridges of JJ’s dignity and not realized that if they didn’t help him, who would? 

John B had helped him, as best as he could. He’d given JJ a place to stay, a fishing rod, a family. But John B wasn’t here now. He wouldn’t be here ever again and Kie was not about to lose another one of her friends. 

“I’m going to help him,” she says firmly. Pope’s hand traces circles over her knee. Each of these boy’s she’s kissed now, but kisses are as impermanent as a sandcastle on the beach. Why had she done it? She moves, Pope’s hand falling off of her knee. 

“How?”

“I maybe have a plan — “

“Another plan?” Pope demands. “I don’t know if you realized this, Kie, but our plans seem to have led us into this in the first place.”

Kie turns. He’s a stranger now, this boy sitting in the parking lot beside her. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s not that he’s somehow worse, it’s just that they’re all molded by grief now. She has never felt more hollow. 

“Pogues don’t give up on Pogues,” she finally says. “Where would we be then? Where would be if it wasn’t for JJ?”

“We probably wouldn’t be in half of this mess,” Pope says suddenly, standing up. “He’s always the one that drives us to these — “

“If you really believe that,” Kie says, “then maybe you aren’t as smart as I thought.” She stalks off blindly, ignoring Pope when he calls after her. Who would she be, if she didn’t try and help him?

 

***

She goes back to JJ’s bedroom and taps on the window. She sees him stir on the bed, but ultimately ignore her. She taps again and again and again, until JJ finally gets out of bed and pushes the window up a sliver. 

“Jesus Kie,” he says. His eyes are rimmed red and he smells of weed. “I told you to go.”

“You told me not to worry,” Kie says and before he can stop her, she hooks her fingers under the windowsill and shoves up. The window screeches, paint chips fly and JJ looks back toward his bedroom door. She sees emotion, real true emotion, spiral rapidly across his face. Fear. She can taste it almost, but his father must be fast asleep because the door doesn’t open. 

Kie grabs the sill and heaves herself up until she’s toppling into JJ’s room, her backpack catching on the windowsill. He catches her before she slams against the ground and swears. For a brief moment, she’s completely supported against him, her forehead pressing against his shoulder. He makes a soft noise in his throat and Kie steps back, straightening her clothes.

“Kie,” he says again, voice soft, but she’s unzipping her backpack. She pulls out the take-out box and plastic cutlery and JJ closes his eyes. 

“Well,” he says, “you sure do know how to work a man.”

“Sit,” Kie says, pointing a plastic butter knife at him. “Eat. It looks like you’ve been living on weed for the past few weeks.”

“Mostly,” JJ says. “Some cereal too though.”

She makes a face at him and gestures for him to eat. She’d brought enough for both of them, but quickly decides she’s not hungry as JJ falls on the food. 

“Where’s Pope?” He finally says, a few minutes later, around a mouthful of food.

Kie shrugs. “Been spending a lot of time at home.”

JJ snorts. “Haven’t we all.”

“JJ,” she leans forward, “JJ. Come with me. We’ll find somewhere to hang low for a while.”

JJ’s eyes are suddenly and unbearably sad for a moment. He looks down at his lap, throat working for a moment before he says: “I don’t think we can do that Kie.”

“Why not?”

“John B was innocent,” JJ says, “but we still, in a lot of people’s eyes, aided a potential suspect. I’m on probation. There’s no more hanging low, not for us.”

“Then we won’t hang low,” she says. “You’ll come stay with me.”

JJ stares back down at his hands. Then, he looks up. Slowly, softly, he raises a hand and cups her face. Who is this boy staring back at her? There is no recognization, no sign of the boy she’d kissed all those weeks ago on the beach. Nor the boy she’d held in the hot tub, his bloody heart beating in his hand. 

“You can’t save me from this Kie,” he says, a bitter smile pulling at his mouth. “But don’t worry about me. Seriously.” 

This was the thing about JJ, Kie thought, he was always surprising her. She’d been able to predict John B and Pope’s moves to a T, had been able to shape her relationships with them in careful, predicting ways. Maybe that was why she had kissed Pope, that day when they’d seen John B off. If she was a girl in a book, or a movie, that is absolutely what she should have done. A culmination of events, a thank you for the boy who’d saved her. 

She’s never been able to predict JJ. His moves were like the current and she’d stopped trying to figure him out a long time ago. She finds that she wants to go back in time now, memorize him as if she’s trying to memorize a map to a place she’d been once, long ago. 

“Go Kie,” he says quietly. “You’ve still got a chance.”

“You do too,” she says, more fiercely than she thought possible. She places her hand against his chest, feels his heart thumping through his ribcage. He tugs, lightly, on a strand of her hair. 

“That’s sweet,” he says. “But I don’t really believe that anymore Kie.”

“Do you remember,” she says softly, “when we kissed on the beach?”

JJ’s face is unreadable. “I didn’t tell anyone, you know.”

“I know,” she says and then she’s reaching for him. His arms go around her and he’s holding her close, his breath in her hair. She’s crying, a torrent of tears that drip down her face and down in the collar of his shirt. Life would be so much simpler, she thinks, if you always loved the right person.

She isn’t sure who kisses who first, only that one moment they’re doing nothing and the next they’re kissing, her hands curling into JJ’s T-shirt and his hand runs through her hair. It’s nothing like the kiss on the beach. They both taste like tears and fresh food and she realizes that she’s tipping the balance. That she’s stepping on the other side of her life, the one she thought she could control, and stepping into another one.

JJ buries his face in her shoulder and begins to cry.