Autumn Prayer

It was late October, the day before Halloween. The school was decorated with skeletons, ghosts, and pumpkins. He took in each carelessly placed item, daydreaming of decorating his dorm room next year for fall and being able to do all sorts of things without the weight of prying eyes. His daydreaming about next year quickly turned to anxiety over the months in between now and then. Toby sighed. He parked his car in the school parking lot. Muttering under his breath, he said. "Less than a year left. VSU, please let me in." As he walked toward the main building, Toby's friend, David, approached him. "Hey Toby." David said. "Hey." "Are you in a hurry? Could we talk for a sec?" David asked. "Sure. What's up?" Toby asked. David looked around. "Could we, in your car?" "Why?" "Uh, it's just that…it's something sort of...private." Toby stopped. "Okay, but we can't talk too long. Could it wait until after school?" "Well...I kinda wanted to talk about this now before I have to deal with Chase later." David said in a quiet voice. "Oh, it's about Chase." Toby took in a deep breath. He turned around and headed back to the car. He unlocked the doors. "Well, get in." "Sorry. I'll make this quick." David got in the front passenger seat. "So, what's this about? Did Chase do something to you?" Toby asked. Chase was their mutual friend. "No, but…you know how he is when people don't do what he wants." David fidgeted with his hands. "Um, well Brad and I were talking last night on the phone and we both uh, don't really want to do this whole Pagan thing anymore. And neither of us, uh, really want to break that news to Chase. He was the one really into it." "I'll tell him later." Toby expected this was coming. Last year late Halloween night, Toby and his friends, Chase, David, and Brad, all decided to get into Paganism. It was Chase's idea, and Chase had a way with getting people to do just about anything. At the time, Toby didn't expect it to last beyond the night since Chase had previously been a very loud atheist, but it was nearly the one year anniversary since that date and Chase showed no signs of disinterest. That itself was odd, as there were few things that kept Chase's interest beyond an hour. "Are you going back to being Christian?" "Yeah." David nodded. "Me and Brad are going to talk to Pastor Ron this Sunday about the whole thing. We're not gonna mention you guys or anything. What about you?" "Hmm?" "Are you gonna stop too?" David asked. "Mm. No, I wasn't planning on it." Toby shook his head. "But aren't you worried about your parents finding out?" "I don't keep anything they would recognize as 'devil worship' at home. As far as they know, I just have a lot of candles and trinkets." Toby shrugged. "Do you really believe in that stuff?" David gave him a funny look. He narrowed his eyes. Toby kept his face blank. "I dunno. Do you really believe in Jesus?" "I mean, that's what I've been taught since forever. I don't see why I should believe anything else." David said. Toby shrugged again. "I dunno. But if you guys don't want to do that stuff anymore, that's fine. I'll break the news to Chase after school. I'm sure he'll get over it pretty quickly." "Thanks. I was thinking about playing along, but it doesn't sit right with me to do that." David laughed nervously. "Chase is scarier than my parents sometimes." "Hey, do you even want to be friends with Chase at all? If you don't want to hang out with him, you don't have to, you know." Toby said. "It's not like that." David shook his head. "Besides, we're in a band together." "That doesn't matter. He's not entitled to your skills." Toby said. "You can join another band." "Eh, if I quit, I wouldn't bother." David asked Toby. "What about you? You like Chase, don't you?" "Huh?" Toby's heart skipped a beat. "You have a crush on him, don't you?" "No way." His face flushed. "Chase is…Shit, we need to get going. I still need to stop by my locker." David looked at the time. "Okay. I'll talk to you later." David and Toby parted ways. Toby didn't really need to go to his locker, but David's first period was on the other side of campus. He'd never know that. Toby took a seat at the back of his math class in his usual spot. Chase was already in class, reading a book. He looked up at Toby. "Hey." Chase grinned. "You're still coming over after school, right?" "Yeah. What are you reading?" Toby asked. He caught a glimpse at the page. "Some kind of purification ritual?" "Just reading on the topic." Chase said. "I was thinking of trying out a few ideas. Do you want to help me after practice?" "Maybe. I'll have to see how late it is then." Toby felt his face was redder than earlier. His heart raced. He did his best to not let it show in his voice. Chase looked him in the eyes. He leaned over and whispered. "You look cute today." Toby moved away. His heart pounded loudly in his ears. "Don't do that in class." "No one heard me." Toby rolled his eyes. 'You didn't really mean that. You wanted to rile me up.' Chase tried to get his attention again, but Toby ignored him. They had the same schedule all day. As much as he tried throughout the day, Toby knew he couldn't keep it up. In fourth period, they had lunch together, first lunch. The class would be in session for ten minutes, then go to lunch. Attention was immediately placed on both of them at the start of the class. They were getting back their last test. The teacher made a point to tell the class both of them had made perfect scores. Chase smirked. He enjoyed seeing some of his classmates sigh, roll their eyes, and glare at him. Their perfect scores meant there was no curve on this test. Toby quickly put away the sheet in a folder. His parents would be expecting that score. To that, he felt relieved, but his classmates' anger at him hurt. He didn't want to have to be that precise. His father's rage was more frightening than the scorn of his classmates. Toby was grateful they had the first lunch session. Test scores would be forgotten after pizza. Brad and David had third lunch instead of first. He had other friends in his lunch, but Toby and Chase always sat together. There was no avoiding him then. They walked into the cafeteria together. Chase opened a soda. "Are you still mad at me?" Toby sighed. "I dunno." "All I did was compliment you. Why do you gotta be like that about it?" Chase took a sip from his drink. He looked around. "Why the fuck does everyone always get pizza? School pizza is disgusting. You wanna go to the sub place down the street?" "We both brought our lunches. Why would we do that?" Toby asked, obviously annoyed. "To get outta here." Chase pointed to the side door in the cafeteria. "Let's sit outside. You could use some sun." "It's hot outside." "It's really not. Besides, it's cloudy out. Come on." Chase begged him. "Alright." Toby caved. They sat outside. The outdoor eating area was empty, except for a lunch lady taking a smoke break. Chase lit up a cigarette himself. She noticed him and said nothing. Chase inhaled deeply. Chase exhaled, then said. "Look, I know why you're mad at me. I'm sorry." "Why didn't you apologize earlier?" Toby picked at his food. "Took me a while. You know I can't read you half the time." Chase said. "I won't do it again. Not here anyway. That's the problem, right?" "Yeah." Chase looked up at the clouds. "Do you think it'll rain tonight?" "It's not supposed to." Toby glanced up. "What's the moon at tonight?" "Waning gibbous. Full moon was the 26th, remember?" "Oh, yeah." Toby sighed. He put his head down. "Ugh, I've been studying so much lately I can't keep my days straight anymore. Did we do anything for the full moon?" "Nah, Brad went out to eat with his family. David was at some church thing." Chase said. "Right. They wanted to start organizing things for the Christmas donations. David's family is always involved with that." Toby rubbed his forehead. "How did I forget that?" "He was busy with that all weekend. Damn, do they really need to start working on Christmas shit in October?" Chase laughed. "They're gonna be doing Christmas shit in June one day." "What was I doing?" Toby tried to remember, but his mind went blank. "Studying. That's what you told me." Chase said. "Yeah, that sounds right." Toby closed his eyes. He wanted to take a nap. Last night, he was up studying long after he finished editing a review for a local restaurant. They had band practice yesterday too, and Toby came to help out. Toby wasn't allowed to have a traditional teenager job like his classmates. His parents wanted him to study, but he could do freelance work if it didn't interfere too much with his club activities and studies. When he closed his eyes, he saw math equations and historical dates. His father would be angry with him for every point off from one hundred. There was something else bothering him. Like David, his family was heavily involved with their church, and his parents were expecting something of him for this Sunday. He thought about making himself sick by taking medicine Saturday night. Chase looked down at him in pity. He rubbed his back. "Why don't you go home? Most of the day is over." "My parents will find out I left early. They'll get mad if I'm not really sick." Toby couldn't get himself to sit up. He listened to the light wind and took in how cool the table felt against his skin. "I can make it. It's just two more classes after this." "Do you wanna go straight home? You don't have to come to practice. It's not like you're in the band." Chase said. "Mm…I'll come. I don't wanna go home." "If you want, you can sleep in my room for a while." "Okay." Toby remembered something. "Oh, um, we need to talk later." "Later?" "Yeah, after school. Can you meet me at my car before you leave?" Toby asked. "You can't tell me now or at my house?" Chase raised an eyebrow. "It'll make sense when I tell you." Toby said vaguely. Chase rested his head against his palm. "Alright, what did you wanna talk to me about that you don't want Brad and David to hear?" "Actually, I'm being sent as their messenger." Toby forced himself to sit up. "Oh, so they're too chickenshit to tell me whatever it is, and they sent you instead." Chase put out his cigarette. "I mean…" Toby looked to the side. "Yeah, basically." "So, what is it?" Chase asked. "Can't tell you now. I don't really want anyone over hearing this." Toby said. "Fine." Chase bit into a sandwich. "They are coming to practice, right?" "Yeah. They'll be there." Chase patted him on the back again. "I have a can of instant coffee in my backpack. You want it?" Toby nodded. Chase opened his backpack and handed him the coffee. Toby downed the whole thing. "Ugh." "Didn't like the flavor?" "Too sweet." Toby threw the empty can into a nearby trash can. In the distance, Toby saw a couple of teens holding hands, walking away and laughing. The girl kept looking back, and the boy on ahead at the parking lot. Chase whispered to Toby. "Jealous?" "Of what?" Chase made a sexual gesture with his hands under the table. Toby blushed. Before Toby could say anything back, the bell rang. Toby forced himself to stay awake through the rest of his classes. His mind wandered on and off back to the couple he saw earlier. He didn't like girls, and the guy wasn't his type, but he was a little jealous of them. More than jealousy, he felt loneliness. The only way Toby could hold someone's hand in public like that would be with a girl to keep his father's rage at bay, and doing that wouldn't have any meaning at all. The school day passed by slowly. When the final bell rang, Toby headed out to his car to have another awkward meeting with Chase. They walked together to the car. On the way out to the parking lot, they crossed paths with David. David waved at them before hurrying away from them. Chase rolled his eyes. "Coward." Chase muttered under his breath. "You know he's not good with confrontation." Toby unlocked the car. Chase got in on the other side. "So what?" "Give him a break." Toby said. He started the car and turned on the radio to further hide their voices. "If he wants to go through life having people walk all over him and not do anything about it, that's his problem." Chase pulled the seat back and put his feet on the dash. "Alright, we're alone. What's the bullshit they're both too scared to tell me about?" Toby took a deep breath. "So, this morning, David told me him and Brad want to go back to being Christian. They're going to talk with our pastor about their uh, 'transgressions' this Sunday, or something." "Of fucking course they are." Chase rolled his eyes again. "Are you bailing on me too?" "No." "Are you just saying that because you think I'll be pissed with you too?" Chase lit a cigarette. "No, and roll the window down." Toby said. Chase rolled the window down with extra force. Toby watched, worried the handle would break. He rolled his window down as well. "I wouldn't lie about something like that to you. But you expected it, didn't you? I don't think anyone expected David would keep up with that for long. You know how his family is." "He doesn't have to be like that because they are." Chase groaned. "Man, whatever. They can go back to their Jesus shit. They're still coming to practice, right?" "Yeah. They're not gonna quit the band over it." Toby said. "Then it doesn't matter either way." "Huh. I thought you'd be more upset." Toby said. He expected Chase would cancel practice and then go do something reckless before getting over it. Chase was a lot calmer than he would normally be. "Fuck it." Chase shrugged. "I don't need 'em for that. I'm enough by myself. And you're still here, for now." Toby didn't hear what Chase said. He was distracted by Chase's face. His mind conjured up images of what he thought might have went on with the couple he saw earlier and pictured himself and Chase in their place. Chase noticed him staring. He smirked and leaned in to kiss him. Toby's face went red. He put his hands up in between them. "What are you doing?!" "Thought you wanted to." "I'd never kiss someone at school." Toby narrowed his eyes. His heart pounded. "Are you trying to piss me off?" "No. I really wanted to kiss you." Chase said. "No one's over here right now." Toby searched Chase's face for signs of deceit. He appeared to be telling the truth, as far as Toby could tell. "Some of the buses are still here." "Sorry." Chase apologized. "Anyway, was that it?" "Yeah." "We better get going. They're gonna beat us there." "Right. See you in a few minutes." Chase got out of the car. He waved and walked over to his. Toby waved back before starting his car. He put in a self-recorded cassette tape in. Last year on the Saturday before Halloween, they all stayed over at Chase's house for the night. They had convinced their parents to do a multi-day sleepover from Friday through Sunday night as long as they all showed up to school on time Monday morning. That Saturday night, after coming home from seeing Now and Then on a whim, Chase rushed them back to write a song. He'd gotten an idea while watching the movie, despite finding the film mostly uninteresting. Chase was so focused on the idea he was writing in the car before they got out of the theater parking lot. He wrote the lyrics and composition for the song in under thirty minutes, saying the idea came to him fully formed. It was the most determined and focused Toby had ever seen Chase. They performed the song that night and a few others they had already been working on. During that session, Chase seemed to be somewhere else when he sang, seeing some crystal clear world beyond anything any of them could see. Toby had watched him with amazement. When Chase was getting on his nerves, he often listened to this particular tape to remember that other side of him. When Toby asked him what in the film inspired him so much, Chase said it was the way the shadows in a stormy scene looked. Toby couldn't comprehend how someone could get narrative inspiration from random shadows, but he knew Chase wasn't lying to him. Chase's references for inspiration were often abstract, incomprehensible things he somehow turned into lyrics. Toby often helped Chase with writing lyrics. He was very familiar with the kind of unusual sources Chase drew from. Toby's own ideas stemmed more from memories and intense dreams than the sunlight bouncing off morning dew or shadows dancing on pavement. "You are really good." Toby said aloud. He thought back to earlier in the day when Chase was intentionally getting under his skin. He sighed. "Well, at least he's been apologizing lately." When Toby got to Chase's house, David and Brad were already there. Chase arrived last. They went to Chase's garage. Chase's home had a detached garage. Chase's bedroom was in a room above it with a balcony facing the backyard. The room used to be used for storage. At the start of high school, Chase moved out to that room to have more privacy, and so his parents could be farther away from them when the band practiced. Toby wasn't an official member of the band. Though he usually helped with lyrics, he'd picked up how to play the piano from working with them over the years, and Toby's singing voice was decent as far as he could tell, Toby requested to not be given credit for anything. Chase's goal was fame. Toby couldn't stand being in the spotlight. He preferred helping them achieve their dreams like this, from the background where only they could hear him and see him. Sitting before them here, watching Chase sing, that's where he wanted to stay. Chase put everything into every performance, whether there was a real audience or only Toby. He was always drenched by the end of it. When he sang, Chase's eyes lit up in a way they never did otherwise. Toby was mesmerized. Sometimes, Chase was so into his perfomance that Toby got shivers down his spine watching him. Chase, Toby thought, could definitely become famous. He had the right kind of presence when he performed; and his cocky, careless attitude wouldn't lose him that many potential fans either, especially with his looks. Whether David or Brad would be with him at that point was the real question. Chase put his mic down. He looked directly at Toby. "Alright. Roast us." Toby started with Brad. "Brad, on that last song, you were really off in the middle. I wasn't sure what song you were playing at some point." "Yeah, that's my bad. I forgot part of the arrangement and just kept going to not mess them up." Brad put his guitar away in its case and sat down. "And David, your playing sounded really weak." Toby added. "I'm kinda tired. Sorry." David rubbed his eyes. "Didn't sleep much last night." "Something happen?" Brad asked. "Homework. So much damn homework." David yawned. He stood up and walked away from the drums to the sofa. "I have three projects due this Friday, and they all have presentations." "Dude, that sucks." Brad said. "Yeah." David collapsed onto the sofa. "I thought senior year was supposed to be easy." Chase plopped down beside Toby. He put his arms across the back of the sofa. "Well, they're accounted for. What'd I do wrong?" Toby wanted to lean back. He knew Chase wanted him to. He froze in place in front of his other friends. "Your singing is fine, but relistening to the lyrics…I think you need to rework the second verse. Something about it sounds too wordy." "Second verse, huh? We'll go over that together." Chase grabbed a notebook off the table and flipped through to a certain page. David got back up. "Hey guys, I gotta get going. I still have a lot of homework to do before Friday." "Alright." Chase said. "Good luck!" Toby said. "See ya!" David waved goodbye. "I'm about to head out too. Work. I'm on the schedule till midnight, which means I'll be there till one again." Brad slung his guitar case over his back. "They know you're a student, right?" Toby asked. "They don't care." Brad followed behind David. "See you in the morning!" "Bye!" Toby waved. "They got out of here in a hurry." Chase laughed. "They probably thought you were gonna say something to them after practice." Toby relaxed more. He leaned back. The warmth of Chase's arm against the back of his neck made his heart race. His cheeks burned. "Typical. Just run away and wait for me to forget." Chase turned to Toby. The distance between their faces shrunk. "What about you?" "I don't have anywhere to be right now." Toby kept his hands between his legs. His palms were sweaty. It'd been a while since he'd been alone with Chase like this. "What about your homework?" "Figured we could do that together after this. We're in all the same classes anyway." "Yeah." Chase scratched out something on the paper and wrote for a while. "Okay, what do you think about this?" Toby took the notebook from him and read over the new verse. "Hmm…could you sing it for me?" Chase straightened up. He sang, his voice a little raspy from practicing for so long. Toby listened closely. "Hmm…it's better, but…something's still off in the first line. It doesn't flow." Chase took the notebook back and wrote a new line out to the side. "Okay, how about this…" He sang the verse again for Toby. Toby scratched his chin. "I dunno…" "We'll put that on hold for now. I need to think about it more. My throat's starting to hurt anyway." Chase stretched his arms. "You wanna do this down here or in my room?" "Wherever." "Let's go to my room." Chase grabbed his backpack and headed to the stairs. Toby followed behind him. Chase had a table and chairs he could set up in his room in the corner. Sometimes, they worked on classwork together on the balcony. Toby expected that's what Chase was planning on doing. Chase sat down on the bed instead. He opened up his math book. Toby sat on the other end of the bed. "Are your parents home today?" "No, they went on a couple's retreat in Hawaii to work on their marriage. My grandma's idea." Chase said. He snickered. "I'm pretty sure they'll be busy finding anyone else to fuck while they're there." "Are things that bad?" Toby asked. "The only reason they're not divorced is my dad won't get one. No prenup. Dumbass." Chase got more comfortable on the bed. "That's the only reason she married him. Money. But she did a really convincing job of getting him to think otherwise for a few years. Playing the dumb, innocent routine. Starstruck by his 'charisma' and 'lifestyle' and all that. She'll bleed him dry one way or another." "Should you really be talking about your mom like that?" "Your mom's the same." Chase said. "She's fucking your pool boy. But she's a lot better at keeping up that trophy wife persona. You knew that, though, didn't you? About that guy." "Ricky." Toby said. "I saw them once. She doesn't know I saw." "Your dad's got a pretty intern he keeps around, from what I heard. She's like, what, twenty?" "Nineteen." Toby sighed. "Young enough to be your sister." Chase said. "My dad's got two girls at work. They're both hoping a divorce is in the future. Who knows. Maybe one of them will be my new 'mom' in a few years." "You don't seem bothered at all about this stuff." Toby said. Chase shrugged his shoulders. "Why should I be? I have no illusions about how my family was formed. I was born so my mom could ensure she got money out of my dad. My dad wanted a pretty lady on his arm to show off at parties who he could brag about having degrees and medals. They both got what they wanted. And I'll get what I want too. I'm gonna use every dime of that trust fund to get to where I want to be." "Still, doesn't it hurt a little…?" Toby looked out through the balcony door to the grey skies. "Families aren't supposed to be like this." "Most of the people we go to school with, their parents fucked in high school or college, someone accidentally got knocked up, and then they got married. It's a matter of whether they were the first accident, or a later one after they got married and stopped caring about how many they had." Chase lay on the bed. "Life isn't some Hollywood movie. The thing you're looking for is few and far between." "I dunno." Toby said. He didn't want to believe that was true. Chase's view of the world was dark and cold. There was nothing in Toby's life that contradicted that cruel outlook, but something in him didn't want to give up hope that he could have more than that. "I don't think it has to be like that, at least." "You stay too starry eyed, and people will take advantage of you." Chase warned him. He reminded Toby of another harsh part of his current life. "I heard from Anne that your dad ransacked your room a few days ago. Looking for gay porn and drugs or something." "How'd she know about that?" Toby asked. "She overheard Lind talking about it." "Of course he'd go blabbing on about that." Toby clenched his fist. Lind and Anne were Toby and Chase's younger siblings, respectively. "I mentioned I thought some celebrity was good looking, and my dad flipped out. I tried to tell him I meant that most people think he is, not that I was attracted to him, but you know how he is. He turned my room upside down. All he ended up with is the Playboy magazine I left under my bed for him to find. Of course, he blew up about that too." "Did he buy it?" "I dunno. He might think I'm into guys and girls now. Anyway, after that he said I'm going to have to see the pastor this Sunday and sign some vow of chastity thing to help 'save' me from my wickedness. Stupid." Toby knew it was only a piece of a paper. It didn't mean anything. But he didn't want to sign it, and he didn't want anyone else telling him to either. He definitely didn't want the whole church seeing him sign that. Thinking about the coming Sunday made his stomach turn. "My mom also let me know that he was really disappointed I didn't go to any dances last year. I'm being required to go to prom with a girl as my date, or they're not paying for my college." "Damn. What the hell?" Chase looked up, his face showing his disgust clear as day. "What if every girl turns you down?" "That's what I asked. They said there's no way every single girl in school would say no. So, that's something I get to look forward to." Toby sighed. "Jeez, are they gonna pick out a woman for you to marry after college too?" Chase asked, half joking and half serious. "Don't give them any ideas. They might actually try that. One of my cousins is in a marriage like that. Arranged by junior year." Toby said. "Ew. What? A real arranged marriage?" "Yeah. It's so gross." Chase rolled over onto his back. "You need to get away from them. If you don't, they're going to control you until they die." "I dunno. I can't do anything right now. There's no way I can pay for college myself." Toby said. "Can't you get a scholarship?" "Well, yeah, but a lot of those pay for less and less every year. There's no way I could live in a dorm or rent somewhere and pay the difference with my current job. I'd have to work a lot more, and probably have to take less classes to compensate. I really need the extra help, unless I take out a loan. At my age, I'll probably still have to have them co-sign on any loans too." Toby's shoulders sank down. "Damn. But once you're out of college, you won't need to put up with them. You can run then." "Yeah, maybe…that's like five years away at least." Toby's heart sped up thinking about the future. "I don't know what they're gonna ask me to do in those five years." Chase offered another suggestion. "You could put off college and live somewhere until you can get some loans without needing them." "I'd rather not take out any loans if I can avoid it. I think I can wait it out." "Well, it's your choice." Chase shrugged. "But what are you going to do after you cross that stage in five years?" "I dunno. I'll figure that out then." Toby said. "It's the Tower." "What?" "Your situation with them. There's no way it'll end good, no matter what you do. It was fucked from the start. If I were you, I'd try and make as clean of a break as possible." Chase said. Toby knew Chase was right, but he didn't want to think about that. "I know." "Are you ever going to tell them?" "Tell them what?" "That you're gay." "Hell no." Toby's face went red. "Are you going to tell your parents?" "They already know. I didn't really hide it." Chase put his hands behind his head. "Really? How'd they take it?" Toby asked. "Disgust. Annoyance. Some name-calling. The usual they do when I piss them off. To them, it was no different than when I spent a night in jail or got a bunch of speeding tickets. Just me being stupid and embarrassing." Chase sat up. He opened the top drawer of his nightstand and grabbed something from it. Toby wasn't paying attention at first, focused more on Chase's face. He did, however, pay more attention when Chase lit a joint. "Uh, is that weed?" Toby asked. "Yeah." "Could we go outside? The last thing I need is to come home smelling like that. I don't wanna know what my dad will do to me." Toby said. "Let's go to the balcony." Toby followed Chase outside. They sat down together on the bench space Chase left open. The rest of the balcony was covered in plants. The flowers, shrubs, and herbs acted as a curtain from the outside world. The space behind the open part of the seats itself was also covered in plants. Toby always felt more at ease on Chase's balcony. He sensed Chase felt the same. "Do your parents know you smoke?" "Weed or cigarettes?" Chase asked. "Either." "Yeah. Another disappointment." "They didn't punish you?" Toby asked. "Other than the name-calling, not really. They're usually busy fighting with each other, or freaking out about Anne for some reason." Chase shrugged. He turned to Toby and offered the joint to him. Toby shook his head in response. He asked. "What'd Anne do?" Chase shrugged again. "Get B's instead of A's. Wear goth clothes that they bought her. Like horror movies. I dunno. Dumb shit. Whenever she gets a B, they burn some of her clothes in the backyard." Toby was shocked to hear that. "What? Why?" "That's how they usually punish her. They destroy her stuff." Chase said. Toby looked Chase in the eyes. "Do they do that to you?" Chase went quiet for a moment. He looked away from Toby. "They don't bother destroying my stuff anymore. They know I don't care about anything. They used to destroy instruments I bought. But my main instrument is my voice, and they can't break that." "How come you never told me about this?" Toby asked. "It's not a big deal." Chase inhaled deeply. He exhaled away from Toby. "They do worse to each other. What about you? I know your dad beats you." Toby's heart sped up. His eyes widened. "Why do you think that?" Chase pulled up Toby's sleeve, revealing a large, dark bruise. He and Toby exchanged looks. "That's…I…" Toby searched for an excuse. "Don't lie to me." Chase slid up the bottom of Toby's shirt. Smaller bruises lined the left side of his body. "Did you think I wouldn't notice you wear sweaters in the middle of July, or that I couldn't piece two and two together when he twists your arms in front of me? Why are you even thinking about staying in contact with them for the rest of your life?" Toby pulled his shirt back down. "I don't know…" "You know it can't end well. You have a choice. You can end it on your time, or let fate choose a time for you." Chase leaned back against the balcony railing. "You're gonna be eighteen in about four months. We have time to come up with a plan." Toby bit his lip. "I can't. Not yet." "Toby, come on." Chase sighed. His eyes showed his frustration. "Give me until I finish college." "What?" "I'll make a break after college. I won't be living at home most of that time. That'll give me more time to plan this out." Chase laughed under his breath and sighed again. "I'll take that for now." "It's not just about me, you know. While I'm at college, they'll have Goldie. I have to get somewhere to live first. I'm not abandoning my dog." Toby said. Goldie was Toby's golden retriever. He'd gotten her for his birthday earlier in high school. Getting her took a lot of begging and social perfection to appease his parents. "Damn. That is a problem. How old will she be then?" Chase asked. "She'll be about seven." Toby said. "She's always been healthy. I should still have at least another seven years or so with her after that." "Can't you temporarily leave her with Lind if you tried getting a place at eighteen?" Chase asked. Toby shook his head. "My parents would probably drop her off at a bad shelter as soon as I walked out the door." Chase flinched. "That's why I have to do it this way. If I'm doing what they want, they'll take care of her until I can properly leave. While I'm at college, I need to get a steady job, finish a degree, and get a place lined up to live in. That's doable. It's a helluva lot harder to get good hours and look for a place to stay when you're under eighteen and still in high school. At least in college I can move my class hours around. Also, I need to get a car." "You already have a car." "My parents have a car they let me drive. It's not in my name. They're not transferring the title until I graduate college. That's the stipulation." Toby explained. "I don't really trust they're going to hand it over to me then either. I need to buy my own car." "Fuck." Chase put his head into his palm. "Okay, so we need to get you a degree, a job, a car, and a place to live. We can do that. Have you heard back from anywhere you applied?" "Not yet." Toby said. "I'm sure I can get into Valdosta State. I don't know about anywhere else, and I doubt my parents will pay for anything out of state." "Not even an Ivy League?" "Hell no." Toby rolled his eyes. "My parents think those are all party schools where people's minds go to get 'corrupted' or something. I have to be in Georgia, or maybe Florida. And nowhere too far off. Atlanta is off limits, explicitly." "Haha, what?! There goes most of the good options then." Chase shook his head and looked up at the sky. "Then, we'll stay here. David told me something similar anyway, about where he's allowed to go. Brad's grades aren't as good as ours either, so going somewhere closeby will be easier for him to get into. Well, that's settled then. Valdosta is where we stay, at least for now. Fuck this place." "Sorry." "It's whatever. It's not like we weren't already planning on all going there. It is the easiest option for everyone, and we need to keep everyone together for the band anyway. But if I could move you farther away, I would." Chase reached over and touched Toby's cheek. "You don't have to be here with us for that. Are you sure there's nothing else we could do?" Toby's heart skipped a beat. "No. At least, not right now." "All three of you are a mess." Chase put out his joint. He stored the rest away for later. "Three?" "You, Brad, David." Chase said. "You give other people so much power over you, and they always hurt you." "It's not like I want it to be like this. I'm sorry I'm not as reckless as you. And last I checked, you're still at your parents house waiting on them to give you money." Toby raised his voice a little. Chase ran his fingers through Toby's hair. "I didn't mean it like that. What I meant is, it's painful to watch you hurt yourself for people like that." Toby didn't know what to say in response. "Until you finish college. I'll give them that. If they really hurt you though, I'll..." "Chase..." Toby's cheeks burned. He glanced to the side. "Don't go thinking about stuff like that. I don't want to see you sitting in jail again." "It'd be worth it. Besides, if I can get famous enough, I won't go to jail." Chase laughed. "That's awful." "It's true. And at least my crime would be justified." Chase grinned widely. "Who knows. Maybe I can convince at least one of you to get out of the messes you're in before then." "I don't know about Brad, but I think David will be better off at college. I think he'll start loosening up more once we're at college and they're not hovering all over him." Toby said. Chase stretched. "Oh, I don't doubt it. The real question will be if David maintains that after college is over. But you know, some decisions are permanent. You can't stay in the closet with the door open." "What do you mean? Isn't David straight?" Toby asked. "I don't know about that. David pings off bisexual to me, but that's not what I mean. You can hide that, even if you're dating someone." Chase leaned back. "I'm talking about surgeries." "What? What do you mean?" "What I mean is you'll probably be calling him her in about a year or two." Toby went quiet for a moment. He thought about it. The more he thought about it, the less it surprised him, but he couldn't place why. "Are you sure? How do you know that?" "I don't think David's worked it out yet, about anything, but I think it's just a matter of time. A while back, he spent the night when his parents were out of town and we talked about a lot of stuff. He told me he feels more comfortable wearing women's clothes. He wants to change his hairstyle and try out make-up, but he can't." "What if he's just into crossdressing?" Toby asked. "Don't think it's that." Chase said. "He wanted to change his name, permanently. I think when he's away from them, he'll start exploring a lot of things and once he's happy with what he finds, it's gonna be hard to put all that back away. It's easier now because he hasn't really gotten to do what he wants." "I think he's still suffering now. He clearly hates living with them." Toby said. "I didn't say he wasn't suffering now. I know he is. But it'll hurt a lot more if he gets everything he wants after having it denied for so long, only to have to give it up again when he's aware that's what he wants." Chase looked away. "It might kill him." "You think it'd come to that?" Toby felt a heavy weight in his chest. "The two of you are pretty similar. You're both inside towers destined to collapse. He needs to run too." Chase picked a white rose off one of the miniature bushes on the balcony. "If he goes so far as getting any surgeries done, there's no going back. He'll have to walk out of that tower himself. If he hasn't by then, it could go either way. He could start and stop hormones, he could change his clothes, he could change his hair, he could throw it all away again. There's no leading a double life with that and having everything. He'll have to pick, himself or living for whatever his family wants. They'll never accept his wants." "Should he even be in the band then?" Toby asked. "Why not?" "If you get famous...the press will eat him alive." Chase twirled the rose in his hand. "I don't plan on hiding who I am. Whether he wants to hide from those people or not is his choice. I can shield him, if he wants to be open. If he wants to hide it, then he'll be stuck in the same place as now. But that's his choice. I can't make him save himself, any more than I can make you." "But...wouldn't it be safest for David to not be in the band? Wouldn't it be easier to help him?" Something hit him. Toby's eyes widened. "If he's not in the band, are you going to abandon him?" Chase smiled slightly. "I never said that. But if he leaves, whether we're friends or not after that is really up to him." That was exactly what Toby expected Chase to say, but he didn't know how to respond. He looked at Chase with fear and disgust. Chase plucked off the petals of the rose one by one with delicate precision. "Don't look at me like that. How close are you two really? We've known each other since forever and we've always been around each other, but if our situations were different, would you really be friends? What really ties you to him?" Toby stood up. "God, I don't know why I bothered coming over." "What?" "Is this all you wanted to do? Get under my skin and make me feel like shit? I can get that at home." Toby raised his voice again. "Save me, save David. All our lives are bad, run away. Run away to what? You? You can't go a week without your dad paying off a cop. What do you want out of me that all that effort is worth it for you? What do you get out of me?" Chase stood up. "Why are you so mad? I didn't say anything that isn't true." "If there's nothing there, why are you friends with David? Are we all replaceable?" "They are." Toby saw red. He balled his fist, but did not raise it. He knew Chase wanted him to. Chase enjoyed getting into fights. "Then why do you care about anything? Why is it any of your business what anyone does? You don't care about their suffering. You can't if you can change them out for someone else." "It's more than others, but they're not that special. You don't get it." Chase spoke calmly. "I don't like seeing people get hurt, but I'm not going to get worked up over it for people who can get out of their situations. We're all practically adults at this point. You outlined a plan for me, didn't you? David can do the same. If he wants to suffer, I'm not going to cry for him. And if he wants to leave, it's not going to bother me. He's his own person. I don't own him. I'm sure I can find someone else like him for the band." "You don't feel even a little guilty about what you're saying?" Toby asked. "Why should I?" Chase asked back. "It's the truth. Just because you won't say the truth doesn't make it untrue. Lying to be nice may keep more people around you, but I don't care about that. I'll miss them for a while, but I'll get over it. You make it sound like I'm going to get them killed." "And what about me? If I died tomorrow, would you care?" "Of course I would." "But then you'd get over it, right?" Chase went quiet for a moment. "I don't want to think about that." Toby noticed Chase's change in demeanor. He sensed fear in Chase. Toby didn't think Chase could be afraid of anything. "Why would I be different from them?" "Because you're like a cat." Chase said. He looked away. "I don't want to talk about this anymore." "Chase?" "You're not the same as them. It's different. You don't change." Chase took a deep breath. "But you don't get it. I'm not saying I hate them, or that I want to replace them. All I'm saying is it wouldn't hurt me that much. People can't hurt me. I don't feel anything like that, not for long anyway. It's not like the way you feel when that happens to you." "What makes you different from me?" Toby asked. "You soak up the pain of the whole world because you love too much and you take everything too personally. You know I'm right that you and David wouldn't be friends without being born into your current situations, but I know you'd be hurt by not being friends more than he would. I'm the opposite of you. Things like that don't affect me much. They haven't in a really long time." Chase looked over at Toby to see his reaction. He turned away again. "Do you remember when we were in sixth grade and that kid in our math class got killed by a tornado?" Toby's chest hurt. He remembered the gruesome details. "Yeah." "You cried about that for like a week straight. Most of our classmates were shocked, some cried. A few of his friends left school early and didn't come to school the next day. I didn't feel anything. He sat next to me the whole year. I didn't feel anything at all. There's something wrong with me." Chase's shoulders tensed. Toby didn't understand what Chase was trying to communicate to him. "Like something you need to see a doctor about?" "I am seeing a doctor. Two technically." Chase admitted. "I see a therapist twice a month and a psychiatrist once a month." "When did that start? You've never mentioned this before." Toby walked around Chase to stand in front of him. "Remember that night I spent in jail? That was part of the conditions of me not staying in jail. I have to keep seeing both of them until next June." Chase looked Toby in the eyes. He smirked and laughed at himself. "The shrink even gave me a diagnosis, but she said I'd probably end up with a different one after I turn eighteen." "What does that mean?" "I don't know. She said I didn't need to know." "What was the diagnosis?" Toby asked. "Conduct Disorder." Chase laughed again. "What a fucking stupid name." "That does sound like a name for something you'd have." Toby unclenched his fist. "I think I understand what you're trying to tell me. You're incapable of reacting the same as other people do." "Yeah, basically. I'm not trying to be cold. I don't feel as much as you about other people." Chase said. "The shrink said if I can get some of my behavior under control, I probably won't have that many problems. You don't really need to feel a lot for other people. You just need to follow the social rules. Thing is, that's kind of hard for me." "I've noticed." Toby said. "According to her, it's because I have really bad impulse control. I do stuff because I think it'll be exciting, and don't bother thinking about the consequences. I just do it. I don't really care about being punished either. It's pretty meaningless to me." Chase said. He laughed. "The therapist suggested my family be part of this family therapy thing to help keep my home environment more 'stable' and 'consistent' to help me, but Anne was the only one who was willing to go. She comes with me sometimes, but usually it's only me. I don't see the point. I don't think anything's changed." "What about the psychiatrist? Don't those kind of people usually give you medicine?" Toby asked. "She gave me something, but I don't take it. It makes me sick. I said I wanted something else. She said I was being difficult because I didn't take it for long enough and suddenly the conversation was about jail time again. I lie and say I take it every day." Chase shrugged. "I don't care if I go to jail, but that'd really get in the way of the band getting anywhere, you know?" "Is anything helping?" "I do some of the exercises the therapist gives me at home. I don't really think it's changing anything. She thinks it is, but I lie to her too." Chase said. "You shouldn't lie to people like that." Toby said. "Both of them should already know I might lie to them." Chase looked pleased with himself. "That's their problem. It's not like I'm going to keep seeing them after June passes. Why bother spilling my guts to someone I don't care about in the slightest?" "Are you going to see anyone else?" Toby asked. "Probably not. Not unless it gets me out of something." Chase shrugged his shoulders. "It doesn't matter. Once I get famous, I can do whatever I want anyway and no one will care. Celebrities get away with everything. People will call me 'eccentric' and 'wild'. I'll be normal on a stage." Toby narrowed his eyes. "That may be, but I don't think it's healthy. A lot of those people die before they're thirty." "That doesn't bother me either. If you live life to the fullest, who cares if it ends short? I'd rather go out at the top than at the bottom." Chase jumped up on one of the chairs on the balcony. He raised his arms up. "Chase! Get down. You'll fall!" Toby grabbed him from behind and pulled him down. They both tumbled down. Chase laughed loudly. "It's not funny!" Toby yelled. Chase locked eyes with him, a childish smirk on his face. "If you could have your way, the whole world would be immortal. But suffering wouldn't go away. Death isn't the worst pain you can feel." "I know that." Toby held him tighter. "That doesn't mean you should run toward death." "I'm not. If he catches me, he catches me." Chase rested against Toby. He put his hands over Toby's arms. "There's a good chance I won't be the first one he catches anyway." "You don't really think David will..." "It's not just David. You're at risk too. And so is Brad." Chase said. "Brad? Why? I didn't think he had any problems with his family." Toby said. "If any of us die young, he'd be first. I can feel it." Chase glanced back at Toby. "Hey, do you remember that night when we made that pact the summer before starting high school?" "That time where you tried to get us cursed and electrocuted?" Toby asked. "I was not trying to get us cursed. You're so dramatic." Chase put his arms down. "Anyway, do you remember when we made the pact and we all told our secrets? David's secret was about sometimes wearing girls' clothes, and Brad's was that his cousin molested him when he was a kid." "Oh, god. I forgot about that." Toby felt sick. "That's not the worst part. He lied about that." Chase said. "A while back, he came over around one in the morning. He snuck out. We ended up driving out down to Clyattville and talked in a parking lot for a few hours. It wasn't his cousin that did that. It was his stepdad, and that wasn't in the past. That never stopped. It escalated." Toby's body went cold. "...what do you mean it escalated?" "Did you know Brad lost his virginity in freshman year? Take a guess who to." "No. No, tell me you're lying." Toby wanted to vomit. "Chase, I swear if you're lying to me right now..." "I'm not." Chase held his hand up and turned his palm over. "That night, we all gave a drop of blood and told each other our secrets. The rule was those secrets only stayed with us. They lied about theirs, but there's no reason I can't tell you their real secrets. After all, that was the deal we made in the first place." "Hey, if they both lied, does that mean the other part of that pact comes true? Didn't you write on there we'd all be cursed in seven years from that day if any one of us lied?" Toby remembered. He had lied that day too, and the superstitious part of him worried about their silly little summer pact for a while after. That was years ago now. He had mostly forgotten about it. They spent many nights wandering the streets on foot at Chase's beheadst before any of them learned to drive, and Chase was always pushing them to do something weird or risky. Pricking their fingers and dripping blood on a piece of paper for a magic pact wasn't really all that memorable compared to other nightly adventures Chase dragged them on. Early last summer, he'd gotten them lost at night in the Okefenokee Swamp and David nearly got snatched up by an angry mother alligator. "That's not what it said. It was anyone who lied would be cursed and stop being friends with the others forever." Chase asked. "Why? Did you lie?" "No, I didn't." Toby lied. "Are you sure that's what it said?" "I still have the paper. We can look at it later." Chase said. "Hey, you're really not messing with me right? About David and Brad. That was the truth, right?" Toby asked. "Yeah." "You don't think either of them would really..." "I don't know." Chase turned around. "Maybe things will be different once we're in college. After that first year, we should find a place we can all rent together. That'd be safest for everyone, right?" Toby nodded. "Yeah. I know my situation is...shit. But I think they need that escape route more than I do. After we graduate, we should leave Georgia altogether." "Was there somewhere you wanted to go?" Chase asked. "I figured you'd want to go to California." "Nah. You don't have to be there to get famous. Hell, there's too many people there trying to do that. We wouldn't be noticed." Chase said. "How about Orlando?" Toby asked. "Orlando? Why there?" Toby's cheeks lit up. "Well, it's...I don't know. The first time I successfully got an article published, I wrote it in Orlando. My parents took us on a vacation there. They ditched Lind and me pretty quickly. I spent a lot of time by myself wandering around. I talked to a lot of people about places locals liked. One of those people was a college freshman from Georgia, actually. He was going to school around there and told me about this place that was really beautiful that some other students told him about, but only on the condition that part stayed out of the article. I wrote most of the article in that place. It really was beautiful." "Did you tell the secret?" Chase asked. Toby shook his head. "It was too pretty a place. There's no way I could tell tourists to go there." "What about that guy? Did you have a fun trip with him there?" Chase teased him. Toby's face went a deeper red. "What?! I was fifteen. He was nineteen and in college. There's no way he was into me. Besides, I think he had a date that day anyway." "Why is your face so red then?" Chase poked his cheek. Toby lowered his voice. "He was really cute." "Jeez." Chase rolled his eyes and laughed. "Hoping to find him again?" "Don't be ridiculous. I don't even remember his name anymore." Toby didn't know why his heart was pounding so hard. He did have to admit, he had wished back then he was older in hopes he might have had a chance of at least having a summer fling with the man. He doubted that man remembered meeting him. Toby wasn't sure why he still thought about it. Outside of Chase, thinking about that week always riled him up. The college boy aside, he couldn't forget that secret place either. Something felt quiet and magical about it. When he was there, the rest of the world seemed to disappear. He did want to visit that place again in his life, at least once. "That place has a lot of special memories for me." "So, absolutely nothing happened between you two?" Chase grinned. Toby shook his head. "Believe me, nothing happened. He didn't even come to the place with me. He only gave me directions." "Do you regret that?" Chase asked. "Regret what?" "That nothing happened." Toby rolled his eyes. "He was too old for me then to be having some one night stand with. Besides, don't you remember what I looked like at fifteen? I was the last of us to finish growing. He probably thought I was in middle school. I'd have probably been happy at the time, but weirded out looking back. If he did anything with me, it'd eventually tarnish all those memories no matter how much I would've wanted it then." "Yeah, I forgot you were behind us with that. You shot up right after that summer though. You were taller than me by Christmas break." Chase recalled. Toby's watch beeped. He looked down at the time. "Is it that late already? We need to finish working on our homework. My parents will be home in an hour." "Call them then and say you're staying late to finish up. It's not a big deal." Chase said. "I know, but we should finish up. Let's go back inside." Toby looked up. Dark clouds hung over them. The wind swayed the trees in the backyard. The old oaks and the bald cypress trees stood strong, but the delicate Spanish moss wrapped around their branches swung helplessly against the sudden, harsh wind. Toby could distantly hear the wind chimes that hung outside Anne's bedroom window. The notes mixed with the branches whipping and the wind howling, harmonizing in a song of flickering horror. Chase got up and checked that his plants were secured. He picked up two of the smaller pots. "It's gonna come down bad later. Grab the small pots. Let's put them inside. The big ones should be fine." Chase said, two miniature roses held tight against his chest. Toby took down two of the hanging pots. "The weatherman said it wasn't going to rain today." "Well, the sky said it is." Chase put the plants down inside, then snatched up another two. They brought in all the smaller pots. Chase checked again that the bigger ones were tied down. The wind stayed heavy, but no rain came down. Toby heard thunder every so often as they worked on their homework. They didn't have much work to do; a set of math problems, a history worksheet, and a reading assignment for lit class. When they were done, it was about time for Toby's parents to be getting home, but he didn't want to go home yet. Chase put up his homework. "Looks like you're right on time." "Yeah..." Toby stared out at the shifting clouds and dancing plants beyond the balcony door. "Do you think it's about to come down?" "Not yet." Chase's eyes were wide and alert. "Why? Scared to drive home? I could drive you, if you're that worried about it. I need to drive Anne to her friend's house soon anyway." "I don't know." Toby said. He packed his backpack slowly. Chase picked up on his unease. "Is something else wrong?" "No." Chase picked up the cordless phone from his nightstand and dialed a number. "Hello?" Toby heard Lind's voice on the other end. "Hey, this is Chase. Tell your mom Toby's going to be late coming home. We're working on some homework for a group project due this week." Chase said. "Okay." Lind said. "Thanks. Bye." Chase said. "Bye." Lind hung up. "Why did you do that?" Toby asked. "You clearly don't want to leave yet. Don't worry about it. Let's hang out for another hour." Chase turned on the TV to the Weather Channel. The forecast matched what Toby had told him earlier. Chase chuckled under his breath. "Alright." Toby sighed. He really didn't want to go home. He wanted to avoid his parents as much as possible for the rest of the week. His Sunday obligations popped into his mind again. Chase got out his notebook of musical ideas. He flipped through the pages. "Have you had any ideas for songs lately?" "Mm? Not really. I haven't really had much time to think about anything." Toby lie down on the bed. He closed his eyes. "Are you gonna take that nap finally?" Chase asked. "I'll turn the TV back off." "Leave it on. I'm not sleepy anymore. I'm just...tired." Toby said. "Did you want to work on that song again?" "I thought about it, but I dunno. Lately, I've been in a rut. I can't get anything to sound how I want it to." Chase read through some of his recently written lyric fragments. "Something's off. Like I need some kind of 'spark'. Something exciting and new." "You're not going to do anything dangerous to get ideas, right?" Toby asked, worried. Chase laughed. "No. Probably not. Ugh, but doing those exercises to help with impulse control is really...not helping me in other ways. I don't want to live my life like it has the taste of unflavored oatmeal." "You don't have to do anything dangerous to get excitement in life. We could go to an amusement park." Toby suggested. "I've been on plenty of rollercoasters before. I want something different." Chase lie down beside Toby, his body facing the opposite direction. "I wanna see something I haven't seen before, do something new. Everything around here is boring." "Hmm...wait, so it doesn't have to be something that's specifically adrenaline inducing?" Toby asked. "Yeah. An adrenaline rush is nice, but it's like...the effect wears off the more I do it. I've ridden every rollercoaster in driving distance. If I got on any of them right now, my heart wouldn't speed up a single beat." Chase tapped the center of his chest. He looked over at his plant collection. "Last year, I was touring some colleges and one of them had this sign up about a rare plant blooming in their greenhouse. I went to go see it. It was called a corpse flower. Apparently they only bloom every seven to eight years and the bloom only lasts for one to three days. I happened to get there during one of the days it was blooming. The flower was huge, about the same size as me. I got more excitement out of that than any rollercoaster I've ever been on." "I've never heard of that plant. Why is it called that?" Toby asked. "It smells like death." Chase grinned. "Wow. That's creepy." "Yeah, the smell was awful." Chase laughed. He shrugged. "Next to that, most things aren't exciting. I'll try out different things on a whim, just to see what happens. But whatever excitement I get out of anything is over as soon as I've done whatever I was going to do, or I get nothing out of it at all." "Hmm...then that still means you don't need to do anything dangerous. You just need to find new, special things." Toby said. Chase rolled his eyes. "That's easy to say, but you're really not getting it. It's always like this. This isn't a mood I get into sometimes. Nothing fills it for long. When I saw that flower, I didn't get that urge to do anything impulsive for a full day. That's the longest the urge has ever gone away for. And day to day stuff doesn't matter." "What about when you sing?" Toby asked. "Do you get anything out of that?" "If I'm really into it, maybe for a few hours or so. It'd probably be more if we got in front of a big crowd, but...I dunno. I'd probably get used to that, wouldn't I?" Chase sighed. He waved his hand in the air. "I know you're trying to help me, but if two different doctors can't do anything to really help me, there's nothing you can do that they haven't tried." "I know, but..." "Look, I'm not going to do anything really stupid. I'm not going to kill someone or jump off a skyscraper or anything like that." Chase said. "You stole a car already. For no reason." Toby reminded him. Chase rolled over and positioned himself so that he was looking directly down into Toby's eyes, their bodies still pointed in opposite directions. He stared down, his chin resting in his palm. "In my defense, I was drunk that night. But I'm not going to do anything like that ever again." "Last month, you got a speeding ticket for going 100 in a school zone." "I never do that when there's a lot of cars on the road. It's not my fault that cop set up a speeding trap." Chase leaned his face down some. "And besides, half our classmates do that. David does that too, you know. If you're gonna get on my case, start with things other teenagers don't do. That's not part of my illness, as far as I'm concerned." Toby mentally stumbled trying to pinpoint something Chase did that he knew some of his peers wouldn't also do. "Last year, you slashed a teacher's tires, keyed his car, and threw firecrackers inside the car." "You have no proof that was me. No one ever figured out who did that." Chase quickly said, smirking. "I know you did it." Toby narrowed his eyes. "So what if I did?" Chase laughed. "I don't feel remotely bad about it." "Why did you do that?" "Because he's disgusting and he deserved it." Chase sat up, his eyes focused downward at Toby. "You're so naive sometimes. You think everyone's good until you see them do something bad in front of you. Do you know why that guy works at our school?" Toby shook his head. "He got a sixth grader pregnant in another county. The school covered it up and moved him to our high school. I don't know if you've heard, but he's already being transferred to another school next year. Some parents heard from other parents who he was and now they're moving him to some other school. Most creeps like that don't go to jail. I just gave him a minor punishment. What I did is less than what he deserves." Chase said. Toby sat up and turned to face Chase. He counted back. "Sixth grade? That's like...twelve...?" "She was eleven, apparently. She had the baby at twelve at the end of the school year." Chase said. "She was supposed to be staying after school for tutoring with him." "How did you find out about this?" Toby asked. "You may not think I do, but I listen to a lot of people. Some of Anne's friends heard about it from some other kids. She asked me if that guy was really teaching at our high school. Then I went to the library and did some digging. It never made it to the news, but the parents did contact the police. The school insisted they would handle the problem, and everything with the cops was dropped." Toby narrowed his eyes. "Are you telling the truth or are you messing with me?" "You wanted me to tell you why I did it. That's why. What's the point in lying about it? I'd do it again." Chase gloated. "Hell, if I could do it again, I'd have bought fireworks instead." Toby didn't know what to say. "I...I get why you did it, could've ended up in jail from that, or hurt yourself. Or somebody innocent who happened to be walking by. That could've gone wrong in so many ways." "You only live once, right? What's the point of living if I don't live doing what I think is right?" Chase countered. "Nobody got hurt." "That time. It might not always work out that way. What if you did hurt someone else?" Toby asked. "Most people are bad anyway. Odds are in my favor I wouldn't have hurt anyone good." Chase watched Toby's face carefully to see how he reacted. "You have so much bad happen to you, and you still look at the world with rose tinted glasses. And then you flip out when you find out that most people aren't angels." "I do not." "Tell me, right now, who are Brad and David dating?" Chase asked. Toby retraced his memories. He couldn't recall either of them mentioning a girlfriend recently. "Um...aren't they both single?" Chase laughed and shook his head. "David, single? I don't think he's been single for more than a couple days in between each girlfriend." "What?" "He's always got a girlfriend. He's got a routine, you know. He finds a good Christian girl, a sweet little virgin girl and they swear to each other right away they're going to get married after graduation. They meet up after church and talk about how pure they are and how much they love each other, so it's totally okay if they go ahead and have sex. Because they're going to get married one day anyway. And then after about one to three months, he dumps the girl because she bores him and looks for a new goody goody girl he'll convince that he'll marry her one day. Over and over." Chase put his hands together, looking up at the ceiling, and said, "Praise Jesus. Hallelujah." "'re making that up. Why would he do that?" Toby asked. "You already know the answer to that. He ditched us to go back to church. He's knee deep in that stuff. Sex before marriage is bad, but if you're going to get married to that person anyway, it's not quite as bad. The marriage 'fixes' the sin. It's his justification for it." Chase made a sexual gesture with his hands. "But you know what it's really about. He can't be honest with himself that he's just horny and wants to fuck, so he has to play this elaborate game to get laid. But it's only about the sex, that's why he has a new girlfriend right away." Toby slouched down. He had assumed, since David was always the most involved with the church and was returning to the church out of his belief in Jesus, that David was a virgin. Toby only knew of three girls David dated. He always thought everything had been very chaste between them. As he thought back, he realized something. The three girls he did know about, he only knew of because he happened to see them holding hands and asked about them. David had never once directly told him he had a girlfriend without being prompted about it. It seemed so trivial. He didn't really care about who his friends were dating, but knowing nothing and Chase knowing so much made one thing clear. David wasn't uninterested in talking about that with his friends. He specifically didn't want to talk to Toby about it. For Toby to have not noticed other girls, that meant David didn't just not want to talk to him about it. He was actively hiding that information. Toby's mind ruminated on what that meant. He thought of Brad. He knew Brad had girlfriends on and off, but he never talked to Toby about any of them either. Toby only saw them from a distance. Chase, he had heard rumors, had also dated several guys at school, but never said a word about a boyfriend to him either. Did the three of them talk with each other about those things? Why was Toby left out? "So, you're saying he didn't tell me any of that because he thought I'd judge him for it?" Toby asked. Something inside him twisted in a strange way somewhere he couldn't place. His cheeks burned hot, but his heartbeat slowed and his hands went cold. Toby's eyes felt heavy from his thoughts, emptying out down his throat until they formed a knot too big to swallow. "Basically. You know David can't take the heat. Same as Brad. He dates girls he doesn't care about for the sex, and puts nothing into his relationships. He doesn't care if he makes it to dates or remembers anyone's birthday. When the girl eventually breaks up with him, he gets another girlfriend and does it again. No effort. All wants and nothing in return." Chase shifted on the bed. He let his legs dangle over the side. "They're both pathetic, if you ask me. It's not hard to find someone who just wants to have sex. There's no need to get into a relationship with someone for that. I'm always upfront about what I want and don't want when it comes to that." Toby felt Chase's eyes on him. He sensed his expression changing. Chase was laying a trap for him. Chase wanted him to ask more about what he was doing. From the rumors, Toby heard both of people saying Chase was having flings at parties and of long-term boyfriends, but some of the people he heard mentioned were one and the same sets of people. What the exact truth was, he didn't know. He did know, right then, Chase wanted him to ask. Chase wanted him to ask about who those people were, what did they do, and why didn't Chase tell him about that then. Toby could see it so clearly without looking at Chase that he was aiming his words to pierce him for some unknown reason. Toby finally looked up at Chase. Since that was what Chase wanted, Toby contemplated letting Chase go ahead and fire that shot. To not ask was its own poison arrow. If he didn't ask, then he was making it clear to Chase that he knew what Chase's plan was. "I'm sorry." Toby said. "I didn't know I was making everyone so uncomfortable." "It's not about comfort. It's about them being cowards." Chase said. "There's a lot you don't know about them." "Sounds like it." Toby picked up his backpack. "I should probably get going before it rains." "You don't want to know the rest?" "If they don't want to tell me something, then that's their choice. I'll respect their privacy." "What if some of the things they did went against your moral code? What if it completely changed your perspective on them? Wouldn't you want to know?" Chase tempted him. Toby put on his backpack and stood up. "If they don't want me to know, then that's that." "But you can get onto me about all the bad things I do? How come you won't do it to them? What makes them special?" Chase snapped back. Toby could hear Chase's insincerity in his voice. This was another trap. Chase expected two likely outcomes; either for Toby to justify the differences or call Chase out for obviously hiding things himself. Either of these could easily lead to an argument. Toby held tightly to his backpack's straps. The straps sank lower on his chest, scratching against some of his bruises through his shirt. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so hard on you either. I can't imagine what it's like being in your mind. I don't have any right to judge you." Chase got up from the bed. His expression shifted again, his eyes alert. "Are your parents going to be mad about you coming home late?" "It's not that late." Toby said. Chase held onto the loose part of one of the straps. "I'm sorry. I was out of line again. I was trying to rile you up. I mean, I wasn't lying or anything, but...Come on. It hasn't been an hour yet. Let's do something else instead of...this." Toby gripped the straps harder. "I don't know. I'm kind of tired. I'm not...I'm not mad at you or anything." "You should be." Chase played with the strap. "Don't lie to me. If you leave at the end of the hour, is he going to hit you harder? If that's why you need to go now, then go." "I don't know. I'm late. At this point, the time wouldn't matter. I don't think he will unless he's in a bad mood." Toby looked away. "I really am just tired. That's all. I'll see you tomorrow." "Tomorrow, um..." Both of them remembered something. They locked eyes. Toby spoke first. "Did you want to do anything tomorrow?" "I was planning on going out Friday instead. You know, since everything'll be open later." Chase said. "Are you coming?" "Yeah. Um, well, I'll be going." Toby walked around Chase toward the door. His mind had been so focused on Sunday he had forgotten what tomorrow was. He was glad Chase brought it up because Toby hadn't prepared at all. He hadn't said a word about it to Brad or David either, but neither had they. Toby thought more about what Chase told him a moment ago. Perhaps, he thought, they simply didn't bother talking to him about it. Toby wasn't sure he wanted to hang out with any of them Friday. Sunday would be looming not long after that. His father was waiting at home now. He might be waiting there with something sturdy in hand to decorate Toby's skin for whatever reason. His father may have found something in his room. He may have had a bad day at work. He may be in a foul mood for no reason at all. With as late as he was, Toby assumed, if it wasn't about him, his father would've went for Lind instead, but their father may be angry enough to want a second round. Momentarily, he thought something terrible about his younger brother for spilling the details of what happened at home to other kids in the neighborhood, but that thought ended as quickly as it came into his mind. His guilt and disgust at thinking such a thing lasted for much longer, and fear slipped in before the other two left. Toby hesitated at the door. He looked back at Chase. "Toby?" "I don't want to go home." Chase walked over to him and helped him get the backpack off. He put his arm around Toby's back and led him over to the bed. "Come on." They sat down together. Chase gently pushed Toby against himself. Toby leaned in. "Wanna run away together?" Chase asked, mostly joking. "Yeah, right. They'd charge you with kidnapping." Toby half-heartedly laughed. "They can't after February 14th." Chase said. "You can't kidnap an adult." "We don't graduate until the end of May." "We can get GEDs. It'd be easy. Those tests are designed so an 8th grader can easily pass them." Chase smiled at him. "I get that money on my birthday. No strings attached. We could get an apartment. Fuck the college. I won't need a degree anyway." Toby smiled back at him. "We can't." "Look, I can't protect you unless you let me." Chase glanced at the red digits of the clock on his nightstand. "I know I have...problems I need to work on. I'm not saying I'll be able to fix them all either, but...anything's better than him, right? I'll try my best." "Really?" Chase lifted up Toby's shirt. The blue-black marks stood out against Toby's pale skin. "I don't want to see these on you anymore." " know, I was being really judgmental. I don't...I don't know why other people do what they do, what sort of torture they're sorting through in their mind. It's not my place, and it's not right for me to get worked up over anyone leaving me in the dark when I do it too. The other day..." Toby straightened up. He felt over the inner side of his left forearm with his right hand. "Yesterday at dinner, my dad got mad about something...I can't remember what. It wasn't anything important. He grabbed me. He kept twisting my arm. I kept apologizing and asking him to stop. He only stopped when my mom told him he was going to break my arm. After dinner, Lind told me to stop making Dad mad all the time. I...really don't remember what I did that made him mad. I don't remember saying anything rude." Chase rubbed his back. "I doubt you did." "He does stuff like that all the time, but this time...when it was all over, my mind kept replaying it and I started to wish he had broken it. Then they might take me away, but he has so many connections...he could say I hurt myself and he wouldn't be questioned. But then I thought, if I went to the hospital, I could be away from home for a while. It's not every day, but it's at least once a week. I shouldn't have told him to stop. He did it harder when I said that. I knew he would, but it hurt so much...I begged him anyway." Toby's eyes watered. He forced himself to hold back his tears. "I started thinking...wishing he'd do it one day. That he'd beat me so hard he killed me so it would end already. At least everything would stop." "I'll kill him." Chase got up. He opened his drawer and pulled out a dagger. Toby held onto his arm. "Don't. You'll go to prison. He's not worth it." "If he killed you?" "I'm alive. He hasn't..." "You're thinking about your own murder and accepting it." Chase's hands shook as he spoke. "I was thinking a lot of weird things then. I don't really want to die." Toby let go. "I'm not really...lately, I get these weird thoughts and my mind goes all these dark places. It's not about him." Chase opened his mouth to say something. He bit down on his lip to shut himself up. Chase took a breath. "No one can see us right now." "What?" Chase leaned in and kissed him. Toby froze. He kissed back, then pulled away and checked the door was locked. The second time, Toby initiated. Chase led him back to the bed. For a moment, Toby didn't think about anything. The heavy darkness lingering on his shoulders slipped through his careless hands and his mind became as quiet as the moon. The digital clock beeped. Chase pulled away and looked over. Toby caught his breath. He stared down at his disheveled clothes, his heart ringing in his ears. "What's the alarm for?" Toby asked. "I need to take Anne to her friend's house soon. We've got another fifteen minutes before then." Chase pulled him back down. "I'm a mess." Toby wiped saliva off the side of his mouth. He wasn't sure who it belonged to. His face flushed. "So?" Chase laughed. He played with Toby's hair. "Hey, you're a virgin, right?" Toby's face went a deeper red. He rolled his eyes. "Why are you bringing that up? You know I can't date a guy right now." "Have you ever thought of staying over at a guy's place and doing it there?" Chase asked. "No way I could. If there's any chance anyone might walk in on me with another guy, I'm not gonna risk it." Toby didn't catch what Chase was asking him. "Which leaves me waiting for college. God, I can't wait until I have a dorm room." "Is that on your week one to-do list for college?" "I don't know if I'd be that lucky." "Why not? We're gonna go to the same school." Chase caressed Toby's face. "Are you volunteering?" Toby's mind was full of thoughts again, but of a different kind than earlier. His body was hot. "Sure. We can break in the furniture your parents paid for together." Chase slid his hand down Toby's chest. "I-I dunno…" "Actually…" Chase grinned widely, bringing the conversation back to his original implication. "You said you wouldn't do it if there was any chance someone could walk in on you, right? My parents won't be back until next Friday. Anne's staying over at a friend's house tonight. Haha, not that my parents know that. Why don't you stay over tonight?" "It's Wednesday. I don't think my dad will let me stay over at someone's house on a school night." Toby said. "I can convince him. We can say we're doing schoolwork. You've stayed over before on a school night." Chase teased him. "Or is it that you're nervous?" "I dunno. You haven't given me a second to think about it." Toby's mind was in two places. One part of him wanted to say yes. His body certainly wanted that. The other part of him was whispering what if's and creating little horror scenes in his head. "You want to, right? What's there to think about?" Chase kissed him again. "I know you like me." "I never said that." "You're as much a liar as they are." "What?" "That night, when we shared our secrets, you lied too." Chase whispered in his ear. "I was your secret." "How do you know that?" Toby asked. "Because your eyes said it." "I thought you couldn't read me." "Not usually, but it was obvious then. That's how badly you couldn't hide it." Chase moved back slightly and looked directly in Toby's eyes. The distance between them was less than an inch. Chase kissed him again. "I'll let you do anything you want to me." "Why?" "Do I need a deep reason?" "You never do anything unless you're getting something out of it." Toby said. "I'm horny." Chase shrugged. "That's a pretty good reason, right? Besides, sneaking around your dad's back is pretty fun too." "So, that's it." "Sometimes, you act like I've got twenty steps planned ahead of me, when I don't think past the next five minutes." "You sure have a lot of ideas about the future, if that's the case." Toby said. "That doesn't mean I can plan for it." Chase put his hands over Toby's. "My brain has a million ideas in it. I only get anything done because when I act on something, I don't stop." "You definitely go overboard on everything, and you're careless about it." Toby took one of Chase's hands and turned it over, feeling the rough patches and tiny cuts on his palm. "You were gardening again without any gloves." "I don't mind if my roses prick me a little." Chase smiled. "You have gloves." "I'll wear them next time." Chase lifted his hand up. "Will you kiss it and make it better?" Toby leaned down and kissed him. They both laughed. Chase kissed him again. One kiss lead to another and they were back as they were before. Toby hadn't answered yet. He put it off. Another ten minutes, another five, one--he'd give him an answer when he was out of time. Another interruption came through. The cordless phone on Chase's nightstand rang. Chase ignored it. It kept ringing. "The phone." Toby said. "Forget it." Chase kissed him again. The phone kept ringing. Chase reached over and took the batteries out. His cellphone rang. Chase grabbed it and answered. "What?!" "Um, hello? Did you forget you're supposed to drop me off?" Toby could hear it was Anne on the other end. "Alright, alright. I'm going. Are you ready?" Chase asked. "I'm standing in the driveway right now." She said. "I'll be there in a sec." He hung up. Chase grabbed a brush to fix his hair. "Anne's ready to go." "She's pushy today." Toby said. "She's pushy every day." Chase grabbed his shoes. "Are you staying over?" "I guess." Toby said without thinking about it. "I'll call my dad when we get back. That'll make it more believable." "Are you coming with me? I won't be back for about half an hour." Chase put his wallet in his back pocket. "Okay." Toby made himself more presentable. He followed Chase. Anne was outside in the driveway, leaning against the back passenger side door of Chase's car. She was dressed from head to toe in black, with only bits of ruby red here and there disrupting the shade. Her dress went down to her knees, hanging a few inches above the top of her leather boots. Her hair, perfectly straightened, similarly nearly brushed against her shoulders without ever quite touching them. Chase unlocked the car. He walked over to her and flicked one of her bat earrings. "Well, Ms. Lydia Deetz. Get in the car. It's showtime." She smacked him on the arm. "You are so annoying." He stuck his tongue out at her and smiled. "Hey, you should be nicer to me. I don't have to drive you anywhere." "We agreed I'd cook dinner for the rest of the week. That was a deal. Our deal didn't involve any other requirements." Anne got in the car. "Fair enough. A deal is a deal." Chase walked back around to the driver's side and got in. "So, what are you and your gloomy girlfriend gonna get up to? Roll around in a graveyard?" She pulled out a tape recorder. "Oh, I have grave plans alright. Contacting the spirits of the dead." "Spooky~!" Chase overemphasized the word. "Hey, Anne." Toby put his seatbelt on. "Hey, Toby." She put the recorder away. "Are you the one who has the misfortune of entertaining my brother this afternoon?" "I'm staying over." Toby said. "I'll pray to the gods for you." She said. "I'm sure I'll be fine, but thanks." Toby said. Chase backed the car out of the driveway. "You act like I'm a menace to society." "You've been in jail twice." Anne said. "Only overnight. That doesn't count." Chase messed with the radio. "You got out because of Dad both times." Anne said. "Eh, that's life." Chase looked out at the sky. "Let's hope it doesn't start pouring while we're out." Toby turned to look back at Anne. He asked. "Hey Anne, have you talked to Lind lately?" "Not really. He doesn't want to hang around me anymore. I'm evil." She crossed her arms. "Evil?" Toby asked. "She does witchcraft~! Oooh. Spooky! And she's a lesbian." Chase laughed loudly. "Lind only cares about his church friends and his sports friends now. The only girls he hangs around now are pretty blond girls with big tits from church to ask out on dates and take behind the bleachers during lunch. That's what I've heard." Anne said. "Didn't wanna know all those details." Toby grimaced. He did his best to get that image out of his head. "Sorry. I don't know why he's gotten like that lately." "It's none of my business what he does." Anne opened her coffin shaped purse and took out a hand mirror. She reapplied her lipstick. "Most people around here don't like me anyway. I'm moving to Atlanta or Savannah as soon as I turn eighteen." "Why Savannah?" Toby asked. Chase and Anne spoke in unison. "Ghosts." "What about New Orleans? Didn't you used to want to go there?" Toby asked. "The Anne Rice phase is over." Chase snickered. "It was a pretty hard break-up." "What happened?" Toby asked. Anne narrowed her eyes. "We're not going to talk about that." "Okay..." Toby turned back forward. Chase drove them to a neighborhood a few roads over. He stopped at a small house down a dead end. "This is it, right?" "Yeah." Anne got out of the car quickly. "Hold on a sec." Chase said. "What?" She asked. "Are you gonna get on the bus here or am I picking you up in the morning?" Chase asked. "I'll take the bus." Anne straightened out her dress. Toby noticed a large bruise mostly hidden by her short sleeves. Small marks were partly covered by the lacey choker around her neck. As she walked away, he caught a glimpse of two more bruises. The storm's winds exposed the lower part of her thighs. The ones on her legs were so dark in color they nearly matched with her dress. Chase drove away. "Hey, did something happen before your parents left?" Toby asked. "Why?" "Anne has a lot of bruises." "Yeah." Chase rolled down the window slightly to take in the smell of rain. "I didn't see it. I was upstairs on the balcony. They were yelling about something. I don't know what. I wasn't gonna go down and find out." "Aren't you worried?" Toby asked. "She'll vanish in four years. I'm sure she'll get to Atlanta or Savannah or wherever the hell she's planning on disappearing to." Chase said. "Do you think she'll be alright by herself that far away?" "Sure. Should be easier than being here." Chase said. "Anything's better than being here." "But what about money?" "There's always ways to make money. Besides, she's got a trust fund too. That should carry her for a while until she can get a job." "Yeah, I guess." Toby said. "She'll have time to plan at least too." He worried about what things might be like in the time when he and Chase would be away at college and Anne would still be living at home. "Who knows. She might run sooner. I won't stop her." Chase turned up the radio louder. "It'd be better that way. She can't figure out how to out play them. She acts too much like a kitten. She needs to act like a jaguar." "What does that mean?" Toby asked. Chase's voice was strange. "Cats claw and hiss and puff up, but it doesn't take much to kill them. Their bones and skin are fragile. And they'll keep crying out even when they're injured. It makes it easy to snatch them up and cut them open deeper. She doesn't strike quietly from above like she should." Toby didn't ask what Chase meant. The rest of the ride back was silent. When they got back, Chase put the batteries back in and tossed Toby the cordless phone. "You gonna call them?" "Um...right..." Toby held the phone. He tossed it back to Chase. "Uh, didn't you say you'd convince them for me?" Chase shook his head. "Jeez. Fine." Toby stood beside him. "Sorry." "It's fine." Chase dialed. He put the phone to his ear. On the other end, he was greeted with yelling. "Is Toby on his way back yet?" Toby's father yelled. "Actually, I was calling to let you know that Toby's going to be staying over tonight. We still have a lot of work to finish up on our project." Chase said. "It's a school night. You should've already done the work by now if it's that urgent. Tell him to get his ass back here now." Mr. Tanner said. "Mr. Tanner, I can assure you I won't keep Toby up all night and let him miss school. I may do a lot of dumb things, but I've been on the honor roll every single semester since second grade. I don't mess around with that. We're just going to be working on our project. No partying, no staying up all night. I promise you." Chase spoke calmly. "Where's your father? I want to talk to Mr. Rodriguez." "I can give you his number. He's out of town right now with my mom. I'm not going to be doing anything crazy, Mr. Tanner. I have to watch my baby sister tonight too." Chase lied. "Fine. But I will be calling the school tomorrow. If Toby isn't there, he won't be going over to your house for a long time." Mr. Tanner said. "Yes, sir. I won't keep him up late." Chase said. Toby's father hung up the phone. Chase put the phone back. He looked at Toby. Toby was now sitting on the bed, head down with his hands covering his face. "What's wrong?" "I hate him." "Me too." "I don't…I don't know if I can do this." Toby lost his nerve. "I know we're alone, but I keep thinking about him coming over here and knowing somehow. I feel gross. I can't stop...I can't stop thinking about him." "Why don't we take a shower together first?" "How's that going to help?" Toby asked. "Water always helps clear away nasty things." Chase led him to the bathroom. He lit several candles and turned out the light. "We're showering in the dark?" Toby asked. "Isn't that a little...creepy?" "Not if your mind's in the right place." Chase lit a few candles on a shelf inside the shower. The space was out of reach of the water. He turned on the shower. "Come here." Toby watched the lights and shadows switching places on Chase's face. He glanced over at the small window in the bathroom. The moon appeared out from behind the dark, rain-heavy clouds. Its light moved across him like the sun at dawn. Toby undressed himself and stepped into the shower. Chase got in after him. "Let me wash you." Chase picked up a bar of soap. Toby let him. He thought the darkness would scare him, but it didn't. The longer he stood in that dark space, the calmer he felt. The warm water turned cold, but he didn't mind it. His body adjusted to the change. He noticed his heart slowing. Each drop of water that clung to his skin, he noticed them as he noticed memories of his father's words sticking to places deep within. He didn't feel ashamed of what he wanted, but he did feel shame--shame that he was so afraid of his father, shame that he felt so helpless, shame that he was afraid to run. He felt over the bruises on his own skin, each discoloration a stinging reminder of other nights and other words carved below in jagged strokes. In silence, he let a little pain flow out. Though he didn't make a sound, Chase caught the change in his eyes only briefly exposed by the tiny flames around them. Chase put his hands to Toby's cheeks and felt the difference in temperature between the drops sliding down. Chase kissed him. "Are you ready?" Chase asked. Toby nodded. They left the bathroom, not bothering to dry off or dress themselves. Chase turned off the main light and on a neon light above the bed. Outside, the sky had finally let go of the rain. Thousands upon thousands of drops joined together in a song, their spaces apart so small they blended into descending sheets smacking down hard against the ground. The wind picked up, pulling at the branches and trunks outside. Wood creaked with the howling wind. Anne's wind chimes sung with a sharp, fast tempo, calling out in erratic high-pitched notes. Through all the noise, one thing remained quiet. The moon peeked through the clouds every now and then, shining into the bedroom through the sliding doors of the balcony. The light mixed with the unnatural colors of the neon light above the bed. The light was a custom piece Chase bought a year ago. A blue snake, its body like a river, rested amongst stars. The silver of the real moon and the blue of some other realm blended into a soft, ethereal color on Chase's face. On his hair, the unnatural blue beat the moon in intensity while the pale light won farther down in the spaces Toby's shadow hadn't claimed. A little of the blue touched Toby too, but down his back, only the moon and darkness ruled. There, the moon and the night competed for the marks covering his skin, concealing and revealing in flickering, brief battles. Amongst those lights and shadows, everything was quiet--of sound and thought. Afterwards, Chase convinced Toby to wash off again. "Outside. Let's wash off in the rain." "Won't someone see us?" Toby asked. "No one will see us. Come on." Normally, Toby would've refused him. Tonight, he didn't care. He went outside on the balcony, naked, and raised his arms in the air. They laughed as they washed off. The humid air felt good on Toby's skin. He wanted to stay out longer. A single strike of lightning, snaking across the sky above them, was enough to send them back inside. They dried off and got ready for sleep. Chase cuddled with him in bed. "You weren't lying to me, right?" Chase asked. "About what?" "About being a virgin." "Why would I lie about that?" Toby asked. "I'm just know, uh, you're not bad at it. At all." "You're just saying that." Toby blushed. "I'm not." Chase cuddled closer. "Do you want to go out with me?" "Uh...well, I..." Toby stumbled on his words. "I don't know...if that would make you happy. Tonight is one thing...but I don't know...I'm still too afraid of him. I don't know how often we could do anything together." "That's okay with me. It's not a big deal." Chase clarified. "I mean, it is nice, but there's plenty of other things we can do together. I don't mind waiting for that." "Really?" Toby asked. "Don't get me wrong. I like sex. But I like writing songs with you too." Chase said. "We should do that more. I like the lyrics you come up with." "I'm not that good at it. You're the one who writes the really amazing stuff. I don't know how to come up with anything interesting." Chase rested his head against Toby's chest. "You only think that because you don't see your own worth. You write better than me, you play piano about as good as I do, and you sing as good as I do too. I wish you'd perform with me." "I can't." "Why not?" "I don't...I don't want to be on stage." Toby said. "I don't want to be famous." "Then...maybe you could sing for me...just for me." Chase said softly. Toby felt a warm sensation in the center of his chest. "I wouldn't mind that." "You didn't answer my first question yet." Chase asked it again. "Will you go out with me?" "Yes." Toby was glad they were in the dark. He could only imagine what his face looked like. Chase moved up slightly and kissed Toby on the cheek. He pressed the side of his face against Toby's, taking in how hot Toby's face was. "You're blushing." "No, I'm not." Chase rolled over and laughed. "Yes, you are." "It's raining so much out." Toby changed the subject. "There wasn't supposed to be any today." "That's what happens when you listen to Jim Cantore instead of me." Chase joked. "Yeah, I think I'll pass on your guesses for hurricanes." Toby said. "It's really coming down. Should we bring in the other plants?" "They'll be fine." "There's so much water. It's like I could drown out there." Toby said. "Drowning...that brings back memories." Chase said. "Hey, do you remember back when we were about eight, and I went away for a few weeks in the summer?" "Not really. Why?" "I drowned." Chase said. "What? I don't remember you telling me anything like that." Toby said. "What happened?" "I fell off a boat and got knocked out somehow. We were on vacation in Florida somewhere. I don't remember where. We never went there again. It took like an hour or something to get me to breathe again." "You didn't breathe hour?!" Toby asked, shocked and horrified. "Yeah. My heart stopped too. When I came to, Anne was crying her eyes out and my chest hurt like hell. The guy who got me breathing again bruised my ribs. That shit hurt the entire vacation." Chase touched his own chest. "Why are you thinking about that?" Toby became uneasy. "I dunno." Chase put his hands up in the air. "I think about that day sometimes when it's warm and it's dark out and everything's wet." "Was it nighttime when it happened?" Toby asked. "No, but it was in my dream." Chase said. He stared at the ceiling. "When I was out, I had a really vivid dream. Haha, I don't know how long I was dreaming for, or when it ended. I don't think it could've been long. Everything went black at some point, then I woke up. I'm sure it was only a few minutes." "What happened in the dream?" "I was somewhere dark. Darker than night. I couldn't see anything. I walked around in the dark for a while until I saw something on the horizon. It was a river, glowing this really crazy blue. It was so bright...I'd never seen anything like that before." Chase recalled. "I kept walking until I reached it. When I got up to it, the water shined in this weird way, like it was full of stars." "Stars?" "You know how the Milky Way looks on a clear night at a beach that doesn't have tons of lights around it? It was like that, but in the water." He explained. Chase let his arms fall back down. "I sat down by the water and put my hands in it. The water started to rise. Everywhere the water touched me, my skin glowed like the water. It was like I was covered in stars too. Then he showed up." "Who?" Toby rolled on his side to listen more closely. "I don't know. I guess the grim reaper. He was dressed in black and carrying a big scythe, so that must be who he was." Chase said flippantly. "He was really hot too." "What?!" "No, seriously. He wasn't a skeleton or anything like that. He looked like a normal person. He had long, blond hair put up in a braid. Something about how he had it put up reminded me of a noose, but I can't remember why." Chase had a distant look in his eyes. "Anyway, this guy shows up. He pulls me out of the water and tells me I should go home. I asked him. 'Why?' He said. 'You don't have to leave today, but if you want to, I'll take you.' I didn't really know what he meant." Toby tried to picture everything in his mind. "He was giving you the choice to stay or come back? Why?" "I don't know. It was just a dream." Chase didn't appear to be bothered by any of the details. "For whatever reason, he kept trying to convince me to go home. I told him I didn't really want to. He asked me why. And I looked at him and said. 'Shouldn't you already know why?' He said. 'I do. I won't judge you for it.' And I said. 'I don't care if you do. That's your business. Where are we going?' He stared at me for a sec." Toby's mouth hung open. "You...even to the grim reaper, you'd act like that...." "Hah. I mean, I was pretty sure I was dreaming even then. If I thought I actually met a real supernatural being, I wouldn't've said that." Chase said, laughing under his breath. "I'm shocked you'd show respect to anyone." "I know my place. It's just no human is in a different place than me, so their opinions don't matter." Chase said. Toby rolled his eyes. "Riiight. So what happened after that?" "He told me he was going to take me somewhere farther down the river, but he wouldn't say what was there. I stopped listening to him at some point and went back to playing in the river. He told me I'd get lost by the current if I didn't stay at the edge. So I went deeper into the water. He rushed into the water to get me, but I went under and swam around him. I ran out of the water, covered in all those lights, and laughed at him. He stared at me and asked. 'How are you out of the water?!' 'Because I left it.' I said. 'You shouldn't be able to get out of the water without my help!'' He yelled at me when he got out of the water. I remember the lights didn't stick to him, only to me. I didn't really care about that though. I laughed at him again. 'Guess I don't need your help. Maybe I won't go home, and maybe I won't go with you.' 'You must choose one or the other. If you don't, you'll be lost to wander as a phantom.' He warned me. 'So? I'd be happier that way. I could never get in trouble again for anything.' He came over to me and grabbed my hand. He turned it over and put his hand on my head. This map of stars appeared above my head. He was looking at something about them. Something wasn't right to him. He made the stars disappear from the map and my body. Then, he said, 'If you don't want either path, I'll take you myself.' 'What does that mean?' I asked. He handed me his scythe. 'I'll let you have one, whether you choose today or another day.' The scythe wasn't heavy at all. I didn't think I'd be able to carry it, but it was light as a feather. 'Do I get to use this on people?' 'Sometimes.' He said. 'It suits you.' 'You said I can go back home. Why should I bother if I can play with this now?' I asked him. 'There's a lot of things you want, right? You can only get many of those things if you go home. This will wait for you no matter when we meet again.' He took the scythe back. 'You want fame, don't you?' 'Will I be famous one day if I go back?' 'You will. When you reach the height of your fame, there will be another time when we might meet each other.' He said." Toby's eyes widened. His shoulders tensed. "Wait...what?! That's creepy. Did he say what was going to happen to you?" "No, he didn't. Haha, why are you getting so worked up?" Chase raised an eyebrow and smirked. "I mean, even if it's a dream...that's really scary." Toby said. "If someone who looked like the grim reaper told me that, I wouldn't want to do anything to be famous." "But that's how you are." Chase stretched his arms and yawned. "A short, well remembered life isn't that bad." "I don't want you to die young." Toby said. "Relax. Besides, he never said I'd be famous when I was young anyway." Chase pointed out. "I asked him when the other times would be. He said there'd be a ten year span when we'd have many chances to meet, and that I had more chances to meet him at different points in my life than most people did. Haha, I guess that means I'd have more chances to die than most people. I remember he said there were ones that were more likely though. He said, 'But you have three points in your life when the chance is the greatest after today. The first will be when you reach your highest point in your career, the second will be not long after that, once your career is in steady decline, and the third will be in old age. If you'd like, I can move the stars to favor one more than the others.' I thought about it. I didn't know what I wanted, so I said. 'I don't want to choose anything yet.' 'Very well. But if you change your mind, and you want a specific fate, I'll ensure every moment will align for you to meet that end. Let me know and I'll move the stars.' He said. I asked him. 'How will I let you know?' 'Beg for it in your heart, and I will hear you no matter where I am.' Then he went back to the water and carried some over in his left hand. 'But for me to do this for you, you must agree to take that scythe when we meet again.' 'I will.' I said. I wasn't really thinking about what that meant. At this point, I was thinking, if this isn't a dream, then I should try to take advantage of this offer just in case. He got on his knees and poured the water on my head. He used the water to draw some pattern on my forehead. I couldn't see what it was, obviously, but I could tell there was some kind of design to it. Then he looked me in the eyes and said. 'You're mine now. You answer only to me, and in time, I will answer to none apart from you.' Then everything went black and I woke up." "What do you think that was about? Do you think it was real?" Toby asked. He was surprised Chase had been atheist for so long. Toby thought, if he had a dream like that while drowning, he wouldn't question anything about it. "No. It was just a dream. I was dying. People usually have weird dreams then." Chase gave him a very rational explanation. "The guy told me things I'd want to hear." "Yeah, but...I dunno..." "Haha, this is kind of morbid, but that date feels special to me even though I'm pretty sure it was only a dream." Chase said. "You remember the date?" "Yeah. It was Tuesday July 7th, 1987. Actually, I guess I was seven at the time. My birthday wouldn't have passed yet." Chase said. "I get a little excited when that date comes around." "Excited? I'd be afraid of that date." "Really?" "I know you said it was a dream, but I'd be worried about that guy coming back for me every time that date passed." Just thinking about the dream Chase described made Toby anxious. "Oh, but he can't." "Why?" "In the one in a billion chance that was real, he said I'll be famous at some point before I die. I'm not famous yet. So he can't take me." Chase laughed loudly. "Oh, that's right." That put Toby at ease a little. "Still, I'd be anxious around that date anyway. Was it scary?" "What?" "You could've died." "I mean, I kinda did." "Exactly." "Eh. Having gone through that, I'm not afraid of death at all now. Dying doesn't really feel like a big deal." Chase pulled the blankets up higher. He rolled on his side so he was facing Toby. "When I woke back up, I wasn't thinking about how I might not have come back from that, or about my sister crying. My parents shuffled me away from everyone and yelled at me in the hotel room for being stupid. I was basically 'grounded' to that room for the rest of the vacation. They weren't scared, except about their bank accounts and having to possibly pay for a funeral. They didn't take me to a doctor to check that my ribs had only been bruised and there weren't any broken ones. I spent most of my time playing by the sea behind our hotel while they carted Anne around to a bunch of tourist nonsense and ate out at nice restaurants until they ditched her with me too. That man in my dream was at least nice about the whole thing." Toby put his hand over Chase's. "I'm sorry. Are you okay?" "I'm fine. Haha, that was more than half my life ago." Chase intertwined his fingers with Toby's. He stared at Toby with eyes cold and fierce. "They've always been like that. A lot of people are like that, but they put on faces to pretend they're not. Are you pretending to care?" "No." "I know you're not. Your lies are obvious. It's your pain you hide well." Chase pressed his forehead against Toby's. "You're genuinely a good person. That's why you get hurt all the time. You should use your teeth more often." "I don't like causing fights." Toby said. "I know." Chase kissed him. "Are you sure about this?" "Hmm?" "You really wanna put up with me?" "Don't I already?" They kissed again. Chase held on to both of Toby's hands. "I guess I shouldn't fight it. I don't have to worry about you betraying me. Right?" "Why would I ever betray you?" "Everybody wants something. What do you want most?" Chase asked. Toby paused. He didn't know what to say. "I don't know." "It's late. We should go to sleep." "Yeah." "Night." Chase kissed him again. "Night." Chase fell asleep quickly. Toby closed his eyes, but sleep wouldn't come. His mind had been quiet for a while earlier, but the restless thoughts were flooding back in. He wondered if what Chase told him about Brad and David was true or missing information. Chase sometimes told technical truths with important details missing to rile up other people. All of it could have been lies. The more Toby thought about it, the more certain he was sure they weren't outright lies. Chase had a particular way of lying. Toby would've picked up on that right away. He wouldn't be surprised if the two of them were keeping things from him like that. When he was younger, he would make his disgust of something another person was doing known to that person right away. He wouldn't be shocked to learn they started keeping things from him because of that. Thinking that the both of them were alright with emotionally manipulating other people bothered him no matter how he tried to rationalize it. If all of that was true, he wasn't sure what to think about them. But was it fair for him to be bothered by any of it? After all, lately, he rarely told either of them anything personal either. How close were they really? Chase was right. If they hadn't known each other as long as they did and stayed in this same place, they likely wouldn't be friends at this point. Would they even be friends after starting college? Chase and Toby had been sitting there discussing all these plans, but there was no guarantee all four of them would be speaking to each other in a few years. Chase asking him out was also probably not deep either, Toby thought. He enjoyed the latter part of the night, but he doubted it meant as much to Chase as it did to him. Chase might be bored of dating by the end of the month or next week. Chase made it clear himself he mostly did things to seek out excitement and fill the emptiness. How much could Toby really give him if nothing else was good enough? Chase wouldn't care when it was over. And when that day came, no one but Toby would really care. There would be no sympathy. He didn't want to tell Brad or David about them. What was the point if they never shared anything about themselves with him? He couldn't tell his family. He couldn't allow them to find out it happened. There was no one at school he was close to either. Sunday, he'd have to embarrass himself in front of all the people at church and sign that paper. Later in the school year, he'd have to choose a girl to go to a dance with no matter how he felt about it. For four years of college, he'd have to worry about his parents' every concern or the money for his classes would disappear. How often would his dog be used as leverage against him in that time? What was after that point? Lind didn't want to have anything to do with him anymore. Their dad was probably going to beat him when he got home. What did anything matter? Toby had been thinking about that a lot lately. Death normally scared him, but there was something that frightened him more than death. He saw that something often on the way to and from school. An old homeless man often waved to him when Toby was on walks or driving. The man had been homeless at least since Toby was in seventh grade. He lived out of tents that were destroyed every so often. Sometimes, he saw him under a patch of trees or at the corner of some empty house. He was always somewhere for a little while and never far. Toby gave him money when he had extra on him. Most people ignored him. No one came to look after him. No one sat with him. No one cared for him. People called in complaints to have him moved out of sight. From what Toby heard, the man was mentally ill, but he wasn't ill enough to be dropped off at Milledgeville, and no one was going to pay his bills for treatment at a private facility either. Some people hoped for him to land in jail to "clean up" the area. Complete and total abandonment, scorn, loss of everything material and interpersonal--such a complete isolation is what Toby feared the most. He didn't want to be cast away like that. With every day he survived, Toby did what he could to please other people. He noticed his real personality eroding away. Chase told him to use his teeth more. Toby wasn't sure his teeth were sharp enough to leave any marks at this point. He could feel himself drowning, but he didn't know how to swim. Maybe, he thought, it might be easier to stop trying and give up now, end it all. Would anyone really miss him after a week? Toby stayed quiet. Despite his best efforts, he felt a few stray tears slip out. He heard Chase waking up. Toby closed his eyes quickly to pretend to be asleep. He felt Chase was staring at him. Chase put his hands on Toby's face. Instinctively, Toby opened his eyes. Chase looked absolutely terrified. Toby had never seen him look like that before. "What's wrong?" "What? Nothing. I was dreaming." Toby lied. "I thought I saw...the lights are playing tricks on me in the dark." Chase let go of him. Toby wiped his face off. "Lights?" "Don't worry about it." Chase lie back down. "Are you sure you're okay?" "Yeah. I was having a bad dream. That's all." Toby asked again. "What did you think you saw?" "Stars." Chase said. "Stars?" "Like that river. On your face, in your eyes. It was weird." Chase rubbed his eyes. "Must've been the moonlight and the neon light making an illusion or something." "Yeah, must've been." Toby rolled over away from Chase. His mind was filling back up with terrible thoughts, but his body was getting too tired to entertain them. Soon, he fell asleep and dreamt of falling. He was falling from somewhere high. Skyscrapers surrounded him, but he didn't know which he fell from. The city lights weren't enough to push away the darkness of night above him. He glanced over at one of the many windows he passed on his way down and saw his reflection, but it wasn't his own nor were his screams. They belonged to Brad. He was a little older than he was now. He could see Brad was screaming and struggling in the air, but there was nothing to hold onto. And then he looked down at the ground as it was nearly upon him. A hard thud, a splash of red against the black asphalt. Then, he fell apart and into some other place, a place of white tiles and flowery curtains. He heard himself crying now, but this voice wasn't his either. It was higher pitched than his and familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. When he looked down at himself, he saw a light blue, floral dress and lace up sandals. A handmade, beaded bracelet was on his left wrist. He saw the end of a name, "ana", on three of the beads. His fingernails and toenails were painted to match the dress. His hair was long enough to hang just over his shoulders, a shade far too dark to be his own hair. In his right hand, he held a gun. He looked up at the shower curtains he was leaning against. The flowers were roses against white. The room smelled like lilacs and lavender. He could taste salt on his tongue. Out of the corner of his eye, Toby saw his reflection in one of the tiles. He didn't recognize the person, but he was certain he knew who he was looking at. The person was so familiar to him. He tasted metal now mixed with the salt, then only iron as he fell back and watched new roses blooming across the curtain. The blinding light of that place vanished and then he was watching himself. Toby saw himself standing in the dark at train tracks. He heard the train coming. The other him wasn't crying or screaming. He looked calm and empty. As the ground rumbled under his feet and the train screeched like a tornado, the other him stared ahead unflinching. Then, right before it could pass, he leapt forward. Toby walked backward away from the scene and into an unlit apartment. It was still night, but bright lights flashed outside the window. They reminded him of lightning. He paced around the apartment, occasionally looking outside the window at all the people with cameras standing around. He had a gun in his right hand again. On his left wrist, his watch ticked in rhythm with the snapping cameras outside. He heard his voice. It was Chase's. 'You want me. I could give you a show.' He heard Chase say. 'How much would that photograph go for?' He continued pacing around the center of the room, then sat down.'You're sick. You're all sick. All of you. Everyone's sick.' He rocked back and forth on the floor. 'Sick...sick...' Chase muttered to himself in a softer tone until his voice was barely a whisper. 'I'm sick...sick...' A phone rang. He felt himself flinch. The phone kept ringing, the watch kept ticking, the cameras kept snapping. Ringing, ticking, snapping. Snapping, ticking, ringing. 'It's my fault. It's my fault...I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I'm sorry...' Toby felt tears on his face. Ringing, ticking, snapping. Snapping, ticking, ringing. Ringing, ticking, click, flash. Toby opened his eyes. His heart was racing so fast his chest hurt. He took a breath and looked over at Chase. Chase was deep in sleep. He wanted to reach for Chase's hand for comfort, but someone else touched his hand first. His heart stopped. He held his breath as he looked up. On the other side of the bed, Toby saw a figure cloaked in black sitting on the bed. The figure held a large scythe. Toby couldn't see a face. 'I'm still dreaming. I'm still dreaming. This isn't real. Wake up.' Toby told himself. The figure turned slightly in Toby's direction. The figure's face remained in shadow. Outside, the clouds had hidden away the moon, the storm settling into a steady, heavy pace. Neon blue showed him the figure's hand wasn't exposed bone. The person had skin, a shade slightly darker and warmer than Toby's pale skin, but much lighter than Chase's olive brown skin. He couldn't see the person's eyes, but he could sense the person was looking right at him. "Can you see me?" The voice was deep despite how quiet the person spoke. Toby assumed the person was a man. Toby said nothing, too afraid to speak. His body completely froze. He couldn't look away. His chest hurt more than before. He feared he might have a heart attack. "It's alright. I'm not going to hurt you." The person said. The person looked down at Chase, then back at Toby. "I'm not here for him either. I'm only checking on him. Go back to sleep." Toby breathed again, exhaling and inhaling rapidly. He started hyperventilating. "Shh, shh. Calm down. It's alright. You are only dreaming. Shh, don't be afraid." The figure put the scythe down and put his hands up. "It's going to be alright. Please, don't be afraid." Toby wanted to run, but he didn't want to leave Chase there with that person. He used what little courage he had within him to sit up and try to get between that person and Chase. His hands and shoulders shook as he rose up to eye level with the figure, though he could not see the person's face. Toby swiped at the person to push the figure away. He met with nothing, his arm going through the person. Toby gasped and nearly fell off the bed. "You can't touch me while I wear this." The person said. "But you don't need to be afraid of me. I'm not here to hurt anyone. I told you. I am only checking on him." "W-why..." Toby finally managed to say. "Don't worry on it. I check on many people." The person said before standing up and walking around to the side of the bed Toby was on, leaving the scythe beside Chase. "I am concerned that you can see me like this. I wasn't wanting you to see me. You're quite ordinary. For you to see me without me wanting you to, your mind must be filled with death." Toby sank back down on the bed, huddled close to Chase. "Are you thinking about dying?" The figure asked him. "Why?" The figure unclasped the black cloak and let it fall to the floor. Toby's eyes had adjusted enough to the darkness that he could see the man more clearly. The man before him was very tall. Toby estimated he was a little over six feet tall. His hair, kept back in a French braid that went past his waist, was blond. He draped it over one of his shoulders. His eyes were an earthy brown. The man sat back down on the bed. Toby pulled his knees in unconsciously out of fear. "It's alright. Shh. I only collect people when it's their time. Neither of you are to leave tonight." The man said. He put his hand to Toby's face. Toby flinched. He expected the man to be freezing cold, but his hand was warm. "You're alive." Toby blurted out. "So are you." He smiled at Toby. "I'd prefer things stay that way for as long as they can. Tell me, what brings your thoughts to see me here?" Toby couldn't get himself to say what he was thinking about earlier, nor what he dreamt a moment ago. He couldn't force out any words. "You can't say it?" The man asked. Toby shook his head. "I see. May I look into your mind to know?" The man asked. "I don't...I don't...there's a lot of things...I don't want see." Toby said. "I understand, but you don't need to worry about that. When it's time, I see everything. I'm used to seeing things people don't want to see. I won't judge you for anything. That's not my purpose. My purpose is to guide and protect. It's alright. You can let me in." The man said. He leaned closer to Toby. Toby could see his face better. He was a very handsome man. Physically, he appeared as though he should have been in his twenties, no older than thirty at most. He had no wrinkles, though there were some signs of aging on his skin. He had tiny scars here and there, from old cuts and acne. His skin looked rough. On the bridge of his nose, faintly, Toby saw a small cluster of freckles suggesting the sun's touch. Around his chin, there were tiny hairs growing in. An eyelash rested on the upper part of his right cheek, obviously having fallen not long ago. Toby could see his pupils dilating to adjust to the night the same as his own were doing. On the hand that touched his face, Toby noticed that his palm was very rough. "Who are you?" Toby asked. "Are you...a god?" "You could call me that. I am very old, though not as old as the one I serve. This body is only six hundred and sixteen years old." The man said. "I was mortal once. You can call me what you want. What you really want to know is what do I do. I lead souls to where they need to go. I am a servant of Death. There is no need to fear me. I only come to those whose time is over." "Your name?" Toby asked. "What do I call you?" The man leaned back. "My name? You don't need that, but as I serve him, you may call me Death as well." "I am afraid." Toby admitted. "Of me?" Toby shook his head. "No. may look." The man touched Toby's forehead. A tiny galaxy of blue stars appeared above Toby. He couldn't understand what the man was looking for, but he appeared to be looking at something different than what Toby was seeing. The man pulled his hand away from Toby and looked over at Chase. "You're afraid your dream will come true." The man said. "I'm afraid I can't tell you that dream won't come true, but I can say that it is unlikely that all of the things you saw will occur." "What does that mean?" Toby asked, terrified. "It's more likely that there will be at least one than none, but unlikely all four will occur. All scenarios are possible. I am forbidden from telling you more than that." The man said. He gave Toby a sympathetic look. "I am sorry. I cannot tell you when either." "Will I be..." Toby started to say. "I can't tell you that. You should live your life not wondering on that. Don't think of me." The man said. "But if you'd like me to walk with you when your time does come, call for me. I can ensure it is me and not another who guides you." "How can I call for you if I don't know your name?" Toby asked. The man's mouth opened. He laughed under his breath. "Clever boy. Very well. Your soul is too innocent and gentle to worry over misuse anyway. My name is Conrí Fuiréast. Call for me, if you wish, but I wish that you do not call for me for many decades to come, Toby." Toby suddenly felt a wave of sadness hit him. "Is it worth it to wait that long?" "You're very lonely, I know. But whether it is in a few years, or several decades, I can tell you that someone will be by your side for the bulk of whatever time you have. The person may not be the same in each fate, but you won't be alone." Conrí said. "Could...could you tell me anything about them? Are you allowed to do that?" Toby asked. "I'm not supposed to." Conrí lowered his voice. "But I think it'd be alright if I told you a little. This will be our secret." "W-will you get in trouble?" Toby asked. "Concerned even for me? You are a sweet one. Don't worry. I won't be punished." Conrí reassured Toby. "Now, listen. I won't repeat myself. The man who will love you for most of the time of your life will go by a five letter C name. A part of his blood originates in the Americas and another part in Europe. He is older than you in some way that is related to the number four. His hair is black and his eyes are dark brown. This man devotes his heart in part to something in the natural world. He is not the youngest child in his family. He will choose to live somewhere other than his birthplace, the peach state. He is headstrong and flashy. You have already met him." Toby tried to memorize everything Conrí said. "Wait...which person is that? You said there was more than one possible person." "My answer would not change." Conrí said. "Then...that information aligns with...both of them?!" Conrí nodded. "It seems you have a very particular type." Toby blushed. " it alright...that the person is a guy?" Conrí tilted his head. "What do you mean?" "Will I go somewhere...bad when I die?" Toby asked. "Oh, that's what you meant. No, there is no hell." Conrí pointed to his scythe. "I use that on truly irredeemable people and ghosts so vengeful and hurtful they cannot be reasoned with. Nearly all people will go to the same place. Someone like you would never do anything so reprehensible you wouldn't make it there. I've seen your future and I gave you my name. If you were that kind of person, I wouldn't have." "Everyone..." Toby said. "Then, most people..." "Are varying levels of good and bad. Good typically overrides the bad in terms of weight, but that can be hard for someone like you to see. After all, you can only see into your own mind and humans tend to remember pain better than happiness. I can see into anyone. That is why I do not judge, except in judgement of whether a soul is a danger to others." He said. "Couldn't you get rid of bad people who are alive?" "That's not my role, and the rules about that are far beyond me." Conrí pointed upward. "You could say the one who controls everything, that person has decided free will is an absolute demand. We may manipulate some things, but only if they do not change anything on a large scale. I can change the date of death for a handful of lives, but I am forbidden from protecting an entire town. I have the ability to, but I will not. That is not my job. I am to let things flow chaotically." "Who is that person?" Toby asked. "Meh. It doesn't matter." Conrí said. "I've told you much I shouldn't have. You would do best to go back to sleep and forget everything I said. And please, don't think of me. Enjoy your days as best you can." "My he going to keep hurting me?" Toby asked. Conrí looked away. "I'm not supposed to answer that." Toby asked him another question. "If I live a long life, will it mostly be happy?" "I can't say." Toby looked over at Chase. "I know you said you can't tell me, but is he likely to die young? If he there anything I can do to make sure he doesn't? You said you were allowed to save a few lives." Conrí went quiet for a moment, deep in thought. "There is, but it would require me to give you a specific fate to make sure the events lined up right. That won't guarantee he lives a long life, as he still will have many crossroads after that point, but it would spare him from that moment in your dream. However, due to the way events would line up, your future would absolutely be set in stone. Would you be alright with that?" "Wait, what about my free will? I can't change anything after that point?" Toby asked. "Everyone has free will, and everyone is acting at once. Because of this, there's actually very little each person can change about their lives on a grand scale. Few events are that important, and certain ones are more likely than others to lead to crossroads in your life. Yours, aside from this next one, have all already passed. This one event will shift you one way or the other--either a brief life or a long one--and I cannot tell you which way it is. But I will do it for you, if you ask. I will not undo it either. Choose wisely. After all, he has his own free will. He may choose the path that leads to a longer life on his own anyway." Conrí explained. "If I choose this, isn't that interfering with his free will?" Toby asked. "Of course it is." Conrí said. "That's why each human has so few choices that matter. This is your choice. He will have to react to it. What do you choose?" Toby stared down at Chase. He was in such a deep, peaceful sleep he hadn't stirred once during their conversation. Toby thought about what Conrí told him. He was already with Chase now, and Chase, aside from the moving to a different state element, fit every part of the description Conrí gave him for the person who would stay with him for what remained of his life. If that person was Chase, then it would mean his life would be short. If he lived a long life from making this choice, it would mean he likely wouldn't be spending that life with Chase, at least not in a romantic sense. "I don't want that part of the dream to come true. Whatever it requires, let him live longer than that." Toby said. "Are you sure?" "Yes." Toby put his hand on Chase's. "How could I give any other answer after you told me all of that?" "You are very kind indeed." Conrí said. Toby thought of something else. "What about the other two? Is there anything I can do?" Conrí shook his head. "No. There is nothing you can do that will shift their fates in either direction. That will depend on the actions of others. You can only shift his fate." "I see..." "I know you are worried for them, but before I told you that, you had no idea either way how long they could live. You should spend every day with people you love as if it is the last. Love them, and hope for the best." Conrí asked him one last time. "Now, are you sure you want me to do this?" Toby nodded. "Yes. Please." "As you wish." Conrí put his hand on Toby's forehead again. He shifted the stars around. "Now, I have said far too much about things you shouldn't know and I am certain I will be lectured later, but I see in your eyes you are no longer thinking of me. Go back to sleep, Toby Tanner, and remember--this is only a dream." Toby's eyes suddenly felt heavy. He couldn't keep them open. When he opened them again, it was morning. Chase was already awake. He was putting the small plants back on the balcony. He noticed Toby was awake. "Happy Halloween!" Toby got out of bed. He stretched and walked over to Chase. "Happy Birthday. Congratulations. You made it to eighteen." "Haha, who would've thought? I dunno about thirty." Chase kissed him on the cheek. "It's still early. Do you wanna...?" "We don't have time." Toby blushed. "We've got plenty." "Not for what I want. I don't want to rush through it." "Oh? Then, I'll wait." Chase was in a cheery mood. "What are you going to do tonight?" "Nothing, as usual. It's a weekday. After staying over last night, they'll definitely want me home immediately or they won't let me go anywhere on the weekend." Toby said. He hoped nothing else would happen when he got home. "That sucks. Well, we were going out tomorrow night anyway. Can I call you?" Chase asked. "Yeah, call the house first. After dinner, I'll call you on my cell phone." Toby said. "They won't get mad about the bill?" Chase asked. "I pay for my phone." Toby said. "Damn, what kind of articles have you been writing?" Chase looked over his plants, then rearranged them. "I write a lot of guides and brochures too. And a lot of reviews." Toby said. "Busy, busy. Don't see why you bother with the school newspaper too." "That's to impress universities." Toby helped him with the plants. "You're in a good mood." "I am. Don't know why. Woke up that way." Chase laughed. "I had this weird dream...I was making out with some guy who worked at an ice cream shop. What the hell?" Toby laughed with him. "Were you in the ice cream shop?" "Yeah, he had on this dorky uniform too with some goofy logo on it. I was leaning against the tubs of ice cream. My ass was freezing. I almost put my hand in the sprinkles." Chase said. "Was he cute?" Toby asked. "Actually, I can't remember what he looked like anymore. I don't think it was anyone I knew. My brain must've made him up." Chase tried hard to recall other details. He snapped his fingers. "Ian. That was his name. I don't know any fucking Ians. What about you? What'd you dream?" Toby's body went cold. He remembered his frightening nightmare, and the far more terrifying moment after that. 'But that had to have been a dream too, right?' "Toby?" "Huh. Oh, I don't really remember." Toby said. He realized that wasn't far from the truth. The more he tried to remember last night, the more it seemed to be slipping away from him. "Something about stars." "Stars?" "I don't know." Toby shook his head. "Hey, um, are you really okay with this? I know it's stupid, but...right now, I don't think I'll be able to relax and do anything too...physical if someone else is in the house. Maybe if it's only Anne here, but..." "No one's going to bother us." "I know, but...I just...I can't yet." "It has to be that way, huh? If that's how it is, then that's how it is. We can figure out ways to make it work. My parents go on trips a lot." Chase put the last pot back in place. "Oh...I have an idea. Spring Break. Let's go somewhere together. Then we'll have a whole week without you having to worry about our parents." "That's months away. Besides...I don't know if my parents will let me go on a trip like that without them. And if it's just the two of dad might get suspicious." Toby said. "You'll be eighteen by then. If we have David and Brad go with us too, it won't look like it's anything romantic. You're not going to be worried about them, right?" "Not really, but...I don't know. Will David's parents let him go?" "We'll come up with something. Everybody will be eighteen. There's no reason we shouldn't be allowed to go on a one week vacation nearby. We can go to Panama City Beach. That's only a few hours away." Chase suggested. "No way! They'll think I'm there to party and do drugs." Toby said. "Mm...Mexico Beach? That's about the same distance. Hmm...people party there too." Chase poked Toby. "Oh, I see. You want to go to Orlando and see if you can find Mr. College Boy again." "Haha, very funny. Maybe I can convince them to let me go to Panama City. We will all be adults then. If I keep my grades up and don't do anything to piss them off, then maybe..." Toby held Chase's hand. "You really don't mind?" "It's fine. But when we get into college, I'm sleeping in bed with you every night." Chase kissed him. "You won't get bored of me? I'm not very exciting." Toby said. Chase kissed him again. "You don't know what excites me." Toby forgot what he said about time earlier. They arrived at school a few minutes late, but Toby's father didn't ask the staff about that. He only asked if Toby was there. The school day went by quickly. After school, Toby talked with Chase on the phone for a long time. He was starting to feel more optimistic again. Friday afternoon, Toby went straight home. The four of them planned on hanging out pretty late into the night, but only Toby was going to spend the night at Chase's house. He planned on taking advantage of every opportunity he could get alone with Chase. He packed a duffel bag with clothes for the night. He thought about other things he should take with him. Toby opened a drawer he kept several notebooks in. He put in one he had been writing some ideas for lyrics in that he wanted to show Chase later. Inside the drawer, Toby noticed one of the notebooks had something sticking out of it. He opened it. Several Polaroid pictures fell out into the drawer. He recognized them right away. They were from the vacation he took in Orlando. Toby looked through them. He laughed at himself for the clothes he wore during the trip and the haircut he had then. He was a full six inches shorter at the time, only five four then. His face made him look even younger than he really was. Toby was very self-conscious about his appearance then. He felt like most of his classmates had already finished growing or were getting close. He was five ten by the end of that same year. 'And I didn't grow one inch more.' Toby thought, amused at his younger self's silly concerns. Chase ended up only being five nine and David was five eight. Only Brad ended up taller than him at five eleven. He was so certain at the time everyone but him would hit six foot. He wasn't worried about anything like that anymore. One photo caught Toby's attention. It was the one he took with that young man who gave him the directions to that hidden spot. Toby looked at him again. It'd been so long, while he remembered he thought the man was cute at the time, he couldn't actually recall in detail what he looked like. The man was taller than him, but he was shorter than he remembered the man being. Toby could tell if they met again he would either be the same height or slightly taller than that man now. The man had straight black hair and dark brown eyes. His skin was a dark russet shade, but Toby wasn't certain if that was his natural skin tone or partly from being in the sun. At the time, Toby was slightly embarrassed at his own skin. He'd burned badly the first day of the trip. His shoulders and face were flaking by that day from where he'd burned at. He wore a t-shirt that day to hide his shoulders and he had on a tacky hat he bought from a shop for tourists to try and avoid his face burning more. He was so embarrassed from getting sunburnt at another vacation his face broke out from the stress of it. Toby had since learned to pick out better sunscreen, but he still usually burned if he was outside too long during the summer months. He came to accept that's how it was and that he couldn't tan to save his life. He only turned red and blistered. Toby had forgotten this, but after he interviewed the young man and took a picture with him, the man offered him a small bottle of sunscreen he had on him to help protect Toby's face. Toby noticed the man's shirt had a university name on it--University of Central Florida. 'That must be where he went to school.' Around his left wrist, the man had on two silicone wristbands. Toby could barely make out what the one with text said. It appeared to be for an animal shelter, but he couldn't read the full name. The other wristband didn't have any text. It was a rainbow pattern. Toby flipped the Polaroid over. Toby had written notes about each person he interviewed on the back of the pictures. The back of the photo read: 'Chris Corbin, 19, bio & business major UCF From Decatur, GA Loves dogs & murder mysteries Plans on making Orlando home' "Chris...that's right." Toby flipped the picture back over. "Hmm. He is really cute. No way he'd remember me." Toby looked at himself in the photo again. He cringed at his own appearance. "God, I hope none of these people do." Toby tossed the photo in the duffel bag. He thought Chase would get a good laugh out of seeing the photo. "Hmm...he was nineteen then. Guess he'd be twenty-one now. I wonder if he did make Orlando his home. Home..." Toby flopped down on the bed. "It'd be nice to have a safe home." Toby put away the rest of the photos and left the house. Chase lived only a few houses away. Toby decided to walk. On his way there, Toby saw several cop cars and an ambulance parked near some trees. The spot wasn't quite in anybody's yard. Nosy, Toby wandered over to get a better look at what was going on. When he got closer, Toby saw an officer tearing down a small tent. The EMTs were putting someone in a body bag. Toby recognized the jacket and backpack laying on the ground near where the tent had been. His heart sank. He watched them, frozen in shock, for a few minutes. Toby did his best to compose himself. He approached one of the police officers. "Um, excuse me..." "You shouldn't be over here right now. This area is off limits." The man said. "I'm sorry. I'm not trying to interrupt you. I just...wanted to ask what happened...the person who died, was that person an old homeless man?" Toby asked. "Do you think you know the person?" The officer asked. "Yes, well, not personally. There's this homeless man that is usually around here. I was wondering if it was him that died and if you knew what happened. I saw him around here this morning." Toby said. "Do you know if that man had any relatives?" The officer asked. He took out a notepad. Toby shook his head. "I don't know. He's been out here for a few years." "What makes you think this is the same man?" The officer asked. "That jacket...he wore it a lot. It has a little patch with a sun on it on one of the chest pockets. He had that same backpack too. That's the same color tent I remember him having lately." Toby said. He tried to remember other things about the man's appearance, but he was often shifting in a gradual way. Something would degrade until it wasn't recognizable somewhere while something new appeared in another place. Once he stopped seeing something on him, Toby never saw it again. The old man had many backpacks, jackets, and tents over the years. His hair covered up much of his face. Toby knew him most by his eyes, but he didn't have the words to capture their appearance. The officer wouldn't understand how well Toby knew him by his loneliness--how it started there in his eyes and descended down, covering everything in an invisible fog. Toby could feel that man's presence in those clothes without touching them. "I see. What time did you last see him?" The officer spoke in a distant tone. "It would've been early in the morning. I was leaving for school. Probably around seven, I think? I stopped and gave him some change." Toby said. He asked. "Did something happen to him? He didn't seem sick this least, not in any way I could see." "I can't say right now. Do you know anyone who might have had issues with that man?" The officer asked. "I don't know. I know some people don't like him, but I can't think of anyone I've seen him get into an argument with or anything like that." Toby said. He glanced over at the body bag. His chest tightened. "Um, if he doesn't have any relatives...what happens to people like that after they die? Is there somewhere they can be buried?" "Oh, if we don't find a relative, there's a place for people like that to be buried at. He'll receive a simple burial." The man said. "Is that a place I can visit? I'd like to leave flowers. I didn't really know him, but I feel like...somebody should." The officer asked him. "What's your name, young man?" "Toby Tanner." "There's a specific plot that unclaimed people are buried at. The graves there don't have markers unless someone else agrees to pay for one. I can let you know when his burial date is, if you'd like to attend it. Thinking back to this morning, is there anything else you remember? Was there anyone you saw him around with?" The officer asked. Toby shook his head. "He was definitely alone when I last saw." "Mr. Tanner, where do you live?" The officer asked. "The house right there." Toby pointed to his house. "And where did you see this man earlier today? Was he right here?" Toby looked around. "No, he was a little farther over that way. Around where that telephone pole is." "Alright. Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?" "Not that I can think of." Toby said. "What's your phone number?" "Do you want my home phone or my cell phone?" "Give me both." Toby gave him the two numbers. He handed the man his driver's license as well. ", you think someone hurt him, don't you?" "It's very likely, but I can't say more than that." The officer said. "I see. That's so sad." Toby watched the various people at the scene pack away all of the old man's things into bags. The area had a heavy emptiness. Toby didn't want to stay there, but he didn't want to leave either. It felt rude to run away so quickly. Toby wasn't sure if he was grateful or not that he couldn't see the man's face. When he made it to Chase's house, Chase noticed his strange demeanor right away. "Hey, something up?" He asked. "Do you remember that old homeless man that's around the neighborhood a lot?" Toby asked. "Yeah, why?" "He died. I saw them taking him away on my way over here." Chase opened the door and looked down the road at the police cars. "Did you see what happened?" "No. The officer I talked to wouldn't tell me anything, but it sounded like someone might have killed him." Chase responded blankly. "Huh. Not surprised. People do all kinds of shitty things to homeless people." "That doesn't scare you?" Toby asked. "Someone who lives around here is a murderer." "I'm sure there's far more than one. Once, I looked up who was on the sex offender list around here." Chase opened the door again. He pointed to a house on the opposite side of the street five houses over. "That old man who lives right there, he likes eight year old girls. Got caught three times." "Why isn't he in prison?" "Dunno. Doesn't seem like rapists and child predators stay in jail all that long no matter how many times they do it." Chase pointed to another house. "That guy raped someone when he was in college. I looked up his case. His dad has a lot of money. Murder's pretty easy to get away with too. A lot of murders go unsolved. Statistically, so long as you're not a complete fuck up in how you do it, you have pretty good odds of not going to prison for killing someone. Whoever killed that guy is probably going to get away with it. Most people don't care about old hobos. If he was a pretty, young blond lady, there'd be cameras all over the place. The more gruesome, the more cameras. But the rest of us are disposable in death. We don't get eyes on the screen, especially not old guys who live in tents." Toby's mood soured more. "What about the rape cases then?" "Eh, could go either way. If it's brutal and someone dies, maybe. If not, eh, people don't really care that much. If it's not violent, it's easier to believe it didn't happen than it did. No need to think about people being disturbed. It's easier to pretend someone's a petty liar than to admit someone else is a monster." Chase spoke in a cold manner. "I don't know..." Toby walked away from the doorway. He didn't want to see anymore. "Most people are shitty. That's the truth of the matter. They don't like being uncomfortable. They don't like confrontation. And most of all, they don't like reassessing anything. The easiest way to get through life is to live like a coward, ignoring bad things and hoping they don't happen to you." Chase used his hands to pretend to put on glasses. "People love their rose tinted glasses. Fresh blood is rosy too." "I asked the officer to call me to let me know the date of his burial." Toby said. "You're going?" Chase was surprised to hear that. "Somebody should." Toby said. "Maybe no one else cares, but I still think he deserves to be given flowers at his final resting place." Chase closed the door. "My angel. You're so sweet. But you should work on sharpening your claws. Someone's gonna hurt you one day." "Why me?" "Because it's always that way. Evil people rarely get what's coming to them, and truly good people suffer more than most." Chase said. "If you won't, I can bite and claw for you." "I know." Toby said. He put the duffel bag beside the sofa and sat down. "But it'd be nice if you didn't use those on me too." Chase sat beside him. "Working on it. You know, when we were kids, you were the one I trusted the least." "Why?" "When I was a kid, I always assumed people who came off good and were always defending some cause or whatever were usually the most disgusting people behind closed doors. Now that I'm older, I realized most people no matter what they do are terrible and you were being sincere. But you don't really act like that much anymore either." Chase put his arm around Toby's shoulder. "I don't?" "No, you hold your tongue more when people upset you." Chase said. "I can't tell what's going on inside you, but sometimes, when I see you doing that...your eyes look sad. You usually call me out when I'm being an ass, but lately...sometimes, you look at me like that too." "Saying something turns into arguing with someone or someone getting hurt. I stopped bothering trying to change people." Toby sighed. "Maybe you are right, about how most people are." "I know I am, should still tell me off when I'm being a jerk." Chase said. "I don't want you to look at me like that. That's the only way you look at your father." "Even if we fight?" "Who cares if we fight?" Chase said. "We've gotten into some pretty big fights over the years and we're still friends. Remember once we didn't talk to each other for two months straight. I apologized in the end. Took me a while to realize I was wrong, and then I was being prideful. Give me time. I'll get over myself and come back." "Do you think it's a good idea for us to date? What if we end up breaking up?" Toby asked. "I don't want to stop being friends." "Oh, I'm sure that would be a mess if we did. That'd probably end up being the longest we'd avoid each other for, but...haha, I'm positive if we broke up, it'd be my fault. So long as you'd want to, I'd come around and try to patch things up." Chase got more comfortable on the couch. "The way I see it, the only way you're getting rid of me is if you shut me out or one of us dies. I've done a lot of stupid shit. I can't imagine what I could possibly do that'd be worse than what I've already done, and you didn't toss me aside then." "That's true." Toby put his hand on Chase's thigh. "But you still need to work on your behavior." "I know, I know. I'm trying." Chase put his hand over Toby's. "Speaking of which, um, I may have done something reckless yesterday afternoon." "What did you do?" Toby narrowed his eyes. "I may or may not have gotten a tattoo." "Where?" "My back." Chase smiled. "It might be over my entire back." Toby did his best to reserve judgement until after he saw it. He worried what Chase might have requested on a whim. "Let me see." Chase took his shirt off. "It's just the outline right now. I have to go back and get it colored in. The guy said I'll need to come back a couple more times to finish up everything." Chase turned around to show off his back. A large snake was coiled up, head risen, looking ready to strike. Around the snake were small stars and clouds that morphed gradually into jaguar spots toward the upper part of Chase's back. His shoulders were covered with the spots. "Huh. It reminds me of the light in your room. Did you come up with the design?" Toby asked. "Yeah." "What kind of snake is it supposed to be?" Toby asked. "It's a kingsnake. It'll be obvious when it's colored in." "Why a snake?" "Because snakes are awesome." Chase said. Toby felt down Chase's back. "Did it hurt?" "Not that much." Chase looked over his shoulder at Toby. "You're not mad?" "No, it looks good." Toby shrugged. "I figured you'd get a tattoo or some kind of weird piercing at some point anyway. I'm more relieved than anything. Ink's permanent. The design is nice. And you did get it on your back. That's easy to cover up if you need to." "What if I told you I got some piercings too?" "You better not be about to tell me you pierced your dick." "Haha, fuck no." Chase turned around. He put his hands up to his ears. On each ear, there was a tiny, silver stud. "I got my ears pierced." "Both?" "Couldn't decide which one I wanted to do, so I did both." Chase said. "Figured it'd be better to have more options. You know, for when I'm doing photoshoots and interviews." "Oh, yeah. I guess that kind of goes with the territory, huh?" Toby breathed a sigh of relief. "For an impulsive trip, you know, that's pretty benign and safe." "See? I can handle myself." Chase put his shirt back on. "We should get matching tattoos one day." "I dunno about that..." "Heh. Maybe one day I can convince you. It really wasn't that bad. We could get something small." Chase checked his watch. "You know, David and Brad aren't coming over until eight. You wanna go up to my room?" "I was hoping you'd ask. I took a shower and cut my nails before I left. Haha." Toby leaned over. "Smell me." Chase sniffed his neck. "Cologne? You never wear that." "I don't know how many chances we'll have over the next few months so...I wanted to be presentable." Toby blushed. "You don't need to worry about that." Chase took his hand and got up from the sofa. "But that's nice of you. Did you get a haircut too?" "I trimmed the front a little." Toby got up. "Does it look bad?" "No, not at all." Chase walked with Toby, hand in hand, out of the house toward the detached garage. At eight o'clock, David and Brad arrived together in Brad's car. They lived close enough to walk, but since they were both going home late at night, neither wanted to walk home in the dark. They all quickly got in Chase's car. Toby sat up front with Chase. Brad and David sat in the back. They stopped by a fast food restaurant, then drove around for over an hour. Toby didn't recognize where they were. "Where are we going?" David asked. "Somewhere no one will bother us." Chase said. "That sounds like somewhere we're not supposed to be." Toby said. "Come on? When have I ever gotten us arrested?" Chase laughed and sped up. "Why are we going ninety?" Toby asked, holding tight to his door. "No one's out right now. Don't worry about it." Chase said. "Watch a cop spot us immediately." Brad lit up a cigarette. He rolled down his window. "Nah." Chase said. "Don't get us killed, okay? We made plans for Spring Break already." Toby said. "Wait, what? When was that?" David asked Toby, leaning forward. He held on to the back of the driver's seat. "Yeah, what? Are you two going off without us?" Brad asked. "Oh, right." Chase was going a hundred now. "Yeah, I forgot to tell you guys. We're going to Panama City for Spring Break. You better let your parents know if you're coming. We can split the cost of the rental place." "Panama City? I don't know if my parents will let me go…" David sighed deeply and sat back. "Why? We'll all be eighteen by then." Chase said. He glanced back at David for a second. "Are you gonna need Mommy's permission to go buy a house?" "Probably." David sighed and looked out the window. "You and Toby both need to cut them off when you move out. Fuck 'em." Chase sped up more. "That's easy for someone to say whose parents pay for everything and don't care what you do. I don't have a job yet, remember? And they're paying for my college tuition." David snapped back. Toby noticed when they arrived, David already seemed anxious about something. "Just take out a loan. You'll be able to pay it back when we're famous." Chase said flippantly. "That's not really a solid plan, Chase." David argued with him. "What if we stay nobodies?" "Maybe you will, but I won't. I'm going to do whatever it takes. If I have to fuck the CEO of a record label or make some shitty pop songs or drop a sex tape, I'm doing it. I don't give a shit." Chase made a sharp turn. The car screeched. The force of the turn caused everyone to slide to the left slightly. "Clearly." David held on tightly to anything he could. "Chase, slow the fuck down!" Toby gripped his seatbelt tightly. "You're gonna flip the car." "You're fine. Calm down." Chase slowed down the car some. "I'm sure we can convince your parents. If we manage to convince Toby's, we can get yours on board." Brad suggested. "Hey, while we're down there, we should take David to a clinic and get him some shots." "They wouldn't find out about that, right? I'll still be on their health insurance." David said. "I don't think so? Cause you won't be a minor anymore. Like at college, they can't ask the school to see your grades even if they're paying because you're an adult. That's how it works, right?" Chase said. Toby shrugged. "I dunno." Brad shook his head. "That's not something I know much about." Chase turned again. He drove through grass around a chained off entrance to an abandoned parking lot. There were no streetlights or businesses nearby. The only lights were their headlights and the lights on the interior of the car. The remains of a rotting picnic table rested in front of where Chase parked the car. To their right, there were what was left of wooden steps that went up a small incline. The only other things around them were tall trees and thick bushes. Toby assumed the area was a park once. "This place is creepy." David said. "Yeah, uh, this looks like the kinda place you get murdered at." Brad rolled his window back up. He put out his cigarette. "You know, one of those guys with a hook or something." "No worries. In those stories, guys like that only go after teenagers having premarital sex to conveniently scare the goody goody Christian kids. So just don't have sex in my car." Chase drank from his soda. "Who the hell would I have sex with? One of you?" David unbuckled his seatbelt. "Haha, do you think about that when you're alone?" Chase teased him. Earlier in the week, Chase told Toby he didn't care about David and Brad going back to being Christian, but Toby wondered if Chase was intentionally getting on David's nerves to get back at him for making him feel abandoned. Toby wasn't certain of that. Chase liked to rile up people for fun, all of them included. It could be for no reason at all. "Hell no!" David kicked the back of Chase's seat. "Why not? I'm fine as hell." Chase moved his seat back farther. "Toby's gay, and I don't think he'd have sex with you." David said. Toby's heart sped up. 'No. No, don't bring me into this.' "Bullshit." Chase said with a wide grin. Toby knew what was coming. Chase wouldn't be able to resist. "He did this week, three times." "Chase!" Toby yelled. His face went a deep red. "What?" Chase asked. Brad and David exchanged looks. Brad asked, "Are you serious?" "I wasn't ready to tell them yet." Toby said to Chase. "Sorry, I couldn't stop myself. Shocking them was too fun." Chase was pleased with himself. "I told you not to!" Toby raised his voice. "Toby, you really…?" David stared at him. The way David was looking at him made Toby feel disgusting. It reminded him of how his mother looked at him when his father was angry at him about something--the look of pure disappointment. David knew he was gay. He never seemed to care about that. 'Why are you looking at me like that now?' Toby didn't say anything in response. He put on an empty expression. Chase noticed, but didn't say anything about that either. "So, are you two together?" Brad asked. "Yeah. I took his virginity Wednesday." Chase said, his eyes on Toby. Chase's words snapped Toby out of what he was thinking about before. Angry, Toby yelled. "You're about to get broken up with in under a week." "Chill out. We were going to tell them eventually anyway." Chase said. "That doesn't mean you have to do it like that!" Toby was regretting all the effort he put into getting ready earlier today. "God, you're such an ass sometimes." "Not enough that it bothers you, obviously." Chase said. "Argh!" Toby got out of the car and slammed the door. He walked toward the road. Chase cracked his door open. "Where the hell are you going?" "For a walk." Toby didn't look back. "You don't know where we are!" Chase yelled at him. Toby ignored him. Chase slammed his own door. "Ugh, fine! Whatever." "Are you going to get him?" David asked. "He'll come back. Where's he gonna go? He'd have to walk for hours to get back home." Chase sipped on his drink. He put his feet on the dash. David sighed and got out of the car. "Toby!" "And there he goes." Chase said. "You're not going to stop them?" Brad asked. "They'll come back." Chase said. "What if something happens to them?" Brad asked. "If they don't come back in thirty minutes, we'll go look for them." Chase got a burger out of a bag. David ran after Toby. He caught up with him easily. "Toby, wait!" David called out. "Come back to the car." "I'll come back later. Leave me alone." Toby kept walking forward. "We don't know where we are. It's not safe to wander around a place like this." David walked alongside him. "Why do you care?!" Toby yelled. "What?" Toby caught himself from saying something else. He bit his tongue. "Nothing. Go on back. I'm coming back. I just needed to get some air." "Are you mad at me?" David asked. "Did I do something?" "No." Toby could feel David's eyes on him, giving him a strange look. "So, and Chase, huh? That's so weird." "Why's that?" Toby was reaching his breaking point. He did his best to hide his anger. "I knew you liked him, but...Chase is..." David started to say. "I don't know. I figured when you finally dated someone, it'd be someone else. Did you guys really do it?" "Why?" "That's fast. I didn't expect that out of you." David said. Toby couldn't hold it in. He blurted out. "That's rich coming from you." "What are you talking about?" "Chase told me about your little routine with all your ex-girlfriends." Toby walked slightly ahead of him. "He told you that, huh?" David's voice was quieter. "I's not about me. It''re you, you know?" Toby turned around. "What is that supposed to mean?" David stopped. "I'm not going to pretend I'm a good person. But you are." "What did I do that was bad?" David didn't answer him directly. "You know what I mean." "No, I don't." Toby said. "Spell it out for me." David went quiet. "...forget what I said. I just thought...that was more important to you." "What was?" "Sex." "It is important to me. I did what I wanted." Toby crossed his arms. "How long was I supposed to wait? Who was I supposed to wait for?" "I don't know. Not one week. Not Chase. He'll sleep with anyone." David said with disgust. "So? At least he's honest with himself about it." Toby stepped closer to David. "He told me what he wanted. I agreed to it. Neither of us lied to each other. That's more than you can say, right?" "He really did tell you everything, huh?" David faced the ground. "About you dating a bunch of virgins and promising to marry them so they'll sleep with you? Yeah, he told me. What the hell, David? Why are you doing that? What's the point?" Toby lectured him. He hadn't done that to David in a very long time. "There's plenty of girls who'd gladly do that with you without you needing to manipulate them." "It's not about...what you think it is, but...he didn't tell you everything." David bowed his head down. "I tell them I'm a virgin too." "Why?" Toby didn't bother hiding his own disgust. "I don't want to admit that I'm not good." David said. "I really did mean the other parts though. Nothing ever ends up working out, but I really was planning on marrying those girls. That would atone for my sinful behavior." Toby's eyes widened. "That's what this is about? David...there's nothing bad about doing that with someone. It's normal to want that." "This week, I promised myself I was going to get back on the right path with Christ. I'm taking a vow of chastity this Sunday." "But you're not even a virgin..." "I have asked for forgiveness already. I'm starting over." Toby walked closer. "David, I get that this is really important to you, but...I don't think it's healthy to practice something that makes you feel bad about acting on natural urges. There are other sects of Christianity. They're not all like our church. Maybe you should try visiting a church of a different denomination." "My parents say that most other denominations are brainwashed by Satan." "I can't tell you what the truth is, but if you believe Jesus loves you, why is doing things for him making you feel bad about yourself? Why did it make you feel like you had to lie to and manipulate other people? That doesn't make sense." Toby put his hands on David's shoulders. A piece of a nightmare flashed in his mind. The person that was familiar that he couldn't place. Toby looked closely at David's face. Chase's other words about David came through, aligning the familiar with the unfamiliar. Toby changed his tone. He spoke more calmly to David. "I feel like you bottle up a lot of things and then it comes out in ways that hurt you. You don't need to live like that. Whatever you really want for yourself, you should do it. I'll support you all the way." "Did...did he tell you that too?" David asked, eyes full of fear. Toby nodded. "I won't tell anyone else, until you say I can." " you really think there's a church that wouldn't judge me for that?" "I bet there is. We just have to find one for you." "I'm scared...I don't know...if I could ever go through with that." David said. He pulled his shoulders inward. "If everyone knew..." "You don't have to do anything you don't want to." Toby said. "If the only thing you feel comfortable with is me knowing or using a name in private, that's fine. But whatever you decide you want to do, I'll be there for you." "Then...when we're alone...could you..." David blushed. "Could you call me Diana?" "If that's the name you want to use." Toby said. "Does Brad know?" "No, he doesn't. I'm not ready to tell him yet. Um...there's...there's something else. The real reason why I'm taking that vow on Sunday is..." Diana started to cry. Toby wiped her tears away. "What's wrong?" "I think I..." She wiped her face off. "I like Brad. I don't want him to know." "Are you afraid of what he'll think?" Toby asked. "I've never...had feelings like this for a guy before. I don't know...I don't know why I'm feeling this way. As I am now, everyone sees me as a guy. I know Brad's only interested in girls. He won't want me." "You don't know that." "It doesn't matter. The rest of the world won't see me any different either." She covered her face as she cried. "I'm stupid. I don't know why I'm thinking these things. I'm sick in the head. This is wrong." "No, it's not. You're not crazy." Toby hugged her. "Sunday, my parents are making me take that stupid vow too. We can sign it together and then forget about it. Don't worry about it at all. Forget about the church. We can find a better place for you. I don't know very much about this sort of thing, but I bet when we get into college, there will be people there who do. We don't need to tell Brad anything yet, or ever if you want. Right now, I think you need to focus on loving yourself instead of judging everything you do." Diana pulled away. She wiped her face off again. "Okay." "Diana, huh?" Toby said. "That's a pretty name." "You think? I don't know if I'm fully decided on that yet." She said. "I don't know about Brad. Even if he accepted me and was willing to date me, I don't see what the point would be. Brad has so many issues with commitment. He runs away or makes people want to leave him." "Why do you think he does that?" "Because he's afraid." She said. "He's afraid that's what they're all going to do to him. So he ruins it first. He told me once that everything in life is always ruined for him. Sooner or later, it'll happen. A lot of bad things have happened to him. It's warped his perception of other people pretty badly." "So, it's like that." Toby said. "Then we'll have to help him see it doesn't have to be that way." Diana stopped dead in her tracks. "What?" Toby asked. She pointed ahead, her arm shaking. She whispered. "There's an alligator." Toby saw its silhouette in the dark, walking across the road. Its body stretched across more than a full lane. The alligator stopped and turned its head in their direction. Toby grabbed Diana's hand. "Run." He ran. She ran with him. After about a minute of running, Diana tripped. She slipped out of Toby's grasp. Toby stopped and helped her up. He looked back. The alligator was in the same place. "Doesn't look like it's following us." Toby said. "Sorry. I tripped." "Are you okay?" "Yeah." "Let's keep going. I don't want to find out if it wants to change directions." Toby said. They ran back to the car, getting back inside at their respective seats. "What's with you two? The hook man come after you?" Chase asked. "There's a gator back there. Huge gator. Waltzed right out onto the road." Diana caught her breath. "Shit, really? Where?" Chase rolled down his window and looked back. He started the car. "Don't go drive up to it!" She told him. "I wanna see it. Come on. We're in a car. It can't get you." Chase said. "Forget about the gator." Toby said, breathing heavily. "Are you going to apologize to me or not? You didn't even come after me." "I knew you'd be back eventually." Chase said. "What if something happened to us?" Toby asked. "Like you got eaten by the gator?" Chase asked back. "Anything." "Then you shouldn't've run off." Chase said. Toby banged his head on the dash. "Ugh..." "Alright, alright." Chase turned the car back off. He put his hand on Toby's thigh. "I'm sorry I was being an insensitive jerk. I didn't think that stuff would bother you like that." "You don't sound genuine." Toby turned his head to the side, away from Chase. "Come on. You know I wouldn't hurt you on purpose for no reason." Chase said. Toby didn't respond. Chase changed his tone. He spoke more softly. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything about it. I let myself get carried away again. I've been doing pretty good lately. I let my guard down. I told you I won't be perfect, but I'll try harder to not do stuff like that." Toby sat back up. "Okay. And I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have yelled at you. There were better ways to go about that." "So, I'm forgiven?" "Yeah." Diana put her seatbelt on. "That's great that you guys made up, but can we go back home? I've had enough excitement for tonight and I need to pee." "It's gonna be an hour to get back home, at least. There's plenty of trees." Chase laughed. "There is a goddamn alligator outside. I am not getting out of this car. Take me to a gas station." Diana demanded. "Haha, okay. But I want to see it." Chase started the car and backed up. "Don't!" Toby and Diana both said at once. "I'm not going to get out of the car." Chase said. "We have to go that way anyway." As promised, Chase didn't get out of the car when they passed the alligator. He watched it for a few minutes until Diana urged him to keep driving and find the nearest gas station. They went back to the house and ate a cake that Anne had made for Chase's birthday. After that, they watched a movie. Brad and Diana left around one in the morning. Alone again, it was quiet. Chase played absentmindedly at the piano. Toby watched Chase for a while at the piano. He remembered something. He got up. "Where you going?" Chase asked. "Getting something from my bag. I'll be right back." Toby ran upstairs to Chase's room. He grabbed the notebook and the photograph, then hurried back downstairs. "I found some photos earlier today when I was packing. From that trip. I brought one. Did you wanna see it?" "Oh, is it Mr. College Boy? Let's see." Chase stopped playing. Toby sat down beside him at the piano. He handed him the photo. "Don't laugh. I look terrible." Chase took it. He looked over the front and the back. "Chris, huh? He's not bad. But what happened to your face?" "Sunburn. It was awful. By the end of the trip, I looked like a peeling lobster." "Your skin's so delicate." Chase felt over Toby's hand. "So...Chris should still be in college in spring." "He'd probably be in his last semester." "I wonder if we'll run into him." "I doubt it." "What if we do? Are you going to try to do what you wanted to do back then?" Chase smirked. He laughed. "Come on." "Hey, why not? We could have a threeway." "I doubt he'd be interested in two high schoolers." "Two eighteen year olds." Chase added. "Two high schoolers." Toby repeated. "You never know what could happen." "I doubt we'd run into him." Toby said. "Florida is a big place. He might go back to Georgia during the break." "That'd be ironic. We'd be leaving Georgia to get to Florida while he'd be leaving there to come here. Haha." Chase handed the photo back. "What's the notebook for?" "I had an idea for some lyrics. I thought you might want to look at them." Toby opened the notebook to a specific page. "I don't know if they're any good..." Chase read over them. "Every time you say that, they are." Toby watched Chase reading the lyrics. He fidgeted with his hands. "Are you sure about this?" "You never think your lyrics are good." "Not that." Toby clarified. "Do you really want to go out with me?" "Yeah." "Why? You don't seem like you'd be interested in dating anyone." Toby said. "I've dated guys before. I just didn't tell you about it." Chase said. Toby worked up the courage to ask him about that instead of staying silent. "How'd that go?" "Eh, most of them didn't last long. They were all too demanding and clingy. Do I need to say 'I love you' all the time? Ugh." Chase rolled his eyes thinking about them. "What drew you in to start with?" Toby asked. "I wanted someone to fuck me without any complications, but with more consistency than a one night stand." Chase said. "I've had plenty of those too, but eh, I don't bother much with that lately. The sex usually isn't that great." Toby asked. "What are you getting from me? We can't do it that often." "That wasn't what I wanted from you. Besides, you already know what to expect out of me." "You mean I'll put up with your bullshit, basically." "Well, yeah. I do a lot of dumb shit." "Like today?" Toby reminded him. "Yeah." "Still, I don't know how often it'll be." "We have tonight." Chase took out a pen and wrote something down. "I'm not that interested in that anymore anyway." "Why?" "It's not exciting anymore. I need a bigger high." Chase suddenly got excited. "Wait, Spring you wanna do it on the beach?" "In broad daylight?!" "No, at night. Somewhere secluded." "Uhh...that's still..." "I'll find somewhere that's not risky." Chase tried to persuade him. "Picture it. The night sky, the moon, the waves in the background..." "That does sound romantic." Toby warmed up to the idea. "Mm...maybe. Uh, but what about all the sand?" "We'll sort that out then." Chase said. "Then I can mark that off my list." "What list?" Toby asked. "It's something my therapist made me do." Chase explained to him. "Since I have such bad impulse control and I'm too 'thrill-seeking', she had me come up with lists of 'alternative' activities instead of, you know..." "Stealing a car." Toby said. "Yeah. You always have to bring up that, huh? I have a short term list and a long term list. Having sex on a beach is a long term one." "That's...a healthy alternative?" Toby was surprised. "She said it was a normal risky behavior for people." Chase added. "You know, some places let you rent a whole island to yourself for romantic getaways and shit." "I guess that's not really risky if you did it that way. But that's not what you were suggesting either..." "If I take precautions, it's still better than stealing." Chase asked. "Do you wanna see my lists?" "Sure." Toby said. Chase got up and opened a drawer. He looked through the papers. While he was looking, Toby peeked at what Chase wrote in his notebook. He was adding more lines. Toby looked at how he was arranging the lines. ' he making it a duet?' Chase came back over. "Here." Toby read over the lists. There were more than a handful of sexual ones on both lists, many a surprise to Toby. Toby thought with as much experience as Chase had, he would've already done several of the things on the list by now. Phone sex certainly wasn't something he expected to see. Others weren't that shocking, like skydiving and performing concerts at famous locations. He was also surprised by how many outdoor activities there were. "I can't see you camping. Where is Amicalola?" "It's in Georgia." "I don't know where half these locations are. Some of these sound far away..." "It's for me to plan out over my life." Chase added. He continued writing on the notebook while Toby read through the list. "It'll be easier to go places when I'm famous." "Yeah..." Toby said. He wondered if he could follow Chase then. Toby didn't want anything to do with fame. Chase slid the notebook back over. "What do you think of this?" Toby read over it. "What's this?" "These are my parts. You sing these verses. We'll do the chorus together." Chase pointed to different parts of the lyrics. "But I don't sing in the band..." "This version isn't for the band. This one's for us." Chase played a melody on the piano. "I was thinking...something like this..." Chase hummed along. Toby copied him. They sang their parts. Toby felt at ease as they sang. Toby rarely sang with Chase like this. He was always watching. When he sang in front of Chase, it was only to suggest something about a song. Their voices harmonized beautifully, he thought. "It's a shame you won't perform with us." Chase said. "I'm sorry." "It's alright." Chase closed the notebook. "Like this, your voice is mine and mine alone." "I don't sing that good." "Yes, you do." Chase tapped down on a key. "You don't want me to do this, do you? Tell the truth." "Do what?" "You don't want me to be famous." "I don't. I'm afraid of what might happen to you." Toby said. "But I won't stand in your way." "Lately, I've been're probably right. Trying to keep myself from doing stupid shit right now is really hard. If I become famous, I'll probably lose my mind for a while. I kept thinking I'll come down from that. I always do. But will I really? What if I do something so stupid...I ruin everything?" Chase said. "I don't you think I can do it?" "I don't know. I really don't, but whatever happens...I'll try to support far as I can go." Toby said. "I don't know how far that is." "I know." Chase stopped playing. He opened the notebook and wrote something down. "I've been thinking we need to do a little spell." "For what?" "To fix something I messed up a few years ago." Chase ripped the sheet out and handed Toby the paper. "What's this?" Toby read over it. The paper read: 'The names of those signed below, bound by blood in oath, are free from their original fates for lying in their last oath. A cursed punishment will remain, but friendship will endure.' "It's to fix me cursing us." Chase said. "I thought you didn't believe in that." "Well, just in case." Chase pulled out a pocket knife. He pricked his finger and let a drop fall on the page. Chase signed it. "Why did you keep in the part about a punishment?" Toby asked. "It's only fair. You can't get something for nothing." Chase said. He watched the blood dry on the page. "Remember the other day when you kept telling me the weatherman said it wasn't going to rain?" "Yeah, why?" "You were right and so was he." Chase said. "What do you mean?" Toby asked. "There was no rain in Valdosta Wednesday, October 30th, 1996, or the early morning of Thursday, October 31th either. You can check any records you want." Chase said. "But we saw it rain. We had to take the plants in." Toby said. "I know." Chase handed Toby the pen and knife. "Sign." Toby pricked his finger. He winced. He let the blood drip onto the sheet, then signed it. "Last Halloween, there was something I didn't tell you about. That morning, I saw that man again." Chase said. "What man?" "The man from that dream when I was drowning. But I wasn't dreaming this time." Chase said. Toby's eyes opened wide. His heart pounded. "What happened?" "Can't say." Chase played with the keys again. "It's not supposed to rain any time tonight or tomorrow either." Outside, thunder rumbled. Lightning lit up the windows. A heavy downpour of rain showered around them. Toby stared at Chase. Chase smiled, and looked away.