Brandon is walking from fourth period to lunch when Grant Wheeler steps in front of him to tell him that he's started hallucinating bats.
"Well," Grant says. "Just one bat. In the corner of the ceiling by the art room."
"Like, a Hunter S. Thompson-type bat?" Brandon asks. Grant falls in step beside him, but grabs his arm to guide him away from the lunch room when he starts to turn in that direction.
"No, friendlier than that. It was big, though."
Brandon walks with Grant to the end of the hall. He's looking at Brandon like he should know what to say about this. Brandon still can't believe Grant Wheeler is speaking to him. He's not such a big deal, but he smokes cigarettes and plays basketball, or baseball, or one of those goddamn things.
"Uh," Brandon says. "Did you feel threatened?"
"No, not really." Grant opens the door to the senior courtyard and holds it like Brandon should follow him out.
Brandon follows. He doesn't have enough friends to turn away Grant Wheeler, even if he is only speaking to Brandon because he thinks he's some kind of authority on ghosts. There was a time when Brandon announced to his Life Studies class that he wanted to study paranormal science at college. That made its way around to the entire student body by the following morning, and he still gets called Ghost Boy, though he's since seen the error of his ways and doesn't even believe in ghosts anymore. He hasn't told Grant yet. Grant thinks his house is haunted. Brandon fully plans on telling him to seek psychological help as soon as this ghost consultation gets annoying, but that hasn't happened yet. Grant is kind of funny. If the whole thing ends up being a joke at Brandon's expense he'll lose all faith in humanity.
Grant pulls out his cigarettes as soon as they've turned the corner toward the soccer field, the windows of the cafeteria no longer visible. He sits down on the pavement and looks up at Brandon, one eye shut against the glare of the sun. It's a cool October day, bright and stinking of half-dead leaves.
"I mean, it was just part of the molding up there on the ceiling," Grant says. "It was this little section of it, but I thought it was a bat -- you think the ghost is fucking with my head?"
"I think it'd be more direct." Brandon takes a Snickers bar from his book bag and eats half of it while Grant smokes. He offers Grant a bite, but he just looks at it like he doesn't know what to do with it. Grant is tall and pretty sturdy for a sixteen-year-old, which Brandon doesn't understand, because he never seems to eat.
"I've been doing research," Grant says. "I think we should go to the cemetery after school."
"Okay." Brandon was going to study for a chemistry exam, but fuck it. He's forgotten how much fun it is to chase after the rumor of ghosts. When he was fourteen, he had a group of friends who would get together on weekends and do seances and graveyard runs, but most of them didn't take it as seriously as Brandon, and he would always get frustrated when they laughed and ruined the mood. Grant seems serious. He always has a gravely excited expression on his face when he talks about the ghost.
"Aren't you going to eat lunch?" Brandon asks. Grant puts his cigarette out against the pavement.
"I eat my lunch in History," he says. "I can't wait until fucking 1:30 to eat, you know what I mean?"
"Yeah. Fourth shift lunch is cruel."
"No kidding." Grant looks up at the sky, where wispy clouds sit motionless against the deep blue. "So, the cemetery?"
"I already said yes."
"Oh, yeah." Grant grins, and Brandon studies him, tries to figure out what the hell is really going on here. "Cool."
After seventh period, Brandon stuffs his books into his bag and walks out to the parking lot to meet Grant. His car is easy enough to find, a bright yellow 1973 Mustang with a black stripe along the hood. It's the best car in the lot, despite the fact that Grant lives in the only shitty neighborhood in Thousand Trees. His father works days at the Bank of America on Davidson and nights at Sam's Club, stocking shelves. He's been saving the car since his own teenager-hood, and he gave it to Grant the day he got his license. Brandon's heard the whole story. Grant is obsessed with the car, won't even smoke in it.
Grant is sitting in the driver's seat, and Brandon thinks he's asleep until he gets close enough to see that he's smiling. His eyes are hooded, and the sun is beating bright across the windshield.
"How long have you been waiting?" Brandon asks as he climbs into the passenger seat.
"I skipped seventh."
"Sorry." Brandon would have skipped, too.
"It's okay. You ready?"
They drive down to Lake Park Cemetery, the most significant one in town. Grant has a talk station on the radio, but the volume is turned so low that Brandon can't make out any words. He doesn't mind, tilts his head back on the seat and lets his eyes slide nearly shut. Grant has all the windows down, making conversation impossible, and it's nice.
"I've been reading," Grant says when they arrive. He seems to know where he's going, so Brandon follows him through the graveyard's soggy grass, crows harping up in the trees. "About all the murders in Thousand Trees. Two of them happened in Hickory Pines."
Hickory Pines is Grant's neighborhood. Brandon lives one over, in Chestnut Grove. It used to be the most reputable neighborhood in town, until pockets of McMansions started going up in every available cranny.
"But none of them happened specifically in your house?" Brandon asks.
"They might have. The addresses weren't mentioned, you know what I mean?"
Grant wants his house to be haunted; Brandon has determined that much. He remembers longing for this sort of thing to happen to him, but that was mostly because he was a bored kid who wanted the world to present him with some macabre mystery to solve. Grant has a life. At least, Brandon has always assumed that he does. Whenever they're together, Grant's cell phone stays quiet, and people pass him by in the school hallways without a second look.
"So there was one suicide," Grant says dismissively, as if this is too common to account for his ghost. "And then there was that lawyer who came home to find his wife and son murdered by a dude he'd prosecuted."
"That happened in your neighborhood?"
"Yep," Grant says proudly. "Pretty sure it wasn't in my house, but it could have been."
"Did you ask your parents if the realtor told them a murder happened in your house? They have to disclose that you know, when they sell it."
"That's a good idea," Grant says. He's staring at something in the distance, and Brandon turns. It's the big angel statue in the middle of the cemetery, perched over the grave of a man who died in 1920, when Thousand Trees was just somebody's farmland.
"That angel's eyes follow you if you move around her," Brandon says. "Have you ever tried it? It's creepy."
Grant doesn't say anything. He chews his lip like he's deep in thought.
"I found out the name of that lawyer guy," he says. "It was Richard Pratt. I figure if we find a couple of Pratts and one of them is a lady who died in middle-age and the other is a guy who died when he was fifteen, that's them."
"But then what do we do?"
"I dunno." Grant looks at Brandon like this is where he comes in. Brandon sighs.
"I guess it couldn't hurt to make contact with something -- physical." Brandon is pulling this out of his ass, but he doesn't want Grant to lose faith in him. "Then if we have a seance, they've got a point of reference, you know? In case they haven't already -- locked onto you."
"Yeah." Grant grins like that was what he was waiting to hear. "Exactly."
Brandon's face is red from the exertion of spouting such bullshit. He follows Grant through the graveyard, searching for Pratts. It's getting colder as the sun sinks lower, and Brandon wishes he hadn't spitefully told his mother he didn't need a sweater when she reminded him to take one to school. Grant is wearing only a t-shirt, the back of it tucked into the waistband of his boxers. Brandon would say something but he doesn't want to admit he's looked, though it's hard not to notice with Grant walking in front of him.
"Well, this sucks," Grant says when they've searched for an hour and come up with nothing. "But it's almost dark. You want to come over and I can show you what I'm talking about, the way the door opens itself?"
"Sure." Brandon hasn't been to Grant's house yet. His mother will be worried, but he's not about to interrupt this to check in. Grant pats his shoulder like he's being a good sport, and they walk back toward the car.
"You ever actually seen a ghost?" Grant asks.
"I think I have."
"Oh yeah?" Brandon hasn't heard this part yet.
"Yeah, I'm not sure, though. This ghost in my house, it just looks blacker than the darkness, you know what I mean? Like, solid black, not just dark but black."
They get to his house around six o'clock. It's a two-story contemporary thing, faded bluish paint and a weird octagonal window over the driveway. Grant parks on the street and unlocks the front door with a key from under the mat, which makes sense. He seems like the kind of guy who doesn't like to keep anything unnecessary in his pockets, just his car key on a short chain that looks like it was once a girl's bracelet, and his cigarettes, an ever-present rectangular shape over his right ass cheek. Not that Brandon has looked.
The house is bright and bustling, which Brandon didn't expect. Grant's younger sister is sitting Indian-style on the floor, watching cartoons. She gazes at them with disinterest and turns back to her show. Grant makes a fart noise and taps her with his shoe as they walk past. She scowls at him and calls him an asshole. She's maybe ten.
"Is that you?" his mother asks when Grant and Brandon walk into the kitchen. It's steamy and smells like onions cooking in butter. Grant kisses his mother's cheek. She's tiny and pretty but looks very tired.
"This is my friend," Grant says when his mother sees Brandon lingering awkwardly.
"Hey." Grant's mother grins a little tightly. "Is he here for dinner?" she asks Grant.
"I dunno." Grant is in the pantry, already has a mouth full of fruit roll up. He peels one for Brandon and hands it to him. "You staying?"
"I guess. If that's okay."
Grant's mother waves her hand, and Brandon isn't sure how to interpret that. Grant shrugs and leads him out of the kitchen. They go to Grant's room, where he claims he's heard the ghost crawling across his floor at night. Brandon got goosebumps the first time he told him about it. But he doesn't believe in this stuff anymore.
"Okay, watch," Grant says. He shuts the bedroom door and goes to sit on his bed, a twin with ransacked sheets. Brandon stands in the middle of the room until Grant pats the mattress. They sit together and stare at the door, listening to the muffled sound of the television and plates clattering together out in the kitchen.
"Maybe if we turn off the lights," Grant says. He jumps up and snaps the switch down before Brandon can offer input, like your mother's gonna think we're up to something if we sit in here together with the lights out and the door shut. He swallows hard when Grant bounces onto the bed beside him, waits for his eyes to adjust.
"Listen," Grant says. Brandon can't hear anything but his heart beating like a piece of enormous machinery that is close to overheating. But then. A click. Something about it makes his blood go cold.
The door groans as it slides open just a crack, light spilling inside. Grant laughs deep in his throat and grabs Brandon's hand to make sure he's seeing this. Brandon turns to him, stunned. A line of light from the hallway is sliced across across Grant's left eye like they're in a comic book panel.
"See?" Grant whispers, as if there is someone else in the room who might hear.
"Fuck," Brandon exhales in astonishment. Grant puts his arm around Brandon's shoulders and shakes him, laughing, like they're on the same team and they just scored a goal.
Two days later, they skip third period and go to Taco Bell for lunch. Grant eats five soft tacos and drinks a combination of Mountain Dew, orange Fanta and pink lemonade from the fountain. He makes Brandon try it, and it's surprisingly not disgusting.
"We should go into the woods behind that one house on Howell Mill with the pond out front," Grant says. "I've heard a witch lives back there."
Brandon just rolls his eyes. Grant throws a straw wrapper at him.
"I need a cleansing ritual," Grant says. "I don't want to try to talk to this fucker without some kind of protective charms, you know? The thing scared the shit out of me last night."
Grant has big bags under his eyes. Brandon wasn't going to ask. He sits forward, hunches his shoulders.
Grant rubs a hand over his face and sighs. Brandon has never before seen him express any reluctance to talk about the ghost.
"It sat on me," he says. Brandon chokes up a laugh before he can stop himself. Grant kicks him under the table.
"It wouldn't let me wake up, or move. It was weird. I felt like I couldn't breathe."
"Shit." Brandon doesn't know what else to say. He could make up a cleansing ritual, but what if something really is happening in Grant's house? Ghosts aren't real, but there does seem to be something evil in the place. Just yesterday they were playing Nintendo when tinkly, ice-cream truck type music could be heard faintly from somewhere near the front door. Grant's sister jumped up to catch the truck, but when she opened the door the music stopped, and there was nothing there. Something about the strained innocence of the music was particularly sinister, and for the first time Grant looked sort of freaked out, though he tried to hide it.
They drive out to Howell Mill and Grant parks his car in the little lot by the pond. The shack that sells Icees and counterfeit fishing permits is dark and dusty, a big CLOSED sign hanging crooked in its window. They venture past it to the path that leads up to the hiking trail, the sound of woodpeckers knocking on dead trees echoing through the quiet. The leaves on the ground are satisfyingly crunchy. It hasn't rained since they started to fall.
"We're not seriously looking for a witch's house, are we?" Brandon asks, afraid that Grant has crossed from fun crazy over to dangerous crazy.
"No," Grant says. "I just need to think. My mind's all fuzzy."
"You're just tired." Brandon wants to slap himself. He sounds like his mother.
"You don't think a ghost can make you go insane, do you?" Grant asks. He stops and looks back at Brandon for the answer.
"Only if you let it," Brandon says. Grant smiles, scoffs.
"I don't think it's the ghost of one of the Pratts," he says. "I think it's something else. Remember that girl our age who got arrested when one of the kids she babysat for disappeared?"
"Yeah -- kind of. They let her go, right?"
Grant nods. "Not enough evidence to convict. She went nuts anyway. Her story was that the kids were asleep, and she walked into the kitchen and found the back door open, and water all over the floor. The one kid was missing, so she took the other one out into the woods with her to search. They didn't find him, didn't find anything."
"Someone must have snatched him."
"But then she started seeing him everywhere!" Grant's eyes are getting wide with excitement. "And the other kid did, too. And people kept finding all these weird footprints around the creek back behind the kid's house, big boot prints and little kid feet, bare."
"What does this have to do with your ghost?"
"We heard that weird music." Grant shakes his head. "I don't know, man. I need to think. I feel like I'm on the verge of figuring it out, you know?"
"Yeah." Brandon doesn't feel that way at all. He follows Grant up the trail, and then off of it, into a small meadow full of rocks and tall grass. Grant sits down in the grass with a groan, and stretches onto his back. He covers his eyes, then peeks out through his fingers at Brandon.
"Can we just sit here for a minute?" he says. Brandon is already kneeling down beside him. He lies back and folds his hands on his stomach. It's a cool day, but it feels good in the sun, just warm enough.
"I want to try and contact the ghost," Grant says. "But we have to figure out who it is first. If it's some kind of serial killer ghost, I don't know what I'll do."
"So they never found that kid?" Brandon asks. "Not his bones or anything?"
"Not even a piece of his hair," Grant says. "He was gone, man."
"Shit," Brandon says. He shuts his eyes against the sun. "Are you starting to get worried?"
"Yeah. A little."
Grant's voice is close, and when Brandon opens his eyes, he's leaning over him. He looks sleepy and harmless, his bangs hanging across his forehead, blocking the sun from Brandon's eyes.
"Are you worried?" Grant asks.
"No," Brandon says, though suddenly he is. He's holding his breath even before Grant puts a hand on his chest. There's a protest lodged in his throat when Grant's hand begins to drag down over his stomach and toward his lap, but he can't force it out. Grant is holding his gaze so steadily that Brandon is afraid they'll both die if he blinks.
Grant doesn't say anything, just breathes hot and slow. Brandon's chest is doing some weird ratcheting thing and the sun is suddenly so bright. He opens his legs up involuntarily when Grant's squeezes his dick through his jeans, and Grant takes it like a cue to reach down and cup his balls. Brandon makes a croaking noise and shuts his eyes. He doesn't know what's happening. He's dreaming, must have fallen asleep. Grant's fingers are clumsy but firm, rubbing Brandon until his cock is so hard and full he barely recognizes it. He's never done this with someone else. Never even considered doing it with a guy. Maybe this is something normal guys do, like smoking, like sports.
"Wait," Brandon squawks, and then he comes in his pants, letting out his breath like he's been holding it for hours. He lets his mouth hang open and watches the sky, waits for things to begin making sense again. Grant is staring at him, but Brandon is afraid to meet his eyes. He feels like he just woke up in someone else's life.
"You don't have to do me," Grant says. It's a pretty obvious request to return the favor, but Brandon only lies still, thinking about his ruined boxers and the walk back to the car. He looks down and watches Grant open his own jeans and work a hand into his briefs, studies the shape of his cock inside the cotton. His face is hot; he feels like he's spying. Grant is stroking himself fast like he wants to get this over with, his breath landing in short puffs on Brandon's temple. Brandon dares a glance at Grant's face, and he seems so naked and lonely, jerking himself off while Brandon lies there like he's been drained of blood. He looks like he wants to be kissed. It's so absurd that it fits, and Brandon sits up quick on his elbows, smashes his lips against Grant's with his eyes shut tight. Grant licks him soft like an apology, and it feels even better than his hand did.
Their heads knock together when Grant comes. Brandon kisses the side of his nose and lies back on the ground in defeat. He feels weightless and humiliated, waits for the punch line. Grant sighs tremendously and falls onto his side like he's going to sleep for days. He's crumpled and hazy, his shirt hitched up to reveal the smooth skin on his stomach. Brandon tries to come up with an appropriate response to this situation, knows he never will.
"Sorry," Grant mumbles. "I don't know why I did that."
"Maybe it was the witch."
And that must be the appropriate response, because Grant grins and shuts one eye against the sun, and the cold mess in Brandon's boxers seems suddenly less apocalyptic. He never realized before that part of the reason he likes Grant is his face. He's got a really good face.
They go to the haunted movie theater that Friday to get a sense of perspective. They've been kind of inseparable since the day in the meadow, skipping a lot of school. Brandon doesn't know about Grant, because they don't talk about it, but he feels like they'll wake up from whatever is happening if they spend too much time apart. He doesn't want to wake up. He kisses Grant in bathroom stalls between classes, pressed between the painted cinderblock and the warm weight of him. Grant with his Old Navy sweaters and turkey sandwich breath. Brandon comes when Grant kisses him. That's all it takes, and he's not dumb enough to believe that stuff like this lasts very long.
"We just want tickets for whatever you've got playing in theater seven," Grant says when they're leaning on the box office ledge. The cashier, a girl with hair that's been bleached to death and separated by plastic barrettes, gives them a long-suffering look. It's not an uncommon request.
"That would be Blood Sport IV," she says. Grant looks at Brandon, beams.
"Perfect," he says to the girl. He pays for Brandon's ticket. Brandon doesn't care what people think. He's been living like he knows when the world is going to end: soon.
"So, the double murders," Grant says as they wait in line for refreshments. Brandon has heard the story ten million times before, like everyone who lives in Thousand Tress, but he shoves his hands in his back pockets and listens intently. Like everyone in Thousand Trees, he loves this story.
"There's this married woman and she falls in love with -- what was he?"
"A mechanic." Brandon has also heard a version where she fell in love with a janitor, but he refuses to believe that.
"Right. And her husband, he owns the only laundromat in town. Cause this was awhile back."
"You know what's there now?" Brandon asks.
"A pet store," Grant says. They order their popcorn and two monstrous Coke Icees that go for five bucks each, but they're not quite reckless enough to share a drink in public, and Brandon is grateful that Grant understands this. He seems to get everything Brandon needs without asking, and to know what Brandon wants before he does. He invents what Brandon wants, seems like.
"So she's in love with this mechanic," Grant says as they head toward theater seven, in the back on the right, the scene of the crime. "And while her husband is slaving away over laundromat shit, she meets the mechanic in this theater. It's a regular thing, because they always run the worst movies here at the back, and the theater's usually empty -- or it was, before this -- so they've got privacy to fuck around in there. But the husband is not as dumb as she thinks, and he figures it out, follows her. The next time she does it he's got a gun. Two shots, one in the back of each head. No silencer! They didn't see it coming, and no one thought anything of hearing gun shots, cause it's a movie theater. The husband walks out the exit doors at the side --" Grant pauses to nod at them. "And that's it. Gets away. Never seen again."
"Everyone always assumes the husband did it," Brandon says. "Maybe it was random."
"Yeah, right!" Grant opens the door with his hip, hands full of junk food. "It was him. He disappeared the day it happened. Brandon! It was him."
Brandon is glad the lights have already gone down. He's smiling hard as they find their way to their seats. Grant has never said his name before. He didn't even realize this until he finally heard it.
"They should make a movie about the murders," Brandon whispers when they're seated in the middle of the fourth row. "And show it in this theater."
Grant looks at him like he's a genius.
The movie sucks, predictably, but at moments it's unintentionally hilarious. There are only three other people in the theater: a chunky man and woman in the back, and a kid in the front row who looks nervous, either because he snuck into the movie or because of the theater's history. Brandon and Grant finish the entire bag of popcorn and play jerk-off chicken until the flies of their jeans are buttery and salted. They laugh and curse each other in whispers, and the theater, as usual, isn't scary at all.
They practically jog to the car, and Grant drives way too fast, parks crazily in the under-construction McMansion-hood of the week. This is a good one, the houses still wooden skeletons surrounded by red dirt. Grant yanks Brandon into the backseat, and they grind their laps together, because it still feels so frighteningly good and makes them come so fast and hard that they can't even imagine doing anything else. Grant fishes his little battery-powered radio out of the glove compartment, and they stretch out on the seat to listen to Coast to Coast AM, fooling around during commercial breaks and when it starts to get too cold. It's three in the morning by the time they leave the construction site, and Brandon falls asleep in the passenger seat.
He's pretty sure Grant made the whole ghost thing up just to seduce him, and he's in something like love with him for it. What a story for the grandkids.
Grant pets him awake when they get to his house. Brandon sits up with a moan, filled with the weird dread he experiences whenever they separate.
"Tomorrow we'll read up on those other unsolved child abductions," Grant says. "I just bet the guy who's responsible for them lived in my house. I just have a feeling."
"Don't say that," Brandon mutters, still half-asleep. He thinks about telling Grant that he can drop the whole act, but discussion of what's going on could easily break the spell.
"Listen, I hope I'm wrong," Grant says. He sounds truly afraid, and Brandon leans over to give him a comically wet kiss on the cheek.
"You're wrong," he says.
In the morning he'll recognize this as the jinx. He learned during his stint as a paranormal junkie that there's nothing a pissed off spirit likes better than calling a cocky fucker's bluff.
The next day feels off from the beginning. Something about the sunlight is wrong, sharp and bitter. Brandon takes a shower to try and get rid of the feeling, and drives his mom's car over to Grant's house with his hair still wet.
Grant is sitting on the front steps, which are wooden and cracked all over, a collection of loosely associated splinters. He's smoking, the pack and lighter beside him on the top step. Brandon walks up with his hands in his pockets, a defensive sort of move. Grant looks terrible.
"You okay?" Brandon asks. Grant shakes his head. Brandon scoots the lighter and cigarettes over and takes their place beside him.
"Something bad happened." Grant's voice is almost unrecognizable, not timid but checked.
"Isn't your mom going to get pissed if she sees you smoking?" Brandon isn't ready to hear about anything bad. He's been waiting for the catch; everything's been so good. It's not fair that he knew it was coming. It's not right that it finally has.
"She took Alicia to a soccer game," Grant says. "Dad's at work."
"Let's go inside." Brandon wants to put an arm around him. He's shaking.
"I'm not going back in there." Grant meets his eyes at last, and for a minute Brandon is afraid of him.
"What the hell happened?"
"I'll tell you." Grant stands up, flexes his hand until Brandon puts the cigarettes and lighter into it. "I'll tell you when we're in the car."
Grant smokes two cigarettes while Brandon drives. Brandon's mom is going to kill him when she smells it, but he doesn't have the heart to ask him to stop. He's wrecked, someone wrecked him. Brandon swallows the first bubble of a sob when he thinks of it this way. He doesn't even know where he's going. Someplace they can be alone, which is nowhere during the day, especially on a sunny Saturday with the parks full of ultimate frisbee leagues. He finally settles on the senior community center behind the public library. It's deserted as usual. He parks in the back and looks at Grant, who hasn't said a word since they left his house.
"Hey," Brandon says, desperate. He reaches over to touch the back of Grant's neck, and he's relieved to find that his skin is warm, despite the fact that he looks half-dead.
"Brandon." Grant won't look at him. When he swallows, Brandon can feel it under his hand. "Something's wrong with me."
"No, Grant -- what are you talking about?"
"Last night. I scared everybody. My parents, my sister. I thought I saw something and it was going to kill me."
"What did you see?"
Grant pinches his eyes shut and shakes his head, like he doesn't want to remember. Brandon's heart is pounding. He wants to tell him to stop this right now, to laugh it off and find it fascinating and talk again about buying charms from witches as if it's all a big joke. He rubs Grant's neck with his thumb and forefinger. His muscles are tight and trembling.
"I even turned the light on," he says. "I turned the light on and it was still there. It was this black stuff, like cobwebs, and it spread out from the corners -- oh shit, Brandon, I'm crazy, I'm fucking crazy, aren't I?"
Brandon gets out of the car. He's shaking now, too. Maybe Grant is just joking. Maybe he'll burst into laughter any minute now, tell Brandon he really had him going, but he's cowering in the passenger seat like he still thinks he's in danger. Brandon opens the passenger side door and pulls him out by the hand, wraps him into his arms. He doesn't even look around the lot to make sure no one will see, doesn't much care at the moment. Grant ducks his head down to Brandon's shoulder and sniffles against it.
"It's okay," Brandon says. He rubs his back, kisses the wet corner of his eye. He can fix this, whatever the fuck it is. No problem.
"They came in and they couldn't see it," Grant says, crying in muffled jags against Brandon's neck. "My parents, and my sister. It was there, and they couldn't see it."
"Maybe you just need your eyes checked."
"But I felt it, too. It wanted to kill me."
"Okay, okay." Brandon rocks him in his arms. He reeks of cigarettes and feels thinner than he did last night.
"I don't know what to do," Grant says, like he's looking for suggestions. "I don't want to get committed. I don't want to get doped up. You should have seen the way my mom looked at me this morning. Even my sister--" He breaks off there, cries hard. Brandon holds him like he can squeeze this out of him if he just gets close enough.
"You're not crazy," Brandon says, though he's isn't sure. "I saw the door open, and heard that music. There's something there. Maybe it can hide itself from your family. Maybe it is trying to drive you insane."
"Oh, fuck, do you really believe that?" Grant pulls back to look at him, and Brandon is afraid that he'll recognize his doubt. He makes his face as cool and certain as he can.
"Yes," he says. "You're fine. We'll fix it. You're fine."
They drive to the Quick Stop so Grant can buy more cigarettes, the sunlight sharpening around them. Grant doesn't need a fake ID because his friend works the counter. The guy is stringy and tattooed and Brandon hates him immediately. He buys a slushie and a bag of Ruffles, fills the tank. He usually lets it run down to empty before he'll spend money putting gas in his mom's car, but he needs something to do with his hands, busy work.
"Eat these," he says when he's driving. He throws the Ruffles into Grant's lap. Grant is smoking again, and he takes a last drag before flinging the cigarette out the window and opening the chips with feeble determination.
"I haven't been sleeping," he says, gazing down into the bag as if it's an intimidating abyss.
"You can come stay at my house," Brandon says.
"Yep." Brandon lives in the basement and has his own door that leads out to the backyard. His Dungeons and Dragons group has commented that it's a great setup for sneaking in girls. He never knew until recently why the concept made him so glum. Girls are like sports, another thing he wishes everyone would get off his back about.
They spend the rest of the day the library, where the sunlight is dusty and kind through the high windows. Brandon pages through familiar spirit guides and ghost hunting manuals, the books he would renew and renew during his obsession with paranormal science. They feel like old friends between his fingers, calming him down and assuring him that all of this is possible, documented and rational in its way. Grant leans beside him and reads over his shoulder while he makes notes. Brandon kisses him when no one is looking, quick and sweet just to make sure he's still okay. He seems to be recovering, slowly, pointing at examples of spirit photography with wonder rather than fear. Brandon can hear his stomach growling. When the library closes down at seven he takes him to Ruby Tuesday's and pays for his cherry Coke and bacon cheeseburger. Grant grins at him across the table.
"Maybe it was just a nightmare," he says.
In the midst of the warm restaurant noise, Brandon is inflated with a sense of accomplishment. Grant's eyes have gone mischievous again, less gray and more blue. Case closed.
He drives home and tells Grant how to get into the basement, then makes a quick appearance upstairs with his mother, who is watching old horror movies on AMC. Halloween is just a week away, and they're showing Bride of Frankenstein and Revenge of the Creature, all the old classics. Brandon would watch with her if he didn't have Grant to look after. He wishes he could just tell her about Grant, and maybe he could, maybe they could all watch scary movies together and she would trust him to take Grant downstairs for a sleepover afterward. It's not like one of them might get pregnant.
"You're certainly out and about a lot lately," his mother says while Brandon leans on the arm of the couch. "What's up?"
"Nothing's up. I'm just hanging out with my friend. Friends."
His mother grins as if she knows everything, and Brandon goes for the basement door, tells her he's going to watch Evil Dead downstairs.
Grant has put all the lights in the basement on, and he's sitting at the end of Brandon's bed, which is just two fat mattresses stacked onto the floor. He's hugging his arms to his chest. His eyes look gray again, but maybe it's just the shadows.
"I think it comes when I'm alone," he says.
"Is it here now?"
Brandon is afraid he's lying. He looks around his room but sees nothing out of the ordinary, just the Lord of the Rings poster he should have thought to take down.
"We'll watch a movie," he says, trying not to give this development too much thought. It's late. Grant is tried, that's all. When Brandon goes to his DVD collection he skims over Evil Dead in favor of The Big Lebowski. Grant lies sideways on the bed and Brandon curls around him, absorbs his laughter happily. They fall asleep without even reaching for each other's laps. It's not that kind of night.
In the morning, they spend a long time waking up, yawning bad breath into each other's faces and drifting back to sleep. Brandon knows that if he sleeps too late his mother will come down looking for his laundry, so he finally rouses Grant a little after eleven o'clock. He sits up and rubs his face, lets Grant yank him back down.
"Did you sleep alright?" Brandon asks. His eyes fall shut again once his head is on the pillow, and he cups the back of Grant's head, smooths his hair into place.
"Uh-huh." Grant scoots close, bites the tip of his nose. "You're -- I -- " He can't articulate it, and Brandon is mostly relieved, lets him push his boxers down and feel what he's like without two layers of clothes between them. He's still got his morning wood, hot and sensitive against Grant's palm. He tries not to make any embarrassing noises, and pushes them into Grant's mouth when he can't stuff them down. Grant reaches around to touch his bare ass, feather-light like he doesn't want to wake it, and it only takes two passes of his hand along the crack to finish Brandon off. He pumps what feels like a week's worth of come onto the sheets, and Grant watches him, his mouth wet and open.
"Yeah," he says softly, as if Brandon needs encouragement.
Brandon climbs over the swamp he's left on his sheets, his arms and legs wobbly and barely functional. He slides Grant's boxers off and stares at his cock, thick and flushed red, and for the first time he thinks he understands blow jobs. He wants to lick Grant until he's shivering with pleasure, toes curled up, wants him in his mouth and hard against the back of his throat, but he barely knows how to use his hand when he's trying his tricks on someone else, so he doesn't dare. He figures they have time for that, for everything. Pulling him off is miraculous enough. With his hand tight around Grant's naked cock, he can feel him throb when he comes, and it's enough to get him half-hard again. Grant's ribs surface along his chest when he arches up off the mattress, his eyes fluttering somewhere between open and closed, his dick still pulsing in Brandon's loosening grip.
They slump onto each other, boxers still pulled down because it feels good to be pressed against so much skin, even the sticky parts. Brandon sleeps thinly, listening to his mother walk around upstairs, turn the water on in the kitchen, open and shut the front door. He lifts his head and looks at Grant. He likes that they can stare at each other without speaking and it doesn't feel weird.
"Did you like me before the ghost?" Brandon asks. He feels bad about bringing it up, but he's been wondering.
"A little," Grant says. "You were in my Econ class last year, remember? You had to do a presentation and you like, forgot one of the pages of notes you'd written."
"Oh, God." Brandon winces at the memory.
"Your face got all red and your voice started shaking, and I --" Grant kisses him. "Yeah."
They take turns in the shower, and Brandon gets a weird thrill out of loaning Grant clean socks, boxers, and a faded Dream Theater t-shirt that once belonged to his father. Brandon's mother has gone somewhere with the car, so they walk over to Grant's house, eating cold Pop Tarts on the way. It's another bright day, the colors slanted to pastels the way they always seem to be on Sundays, pumpkins on the porch of almost every house they pass. Grant's footsteps are slow, but Brandon insists.
"You're going to have to sleep there tonight," he says. "We have to speak to the spirit, or whatever, get him to go away."
"You think it's a him?"
"Well -- yeah, I guess I do."
Grant stops walking and presses his lips together.
"I don't want to do this," he says. Brandon hooks a finger through the belt loop of his jeans. They're standing in the woods between Chestnut Grove and Hickory Pines, and they can just see the roof of Grant's house, leaf-covered and innocuous.
"I know," Brandon says. "But you have to. It's your house. I wish you could live in my room, but you can't."
"Why not?" Grant asks, and he sounds so pathetic that Brandon almost gives in. He puts his hand on Grant's back and gently moves him forward until he's walking toward his house at a steady clip. He needs closure. It was just a nightmare, but it must have been a bad one.
Nobody is home. Grant moves through the living room cautiously, calling for his mother even after it's obvious that she's gone, her car missing from the driveway. They walk back to Grant's room, which is as dim and quiet as the rest of the house. The place has an evacuated feeling, like it's been abandoned in a hurry and no one will be back. Brandon stays close to Grant, who is looking up at the corners of his bedroom ceiling, hugging his elbows.
"It's not gonna come when you're here," he says.
"Why not?" Brandon asks. "It opened the door when I was here. It played that music."
"Maybe that was something else," Grant says. "Some not-evil spirit. This thing waits until I'm by myself."
Brandon puts his hands on Grant's hips, lips against the back of his ear. He wants to tell him he loves him, to give that to him like a charm he can keep with him when he's alone, but he doesn't want the presence in this house -- whatever it is, even if it's just something he's imagined -- to use it against them.
"Okay," Brandon says. "I'll go into the living room. You shut the door. If anything happens, just shout, and I'll come running."
"It won't work," Grant says. "I'll know you're out there."
"Just try it." Brandon will not let him go crazy. He just won't allow it. He wants Grant to be his boyfriend and take him to prom and marry him in Massachusetts and do all the stupid fruity things that used to terrify him so much that he couldn't even think about the fact that he beats off to thoughts about other guys beating off, like they're cheering each other on. He's starting to feel like himself, and it's easier than he ever imagined, and he won't let some black cobwebs take it away.
Grant agrees to the experiment, and Brandon waves to him somberly before shutting him inside his room. He lingers out in the hallway for half a minute, listening, but he only hears Grant sit on his bed, two quick squeaks of the mattress springs. He lets out his breath and walks into the living room, steps up onto the fireplace to look at the family pictures lined up on the mantle. There's one of Grant when he was a kid, gap-toothed and grinning with a t-ball bat slung over his shoulder. Brandon looks at it until his eyes sting, and he hurries back down the hall, throws open the door of Grant's bedroom. He's just sitting there on the bed, and he tries to smile when Brandon walks inside.
"See?" Brandon sits behind him, pulls him close and wraps his legs around him.
"Yeah." Grant puts his hands over Brandon's. He doesn't really sound convinced.
Monday morning is cloudy and cold, the sky paved gray and the kitchen windows frosted with a few delicate ice crystals. Brandon makes hot chocolate while his mother stands at the sink, her coffee cup hugged to her chest.
"Mrs. Johnson called me," she says. Brandon puts a mug full of milk into the microwave.
"That lady who lives in Dorset Falls, you know, in the house behind ours? Stephanie's mom."
"Oh, right." Stephanie was the bane of Brandon's childhood, a jock who always organized the other neighborhood kids into games that involved constant running. Brandon eventually gave up their company for video games.
"She said you had someone over the other night. A boy."
Brandon keeps his eyes on the mug, which is turning in the microwave. He hasn't had a lot of time to envision his mother's reaction to Grant. It's been just the two of them since his dad died when he was thirteen, and he's never really had a reason not to tell her everything.
"I smelled smoke in my car," she says. "Is he a smoker?"
The microwave beeps, and Brandon jumps. He doesn't know how to answer that question. Yeah, Grant smokes, but is he a smoker?
"I'll make him quit," Brandon says. His face is burning, and suddenly the hot chocolate seems unnecessary. He dumps the Swiss Miss powder into the steaming milk anyway, stirs it up vigorously. His mother touches the back of his neck, rubs her hand across his shoulders.
"I asked Mrs. Johnson if he was cute," she says. "She looked at me like I was nuts. She's a nosy bitch, but I knew that already."
"Yeah." Brandon grins down at his hot chocolate, blows on it.
"So is he?"
"Jesus, Mom. I don't know. Yes."
She drives him to school. He usually walks, but it's cold, and in the moment he loves his mother and their non-haunted house so much that he doesn't mind the extra time with her. They listen to the horrible Top 40 radio show on the city's "number one" station. They're doing a feature on ghosts for Halloween, playing alleged EVP recordings from listeners' homes.
"You used to be so into that stuff," his mother says.
"I still kinda like it," Brandon admits.
At school, he sits through first and second period anxiously, his right leg jiggling under his desk. He waits at Grant's locker after second, when he usually changes books, but doesn't see him. Third period seems to last an eternity, and he goes to the typically deserted bathroom by the orchestra room, where they usually meet before fourth. He's not in their stall, not anywhere. Brandon waits as long as he can, and he's late to class. He wishes for the first time in his life that he had a cell phone.
When Grant is not in their usual lunch spot out by the soccer field, he walks to the parking lot, his heart pounding. A cursory examination from the top of the front stairs tells him Grant is not here, or at least his car isn't. The sight of the lot, filled with taupe SUVs and silver Corollas, is entirely too depressing without Grant's bright yellow Mustang dressing it up a bit. As the bell for fifth period rings, Brandon walks away from the school, toward the woods.
The small pine forest between the school and Hickory Pines is quieter than usual, no pot smokers standing in giggling circles or shouts from the Phys Ed classes that practice on the soccer field. The sun is still hidden behind a flat wall of clouds, and the day is abnormally cold for October. Brandon walks quickly through the woods, troubled by the feeling that he's being watched. He thinks of the kid who got kidnapped right under his babysitter's nose, and the sitter running through the woods with the other kid's hand tight in hers, screaming his name. A squirrel shimmies frantically up a tree behind him, and he breaks into a jog, startled by the sound even after he turns back to see the animal staring at him in equal terror.
Grant's car is parked out in front of the house. Brandon pounds on the front door, but no one answers. Afraid that he's in there, trapped by a ghost or maybe even hurt, he takes the key from under the front mat and unlocks the door.
"Hello?" he calls. "Grant? Anybody here?"
He races down the hallway toward Grant's bedroom when he gets no answer. The door is hanging open and the room is empty. Brandon walks inside, his breath coming fast and loud, the key for the front door squeezed so hard into his hand that it cuts his palm.
"Grant?" he says weakly, though he knows now that he's not here. He stands in the middle of the room and tries to quiet his breath. The silence hums around him like florescent lights, though the whole house is dark. He knows he should leave, but he wants to prove either that there is nothing here or that there definitely is something. He can't decide. If there is nothing, that might mean Grant really is crazy, and he'd accept any reality before that one. He turns around with the terrible feeling that he'll see someone standing in the hall and staring at him with wide, unblinking eyes, and gasps even when he finds the doorway empty.
Suddenly, a door slams. Not the one in front of him, or across the hall, but it came from somewhere in the house, and the sharpness of the noise was unmistakable. Whoever or whatever slammed that door was angry.
Brandon tears out of the house, a frightened whine building in the back of his throat. He doesn't look at anything, and is afraid that when he tries to pull the front door open, whatever is in here won't let him leave. When the door opens without resistance he flings himself outside, trips down the front stairs. He's flooded with the feeling that if he had stayed in that house for five seconds longer, he'd be dead. He runs from the house with the key still clutched in his hand, his heart pinballing like it's going for the high score.
He runs all the way to his house as if he's being chased. For all he knows, he is. The satisfaction he expected to feel upon learning that Grant is not just seeing things is overshadowed by a mealy, rotten new awareness: there are evil things in the world, and they mean to do harm. Being alone in that house left him with no doubt.
He rounds the side of his house, headed for the backyard and the door to the basement, and he screams when he sees someone sitting on the concrete platform by the air conditioning unit. It's Grant, jacket-less and white-faced, staring at him with the wide eyes he was afraid he would see inside his house.
"Grant!" he says in a huff, bent over, his exhaustion catching up with his adrenaline. "What are you -- I was looking for you --"
"It was there, at school." Grant's voice is a tiny, stepped-on thing, his eyes unfocused. "I saw it in second period, spreading across the whole ceiling. I don't know. I ran."
"Fuck," Brandon exhales. He pulls Grant up and hugs him hard. He's stiff and cold, unresponsive, like he doesn't know where he is.
"I went to your house, looking for you," Brandon says. "I was in your room and I -- I don't know how, but I know it was there. And it wanted to hurt me, oh, fuck, Grant, but you're not crazy, don't worry, it's there."
"I know," Grant says. His face is vacant, almost unfamiliar. "I'm not worried about that anymore. I know it's real and it's going to kill me, Brandon. It's coming."
The panicked way he says so makes Brandon look over his shoulder, but he only sees the trees and bushes in the backyard, swaying against a breeze that is so delicate it seems menacing. He fumbles at the back door, trying to get it open, and curses himself when he realizes he's using the key to Grant's house. He finds the right one in his pocket and hurries Grant inside.
His mother will be at work until five, and he can't decide if he's glad or sorry about this. He takes Grant up to the kitchen and cuts him a slice of leftover lasagna. Grant sits in silence while it bubbles in the microwave, and Brandon paces, pulls his hands through his hair.
"Okay," he says. "Okay." He doesn't know how to continue.
"I think I have to burn the house down," Grant says. "I had a dream that I did."
Brandon waits for any indication that he's kidding, not really expecting one. The microwave goes off they both curse in surprise.
"No," Brandon says. He sets the lasagna in front of Grant and hands him a fork. "You're not burning your house down. Eat something, you look sick."
Grant holds the fork like he doesn't know what it is. Brandon peers out the kitchen windows, waiting for some approaching invisible force to show itself.
"I think we need to find that witch," he says. Grant looks at him like this is crazier than the idea of burning the house to the ground.
"What's she going to do about it?"
"I don't know, but I'm afraid -- I'm afraid. We could go back over to the house, just me and you, and try to tell the ghost to get lost, but I don't think it would work. I think it would go really badly, in fact."
Grant nods in agreement. He eats the entire plate of lasagna and then some Halloween candy from the bag Brandon's mother bought for trick-or-treaters. They move to the living room and Brandon puts the TV on; they both need a break from discussing the situation. They stare at Cheaters and Judge Mathis without really watching, Grant leaning limply against Brandon's chest. He checks the corners of the room periodically, bringing his eyes up slowly and shuddering even when he sees nothing there.
"Tell me if you see anything," Brandon whispers, like they're already hiding from it.
"It won't come when I'm with you." Grant sounds so certain. He presses his face against Brandon's neck, and Brandon can feel his eyelashes swipe down over his skin as he shuts his eyes.
"Get some rest," Brandon says. Grant sighs as if this is a preposterous suggestion and then promptly falls asleep, melting down to Brandon's lap and snoring in little outbursts every ten minutes or so. Brandon holds him like they're in a tragic oil painting, one hand in the indention before his hip and the other cupped over his head. He keeps his eyes on the windows, watching the blue-tinted landscape and the changes in the wind.
He carefully disentangles himself from Grant when he hears his mother's car pulling into the garage, and leaves Grant asleep on the sofa. He's had a few hours to think about how to present this situation to his mother, but hasn't really come up with anything. He stands near the basement door and listens to her footsteps, slow and heavy like it's been a long day. She opens the door and gasps when she sees him standing there, puts a hand over her heart.
"Brandon, you --" She frowns when he holds a finger to his lips. He points toward the couch and she chuffs in surprise when she sees Grant curled up under the red throw that she huddles under when she's watching movies late at night.
"Okay," she whispers. "What the hell?"
"C'mere." Brandon leads her down the hallway to his bedroom. He's got no idea how he'll explain what's going on, but he's glad to have an ally. Grant is involved in this to a terrifying degree, and he's not thinking straight. Brandon cares about him too much to be objective. Still, he knows his mother doesn't believe in ghosts, and there's always the threat of her getting the police or child services or some other judgmental bastard involved.
"Who is that boy?" she asks when Brandon's bedroom door is shut. "Is that the boy?"
"Yeah. Mom. He's in trouble. But don't freak out."
"What kind of -- oh, God, you were such an easy teenager for so long. I knew this kind of shit was gonna catch up with me and then some."
"It's fine!" Brandon says, though it isn't. "It's not a big thing. There's just some stuff going on at his house. His parents, uh. Found out he's, you know, and kicked him out."
"Poor thing." His mother frowns as if she knows he's lying, but Brandon has this delicate new understanding between them on his side, and she's willing to play along, maybe. "Do you want me to talk to his mother?"
"No, God no. She's actually not that bad. It'll probably be okay, they just need some time. You know? To think about it? Uh, or. Anyway, he's here. So that's why."
His mother takes a deep breath and stares at him, holding it, then lets it out. Brandon gives her a pleading look. They've had many conversations without speaking since his father died; there are some things that would only be cheapened if they were said out loud. Brandon has always felt lucky to have one of the few mothers in the world who seems to understand this.
"Do his parents know where he is?" she asks.
"Well, make sure they know he's safe. He can sleep on the couch, but I'm watching Dancing with the Stars in there at eight, so he'd better be otherwise occupied for an hour. And for God's sake, Brandon, tell me you're using condoms."
"Excuse me? Don't give me that look, I'm completely serious. I'll go back out into that nasty weather right now and buy you some if you --"
"It's not, like, an issue!" Brandon holds his hands up and shuts his eyes, winces. "And anyway don't worry about it. I'm not stupid."
She gives him another long look of consideration, then makes an exasperated face in the direction of the ceiling. It's her way of consulting his father when Brandon drives her insane. He's always been jealous of her ability to do this, as if he actually answers.
"I'm taking a bath," she says. "Get dinner started for me and wake your little friend up. I'd like to meet him."
"Mom, God. Don't call him my little friend."
He goes back out the living room and sits beside Grant on the couch. He hears the squeak of the bathtub faucet in his mother's room, and then the water whining through the cold pipes. The wind has picked up outside. Brandon scratches Grant's back until he rolls over and blinks up at him. He's droopy-eyed, his hair sticking up crazily, and the color has finally returned to his cheeks.
"I will never let anything hurt you," Brandon says, so low and quiet that he thinks Grant might not have heard. He sits up with a groan and puts his face against Brandon's. His cheeks are hot and soft; he smells like sleep.
"I'd be dead already if you weren't around," Grant says.
"Don't talk about being dead."
They eat dinner with Brandon's mother at the kitchen table. Dinner is usually served on the couch in front of the TV, so it feels like a special occasion; his mother even lights a few dusty candles. They eat stir fry with rice, and Grant at least pretends to like the tofu. He's surprisingly charming with Brandon's mother, all smiles, and only jumps once, when a branch hits the back porch.
"It's getting dangerous out there," Brandon's mother says. "Grant, do your parents know where you are?"
"Yes," he says, a lie. "Thanks for letting me stay."
"It's no problem. I'm glad to help."
Grant beams at her like she knows the whole story, like she's the witch who will save him.
"Where's your dad?" Grant asks later, when he and Brandon are down in the basement, Brandon's mother upstairs watching her show. They're curled under three layers of blankets, pressed nose to nose, the TV playing post-season baseball on mute. It gets freezing in the basement during winter, and this is the first time Brandon has had someone to pull under the blankets with him.
"He died three years ago," Brandon says. He's gotten good at saying it with a poker face.
"Oh." Grant's hand tightens on his side, underneath the blankets, underneath his shirt. "Shit."
"Yeah. An accident at work. I don't -- it was bad."
He lets Grant pull him in close like he's suddenly an invalid. This kind of sympathetic petting once made him want to break things, but he doesn't mind it so much now. Grant breathes into his hair, warm and Halloween-candy scented, and for a second Brandon thinks they can beat whatever is after them just like this, ducked under blankets, out of the wind.
"Do you believe in God?" Grant asks. He sounds like he's afraid someone will overhear. Brandon kisses the skin just under his chin, where he's softest and warmest and smells so good.
"I don't know," he says. "Sometimes."
Grant falls asleep in Brandon's bed, not on the couch, but Brandon's mother never comes down to retrieve him. Brandon is blissed out with gratitude, and he sleeps deeply, wrapped around Grant even after they've both begun to sweat.
Sometime after three o'clock in the morning, he wakes up. Not suddenly or uncomfortably, he simply rolls over and tries to decide if he needs to pee badly enough to get out of bed or if it can wait until morning. He sees the black figure as he's turning around, just out of the corner of his eye, but it's enough to make his heart clench. He keeps a night light in the little hallway that leads to the stairs so that he'll be able to navigate his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and it's only because of its glow that he's able to see that the black shape at the end of the bed is human-sized.
He stares at it, sitting up on his elbow and unable to move or look away. When his eyes adjust to the darkness, he curses in relief and annoyance when he realizes it's just Grant, standing at the end of the bed and staring at him.
The shape and heat of Grant, still beside him in bed, and the murderous glint in the eyes of the Grant at the end of the bed register at the exact same moment, and the intersection of these two observations hits him like someone has reached into his back and ripped all of his organs out in one swift motion.
He screams so loud that he breaks his voice; it comes up like a knife and ruins his throat. He scrambles under the covers as if they'll protect him, and the Grant who is beside him in bed wakes up with a shout. Brandon tries to scream again, but he can't make any sound come up, his throat raw and his mind blanked. Grant flicks the lamp by the bed on so frantically that it crashes to the floor. Brandon hears his mother's footsteps racing across the hallway upstairs.
"What's wrong?" Grant asks, trying to pull back the blankets that Brandon has clawed into his fists. "Brandon? What happened? What's the matter?"
"Is he there?” Brandon doesn't recognize his own scratched-apart voice. “Is he there?”
Brandon's mother thunders down the stairs just as Grant has finally worked the covers down to look into his face. The lamp is still on, despite lying on the floor with its shade bent, and Brandon watches the light drain from Grant's face when he sees Brandon's saucer-shaped eyes and trembling lips. He knows what this is about. They're not safe, even here.
"What happened?" his mother shouts. She comes to the other side of the bed and grabs Brandon's arm. "What's the matter? Who screamed?"
"I saw it." Brandon breaks into tears, humiliated and hopeless. That thing wanted to kill him. It looked like Grant, and it wanted to kill them both. Its desire to see them dead and ability to make it happen clogged up the whole room like fog. Brandon can still smell it, and feel it in his lungs.
"Saw what?" His mother looks at Grant, savage and ready for a fight. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Grant stammers. "I think he had a nightmare."
"Why don't you go upstairs?" Brandon's mother says to Grant. She doesn't look very charmed anymore.
"No!" Brandon grabs Grant's hand. "He can't. Mom, Mom. Something's happening." He tries to stop crying, knows that he's scaring them both.
"It looked like you," he says to Grant, his shoulders bouncing with sobs even when he swallows them. "It was you."
"Alright." His mother pulls back the sheets, and Brandon's sanity begins to resurface: he's glad they didn't fool around before bed and leave their clothes in a heap on the floor. "Everybody out. I want you both upstairs, now."
Grant is crying now, too, though he's mostly silent, just sniffing and blinking rapidly. They all climb the stairs, and Brandon's mother ushers them into the kitchen. Brandon and Grant sit at the kitchen table, wiping their eyes and awaiting their punishment. They're haunted. No one will believe them. Grant puts his foot over Brandon's under the table, and takes it away when he flinches.
"First of all, I want to know if either of you have brought drugs into this house." Brandon's mother is facing away from them, making a pot of coffee. It's twelve past three in the morning.
"No, Mom," Brandon says. He takes a deep breath and wipes his face clear. "Grant has this ghost, or spirit, or something. I know you won't believe me, but I don't know what else to tell you. It was following him around, trying to hurt him, and now -- now. It's trying to hurt me, too."
"If this is a joke, it's not funny," his mother says.
"Mom! It's not. It's, it's. It's bad, though." Brandon looks at Grant. "We don't know what to do."
She pours them all coffee and adds the milk and sugar as if she already knows how they like it. She sits with them at the table, and they wrap their hands around the steaming mugs, staring off into space, glancing at each other, checking the windows.
"Honey," Brandon's mother finally says, speaking to Grant. "You need to go home."
"No!" Brandon jumps out of his seat. "Even if we're wrong or stupid or delusional or whatever, Mom, please, he can't go back to that house."
"I'll die," Grant says. He sounds so sincerely wounded that Brandon doesn't know how she could doubt him. "It'll kill me."
Brandon's mother rubs her face and makes a noise that he can't interpret, something sad but also angry. She looks at the wall for awhile, her head in her hand, then at Brandon. He's already wishing that he'd just told her it was a nightmare, but he wants his mother's help, as pathetic as that makes him. The thought occurs to him, after they've all been silent for almost two full minutes, that it might have actually been only a vivid nightmare. Maybe Grant is driving him out of his mind.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” Grant asks, going to his back pocket for his pack.
“Are you insane?” Brandon's mother asks. She sighs when Grant freezes, his hand on his back pocket, the cigarettes under his fingertips.
“Let me have one,” she says. Brandon scoffs in disbelief. Grant hands her a cigarette cautiously, as if this might be a trick. She puts it between her lips and lets Grant light it for her.
“Since when do you smoke?” Brandon asks, incredibly annoyed with both of them.
“Since before you were born,” she says. “I haven't had one in seventeen years, I guess. I was never a chain smoker or anything like that, but your dad and I used to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette before bed. When we watched Saturday Night Live,” she adds, as if she'd forgotten that part until now. She takes a long drag and blows the smoke up toward the ceiling, shuts one eye.
“Are you okay?” Grant asks Brandon, his own cigarette bobbing between his lips.
“Yes,” Brandon says. “No.”
They adjourn to the living room, Brandon and Grant on the love seat and Brandon's mother on the couch. There is no more talk of the ghost or Grant going home. Grant smokes two more cigarettes and they watch part of a Vincent Price movie marathon. All of them are asleep before the end of Theater of Blood.
In the morning, Brandon is sore and disoriented. He goes to the hall bathroom for a long overdue piss and thinks about the night before. In bed, he'd been so certain that what he saw was real, and that he and Grant were being hunted, running out of time. In the gray-blue light of morning, his fear that Grant is crazy and doomed feels much more legitimate.
“What the fuck is going on?” he mutters, looking into the mirror. He leaves the bathroom quickly, afraid that he'll hear a gravelly voice answer from the sink drain or some other, equally horrifying thing.
His mother doesn't say much as the three of them putter around the kitchen getting breakfast. It's another cold, gray day, and Brandon loans Grant a sweater and a coat along with fresh boxers and socks.
“Well,” his mother says before they leave for school. “I don't know what to tell you boys.”
“That's okay,” Grant says. “Thanks for letting me stay.” He says so like he's never going to see her again. When they're half a mile from the house, Brandon reaches over to hold his freezing hand.
“What's the plan?” he asks, hoping Grant won't talk again about burning his house down. If this thing is real, it's clearly not confined to Grant's house. If it's not, Grant has enough problems without adding arson to the list.
“I don't have a plan,” Grant says. “I can't believe it's after you now, too. It's my fault. I wanted someone to help me. I shouldn't have gotten you involved.”
“Shut up.” Brandon squeezes his hand. “I'm glad you got me involved.” It's true, somehow.
First period goes by as usual, with pointless group work and twenty minutes of a movie that is based on one of the books they're reading. Brandon looks for Grant in the hallway on the way to second, and he's not worried when he doesn't see him. Grant has Biology on the other side of the building.
“Where've you been?” his friend Tim asks when he's seated at his desk in second period Calculus. “You didn't come to D&D at Kurt's last weekend,” he says, as if Brandon hasn't realized this.
“Some shit's going on, okay?” Brandon says irritably. Tim makes a face.
“Uh. What shit?”
“Some serious shit, Tim. Remember when we would do those fucking seances all the time, and go pissing around the graveyard looking for ghosts?”
“Well, it's that kind of shit.”
Tim's eyes get huge, either with envy or concern. Class starts before Brandon can explain, mercifully. He settles in for the usual zone-out session that is math class; it's easy for him, and he doesn't need to listen to the answers to his classmates' endless questions. He sneaks a spirit guide out of his book bag and opens it between the pages of his Calculus book. He's reading a passage about poltergeists when someone pounds on the classroom door.
He looks up, along with everyone else in the class, to see Grant standing behind the long, rectangular window on the door. He looks so far beyond panic and fear that for a second Brandon thinks it's the Grant lookalike he saw standing at the foot of the bed. Grant takes off running, and Brandon gets up from his desk. He leaves his book bag behind, taking only the spirit guide as he sprints for the door.
“Excuse me?” his Calculus teacher barks. “What's going on?”
“Sorry!” Brandon shouts before throwing the door open and running out of the room. Grant is almost to the end of the hall, by the yearbook room and the freshman lockers.
“Wait!” Brandon looks back to make sure no one from class is following him. His teacher is standing at the door watching him, but he hasn't given chase.
“Hurry!” Grant screams, and he turns the corner. He peeks back around to look at Brandon. “It's right behind you!”
Brandon doesn't look back, only runs as hard as he can, until Grant catches his arm and pulls him forward, panting and gaping up at the ceiling. They catapult themselves toward the nearest door that leads out of the building, and fly across the empty blacktop where the buses will pull in later. Brandon finally looks back when they're nearly to the football field. He doesn't see anything.
“Oh, God!” Grant sounds close to having an asthma attack, and Brandon pulls him over by the locked-up concession stand so he can catch his breath. Grant doesn't resist, just collapses against Brandon.
“I was sitting in class,” he starts to say, but Brandon puts a finger over his lips. He doesn't want to hear it. He doesn't want to know.
“It's okay,” Brandon says, trying to keep the shake out of his voice. He's in love with a crazy, probably schizophrenic boy. He tried to believe him; it would have been easier to be haunted by something as straightforward as an evil spirit. He was willing to interpret the unexpected slam of a door and a particularly bad dream to Grant's ghost, but running from invisible monsters at school is just too much. It's now too clearly Grant's invention. “It's okay.” He pets Grant's hair while he steadies his breath, his arms tight around Brandon's back. “It's gonna be okay.”
“Maybe we should go see that witch,” Grant says. He lifts his face, and Brandon doesn't think he's ever seen someone so young look so tired. “Like you said.”
Brandon agrees, because he doesn't know what else to do. Maybe they'll get lost in the woods behind the hiking trail and starve to death. It's better than doing the responsible thing, telling an adult what's really going on here, if his mother hasn't already guessed. Grant will be committed. What's left of him, the good parts, will be ruined. But maybe that's already happening. Maybe Brandon is letting it happen.
They walk to Grant's house to get his car, and drive up to the park. Brandon thinks with crippling sadness of the first day they came here together, when Grant touched him without warning and Brandon kissed him like he'd asked out loud. That day was so beautiful, bright and clear. This one is muddy, the leaves wet under their feet and the trees dripping overhead. Brandon takes Grant's hand once they've started on the trail, and Grant looks at him like he knows what he's thinking.
“We don't have to do this if you don't want to,” Grant says.
“I want to.” They both know it's a lie, but this isn't about what Brandon wants anymore.
They walk for a long time, not speaking and not letting go of each other's hands. Brandon hears strange noises from time to time, but whenever he looks over his shoulder, equally terrified and hopeful that he'll see Grant's doppelganger stalking them through the woods, he never sees anything, not even a squirrel.
“Do you smell that?” Grant whispers when the sky has darkened as if it's going to rain again. Brandon is about to take this as another bad sign, but then he does smell something, like a chimney fire.
“Yeah,” he says. “Are we almost to the other side of the woods?”
“No.” Grant nods at something in the distance. “Look.”
Brandon can just barely make out a structure up ahead; it strikes him at first as a sort of log cabin, but as they move closer they can see that it's made out of stone. Grant bounds toward it, unafraid, and Brandon lets Grant pull him along. There is a thin stream of smoke coming from the house's crooked chimney. Someone is home.
“This is it,” Grant whispers, as if their heavy footsteps haven't already announced their approach. “This is the place Mary Hutch told me about –“
“Stop where you are,” someone says before he can continue. The voice seems to be coming from all around them, as if there is a loudspeaker system installed in the trees, but then a stout old woman steps out from around the side of the little stone house. She's holding a rifle and pointing it at Grant.
“Shit!” Brandon grabs Grant's arm and pulls him back. He holds his hands up.
“Hey,” he says, as if the woman has offered them cookies.
“I always load my gun the week before Halloween,” the woman says. “You can pass that along to any friends of yours who are thinking of coming up here to celebrate.”
“We're not here to bother you,” Grant says.
“Grant, let's go,” Brandon begs, tugging on the sleeve of his jacket. Grant sets his feet, won't budge.
“I just need to ask you a question,” Grant says. “Please.”
The woman narrows her eyes, and her brow knits in unhappy surprise. She walks forward with the gun, slowly lowering it as she approaches. She's doughy and pale, wearing a sweater and jeans with filthy sneakers.
“You!” she says when she's standing just a few feet from Grant. She drops the gun and takes five steps backward, covers her mouth with her hand.
“What?” Grant is trembling, still holding his hands up. “What's wrong?”
“You know him?” Brandon asks. The woman glances at him and then quickly back to Grant.
“How did you find me?” she asks.
“My friends told me about this place,” Grant says. “They said you were a witch, or something.”
The woman walks forward cautiously to retrieve her rifle. She holds it at her side and stares at Grant for a long time. Brandon holds onto his arm. He's pretty sure they're both as good as dead.
“You don't recognize me?” she asks. Grant laughs, then frowns.
“What?” he says. “I've never seen you before in my life.”
“Oh, God.” She rubs a hand across her face as if she's hoping Grant and Brandon will have disappeared when she reopens her eyes. “Oh my God in heaven.”
“How do you know him?” Brandon bellows, the force of his heartbeat nearly knocking him over. He's holding Grant's arm so tightly he's afraid he'll hurt him, but he's not letting go.
“Why have you come looking for me if you don't know who I am?” the woman asks.
“I heard you were a witch, like I said. And I've – been having some. Problems.”
“What sort of problems?”
“Seeing stuff. Black stuff, like cobwebs. And my friend, he saw someone who looks like me, some kind of spirit.”
“Oh, God,” the woman says again. She mops her brow with the sleeve of her shirt and looks around the woods as if she's searching for assistance. “You poor child.”
“How the fuck do you know me?” Grant asks, not unkindly.
“Come inside.” She turns for her house, and scowls at them when they don't follow. “Come!”
Grant walks ahead, and Brandon catches his hand.
“What if it's a trick?” he says.
“What else am I going to do?” Grant asks. “I'm going out of my mind, and it gets worse every day. I can't even get through the morning anymore without seeing something that wants to eat me alive.”
“Are you sure you've never seen her before?”
“Yeah, Brandon.” Grant looks annoyed; Brandon is sure that he's noticed his growing doubt. He tromps along behind him, and ducks into the dark stone cottage while the old woman holds the door open. She shuts it behind them, and uses a match to light a kerosene lamp on a small wooden table. The cottage has only one room, and it smells like a butcher's shop. There is a twin bed pushed against the back right wall, and a kitchen area by the fireplace, herbs hanging upside down near the cottage's single window.
“People think I'm a witch because I live up here alone,” the woman says. “But I've seen enough of my fellow human beings for one lifetime, and I guess I am a witch, because here you are.” She's looking at Grant like she still thinks maybe he's going to kill her.
“What do you mean?” Grant sits at the wooden table, makes himself at home as if this is a normal house. Brandon stands behind him, his arms crossed over his chest.
“My name is Kerry Baker,” she says. “Nurse Baker,” she adds, giving Grant a long, dark look. “You don't remember?”
“Nurse? What, were you there when I was born?”
“No. I was there when you died.”
The words go through Brandon like angry mice, chewing him apart. He grabs Grant's shoulders reflexively; he still feels solid and warm. Grant just laughs.
“I'm not dead,” he says.
“I know that now,” Kerry says. “I never had any reason to believe that it worked, but it must have.”
Kerry sighs and sits down across from Grant. She has black hair, greasy and streaked with gray, and it's pulled back into a tiny bun at the back of her head. Brandon doesn't like the look of her, and he wishes Grant would give up on this and make a run for it, but he's staring at the witch like she's a harmless library storyteller.
“In the early sixties I worked at Glenview, out by the lake," she says. "They shut it down a few years after I left, much too late. It was a children's hospital. We only dealt with "incurables," which is what they called any variety of unhappy foster children back then. We had kids from all over the state, because we dealt with these cases in the most – inexpensive fashion possible, usually within the limits of the law. I was coming from another state hospital and I thought I could do some good, but the place wore on me so fast. Nobody was ever going to adopt these kids, though they were technically in the system. They – well, I won't get into the details. All you need to know that is we had one boy who had been there since he was a toddler. His name was Andrew. Such a sweet-faced little thing.” She looks at Grant, her eyes dampening, but quickly recovers.
“They diagnosed him with early onset schizophrenia, which is extremely rare, but they didn't know what else to call what was happening to that boy. Poor Andrew lived in a never-ending nightmare. He saw things – darkness, he told the doctors it “ate him” whenever they left him alone. They tried everything, but he was allergic to almost all of the anti-psychotics on the market, and he would just get violently ill when we tried to treat him with pills. He was – a handful when he had his episodes, and a lot of the orderlies hated him. He made the doctors feel like failures, and these were state doctors, underpaid babysitters for hopeless cases, so they weren't the most charitable people on the planet. It culminated in this experimental version of electroshock for "critical" cases that one of the doctors came up with as a last resort. Andrew was suffering, and we couldn't even drug him until he went numb. It was this or much more expensive brain surgery that would take years to clear the budget and would probably just kill him anyway, considering how he reacted to anesthetics. He was terrified – he was a smart kid, and he knew they were coming in for the mercy kill. Well, it worked. When he died on the table, the staff could barely hide their relief. I left the hospital, the profession, the world the next morning.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Grant asks. Kerry sighs.
“I've been fooling around with witchcraft since I was a girl,” she says. “I never knew if it was really doing anything or if I was only assigning meaning to coincidences. It seemed like whenever I used spellwork to pass classes or take petty revenge, something bad would happen to me afterward, usually a physical illness. I took it as a sign from God that I shouldn't be messing with the stuff, and I stopped for awhile, but after I started working at Glenview, I was so disenchanted with life that I thought I had nothing to lose. I gave kids suffering from untreatable illnesses little charms and herbal remedies, and sometimes it seemed to help, particularly with children who had mental problems and wanted to believe in magic. It was highly illegal, of course, and I would be facing jail time if I got caught, but I had to do something for those children. Andrew tugged especially hard at my heart. He seemed as if he'd never had a moment's peace in his life, and when he looked up at me, pleading, on that gurney before they – well, before they put him out of his misery – I used a spell I'd been considering trying on him for some time.”
“What was it?” Grant asks when she doesn't continue. She looks frightened, not now of Grant but of something else. Grant is sitting forward on his seat, his back arched and his chest jammed into the edge of the table.
“It was a transference spell,” Kerry says. “Used on a dying person whose life has been wasted. It's supposed to send their soul into another body, to give them another chance at life, a guarantee that they'll get a fair shake next time. I said it mostly to comfort myself. I didn't think it would work. We were killing that child, and I couldn't decide if letting him live would be the humane thing to do, or if carrying through with the shock 'treatment' would.”
“I still don't understand what this has to do with me,” Grant says.
“Grant.” Brandon is holding his shoulders, his eyes stinging. His skin feels scratchy, like there are bugs crawling all over him. “She's saying that she thinks that boy is you.” He glares at Kerry, and tries to tell Grant with the pressure of his fingers, let's go, let's go, let's get the fuck out of here.
Grant opens his mouth to contest this, but Kerry is staring at him in a way that confirms Brandon's interpretation.
“That doesn't make sense,” Grant says.
“You're seeing things?” Kerry says. “Black things – cobwebs – you feel they're going to do you harm? Your friend has seen your double?”
“Yeah, but.” Grant scoffs. "If you did this in the sixties, I mean. I was born in 1992."
"Transference isn't an instant process," Kerry says. "Not theoretically, anyway. A soul searches for the right vessel. It's not as if there are plenty of them lying around and waiting to be claimed. It can take hundreds of years to find a juncture of time and place where a battered soul feels comfortable being reborn. It's no coincidence that Andrew stayed close to the only home he ever knew."
“But why now? It just started happening—“
“You're sixteen years old?” Kerry asks.
“Andrew was eight when he died. The spell doubles the life of the person who dies when it's cast – but only that. It just doubles the years, nothing beyond.”
“So – so what, I'm going to die?” Grant's voice is full of disbelief and indignation, as if all of his previous fears about dying were insincere.
“No,” Kerry says. “But you'll become Andrew again when the spell wears off. You'll suffer from his schizophrenic delusions – it sounds like they've already found you.”
Grant jumps out of his chair and turns to look at Brandon, who just shakes his head. This woman, this fucking witch, if that's what she wants to call herself. She's only going to fuel Grant's descent into madness. She's clearly sicker than he is, which shouldn't come as a surprise to Grant, considering where she lives, but he looks as if he's swallowed every word she said.
“Wait,” Kerry says as Grant's shoulders begin to shake with his hyperventilation. “Let me research the spell. I've – worried about this in the past. It was rash of me to even try something so complex, and I have read about methods of undoing the transference, just in case anything like this ever – came to my attention.”
“This is impossible,” Grant says, staring at Brandon. “Impossible.”
Brandon steps forward and hugs him, lightly, as if he might break. He's trembling like a bird; his bones feel hollow and fragile in Brandon's arms.
“Don't listen to her,” Brandon whispers. Grant exhales wordlessly, his arms still at his sides.
“You'll have to resolve this before the Day of the Dead,” Kerry says. She's up from the table and searching a squat bookshelf by her bed. “Andrew, if he's the one who's trying to reclaim you, will be ten times as powerful that day. You won't have any chance of recovering unless you find a way before then.”
“Shut up,” Brandon snaps. “Just stop talking. I don't who the hell you think you are, I'm sorry that you killed someone and you feel guilty about it, but we're leaving.”
“I'm not going to sugarcoat this for him,” Kerry says sharply. “The whole thing's my fault, and I would give my life to fix it if I could, but I doubt it will be that simple.”
“What do I have to do?” Grant asks, turning from Brandon, stepping out of his arms. “Just tell me what I have to do.”
“Let's go,” Brandon says, pulling him toward the door.
“Wait,” Kerry says, thumbing through her books. “Just wait a moment. I know how this must sound. I can hardly believe it myself, but that's him. He doesn't even look much like Andrew, but it's him, his soul, I can feel it.”
“Lady,” Brandon barks. “Stop talking.”
“Or what?” she asks, her eyes suddenly glittering with something lively and dangerous.
“Grant!” Brandon shouts, ignoring her. “We should go. Let's go, okay, please Grant, this is crazy.”
Grant looks at him like he just said what he's really thinking: Grant, you're crazy, you've been crazy all along.
“You can go if you want to,” Grant says.
“I can't live like this!” Grant says. “Okay? I'll try anything, fucking anything, and this actually makes a weird kind of sense, and I'm not going to be able to explain why, so you can just go, Brandon, and let me deal with it.”
Brandon stays only because he's afraid to wander through the woods alone, and even if he made it back to Grant's car, how would he get home? It's a fifteen mile walk. He sits heavily at the table and lets his eyes go unfocused.
“Here,” Kerry says, a book open in her hands. “Reversal of the transference spell. It's easy, actually, but I can't promise that you'll be the one who is saved.”
“What the hell do you mean?” Grant asks.
“It'll restore one of you. You're two halves – Andrew, the poisoned half, and – Grant, is it? — the ideal half, the soul that has been freed. You'll either lose the half of you that is poisoned, or Andrew will gain the half that is free.”
“Grant,” Brandon begs, but he won't even turn.
“How do I know which will happen?” Grant asks.
“You don't,” Kerry says. “You've got to go back to the site of the original transference. That's Glenview, room 186, if they haven't already torn the building down.”
“Supposedly. But like I said, you'll have to do it before the Day of the Dead. Andrew might be half-alive in you, but the half that died will reclaim you if it gets the chance, and then you'll both be lost to the misery that he suffered before the spell. This is all just theoretical, of course,” she says when Grant stares at her in disbelief. “It's not like I've done this before.”
“Grant,” Brandon tries again. This time he does walk to the door, and he leaves without looking back. Brandon hurries to follow him. He can barely keep up. Thunder is rumbling overhead, and the skies have grown darker.
“She's crazy,” Brandon says, out of breath as they jog along the trail.
“Either she is or I am."
“That's not –“
“Stop it!” Grant whirls around, and Brandon almost falls backward. “Stop pretending you know what this is like.”
“I do know! I saw that thing, at the end of the bed –“
“You saw me. Something was trying to tell you to get away from me.”
“Well, fuck that, because I won't!
“I don't know why. I mean, shit, Brandon! I'm ruining your life.”
“You are not.”
Grant scoffs. “I don't know why you think I can't tell when you're lying.”
They walk the rest of the way in silence. It starts raining when they're a few steps away from the car, but neither of them hurries to reach it. They're soaked by the time they climb inside, and Grant drives slowly back toward Thousand Trees.
“You're not going to do it, are you?” Brandon asks. “Go to that stupid hospital? You know nothing would happen.”
“I don't know anything anymore,” Grant says.
Grant drops Brandon off at his house, and he slams the car door without saying goodbye. He takes a shower and goes to bed without dinner, doesn't answer when his mother comes knocking after she gets off of work. He doesn't even want to think about that bullshit with the woman in the woods, and sure as hell doesn't want to talk about it.
When Grant doesn't show up for school on Wednesday, Brandon isn't surprised, and he spends most of the day trying to convince himself that he isn't worried. He has imaginary fights with Grant in his head, tells him that he probably made up the whole thing and hired that old bat in the woods to conspire with him. You're trying to drive me crazy, Brandon screams at him in his fantasies. Maybe he was never even attracted to Grant, or any other guys, for that matter. It's a comforting thought, though not as comforting as the ones that help him get to sleep at night, memories of Grant pressed close to him and kissing him lazily, like a reflex, his hand curled warm around Brandon's side.
“What are you doing for Mischief Night tomorrow?” Tim asks Brandon in Calculus. It's a tradition for Brandon and his friends to get together on the night before Halloween and talk about toilet-papering the houses of their jock enemies or spray-painting giant cocks on their most hated teachers' cars, though usually they just end up watching old monster movies and sneaking candy from the stashes their moms bought for trick-or-treaters.
“Nothing,” Brandon says. “Why? You want to hang out?” He's been craving some contact with the normal world.
“Yeah, sure,” Tim says. “If your serious spiritual crisis, or whatever the fuck, isn't going to interfere.”
“No.” Brandon stares down at his Calculus book. “That was just – I thought, uh. But it was just someone pranking me.”
“You always were a gullible bitch. Was it Grant Wheeler?”
“Huh?” Heat spreads across Brandon's face. He keeps his eyes on his book.
“That was kind of fucked up when you ran after him yesterday.”
“He's a dick,” Brandon mutters. It hurts to say, drags through his chest like nails.
“I could have told you that, man.”
Brandon walks home with Tim and his girlfriend Stacey after school, and they play Guitar Hero, which he hates. Tim has started smoking pot, apparently, and Brandon takes a hit when he offers, but mostly just coughs it up. Later, some of their other D&D buddies come over, and Ryan Thomas brings a fifth of Captain Morgan. They watch Army of Darkness on TNT and pass the bottle around.
“What's with you?” Stacey asks Brandon when he's coming out of the bathroom. She's been waiting out in the hall; she seems to need to pee roughly every thirty seconds.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“You look depressed,” she says.
“I'm just stoned.”
He's more drunk than stoned, having found the rum much easier to ingest, but he's too inexperienced to really know the difference. By the time the movie ends, Tim and Stacey are dry humping on Tim's bed and Ryan and Cody Marshal are so drunk that they're close to doing the same on the couch. Brandon leaves without saying goodbye to anyone. He walks through the dark streets of Chestnut Grove, the far-off shouts of a few premature mischief-makers echoing faintly in the distance. Without really thinking about where he's going, he ends up in Hickory Pines.
The streets of Grant's neighborhood are much quieter, in an unsettling way. A pickup truck rolls by slowly, and Brandon pushes his shoulders up to his chin and keeps his eyes down until it speeds away. When he finally comes to Grant's house, it's dark except for the porch light. Grant's car is gone, so he doesn't bother going to the front door. Maybe Grant has already gone to Glenview, a place Brandon's friends once talked about visiting for ghost hunting purposes but ended up avoiding because of rumors that the cops patrolled the abandoned building. Maybe Grant has already killed himself up there, thinking that he's working a spell.
Brandon chokes down tears on the walk to his house, and the wind blows hard against him, the trees loud with it like waves crashing. Jack-o-lanterns flicker on his neighbors' porches, and paper ghosts wave wildly in the trees, spinning in circles. Brandon walks through patches of silly string and two smashed pumpkins, and he's glad to see the lights on inside his house, though it's well after midnight. His mother is on the couch watching Pet Sematary when he comes in, and she pats the spot beside her. Brandon makes a sound of annoyance but joins her on the couch.
“Grant hasn't come by or anything, has he?” he asks when the movie is almost over, though he knows she would have said something if he had.
“Nope. You want to tell me what's really going on with him?”
“I'll let you know when I figure it out.” Brandon reaches into the bowl of Halloween candy on the coffee table and opens a box of Red Hot Dollars.
“Well, is he okay?” his mother asks.
Brandon shrugs, and she pretends not to notice that his eyes are wet.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Alright. Well. Is there anything I can do?”
“No.” Brandon shakes the rest of the Red Hot Dollars into his mouth and throws the empty box onto the table. “I mean, but. Thanks for trying.”
“You smell like a drunk, by the way.”
“It's not like I was driving," he says, as if he otherwise has the right to as much rum as he wants.
“You're freaking me out, Bubby.”
Brandon rolls his eyes at his stupid childhood nickname. He says goodnight, and doesn't realize until he's in bed that she hasn't called him that since his father died. It was his dad, mostly, who thought of him as Bubby. Brandon turns onto his back and looks at the ceiling.
“Help,” he says. The word just floats through the darkness like it's lonely.
He dreams that he's running through the woods, and he gets to Grant's house just in time to see it go up in flames, exploding in an action movie fireball. Grant is standing on the curb in his pajamas, staring at the blaze with gleeful fascination. Brandon falls against his arm, and he barely notices.
“What are you doing?” Brandon cries. “They'll arrest you! They'll lock you up! Grant, we have to run, we have to go!”
“It's okay.” Grant keeps his wide eyes on the fire. “It doesn't matter.”
Brandon looks down and sees that the cuffs of Grant's pajama pants are on fire. He's standing in a pile of hot coals. Brandon stomps on the flames in vain; they don't spread but won't extinguish. When he tries to drag Grant off of the coals he can't move him an inch, as if he weighs a thousand pounds.
"It's okay," Grant keeps saying, not taking his eyes off of the fire. "I've figured it out now."
Brandon wakes up feeling sluggish and nauseous, and puts on the same jeans and sweater he wore the day before, though they both stink of pot now. His mother makes him eat breakfast, two blueberry Eggos.
“It's the only thing that will make you feel better,” she says when Brandon scowls at them. “And if you come home drunk again I'll – I don't know. Take the television out of your room? Don't make me have to start inventing punishments, Brandon. Don't stop being a good kid.”
“I'm still a good kid,” he mutters into his plate, though it feels like a lie. He abandoned Grant. Things got too weird. Even if he's still a good kid, apparently he's not a very good person.
The school day passes in a blur. Tim blathers the usual bullshit plans for Mischief Night and Brandon agrees to join in, because the prospect of sitting on the couch with his mother and absorbing her sympathy for yet another evening is too depressing. He goes to the stall in the bathroom near the gym where he used to meet Grant before lunch, leans against the cinderblock and tries to remember what it was like: he'd usually get here first, and would worry every time that Grant wouldn't show, but just before he started thinking about leaving, Grant would yank the unlocked door open and grin at him. Brandon would always attempt to make some whispered conversation, and Grant would half-answer a few questions before falling onto him. Brandon puts his hands around his face the way Grant used to, feeling pathetic. He would tip Brandon's chin up with his thumbs and hold him like that while he kissed him, like he was some sacred thing.
When seventh period lets out, Brandon meets Tim by the art room and walks with him out to the parking lot, where they'll get a ride home with Ryan. This year's plan for Mischief Night includes some crap about crashing a party thrown by a girl who picks on Stacey in Chorus. Brandon couldn't possibly be less enthusiastic about it, but he needs something to distract him from his thoughts about Grant. Tomorrow is All Hallow's Eve, his last chance before the Day of the Dead to follow that crazy hermit's instructions.
Brandon is so used to hearing Grant's voice in his head that he almost doesn't look up, but then he feels him standing at the bottom of the front stairs even before he sees him, and when their eyes meet his knees almost buckle. In the past few days he's done a pretty good job of convincing himself that Grant Wheeler isn't worth the trouble, but he's wearing a t-shirt and mud-spattered gray pants, his eyes insanely blue in the glow of the late afternoon light, and he looks, at the moment, like something worth dying for.
“Hey.” Brandon stops walking, and Tim stares at him. Grant glances at Tim like he wants him to get lost.
“What the fuck?” Tim says. “Are you two, like, dating?”
“Yeah, actually, we are,” Brandon says, glaring at him. Tim rolls his eyes and walks off, waving his hand dismissively.
“See you later, fucker,” he calls. “Or should I say butt fucker?” he adds as an afterthought. He jogs across the parking lot, laughing.
“Sorry,” Brandon says. “He's an idiot.”
“I just wanted to say goodbye to you,” Grant says, as if he didn't even notice Tim. “I'm – I guess I'm going to try. You know. Tonight.”
“I'll come with you,” Brandon gushes, and he waits to regret the offer but doesn't. Grant smiles.
“Okay,” he says. He doesn't exactly look surprised that Brandon is willing. "Let's go."
They get in Grant's car and drive away from the noise of the high school, out past the new neighborhood with the million dollar houses that are designed to look like European villas, then past the last, dated shopping center outpost, and finally the horseback riding supply store. Once they're in the country, just a few houses and a gas station here and there, Brandon turns to Grant and lets out his breath.
“Where've you been?” he asks.
“Oh, around,” Grant says. He sounds oddly lighthearted. “Thinking.”
“What if it's like she said?” Brandon asks, though he doesn't really believe anything will happen. “What if you disappear, or he, or –“
“Doesn't matter,” Grant says. Brandon thinks of his dream about the fire, and he shuts his eyes.
“Grant,” he says. “I don't know. Fuck, fuck. Okay, listen. I love you.”
Grant keeps his eyes on the windshield, and he smiles, but his eyes stay flat, like only half of him heard what Brandon said.
“I know,” he says. “Thanks for coming. I really didn't want to do this alone. I know you think I'm crazy. Maybe I am, how would I know? But I have to try this one thing. Just let me do this one thing, okay?”
“I'm letting you,” Brandon says. “I didn't come to try and stop you.”
They eat dinner at the last available dining establishment before they hit the real country, where Glenview Hospital is supposed to be still standing, on the far end of the lake where Brandon grew up fishing with his dad. The diner is small and smells like eggs, but it's strangely crowded for a Thursday night. Brandon orders a patty melt and loses his appetite as soon as it arrives. Grant has an ice cream sundae. He takes a flask from his coat pocket and drinks from it.
“Will you drive for the rest of the way?” he asks Brandon. “Oh, and if I disappear or whatever, you can have my car.”
“Don't say that.”
Grant shrugs. “I'm not really scared,” he says. “I think it's cause you're here.”
Well, I'm fucking scared, Brandon thinks, but he only touches Grant's foot with his under the table.
Grant's positive attitude about his possible disintegration changes once they reach Glenview Hospital. They have to cut through a heavily chained fence with a bolt cutter that Grant thoughtfully brought along; he's clearly researched the break-in. He doesn't seem affected until they drive up the cracked and leaf-littered driveway to the hospital itself, which is an ugly, hulking government building with broken windows. The last of the sun is disappearing behind it, and there is a disturbing absence of crickets singing and wind through the trees. The place is quiet, watching them, and Grant returns its gaze less confidently. Brandon reaches over and squeezes his leg.
“You don't have to do this,” he says.
“Yes, I do.” Grant folds his shaking hands into his lap. “But first, um.” He stares at Brandon for awhile, like he's waiting for him to say something. Brandon wishes he knew what to tell him. He tried I love you, but that doesn't seem to matter now.
“Why do I feel like I've known you forever?” Grant asks, narrowing his eyes. Brandon shakes his head. He feels the same way, but also like Grant is a force of some alien nature he'll never understand. Diaphanous was the word of the day in English on Wednesday, and Brandon immediately thought of his half-dead, haunted boyfriend.
“This is gonna sound weird,” Grant says. Brandon chokes up a disbelieving laugh. Like Grant hasn't said anything weird yet.
“But I really, um. Don't want to die a virgin, you know?”
“You're not gonna die,” Brandon says. It takes him a second to catch on to the rest of the sentiment.
“I know,” Grant says, just to shut Brandon up. “And I'm not asking to like, you know, but if you wanted to do me. I mean. I think I'd like it.”
“Jesus Christ,” Brandon hiccups, and Grant grins.
“We don't have to,” he says. “But maybe we could just sit in the back and talk for awhile. I'm not really ready to go in there yet.”
“If this whole thing ends up about you wanting to fuck me, I swear to God,” Brandon says. He climbs into the backseat anyway, and Grant turns to look at him. “You could have anyway.”
“I wish.” Grant follows him into the back. “I'm not really that creative.”
They sit together, Grant's arm around Brandon's shoulders like they're at a drive-in, watching a horror movie instead of starring in one. Brandon leans into him until their noses touch, and looks at him through wet eyelashes.
“Why do you like me?” he asks.
“I don't know.” Grant strokes his face, and Brandon lets his eyes fall shut. He can't deal with the idea that this could be the last time Grant touches him. They'll walk in there and walk out and Grant will be cured. It's all in his head, and he just needs to do this for some kind of screwed up closure.
“You're just so good,” Grant says. “You're like, this – when I see you in the hall at school, it's like, 'okay,' you know? 'Now here's the good part.'”
Brandon kisses him, and shuts his eyes to everything else. Grant tastes like ice cream and alcohol, a ridiculously good combination. Brandon leans back onto the seat and pulls Grant down on top of him, spreads his legs to fit him between them. He's feverish with something well past lust, some primal fear that he'll die if he doesn't get Grant inside him.
“I want you, um, to do, you know -- me,” he breathes into Grant's face. “Okay? Okay?”
Grant nods, seems like he wants to say something but can't get it out. He kisses Brandon, dragging their laps together until they're both painfully hard inside their jeans. The sun is completely gone now. Grant turns the car on for the heat, and the radio comes on, too, playing a tinny 80's love song. Brandon lies still, breathing hard, and watches Grant pull his t-shirt over his head. His nipples are hard, and Brandon sits up to lick over both of them, pulls them through his teeth when Grant moans in encouragement.
He kisses his way down Grant's chest to his stomach, pushes his tongue into his shallow belly button and starts working on his pants. Grant has his fingers in Brandon's hair, moving rough over his scalp and making Brandon grin stupidly at the memory of getting a boner when a dumpy lady at a mall salon shampooed his hair. He pulls Grant's pants down along with his boxers and looks up at him to make sure he's doing things right so far. Grant isn't loopy and smirking like he usually is; he's gazing at Brandon with intense concentration, his mouth open just slightly. When Brandon licks his lips, Grant does, too.
“I've never done this,” Brandon says, breathing the words onto the head of Grant's cock.
“Good,” Grant says, and for some reason that makes Brandon's dick leak in happy anticipation. He licks Grant in circles over his cockhead, then in long drags up and down the shaft, timid until Grant starts making soft hissing noises, his fingers reckless in Brandon's hair. “Careful,” he warns when Brandon takes his cock fully into his mouth, his tongue sliding clumsily over the fat vein on the underside. He takes this as his cue to back off and looks up at Grant, laughs.
“I don't know why I thought that would be hard,” he says. Grant pushes him back onto the seat and sucks at his neck until he's writhing and begging Grant to take his clothes off. If he doesn't get his dick out of his jeans in the next five seconds, just the rub of the fabric is going to set him off. Grant ignores him and leans into the front seat again, this time fumbles a travel-size jar of Vaseline from the glove compartment.
“Brandon,” he says when he's leaning over him again. “Whatever happens tonight, don't forget me, okay? Even if things go alright. Just don't forget what I was like, even when I was fucked up.”
“Like I could,” Brandon says, reaching down to unzip his jeans. “Anyway, you'll be fine. We'll both be okay. Okay, Grant? Alright?”
He doesn't answer. The car is really warming up now, and Brandon's balls are sweating by the time Grant has him undressed. He's more aware of them than he's ever been before; they're full and heavy, and he kicks the passenger door when Grant licks them into his mouth one at a time. He didn't think such a thing was possible, and he writhes crazily while Grant lingers down there, licking him slow enough to keep him hard.
He's so ready to have Grant fuck him that it doesn't even hurt when he pushes in, slicked with Vaseline. Brandon arches his back and opens himself up, one foot on the back window and the other on the driver's seat. He keeps waiting to be scared or self-conscious or sore but it feels so good to let go of everything, like he's floating and pinned down and filled up all at once. Grant is breathing fast, kissing his chin and nose like his aim is off, and he's moving so slowly that Brandon grabs his hips and pushes up onto him, faster, harder, c'mon.
“I'll come,” Grant says.
“I want you to.” Brandon already did, in Grant's mouth.
Grant whines in complaint and pinches his eyes up, stops moving.
“I just,” he huffs. “Don't want to stop.”
“We can do it again,” Brandon says eagerly. Grant opens his eyes, leans down and kisses him like they've got all the time in the world. He tastes like Brandon's come, vaguely like the Red Hot Dollars he's been eating all week. He rocks into Brandon with short, fluid tilts of his hips, moving like he's carrying something he doesn't want to spill, and lets his breath out hard against his face when he slides back. Brandon squeezes his hips like a prompt, and Grant gives him a real thrust, then another, and he moans when he comes, low and hard enough to make Brandon's sated cock twitch.
They can barely fit together on the backseat, but they press in as close as they can, Brandon smushed between Grant and the cushions. Grant seems to have envisioned this scenario as thoroughly as every other aspect of the evening, and he pulls a fuzzy plaid blanket from the floor of the backseat. Brandon spreads it over both of them when Grant collapses onto him again, like he doesn't have the energy for anything else. The blanket has a few dry leaves and pieces of pine straw stuck to it, but it's warm and it smells like Grant. Brandon holds onto him, Grant's face buried in his chest like he needs some time alone, and waits to feel irrevocably changed by this new non-virginity. He does have a sense of fearlessness, with Grant's cock softening against his own under the blanket, like now they can face anything.
"Did it hurt?" Grant asks when he finally lifts his head. His voice is thick, like he's been asleep for days.
"No, it was awesome."
Grant gives him a tiny smile and kisses him. Brandon laughs into his mouth, and waits for him to call the whole thing off. Clearly this was the point of all that came before, and Brandon forgives Grant for going about it in a masterfully roundabout way. It is a big deal. It was scary to think about before, though it came weirdly easily once they landed in the backseat.
"What time is it?" Grant asks.
"I don't know. Who cares?"
Grant sighs and sits up on his elbow to look at the clock on the dash. He leans back over Brandon and pushes his sweaty hair off of his forehead.
"Just stay here," Brandon begs, a renewed sense of doom building in him. He feels tricked. Everything, for a second there, was going to be okay. "Just stay. We'll drive back to my house, we can --"
"Brandon, it's getting worse. I didn't even think that it could get worse, but. Last night it pulled me out of bed."
"So where is it now?" Brandon asks. "Huh? How do you know you weren't dreaming?"
"Because it happens to me during the day, too! I can't go to school anymore. The room turns black and the black stuff laughs at me -- God, you have no idea. And you know why it's not here now."
"It won't come when I'm with you. At least, not when I'm with you -- like this. Calm, and everything."
"Grant, that doesn't make any sense --"
"Yes, it does! This kid who Kerry told me about, he saw this stuff when he was stressed. I went back to see her yesterday, because the visions were so bad, and she told me more about him. He was almost always stressed because his life was so shitty, but she said he had this one stuffed dog thing that would make him calm down sometimes. Like, if he could hold onto something. You know?"
"So just stay with me, then," Brandon says. He pulls him back down, trying not to feel insulted at being compared to a stuffed animal. "I'm not gonna leave you."
"Uh, actually." Grant scoffs. "You kinda did already."
"I'm sorry," Brandon says. "I freaked out. It won't happen again."
"Yeah, it will. And I wouldn't blame you." Grant tries to sit up, but Brandon won't let him, hooks his arms tight around his back.
"Please," Brandon says.
"Please what? You said you didn't come here to stop me."
"Maybe I changed my mind."
"Brandon, Jesus, don't make this any harder than it is."
Grant sits up and yawns. He finds his jacket on the floor of the car and takes the flask out of the interior pocket. Brandon shakes his head when he offers it. They dress solemnly, the hospital looming over them like a ticking clock. It's a half hour to midnight. Grant uses the blanket to wipe his come off of Brandon's leg, and it's a strangely tender gesture, though embarrassing. Brandon has accepted the fact that he can't live without him. If something happens to Grant, a black cloud of hungry smoke will consume him, too.
They get out of the car, carrying two heavy-duty flashlights Grant brought along for the journey into Glenview. Grant drains the flask and throws it into the grass like he's finished with material things already. Brandon eyes the hospital, which has grown considerably more daunting now that the sun has completely disappeared; the darkness in the windows seems solid where it was once hollow. The night is cold and cloudy, the moonlight obscured. Grant lights a cigarette and stands staring at the abandoned building for awhile.
"I dreamed that I burned it down," Grant says. "The school, too."
"You don't have to do this," Brandon says, though he knows it's useless. Grant has an unfamiliar look of determination in his eyes, and Brandon is starting to feel like he's the one who's crazy for not believing Kerry Baker's story.
"I just wish I was normal, you know?" Grant says.
"But then we never would have met." Brandon stands behind him and slips his arms around his waist, puts his chin on his shoulder. Grant doesn't move, just smokes and stares at the place.
"That's true," he finally says. He throws the cigarette away and starts walking. Brandon stumbles forward, follows.
The front doors of Glenview are open, whatever remained of their locks broken away by the last teenagers who thought it would be fun to check the place out. There is spray paint all over the lobby, a cavernous space with kudzu growing thickly over its high windows. The place is so dusty that Brandon immediately begins coughing. Grant tucks his flashlight under his arm and lights another cigarette. His hand is shaking pretty bad.
"You know what's weird?" he asks after he's taken a long, thoughtful drag. Brandon just hovers beside him, waits. "I've been here before."
"You have not," Brandon says glumly. This is not going the way he expected it to, bottoming out in an awkward anticlimax. The building feels occupied, and the stairs that lead up the second floor are echoing like a cave.
"I have," Grant says. "Everything she told me, too. It all felt like stuff I saw in a movie once. It didn't happen to me, but it happened to somebody, and I was there."
"Let's just find this room and get it over with," Brandon says. "This is supposed to -- cure you, right?"
"Yeah," Grant says. "But Kerry Baker told Andrew the electro-therapy would cure him, I bet. She was really trying to put him out of his misery."
"Grant, let's go, then, goddammit!"
Grant just walks forward without acknowledging this. Brandon takes a deep breath and tries to stay close. He expected the place to feel older and more rotted away, but it's as if it was evacuated only a few weeks ago. Once they move past the vandalized front lobby, the place is clean and orderly except for the dust, as if no one has worked up the nerve to wander very far from the front doors since they closed it down.
"Do you know where you're going?" Brandon asks when Grant walks ahead of him through a narrow hallway lined with windows. To their right, there's a row of treatment rooms, the doors shut tight like they've still got patients to contain. On the left, the windows look out into a small courtyard that is overgrown with weeds, kudzu spilled down from the roof and covering all four walls. The grass doesn't flicker and the vines don't sway, as if the place is immune to wind.
Grant just keeps walking like he's following someone Brandon can't see. Afraid that he's losing him already, Brandon takes his hand, and he's still warm, still smells like sex and the leather seats of his car. It seems likely that their particular brand of happiness might attract jealous ghosts, but he keeps hold of Grant's hand anyway, squeezing it when he hears noises behind them.
"Are you hearing this shit?" he whispers when he can't stand it anymore. Grant is walking through the halls of the building at a steady pace, ignoring every room they pass. Some are numbered, some have names on their doors, and some are unidentified and dark.
"Yeah," Grant says. "But I think it's okay."
He's barely gotten the words out when they hear a slamming sound from two floors up, far away but loud. Brandon curls around Grant's side, and Grant stares at the ceiling. Brandon watches his eyes darken, and then realizes why. He turns back to see the hallway they just came through filling with black smoke.
"Did you throw your cigarette?" Brandon asks frantically.
"Brandon," Grant says, his eyes still widening, as if his skin is being peeled back by flame. "That's not smoke."
They fly down the corridor, a low groan coming from the gathering darkness, like a hungry mouth opening. They're both panting and tripping and looking at nothing but each other, Grant turning back every ten steps to make sure Brandon is still behind him.
"Here!" he shrieks suddenly, and they come crashing against a door at the back of the building. It's labeled with the number 18, but there is a dark spot in the dust beside it where the 6 once sat.
"This is it!" Grant shouts over the building noise of the crystalline cobwebs that are slicing across the ceiling, blackening it like an invisible blaze.
"Wait!" Brandon says when Grant pulls the door open. He grabs Brandon's face and kisses him once on the mouth, then throws himself inside the room without looking back. The door bolts behind him, and Brandon struggles to get it open but can't. He cries in frustration and pounds on the door, the noise of the thing that is flooding the building surging behind him as the windows go black.
"Come back," he croaks pathetically, sinking to the floor, and he buries his head in his hands.
It takes him awhile to recognize that the ragged sound filling his ears is not an evil presence but his own wild breathing. He raises his head slowly. The hospital is again eerily quiet, the hall empty and the windows shining with moonlight. He wipes his face and stands on unsteady legs, grips the doorknob for traction. It turns easily in his hand, and he lets it go with a gasp, steps away.
"Grant?" he says. He whips around to make sure no one is standing behind him. The echoing hallway seems unimpressed with him, not blank but now disinterested.
Brandon pushes into room 186, and at first he only sees darkness so intense that he reels backward, thinking the thing that was pursuing he and Grant through the halls has returned. He lifts the flashlight that is still clutched in his sweaty hand and watches the shaking beam of light bounce around the windowless room. There is nothing inside; not a cot or a cabinet or even a stray chair. The only thing he sees are cobwebs, wispy in the corners of the room, spiders scattering when he points the flashlight at them.
"Grant?" he says again. He pushes the door open all the way and looks around the room, but there is no place to hide. Desperate, he goes inside, his breathing shattered and painful, but as he feels his way along the walls he doesn't come across a closet or a secret door. His hand is black with dust by the time he stumbles out into the hallway to throw up.
Grant is gone.
"I'll wait in the car," he mumbles deliriously as he walks back through the halls of the hospital. He finds the front lobby easily, as if he's been here a thousand times. The door is hanging open, the night outside frosty and welcoming under the now-uncovered moon. He can see that the car is gone before he actually gets there, but he keeps walking forward anyway, hoping it will somehow appear. He can't even find their tire tracks, or the flask Grant threw into the grass.
"Okay," he says to no one. He feels for the ground as if he can't see it, as if it's going to sink away beneath his fingertips. "Okay. Okay, Grant. I'll wait here."
He's shivering already, but he lets the cold night seep into him and the silence of the place wipe his mind clear. He hums to himself like a sick child who has wandered away from the hospital, and waits for Grant, though he knows he'll never come.
Somehow, he walks home. He trips over himself and suffers through cold spots and feverish hot flushes, twice ignores people who pull over to ask him if he's okay. They both speed off after deciding that he's just some fucked up teenager, high out of his mind. Brandon keeps expecting Grant to roar up in the Mustang and ask him why he left. Funny thing is, Brandon can't even remember leaving and doesn't really know where he is. He's just walking, following the road.
He passes the European-style villas, but doesn't remember seeing the horseback riding supply store, the junky shopping center or even the diner where they ate dinner. Time feels fluid and tricky around him, like he might disappear, too, if he steps into the wrong ditch. The sun peeks over the horizon at one point, then the sky seems to darken again. He hears thunder and sees heat lighting, though it's probably close to forty degrees outside. The rain never comes, and he ends up in the parking lot of his high school, which is deserted and spread out before him like a moonscape.
The woods hoot and twitter around him on the way to Grant's house, but he doesn't feel afraid of their moist darkness, only of what he might find on the other side. Sure enough, Grant's car is nowhere to be seen. He walks up to the front porch and rings the doorbell anyway. A light goes on in the house after a few minutes of persistent ringing, and an old man peeks out at him from the window beside the door to tell him to go away or he'll call the police. Something about the muffled sound of his voice through the glass makes Brandon want to get away as fast as he can, and he runs until he gets to the end of the driveway, where he falls forward and skins his hands on the rough concrete of the gutter.
The cuts on his hands are bleeding by the time he reaches his street, and the sun has broken the horizon for good. People are going to their cars with their coffee, and an elementary school bus trundles by, a girl wearing a witch's hat staring forlornly out at Brandon as it makes its way past. Brandon had almost forgotten: it's Halloween.
He expects his mother to be waiting up on the couch, tearful and asking him again to be a good boy like he once was, but the living room and kitchen are empty. He shuts himself into the bathroom and undresses, dropping each article of clothing to the floor with listless resignation. Once he's in the shower, he allows his mind to switch on again.
It's possible that Grant Wheeler pulled a fantastic trick on him. He scared the shit out of him and fucked him in the backseat of his Mustang, even got him to admit he was in love. Who he'll share high fives with over the success of this plot, Brandon can't imagine. Maybe he is crazy, but not in the way he wanted Brandon to think.
The other possibility is that Kerry Baker was telling the truth, that she whispered some amateur spell while Andrew the invalid was dying, and Grant was born thirty years later to unsuspecting parents who didn't know their son's soul had only earned sixteen years of sanity. Kerry tricked Grant into returning to Glenview so that she could undo her own mistake and relieve her guilt. The spell was undone. Grant was blanked off the face of the earth.
Brandon can't even begin to decide which scenario is worse. Either way, Grant is gone. The house he lived in, where the old man told Brandon to get off of his property, was freshly painted gray and had a blue Astro van up on cinderblocks at the end of its driveway. If it was all a trick, it was a pretty fucking elaborate one.
Brandon decides he's overestimated his ability to begin thinking about what happened, and stumbles to his room in a towel, leaving his clothes on the bathroom floor. He falls face first into bed and expects to have trouble sleeping, but his sore muscles ease him under fast, and he sleeps without dreams until his mother comes in to wake him for school.
"Bubby?" she says. "You're gonna be late."
She walks over to the bed when Brandon says nothing, and sucks in her breath when she touches his forehead.
"God, do you have a fever?" she asks.
"Mom," Brandon says weakly. It's a voice he would have liked to bottle for fake sick days if he'd heard it before the world ended. Now it's so sincere that he hates it.
"You're sweating like crazy -- hon, do you need the doctor?"
"No. I just want to sleep."
"Okay. Alright. I'll call the school."
Brandon sleeps for the rest of the day. He dreams that he hikes up to the meadow where he first kissed Grant, and it's empty. He waits in their stall at school, but no one comes. He walks into Grant's classes, where his teachers only shake their heads at him in confusion.
Sometime around three o'clock in the afternoon, the shouts of the elementary school kids getting off the bus wake him. He goes to the window and watches them skipping around in their costumes, already waving the neon-orange pumpkin buckets that will be filled with candy when the sun goes down. He gets dressed and walks out into the hall, his eyes two puffy slits and his throat sore as hell. He really is sick. It seems strange that his body can still react physically to anything, like the world has been reset and it hasn't yet got a right to reclaim him.
There's a knock on the door while he's rummaging through the fridge looking to eat something before his throbbing headache knocks him unconscious. The fridge is much more well-stocked than usual, and he's having a hard time deciding between cold leftover steak or a slab of mozzarella cheese rolled up in salami. He tries to ignore the knocking, but it's persistent, and he walks to the door expecting over-eager trick-or-treaters. He picks up the plastic bowl of Reese's cups that his mother has already set out.
When he pulls open the door, the fact that Grant is standing there doesn't work with his thought process. It gets put aside for later consideration, and in the meantime he just stands there, staring. Grant's hair is shorter and his face is broken out in a red blush under his eyes, but otherwise he looks okay. He looks alive.
"Why'd you skip on Halloween?" Grant asks. He reaches into the bowl of candy and takes a Reese's, puts it in his pocket. "Its like, the easiest day of the year."
Brandon lets his mouth fall open and watches the colors of the afternoon sink in around the image of Grant, standing there, alive. He's wearing a book bag and a hooded sweatshirt, looking at Brandon like he's crazy.
"What, are you seriously sick?" he asks.
"Grant?" Brandon finally sputters. He reaches forward cautiously, afraid his hand will go through him. His shoulder is solid, the fabric of his sweatshirt like a potion that washes the rest of the nightmare away. Brandon doesn't care about the explanation, and if this is a dream, he's ready to live in it forever.
"What, you're gonna start calling me by my real name -- Brandon!" Grant squawks in surprise when Brandon drops the bowl of candy, grabs him and hugs him as hard as he can, shaking with joy at the familiar smell of him. Grant is stiff in his arms, and he pats Brandon's back cautiously.
"Are are you on something?" he asks when Brandon pulls away to look at him. He grins, showing Brandon a mouth full of braces.
"When did you get those?" Brandon stammers, resisting the urge to reach into Grant's mouth and touch the metal fasteners.
"When did I get what?"
"Uh. Two years ago. Shit, are you okay? You want me to call your mom?"
Brandon shakes his head. Grant looks down at the Reese's cups that are now scattered all over the foyer and on the front porch.
"Are you okay?" Brandon asks. He squeezes Grant's arm again, then pulls up the sleeve of his sweatshirt to check his pulse. He feels it beating strong under the thin skin of his wrist, and kisses him there before he can stop himself. Grant yanks his arm away and steps back, crushing a few Reese's cups beneath his shoe.
"Brandon," he says in a panicked whisper. His whole face burns bright to match his red cheeks.
"Sorry," Brandon says, unperturbed. He's beaming, can't stop looking at Grant. "I'm a little -- fucked up, I guess. Um. Cold medicine. Do you want to come in?"
Grant helps him gather up the spilled candy and joins him in the living room. He dumps his book bag on the floor and flops onto the couch like he's been there a million times before. Brandon stands in the middle of the room and stares at him. His eyes are still blue, but his skin isn't quite as pale. He's got the same nose and hands but his feet look bigger.
"You're freaking me out," Grant says, but he doesn't look that freaked. He tips his head back onto the couch and smirks at Brandon, then laughs. "What kind of medicine did you take?"
"None of it happened, did it?" Brandon asks. "Glenview -- where were you last night?"
"I was with you, dumbass. Spray-painting a Cthulhu on Mrs. Harris' driveway. If this is some kind of bullshit Halloween joke, it's really fucking lame, okay? Come over here. Quit standing there like you're possessed."
Brandon bounds onto the couch beside him and cuddles up against him, though he's gathered by now that this bizarro version of Grant won't necessarily be down with displays of physical affection. He can't help it, and he laughs against Grant's neck when he squirms away half-heartedly, snickering in nervous outbursts.
"Dude, what the fuck?" he asks, but he barely flinches when Brandon strokes a finger down the length of his nose. "Are you making fun of me?" he asks, his smile slipping off his face.
"No. Grant, oh my God. I just had the shittiest dream. You -- something bad happened to you. I'm just really glad you're here." He tries to work out what happened: going to Glenview worked in Grant's favor, but he doesn't remember anything. And for some reason he now has braces. Brandon can live with that.
"Why are you calling me Grant all of a sudden?" he asks.
"What the hell else would I call you?"
"Man, you're fucking with me. Brandon, what the -- you've been calling me Bake for the past eight years."
"Bake? Bake? Why would I call you that?"
"Maybe because my last name is Baker? Look, quit this shit or I'm seriously going to call you mom."
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry." Brandon sits up on his knees and puts his hand on Grant's chest, grins when he feels his heartbeat pumping fast. "I'm fine, really, I'm just a little feverish."
Grant looks down at his lap, picks his thumbnail and chews his lip. The sun is just beginning to tint the woods behind Brandon's house golden yellow, and he wants to kiss Grant until he tastes metal in his mouth. He's never letting him out of his sight again.
"You're feverish?" Grant says. "Is that why you're, like. Um. Rubbing my chest?"
"Am I?" Brandon looks down at his hand, which is spread across Grant's sweatshirt, his thumb moving in lazy strokes across the 'H' in 'TTHS.' "Oh, hey, look at that. Sorry." He takes his hand away. Grant glances over at him but still can't quite make eye contact. He shifts until their shoulders are pressed together.
"I don't mind," he says quietly.
Brandon touches Grant's face. His skin is rougher than it was before they went to Glenview. Vague theories about what the hell is going on evaporate like soap bubbles when Grant finally looks up at him, his eyes a softer blue than Brandon remembers, but maybe it's just the light. He smiles shyly. He's a different person, but he's not, he can't be.
The front door opens, and Brandon and Grant slide apart, Grant practically flinging himself off the couch. A man walks in with a giant pumpkin tucked under his arm, and it's been so long that it actually takes Brandon almost a full minute to recognize him.
"Dad?" he shouts, unprepared for this. His father turns from the door and gives him a look of confusion, hugging the pumpkin to his chest.
"Yes?" he says.
Brandon gets up from the couch, and when he passes out he hits the coffee table, hard.
He wakes up on the floor, his father and Grant leaning over him. His father has a cell phone pressed to his ear, and he touches Brandon's face. The long-forgotten smell of him makes Brandon's eyes well up.
"Am I dead?" he cries. Grant squeezes his hand and makes a choked little noise that might have been a swallowed laugh.
"You're fine, Bub," his dad says. "Yeah, yeah, he's awake," he says into the phone. "I don't know, should I call 911? What did you give him this morning?"
Brandon sits up, and Grant helps him stay propped upright, his knee behind his back. His dad is sitting Indian style and watching him with concern.
"Did you take something after Mom left?" he asks Brandon.
"No, Dad. Dad." He leans forward and throws all of his weight onto his father, hugging him around the shoulders and huffing dry sobs onto his shirt. Please don't let me wake up he thinks, pinching his eyes shut. Please let me stay, I'll do anything.
"Oh, God, Chris, do you think he's alright?" he hears his mother ask on the phone.
"I don't know," his dad says, patting Brandon's back. "He's hugging me."
His mother makes a distressed noise, as if this is not a good sign. Brandon laughs.
He convinces his father that 911 is not necessary, citing the fact that he hasn't eaten all day as the reason for his nose dive onto the coffee table. It's true that he's starving, and he eats a huge turkey sandwich at the table while his father starts the annual pot of Halloween chili, which Brandon hasn't eaten since he was thirteen, when his father was crushed by a pallet of incorrectly loaded tile while he was showing a client options for redoing her master bath.
"This is the best sandwich I've ever had," Brandon says with a mouthful. His father gives him a suspicious look.
"Are you two high?" he asks.
"No!" Grant exclaims, scandalized, and Brandon laughs so hard he requires two firm slaps on the back to keep from choking.
"When are your folks coming over?" his father asks Grant.
"I don't know, 'round dinnertime, I guess." Grant is still watching Brandon like he thinks he's going to explode or turn green any minute now. "My grandma's in town, so dad had to take her to the doctor today."
"Ah, so that's why he wasn't at work," Brandon's dad says. Brandon can't stop staring at him; he forgot the way his shoulders slope and his uncanny ability to always have only a quarter of his shirt untucked. Suddenly the idea that he was gone for three years seems crazier than the fact that he's alive again.
Brandon spends the rest of the day on the couch with his dad and Grant, staring at them in turns, enough to make them both continue to nervously recheck his temperature. He does feel a little sick, but not unhappily. His headache is gone, and he's in a pleasant daze, the events of the night before slipping away from him like the memory of a dream. He doesn't remotely want to hang onto them, until a sharp reverberation of what Grant said to him in the back of the Mustang hits him: don't forget me.
His mother comes home at the usual time, and Brandon wants to bounce around her saying, Look, Mom, it's Dad, look, he's back, can you believe it? She checks Brandon's forehead and makes a face, but accepts his pleading insistence that he's okay, really. She approves of the fat pumpkin his father brought home, but thinks the chili needs more salt. Brandon lingers in the kitchen doorway and watches his parents discuss it, fascinated by everything: his father holding a half-empty beer against his hip, his mother picking a piece of his silvery blond hair from his shirt. Eventually they notice and turn to look at him, eyebrows raised.
"Brandon," his mother says. "Honey, what is it? You look -- are you sure you didn't take anything? Nyquil or -- oh, God, you didn't take one of those old muscle relaxers, did you?"
"I thought we threw those out?" his father says.
"No, I didn't take anything." Brandon resists the urge to walk into the kitchen and throw his arms around both of them. It would only convince them further than he's under the influence. "It's just, like -- I had this dream, okay? You know It's a Wonderful Life? It was like that. Everything was screwed up, and now it's not."
His father grins, but his mother still seems unconvinced. She sighs and goes to stir the chili while his father gazes at him the way Brandon has been looking at him since he came in, like he hasn't seen him in awhile.
"I wish I could have a dream like that," he says.
"No, you don't," Brandon assures him.
The sensation that things are new and different begins to fade as the sun drops outside. Trick-or-treaters start arriving, and Brandon and Grant take turns answering the door while Brandon's parents finish dinner. It's not until Brandon gets up with the candy bowl and finds Kerry Baker standing at the door that his memories of the night at Glenview pour back in.
"Hey there!" Kerry says, like they're old friends. She's slimmer and her hair is cleaner, but it's definitely her. She walks past Brandon to hug Grant, and he has an impulse to tear her away from him and call her a witch.
"Hey, Grandma," Grant says. "Happy Halloween."
"Smells good in here!" she says, and she walks toward the kitchen like she owns the place. Brandon stands the door as if his shoes have melted into the carpet, and listens to his parents greet Kerry Baker as a welcome guest. He opens his mouth to ask Grant what the hell is going on, but someone claps him hard on the shoulder before he can, and he shrieks.
"Jesus, Brandon," a man who he doesn't recognize says, walking through the door with a petite, pretty woman following. She's carrying a pie, and the man has a stack of DVDs. "I didn't mean to scare you," he says.
"Brandon's kind of messed up," Grant explains as the couple walks inside, the woman shutting the door behind them. "He's got a fever, or something."
"Oh no, on Halloween?" the woman says. She leans over to kiss Grant on the side of his head as she passes. "Your favorite holiday."
"Hey, Andy," Brandon's father says, coming out of the kitchen with two beers. Andy takes one and pats his father's shoulder in thanks.
"Did that order from Northridge come in today?" Andy asks.
"Hell no." Brandon's father blows out his breath as if he's not surprised. "I had Linda call the guy, but you know he doesn't answer his phone."
"Awesome," Andy mutters. "Hey, I brought that movie I told you about," he says, holding up the DVDs.
Grant walks to Brandon's side and pokes him as if to make sure he's still awake. Brandon looks at him, blinking in confusion. His brain feels like felt, two-dimensional and fuzzy.
"Your dad's name is -- Andy?" he says to Grant. He's not sure why this is bothering him. Grant frowns and puts the back of his hand against Brandon's cheek, as if the heat of his skin will tell him everything.
"Alright, now you're scaring me for real," he says. "You win. If this is a joke, please tell me."
"It's a joke, I'm sorry," Brandon shakes his head and tries to smile. Everyone else has moved into the kitchen, and it's loud with talk and the pull of the refrigerator. A wine bottle pops open and the oven timer goes off.
"Don't fuck with me right now," Grant says. His voice is so soft and scared that Brandon wants to whisper reassurances against his lips. He hears the clatter of another group of children making their way to the front door.
"Will you get this one?" Brandon asks. He stops himself before adding I need to go talk to your grandma.
Hours pass before the opportunity to talk to Kerry alone presents itself. They eat chili in front of the television, watching The Birds, which isn't scary at all. Brandon doesn't mind; he's not really in the mood to be scared. He's crushed up next to Grant on the crowded sofa, Grant's pinky finger just barely touching his knee and their shoulders snugly pressed together. He'd be happy to stay beside him for days, but there are some things that need to be addressed before the murky landscape of his mind paves over everything that happened in -- what? That alternate universe? Just thinking it already seems ridiculous.
Kerry gets up halfway through the movie to go out onto the back deck and smoke a cigarette. Brandon heads into the kitchen and gets a soda from the fridge, then quietly slips out onto the porch. It's cold outside, the sounds of trick-or-treaters already dying out, just a few high schoolers making the rounds now. Kerry grins at him when he walks over to stand beside her at the rail.
"I should quit," she says. She takes a drag and blows the smoke toward the sky. "But to hell with it, right? I'm old, I should do what I want. Just don't get started on this junk while you're still young. It's expensive, for one thing."
"Do you --" Brandon starts to say, but he doesn't know where to begin. Kerry is cheerful and oblivious, but she's definitely the same woman he and Grant met in the woods. "Were you a nurse?" he asks.
"Yeah, but all the nurses and the doctors smoked back then," she says.
"But you -- you worked at Glenview hospital?"
"Just for a few months." Kerry taps her cigarette against the porch rail. "You know, Grant's told you. That's where I met Andy. I got him out of there as quick as I could become a foster mother. Which, let me tell you, in this state, doesn't take much. But that place was a nightmare. Those poor children. I would have adopted more of them if I could have afforded it, but I felt bad enough raising Andy by myself and on a nursing home caregiver's salary."
"Andy -- Grant's dad -- why was he in Glenview? He was sick?"
"I thought you knew all this? He had what they thought was schizophrenia, but he was misdiagnosed. They were going to do some horrid experimental treatment on him, too, and maybe that's what scared the tantrums out of him. They called it a miraculous recovery, but when I think back on it, maybe he was just a scared, lonely kid, inventing stories for the staff and puking up his pills out of sheer will. I can't think of what else it would be. For years I was afraid his symptoms would come back, but all I can do is thank God that they haven't."
"Did his symptoms disappear on the night before Halloween?" Brandon asks in a rush. Kerry frowns.
"Well, let's see. It was October -- toward the end of October. Might have been. Why -- you know what, it was! I remember, they had a little Halloween celebration the next day at the hospital, and the doctors didn't want to let Andy participate, even though he'd been calm and lucid for twenty-four hours. It broke my heart. I guess that's when I decided to adopt him. How did you know about that? Did Andy tell you?"
"He must have told Grant," Brandon says, his voice shaking. "Kerry -- this will sound weird, but just, it's Halloween and all -- were you ever into, like -- witchcraft?"
She laughs and puts her cigarette out, shakes her head.
"I was into what I thought was witchcraft, once." She shrugs. "Now they call it alternative medicine, herbal remedies, the power of positive thinking, blah, blah, blah. Why do you ask?"
"Nothing -- I -- thanks."
He rushes back inside with his soda, the cold air still stinging on his ears. The movie has ended and someone has turned on a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror marathon. Brandon falls beside Grant, clumsily enough to account for his elbow in Grant's lap. Grant turns to breathe against his hair. Brandon can feel him smiling, and it's familiar in a way that makes him stop and try to figure out why.
"You're freezing," Grant says, his voice low enough to make something shift in Brandon's gut, close to his lap. "Were you outside?"
"Yeah." Brandon turns to look at him. He's not the Grant he knew, the boy who lived in Hickory Pines and drove a yellow Mustang. But that can't be entirely true, because he looks like Grant, smells like him, and has his wheezy laugh even without the cigarettes. Brandon lets out his breath and tries to figure out just what the hell happened here, before he loses the strands of his memories like breadcrumbs blown away by the wind. The witch in the woods, Kerry, the woman who is now coming in from the porch and resuming her seat in Brandon's dad's favorite armchair, told Grant that reversing the spell she cast would only save one person, either he or Andrew. Grant disappeared from Glenview like he'd never existed at all. His car was gone, his house in Hickory Pines full of strangers. Andrew must have been the benefactor of the reversal. But that doesn't explain how Grant, his Grant, is sitting beside him, warm and real and eating Red Hot Dollars.
Andrew must have known Grant, even just for a moment, when the soul they shared reconnected. Brandon wonders now if Grant knew he was sacrificing himself. He seemed to anticipate his disappearance. But where is that Grant now? Brandon studies the Grant beside him on the couch, the son Andrew named for the boy who never was. Does Andy remember the Grant who came to him in Glenview and freed his haunted soul from the darkness that they both knew? Was it anything that concrete? Brandon looks desperately to Kerry, as if she'll remember something, too, but she's only smiling at Andy, her adopted son, who is telling a story about a Halloween costume he got in trouble for when he was in high school. She doesn't know anything about the spell that she never needed to cast, because Andrew was cured when Grant became a part of him. Brandon is the only one who remembers what the world was like before Grant fixed it, and his memories are fading fast, as if his brain can't contain two realities at once.
Brandon has always been good at math, and he tries to work the whole thing out like a logic problem, even as his exhaustion takes over. He wants to drop his head onto Grant's shoulder and sleep for weeks, but he can't stop trying to figure out where the Grant he knew is now, if he's safe or happy or just gone forever. The best he can figure is that Andrew was saved from his horrible fate by Grant, the vessel for his soul who Kerry inadvertently cursed when she was trying to comfort Andrew as he died. Andrew left Glenview, married, and gave Grant his life back when he had a son, the boy who is sitting beside Brandon now. He looks at Grant, this Grant he already feels like he's known forever. Grant turns to him, their noses nearly bumping together, and Brandon can see his cheeks go red even in the low light from the television.
"You swear you're okay?" Grant whispers while the adults laugh uproariously at zombie Flanders.
"I swear," Brandon says. And suddenly he can't remember why he wouldn't be. He was sick. How did he get sick? Walking along a road -- when? Why? Other memories start to surface like stepping stones in his mind: drunken joking about the day Andy saved Brandon's father from a falling pallet of tiles at work (the wives told them they shouldn't laugh, it could have been serious). Grant crying because he had to get braces a week before high school started (he refused to speak for two days so that nobody would see them). Brandon's dad letting him sip from his beer when they went fishing last weekend (he made Brandon promise not to tell his mother).
Brandon leans against Grant, subtly at first, and more obviously as he begins to fade in and out of consciousness, listening to the television and the sound of the adults talking and laughing. As it gets close to midnight, Andy says they'd better head home so Kerry can get to bed. They live across the street. Brandon isn't sure why this suddenly seems so novel.
"Oh, nonsense, I've always been a night owl," Kerry says, but Brandon hears the whine of the arm chair she was sitting in as she stands up.
"Should we wake Grant?" his mother asks.
"He can sleep here," Brandon's father says. "It's Friday."
There's a rustling of bags and the pop of a DVD case opening. Brandon sighs onto Grant's shoulder, soft enough to keep up the pretense of being asleep. He wants to be alone with Grant. He wants to tell him -- what? Something; he can't remember. Grant has been his best friend since his family moved to the neighborhood when Brandon was six years old. Things have been weird lately. Why? Did Grant try to kiss him? Or did he dream that?
"Look at them," Brandon's mother whispers as she walks the Bakers to the door. "They'd die of embarrassment if they saw themselves."
"Not Grant," Andy says. "Carol found a picture of Brando in his pillowcase once." He snickers.
"Andy!" Carol hisses. "Don't listen to him," she says. "He's drunk."
"Aw, I'm banking on the boys dating each other," Brandon's dad says. "At least then we won't have to worry about meeting some obnoxious yuppie in-laws, right?"
The dads laugh and the moms shush them ferociously. Kerry says something about the beauty of adoption and Andy says Who's drunk now? and Brandon falls asleep on Grant's shoulder.
He forgets everything that night.
Sometimes, though, he has dreams about a Grant who isn't quite Grant. In these dreams he's always walking through the woods, nervous and frightened of some vague malevolent force, until he comes across a sunlit meadow that fills him with a sense of serenity. He lies down in the meadow like it's a bed with the blankets pulled back enticingly, and shuts his eyes under the glare of the sun. A shadow moves over him, and when he opens his eyes Grant is beside him, smirking down at him, his eyes gray-blue under the shade of his hair. He touches Brandon like it's something they do all the time, his hand between Brandon's legs and his mouth in the hollow of his throat, warm and wet, until Brandon knows that he's dreaming and that he's going to come all over his bedsheets. Grant always holds his face and smiles down at him just before he wakes. He looks older, more tired, than the Grant he grew up with.
"I told you it would work," he says, every time.
Brandon always comes out of these dreams feeling hollow and lost, his cheeks red with embarrassment, as if Grant is going to know about this the next time he sees him. As much as this weighs on him, the dreams also make him desperate to see Grant as soon as possible, and he'll pull on a pair of pants with his morning wood still sinking, leave the house without breakfast and go across the street to knock on Grant's door. Grant never seems surprised to see Brandon, whether it's seven o'clock in the morning before school or noon on Sunday, and he reminds him that he doesn't have to knock, he can just come in, which is something that Brandon feels like he once knew. He can't figure out why he keeps knocking, but it's like asking for permission, something he can't bring himself to otherwise vocalize.
When he finally kisses Grant, on the walk home from school after the last day before Thanksgiving break, it breaks through him so hard that he lets loose a choked little cry that startles them both. They're standing in the woods between the football stadium and their neighborhood, pine straw and mud under their feet, the trees wet and dripping. Brandon isn't sure why he picked this moment. He's been bouncing off the walls all day with pre-vacation energy, looking forward to the week off of school and long days of doing nothing but dozing off with Grant while their dads watch football. Walking home, it suddenly seemed like too little to want, Grant warm beside him on the couch, the thrill of their knees touching until one of them loses his nerve and shifts away. He wants Grant like he has him in his dreams, unafraid and matter of fact, as if they were put on earth to make each other feel good and they might as well get on with it.
"Sorry," Brandon says when Grant stands staring at him, his breath puffing out visibly in the frosty air. "I don't know why I did that."
They hear the sound of other kids laughing and tromping along the trail, and Brandon turns from Grant, destroyed by his reaction. Maybe he dreamed that thing about Grant keeping his picture in his pillowcase. It's getting hard to separate his dreams from reality, and it's not doing him any good.
Grant walks beside him with his hands in the pockets of his jacket. Neither of them speaks for the rest of the walk home, and Brandon feels a strange sense of calm, despite the fact that he's pretty sure he's scared Grant away for good. At least he did something. At least he tried.
He's surprised when Grant follows him home. Brandon's house is their usual after school destination, because they can watch whatever they want on TV, while at Grant's house they'd surely find his mother watching Oprah right about now. Brandon hasn't looked at Grant since he kissed him, and he busies himself getting Gatorade out of the fridge. He pours himself a glass without asking Grant if he wants any.
"Brandon." Grant is out of breath, as if they ran home. Brandon chugs the whole glass of Gatorade before he looks at him. The corners of Grant's eyes are red, probably from the cold.
"C'mere," Grant says. He grabs Brandon's hand and pulls him through the house, and for a second Brandon actually thinks Grant's going to kick his ass, because he's rougher and more decisive than usual, pushing Brandon into his room and yanking the door shut hard behind him.
Brandon opens his mouth to ask him what, what Grant, what do you think you're doing, but Grant is on him before he can make a sound, kissing him so hungrily that they both fall backward and bounce onto Brandon's bed. Having Grant's lips on his and literally falling at the same time makes Brandon's insides clench like they do when he's upside down on a roller coaster, moving too fast and helplessly happy, strapped in tight.
"I love you," Grant breathes onto his face, on his hands and knees with Brandon clutching at him, trying to pull him closer. "I love you so much. I've been meaning to tell you, I can't believe you kissed me, I couldn't even -- oh, God, Brandon --"
Brandon would tell him that he sounds an awful lot like Jimmy Stewart when he's in the throes of passion, but he doesn't want to make fun of him. He wraps his legs around Grant's back, as high as he can get them, his Pumas still on and dropping wet leaves onto his sheets. He's going to tell Grant he loves him, too, of course he does, but then he remembers that he already told him, once, though he can't recall when.
He says it again just in case.
Three weeks later the air smells like Christmas, and all the good movies start to come out in the theaters. Brandon and Grant go to the midnight shows on Fridays, trying to stretch their weekend nights out for as long as they can. Grant likes the arty movies, and Brandon does, too, though he won't admit it and pretends to only begrudgingly agree to see them. The truly obscure ones only run for a couple of weeks, and they're always shown in the last theater on the right, the one that's supposed to be haunted.
On the Friday before Christmas, they stand in line for expensive candy because they didn't have time to sneak any into the theater. They were at Grant's house, their parents out together in midtown for a hockey game. Grant made yellow rice with Rotel and they ate it out of the pot while they watched YouTube videos on Grant's computer. They had sex in the bed for starters (Brandon could lie in those sheets that smell like Grant forever), then on the computer chair (uncomfortable, but the over-the-shoulder kissing was hot), and then Grant wanted a blow job while he sat on top of the washing machine (anticlimactic; they ended up on the floor of the laundry room, rolling in the hot comforter they'd stuck in the dryer). They've been working their way through positions and kinks like scientists, as Brandon imagines most nerds who are new to sex must do, discarding most of them (Pop Rocks were a somewhat enjoyable failure and may be reevaluated on a special occasion). Most of the time Brandon just wants to lie on his back and have Grant inside him, leaning down so they can kiss, the warm flat of Grant's stomach rubbing against his cock and the blankets piled on thick.
“Ooh, the haunted theater,” Grant says as they walk down the hall. “Remember when we were kids and we would sneak down here to check for ghosts? I can't believe two people were actually murdered in here. I mean, ghosts or not, that's fucked up.”
“Yeah.” Brandon holds the door open for him, and a chill rolls across the back of his neck. He's not sure why; the “haunted” theater has never scared him.
“What's wrong?” Grant asks.
“Nothing, I just.” Brandon shakes his head. “Deja vu, or something.”
The theater is mercifully empty, and they sit near the back so they can neck when no one's looking. Brandon knows he's supposed to be mad and resentful about being unable to kiss Grant in public, and probably someday he will be, but for now it's their secret, and he likes licking Grant's ear stealthily when they're walking down the aisle in the drugstore, and tugging on his belt loop during pep rallies at school, mostly because it makes him blush like crazy. It helps that he knows their parents will congratulate them and pinch their cheeks whenever they decide to break the news.
They settle in for the movie, a weird one about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll, and the theater fills up pretty well, but even when a long-haired kid and his chubby girlfriend sit at the end of their row, Brandon reaches over to hold Grant's hand under the arm rest.
“Hey,” Grant whispers during the previews. “You know what they should do?”
“They should make a movie about the murders, and show it in this theater.”
A flush moves from Brandon's chest up to his face, and the hair on his arms stands up; he feels it prickling under the sleeve of his sweater. He looks behind him and to his right, expecting to see a ghost, because he felt a sort of breeze jump through him, and there's something here beyond what he can see.
Just look at him like he's the first one who ever thought of it.
It's not a voice exactly, only Brandon thinking, but he doesn't know where the idea came from, or why it would fall to him so precisely. Still, he looks at Grant and smiles.
“Dude,” he says. “That would be awesome.”
Grant grins sheepishly and squeezes his hand. They look back to the screen, and Brandon sees something move on his right, colorless but solid, just out of the corner of his eye. It's gone by the time he turns, but he's not scared. He feels oddly pleased, like he's just remembered a funny story that Grant will appreciate, one he hasn't heard yet.
The movie starts, Grant pokes him in the shoulder with the box of Snow Caps, and it's gone.