II. Secrets

Juan's heart pounded in his head. He sighed. It was only a dream. He looked at his phone to check the time. He woke an hour before his alarm. Juan got up and made himself a cup of coffee. On his way down the steps, the window caught his attention again. He pulled back the curtain to prove to himself nothing was there. The backyard was partially flooded at the area where the hill sloped down. The swing portion looked a little warped, but he couldn't tell if had been that way for a while or if he was misremembering and this was new. Juan took a sip from his mug and got ready for school. Since he stayed the night, Nathan drove Juan to school. They went to their lockers. Eric and Alex were coming down the hall not long after. Eric waved at them. "Hey, Alex! Eric! What's up?" Juan said. "What're you guys planning to do tonight?" "Not much. Probably review some topics to get ready for August." Alex said. "I've got work after school too. Ugh. I fucking hate GameStop." Eric groaned. "Hey, at least you're getting paid." Juan said. "Not enough for their bullshit. Whatever. I'm quitting soon anyway. When we move to Atlanta, I'm going to look for something better." Eric said. One of their mutual friends, Zack, came over to them. "Hey, guys!" "Hey! Last week of school ever. Can you believe it?" Juan said. "Last week and we have so much bullshit to put up with because we're graduating." Zack said. "Can't wait to 'practice' for that stupid ceremony." "I'd rather be in regular class than practice all that shit. I don't give a fuck about any speeches or songs. Give me my paper so I can fucking leave." Nathan cracked his knuckles. "They're not even giving us that until after the ceremony. It's all just so our parents can film it and never watch the video more than once, maybe." Juan said. "Hey, Eric, are your parents coming?" "Fuck if I know. I didn't invite them, and they didn't pay for shit. I bought my cape and gown, and my clothes. I don't care if they're there to see me wear them." Eric crossed his arms. "Damn." Juan said. "They didn't bother congratulating me when I got accepted into college because it wasn't fancy enough for them. They don't care about me. I can't believe I used to worry about how they'd feel if I dropped out of school. Fuck 'em." Eric said. "I'm sure my parents will take plenty of pictures of you so you can remember it." Alex smiled at him. "I wish your parents would adopt me." Eric smiled back. "So you get along really good with Alex's parents, huh?" Juan asked. "Oh god, they love him. I think they love him more than me." Alex laughed. "They don't care about you staying there?" Nathan asked. "No. They know my parents are scumbags, and it's only temporary. It's just until we move." Eric said. "Well, that's nice of them." Juan turned to Zack. "How was your weekend, Zack?" Zack let out a deep breath. "It was...something." "Something happen with Andrew?" Alex asked. Andrew was a boy who'd moved to the area earlier in the year. None of them hung out with him much other than Zack. "Yeah, he's not coming today. Some family stuff." Zack said. "Oh, that reminds me. I gotta pick up something this morning. I'll see y'all at lunch." Eric and Alex went on their way shortly after Zack. Juan and Nathan had the same class for first period. They walked together to their math class. "Thought about going to college, Nathan?" Juan asked. "Me? Nah. That's not the place for me." Nathan shook his head. "Why's that?" "It's just not. I'll manage without it." Nathan said. He clearly didn't want to talk about the subject. Juan let it go and went on to class. The day passed by quickly. In between classes, Juan tried to get Maria's attention. She dodged him every time, disappearing into the crowd of students lazily going between classes. He finally caught her after school. "Hey, Maria. Wanna come over to my place tonight? I wanna talk about something." Juan attempted to hold her hand. She recoiled away from him. "My parents don't like you right now. There's no way they'll let me come over." "Then I'll pick you up after dark and we'll go exploring in the night." Juan smiled at her. That was something they used to do together a lot. The first time they snuck away like that, they went out to the spot on the Silver Comet trail where the exposed rock showed the place where two plates met against each other, arching together with opposite slopes into a small point. They carried a couple of lanterns and played around with a Ouija board. "Juan, it's raining." Maria said as she got into her car. "I'll come to your room. They'll never know I was there." Juan offered. "He'll be there with his gun." Maria warned. "I'll take my chances." Juan smirked. "Hehe. You're crazy." Maria closed the door to the car. She rolled down the window and put on her shades. "I'll see you at midnight." Juan met up with Nathan to tell him about his small victory. "Hey, Maria said I could come over to her place tonight." "That's nice. Guess I'll see you tomorrow. Thanks for last week." Nathan started his car. "Why don't you stay over again?" Juan offered. "Aren't you going to be at Maria's?" "Yeah, but I'm not leaving till midnight and I'm not staying all night either." Juan said. He got in the passenger side of the car. "Besides, I missed the bus talking to her. I kinda need a ride home." "Eh, alright. Let's go." Nathan said. "I got some late night work anyway. Need some more cash." "Oh really? What kind of job?" Juan asked. "Just some indoor maintenance stuff. The person works late." Nathan said. He looked away. "Oh, cool. Good luck with that." Juan said. He spent a lot of time thinking about what to say to Maria. There were so many questions he wanted to ask her. Was she avoiding him? Why? Did he do something wrong or was it about her parents? He thought about how to ask everything over and over in his head, but when it came time to go to her house, he didn't get out a single one of those questions. Being alone with Maria changed his thoughts to only one thing. Around twelve twenty, Juan and Maria lay in bed together. She didn't cuddle with him, laying beside him instead as she checked for any status updates on her favorite celebrities and a couple of ghost hunting channels. Juan didn't feel satisfied after touching her. Something was off. The way she moved was devoid of passion. Juan sat up, ready to leave. He glanced over at the window. It was lightly drizzling when he arrived. The rain had stopped. He saw something moving outside the window. Juan got up to see what it was. He saw it briefly, and as quickly as it came into focus, he forgot it and found himself in his backyard in the day, drenched from head to toe. Juan stood at the top of the hill in his backyard, rain pouring down on him. The hole was bigger than before. More of the feline beast's head emerged this time. The eyes were hidden under the earth and the mouth could not open. The fur's true color was disguised by black dirt and thick, red clay. Red rain came down on him. The skin on his hands boiled away in the hot rain. He screamed so loud he woke himself up. When he woke, he heard someone yelling nearby. It was daylight outside. Juan looked around. He was in Maria's bedroom. By the door, Maria was pleading with her father while he yelled at her. In his hand was a rifle. Juan's eyes widened. He quietly grabbed his pants from the floor and ran for the window. Both of them noticed him when he'd gotten one leg over the side of the open window. Her father ran toward him. Juan jumped, grateful Maria's bedroom was on the first floor. He dashed for the woods to slip out of sight. When he was sure no one could see him, he put his pants on. Juan checked that he didn't leave his phone behind. It was in his back pocket. He waited where he was hiding until he couldn't hear Maria's father yelling anymore. When it was quiet, he got up and looked around to make sure her father wasn't near. Then, he ran for the road. 'That man is insane.' Juan thought, running as fast as he could. Thunder rumbled overhead. Juan looked up. "No, please, not again." Before he made it to the road, he was soaking wet. There was nowhere to seek cover except back underneath the trees in the woods. Juan tried to orient himself to get home. Summer was coming soon, but the wind and rain were cold. Juan shivered as he walked home. An SUV pulled up beside him. The driver side window rolled down. Alex popped his head out of it. "Juan? What are you doing out here?" "Fleeing for my life. Can I get a ride?" Juan asked. "Yeah. Let me get a towel or something." Alex grabbed a towel from behind the backseat. He put it on the front passenger seat. "Come on. Get in." Juan ran to the other side of the car. He closed the door quickly and turned on the heat. "Thanks. I owe you one." "You're completely drenched." Alex said. Juan laughed and shivered. "Yeah." "Hold on." Alex drove a little ways off and parked in an abandoned, unfinished neighborhood. He grabbed a bag from the back seat. "Here. I keep some spare clothes in the car, just in case I need them after a hike or something. Change into these. You'll get sick wearing those." "Thanks." Juan opened the bag. He pulled out a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. Juan quickly put them on. "Hmm...where should I put my pants?" "Just use that bag. You can bring everything back to me whenever." Alex started the car back up. He drove out past the empty, half-finished houses. "So, what happened?" "I stayed over at Maria's and her dad caught me in bed with her." Juan said. Alex shook his head. "Well, that wasn't the best of ideas." "I was gonna leave last night. I...don't know what happened." Juan thought back. He didn't remember falling asleep. He was certain he got up from the bed. There was something outside. Juan tried to picture what it was, but it wouldn't come to him. Alex looked over at him for a second. "This better not be a story about aliens." "It's not this time." Juan warmed his hands. "It's something else. Ah, you wouldn't believe me either way." "Pretty much." Juan let something slip out without thinking about it. "You know, it's kinda funny you're so against believing in cover-ups when you're hiding shit too." Alex raised an eyebrow. "What are you talking about?" "I heard from a reliable source that you're in the closet." Juan said. Once the words left his mouth, he started to panic. He wasn't supposed to know about that, and he didn't know how Alex was going to react to that either. Alex's body tensed. "And who is this source?" 'No, I can make this okay. I just have to act like it's not a big deal.' Juan swallowed hard. "Don't be mad at Zack. He accidentally let it slip to Tyler...and Tyler accidentally let it slip to Nathan...and Nathan just doesn't give a fuck about keeping secrets." Alex stopped the car at a red light. His face made it clear he was angry. "How many people know about this?" "I think that's it." Juan did his best to diffuse the situation. "Hey, I don't care. I just thought, you know, it's kind of ironic." Alex turned to face Juan. Glaring at him, Alex said. "Don't tell Eric." "Why? He's not a homophobe. What's the big deal if he knows?" Juan asked. He was surprised to hear Alex say that. 'So they're not dating yet then?' "I want to tell him myself. I don't want anyone else doing that for me." Alex clarified. "Damn, Nathan was right. You are into Eric." Juan joked around more. Alex's anger dissipated, replaced with embarrassment. His face turned a deep red. Alex drove forward when the light turned, avoiding making eye contact. "What if I am?" "I won't tell him. Nathan was wrong about some parts though. He thought you two were banging." Juan laughed. "I fucking wish." Alex seemed to be calming back down, as far as Juan could tell. His face remained red, but his voice was back to his usual tone. He glanced over at Juan. "I was getting lunch. Did you want something or do you wanna go straight home?" "Hey, if you're payin', I ain't sayin' no." Juan said. "Okay, but I gotta stop by GameStop afterwards. Then, I can take you home." Alex said. "What for?" Juan asked. Then, it dawned on him. "Wait a sec. Are you bringing Eric lunch? Damn, dude. You're not even dating." "We live together. It's not that weird if I drop his lunch off." Alex brushed it off. "Alex, what are you doing? Ask him out. Nathan was pretty sure he likes you." Juan said. "Really?" Alex's face shifted to an innocent, childlike expression. It reminded Juan of a puppy. He'd never seen Alex make a face like that before. Alex caught himself being vulnerable and looked away again. "I mean...I am going to. Just...not yet. I'm going to talk to him about...this stuff before we move. Probably after the graduation party." "That must be frustrating. Sleeping next to someone every night that you wanna get it on with but you can't." Juan said. "You have no idea. I just want him to slam me against a wall and fuck me." Alex said, sighing. "This is the most I've ever heard you talk about sex in the entire time I've known you." Juan said. He never presumed Alex wasn't interested in it, but that his lack of talking about it was because he wanted to keep that sort of thing private. Now that he knew about Alex's secret, it made even more sense. "I'm dying over here. You don't know what it's like." Alex sighed deeply. "We shower together a lot. Do you understand the torture?" Juan laughed loudly. "Haha, I think I like seeing this side of you. It's funny." "It is not." "You've gotta text me. If you get anywhere, I gotta know." Juan said. "Sure. You'll be the first person to know if we fuck." Alex went from annoyed to laughing too, at how absurd his own words were. He glanced over at Juan, grinning and confused. "Why the hell would you want to know that?" "Cause it's funny." Juan laughed more. "You know, I never thought you were gay. Took me by surprise." "What did you expect I'd do differently?" Alex asked. "I mean, you don't usually complain about not getting dick. That's pretty new." "Yeah, and you weren't supposed to know about that either." Alex entered the McDonald's parking lot. The two laughed the rest of the short ride. Alex parked in front of GameStop and texted Eric he was there. Eric came outside a couple of minutes later. Alex got out of the car to talk to him, holding a bag of food in his hand. "Hey." "Thanks for bringing me lunch. I was starving." Eric said. He looked over in the car. "Oh, hey Juan. What's up?" "Not much. Got chased out of my girlfriend's house at gunpoint. No biggie." Juan shrugged his shoulders. "Jesus. What's her dad's problem?" Eric asked. "Probably had to do with us being naked." Juan said. "...that's still no reason to point a gun at somebody." Eric said. "Also, he hates me in general." Juan said. "Why does he hate you?" Eric asked. "Because I'm dating his daughter." At least, that was what Maria always told him. He didn't really know exactly what he did to make the man so angry. "Sounds like he's an asshole and it's got nothing to do with you at all." Eric said. "Yeah, probably..." Juan nodded. "What time are you supposed to get off work today?" Alex asked. "Around ten. I'll text you if I'm staying later." Eric replied. "Alright. I'll see you then." Alex opened the driver side door. Eric hugged Alex tightly. "Thanks again." "No problem." Alex hugged him back, not quite as intensely as Eric was hugging him. Eric pulled away. As he did, they locked their gazes on one another, both of them blushing. An intensity existed between them, one that proclaimed their true feelings louder than any words they exchanged. Eric took the bag from Alex. He lingered in place. Juan got the feeling he was invading on something private. He averted his eyes. "I gotta get back. See ya!" Eric said. "See ya!" Alex waved. He hesitated in moving from that spot. Alex waited until Eric was back inside the store before getting in the car. "Damn. He really likes you." Juan said. "You think so?" Alex started the car up. "Sometimes, I think he's trying to make a move on me, but then I can't tell for sure." "Like what?" Juan asked. "Just small stuff. Like, sometimes, he cuddles really close to me at night...and in the morning. We cuddle a lot, but I mean...He says it's because we're really close as friends and...I don't know." Alex was flustered again. "That sounds pretty gay to me." Juan said. "Yeah, but...he could be gay and still not be into me." Alex reasoned. Juan wanted to laugh. He held it back. Alex, he thought, could reason himself into any kind of mental anguish. "That is true. Anything else?" "Uh, well, we have kissed before." Alex admitted. "What?" "It was on Christmas, under mistletoe. That doesn't really count, does it?" Alex asked. 'This is more obvious than I expected. Of course Mr. Skeptic can't see it.' Juan thought to himself. "Straight guys do not do that, except as a joke." "He said he was joking around, but he did French kiss me one of those times. And there were a few other times outside of Christmas and..." Alex trailed off, recalling various times he and Eric had kissed. "That's gay as hell." Juan said. 'How much of this is there?!' "And well...I'm pretty sure he is probably gay. We've talked about that before. He's never really been interested in any girls. But...that doesn't mean he's into me. Then again, he didn't think it was too weird when I brought up experimenting...but he never asked to either...I don't know." Alex's was deep in his memories. "There was also...I don't know if he'd want me to tell you about this." Amazed at how much more obvious the situation got the more Alex talked, Juan wanted to hear more. "Come on. You can't say all that and not drop all the potential evidence." "Well, you know Eric was planning on dropping out, right? I came up with a plan to help him get his grades back and up stay in school, and part of that involved him sorting out what he wanted to do in life. He came to me at some point and told me he didn't know what he wanted except to be near me because he was normal around me. That's why we're going to rent together and why we're going to the same college. He's going because I'm going." Juan's jaw dropped. "That is the most damning evidence. What are you doing? Ask him out. He basically told you he wants to spend his life with you. What more to do you need to question?" "It does sound...romantic, but there's a lot of stuff going on that you don't know about. I figured he meant that he sees himself as stable around me, and he wanted to stay with me until he was stable enough to figure out what to do." Alex explained away the evidence he provided. "Alex, he came out to the backyard the other night to tell you to come to bed because he wanted to cuddle with you." Juan said blankly. "I guess we'll find out after the party." Alex spoke more quietly. "You're going to think I'm an idiot for saying this, but I'm still nervous about asking him out." "Don't worry about it. Ask him out. You won't regret it." Juan encouraged his friend. He saw they were almost to his house. Juan looked at the time. "Hey...shouldn't you both be in school? Shit...I missed today too." "Do you want me to drop you off at school instead?" Alex asked. "Eric always planned on skipping today. He wanted to get in a few extra hours at work. And well, I didn't have anything important to do today anyway, so I skipped too." "Hell no. I ain't going to school at this point." Juan couldn't believe it was noon. Alex pulled into his driveway. He saw Nathan's car parked there. 'Shit. I never came back.' "We're here." Alex parked the car. "Thanks for the ride and lunch. I need to take a shower." Juan unbuckled his seatbelt. "Yeah, you should do that first thing." Alex said. He noticed the car. "Is Nathan staying over?" "Oh, yeah. He's staying over for a while. Guess he didn't go to school today either." An idea came to Juan. Since Alex was right there, he asked. "Hey, do you want to do some ghost hunting again tonight? Not too late into the night, but you know, for an hour maybe?" "How late?" Alex looked bored with the idea. "I don't know. I'm not really interested in that. If we're going to be talking about ghosts, I'd rather watch shows about ghost hunting than do it myself." "Maybe you're secretly afraid of finding out that they're real." Juan said as a joke. "Nah. I prefer being in my bed at night than wandering around in the woods." Alex said. "Cuddling Eric." Juan added. "Well, yeah." Alex cracked a smile. "Look, you guys can come over again and we can have some pizza and watch horror movies, but let's do this later in the week, not on a school night. How about that?" "Yeah, I guess we could always do the investigation some other time. Ghosts don't usually move on abruptly." Juan said. "Riiight..." Alex rolled his eyes. "I'll have to check my planner, but how about Friday or Saturday night?" "Either night is fine with me. Thanks for the ride back. I really mean it. Nathan's probably pissed I left him here all night." Alex went quiet for a moment. "Does he not have a place?" "He's working on it, but yeah." Juan told him the truth. "Is he okay?" Alex asked. "Yeah, he's good at getting work." Juan said. "What time should we come over?" "How about eight or nine?" "Okay. I'll text you when we're on the way." Juan got out of the car. He waved to Alex before going inside. Juan went straight to the basement. Nathan was hanging out on the couch, watching TV and drinking a beer. Juan apologized for his lateness. "Sorry I was gone so long. Uh, I didn't plan on being out all night." "Things going better with Maria?" Nathan asked. "Sort of. She didn't turn me down for once, but her dad chased me out of the house with a gun. Also, I think I saw some aliens last night." Juan grabbed a towel from his closet. Nathan straightened up. "What?" "Okay, hear me out. This is gonna sound crazy." Juan picked out some clothes to wear. Nathan glanced over at him, then at a poster for The X-Files to Juan's left. "Probably." Juan had little to tell, as excited as he was to talk about it. He couldn't remember what happened. Nathan thought Juan must have fallen asleep sooner than he thought he did, and that he never got up to look out the window in the first place. He was already dreaming at that point. Juan had a hard time believing that. He didn't feel like he was dreaming then. Juan finally took a shower after the story. He couldn't get his mind off last night. Why couldn't he remember what he saw? For a split second, he saw a shadowy form in his mind. A silhouette standing just out of the area illuminated by the neighbor behind Maria's house's back porch light. The form was there, but his thoughts became clouded the longer he thought about it. 'It's gotta be aliens.' He thought. 'What else could it be?' Juan got out of the shower after fifteen minutes. On his way down the stairs, he saw the curtain was pulled back. Juan closed the curtain. The rain had stopped. The yard was covered in large puddles. He flipped through channels to find something to watch on TV. A horror movie caught his attention. He decided to watch that. "Is there any way you can turn on some subtitles?" Nathan asked. "I don't think so. It's on TV. I think closed captioning would be in Spanish too." Juan said. "It's so weird you don't know Spanish." "None of the foster parents I was bounced between knew Spanish and I've been orphaned since I was two. I don't know, man. It's really weird." Nathan said sarcastically. "Yeah, I know that, but...you're obviously Latino. You should learn Spanish." Juan said. "It's part of your heritage." "I don't know what my heritage is. I don't even know what countries my family were originally from." Nathan rested his head against his hand. "Is there nothing on your birth certificate? Or anything they told you when your parents died?" Juan asked. "I barely remember my parents. For a long time, I only had one photo of them, and thanks to some cops taking my shit a while back, I don't have that photo anymore. As for my parents, they were born here. From what little I remember, it's my grandparents generation that wasn't, on both sides. Someone told me once where each side of the family originally came from, but that was a long time ago. I don't remember anymore." Nathan lit up a cigarette. "To tell you the truth, unless I look at my birth certificate, I forget what my original last name is most of the time." "Were you adopted at some point?" Juan asked. Nathan usually avoided talking about his past. Beyond the last few years, he didn't really know much of anything else about his friend's life. "Uh huh. The first couple adopted me. That's where 'Forest' comes from. They dropped me back into the foster system in fourth grade, a year after they adopted me, claiming I had too many 'behavioral issues' for them to handle. Then I was tossed between different couples for two to three months at a time before I ended up with the last one from eighth grade and on. They didn't care what I did. They wanted the extra money. So long as I wasn't dead, the rest didn't matter." Nathan stared out at nothing. "Do you have any relatives you know of you could ask?" Juan asked. "I don't know. I don't even know how I ended up in foster care. Sometimes, I think the handful of memories I have of my parents aren't even real either. I'm probably misremembering." Nathan said. Juan had an idea. "That's it. I'm going to teach you Spanish. We may not know much about your past, but you can take back that part at least." "That's not really necessary...I can manage with English." Nathan said. "No, we can do this. Hold on. Let me see what I have that we can use." Juan got up and looked through his VHS tapes of recorded shows and movies and his collection of burned CDs. Nathan put out his cigarette. "Don't bother. There's not enough time." "What do you mean?" Juan asked. "You'll be in Florida in August. That's not enough time to learn a language. Don't worry about it." Nathan said. "That's enough time to start. Besides, I could send you..." Juan remembered Nathan didn't have an address, much less an email to send anything to. He put his collection of Selena albums back on the shelf. "We need to get you a place to stay." "I'll figure something out. Don't worry about it. I can always find work." Nathan said. Juan sat back down on the sofa. He changed the channel, leaving it on local news. "You know, you never told me what kind of work you've been doing under the table. I won't snitch. You know I don't talk to cops. What do you really do?" "It's really not something I want to talk about." Nathan leaned back against the sofa. Juan turned up the volume and lowered his voice. "Drugs?" "I did sell for a while." Nathan admitted. "How was the money?" Juan asked. "Better than working for McDonald's. Too many risks." "Did you almost get caught?" Juan asked. He couldn't tell this to any of their friends, except, he thought, possibly Eric. The rest of their group would have too many opinions on things they had no knowledge of. Zack, Tyler, and Alex grew up having everything and going on every trip they ever wanted. One of Juan's cousins used to deal drugs because there wasn't enough money to feed everyone in the family and pay the bills. His cousin told the rest of the family he stocked a grocery store late at night while he was looking for a job. No one knew any different, and his siblings weren't hungry anymore. That cousin quit doing that and got a job he didn't have to hide a couple years later. He confessed all of that to Juan one night at another cousin's birthday party, when the two of them were sitting outside watching a rainstorm in July. That same cousin was the one who lied to him about the monster under the hills. He told him that night, 'Don't you ever go do something like that. There are real monsters out there. They don't hide in the corners or crawl up from the depths. They'll rip you apart from above before they throw you away into the darkness.' His cousin made him promise not to do anything like that, but Juan knew in his heart, if he had to do something desperate and dangerous for the people he cared about, he would do anything. That was why he never held things like that against anyone. A hungry mouth cannot be fed on moral purity, nor can safety come from absolute pacifism. His friends didn't know that fear. Outside of Nathan, only Eric likely did, he presumed. Though he never used the word specifically, all his friend's other words painted a picture of abuse whenever he spoke about his parents. Nathan waited a moment before answering him. "Nah. Something else happened. I don't...really want to talk about it." "You can trust me. I won't tell anyone." Juan reassured his friend. Nathan went quiet again. He looked over at Juan, then at the TV screen. "There was this guy who I worked with a lot. A big argument started, he shot somebody, and then he begged me to help him clean up." "You didn't..." "I thought...if I didn't, and they found him, I'd end up being tied up in that and land in jail. This was four years ago. I was fifteen then and really stupid. I spent night after night thinking the cops were gonna find him and come to my door. But they never did. After a few months, I realized why." Nathan turned his gaze to the floor. "He was a homeless addict, looking for his next fix. His family already gave up on him. No one cared he was gone. I remember looking in the mirror that morning and realizing no one would probably care if I was gone either. I'm trash." "That's not true. People would care. I'd care. I bet there was someone out there who cared about that man too. Maybe it wasn't his family. Maybe he had other homeless friends who looked for him and the police didn't care what they had to say." Juan said. Nathan's words stung him deeply. "Have you ever thought of turning that guy in?" "Nah. He's dead. Cops shot him a year later for stealing some food from a Walmart or something in another county." Nathan ran his hand through his hair. "Two years back, I did talk to the usual crowd on the streets about that man. His wife threw him out right after he finished serving a sentence for his last drug charge and she found some used needles in the basement. His parents were addicts, and he picked it up from them when he was young. Child Protective Services came to his house a lot, never did shit. Couldn't afford rehab. Getting drugs was cheaper and easier. He didn't have any friends there. Not a single person cared he was gone. They figured he overdosed and died in a gutter somewhere." "Damn. That's...that's fucked up." Juan's heart ached for the poor man he never knew. He saw one of his slightly younger cousins in that story. None of his relatives could afford healthcare. Food and bills were more important. One of his female cousins, two years younger than him, had spent the last three years dieting and working on being "healthy". She shifted from being a little bit chubby to struggling to find a size small enough for her tiny waist as she obsessively counted smaller and smaller calorie amounts. Many of his older relatives weren't too worried about her, because she was losing weight, but he thought she needed to see a doctor. If she got any thinner and needed to be hospitalized, he worried there would be no money to get her to see a professional. It agonized Juan that so many of his relatives were indifferent to her suffering when she was so clearly ill. They knew she was sick, but saw it as something she should simply overcome on her own with no assistance. There were a lot of things his older relatives thought like that about. "So, you stopped after that, huh? Then, what have you been doing all this time?" "Really don't wanna talk about that either. It's not worse, but..." Nathan looked at the stairs. "Dude, I won't judge." "Well...this is really cringey. So, uh, I had another job even before that. You could say it was an...acting job." Nathan said. "What's so bad about acting? What were they, B movies? Kid shows?" Juan asked. "They were the kind of movies you're supposed to be a certain age to act in." Nathan made it clear what he meant. Juan's eyes widened. "What? Are you serious?!" "Yeah, since I was thirteen. Still do it sometimes." Nathan said. "They've never asked your age?" Juan had heard things like that happened, but he, being optimistic, hoped it didn't happen very often. "Most of my jobs have been with really shady directors. Never asks for anyone's ID's. They ask if you're eighteen, you nod your head and agree. No one looks into that stuff unless you're working in the really nice productions. That's where the best jobs are, but I could never land a really good one when I hit eighteen. I've done a few somewhat classier, higher quality stuff here and there. The pay's better, and you know everyone's more likely to be clean." Nathan sighed. "I'm getting out of that work too. Don't know what I'm going to do now." "I can't believe...you're in porn. That's crazy." Juan didn't know how to take that. "What's that job like?" "Not worth the money, unless you're a big star. Most of the jobs made me sick to do, except the nicer jobs. I've been looking into male stripping. Might try that." Nathan said nonchalantly. "Wow. I can't believe it. I'm guessing you're not going to tell me the titles of any of these movies." Nathan shook his head. "They're mostly really bad. Don't look that shit up." "Did you have an alias you used?" "I have about ten of them." Nathan said. "Who the hell hired you at thirteen though? Surely, there's no way you looked eighteen." Juan asked. He didn't know Nathan then to know for sure, but he couldn't think of any guy he knew of that looked like an adult at thirteen. "It was for some 'barely legal' themed stuff, where we were supposed to look young but actually be eighteen...except I really wasn't legal. There's more of that than you think, at least, on the shitty end of the spectrum. The good productions just use thin and short adults with baby faces. My early 'career' was a lot of incest and pseudo-incest story lines. You know, mom-son and stepmom-son type stuff, a few brother-sister ones. I also was in some teacher-student stuff around then." Nathan spoke of his past films without an ounce of emotion. "Did some hardcore stuff for a while too. Hated it, but it paid better." "What kind of hardcore stuff?" Juan asked out of curiosity. Nathan winced. "I'd really rather forget about that." "Sorry. I won't ask." Juan asked. "Were there any you actually liked?" "Hmm...there were a handful that I got to do with a somewhat decent director after I turned eighteen. I wouldn't say proud, but I don't hate them either. They were pretty vanilla and normal. The director said the appeal was 'romantic' and 'passionate' sex. I actually got to kiss girls in those. That's really not as common as you'd think it would be in the low end stuff. It's just something most people don't think about." "Huh. Now that I think about it, that is true...What the fuck?" That realization bothered Juan, but he couldn't place why. The other things Nathan told him were making him anxious about the amateur porn he'd watched in the past. He always assumed nothing weird went on with those. "Yeah, it's kind of weird. Since the director liked romantic stuff, I did several long make-out scenes before the actual sex scenes, and there wasn't any rough sex. Better editing too. Those weren't so bad. When I worked with him, I used the same alias for all those films. I wouldn't care that much if my real name got attached to that alias." Nathan laughed at himself. "I guess you could say the only ones I kind of enjoyed filming were the ones where I had sex like I normally would. Never understood the appeal of most of the non-vanilla stuff. Really not my thing." "I don't know either. I've seen some strange things on the internet." Juan said. Nathan rubbed his chin. "I wonder if any of the films I did are online." "It's likely, especially if they were filmed so recently." Juan said. He cringed a little internally at the thought he might accidentally one day see Nathan in a clip online. "I'm sure people have connected at least a few of your aliases to your other aliases. Who knows. You might be somebody's favorite actor." Nathan laughed. "Ain't that a thought." "So, male stripping, huh. What's the target audience for that? Older women? Or men?" Juan asked. "That's gonna depend on what audience the location caters to, but typically older women." "Do you have a preference?" Juan asked. "Money's money. I don't care if it's a man or a woman, if it's for business. I've done gay films before. Those ones paid better than the straight films of the same quality level." Nathan confessed. Juan was surprised to hear that. "Are you bisexual?" "No, I'm straight. I was written as bisexual or gay in those films. It's a job. No one bats an eye when a straight woman pretends to be gay in lesbian porn." Nathan added. "But I never enjoyed those jobs, because, you know, I'm straight. I'd rather do work involving women." "Man, I can't believe this...I swear to you, I will keep everything you said to me tonight a secret." Juan promised. He felt a little foolish saying that after blabbing to Alex he knew his secret. 'I'll hold it in this time.' "I'd really appreciate it if everything we talked about stayed between us. I'm not really proud of a lot of stuff I've done to make money. A lot of people don't think highly of that kind of work. If I do get a more 'acceptable' job, that getting out could cost me it." Nathan put his hands together and sighed. "I won't tell a soul." Juan said. The conversation ended not long after that, their attentions gradually becoming more focused on the news. It was getting late. Nathan went out for one last smoke. Juan told himself he needed to get ready for bed, but his body was unusually tired. He didn't want to leave the couch. Juan drifted off into sleep around midnight, never making it to his bed. Once again, he found himself at the top of the hill. The hole was bigger than ever. Lightning struck the ground, breaking it open even more. Earth rumbled under his feet, rising and falling in waves. The top of the head rose up. Round feline ears rotated back and forth like furry radars. Two perfectly round, golden orbs stared out at him. Black and red covered most of the fur. Rain washed away enough for Juan to make out a hint of yellow underneath the soil. Juan could not stand in the creature's presence. He feared if he moved at all, he would be dragged into the piercing gaze of those golden eyes. Where the rain washed away the red clay, the yellow became covered again in crimson. The beast lowered its head back down into the hole. Its pained voice reverberated through the ground and Juan's body. The rain burned him too. His arms dripped with the same brilliant shade from every spot a droplet hit. The rain devoured him until all that remained was a clean pile of ivory white. Juan woke Wednesday morning with a racing heart and drool covering half his face. Nathan was sleeping on his bed, Juan assumed because he had taken Nathan's spot. Juan got ready for the day. He stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. "A cat, huh? What kind of cat are you?" Juan asked his reflection. "Are you going to swallow me whole?" He dried off his face and went to get a cup of coffee.
III. Dive