He got the news after work. Amy waited for him in the living room with all her bags packed. She handed him a wad of cash and said, "This is my half of next month's rent. I'm heading out tonight. Got a place out of state. It's been fun." "You're not coming back?" He asked. "Nah. It's about time I move on from here. A lot of people are looking for me right now. I'm gonna lay low and wait for everything to blow over. Start fresh somewhere no one knows my name." She patted him on the shoulder as she walked by. He unconsciously flinched at her touch. Amy laughed like she always did. "I'm sure you'll find a roommate quickly. The rent's already pretty cheap here." "Yeah, probably." He said. "Do you need help?" "I got it." Amy was half out the door by then. "And if anyone asks about me, you don't know where I went." "Right." With that, he left for the kitchen to fix dinner. He had no intentions of asking Amy where she was going. Not knowing would make it easier to say "I don't know" to the police or whoever it was that was angry with her, and he really didn't want to know anyway. Initially, he was relieved she would be going. He had a love-hate relationship with that woman. In many ways, he owed her his life, but she never hid how blatantly she took advantage of him either. Much like the years before he moved in with her, he wanted to forget the last four years of renting with that shady woman. Her leaving left him with another problem. Now, he needed to find a new roommate. The exhausting verbal dance of secrecy he performed at work would need to be done at home. He quickly calculated in his head if he could survive with his pay alone, and sighed when he found no way to accomplish that without moving himself to somewhere worse than this place. Thinking about all of that tired him out. He went straight to bed after eating, without saying goodbye to Amy or making an ad for a roommate. In the morning, she was gone. The apartment was dead silent. He quickly wrote out a couple of ads to stick around places on his way to work. Work went as usual. He kept to himself, quietly working on the cars brought in. Loud talking was commonplace at work, but he was rarely pushed to join in. That was one aspect he liked about this job. He wasn't one for socializing, and talking was always a risk. He couldn't let anyone in, and he didn't want to. Fixing cars and eating kept him fulfilled enough to get up in the morning. He told himself that was plenty enough to be content with. At lunch, he ate a ham sandwich with some cold breakfast tea. Everyone else downed sodas and coffee, but he'd discovered quite quickly he reacted poorly to both drinks. In his mind, he often wondered if that was naturally how he was or the result of some test performed on him. He didn't mind it too much. Prior to the last few years, he wasn't allowed any of those items anyway. The sandwich and cold tea were new discoveries, and they made him happy. Cyrus, a slightly older coworker, sat down beside him during the break with a paper in hand. "Hey Scott, saw your ad. How soon can I move in?" "I thought you were living with your girlfriend." Scott said. "We kinda...broke up last week. The apartment was technically hers. She gave me two weeks to get out." Cyrus gulped down his coffee. "I guess whenever. This month's rent is already paid. Next one's due the first. Make sure you have the money by then." Scott said. He didn't know Cyrus very well. Cyrus was the most recently hired mechanic, and already friends with nearly everyone. He was too forward for Scott's comfort level, but Scott didn't have time to be choosy. "Sure, no problem. Hey, can I swing by tonight? You know, check the place out. Are there any other people living with you?" Cyrus asked. "No. It's a two-bedroom apartment. It'll just be you and me." "Okay. So, it's cool if I stop by?" "Yeah." Cyrus stared at him for a long time. He sighed. "Man, you're always so quiet. Are you like this at home too? Or is this only for work?" "I'm always like this." Cyrus laughed. "We'll see." After work, Scott headed out quickly. He didn't have a car, so he had to walk home. It wasn't too long of a walk, only a mile and a half. He considered saving up for another bike, but the last two were stolen within a month. There was no way he could save up enough for a car at his current salary and the bus didn't go anywhere close to his work or his apartment. Other than on particularly stormy days, he didn't mind it. He'd always walked everywhere. Cyrus caught up with him on his way out. "Hey Scott, wait up." "What?" Scott asked. "Are you going straight home? I'll drive you." Cyrus offered. "I was." "Cool. Come on." Cyrus said. Scott didn't want to, but he wasn't one to turn down a ride and he had no legitimate reason to deny him. They were going to the same place. It only made sense. Scott got in the passenger seat of the car. He hoped Cyrus would turn the radio on. Cyrus didn't. He rolled down the windows and asked Scott a question. "So, how's parking?" "I have a lot, but I haven't really used it before. I'll show you which one it is when we get there." Scott said. "Is there a code to get in?" Cyrus asked. "No. It's really not that great of an apartment complex. There's a laundromat though. The machines are old as hell, and a few don't work, but the ones that do run really good. It's a lot cheaper than the ones nearby, so there is that." "That's good. You'll have to show me where it's at when I move in. Anything else? Like a pool or anything?" "There's a basketball court. No one uses it. It's really run down, grass is growing over everything. You could play on it if you really wanted to." Scott never once saw anyone play on it, not even children. The asphalt was cracked all over and the grass that grew in the cracks was nearly a foot high. The bench nearby wasn't fairing any better. Some of the wood had rotted away completely, and the frame was rusted over. Scott was sure getting a cut or splinter from that thing would probably give him some kind of infection. "I'll be honest. That's more than I expected to get out of this for that price. I'm not gonna complain." Cyrus laughed under his breath. "This is fucked up, but in a way, I'm kind of glad about the break-up. My landlord was about to up the rent again and I was starting to wonder if I'd be able to live there anymore." "Rent hasn't gone up once since I've been here. Think the landlord knows she can't get away with upping it, given the condition of the place. One of the buildings...she can't even rent out rooms in anymore. It's that bad, and she isn't looking to fix it up either." Scott said. "Damn. How's your building?" "Probably a fire hazard, but there's no holes in the walls or known infestations. It's the best out of the three buildings. The building beside mine is livable and even cheaper. I've considered switching to one of the apartments in that building, but...there's rats and half the apartments don't have working locks. A few have broken windows. She just covers it and says if you want it fixed, you gotta do it yourself. None of those come furnished either." Scott had also considered living in the abandoned third building, but he wasn't going to tell Cyrus that. "Jesus. Well, it's good to know anyway. Might be useful as a last resort if something goes wrong with my finances, you know?" "Yeah. I heavily considered it when my old roommate moved out, but...if I can avoid living in a place like that, I will. I heard most of the units leak. Only a few leak in my building, and my unit doesn't for now." "Damn. Plumbing works, right?" "In the two buildings she rents out of, yeah. I'd avoid going near the third building all together. Lots of drug deals in there. Someone got shot in there a few months ago." Scott said. He pointed to the turning lane on the left. "Oh, it's right here. Go to the left once you get in." "Kay." Cyrus turned into the apartment complex. "It's that lot right there. We're on the second floor." "Got it. Do we get a balcony?" Cyrus parked the car. "A small one. You could fit...maybe one big chair on it or two really small ones." Scott unbuckled his seatbelt. "What about a telescope?" Cyrus asked, doing the same. "Mm...maybe. Would depend on the size of it. I wouldn't leave it out there though. You won't have it by morning." "I would never." "Can't leave the chair out either. That'll go too." "Damn, really?" Cyrus raised an eyebrow. "Yep." "Wow. I'll keep note of that." Cyrus reached over and opened up the glove compartment. He took a gun out and hid it in his jacket. Scott and Cyrus briefly exchanged an awkward glance, but neither said a word about the gun. "Alright. Let's go." Scott led Cyrus up the steps to his apartment. There were golden numbers on the door when he first moved in with Amy four years ago. The gold chipped away, one fell off, and the other two disappeared one morning. Now the numbers existed as shadows, imprinted brightly beside the faded paint on the wood. He opened the door. Scott never brought anyone over to his apartment. Amy was the one always having people over. Every space except his bedroom would be overflowing with people sometimes. He'd lock himself away on those nights, unless Amy wanted him to work and work was always done in the other bedroom if it was done in the apartment. He preferred taking that work somewhere else. He had no friends of his own, and he preferred it that way. No one was allowed in his space. Cyrus's presence was a necessity he'd have to carefully navigate. He wasn't going back, no matter what. If he needed to disappear from this place to keep his small freedoms, he'd vanish in the darkness like before. Cyrus walked into the apartment. He looked around the living room. "This place is pretty big. How'd you get it for this price?" "You saw the area yourself." Scott said. "Yeah, I got that, but...damn, it's a lot better than I expected. As far as shitty apartments go, this one's pretty decent." Cyrus inspected the couch and the TV. Scott wasn't sure if they belonged to Amy originally or whoever she rented with before him, but they belonged to Scott now. Cyrus sat down on the dingy burgundy couch and played with the remote. He asked, "What happened to your old roommate?" "She moved out of state." "Oh, a girl, huh? Were you two, uh, more than roommates?" Cyrus asked suggestively. "Kind of." "Kind of?" "There was no romance." Cyrus leaned forward and grinned. "I take it that means there was sex?" "Yeah." "Did it not work out?" "There was nothing to work out. There was no relationship. She wanted to start a new life or something. I don't know. I barely talked to her." Scott waved his hand dismissively and looked away. "Talked to her plenty enough, from what it sounds like." "Eh." "You really are like this all the time." Cyrus got up from the couch. "Can I check out the balcony?" "Yeah." Scott walked through the kitchen to the balcony. He opened up the door. The space was uncomfortably small. It was decently long, but it barely stretched outward. He found it suffocating. Scott rarely went out on it, except when Amy invited him out to talk with her while she smoked. The balcony overlooked the woods behind the apartment and the tall, metal fence that separated the complex and the undeveloped area. Seeing that place unnerved him as much as the balcony suffocated him. He always felt like someone or something was out there, watching him. Whenever he went to check, there was never anyone there. Even then, he felt eyes on him. "It's not too bad. Yeah, I think I can fit my telescope out here." Cyrus leaned on the railing. He looked out at the woods. "What's that back there?" "The woods? There's nothing really out there for miles." Scott said. "Hmm...interesting. Ever explored back there?" Cyrus asked. "Not really." "Looks like it might be good for a walk." Cyrus stretched. He turned to face Scott. "So, about the rooms. Which bedroom is mine?" "I'll show you." Scott led him back inside. He took Cyrus to Amy's old room. All traces of her, except the furniture, were gone. It was as if she was never there at all. He thought the lack of reminders would make the room feel different, but the absence of her presence in the space somehow made him recall her all the more. A sinking, slimy feeling clawed at his stomach. "This will be your room." "Bed's in okay condition." Cyrus pressed his hand on the mattress and then lay on the bed. "Closets are small." "That's fine. I don't have much clothes anyway." Cyrus stared up at the ceiling. He sat back up. "Oh, bathroom." "There's only one." Scott was quick to get out of the room. He didn't wait to see if Cyrus followed him. He opened the bathroom door and went inside. Once Cyrus was inside, Scott said, "Shower stays hot for about fifteen minutes. Bath never really gets too hot. The toilet and sink sometimes have problems, but they work most of the time." "Kinda cramped in here. That tub is tiny." Cyrus looked at the bath tub. It was a strange set up. The tub was about half the size of most Scott had seen, but wider and deeper. The upper half had a glass door to use the shower. Scott always wondered what the designer was thinking. It looked like someone couldn't decide what to install. "You've gotta hold your knees up to be comfortable, but like that, you can actually fit two people in it." Scott wasn't sure why he said that last part. Heat rose in his face. "Really?" Cyrus opened the glass door to get a better look inside the shower-tub combo. "That's still a really tight fit. Oh, are you utilities included?" "No, but it's not that much more." Scott said. "When would be a good time for me to move in?" Cyrus asked, closing the door back. "Whenever you're ready." "Think I can move in tomorrow after work?" Cyrus asked. "That's fine." Scott said. Scott let Cyrus walk around the apartment more. He watched him inspect different things, like the cabinets in the kitchen and the door locks. When Cyrus walked over to his bedroom door, Scott stopped him. "That's my room." Scott said. "Don't want me to look? I don't care if it's a mess." Cyrus smiled at him. "Whatever. Look, don't go rummaging through anything." Scott sighed. "I won't. I'm just curious what the other bedroom looks like." Cyrus opened the door. He leaned in a little and looked around. "So, it's the same size. No windows in this one either." "No, only window is that one above the sink in the kitchen. Some of the other units have more. Is that a problem?" Scott asked. "Nah, it's fine." Cyrus closed the door. He walked over to Scott. "Scott, I really appreciate this. Rent's been going up in most of the places around here. I was started to considering sleeping in my car." "It's no big deal. I wouldn't be able to afford this place alone. I'll be out of here myself without a roommate." "Yeah, but still. Thanks. I'll see ya tomorrow at work." Cyrus headed over to the front door. "Yeah." Scott opened the door for him. He watched Cyrus leave and closed the door. Scott was both relieved and anxious about having a new roommate. He didn't want to admit it, but the apartment felt too quiet without Amy around. She usually was only home about half of any given week. When she was there, the whole place was filled with loud energy. In a way, he was somewhat grateful that someone as outgoing as Cyrus was moving in. Cyrus wasn't Amy though. He was nosy and overly friendly. Scott wouldn't be able to conduct any side business endeavors inside the apartment anymore either, if he needed to pick up some extra cash. Scott went out to the balcony. He rested his elbows on the railing. "A telescope, huh?" He looked up at the sky. It was too early to see any stars. A faint moon hung in the sky. Grey clouds quickly covered it. Wind howled through the woods behind the building. Scott turned around to go back inside. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something moving. He looked back and nothing was there. Scott spent the rest of the afternoon inside reading. He got a box of free books from a used bookstore nearby. The apartment was dead silent. He turned on the TV. It wasn't enough. Around ten, he went into Amy's old room. He knew she wouldn't be there, nor any of her things. He didn't like the woman. He lay on her old bed for a while and closed his eyes. Scott listened for the sounds that used to be there. All he heard was a local news reporter talking about a missing teenager on the TV in the living room. Scott left the room with a heavy weight in his chest. He turned in for the night. At one, he finally fell asleep. In darkness, he found himself wandering in the woods. The sound of water was close. Scott felt himself drawn in by that calming sound. He followed the noise through the night. Branches scraped against his skin, leaving small cuts behind. The pain didn't deter him from seeking that soft sound. A sparkling white danced on a flowing surface. He ran to reach it, but something tripped him. Scott couldn't see what it was. He rolled over onto his back and looked up. The full moon shone down on him, illuminating his skin with a deathly pale glow. The creek behind him glowed the same shade, then the moon disappeared. Something warm and heavy crawled over him. Its breath lingered on his face as its head hovered inches about his. Long, stringy worms dangled from its head, resting in clumps on his face, neck, and chest. He couldn't move. The being pinned him down. Its wet hands, stained in a toxic green, clawed gently down his face. The creek's shimmering silver turned to that same shade of green, and all the leaves and needles in the trees glowed that horrid shade. Everything was wet and glowing and burning. He opened his eyes and saw his ceiling fan spinning as it always did. Scott sat up and went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. He sat down at the dining table for a few minutes to calm down. The dream unsettled him in a way other nightmares didn't. He wasn't sure why yet, or what the dream meant. He only wished it would stop. The door knob of the balcony door jingled. The door was roughly a foot and a half away from where he was sitting and the door itself was partially glass. Scott sat frozen, eyes focused on those two panels of glass on the upper half of the door. It was too dark to see anything. Lightning flashed outside, revealing the balcony was empty. Rain poured down seconds later, and thunder followed after. Scott went to put the glass in the sink. He peeked out the kitchen window, waiting for the next lightning strike. When it came, he saw nothing behind the apartment. The wind moved through the trees, bending the pines nearly sideways. He listened out for the cracking of wood. The weak trees only swayed. Once more, he waited. It was his mind playing tricks on him, he told himself. There was nothing out there, but he needed to make sure one last time before going to bed. The third strike brightened up the land entirely. At the fence, something moved against the direction of the wind. Night hid it away before Scott could tell what it was. He rushed over to the balcony door and went outside. Rain drenched him from head to toe. There, he waited for a fourth strike. His skin crawled from the sensation of the water sliding down his body, and his heart pounded. His eyes gave him no comfort, only terror. When the next strike lit up the woods, he saw nothing there. No strange sounds came from the woods. Nothing. Scott went back inside, double-checking that he locked the balcony door. He changed before getting back in bed. Around three, when the storm was at its worst, he finally drifted back into sleep. Two and a half hours later, his alarm clock went off. He dragged himself out of bed. The rain hadn't let up, but the thunder stopped. He took a five minute shower, then threw his clothes on. After his shower, he made breakfast and watched the local news for a while. It was the same as always. Missing people, dead people, crime, and corruption. He switched from Fox5 to 11Alive to see if there was any difference between what was being reported. The same negativity pervaded the other channel. He managed to catch the weather report for the week. Three more days of rain, then a cold front. Scott got up to check if Amy took the umbrella. He was in luck. It was still there. Scott got all his things ready for the day and headed out. The day moved on slowly. They had few customers because of the rain. Cyrus gave him a ride home after work and moved in. Scott helped him bring the boxes in. There wasn't much, six boxes in total, though all were very heavy. Cyrus mostly kept to himself after that, staying in his room unpacking. Shortly after sunset, the rain let up. Scott fixed dinner while Cyrus took his telescope outside. He watched Cyrus from the kitchen window, then from the dining room table through the balcony door. He wondered what was so interesting to the man. Scott ate his dinner and drank a cup of tea, all the while pretending to read a book as he covertly watched Cyrus. Cyrus brought his telescope in about thirty minutes after taking it out. He put the telescope by the door and locked the door. Cyrus sat down across from Scott at the table. "It's beautiful outside tonight. Full moon. You should see it before the rain starts up again." "I might look before I turn in." Scott said, taking a sip of his tea. Cyrus tapped his finger on the lid of the small black teapot on the table. "You drink a lot of tea. Not a fan of coffee?" "Coffee makes me sick." "That sucks." Cyrus said. "I take it you don't like sweet tea either." "Burnt, cold sugar water isn't really appealing to me." Scott said without a care. Cyrus laughed. "Those are sacrilegious words around here." Scott shrugged. "Don't care." Cyrus laughed again. "I'll tell ya a secret. I don't like it either. My parents and my dad's grandparents loved the stuff, but it tastes gross to me. My grandmother on my mom's side always made hot tea, but I figured it didn't taste any different, so I never tried it. But you know, maybe I should. Can I try some?" "There's none left in the pot." Scott said. "I just want a sip. I ain't got a cold or nothing." Scott handed him his mug. Cyrus took a big swig. He grimaced. "There's no sugar in this." "I don't like sugar much." Scott said. "You know, that doesn't really surprising me." Cyrus handed him the mug back. "I'm heading to bed. Do you want me to give you a ride to work in the morning?" "You don't need to do that." "It's no big deal. We work at the same place, same time. Might as well." Scott sighed. "I guess." "Alright. See ya in the morning!" Cyrus got up from the table and went to his room. Scott cleared off the table after he left. The moon didn't interest him. Scott went straight to bed shortly after, spending an uncomfortable amount of time staring at the ceiling before actually falling asleep. In his dream, he was wandering in the dark again, searching for that same sound. He didn't find it this time. Scott woke up around four in the morning to the sound of rain. The days went on like that, uneventfully, for a few weeks. Scott avoided interacting with Cyrus as much as possible. Cyrus mostly kept to himself, staring up at the sky through his telescope or flipping through channels. Every now and then, Cyrus would push him a little. A question about the past, about favorites, about family. Scott dodged every question and isolated himself further. During the third week, Cyrus started going out at night. On a Friday night, he brought home a pretty woman. Both of them were wasted and loud. Scott locked his door and turned up the radio. The woman left early the next morning. Scott caught her leaving on his way into the kitchen. Her disheveled appearance and quick pace suggested to him she wouldn't be thinking back on the previous night fondly. Cyrus stumbled out of his room sometime later clutching his head. He sat down at the kitchen table across from Scott. Cyrus said, "Hey, sorry about all the noise last night. I drank way more than I planned to." "Did you drive back?" Scott asked. "No, I took a taxi to start with. I must have taken one back." Cyrus noticed something near the bathroom door. Vomit covered the floor. "Shit, I'll clean that up. Sorry. I don't really remember last night." "The girl you brought with you did that." Scott took a sip of his tea. "Really? So, I did bring a girl back here." "You don't remember?" Scott asked. "Completely blacked out. I woke up alone." Cyrus rubbed his forehead. "Ugh, my head..." "She left about half an hour ago." Scott said. "What'd she look like?" Cyrus asked. Scott recalled what she looked like. "Blonde, green eyes. Long hair." Cyrus's eyes widened. He opened up his wallet and handed Scott a photo from inside it. "Wasn't this girl, right?" Scott looked at the picture. "That's her." "Really?" Cyrus slouched in his chair. "That's my ex, Lidia." "The one you were living with?" "Yeah...what the hell? Did I really sleep with her last night? I remember running into her, but...how did I end up coming home with her?" Cyrus put his palms against his face. "Why do you still have her picture in your wallet?" Scott asked. "Haha...honestly, I forgot it was in there until now." Cyrus took the photo back and ripped it in half. "Don't need this." "Didn't she break up with you?" Cyrus let out a heavy sigh. "No, it was me. I caught her with another guy. Travis." "Travis? From work?" "Yep. She'd been cheating on me for a while. They're supposedly together now, from what I heard." "Loyalty doesn't seem to be her thing." Scott said. Cyrus looked down at the floor. "Yeah, it's really not. This is shitty of me, but I started dating her while she was dating someone else. Really, I should have expected this." "Did you know?" Scott asked. "Yeah, pretty early on. I've dated a lot of girls, but she was the second girl I ever got really serious with. I was so head over heels I didn't care. I thought, like an idiot, we'll be together forever." Cyrus slouched further down in the chair. "About a year ago, I knew it wouldn't last, but I didn't really want to leave either. So much of our lives were intertwined by then. Untangled all that has been a bitch. The day I ended it was our third anniversary." "Why do you think she came home with you?" "I don't know. Alcohol. Glad I can't remember any of that." Cyrus said. "What about you? Haven't seen you bring anyone by." "I'm not really into dating." Scott got up from the table. He went to wash his plate in the sink. "I didn't say anything about dating." Cyrus said. "I'm not really into going places either." "You're going to end up alone being like that." Cyrus said. "Eh." "Come on. Everyone gets lonely sometimes." Cyrus got up from the table. He stood behind Scott, leaning against the stove. "There's plenty of people in this complex." Scott said. He put the plate on the drying rack. "Gonna pick up girls doing laundry?" Cyrus joked. Scott dried off his hands. "That's actually a great place for that." "What?" "I've hooked up with six different girls I met there." Scott said. He stopped himself from saying more than that. He wasn't sure why he revealed that at all. All personal information was best kept to a minimum. "Honestly, I'm amazed you pick up girls at all." Cyrus said. "Why?" "You're so...well...you don't seem like you'd really put yourself out there like that." "It doesn't take much effort." Scott poured himself another cup of tea. "What kind of moves are you putting on girls?" Cyrus asked. "None, really. You're probably going after a very different kind of girl than me." Scott avoided eye contact with Cyrus. "I dunno...maybe it's your face. You are cute." Cyrus laughed. Scott unconsciously looked over at him. Cyrus's comment made him raise an eyebrow. "What?" "You can get a lot from good looks alone, and get out of a lot. That's just how people are." Cyrus made himself some instant coffee. He stood too close for comfort next to Scott. "Hmm. I suppose." Scott moved away from him. 'Cute? I don't get it. He's better looking than me.' Cyrus rubbed his head again. "Do you have any aspirin or anything I could take? My head is killing me." "I think so. Check the medicine cabinet in the bathroom." Scott said. He took his mug and went to his room to avoid Cyrus. Scott planned on going out, but he decided to wait until Cyrus was busy. Cyrus left about an hour later. Scott went out shortly after that, first making a visit to the grocery store, then to a yard sale he saw advertised on his way. He came home with two new mugs, a pair of pants, and two shirts for two dollars. He was happy for this small, private joy. He had three pairs of jeans, and one of those was getting too frayed and holey to be acceptable to wear. The used pair he got today was in relatively decent condition, only a hint of fraying at the edge of one pant leg. He kept the old worn out pair for wearing on laundry day. Scott spent most of the rest of the day going through what was in his kitchen, planning out his meals for the next two weeks, and cooking and freezing the meals. This was something he learned to do from a book he got at the library a few years ago. He wasn't always so successful with this method. Amy, when she was actually home, didn't care about his plans. She'd eat whatever she felt like eating. Scott never once saw the woman cook. That wasn't an issue now. Cyrus respected that their groceries weren't to be shared. Around sunset, Scott took a bath. He pulled his knees in and let the steam warm his face. His mind wandered over to his old roommate again. They used to share baths together all the time. Amy would hold him from behind and wash his hair. She seemed to always be helping him wash off. He recalled a bad night where she helped him was off the blood from cuts on his arms. The tub turned dark red. He remembered the exact shade. The tub was often that color for some reason or another. Scott's stomach turned. He looked at his hands and then the water. Everything was clear. A knock came at the door. Cyrus spoke to him from the other side. "Scott, hey, um, not trying to rush you, but are you getting out soon? I wanted to take a shower before bed." 'So he's not staying out late tonight. When did he get back?' Scott stood up. "Yeah, I'll be out in a few." "Okay, thanks." Scott hurried out of the bathroom. He tried to stop thinking about Amy, but his thoughts kept taking him back to her. Cyrus stopped him on the way to his room. "You okay?" "Huh? Yeah, why?" Scott asked. "You look pale." Cyrus said. "Hmm. Probably a cold." "I can pick up some soup and meds tomorrow for you." Cyrus offered. "I'll be fine. I'm heading to bed." Scott refused him. "Night. See ya in the morning." Cyrus waved and went into the bathroom. Scott lay down in bed. He stared up at the ceiling. The fan spun around with a loud creak. Outside, he heard the wind howling. Another storm was coming in. Scott turned over in his bed. The full size mattress seemed too big to be comfortable, and the sheets too cold. He wanted to hold something warm. Every angle he turned, he met with emptiness. Scott got up and turned the fan off. He tossed and turned much of the night. His thoughts wouldn't stop. When he finally stopped thinking about Amy, his mind recalled memories about his adopted parents. When he was little, they never tucked him in at night or gave him gifts. His rewards were exclusively their praises for him when he got them a result they wanted. He told himself it was childish to care about things like that. The lack of presents and nighttime rituals was the least of his concerns in regards to how they treated him, but for some reason, those little moments hurt more than the physical things they did to him. Sometimes he watched shows for children, envious of the attention the kids received from their parents on the shows. It wasn't reality. TV presented an idealist, manufactured reality and he didn't want to go back to his parents. Still, a part of him wished there had been at least one moment in his childhood like the ones he saw on TV. When he managed to fall asleep, he had another nightmare about the monster with the stringy worms and the glowing green forest. This time, most of his body glowed green with everything else. The monster remained faceless to him. It whispered something in his ear, but the voice was so loud he couldn't understand it. He tried to cover his ears. Whatever that creature was, it pinned his hands down. He squirmed underneath it, unable to free himself or scream. The dream was enough to wake him up. Scott glanced over at the digital clock on his nightstand. Three in the morning. His heart pounded in his chest. For once, Scott wished he wasn't single. He wouldn't admit he was afraid of a dream to another person. He had too much pride for that. However, someone sleeping beside him would be enough to make him feel less afraid. His dark, windowless room and the howling wind and pouring rain outside gave him nothing but more reasons to be afraid. His eyes played tricks on him. Every corner appeared to contain a movement and every passing wind, a voice. Scott heard something howling outside. He got up, turned on the living room and kitchen lights, checked both the balcony door and the front door, then turned on the TV. He had to hear a human voice. Any voice would do. 'Calm down. It was only dream.' He told himself. His heart beat faster. Scott heard someone walking behind him. He looked back. It was Cyrus. Cyrus looked at him. "What's up? It's like three in the morning." Scott's heartbeat slowed down. He sighed. "Couldn't sleep." Cyrus went to the bathroom. Scott flipped through channels looking for something to watch. A couple minutes later, Cyrus joined him on the couch. Scott glanced over at him and turned the TV volume down. "Sorry. Am I keeping you up?" "Nah, it's cool. We don't got work tomorrow anyway." Cyrus got more comfortable. "Whatcha watching?" "I dunno. Everything on right now is weird. Weird talk shows, weird adult shows, weird New Age stuff." Scott gave the current channel a few seconds to see if he should change it. It was an ad for a psychic hotline. "Let David Serafina's gift guide you on your path..." The announcer in the ad said. "Nope." Scott changed the channel. He ended up on a local channel. The show on was in black and white, and a young woman dressed in old timey clothes waved at the camera. "Welcome, to all my good boys and girls..." "Definitely weird alright. Looks like some goth got a hold of one of the local channels and decided to have creepy Alice in Wonderland hour. Jesus. Is the news playing on any channel?" Cyrus cringed at the show. Scott flipped to another channel, got a Taco Bell Nacho and Dog ad, then caught a rerun of one of the local news broadcastings. "Police are still searching for the suspect. Currently, at least twenty victims have been connected to the serial homicides in..." "Murder, that's the last thing I want to hear about." Scott changed the channel again. An animal howled outside in the woods. He got up from the couch. "What was that?" "Sounded like a coyote." Cyrus said. "Around here?" Scott had never heard about or seen a coyote in that area since he moved into that apartment. He sat back down. "They can come in this far. I swear, I always see coyotes around here." Cyrus said. "Wanna play basketball?" "It's three in the morning." "Just a thought. Besides, at night makes it funner, in a creepy way." Cyrus nudged him. "Not interested, and we don't have enough people anyway. No one else is going to play with us at this time of night. And it's raining." Scott had another reason to refuse him. He didn't actually know how to play. "A little rain never hurt no one." Cyrus rested his arm across the back of he sofa. "How about I love Lucy? That's on right now." "Honestly, even that would unnerve me right now. There's just something 'off' about older TV shows." Scott said. He envied children in modern kids shows, but old sitcoms left a bad taste in his mouth. It was too perfect. "Yeah, I know what you mean, but I can't place why." Cyrus picked up the TV guide off the armrest of the sofa. He looked through it. "How about wrestling?" "Sure. There's really nothing better to watch right now. At least people will be alive in it. What channel?" They ended up watching wrestling. The fights were fake and the acting cheesy, but the high energy performances made Scott quickly forget about his nightmare. He calmed down so much he fell asleep on the couch. He woke resting against Cyrus. Cyrus woke up shortly after him. They exchanged awkward looks. Cyrus moved away. "Uh, hey..." Scott sat up quickly. "Sorry. I don't remember falling asleep." "Me either. What time is it?" Cyrus glanced over at the clock hanging on the wall. I was seven in the morning. "Well, we weren't out that long. Wanna get McDonald's?" Scott didn't want to be alone in the apartment again. He accepted Cyrus's offer. "Okay." Cyrus took a shortcut down a back road to reach the fast food restaurant. A coyote blocked them from going the rest of the way down the road. A trash bag had fallen out of a garbage truck and busted open on the road. The coyote was sifting through the trash. Cyrus honked at the animal. "Come on. Move." Cyrus said. The coyote looked at the car, then went back to eating. Cyrus honked again. "Goddamn it. I'm gonna try going around it." Cyrus tried getting past the mess in the middle of the road. The coyote ran in front of the car. Cyrus slammed on the breaks. He honked at the coyote again. "Fuck it. I'm turning around." Cyrus said. He did just that, and the coyote did not follow. Then, Scott heard a loud cracking noise followed by a heavy thud against the ground. Cyrus stopped the car when he heard the thud. The coyote ran ahead of them and off into the woods. Scott and Cyrus looked back. A large tree now rested in the road on top of the open trash bag. They exchanged looks. Cyrus laughed, panic in his eyes. "Did...did we almost die?" "Yeah..." Scott's heart pounded in his ears. Cyrus let out a heavy breath. "Well, guess we're going the long way." Cyrus wanted to eat inside. They got a table near the play area. Two children rolled around in the ball pit, giggling as they tried to disappear underneath them. Scott watched them with envy at how much fun they were having. He tried his best to not let the feeling get to him and focused his attention on his breakfast. Scott had unsweetened tea and a chicken biscuit. Cyrus got a cup of coffee and pancakes. Scott cringed as he watched Cyrus dump packet after packet of sugar into his coffee and drizzle syrup over his pancakes. The sweet smell made him nauseous. Cyrus stirred his coffee. "So, what was your nightmare about?" Scott blinked. "I never said I had one." Cyrus looked straight at him. "Look, we're both adults. We don't have to lie that nightmares can scare us shitless." Scott chose not to answer him directly. He redirected Cyrus's question back. "What about you?" "In my dream, I shot Lidia and Travis, then myself. Stupid. Woke up and my heart felt like it was going to explode. You?" Cyrus took a sip of his coffee. Scott said the truth. "Some kind of monster was trying to kill me." "Knew it." Cyrus smirked. Scott didn't say anything more about the dream. He drank some of his tea. The taste disgusted him, as most unsweetened restaurant prepared teas did. His breakfast tea at home tasted much better and his chicken biscuit barely tastes like chicken or biscuit. Talking over breakfast was nice, he had to admit. He watched the kids playing a little more. The older kid was trying to drag the younger kid up the slide. They both tumbled back down. Scott covertly hid that he was laughing. "You doing anything later today?" Cyrus asked. "Not really." Cyrus leaned back in his chair. "I was gonna go down to Blockbuster and see what's new. Wanna come?" "There's nothing I'm really interested in watching, but it might be nice to be out for a while." Scott said. "I worked there when I was sixteen. You know, it was actually a pretty decent job, at least where I worked." Cyrus smiled recalling the memories. "I was dating this cute girl from another school then. She had the same shifts as me. We had a lot of movie nights." "What happened?" Scott asked. "Cynthia's dad got a job out of state, so we ended it. I ended up quitting around seventeen to get a better paying job." Cyrus took a sip of his coffee. "I like my current job and all, but I do miss that job sometimes. It was a lot of fun. I'll let ya in on a secret. Sometimes I go there out of nostalgia." "Is that why we're going today?" Cyrus laughed loudly and scratched the back of his head. "Maybe a little." Scott smiled without realized it. "Okay." "Hmm...it's too early to go. Whaddya wanna do until then?" "I was thinking of getting some books from the library." "Okay. Library first, then Blockbuster." At the library, Scott looked for some books on getting by with a tight budget and crafts related to repurposing. He found most suggestions in those books to be useless, but occasionally there was something worthwhile. Cyrus played around with one of the five computers the library had. Scott sat down beside him when he was done. "What're you doing?" Scott asked. "I have no idea. Do you know how to work these things?" Cyrus asked. Scott took the mouse from him and moved it around. "Sort of. I had one of the staff walk me through it before. They're kind of neat, but pricey." "Do you want to get one?" Scott clicked on one of the computer games. "I've thought about it...but I can't justify it to myself." "Is it really that big of a deal if you have one pricey item? Plenty of poor families have a used game console and some games. Maybe you could save up and look for one on clearance?" Cyrus watched Scott play the game. "Yeah, but...I don't even know if I really want it or not. What if it's not that interesting after all?" Scott played through the game. It was something he often did before he left the library. "Couldn't you resell if you didn't like it? A lot of people are looking to get these lately. I'm sure some college student would be happy to take it off your hands at a discounted price." "Hmm...I guess it would be easy to resell it." Scott beat the first few levels of the game. He'd memorized the puzzles by now. "It's about time. Ready to head over to Blockbuster?" Cyrus asked. "Give me a sec..." Scott advanced to the sixth level. Cyrus smirked at him. "You sure you don't want one?" "Huh? I dunno..." Scott died in the game. "Let's go." At Blockbuster, Cyrus and Scott walked around the store independently. Scott looked through the new releases. Like much of the books he saw at the library, nothing sounded interesting. The candy near the front of the store's colors caught his eye, but the scent of sugar kept him admiring the packaging art from a distance. He headed into the video game section next. Neither of them owned a console, but he was curious about the games. Blocky characters adorned the covers. He found them cute, if difficult to make out what some were supposed to be. Bored, Scott walked over to where Cyrus was. Scott asked, "See anything you wanna get?" "Mm...not really." Cyrus looked over at a mom with two kids by the family section. "Looks like they're having fun." Scott watched the family. The children had big grins on their faces. The younger one jumped up and down as the mom took one of the movies off the shelf. Such an innocent joy stung him deeply. "My parents weren't big on rentals when I was a kid, but we went to the movies a lot. We always went to this one theater in the mall by the house. It was a nice mall. They put up this massive Christmas tree during the holidays." Cyrus said. "What about you? What'd your family do for fun?" "My parents...were really busy. They never had time for that. They were always working." Scott said. There was more to it than that, but he wasn't going to give Cyrus those details. "I'm sorry. Should I not talk about that?" Cyrus asked. "I'd rather not talk about my family." Scott said. The family walked past them toward the cashier. Scott averted his eyes. Cyrus nudged Scott. "Hey, are you ready to go?" "Yeah." On the ride back, Cyrus attempted to cheer up Scott. He said, "Hey, sorry about earlier. I'll try to remember not to talk about that." "Uh...don't worry about that." Scott said. Telling him what to avoid gave away too much. "It's okay to tell me, you know." Cyrus said. He abruptly swerved out of the road. "Shit!" Scott braced himself. "What happened?!" A coyote walked beside the driver's side window. Scott and Cyrus both looked at it. Cyrus yelled at it. "You're gonna get yourself killed like that!" "Was that the same coyote from earlier?" Scott asked. "Who knows." Cyrus grumbled. He tried to get back on the road. One of the tires was stuck in the mud. "Oh, for fuck's sake. Come on." The coyote stood on its hind legs and put its front paws on the window. The animal appeared to be laughing at them. It dropped back down and ran circles around the car while Cyrus struggled to get the car out. "Come on...why..." Cyrus slammed his fists on the steering wheel. A loud screeching came from further up the road at a four way stop, then a hard crash. Cyrus and Scott both looked forward to see what happened. An eighteen wheeler was halfway off the road and an SUV and a sedan were half destroyed nearby. The streets were painted red. Scott averted his eyes. Cyrus stared in shock. The driver of the truck got out of his vehicle and put his hands on his head. Two other drivers that were on the same road went over to the wrecked cars. Cyrus's hands shook. "Should we go over there?" "I don't think I can." Scott already couldn't get the sight of blood on asphalt out of his mind. "There's plenty of people over there. Nothing we can do. How would we help?" "I don't know...The truck driver should have a radio to call for help." Cyrus put his hand on the door. "I think I'm going to go over there." When he went to open the door, the coyote hopped on it and closed it back. It grinned widely at him and barked. "You again." Cyrus locked the door. "I guess I'm not." Cyrus tried to get the car back on the road again. The car finally came free. He turned the car around and headed in the opposite direction. As he was driving away, a police car passed him. "That was fast." Cyrus said. "They must have already been nearby." Scott looked back. He didn't see the coyote anymore. The sight of the wreck made him nauseous. "You know, I think we should spend the rest of today inside." "Yeah..." Cyrus was still shaking slightly. "Gonna have another nightmare tonight, that's for sure." As they drove away, it started to rain. Red clay washed into the road from down the hill. When they got back, Scott made something for them to both eat and they talked about work, trying to forget earlier. It wasn't working. The storm darkened the sky and the wind grew louder. Cyrus's beeper went off. He looked down at it and rolled his eyes. "Something wrong?" Scott asked. "Lidia wants me to call her. That's not gonna happen." Cyrus put his beeper back on his belt. "Why is she wanting to talk to you?" "She called me the other day begging me to take her back, giving me this sob story about how Travis doesn't treat her right. I told her yeah, well, you didn't treat me right either so why would I want you? She's been trying to get me to contact her since then. I asked Travis if they were still together, and they are. She's just pulling more of her games. She likes cheating, that's what it comes down to." Cyrus crossed his arms. "I'm not going to be played with like that." Someone paged him again. He looked down. "Is it her again?" "No, it's my mom." Cyrus said. "I'll call her later." Scott got up from the table. He took his plate and washed it, then looked out the window. He checked over by the fence to see if anything was there. As usual, there was nothing. Scott went to the living room. He turned on the TV. The local news was talking about the crash from earlier. It looked worse than he remembered. The news reporter said, "A deadly accident earlier today has claimed another victim. An eighteen wheeler rammed into two vehicles earlier today when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Three were killed on impact, a mother and her son in one car and a man in another car. That wasn't the end of it. Drivers who witnessed the accident and came to help, along with one of the officers, were hit by another car trying to drive around the accident. One of the drivers died an hour ago." Scott stared at the screen. Cyrus stared on from the table, unable to say anything. He and Scott exchanged glances. Cyrus moved over to the sofa. "Are you as freaked out as I am?" "Yeah." The wind rattled the balcony door. "It's locked, right?" Cyrus asked with a nervous laugh. "I locked it earlier." Scott got up to check it. It was locked, but the door wasn't fully closed. He went to push it closed when he wind blew it open at him. Cyrus jumped off the couch. Scott looked out onto the balcony. His mind convinced him someone would be standing on the other side, but it was only the wind. Nothing was there. Scott closed the door and made sure it was locked properly this time. He lingered in front of the door for a while. It was too dark out to see anything, but his mind refused to accept that the balcony was empty. He cautiously turned away from it and returned to the couch. Cyrus sat back down. "Today has been...something. Something I'd like to mostly forget." "Well, it could've been worse." Scott said. "We avoided death at least twice today. One or both of us could've not come back." "I still feel guilty about not helping earlier." Cyrus said. "I know, but you really couldn't have done anything. Those people were already dead. Do you actually have any medical skills?" "No." Cyrus put his face in his palms. "I know there wasn't anything I could do. It doesn't make me feel any better. That that could have been me instead of them...somehow makes me feel even worse about it." "Sometimes bad things happen and there's nothing anyone can do to fix it. Life is full of lots of horrible things happening for no special reason at all every day. Us not being dead comes down to luck. Not merit, not karma, nothing but luck." Scott said. "I know, but it's not fair. There was a kid in one of those cars. That kid barely got a chance to live." "Some children live shorter lives." Scott said. His mind recalled a memory with his adopted parents inside a room with an incinerator. That floor was covered in a fresh coat of splattered red too, the same shade as the red that decorated that street. "Death is always waiting in the shadows." Cyrus got up from the couch. "I'm gonna take a shower. I need to clear my head." "Don't stay in there long. There's supposed to be lightning later." Scott said. Cyrus nodded and left. Scott watched more of the news. The report about the accident ended and the topic switched to serial killers. That was enough for him. He changed the channel. The storm worsened as night came. Scott didn't get much sleep that night. He tossed and turned much of the night, and rest only came in the form of a nightmare. Scott walked down the road from earlier in the day to the four-way stop. The white lines of the road glowed like stars and the asphalt matched the dark sky above. Where the cars once were, faded white shadows remained. All along the ground, he walked through puddles of green liquid. The liquid splashed up against his pants as he walked through the area. Scott stood in the middle of the roads and looked ahead. He heard the sound of a creek somewhere in the distance. His body urged him to go forward into that dark place. He walked down the white lines, leaving bright green footprints behind him. He walked until he reached a glowing white, metal fence. Scott slipped through to the other side into the forest. The noise was closer. He ran in the direction of the sound. Something tripped him and he was facing the night sky. The full moon, pure white, glowed brighter than the green he tracked all through the forest. It almost overwhelmed him. And then it disappeared. The monster blocked its light and leaned over him. He heard it laugh, but could not see its face. The creature clawed down his face, spreading more green between them. It cut perfect lines across his skin and painted hearts from soft pools of green bubbling to the surface. His heartbeat echoed in the forest, quick and panicked like a rabbit. The monster whispered into his ear, the sound echoing through the trees. "I found this one." Scott opened his eyes. The ceiling fan spun around and he rolled back over, hoping to get back to sleep again before his alarm went off. He fell asleep again quickly, only to have the same nightmare again. At four, he gave up on going back to sleep and left his room. Cyrus was sitting in the living room watching TV when he walked out. Cyrus looked up at Scott. "You too?" "Yeah." Scott went into the kitchen to make breakfast. Cyrus had some kind of movie on. It wasn't making Scott's anxiousness lessen, but he was glad Cyrus was awake at least. He sat in the kitchen, eating his breakfast and reading a book he started a few days ago. He left Cyrus to his own devices. Yesterday was too much interpersonal contact for Scott to handle again so soon. The rain let up around lunch time. Cyrus invited him to eat lunch with him at work. Scott agreed, but let Cyrus do most of the talking. That evening, when they came home from work, Scott decided to check the area by the fence up close. He walked around the building and went up to it. He looked out across the pines, oak, and kudzu. There was nothing there. A brown thrasher sang somewhere nearby and out of sight and a crow flew by overhead. Scott gripped the fence. He leaned against the metal, waiting. Cyrus called out to him from the balcony. "Hey, it's gonna rain again soon. Might wanna head in." "Okay." Scott pulled away from the fence. His body tensed with unease as he turned his back to it. He couldn't shake the feeling something was out there watching him. It unnerved him so much he started to run. Scott kept to himself in his room. He turned up the radio and read a book. He wasn't really listening to the music. He wanted sound to fill the room. Scott put his book down and glanced over at the small red radio. When Amy set him up with his first client, he used some of that money to buy that little radio. Radios were absolutely forbidden to him when he lived with his adopted parents. Most things were. He hated that night when he made those hundreds and thinking about Amy upset him somewhat, but the radio was nice. On the days Amy would disappear for a while and she'd forget to pay the cable bill, he'd listen to late night talk shows. TV, radio, and books were how he learned a lot about how to understand people. He couldn't mimic any of it. He didn't understand it all yet and social interactions were often draining or terrifying for him. He couldn't mess up. To avoid that, it was easier to avoid people and watch them from afar. The work Amy had him do was in some ways less draining. His clients knew he was putting on an act for them, and that was entirely the point. They were paying for a specific performance. It was his job to live up to whatever act his clients wanted out of him for the night. When the act was over, he took his money and washed off. If work was done at home, he and Amy bathed together. He never felt clean after, nor when she'd make him come in her room. He liked the days when she was away and he had the apartment to himself and he'd stay up, not to work, but to listen to the radio. That wasn't enough anymore. With Amy never coming back, somehow the idea of being alone in the apartment didn't feel safe anymore. Scott turned off the radio to listen for the TV in the living room. Talking with Cyrus wasn't necessary. Scott only needed to know he was home. He questioned why. Over the week, Cyrus asked Scott to eat lunch with him every day at work. On Friday, the only female mechanic on staff, Charlotte, ate with them. Cyrus invited her over to talk. Scott rarely interacted with Charlotte. She was one of the newer hires like Cyrus. Half the staff wanted to take her home. Scott sometimes heard other guys complaining about getting turned down by her. He hadn't talked to her himself for more than a few minutes at a time, but it was that way with him and most of the staff. Charlotte sat beside Cyrus. Scott sat on the other side of Cyrus, a little further away, quietly eating his lunch. He listened to their conversation. "Hey Charlotte, how'd that date go?" Cyrus asked. She let out a heavy sigh. "Awful." "What happened?" She lightly jabbed her salad with her fork. "Oh god, where do I begin? First, he let me know he was very 'proud' to not be one of those 'chivalrous' guys and he'd be treating me like an equal, so I needed to split the bill. Which I was going to do anyway, but his patting himself on the back for it was really obnoxious. Then, he refused to believe I was a mechanic and asked if I was confused about being a cashier. Then he called me a bitch because I wouldn't sleep with him." Cyrus laughed. "Wow. Talk about...failure on all fronts. Some people need to a class on social skills or something." "Right? Ugh, every guy I've gone out with lately has been a moron in some way or another. Cyrus, find me a good man." Charlotte nudged him. "I can't find a girlfriend. How am I supposed to find you a boyfriend?" Cyrus's shoulders sunk. "Weren't you hitting it off pretty good with the last guy?" "Yeah, he seemed nice. Then I realized he was a creep." Charlotte said. "What was so creepy?" Cyrus asked. "That's its own story." She snorted. "You know, I don't normally dig into people's pasts, but one of my girlfriends was telling me that dude only goes after black girls. And it was true. All his girlfriends for the last three years were black." "Is that really a big deal? Maybe it was a coincidence?" Cyrus asked. "No, there was more. I'm not interested in white guys chasing me for some fetish, but I thought the same thing. Maybe it's a coincidence, but there was more to it. All of them were dark-skinned black girls, had hazel eyes, and a birthmark near their lip on the right side. All of them. That's when I was like noooope. There's something really weird with this guy." "Holy shit. All of them? Like some kind of serial killer in the making. That's his type. Creepy." Cyrus said. "I know I might be overreacting a little, but after what Terry put me through...I'm not willing to take chances on anyone who seems like they could be a little off." Charlotte said. Scott assumed Terry was an ex-boyfriend of Charlotte. He watched Cyrus and Charlotte talking. Both were single and looking for someone. He wondered why Cyrus didn't ask her out. To Scott, she was more attractive than Cyrus's ex-girlfriend. 'Must have different tastes.' Scott thought to himself. "Hey Scott, you've been hanging around Cyrus a lot lately. Since when were you two friends?" Charlotte asked him. Cyrus answered for him. "Didn't I tell ya? We're roommates now." "Oh yeah, that's right. So, it's been working out?" She asked. "Yeah. Scott's a great roommate. Never has any sugar to borrow though. He hates sweet stuff." Cyrus said. "Really? Why?" She asked. "I always get sick after eating anything with a lot of sugar." Scott said. "Are you diabetic?" Charlotte asked. "I'm not. My parents had me tested for that years ago." Scott said. "Is it an allergic reaction?" Cyrus asked. "Something like that." Scott said. Charlotte and Cyrus went back to talking to each other for the rest of lunch. The latter half of the work day went by quickly. On their way home, Cyrus and Scott talked. Cyrus started the conversation. "Ugh, why can't I get a girlfriend?" "Why don't you go out with Charlotte? She's single." Scott suggested. "I like Charlotte and she's really cute, but she's my friend and we work together. If it goes south, that's gonna make things really awkward. I wouldn't go out with a friend or a coworker unless I was head over heels in love with them. I don't like losing friends." "What she in a really bad relationship recently? Or am I misinterpreting something?" Scott asked. "Her ex, Terry, was a fucked up dude. He's in jail now for beating the shit out of her in public. Cops never did anything about it when he beat her in private." Cyrus said. What Cyrus said took a moment to register for Scott. He struggled to picture that. He rarely talked to Charlotte, but she was like Cyrus. She always seemed upbeat and happy. He would have never thought something like that was in her past. "I had no idea." "Yeah, she moved out here to get as far as she could away from him. It's sad. We'd probably hit it off, but I think right now she needs a friend more than a boyfriend." Cyrus laughed to cover his pain. "Haha, I hate being pessimistic, but sometimes it feels like most of the world is shitty people and there's only a few good people out there." "Is it pessimistic to be honest?" Scott asked. "You would say something like that." Cyrus laughed again. "What about you? Are you interested in her?" "No, I'm not looking for anyone." "Have you ever had a girlfriend? I know you said you weren't really seeing that Amy lady." Cyrus asked. "No, I haven't." Scott looked out the window. "I'm not trying to be nosy, but you really don't want anyone getting close to you, do you? Is there a reason?" Cyrus asked. "I'm not a social person." Scott said. "Am I annoying you?" Cyrus asked. Scott was caught off-guard by Cyrus's question. "No, not at all." "You don't have to lie. I won't be offended." "I don't mind it so much when it's you." Scott stared out the window. "It's different." "What do you mean?" "I don't know." Cyrus parked the car. Scott felt Cyrus's eyes on him. He looked over at Cyrus. Cyrus reached over and touched his hair. "You have something in your hair." Cyrus pulled something off him. They both looked at what it was. Several strands lay in Cyrus's palm. "Dog hair maybe?" Scott looked at it more closely. "Must have gotten on me from someone's car." They got out of the car and walked up to the apartment. Cyrus said, "Hey, I'm going out tonight. I know you don't like social stuff, but if you wanna come, you're welcome to." "I'm not interested, but thank you," Scott said. "Where are you going?" "I don't go far. The club down the street. You ever been around there?" "I've worked outside it before." Scott said. He immediately regretted it. That was too much information. "Really? What kind of work?" "Just different side jobs here and there. Nothing interesting." Scott unlocked the front door. "Are you going to take a shower soon? I wanted to take one when we got home, but I'll wait if you want to before you head out." "Nah, you can go ahead. I'm not that dirty, right?" Cyrus asked. Scott shrugged. "A little cologne and deodorant should be enough for me. You go ahead and take a shower." Cyrus said. Scott nodded and headed over to his bedroom to get a fresh change of clothes. He asked about the shower to distract Cyrus from asking more questions about his old job. Scott got in the shower quickly. He preferred baths, but today he didn't want to. The idea felt nauseating. When he got out of the shower, Cyrus was gone. The apartment was too quiet. He turned on the TV and ordered a pizza just to see another person. Scott thought about trying to use Cyrus's telescope, but he didn't want to be out on the balcony alone. He ate the pizza, then went straight to bed. It was still very early in the evening. He couldn't sleep at all. Scott's mind wandered, thinking about all the nightmares he had lately. Nightmares were nothing new, but they'd been getting worse since Amy left. He wondered why. Scott rolled over, unable to stand how empty the bed felt. He got up and decided to head down to the laundromat with a small bag of clothes and towels, hoping someone there was as lonely as he was. One of the college girls who lived in his building was down there. He made good use of the bathroom key he stole, but after his five minutes with her were over, his loneliness crept back up on him. She finished with her laundry and left him alone. The staff had gone home for the night and turned off the TV. Scott watched his clothes go around in circles and wondered what Cyrus was up to. He went to bed when he got back from the laundromat. Scott curled up on the bed and thought back on the day he ran away. 'I should've let them kill me.' He thought as he drifted off into another nightmare. At three, he woke up. He pulled the sheets up and tried to go back to sleep. Scott heard a door open. He presumed Cyrus must have just gotten home. He felt a little more at ease. Then his bedroom door opened. Scott froze. He listened as footsteps came closer. The bed creaked and the blankets moved. Scott turned on the lamp on his nightstand. He looked over. Cyrus covered his eyes. "Turn it off. I'm trynna sleep." Scott let out a sigh of relief. "What are you doing in my room?" Cyrus rolled over to get away from the light. Scott asked, "Are you drunk?" "Nah. I only had a few..." Cyrus said. "How many?" "Nn..." Cyrus turned over and clung to Scott. He nuzzled his face against Scott's chest. "I wanna cuddle." "You're drunk." Scott tried to push him away. "Go to your room. This is my bed." "I'm here. Goodnight." Cyrus was out after that. Scott rolled his eyes. He turned the light back off. "Don't puke in my room." Cyrus held onto him through the night. Scott let him stay like that. The warmth was nice, he had to admit. He really didn't mind this at all. Cyrus smelled like sweat, alcohol, and perfume. The scent was strong. He could deal with the sweat smell. After a long day of work, that's how Cyrus always smelled. The perfume and alcohol were too much. It reminded him of nights he locked himself away in that room when Amy had the rest of the apartment filled up. Scott listened to the sound of Cyrus breathing as he drifted back into sleep. In the morning, Scott woke up before Cyrus. He left Cyrus there and went to make breakfast. Cyrus stumbled into the kitchen fifteen minutes later. He clutched his head. "Why was I in your bed?" "You tell me. You're the one who waltz into my room at three in the morning and passed out there." Scott said. "Damn. I don't remember that." Cyrus got a glass of water. "Sorry about that. I didn't do anything weird, did I?" Scott looked up from the stove. "Like what?" "Uh, I don't know. Nevermind." Cyrus put the glass down. "Fuck. My head." "There's some aspirin in the bathroom." Cyrus left to get the aspirin. He came back and took it at the table. "Man, I'm sorry about last night." "You nearly gave me a heart attack." Scott said. He sat down at the table with his food. "I'm really sorry." Cyrus apologized again. "Maybe you should lay off drinking for a while." Scott said. "Yeah...I've been overdoing it a lot. I didn't used to drink like this." Cyrus sipped on the water. "When I go out, I keep drinking until I can't remember stopping. Did I come back with a girl?" "Not this time." "Hmmm...that might be for the best. How was your night...before I freaked you out?" Cyrus asked. "I did laundry, then went to bed." Scott said. "Oh. Hey, I'm gonna head out today and look for any yard sales and freebies. Wanna come?" "Mmm...not today. I want to stay inside." "Okay. Do you have any plans for today?" "Not really. I think I'm coming down with something. Figured I'd rest while I can." "That's a good idea. If I pick up lunch, do you want me to bring anything back for you?" Cyrus asked. "You don't need to do that." Scott said. He added, "But thank you for offering." Scott wanted to go, but he was too afraid. He might slip up again. Scott watched Cyrus leave, then turned on the TV and read a book, hoping to forget he was alone. On TV, a movie about an orphan was on. He loved and hated those kinds of movies the most. They usually had really sappy, unbelievable endings. He wanted to believe them so badly. The movie distracted him from focusing on his book, but he couldn't turn it off. He wanted to see the happy ending, and the apartment would be too quiet without it. The noise was the only reason he bothered paying for cable. When the movie ended, a horror movie started after. He flipped through channels hoping to find something decent to use as background noise. Scott settled on a soap opera. It wasn't enough. The apartment had an eerie feeling to it. He went out on the balcony to get some fresh air. That only made it worse. He told himself it was in his head, but he sensed someone watching him from the woods. To prove to himself it wasn't real, he went down to the fence. A few birds rustled around. Scott thought he saw what might be a trail far back. He wasn't curious enough to cross over. 'What am I doing? What am I looking for?' Scott asked himself. 'It's nothing. There's never anything. No one's coming for me.' "Hey Scott, do you wanna watch a movie?" Cyrus called out to him. 'He's back already?' Scott looked back at the balcony. "Not really." "Okay. Guess I'll watch by myself." Cyrus leaned slightly over the railing. "What're you doing?" "Uh, nothing. Did you find anything?" Scott asked. "Nah. I know you said you didn't want any, but I brought back some food. It's on the table if you change your mind." "Okay." Cyrus went back inside. When he was gone, dread washed over Scott. His mind told him that when he turned around, he'd see someone standing on the other side of the fence. He believed it so strongly he felt someone breathing on his neck. Slowly, Scott turned. Nothing. No one was there. Scott went back inside. He went to the kitchen to see what Cyrus brought home. There was a sub sandwich with ham, lettuce, and cheese on it. He didn't want to cook then, so he took it. Scott grabbed the book he'd been reading earlier and sat on the couch with Cyrus. Cyrus was watching an action movie. Scott noted the rental box on the arm of the sofa. He smiled a little when he saw it, thinking of Cyrus's happy memories tied to the place. Scott was jealous on some level. He didn't have things like that, but he imagined if he did, those sorts of little things would fill him up with happiness. Scott imagined what it might be like to feel what Cyrus felt when Cyrus went into that Blockbuster earlier and picked out a movie, reminiscing about nice memories. He wanted memories like that. Scott was so desperate for it, he wanted to move closer to Cyrus on the couch, as if somehow that would let him get to feel that too. He dare not move over. Scott buried his nose in his book. Cyrus glanced over at him. "Is the TV not going to bother you?" "No. I can tune it out." Scott sat more comfortably on the couch. Cyrus turned down the volume slightly. "Is it cool if we talk?" "Yeah." "What're you reading?" Cyrus asked. "Some romance novel. I got a box of free books from the used bookstore. They all had badly damaged covers. Pages are okay." Scott said. "Is it any good?" "No, but I've got a third of it left. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt that it might get better." Cyrus laughed. "Well, better that outlook than giving up. Let me know if it gets good." "Sure, but I really doubt it." Scott slouched down on the couch. "I see a lot of women reading these, and I really don't get it. In this one, the guy's basically a dick to her most of the time, but she's sleeping with him anyway because she's going to 'change' him or something. Stupid." "So, what kind of ending are you hoping for to make the story better?" Cyrus asked. "I hope he stays an ass and she gets her heart broken when she realizes she's failed." Scott said. He hated books and shows with plots like that. No one he knew ever changed for the better no matter what he did. "Damn, that's dark." Cyrus moved slightly over on the couch, now sitting a little closer to Scott. "But probably more realistic." "The really male-targeted books honestly aren't any better. They just cater to different moronic plot devices." "Maybe you should give up on fiction?" Cyrus suggested, mostly joking. "I haven't given up yet. There must be books that don't suck." Cyrus pulled out a small notebook from his pocket. "And my book is full of just as many disappointments." "No luck with any girls at all?" Scott asked. "None of the last few girls I gave my number to have called me back, and none of the ones in here want to talk to me anymore either." Cyrus tossed the notebook on top of the TV guide. "You know, one girl gave me the rejection hotline number. I couldn't believe someone actually did that to me." "Maybe there's something putting them off in your approach?" Scott suggested. "Think I'm out of practice. I was with Lidia for a few years. Haven't really needed to do this in a long time." Cyrus turned to Scott and said, "Hey, you don't know any single girls who might be looking for a boyfriend, do you?" "Nope." "Well, it was worth a try." Cyrus shrugged. "What about you? Having any luck?" "I'm not looking for a girlfriend." "At getting laid." "That's not a problem for me." Scott said. "Actually, last night, when I went to do laundry..." "You're joking." Cyrus stared at him. "Nope." Scott held up his key ring and pointed to one of the keys. "See this? It's a key to the laundromat bathroom. They always lock it at night and there's rarely anyone there." "How did you get the key?" "Stole it. I got tired of the bathroom always being locked at the times I'd be down there to wash clothes." Scott put the key away. "Oh, if you ever need to wash clothes late at night, come ask me for the key." "How do you hook up with girls in a laundromat bathroom? How do you approach that? That sounds like something out of a porno." Cyrus said. "Just don't be weird about it." "How is that not weird by default?" Scott shrugged. "What about you? You didn't bring anyone back, but I can still smell perfume on you." Cyrus laughed. "Well...my story is about as bad as yours. I was half-drunk at this point and the girl I was talking to wanted to get more hands on with me and I...may have done something I shouldn't at that table." "No one noticed?" "We weren't the only ones." Cyrus said. "Apparently, that wasn't enough for her. After she got off of me, she led some guy into the bathroom. That kinda killed my mood after that. I drank for a while, failed to get any other girl's attention, then called a cab. Guess I was so wasted by that point I confused our rooms." "Wouldn't have taken you for the type to do something so publicly." "I didn't used to. I don't know why I did." Scott put his book aside. He leaned in slightly toward Cyrus. "Maybe you shouldn't go out for a while?" "Yeah." Cyrus leaned over in Scott's direction. "Hey, um, last night...be honest. Did I do anything weird?" "What does that mean?" Scott asked. "You know...anything I shouldn't have." Cyrus's face was red. "Uh...you said you wanted to cuddle. That's about it. I don't think you even knew who you were talking to at that point." Scott said. "Sorry." Scott teased him. "Don't apologize. I was cold anyway." "Wait, did I actually try to..." "You held onto me all night long." Scott laughed. "Why didn't you push me away?" Cyrus asked. "I was cold." Scott said. He unconsciously smiled. "You should tells girls you love cuddling. A lot of girls like that." "You say that, but I've met a lot of girls who don't." Cyrus teased him back. "What about you? Does Mr. I Don't Date secretly like cuddling?" "I told you. I was cold. That doesn't mean I like it." Scott turned away. "You do. I can tell." Cyrus grinned. "Even if I did, that doesn't mean I want to cuddle with you." "Rude." Cyrus smiled and lightly smacked Scott on the arm. Scott laughed. He didn't know why. The phone rang. Cyrus picked it up. "Hello? Yeah, hey. What's up? Today? Yeah, I've got nothing to do. Uh huh. Yeah, I know where it is. Hey, Scott's free today too, I think. Let me ask him if he wants to help." "What's going on?" Scott asked. "You know Billy from work. He needs some help clearing out a rental property. The people who were staying there left a lot of crap there. Said he'd pay me $50 and I can keep anything I want. Wanna come? He'll pay you too." "Sure." "Awesome." Cyrus adjusted the phone. "Hey, Scott says he'll come too. What time you want us over there? Uh huh. Okay. We'll see ya soon." Cyrus hung up the phone. Shortly after, he and Scott headed out to the rental property. Billy met them at the front of the house. Billy said, "Every room needs to be cleared out. The living room and the kitchen are done. The basement's where the bulk of the mess is." "What about the backyard?" Cyrus asked. "It's not as bad as the basement, but it's got a lot of junk in it too. Some good stuff too. My kids want the trampoline in the back and I'm taking the grill." "Hey Billy, do you have anyone wanting to rent here yet?" Cyrus asked as he went into the house. "Yeah, we've got someone. Why? You can't afford this place." Billy said. "Haha, I figured. It's a pretty big house and a nice sized yard too. This close to the city, you must be making a killing off of it." Cyrus said. Scott followed them into the house. The layout reminded him of a house Amy took him to do work at once. He wondered what kind of people had lived there. The man who owned the house he went to that night had a trampoline too. Scott remembered the man telling him about how surprised the man's kids were on Christmas morning when they found it in the backyard. That was around when the three hours they agreed upon were almost up. Scott wondered who he was paying now. He and Cyrus took different rooms. Most of what they found was trash laying on the floor. Scott found a few pens and pencils, change left scattered with the trash, and a twenty. He slipped the money in his pocket as quickly as he found it. Billy said he could take anything he wanted. Cyrus claimed a painting, several cassettes, a CD, and a couple of VHS tapes. When the main floor was done, all three of them went down to tackle the basement. Gardening tools covered in dust were their first obstacle. None of them needed the items, and Billy wasn't interested in selling them. They went to the trash. Bags of trash were piled up in a corner and a plastic tub of half-broken Christmas and Halloween decorations sat in front of them. Cyrus dug through the mess, saving unbroken items in the tub. Scott didn't celebrate holidays, so he didn't bother looking through the decorations. An old bike was near the back. It needed too much repair to be worth taking. Scott hesitated at first when throwing it out, trying to convince himself he could do something with it. It went in the trash with everything else. Half way through finishing the basement, Billy was getting tired and told them to start grabbing and tossing without looking at what was inside. When that was done, only the backyard was left. "Let's make this quick. I'm headin' home in half an hour." Billy said. "If you two want to look through the trash again after we're done, I don't care. It's not getting picked up until noon tomorrow anyway." "So it's cool if we're here after you go?" Cyrus asked. "Yeah. Just don't fuck up anything. Doors are already locked." Billy opened his wallet. "Before I forget, I gotta pay you. Thanks for coming out here. My wife and I were going to come out here with her brother, but well, her dad's in the hospital right now." "I'm sorry to hear that." Cyrus said. He took the fifty and put it in his wallet. Scott accepted his pay. He stashed it away with the twenty and change he found earlier. "We expected it. He's been sick for a while now." Billy lit up a cigarette. "He never did take care of himself. Bad decisions lead to bad ends." Scott turned away from the smoke and went to work. Cyrus talked with Billy for a while before joining him. Billy watched, then left as the sky showed a hint of red. Once Billy was gone, Cyrus sat on the edge of the trampoline and looked over at the dumpster sitting on the side of the house. "You wanna go through it again? There was a lot we didn't look through in the basement." Cyrus said. "Mmm...maybe. It's starting to get dark. Do you have a flashlight?" Scott asked. "Think I have one in the car." Cyrus laid back. "This is in pretty good condition. I see why his kids wanted it. But if he's renting out a place like this and working the same job as us, he can probably afford to buy one himself." "Really? I always heard having kids was really expensive." Scott said. "Well, yeah, but exactly how expensive depends on how you manage your money." Cyrus felt over the trampoline. "My grandparents got one of these when I was really little. I can't really remember this, but apparently the first day we had it, one of my brothers bounced me off the thing and I hit a rock on the way down. Got a little scar from it on my arm. My parents freaked out, but they say I didn't cry. I was too confused about how I ended up on the ground." Scott touched the metal. "What's the appeal of these anyway? You just jump on it, right?" "What do you mean? Haven't you ever played on a trampoline before?" Cyrus gave him a strange look. Scott shook his head. "Really?" "My parents wouldn't buy something like that." Scott said. "You didn't have any friends who had one?" "No." Scott didn't have any friends as a child. Cyrus didn't need to know that. Cyrus stared at him for a while, then grabbed his wrist. "Well, get up here then." "What? Isn't this for kids?" Scott asked. "Who cares? Get up here." Cyrus tugged at his arm lightly. "Okay, fine." Scott sighed and climbed onto the trampoline. Cyrus tossed his shoes off the side. "Take your shoes off." Scott placed his down on the grass nearby. "What now?" "Jump." "Then what?" Scott asked. "What do you mean then what? That's all you have to do. Okay, watch me. See, like this." Cyrus jumped up and down. Scott watched for a while then jumped. When his feet landed back down, he slipped and fell. "What did I do wrong?" "Your socks. Take 'em off. It'll be easier that way." Scott took them off. He tried again. The canvas material felt strange on his skin. He didn't fall this time. He had to admit, this was fun, but he couldn't explain why. Scott placed it in his mind with his tea and sandwiches. It was enjoyable despite being nothing special at all. Then, he fell again. Cyrus laughed when he fell. "What'd I do wrong this time?" Scott asked. Cyrus kept jumping. "Nothing." Scott got up, jumped, and fell back down as soon as his feet touched the ground. Cyrus laughed again. "Okay, how are you doing that?" Scott stood up. "Doing what?" Cyrus grinned. "I'm not doing anything." "You're lying." "Okay, I might have done that. I'll stop." Cyrus said. Hesitantly, Scott tried jumping. He didn't fall this time. He couldn't work out how Cyrus had managed to do that. Before he could think too much on it, he watched Cyrus bounce significantly higher than before. "How did you do that?!" Scott asked. "It's a secret." Cyrus went up high again. "Hey, I bet I can still do a backflip." Cyrus flipped back and landed with ease. Then he flipped forward. Scott watched in amazement. Cyrus looked surprised by himself. "Huh. Still can do that too. You want me to show you how to do a flip?" Scott nodded. Cyrus managed to get him to do a backflip before it got dark. When the last of the sun's light was faded, Cyrus reached over the side of the trampoline to grab his shoes. He said, "We should head home. It's getting late." Scott lay back on the trampoline, looking up at the sky. He was exhausted and somehow energized at the same time. "Okay. Oh, but what about the basement stuff?" Cyrus lay down beside him. "Hmm...if you really want to look through it, we can." "It's not that important. I got paid." Scott said. He sensed Cyrus looked at him. Scott looked over. "Something wrong?" "Nah." Cyrus said. He got down from the trampoline. He helped Scott off it after Scott put his shoes on. They loaded up the car with the items they kept and drove home. During the drive home, Scott couldn't shake the extra energy. He wanted to stay awake late into the night and do something. He didn't know what. "You look happy. Did you have fun?" Cyrus asked. "Yeah." "What're you gonna do with the extra money?" Cyrus asked. "Dunno. Put in savings. Mine could use it." Scott said. "I wish I had a nice rainy day fund. Something always comes around and empties whatever I put anything in there." Cyrus said. "There's always something." "Yeah, I'm surprised mine hasn't been emptied out yet. It makes me nervous. Like something bad's going to happen soon, and it'll all be gone again." Scott leaned against the car door and looked out the window. "God, I hope not." Cyrus laughed. Scott hoped nothing bad would happen too, but he was growing more weary with each day. He was having too much fun. Something was bound to ruin that, he told himself. When they got back to the apartment, it was dark out. Cyrus grabbed two six packs out of the fridge and set his telescope up outside. Scott joined him on the balcony. "Staying in tonight?" Scott asked. "Figured it'd be better if I drank at home." Cyrus said. "Might not be the best idea to do that on the balcony." "I know, but there's a full moon tonight." Cyrus pointed up at the sky. "Alright then." Scott grabbed a book and his small reading light from the kitchen. He grabbed one of the dining table chairs to sit in on the balcony. "You'll really sit out with me?" Cyrus asked. "Reading by moonlight sounds nice." Scott got comfortable in the chair. Cyrus looked up at the moon. "It's beautiful tonight." "Yeah." Scott looked at it too. It seemed bigger than usual. A cloudless sky left the moon in perfect view. "You're always going on about the moon. Is the moon your favorite thing in space?" "Hmm...I dunno. It's my favorite thing in our solar system, but there's a lot out there. What about you?" Cyrus opened a beer and leaned with his back against the railing. "I've never really thought about it." Scott said. "The moon, I guess. Everything else is too far away." "Far away?" "I don't know. The moon's right here, but everything else is really far away. It feels safer than the others." Scott said. "It's like the bottom of the ocean...when something's really, really far away...it's kind of creepy." "Heh. Yeah, I can see that. There's some really weird shit out in space. Who knows what's in our oceans." Cyrus offered Scott a beer. "Want one?" "No, thank you." "You know, I've never seen you drink." Cyrus said. "I don't like things that can alter the mind that greatly." Scott stopped himself from saying more. That was too much. "What are you worried will happen?" Cyrus opened up another beer. Scott paused before answering. "I don't know." Cyrus stared at him, then turned around. He rested his elbows on the railing of the balcony. "Thanks for sitting out here with me. Don't think I'll be going back out for a while. I always end up disappointed." "You've brought back plenty of girls." "And none of them call me back after a night or two." Cyrus's shoulders sunk. "No one wants to date me." "The girls you're bringing home aren't interested in dating. They were looking for a good time." Scott got up and stood beside him. "You could try those...speed dating things or put an ad in the paper maybe?" "Has it really come to that?" Cyrus downed the rest of his drink. "This was so much easier in high school." "You don't have to date someone." Scott said. "I know, but I don't want to be alone." 'I'm right here.' Scott thought. He didn't say it. His mind quickly told him another truth to believe. 'No, I'm not.' "Hey, you're lonely too, aren't you?" Cyrus opened up another beer. "I know you are." Scott couldn't get himself to answer Cyrus. "You don't have to say it." Cyrus watched the sky. "The moon is so beautiful tonight. What do you think it'd feel like, looking down from up there?" Scott looked up again. "Small." "I already feel small looking up. I can't imagine the weight of that view." Cyrus reached his hand up at the circular light in the sky. "Still, I wish I could. It's terrifying to think about, everything that's out there in space, but it's almost like magic too...something beautiful and powerful you can't grasp." "Magic?" Scott laughed under his breath. "To me, it seems empty and cold, like Hell." "I told you you were lonely too." Cyrus said. Scott was taken aback by that. "I didn't say I was." "You don't have to say it. That's Hell for me too. It's what Hell is for most people." Cyrus took a swig of his drink. He leaned a little further out. "So, tell me, why do you keep yourself locked away in Hell?" "What are you talking about?" Scott asked. "Nothing. I'm rambling." Cyrus said as he opened up another drink. He stared down at the ground. "Am I annoying you?" "No." Scott said. "Hey, don't you think you should slow down? You're going through those really fast." "It's fine. I don't have to be anywhere tomorrow." Cyrus down the rest of the drink and went for another. "Are you trying to get drunk?" Scott asked. "I might be." Cyrus laughed. "Don't worry. I'll pass out. That's about it." "I've seen you drunk enough times to know what you'll do." Scott said. Cyrus looked away from him. "Sorry." Scott didn't know what to say. "Hey...I didn't mean anything by..." "I know." Cyrus rubbed his eyes. He accidentally dropped his drink off the balcony. "Shit." Scott put his hands on Cyrus's shoulders. "Hey, I think it's time to head in." "Yeah..." Cyrus went to grab the telescope. He nearly fell over. Scott caught him mid-fall. "Shit...that hit me harder than I expected." "I've got you. Let's go in. I'll bring it in for you." Scott said. "Sorry...that amount wouldn't usually do anything to me." Cyrus said. "Maybe I'm just tired from earlier." "Probably." Scott said. He was pretty sure Cyrus was at least a little drunk, but he didn't intend to argue with him. He helped Cyrus to bed. Entering that room put Scott in an uneasy mood. He hadn't been in that room since that day he first showed it to Cyrus. Where Amy's things once were, Cyrus's things now decorated the room. The bedsheets were different and the holes in the walls were covered up with posters. When he put Cyrus down on that bed, he couldn't unsee her. She wasn't there. He knew that wasn't possible. But he felt so strongly like she was there on that bed with him, undressed and as demanding as she always was. He remembered how many times he'd been on that bed to pay rent, how many other people she brought into that bed with him, how the springs in the bed creaked when he laid on it a little too far to the left. Cyrus wrapped his arms around Scott's neck. His eyes were barely open and his breath wreaked of alcohol. He whispered. "Hey...stay..." Scott thought nothing of Cyrus's actions. He lightly pushed Cyrus's arms away from him. "I don't want to be in here." "A little..." Cyrus fell asleep. Scott watched him sleep for a short while before heading back to the balcony. He put up the telescope and stared out into the night. The forest was quiet. A siren went off in the distance, people partying three doors down shouted and laughed, and dogs barked at something roaming in the night. Amidst all the usual city noise, he heard something strange. A howl. A coyote howled somewhere nearby. Scott went inside and made sure both doors were locked. The coyote's howl got louder as the sirens came closer. Scott turned on the TV in the living room and waited for the sounds to stop. He heard a gun shot and a scream from somewhere. The noise of the party stopped. A gun went off again, and then once more. Scott got up, turned the TV off, and went to Cyrus's room. He locked the door and sat at Cyrus's desk. Cyrus briefly woke up. He glanced over at Scott. "What's going on?" "Dunno. I heard guns." Scott said. Cyrus sat up. He rubbed his face. "How close?" "On this floor. Definitely." Scott said. Another gun went off. He heard something hit hard against metal outside. "What the fuck is going on?!" Cyrus stumbled out of bed. He headed to the door. Scott stopped him. "Stay here. Whatever's going on, we shouldn't involve ourselves." "But...someone's life may be on the line." Cyrus pressed his hand against the wall to balance himself. "You're not in a condition to defend anyone." Scott picked up the phone in the room. "Here, you can call the cops, but you're not charging over there and you know the 911 operator is going to tell you the same thing." Cyrus dialed 911. He reported the incident and was informed someone was already on the way. The police arrived ten minutes later. Scott and Cyrus overheard the struggle. Forty minutes after Cyrus called, an officer came to the door and asked if they were alright. "What happened?" Cyrus asked. "Can't tell you much yet. We still have a lot of questioning to do." The officer said. "Did anyone get hurt?" Scott asked. "Three dead, one girl's being taken to the hospital. Did you two see anything?" The officer asked. "No, we only heard the noise. We were both inside at the time." Scott said. "I'd just turned off the TV." "I was asleep. The noise woke me up." Cyrus said. "Alright. And your names? Don't worry. We're not investigating you. It's for our records." "Scott Thomas." "Cyrus Corbin." "Alright. And do you both live here?" The man asked. "Yes, sir. We're both renting here." Cyrus nodded. The officer looked over Cyrus. "You been out tonight, Mr. Corbin?" "No, I drank at home, if that's what you're asking. I'm a little...yeah...That's why I went to bed." Cyrus said. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Good. You should stay in. Mr. Thomas, other than gunfire, did you hear anything else?" The officer turned to Scott. "I don't think so." "Okay, well, you two should get some sleep. I'll be in touch if I need anything else from you. Contact us if you remember any other information." The officer said. He left after that. Scott and Cyrus sat in the living room for a while. Scott turned on the TV. "So, it's gonna be one of those nights, huh?" Cyrus put his hands to his face. "That was a lot of shooting." Scott recalled something else. "Before the shooting started, I heard something..." "Huh?" "Howling. There was a coyote out." Scott said. "It was howling along with the sirens." "Yeah, they do that sometimes." Cyrus said. He slouched on the sofa and nodded off. "Hey, do you think..." Scott looked over. Cyrus was out again. Scott watched TV, hoping for the same thing to happen to him. He flipped through channels. A drug ad caught his attention. The commercial narrator talked over scenes of sad looking people who wore fake smiles by the end of the ad. "Are you constantly feeling down? Do things you once loved no longer make you happy? Are you just tired all the time? Depression can make life seem impossible, but there is hope. Aequa, a medication for severe depression and anxiety, has just been approved for trial testing. If you are eighteen or older and suffer from severe depression, you may qualify to participate in a groundbreaking study. Participates will receive care from licensed psychiatrists free of charge and all information will be strictly confidential. Call now to find out if you qualify. This may be the call that changes your life. Sponsored by Moone & Wolfe Corp." Scott froze at that company's name. He quickly changed the channel. 'You've never helped anyone.' Scott's heartbeat rung in his ears. He struggled to calm his mind. Around four, he fell asleep and had another nightmare. The monster dragged him down to the green river and pulled his legs in. He couldn't feel them anymore when they touched the water, as if they disappeared. The monster submerged most of itself into the water. Only its long, bony arms and wormy hair were left above the surface. It pulled him in, inch by inch. He couldn't move. He couldn't breathe. Scott woke at ten, completely exhausted. He was grateful it was Sunday and he didn't have to work. He got up from the couch and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth. He heard Cyrus doing something in the kitchen. Scott joined him there to make some tea. Cyrus was finishing up making breakfast. He had two plates ready with bacon, eggs, hash browns, and buttered toast. "Morning. Hungry? I made enough for both of us." Scott's eyes lit up at the plate. His stomach growled. "Oh, thanks." "Consider it a thank you for staying out with me last night. My head was in a really weird place." Cyrus handed him the plate. "You okay now?" Scott asked. "Yeah, mostly." Cyrus poured himself a cup of coffee. He sat down at the dining table. "Speaking of last night, you missed the news earlier. There was a report on what happened." "Oh? What did they say?" Scott joined him at the table when his tea was done steeping. He cut into the eggs on the plate. Scott couldn't stand sweet foods, but he liked salty and savory ones. The plate before him was his idea of a perfect breakfast. The golden color of the yolk oozing out over the plate onto the bacon made his mouth water. He made a mental note he would treat Cyrus in some way for the meal, even if it was itself meant to be a gift. "According to people at the party, one of the guys there dragged some girl into the bathroom and raped her. She called the cops afterwards. He found out she called at some point and he tried to fight with her, then someone got out a gun. There were people who remembered different people shooting first. Anyway, that guy's dead, the girl's in the hospital, and two other people are dead. Three people had guns, no one else was injured. At least, that's what they're reporting happened. Who knows. A lot of the people questioned gave contradictory information." Cyrus dug into his food. "Did you know anyone who lives in that apartment?" "Not sure." Scott said. His vision blurred for a moment and his face felt hot. 'Don't tell me I'm sick. I have work tomorrow.' Cyrus drank from his mug. "Oh, thanks for putting up the telescope." "It's nothing." Scott said. Cyrus got up from the table. "It's nice out. Do you mind if I leave the back door open?" "That's fine." Cyrus opened the balcony door and propped it open with a chair. The scent of pine drifted in on a warm breeze. Cyrus grabbed a chair and moved it halfway out the door. He took his plate and ate there. "It's a nice day out." Cyrus said. "Think I'll go on a walk today." "Where to?" "Dunno. Somewhere new." Cyrus got up again. He put his plate down and went out onto the balcony to examine part of the railing. "Oh my god...Come look at this." Scott went over to see. Above Cyrus's hand was an indent in the metal railing. Cyrus looked at the floor. He picked up a bullet off the ground and held it up in the air. "Shit...how did this happen?" Cyrus asked. Scott looked down at the balcony three over where the party was. One of the glass panels was shattered. His blood went cold. If he or Cyrus had been outside when the shooting happened, either of them could have been hit by that bullet. Scott almost laugh at it. Cyrus drinking too much too fast and Scott being spooked by a howling coyote were the reasons they were both alive and unharmed. It was too absurd. "We've avoided death again." Scott said. "Ugh, don't say it like that. I'm already freaked out about that shooting from last night." Cyrus stood up and looked over. "What do we do with this? Should we call the cops again?" "Yeah, they might need that." The police collected the bullet and took pictures of their balcony, then thanked them and left. By then, Scott was having trouble staying awake. He was dizzy and his body alternated between cold chills that sent aches across his body and burning up so hot he was sweating through his clothes. Scott lay down in bed for a while. He hoped whatever he had would be mostly gone by morning. Scott didn't know how he was going to get through work tomorrow otherwise. Cyrus checked on him around two. He knocked on the door before coming in. "Hey, you okay?" "Eh...Think I have a cold or something. You should probably stay away." Scott said as he turned over in bed. Cyrus entered his room. "You want me to get you anything?" "Nah, I'm fine." Cyrus put his hand to Scott's forehead and cheeks. "You're so hot...Let me get you something for your fever at least. Fevers can kill if they get too high." "It's not that serious." "Probably not, but no reason to not play it safe. I'll be right back." Cyrus dashed out of the room. He came back with a bottle of naproxen. Scott took the medicine and went to sleep. He woke from sleep several times, never quite leaving the hazy state between dreaming and being fully conscious until around four in the afternoon. Scott couldn't remember his dreams, and he was glad of it. The medicine was only mildly affective. He barely managed to get out of bed and his fever hadn't gone down. Scott's clothes were soaked. After smelling himself, he decided to take a bath. His body ached all over. He hoped the warm water would at least help some with that since the medicine didn't do much. Scott dragged himself to the bathroom. He was in no mood to get properly dress. He brought a pair of boxers and a tank top with him to change into. Cyrus watched TV in the living room. He noticed Scott was awake. "Hey, how ya feelin'?" Cyrus asked. "Meh. I'm gonna take a bath." Scott mumbled. "Maybe you should call out tomorrow?" "Can't afford that." Scott said and closed the door. He started up the water, then sat down on the edge of the tub. His eyes couldn't focus on anything and his legs felt weak. When the water was ready, he got in. The warmth did feel good on his aching muscles. Scott tried to get as comfortable as he could in the small tub. The steam and warm water tempted him back into sleep. 'Did I overdo it yesterday? Or am I not eating enough?' Scott thought over reasons for his current state. He refused to accept he was sick and not simply exhausted. He didn't want to believe it. He closed his eyes and listened to the ripples in the water his body made with every slight movement. It reminded him of something he couldn't place. His mind showed him sunlight reflecting off running water somewhere in the green space around him. His feet were soaking wet and he didn't have any shoes. A little red washed off his feet, half blood and half clay. It seemed like a long time ago. Scott opened his eyes to see his ceiling fan spinning around. A bag of ice sat on his forehead. He was naked underneath the sheets. Cyrus entered the room. "Hey, you're up." Cyrus said. "What? What're you...how'd I get here?" Scott was too weak to sit up. "You passed out in the bath." Cyrus opened a pill bottle. "I did?" "Thank god that thing is so tiny. You could have drowned. You have a high fever." Cyrus handed him two pills to take. "Here, take this." "How'd you get in the bathroom?" Scott sat up to take the medicine. "Broke in." Cyrus said. "You weren't answering me. I was worried something happened. Glad I acted on that worry." Scott fell back down on the pillow. He put the bag of ice back on his head. "You carried me all the way over here?" "I may have dragged you part of the way." Cyrus laughed. "Do you want me to call a doctor?" "Can't afford that. I'll be fine. I'll sleep it off." "Let me at least tell Joe you're not coming in tomorrow." "I can manage going to work." Scott said. "No, you need to rest. Besides, like this, you're a danger to our customers too. Wouldn't want someone's tires or breaks not being done right because you're half out of it." Cyrus put the bottle on the nightstand. "Hey, don't sweat it. If you need me to cover some expenses because of missed hours..." "Why would you do that?" Scott asked. "Because...does there have to be a deep reason?" Cyrus smiled at him. "Are you hungry?" Scott's chest hurt when he looked at Cyrus. "Mm...not really...Don't know if I could eat anything." "I'll make you some chicken broth. You need to stay hydrated. Do you think you could stomach that?" Cyrus asked. "Maybe." "I'll be back. Call me if you need anything." Cyrus left. Scott struggled to concentrate. The room spun with the fan. His chest tightened. 'This is like something from TV.' He thought. When he was living with Amy and sick, she usually handed him a shot of something alcoholic and told him not to spit it up. That was the most she bothered offering him. His parents gave him plenty of medicine if he got sick. Pills and needles were all he was ever given by them. They liked it best when he was sick. That gave them more things to record while he lie there on the metal table, strapped down and naked. The table was always so cold in the morning. The tank was better than the table. At least, he thought, it was warmer in there. Once, when his parents took him to their house after his younger brother was born, their real son, he caught an episode of a children's show on PBS. A puppet child was sick and the adult characters were taking care of the child. It seemed so nice and so foreign to his own life. That was his first experience with TV and one of his first tastes of what life was like for other people. His mother yelled at him for turning the TV on. He remembered her words. "That's for adults only, to observe people. It's not for you. You can't understand this." She turned the TV off and put him in a room until they went back to the lab. That was the first time he really felt deep pain. It wasn't when they poked at him with needles or cut open his skin. It was then, seeing that display on TV, knowing more than that existed. He asked both his parents one morning, laying out on that table, if they loved him. His mother complained about him seeing TV and getting bad ideas from it. It was that morning he first thought about running away, but he stayed. The very next thought he had after that was 'I must deserve this'. Scott looked down at his body. The scars left behind by their steady hands covered his skin. Cyrus had seen all of them now. He hoped in Cyrus's panic, he was too concerned with getting Scott to bed to notice how many there were. It wasn't as if he tried hard to hide them, but he didn't want to answer questions about them either. The door opened again. Half conscious, Scott asked, "Mom?" "Mom? Haha, no. It's only me." Cyrus carried a bowl on a tray. He placed it down on the nightstand. "Are you doing alright?" Scott blinked. He stared at Cyrus to make sure he was really there. "Yeah." "I called Joe. You don't need to worry about coming in tomorrow." Cyrus helped Scott sit up. He put the tray on Scott's lap. "You love tea, right? My mom said I should get you some ginger and lemon tea. Can you drink that?" "I've never had it before." Scott stared down at the tray. "You don't need to do all this. I'm sure it's nothing serious." "So what if it's not? Does that mean I shouldn't help you?" Cyrus sat on the edge of the bed. "I'm sure you have better things to do." Scott looked down at the broth. He liked the scent of it, but he didn't want to eat it. "Look, Scott, I know you like your loner routine, but come on. You're sick. Let me help you." Cyrus put his hand on Scott's. "Let me make you some tea. I will warn you. I've never made tea before, so uh, I can't promise it'll actually taste good." The warmth of Cyrus's hand on his skin made him flinch. His heart rang in his ears. The reaction confused Scott. His body normally only did that when he was terrified, but right then, he wasn't. He buried any questions he had about that and distracted the both of them with an emotionless response. "You pour the water over the bag after you heat it. Use the kettle to warm the water on the stove. Don't microwave it. I'm not sure about ginger. Check the box for how long to leave the bag in for. The teapot is in the cabinet next to the fridge." "Wait...um...a teapot and a kettle are the same thing, right?" Cyrus asked. Scott shook his head. "No. You heat the water in the kettle, and you pour it into the teapot over the teabags." "This is more complicated than I expected." Cyrus laughed nervously. He rubbed the top of Scott's hand. "I'll ask you again when I get back from the store. Should I get you anything else?" Scott didn't know what to make of that. "That's more than enough." "Alright. I'll be back soon." Cyrus left. He came back half an hour later. Scott instructed him on how to make the tea. Cyrus managed to make the ginger and lemon tea eventually. The taste was even better than Scott expected. He thought it might be too sweet, but it wasn't really sweet at all. Scott took more medicine before going back to sleep. He had some kind of dream, but he couldn't remember it. The medicine made him sleep through the night. In the morning, Cyrus checked on him before going to work. He brought Scott another bowl of broth and a cup of tea. "Call me if you need anything." Cyrus told him on his way out. "Okay." When Cyrus was gone, the apartment was filled with silence. Scott dragged himself to the living room sofa. He covered up in a throw blanket that draped over the back of the sofa. His body ached everywhere. He was too tired to get dressed. Scott rested on the couch in his underwear, slowly sipping on the tea Cyrus made him and watching TV. His choices were soap operas, preschool shows, and reruns of the early morning news. Scott chose to watch the news for a while. A segment was dedicated to an update on a case involving several missing teenage boys. Police had a suspect and were looking for someone. Scott half paid attention to the report. He curled up in the blanket and lay down, falling back asleep. The news ended and a sitcom came on. He listened to it with his back turned to the TV. The episode was about the daughter doing something the father didn't approve of and the mother taking the daughter's side. He'd seen many similar plots like this in other shows. They were always about similar things. There were only a handful of plot types. Scott didn't mind. He liked hearing the people, and everything was always better at the end of the episode. He doubted anyone had a life like that, but he liked imagining some people did. Scott thought about the ways his parents showed affection to each other, none reserved for him. If they weren't so affectionate in front of him, he wouldn't have been as jealous. Until he encountered a TV, he accepted that affection was something between adults, something children weren't supposed to receive. When his mother became pregnant and her stomach started to show, she was so excited then. Scott thought the reason he received no affection was because he wasn't her biological son. He was made from two random employees who happened to fit a certain criteria. His "parents" were merely researchers in charge of looking after him and working on him. The baby in her belly was her real son. He thought, maybe this one will get love. That didn't last long. His parents bragged to other researchers about how their child was chosen to be part of a new set of experiments. They took pride in the fact that it was their genetics that held everything needed for their research. The baby in his mother's womb was planned to be a disposable mouse. One morning, laying out on that cold metal table, Scott reached out at his mother and touched her big belly. He couldn't speak the words he wanted to say. He didn't want his parents to hear them. Scott concentrated and spoke in his mind, hoping by some magic the child inside her womb would somehow hear him. He said, "Stay in there. Don't come out. Don't ever come out." His little brother was born some time after that, along with another child brought into the world for the same purpose. He wished the babies would die, so they wouldn't carry scars like he did. They lived, and each set of parents started cutting their own child up before either reached their first birthday. Knowing all that, a part of him always hoped they missed him and really did love him. It was wishful thinking. He knew that. That quiet lie allowed him to tolerate remembering certain memories. He thought about Cyrus. "Why do you care?" Scott wanted to call Cyrus. He wanted to hear him talk. He didn't care about what. Making that call was too hard for him. There was nothing he could say to justify interrupting him at work. Scott slept for most of the day. Cyrus watched TV with him when he got home. He sat on the floor to let Scott have all of the sofa to lay on. Cyrus kept him company at night. He made a cot on the floor and slept close by while Scott stayed on the sofa. Scott woke before Cyrus did. He watched Cyrus sleeping there. The rhythm of his chest rising and falling, how slight his movements were--the display of vulnerability comforted him. Whenever Amy expected him to stay in her room overnight, the sexual aspect of their interaction always left him between two opposing emotions, one of pleasure and disgust. The mornings after, when he woke before she did and her warm body rested against his, he felt something he didn't any other time. Scott would hold onto her in the mornings, listening to her heart and her breathing. He liked it best when they didn't talk to each other. Whenever she opened her mouth, she reminded him of where he was and what she thought of him. Scott didn't think that way of Cyrus. He liked listening to him, and Cyrus always managed to get him to talk more than he planned on. Cyrus had a knack for getting Scott to open up. The verbal barriers and traps Scott carefully placed between himself and others, Cyrus so easily stepped around them. He couldn't explain it. It terrified Scott. He told himself he needed to get away from this man. He didn't want to. The thought of that hurt him too much. Scott couldn't explain why. Scott wanted to touch Cyrus, just a little. He wanted to touch his face and feel the warmth of his body, but he kept that desire to himself. He told himself it would be best to never act on that, no matter the situation. He needed to keep at least one barrier between them. As Cyrus turned in his sleep, the blanket on him was tossed aside. Scott got a good view of his body. Dressed in only his boxers and an undershirt, Scott could see most of him. His toned muscles and slight tan line suggested someone who liked being active outside. Cyrus did tell Scott he liked going on walks, Scott recalled. He was perplexed why Cyrus was having a hard time finding a girlfriend. He was very attractive and a nice guy. There was a piece missing in that puzzle. "You're lucky...some day, someone will stay with you." Scott said. "And me...well..." Scott rested on a pillow on the couch. He felt every twinge of joy and happiness slip away from him. He buried his face in his pillow. 'What am I living for? Am I that afraid of death?' Cyrus woke up soon after that. He looked up at Scott and smiled. "Morning. How ya feelin'?" "Not great." Scott faked a smile. Cyrus sat up and touched Scott's forehead. "Hmm...Don't think you have a fever." "Yeah, I can probably work." Scott tried to get up. His body ached all over. Touching anything sent painful chills through him. He winced and reminded himself how much money he'd lose if he didn't get back to work. "You sure?" "I think." Scott's body didn't want to move. "This is going to be a long day." "Just stay home." Cyrus said. "I can't. I need the money." Scott forced himself to stand. His legs wobbled from pain. Cyrus helped him sit back down. "Dude, it's fine. I'll cover it. Get some rest." Scott pulled the blanket back over himself. "I'm sorry. I'll pay you back." "You don't need to do that." Cyrus waved his hands dismissively. "We'll manage it." "Thank you. I don't know why you're doing this for me." Scott pull the blanket up further. His chest tightened. "Because you're my friend." Cyrus took the blanket he used the previous night and put it on top of Scott's. Scott's eyes watered. He looked away in shame. "About last night, thank you for that too." "It was kind of fun, sleeping out here in the living room. Reminded me of days back when I was in school and I'd have a bunch of friends over on the weekend, staying up all night playing video games and watching dumb shit." Cyrus stretched. "I guess you weren't really into those kind of things, huh?" "I've never done anything like that." Scott said. Cyrus's eyes lingered on Scott for a while before he spoke. "Let me make you some tea before I get ready for work. Think I understand it now. I'll call Joe while I'm at it." "Thank you." Scott was still cold underneath the blankets. He covered up more of himself and turned the TV on. Cyrus went to the kitchen. Scott absentmindedly glanced over at him from time to time. This was the first time the two of them were both so undressed around each other. Usually, if Scott wasn't dressed in the morning, he left his room at least wearing a pair of pajama pants and Cyrus did the same. He wondered if this meant Cyrus was more comfortable around him now. It made him think of something from a TV show he watched. The longer he thought about that, the more he wanted a life like that--one where he lived with someone and shared, bit by bit, all the parts of himself without fear. This was as much as he could allow. Anything more would be dangerous. Scott thought again about disappearing. Cyrus brought him a cup of tea. "Here. I hope you feel better soon." After Cyrus left, Scott sat with his dark thoughts. His mind ruminated on his deepest fears. If he stayed here and allowed himself to be happy with another person, it was sure to go wrong. That's why it was alright with Amy. He kept her at a distance no matter how intimate they got. He could leave her any time and it'd be fine. If he was happy, surely, that happiness would be taken away. If he connected with anyone, they'd take that person away, or they'd take him away. He was certain of it. Alone in that apartment, he couldn't shake the feeling that someone was already watching him and waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger of a gun soon to be placed against his head. Scott looked around. No one was there. He turned up the volume of the TV. The news covered the serial killings briefly, then switched to discussing a big storm coming through in the next week. Scott flipped through the channels to find something happier. Two of the soap operas involved a character unexpectedly dying or being hospitalized. A sitcom he usually liked was airing a rerun about someone having a heart attack. He turned to PBS to find the kid show on then was about someone's grandmother passing away. Scott turned the TV off and dragged himself to the balcony. He sat down and listened to the breeze. The humid air hinted at coming rain. No one else seemed to be home at this time of day. The entire building creeped him out. Scott went back inside and took whatever dirty clothes he could find as an excuse to go to the laundromat. The place was just as empty. He took the bag back to the apartment, then walked down to the grocery store. Two cashiers were all he had for company in the building. Scott took his time. 'Why does it bother me so much right now?' Scott thought. The paranoia was always there in the back of his mind, but the deep loneliness he was feeling was something he hadn't dealt with in years. When he lived with Amy, that mostly went away. Even on the days when it was only him in the apartment, it didn't bother him like this. 'What's wrong with me?' Scott thought about earlier in the morning when Cyrus was there. 'Is it because of him? Why?' He gave that no further thought. Scott returned home and searched for something to watch. The movies Cyrus rented were sitting on the coffee table. Scott put one of them in. It was an action film with a cheesy romance subplot. There was nothing special about it, but it calmed him down enough. Watching it made him feel a little like Cyrus was there with him. He didn't let himself ponder on why that made him happy. Scott watched all three of the movies Cyrus rented. When the credits rolled for the last film, Scott's dread returned. He sat in the silent apartment for a while. Then, he picked up the phone. He dialed his work's number. Charlotte answered the phone with the usual set of lines they all had to say to potential customers. "Hey Charlotte, it's Scott. Is Cyrus busy right now?" He asked. "I don't think so. We're pretty dead today. Let me check." Charlotte said. He heard her put the phone down. A minute later, Cyrus picked up the phone. "Hey, what's up?" "Hey...um..." Scott panicked. He didn't know what to say. He only called to hear Cyrus's voice. "How's work going?" "Boring. Barely anyone's come in today. I've been watching the TV in the lobby more than working." Cyrus said. "Did you need me to get you something?" "No, I...I don't know. I can't think of anything." Scott felt his face get hotter as he spoke. "Heh. Are you lonely?" Cyrus laughed under his breath. "No, it's just really...quiet here. I feel like I'm losing it." Scott fidgeted with the phone cord. "I'll be home in an hour. Do you want me to leave early?" Cyrus asked. 'Leave early? Ugh, I sound like a clingy girlfriend. What am I doing?' Scott's face was bright red. "No, don't do that. Do you want to eat something together tonight?" "Sure. Did you have anything in mind?" Cyrus asked. "I don't know. I should let you go. You're on the clock." Scott said. "So? There's no one here." "I'm sorry. I don't know why I called." "Do you want to hang up?" Cyrus asked, confused. "I don't know." Cyrus laughed again. "Uh, maybe you should take a nap? Think the meds have made you a little out of it." "Yeah, probably. Sorry for bothering you at work." Scott said. "Nah, it's cool. I was bored anyway. I'll see you later." "Okay." "Bye." "Bye." Scott put the phone back on the hook. He groaned. "What the hell was that?" Scott got off the couch. He went out to the balcony for fresh air. His face burned so hot he thought he had a fever. Scott rested his elbows against the railing and buried his face in his hands. His heart pounded in his ears. "What's wrong with me?" A rustling noise caught his attention. Scott looked down at where the fence and the woods met. He saw something moving, but he couldn't see what it was. He watched carefully for any more movements. Everything went quiet and still. Scott's curiosity got the better of him. He walked down to there to get a better look. Scott stood at the fence and looked out. The woods remained dead silent. Scott waited for movement, a breath, the wind--anything to disrupt the stillness. Nothing came. He gripped the chain link fence, holding tightly for a protection it could not give. He waited there for a long while. Scott didn't know what he was expected. He sensed eyes on him, watching from out there. Scott told himself this was his paranoia acting up again, but it didn't remove that slimy feeling from him. He wanted to see what it was. He almost wished, if it wasn't real, that he would hurry up and have whatever monstrous hallucination his mind wanted to conjure up so he could be done with it already. Whatever was there stayed far away, out of sight and too close for comfort. Cyrus called out to him from the balcony. "Hey, do you wanna go out for dinner?" Scott pulled away from the fence and glanced up at Cyrus. He was shocked to see him home so early. He was out there for a long while, but nowhere close to an hour. He presumed Cyrus must have come home early. Unease crept up his spine as he turned his back on the fence. He didn't want to go anywhere, but right then, he desperately did not want to be alone. "Okay." "Awesome! Let me know when you're ready!" Cyrus smiled, then rushed back inside. He watched Cyrus disappeared through the doorway. Scott's hands shook as he felt something hot on his neck. He was caught between wanting to look and wanting to run away. Scott readied himself to run as he turned his head to catch a peek of what was on the other side of the fence. Nothing. There was nobody there. Scott ran to the stairwell and rushed to get back inside his apartment. 'I'm losing it. There's never anything there.' Scott told himself. 'There's nothing. There's no one there.' Cyrus peeked out from his room, half dressed. He said, "I was gonna splurge a little and go to a sit down place. Mexican okay with you?" Scott caught his breath. "Sure." "Okay. I'll be ready in a sec. Gotta get out of these clothes and wash off. I'm covered in oil." Cyrus said. Scott nodded. His heartbeat rang in his ears. Though nothing was out there, Scott locked both the doors. He waited in the living room, listening to Cyrus in the other room. They left to go to a nearby restaurant. Scott was grateful Cyrus picked one of the cheapest restaurants in the area. On the drive there, he and Cyrus talked. Cyrus started the conversation. "Hey, I know family's a touchy subject for you, but does your family live around here?" Scott answered without thinking about it. "They live in Floyd county." "Do you not talk to them at all?" Cyrus asked. "We're not on good terms." "I'm sorry. I won't ask why. Any siblings?" Scott turned up the radio. "I have a younger brother." "Don't talk to him?" Cyrus asked. "No." "Guess I shouldn't ask why about that either." "Yeah." Cyrus went quiet, then said, "Sorry." An awkward tension built up between them. Scott tried to defuse it. "Don't worry about it. It's just...not something I want to think about. I don't mind talking about family things, as long as it's not my family we're talking about." "Can I ask you questions about your childhood at all? Or is all of it off the table?" Scott clenched his fists. "Most of it is. My childhood was not...pleasant. I don't mind if you ask me questions, but I may not give you an answer. I'm sorry." "No, I get it. I know it's not that you have a problem with me. I want to know more about you, but I know you don't like talking about certain things. That's fine. No one's entitled to know everything about you." Cyrus said. The way he spoke tempted Scott into wanted to reveal more. "Can I ask you what high school you went to?" "I didn't." Scott thought over how to word his explanation for that. "I dropped out." "Oh, I had no idea. Should I not ask why?" Scott decided it might be safe to reveal a little more. "I ran away from home when I was fourteen. I haven't seen any of my family in four years." "I'm sorry. That must have been very difficult. Do you have your GED?" "Yeah. I barely managed to to get it, but I did." Scott said. "I'm really lucky Joe hired me and didn't turn me in. I can't go back." "Was it that bad?" Cyrus asked. "It was a matter of life or death." Scott barely managed those words. He had never told anyone that before. Amy guessed it, but he never confirmed it for her. Scott convinced himself it was alright to tell Cyrus this. What he was saying was true, but the way he said it was vague enough to keep the important part a secret. "You know how the state is. They leave kids with people they shouldn't all the time." "Yeah, I've heard some horror stories." Cyrus pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant. "I'm sorry for bringing all that up." "It's okay. I'm fine." Scott said. They went in. The waitress got them a booth near the back of the restaurant. She took their order. After she left, Cyrus asked, "You only want rice and beans? Hey, if you don't have much cash, I can cover you." "I'm not that hungry. There's plenty of free chips anyway." Scott said. "You ordered a water." "I can't drink anything else on the menu." Cyrus smacked his forehead. "Oh, right. My bad." "It's my problem. No reason you need to remember it." Scott said. "I know, but I'll try to remember in the future." Cyrus said. His eyes widened. Then, he scooted over closer to the wall and sunk down in the seat. "Something wrong?" Scott asked. "Yeah. That girl over there, three booths over. I hooked up with her recently. She said she'd call me, but I never heard back from her." Cyrus sighed. "I guess that's not happening." Scott glanced back. The woman was sitting with a man. She couldn't keep her eyes off him. "Yeah...don't think so. Sorry. Well, there's plenty of girls out there. I'm sure you'll find someone eventually." Scott said to cheer him up. "Ugh, what am I doing wrong? Back in high school, it was never hard to get a girlfriend. I can get a girl in bed, but she won't call me back." Cyrus complained. "Why don't you give it a break for a while? Besides, is it really that bad? You're still getting laid at least." "I want more than just sex." Cyrus stuffed his face with chips. "I know some guys would think I'm full of it, but I really don't care that much about sex. One night stands, loveless relationships with sex...it doesn't do it for me. I tried keeping the physical part of the relationship with Lidia, and it hurt more than when she'd ignore me for weeks. It's like...I could see in her eyes she wasn't think about me, and ugh, it ruined it." Scott listened and nodded. Cyrus noticed Scott's silence. "Sorry, am I talking too much?" "No, it's fine. I don't mind listening." "Sometimes, when things were really bad, she'd get...I don't know...more passionate? And I tried so hard to convince myself things might get better, but I knew something wasn't right." Cyrus continued. "She wasn't really looking at me. She was lost in some other thought, about someone else. That was around when I started thinking she was cheating on me. When I caught her with Travis, I didn't want to shout at her or beat his ass. I went to the bathroom to throw up. Then I took a cold shower. I sat in that cold water thinking about how I felt then, and how I did that to someone else. I had no right to be angry or expect anything different." "I don't think that's true." Scott said. "What?" "Making a mistake in the past doesn't mean you can't be angry about that happening to you." "I get what you're trying to say, but I really don't think I have a right to be. The whole while we were dating, I never felt all that bad about what I did to that other guy. It didn't hit me how awful I was until that moment." Cyrus's eyes wandered over the selection of drinks advertised by the napkins. "It was karma I deserved. I won't ever do that to anyone else ever again. I've been so disgusted with myself that I did that." Something dawned on Scott. "How old were you when you started seeing Lidia?" "Seventeen." "How much time was there between her and that girl from Blockbuster?" "Cynthia? About a month, I think." "I'm not trying to play therapist here, but it sounds like you were lonely then and wanted to be in a relationship, regardless of anything else. And right now, you're desperate to get in a relationship again. I don't know. I think that's kind of unhealthy. Maybe you should just stop looking for anyone for a while." Scott said. "I know you're probably right, but I can't stand being alone." "Why?" "I don't know. It's just how I am. I want someone I can always share stuff with." Cyrus picked up the ad. He looked it over. "Can't you get that out of a friendship too?" "Okay, so maybe the sex part is slightly relevant." "You could be friends-with-benefits with someone." "That's not enough. I want everything." Cyrus said. "It's none of my business, but I do think you should quit looking. You keep trying so hard and you're going to end up making other mistakes you'll regret later." Scott had another motive for telling Cyrus to quit searching. He sensed it underneath his thoughts, but refused to acknowledge it. If Cyrus got a girlfriend, he'd be spending less time with him. Scott shook off that thought. "You're a nice guy. Lots of people like you. If you stop pushing it, I'm sure you'll find someone. What is it you really want? You want a companion to share everything with. You're not going to get that getting wasted at a club or taking out an ad, no matter what lie anyone wants to sell you." "What if there's no one for me?" Cyrus sighed heavily. "You more than most people have a chance of having someone." "I guess you're right. I should stop trying so hard. I'm young. It's not like I need to find someone to settle down with right now. I'm only twenty." Cyrus said. "Exactly. You like socializing with people. If you go out, just go out for fun. Nothing else." "Actually, if I'm not looking for anyone anymore, I don't really need to. Those weren't really my kind of place. Besides, I have a lot of fun just hanging out with you." Cyrus said the words Scott wanted to hear most. Scott's face burned. A strange thought rose in him. Cyrus cut down that thought. "There is...something else." "What is it?" "Well..." Cyrus laughed nervously. "I think I'm in love with someone." "What's the problem then? Why don't you ask that person out?" Scott asked. "There's no way. That person wouldn't date me. I don't know how to get over it. Actually, I think I'm making it worse." Cyrus's face was as red as Scott's was earlier. The warmth and embarrassment Scott had been feeling vanished. All that was left of that cluster of sensations was the tightening of his chest and his stomach turning. "What do you mean?" "I know I can't be with this person, but I keep getting closer and I don't know...I think I'm going to do something stupid at some point. Like ask for a date or something." Cyrus's face went a deeper shade. Scott had never seen him so embarrassed before. "When I'm trying to pick up girls, I end up blurting out how much I want to start a life with someone but my thoughts are all about that one person. That's probably why no one calls me back. I'm such an idiot." "You really like this person, huh?" Scott almost asked 'who is it', but he stopped himself. He didn't want to know. "Yeah...hehe...I don't think I've ever fallen for someone this badly before." Scott stared at the table. He listened to Cyrus ramble on, focusing only enough to maintain the conversation. His thoughts were somewhere else. After dinner, Scott went back out alone. He told Cyrus he was going to the store, but he simply didn't want to be home for a while. Scott's earlier loneliness came back at him, and he embraced it. 'This is good. This is what I need. I was leaving myself open.' On his walk, he grabbed several ads for apartments nearby. He took the long way home in hopes that Cyrus would be asleep when he got back. At the entrance of the apartment complex, a car pulled up beside him. Scott looked over to see who it was. He recognized the car immediately. The driver rolled down the front passenger side window. The man inside the car was older than Scott, at least double his age. He wore a business suit and kept a well trimmed beard. The man said, "Hello, Angel." "Mr. Smith, hello." Scott said. "I heard Kitty's skipped town. Wonder who she pissed off." Mr. Smith said. He smiled at Scott. Scott could smell his cologne from the street. "Dunno." Scott said. "Did you want something, Mr. Smith?" "I was wondering if I might find a companion to enjoy the long night with." He said. "How long?" "Till the sun rises." Scott leaned against the open window. "That sounds like a lot of 'enjoying'. What sort of things do you have planned?" "Oh, I think you know. Care to join me? I intend to 'gift' you well in green." Mr. Smith leaned in toward Scott. Scott's tone went cold. "No blood this time, and I expect protection." "I'm afraid I'm looking for a more adventurous friend for tonight." "Those are my terms." Scott stood his ground. Mr. Smith smirked. He leaned away from Scott. "I wonder how strong those terms will be if I offer you double the usual amount." Double was very tempting. He debated on what to do. "...Give me the usual and a half, and I'll overlook the protection. No blood." "No deal without it. I'll keep it clean." Mr. Smith put his hand on Scott's. "That's a lot of money, my dear friend. A lot of money someone living around here could use. I'll use protection, but the other part is not negotiable." Scott caved into his demands. "Double the usual rate and it's a deal." Mr. Smith opened the door. "That's a good boy. Come. I have reservations for a late dinner planned." "But I..." Scott looked down at his clothes. He'd dressed up enough to go to the small Mexican restaurant nearby, but he wasn't wearing anything particularly nice. "It's alright. Don't worry about your clothes. So long as I am paying, no one will care." Scott got in the car. "Do you want your usual service before dinner?" "Of course." Mr. Smith started the car while Scott unzipped the man's pants. The next morning, Scott woke early. He washed himself off in the hotel room's shower, then quickly dressed himself. He counted the cash again to make sure Mr. Smith didn't cheat him. Scott sat on the bed to tie his shoes. Mr. Smith stirred from sleep. He sat up and cuddled Scott form behind. "You've always been so good at this. Why don't you let me keep you as my little plaything? You'll live a life of luxury you can't now." "No, thank you. I prefer things as they are. I don't intend to keep doing this work." Scott said. "You're not going anywhere by getting grease on your hands. Let me shower you with my love and give you a new life, one outside your reach." Mr. Smith whispered in his ear. He kissed down Scott's neck. "And when my hair turns grey, will you love me then?" Scott pulled away from him. "The first time I met you, I was fourteen. I don't believe for a moment you will love me when I'm twenty-five, much less fifty." Mr. Smith looked annoyed with him. "Perhaps not. You're getting a bit too rebellious for my taste." "Well, as you know, I'm only submissive for pay. I've never been anything else." Scott said, his stare as cold as ice. "Thank you for you time, Mr. Smith. I hope you enjoyed our time together last night." "Another hour." The man demanded. "Excuse me?" "Another hour. I want you for one last hour." Mr. Smith grabbed Scott's wrist. "Will I be paid for that hour?" Scott asked. "Of course." Scott checked the time. It was early enough he could still make it in to work. Scott leaned down and kissed the man. "One hour, and I want a ride home." Scott made it home by six thirty. He made a mental note to deposit some of the cash later. The money he got from that night would greatly help him with moving into a new apartment. Mr. Smith was a client he both hated and loved to see. He always paid Scott the most, but he always left marks on Scott's body. It wasn't anything more painful than what his parents did to him. He could handle it well enough. He simply didn't want it. The money was too good to pass up though. Thinking about all the money he made over a single night, Scott contemplated quitting his job and going back to his old job. He made far more money per hour, and that work never carried the risk of getting close to anyone. He was getting older though. For most of his old clients, what drew them in was his age. There was only so long he could get the money he used to be making, and so many of them refused to agree to wear protection. Without Amy pulling in clients for him, any new clients he'd have to find for himself. Scott gave up that thought. He never liked that job anyway. When he got home, Cyrus was up making coffee. Scott went to the stove to fix something for himself. Cyrus stood beside him. "You're back. Where'd you go off last night?" "I stayed over at a girl's place." Scott said. It was close enough to the truth. "Oh really? How'd it go?" Cyrus grinned. "Eh. The girl I fucked the other night at the laundromat was way better." Scott said, mostly out of spite to Mr. Smith. Scott's back stung from the small cuts and bruises left by that man's desires. "You did what?" Cyrus nearly spit out his coffee. "What? I told you I pick up girls there sometimes." "Laundromat. You're crazy." Cyrus picked up the mug of tea Scott made and took a sip. He looked over at Scott. "Oh, sorry. I didn't ask. You don't mind, right?" "I don't care." Scott said. 'You have your own drink. Why are you drinking mine?' Cyrus hung his arm over Scott's shoulder. "Whatcha makin'?" "Omelets." "Is this a solo venture?" Cyrus asked. Scott focused on cooking. The heat of Cyrus's body on him flustered him more than he wanted to admit. "It was intended to be." "Does it have to be? I'll give you five bucks." Cyrus said. Scott flinched. "Keep the five." "Damn." Scott turned the stove off. "I made too much anyway." "Wait, really?" "Fix the table." Scott said. "Sure." As Cyrus moved away from him, Scott thought Cyrus let his hand slip over Scott's back. He told himself it was an accident. 'Why is he being so touchy with me today? Am I a substitute for you?' Scott sat across from him at the table. He focused on eating, only half listening to Cyrus. "What're you doing this weekend?" Cyrus asked. "Dunno. Get groceries, cooking." "I was gonna go scoping out yard sales and curbsides for free stuff. Did ya wanna come with me?" "Okay." Scott said. He was mad at himself for accepting. Saturday morning, Cyrus and Scott drove around the area looking for discarded items. There wasn't much that weekend. They went to Kroger afterwards. Scott's mind was in a daze. As much as he wanted to get away from Cyrus, as horrible as it made him feel, that warmth crept back into him in spite of that and that warmth only made him more upset. He zoned out from what Cyrus was talking to him about. 'I shouldn't be mad at him. It's my fault. What I wanted from him wasn't something I should have. I couldn't live that fantasy anyway, with anyone. At least he might be happy one day.' Scott reasoned with himself. He looked over at Cyrus, who was none the wiser to Scott's internal conflict. He smiled at him. 'At least, for now, it sort of feels nice.' "Is something wrong?" Cyrus asked. "No." Scott forced himself to keep smiling. "Thanks for inviting me to come with you." 'I hope that person you love loves you back. Then, you'll disappear from me in a good way instead of being stolen away.' Scott looked away from Cyrus. Something inside him felt like it was breaking. He wasn't sure what it was, but it reminded him of that day he watched TV for the first time and his mother lectured him, and another time--the last time he saw his family before he disappeared from their lives. Out of the corner of his eyes, Scott saw something four-legged walk by the front of the store. He looked over. A coyote ran in front of the building. "Did you see...?" He started to say. "See what?" Cyrus asked. "I thought I saw...maybe it was a big dog." Scott shook his head. "I've seen some strays around here." Cyrus checked off an item on their list. "You're really good at managing this stuff. I always end up getting fast food." "But you're really good at cooking." Scott said. "Yeah, but you plan all this out. I never know what to cook." "You know...I could...double my portions when I cook if you split the bill with me." Scott offered. His stomach twisted in knots as he spoke. "Wouldn't that be a lot of work?" "I like cooking. But uh...you know how I eat. If you want something really sweet, you'll have to make that yourself." "That's cool. I probably eat too much sugar anyway." Cyrus said. He checked the last item off their list. "Looks like we're done here." They checked out and went to the car. Scott saw the coyote again. It stared straight at him, then ran off behind the building. "Did you see that?" Scott asked. "What?" "There was a coyote over there..." He pointed to the spot. "Huh? Guess they do go pretty far into places like this, don't they? Shouldn't be wandering around during this time of the day though...That's concerning. Are you sure you didn't see a dog?" Cyrus asked. "I don't know...I could be wrong. Maybe it was a dog." Scott got in the car. He looked back over. There was nothing there. The more he thought about it, the less likely it seemed. That bothered him. When he thought about it, in the four years he'd lived in that area, not once had he ever seen a coyote before, much less one getting so close to people in the middle of the day. He hadn't seen a coyote around there until that day in Cyrus's car. Scott wondered what it meant. He didn't dwell on it long. 'What am I thinking? It's just a coyote. It doesn't mean anything.' At home, Scott got started on cooking. He had fun adjusting the recipes to be for two people and snuck in a dessert item for Cyrus as a surprise. He was embarrassed he did that, and it hurt a little, but he wanted Cyrus to be happy. Later, he went by himself to the library. Scott originally went to get more books on cooking, but he got distracted by the computers again. He had extra money. Scott thought about that morning he spent with Cyrus in the library. Cyrus would leave him behind at some point, Scott told himself, but it might be nice to have a computer. It would let him keep that memory at least, and he did want one. The next morning, Scott went out and bought a computer he saw for sale. He went home immediately to set it up. He set it on a desk Cyrus gave him. Cyrus found it on the side of the road when they were coming back from work and repaired it for him. Scott read through the instructions. He was starting to think he was in over his head. "Hey, sorry to bug you, but uh...can I borrow some clothes?" Cyrus stood in the doorway with a towel around his waist. "What happened to yours?" Scott asked. "I might've had a small...disaster happen in my drawers and I really need to wash...everything." Cyrus vaguely explained. "Go ahead." "Thanks." Cyrus opened up Scott's drawers. "Uh...would it be weird if...nevermind. Guess I'm going commando today." 'Did you really almost ask to wear my underwear?' Scott raised an eyebrow. 'Isn't it just as weird that you're dick's going to be rubbing all over my pants?' "Do you mind if I wear these?" Cyrus held up a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. "I don't care." Cyrus tossed the towel to the ground and dressed in front of Scott. Seeing Cyrus fully nude, Scott was more perplexed that Cyrus was single. He couldn't decide which looked better, the front or the back. Cyrus picked up the towel. "Hey, do you need anything washed before I go?" "I'm good." "Okay." Cyrus saw the computer on the desk. He walked over. "Oh, you got a computer. That's neat. Do you have it up and running yet?" "I'm not really sure..." "Good luck with that. I'm gonna go to the laundromat. Who knew one cup of spilled coffee could cause such a disaster." Cyrus threw the towel over his shoulder. While Cyrus left to wash clothes, Scott finished setting up the computer. The computer he picked out came with a set of games. The one from the library was in it. He had fun playing it, collecting the keys and computer chips in the game. Scott felt a little childish at enjoying something so simple, but he chalked it to him not having had a normal childhood to begin with. The guy at the store also gave him a free trial for internet. Scott decided he'd wait to set that up. He was already overwhelmed from setting up the computer itself. Scott got up to make a sandwich. He saw Cyrus left a chair out on the balcony. Scott brought it in. He saw something moving in the woods when he was closing the door. Scott went down to investigate. At the fence, he saw nothing. He didn't watch for long. The confused situation with Cyrus left him caring less about what might be out there. Scott returned to his room with lunch in hand. He played around with some of the other software that came with the computer. He found one he could type in. Without thinking much about it, he started writing out whatever came to mind. His thoughts about Cyrus, about Amy, about work--it flowed out easily. Scott looked over it and dated it, deciding to attempt keeping a journal. Memories were untrustworthy things. A journal might be useful to him in the long run. Recalling memories made him think more about his parents. It wasn't their department's project, but he heard a lot from his parents about the research being done by other scientists for the company. One of those involved memory, specifically how to alter memory. It was all too easy. Scott sometimes wondered if anyone from the company had altered his own memories in any way. He could never know. His parents' research was different. They focused on testing the human body, and what it could endure. That was the sole reason for his own birth, to be a test subject for them. When his parents and the other pair that work alongside them each had their own child, he ceased to be of value to anyone. That was why he had to run away. When he was fourteen, the head of the company told them it was time to "retire" him from the research project. Scott knew very well what that meant. His parents would be taking him to the room no one ever came back from. He heard screams from there, and it always smelled like smoke. Scott was surprised they let him live as long as they did. Once his little brother, Idris, was born, his parents constantly reminded him he'd be retired at some point. Scott used to wake every day wondered if he was going to be alive by the end of it. When they experimented on him, there was the hope that for all the pain he endured, his parents would attempt to keep him alive so they could do another experiment. Once he became disposable, that hope vanished. He was obsolete. He served no function. He got to go into the tank less and less, and more of his time was spent on the metal table. The tank, where they would submerge his body for more advance tests, was used more for the new children. His tests became more crude, and at some point, Scott suspected that was out of malice for him being useless and failing to die yet. When the news came for his termination, everyone heard it at once. His father thanked the head of the company for seeing his biological son as so valuable that the previous research could be discontinued and his mother thanked the man for allowing them to finally get rid of the "thing" that wasted resources. His brother said nothing, but Scott knew what he was thinking. For such a display, the child could have only been wondered when his turn would come. The only one who said anything to him that day was the other child, the girl born to the other pair of researchers, a girl named Sarah. She got his attention when the researchers went on break for lunch. "You should run. They won't let us go, but maybe you can get away." Sarah told him. "They'll find me. They know everything." Scott said back to her. "They want you to die. If you keep quiet, they might let you go. Erase yourself." The little girl's words stuck with him. That afternoon, when the other pair left work, Scott asked his parents a final request, adding that since he was going to die tomorrow, could he have something. "Oh, fine. What do you what?" His mother rolled her eyes at him. "That machine, the one that makes people forget. Could you use that on me?" Scott had asked them. "For what?" She asked. "Tomorrow, I don't want to remember who I am. I want to be taken with a blank mind. I know I don't deserve to request anything, since I'm a failure, but...could I please have this one gift?" Scott asked. "What a stupid request. Kyle, set up the program for him." His mother yawned. "It'd be nice to forget you myself. I hate being reminded of my mistakes." He expected she would say something like that. "Then, why don't we all forget about me? Then, it'll be like I never existed at all. No mistakes made. I could use it on both of you, then do it to myself. It's the least I can do for being such a failure." They fell for it. They set up everything in the program to make them forget him. He used it on them, then while they were confused, he confronted Idris. "Are you going to do what Sarah said?" He asked. Scott leaned down and nodded. "I'm sorry. I have to do this to you too." "Other people here will remember you. They'll look for you." Idris warned him. "I know, but for the people it matters to most, no one will. This is to give me time to escape. I'm sorry." "It's alright. Sarah will remember you. I hope you make it. I'm going to die here." Idris said. Scott let the machine fall gently on Idris's head. He erased the boy's memories of him. When it was done, he said to his brother, "If you ever get a chance to run, do it. Don't let them kill you." The treatment left Idris too dazed to respond. Scott ran that night and never looked back. For a couple of months, he saw missing signs put up for himself. He assumed they were done by the company to capture him. Scott lived his life on the streets, sifting through trash for food and sleeping wherever he could hide. Then, he met Amy. She was an older woman, much older than him. That night, her hair was a mess and her make-up was smeared. Later, he'd realize that was her usual look after work. He was running from the cops trying to arrest him for begging when she pulled him away into an alley. She kept him hidden as the cops ran past them. "Hey kid, why don't you come stay with me for a while? I won't tell the cops on ya. Haha, I'm sure they're already looking for somethin' to throw me in jail for anyway." She said. "Why would you help me?" Scott had asked her. "Us at the bottom gotta stick together." Amy told him. She caressed his face. "Stay over tonight. I got plenty of cash on me. You're a runaway, aren't you? Me too. Ran and never went back. I won't ask why you ran. If you're here, your reason's good enough." Scott went with her. He had nothing else left to lose. That night, she took advantage of him for the first time. She bought him dinner and they ate together on the couch. He remembered exactly how he felt when she pulled him in close to her and said, "You're a cute boy, you know. We could have some fun together." "What do you mean?" Scott was innocent to many things then. He'd spent his life in a prison of isolation. He had no knowledge of what she was implying. "Aw, don't be shy. What? Are you a virgin?" She asked him. "Yes." He knew that word then, from hearing it in passing between the adults in the research lab. It dawned on Scott what she was actually asking him to do. He froze up and blushed deeply. "Well, we can take care of that. I can show you all kinds of things." She whispered in his ear as she ran her long fingernails down his back. Her actions terrified and aroused him. He had considered telling her no, but feared what might happen if she threw him out. So, he agreed. The following morning, he regretted his decision and dressed himself quickly to get away from her. She lured him back into bed with her body. The messages his mind was telling him, to get away and keep running, were drowned out by the messages his body sent. He wanted it. That became how it was for the next four years. He slept with her whenever she wanted it. He couldn't comprehend why then. Older, looking back, he could see it was a mix of several factors--hormones, fear, and loneliness. He wouldn't say he loved her. It was nothing like that. But when he slept with her, it felt good, and in the morning, in that time before she woke, he felt safe for a brief moment. It was an illusion of safety. He didn't mean anything to her. Like Mr. Smith, he was a toy for her to play with, and the threat of being tossed out was always there in his mind. He did everything she wanted. She started taking him to work with her out on the street and sometimes to hotels and back to their apartment. He didn't do anything with anyone at first. She was introducing him to the job. His first client was a man who paid her a large sum of money to get to be the first man to have sex with him. They met in a fancy hotel. He didn't like it as much as with Amy. The man was too rough with him, but in time, he found he enjoyed a lot of the work he did with men too, at least physically. Some of his clients were wealthy women. They usually didn't request some of the stranger things the men did. He preferred them, but most of his clients were men. Scott thought at first that Amy was lying to them about his age. He learned from her later that was why they wanted him. When he turned sixteen, he asked Amy about getting another job. He didn't want to do that work all the time. She complained about it, but set him up with an old friend of hers, Joe, who hired him to work on cars. Joe was an ex of Amy's and he owed her a few favors. Amy expected him to keep doing his other job any time a long time client wanted his services. That happened less and less, and Scott adjusted to a life that appeared more " normal" to any outsider looking at him. He earned more working at night, but in the end, Scott preferred his daytime work. He didn't want to worry about run-ins with cops or getting diseases because a client refused to allow any condom usage or having to deal with some of his creepier clients. He wanted to be in the public eye and so completely ordinary that no one thought about him at all. He wanted to disappear in plain sight. Scott thought about that. He often wondered why he didn't kill himself. He was surviving as best he could, but not once had he ever really lived. His existence was more akin to a lingering ghost, caught on a small path to haunt, than a living person going about their normal day. He lived by keeping others away, by doing nothing interesting or exciting, and by making as little noise as possible. He might as well be a fly on the wall. For a moment, he longed for the nights he spent working for Amy. There was a certain excitement in knowing the horrid secrets of the wealthy. He felt a little powerful in having that over them, but Amy often reminded him that too was another illusion. He couldn't blackmail those people with that information or doing anything with it. They'd arrange for his death before he could do any real damage. She wouldn't let him refuse really wealthy clients either. He wanted to turn down Mr. Smith many times. Amy would make him meet up with him anyway, and he'd come home with cuts and bruises. She'd wash him off in the bath and say, "Oh, baby, I know you don't like him, but look at how much money he gave us." The money was all it was ever about to her, and she blew through most of it before the week would be over. The pleasure he briefly felt during work largely faded. Sex often felt like a chore. Last year, he started seeking people out to sleep with for fun. He wanted some of the enjoyment back. Scott found it sometimes with the people he slept with, but it didn't last long enough. He wanted something more. Thinking back on his life, Scott's mood sunk. He couldn't tell anyone about any of this. Cyrus wouldn't understand it, and Cyrus would be gone eventually. It was better that he kept it inside. The less Cyrus knew, the more normal things were. He wanted to keep that. Sitting with his thoughts, he could admit one last thing. He wanted to sleep with Cyrus. That wasn't going to happen, he told himself, but at least he could admit it now. Work went on as usual. He and Cyrus ate most of their meals together. Scott buried his pain and tried to be as friendly as he could with Cyrus. He found himself drawn to things connected to Cyrus. At the library, he checked out several books on astronomy. He tried out the telescope on a full moon. Scott kept up his diary over the week, and every entry, he mentioned Cyrus. The next weekend, Scott cleaned the apartment while Cyrus was out. Cyrus returned with something new, a cell phone. Scott watched him mess around with it. Cyrus looked over at him. "Did you wanna try it?" Scott walked to him. He took the phone from Cyrus's hand and looked it over. A few of his clients had them, but he'd never really gotten a good look at one before. It looked closer to a cordless phone in design than the corded phones they had around the apartment. He pressed the buttons to see how they felt in comparison. "How much was it?" "More than I should have agreed to. Eh...I dunno. I might go back to my beeper. Barely anyone I've met has one. At least, not anyone in my league." Cyrus shrugged. "Never understood beepers either. Just use a pay phone." Scott held the phone to his ear. "How does it sound?" "Give it a try. Call our number." Cyrus said. He went over to the phone in the living room. Scott dialed their apartment's number. He listened to the phone ring. Cyrus picked up the phone. "Hey." Scott mentally compared how Cyrus sounded on the cell phone to their phones around the house. It sounded worse than the beat up one they had at work in the lobby. "No offense, but it sounds kinda shitty." "Yeah, I know. You should hear it out by the woods. Shit doesn't even work there." Cyrus said, still holding the phone up to his ear. "Huh. So much for convenience." Scott said. He noticed Cyrus sounded more off than someone would usually sound on a phone. He didn't like it at all. "And my dreams of making dirty phone calls in new locations." Cyrus lamented, mostly joking. Scott laughed. He pictured someone trying to have phone sex in a gas station bathroom or in the middle of a museum. "Oh, I made you laugh." Cyrus laughed with him. In a raspy voice, Cyrus asked, "So, Scott, what are you wearing?" "I don't know. Why don't you use your eyes?" Scott said back, still laughing. Cyrus grinned. He whispered into the phone. "Hey Scott...is your refrigerator running?" "That's not sexy." Scott said. "Oh, did you want sexy?" They couldn't stop laughing. "You're wasting your minutes." Scott reminded him. "Hey, come on. This is one of the first times I've actually gotten to use them." Cyrus said. "Besides, I made you laugh. It was worth it." "Well, go on then. Or should I call a 900 number with this. How much will that up your bill?" "Don't you dare. I learned long ago how expensive that stuff is." "You actually called one?" "I was bored." Cyrus said. Scott narrowed his eyes at him. Cyrus maintained his claim. "What? No, really, that's why. I thought it'd be funny." "What color is your underwear?" Scott asked. "What?" "What color is your underwear?" Scott asked again, snickering. Cyrus grinned at him. "I'm not wearing any." "Hey, you know, I heard there are some dirty websites online." Scott said. "Oh, yeah, I heard about that." Cyrus hung up the home phone. He asked, "Can you get online?" "I have one of those trial things. Don't know if I'd pay for it though." Scott handed Cyrus his cell phone back. "What are you doing with your computer?" "I really have no idea." "So, how do we get online?" Cyrus asked. "I'll show you." Scott took him over to his desk in his room. He booted up the computer. It took a couple of minutes to start up. Scott looked for the web browser shortcut on his desktop and clicked on it. A small window popped up asking for him to put in information to connect. The information was already stored from when he set it up previously. Scott hit connect and watched it. The computer made loud sounds. "What is that god awful noise?" Cyrus asked in response to the loud, annoying noise the computer was making. "It's connecting or something. It does that every time." Scott said. "For how long?" "A while." It took another minute before he was able to get online. Scott said, "There. Okay, I need to search for it. Hmm..." Scott went to a search engine and typed "adults only sexy ladies" into the search bar and hit enter. Several sites popped up with racy sounding names. He clicked on the top result. A website popped up with a picture of a naked woman warning the site was for people eighteen or older and asking him to confirm he was an adult. Scott clicked yes and the page changed. He saw sexual pictures all over the page and a list of videos. Some of the photos were racier than the adult VHS tapes Amy sometimes kept around the house. "Holy shit." Cyrus stared at it in shock. "Wow. Uh...well, there it is." Scott glanced over the videos. "Looks like there's several videos. Should I click on one?" "Are you telling me you can get free porn?" Cyrus asked. The look on his face was somewhere between astonished and excited. "Looks like it's a five minute clip. Hmm...I think it's a preview for a film." Scott hit play on the first video he saw. "Shit, five minutes enough. How long do you really need?" Cyrus leaned in closer to the monitor. The video started to play, then buffered for a long time. "Ugh, it's taking so long to load." "We do live near the woods even though we're by the city. Bet it works better further in the city. Oh...it's about to play...and more buffering...ugh..." Scott sighed. When the buffered stopped, he perked back up. "Wait..." The video started. A woman was on her knees, unbuttoning a man's pants. He knew where this was going, but usually in the porn films he watched, there was a half-assed story lead up to the sex part. The preview video cut straight to the important part. He had to agree with Cyrus. What was the point in buying it if he could watch this for free? As he watched the woman give the man a blowjob, he couldn't help but get aroused. He put his hands between his legs to hide that from Cyrus. "They're really...showing everything...fuck buying it." Cyrus couldn't look away from the screen. "How much does internet cost? Cause...I'll split the bill with you if you let me use it." "I'll have to look around. Think I saw a better deal than the one this company is offering." Scott said. He wanted Cyrus to leave. He had something he wanted to take care of. "Hey, I know it's yours, but would it be cool if we moved this somewhere else? It'd be weird if I was always just coming into your room." Cyrus asked. "Yeah, that's fine. Have to find a place for it. I have to plug this thing in somewhere to stay connected." Scott side-eyed him. "Are you just gonna look at tits?" "Nah, I mean...figured I'd see what else is out there. But...it's cool if I look at these sites, right?" Cyrus admitted it. "I guess." "What else can you do with it?" Cyrus asked. Scott paused the video. If he kept watching, it was going to get really awkward. "Type stuff, like with a typewriter. I don't have a printer right now though. Um, you can play games on it too. Oh, there's chatrooms and email too." "Are there adults only chatrooms?" Cyrus asked. 'Do you only have one thing on your mind right now? Who am I kidding? I'm thinking the same thing.' Scott hadn't considered that. He was willing to bet there was money to be made in that. "I think so? I haven't signed up for anything like that yet." Scott caught something out of the corner of his eye when he looked up at Cyrus. He looked back down to confirm what he saw, then looked back up at Cyrus. Cyrus's face went red. He laughed nervously. "Uh...sorry. The video." "Maybe we should talk after you take care of that somewhere else." Scott said. 'And I can have some privacy to take care of myself.' Cyrus suggested something he didn't expect. "We could both just keep watching. You never shared a magazine with another guy?" "No, I haven't." Scott said. He heard of that from movies and TV, but he didn't think anyone really did that. Scott wondered if Cyrus was messing with him. Cyrus pushed the idea again. "Come on. No sense in wasting your hours." Scott decided to test if Cyrus was bluffing. "Okay." "Are you serious?" Cyrus asked. Scott started to undo the front of his pants. "Are you embarrassed?" Cyrus stared at him for a moment. He pulled up a chair and said, "Start the video over." 'I can't believe I'm doing this.' Scott restarted the video. He kept his eyes on the screen at first. Scott didn't want to make eye contact with Cyrus, but it was tempting. The quiet sounds Cyrus was making turned him on more than the video. He couldn't resist. He glanced over to check out Cyrus. When he did, he felt Cyrus was staring at him. Scott accidentally made eye contact. They locked eyes. Scott panicked. Cyrus leaned in. Scott's heart pounded. 'Is he...?' Scott followed his lead and met him half way in a passionate kiss. Before he knew what happened, one kiss led to another and the video was forgotten about. Ten minutes later, Scott was in bed, staring up at the ceiling and catching his breath. Cyrus lay next to him, grinning widely. "I can't believe I had sex with you..." Cyrus said. He looked over at Scott. "So..are girls a cover for you?" "No." Scott said. "They're not for you either. We're the same." "Haha...I guess I can't deny it now..." "You didn't know?" Scott asked. "I thought I might be bi, but I really didn't want to believe it." "Why?" "I dunno. You know how people are. I can't tell anyone about that." Cyrus said. He wiped sweat off his face. "It's not like you have to." Scott turned over on his side toward Cyrus. "But if I dated a guy...I'd have to hide everything." "So what?" "Sorry." Cyrus looked away. "For what?" Scott didn't follow. "Do you want to date a guy? It's not like you have to." Cyrus's face went red. "What if I do want to? I don't know what to do. I've always been so open about everything else in my life. How would I hide a boyfriend?" "Say you're friends or roommates or something." "And if I stayed with them for years? What do I tell people when they ask why I've been single for a decade?" "You prefer the bachelor life. That's already the lie plenty of guys use, especially here." Scott said. "I know, but...I don't think I could lie to my parents." "Would they hate you for it?" Scott asked. "I don't think so. My mom has some gay friends. But friends aren't the same as family." Cyrus said. "You're worrying too much. It's not like you have a boyfriend. All you did was sleep with me. No one needs to know that." "I know, but..." Cyrus moved closer to Scott on the bed. "I mean, now that it's out in the open, I kinda wanna ask you out." "What? Why?" Scott asked. He thought Cyrus was already in love with someone else. "Cause I like you." Cyrus played with Scott's hair. "I know you don't do relationships, but I like spending time with you. I won't be heartbroken if you turn me down, but, you know, if not like that, I wish we could hang out more at least." "What could you possibly like about me? I'm completely uninteresting." Scott said. "That's not true." Cyrus kept his face less than an inch from Scott's. He whispered, face a deep shade of red, "I have a secret to tell you. Since I got hired, I've been wanting to talk to you more. When I saw your ad, I thought I finally lucked out." "You never talked to me much before then." "You wouldn't talk to anyone for more than a few minutes." "I don't like getting close to people." "Do you think you could make an exception?" Cyrus asked. "I don't know." Scott's chest tightened. Dating someone was the last thing he should be doing. He reminded himself it was too dangerous. That wasn't the kind of life he could live. Something would go wrong, he knew it. Despite that, he couldn't help himself from saying, "You are really good at kissing. Maybe...I could try that for once..." Cyrus's eyes sparkled. He smiled with excitement. "So, is it official?" "Yeah." "This is going to take some getting used to." "When are you going to tell your parents?" Scott asked. "Not any time soon. If this doesn't work out very well, it'd be pointless for me to come out and then we break up a week later." Cyrus said. Scott cuddled up against him. It was something he'd wanted to do for a while now. The scent of Cyrus's body drove him crazy. He wanted to stay there in his arms for hours. "I don't really know much about dating. Are you going to take me out?" "We could get dinner and a movie." Cyrus held him back. He kissed Scott's forehead. "I hate movie theaters." Scott said. "We won't be there to watch the movie. We'll be there to...you know." Cyrus laughed. "We can do that at home." "You would say that." Cyrus kissed him again. "And you're good at playing pretend. You don't like that shallow crap either, do you? What do you really want to do with me?" Scott's words were forward and playful in tone. Cyrus gave it some thought. "Do you like hiking?" "Never really done much of it." "None of the people I've gone out with ever liked it. Camping and hiking were too outdoorsy for most city girls. You're not from the city, are you? I can tell." Cyrus said. "I'm from around Rome." "Knew it. You know, the woods behind the apartments go out pretty far before you reach any houses or buildings. Sometimes, I take walks through there. Do you wanna do that on our next day off?" Cyrus pulled him in closer. "Sure, but bring food." "A nature walk and a picnic. You're right. That's definitely more my kind of date." Cyrus said. "Sounds like you've been chasing the wrong people." Scott commented. "Yeah. Hey, do you wanna try stargazing? We've kind of done that before." "That sounds nice. I like hearing you talk about space." Scott rested his head against Cyrus's chest. He listened closely to his heartbeat. His fear of the future remained in the back of his mind, but right then, he felt mostly at ease for once. Scott ran his fingers down Cyrus's chest. "So, does this mean you're over that person you were into?" Cyrus laughed. "Scott...you are that person." Scott's eyes widened and his face turned red. "Oh." He laughed at himself. They planned their first date for the following Saturday. Scott and Cyrus prepared their food together before going out. Cyrus led him to a different part of the fence than where Scott often looked out at. He pulled back the metal at a corner and slipped through. Cyrus held it back for Scott. Scott hesitated. He'd only been on the other side of that fence once when he was running from cops one of the first nights he was in the area. "Something wrong?" Cyrus asked. "No. Are you sure this area's safe?" Scott asked as he passed through. "Yeah. I've been checking out the whole place. If you go really far in, there are some spots dealers and prostitutes use, but we're not going anywhere near there. We won't run into anyone like that. Should really only be us out there." Cyrus said. He led Scott down a path Scott never knew was there. "I didn't know you had explored anything back here." Scott said. "I'm good at disappearing in the woods." Cyrus said. He took Scott deep into the woods. "There's two spots I had in mind. There's a small clearing up that way and there's another nice spot by the creek. I was thinking..." "I don't want to go by the creek." Scott interrupted him. "Oh, okay. Uh, is there a reason?" Cyrus asked. "That's where I first met Amy." Scott said. His thoughts stopped in confusion. 'What? That's not true. I met her in an alley.' "Oh, that lady you roomed with. Okay, let's not go there then. The clearing's this way." Cyrus dropped the subject immediately. Scott's answer bothered him. He couldn't fathom why he said such a thing. They set up their picnic at the tiny clearing. It was much smaller than Scott expected. He laid back on the blanket they brought with them and ate a sandwich. Cyrus did the same. Cyrus took a bite of his sandwich. "This spot right here is amazing at night." "Really?" "Yeah." "Do you want to stay out after sunset? We went out pretty late anyway. It won't be that long." Scott suggested to him. "You really want to?" "Yeah." "I should've asked you out earlier." Cyrus took hold of his hand. Scott held his hand back. Cyrus said, "You know, my parents always thought it was weird I liked being outdoors so much." "Why?" "When I was four, there were these woods near where my grandparents lived and I'd always go play over there during the summer. My parents both worked, so they left us all there a lot. I can't remember which of my brother's was supposed to be watching me, but we got separated." Cyrus stared up at the sky. "I found a coyote caught in a bear trap and got it free. This is going to sound crazy, but it let me wash off its wound. We were near a creek and it sat there and let me clean it. when I was done, I realized I didn't know how to get back. I couldn't see or hear my brother anymore and it was getting dark." "How'd you get home?" Scott asked. "I didn't, not that night. I stared wandering around, then I sat on the ground and cried. The coyote found me again. It grabbed my shirt and pulled me into a cave. Its mate was in there. I thought they were going to eat me, but they curled up around me and went to sleep. I slept up against them that night. I don't know how...I guess I sleep walked or they dragged me, but my grandparents found me the next morning in front of their barn." "Could they really drag a kid like that?" "I don't know, but that's where they found me. Everyone was freaking out. The police had started a search in the woods and everything. And there I was, in front of the barn, half covered in coyote blood." Cyrus held up his hand toward the sun and moon sharing the evening sky. "My parents and brothers thought I was lying about what happened, but my grandparents believed me. My grandfather took me down to the creek one day and we found the bear trap. We left a pile of beef jerky as a thank you gift and took the bear trap back with us so no other animals would be caught in it. My parents thought I'd be terrified of going back in the woods, but I wanted to go even more than before." "Why?" "Because...that's where I felt safe." Cyrus said. "I can't explain it. What about you? Are you more of an outdoorsy person or indoors? You always seem to be hanging around the apartment." "I don't know. Home feels safer to me, but I don't hate being out here either. For me, wherever home is--that's where I feel safe. Home can be a lot of places." Scott said. "Huh. So if we were...I dunno, out in the middle of a desert living in a small house, you'd be fine because then that place would be home to you?" Cyrus asked. He added, "Not saying I want to live anywhere like that or that we'd be owning a house together...it was just an example." "I know, but yeah. Then that place would be home." Scott stared up at the reddening sky. Sunset was well underway. "I've never really felt completely safe anywhere. The apartment is home for now, but I'm not...settled? I think that'd be the word. Something's missing." "You know it's a temporary home." Cyrus suggested. "Maybe that's it." Scott looked over at Cyrus. "Hey, Cyrus, I've been thinking about something." "Yeah?" "I remember you telling me once you don't date people you're friends with or people you work with. That it's too risky and you wouldn't do it unless you were really head over heels." Scott tried to stop himself from grinning. Even in that light, Scott could see the embarrassment on Cyrus's face. "So, about that..." Scott said. Cyrus cut him off. "Is it wrong that I want you that badly?" "But why? There's nothing special about me." "It's not a math equation. Emotions aren't logical." Cyrus sat up slightly. He looked down at Scott. "You know...I've been thinking about some things too. I thought this feeling would go away at some point, and maybe I was confused...but it's not going away." Scott stared into his eyes. His body froze, mesmerized by the person beside him. His heartbeat sped up again, but he wasn't afraid. Cyrus's deep blue eyes nearly glowed in the darkening forest, like two full moons on a clear night. He reached up and caressed Cyrus's face and ran his fingers through Cyrus's dark brown hair. The way his eyes contrasted so brightly with his dark hair, it was one of the first things he noticed about Cyrus when Cyrus started working with him. He found it beautiful, but now, after spending so much time with him, somehow Cyrus looked more handsome than before despite nothing about him changing. "I don't get it, but I'm flattered. Everyone loves you. That you would want me...I don't know if I deserve that." Scott pulled his hand away. "You deserve more than you allow yourself to have. I've noticed it." Cyrus got on top of him and kissed him. 'Why do I deserve anything?' Scott thought. Cyrus broke the kiss. "It'll be dark soon. You still want to stay and look at the stars?" Scott nodded. Cyrus rolled over beside him and held Scott close. They watched the light fade from the sky until only the stars and a half moon remained above them. No clouds obscured their view. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" Cyrus said. "There's a lot more stars than I realized." "Have you ever been out by the beach or way out in the woods and looked up at the night sky?" Cyrus asked. "No." "There's way more stars out there. All the city lights are hiding most of them." Cyrus said. Scott had never heard that before. He saw so many above them right then. "But there's so many. How much of it is hidden?" "We should go on a trip sometime, somewhere away from all the night lights. We're not even seeing half of them right now." "Really?" "Have you been to the ocean ever at all?" "No, I haven't. I've never been outside of this general area in Georgia." Scott said. He only knew about what the ocean looked like from TV, movies, and books. From what he learned, Georgia had a very tiny bit of coast on the east side of the state. "Do you want to go one day?" Cyrus asked. "I doubt we could afford it." "We might be able to if it's in driving distance. We could go to Savannah. My mom's always telling me about how haunted it is there." Cyrus said the last part in a mocking voice. "Haunted? Do you believe in that kind of stuff?" Scott asked. "I don't know. I'm not sure what I believe. What about you?" "I don't know either. Whether ghosts are real or not, I wouldn't want to go to a supposed haunted place regardless. There's gotta be something off about it, even if it's not supernatural." Scott said. Amy had been a big believer in ghosts, but all the ghosts she told him about only seemed to appear when she was high on something. His parents believed in ghosts too even though they were atheists. They wouldn't tell him why. With all the strange research the company did, he wondered if they uncovered something about that. Scott had no intentions of searching deep into that mystery. "Haha, maybe we shouldn't talk about that in the woods at night." Cyrus said. "Scared?" "My heart is beating slightly faster than normal. Slightly." "Is that so?" Scott rested his head on Cyrus's chest. "Sounds like it's beating a lot faster than normal." "It's not that much." "Yes, it is." Scott listened to it. He was amazed at how he could hear Cyrus's heartbeat changing. "It is slowing down now. I wonder what it would sound like if I..." Scott undid Cyrus's belt. Cyrus's heart skipped a beat, then sped up again. "What's it sound like now?" Cyrus asked. "It's faster." Scott unzipped Cyrus's pants and pulled the front of his underwear down. "Do you think anyone can see us here?" "No." Cyrus said. "Should I stop?" "No." Some time later, cuddled together again and with their clothes and hair a mess, they returned to watching the stars. Cyrus kissed Scott's hand. "You ever done it under the stars before?" "Yeah." "Really?" "A few times, but I wasn't really paying attention to them." "Damn. This is one of my fantasies. I've had sex in a car at night, but it's not really the same as this." Cyrus wrapped his arms around Scott's waist. "Was it what you hoped for?" Scott asked. "It was nice. I wanna do it while out camping. You know, up on a mountain with a beautiful view, in spring where everything's blooming. I bet it'd be amazing." Scott imagined it. He'd been on a mountain before. That was easy for him to visualize. Scott knew little about flowers. He visualized the few he could name. The scene he painted around them in his mind was beautiful. He wanted to see what a sky with more stars looked like. "You would." "What's your fantasy?" Cyrus asked. "I don't know. I've never really thought that deeply it." Scott thought about it. "The bed's nice. I guess...on a really comfy bed, where no one's bothering me." "That's it?" "Yeah." "But it's the most comfortable bed ever, right?" Cyrus asked. "With lots of pillows, really soft ones. Then I can get lost in them when I fall asleep afterwards." "Like sleeping on clouds?" "Yeah." "That sounds really cozy." Cyrus kissed him on the cheek. He pulled away and covered Scott's mouth. Cyrus sat up slight and grabbed his gun from the backpack he brought. "Keep quiet. Someone's out here." Scott whispered. "Where?" "Not sure. Stay down and don't move. I have a gun, if it gets dicey." Cyrus whispered back. He lowered himself back down when he heard the sound of voices getting closer. Scott heard them now. He could make out two distinct, deep voices. Footsteps came close to where they were. Scott saw two shadowy figures walk past them a few feet over. "You sure this guy's got anything good?" One of them said. "He's the reason last week's party was so great. Trust me, he's legit." The other person said. The two men walked on. Scott and Cyrus remained quiet and still until they couldn't hear them anymore. Cyrus grabbed his backpack. "Okay, I think they're aways off now. Let's get the hell out of here." Scott got the blanket. "I thought you said no one came through here." "They usually don't, but I haven't really been out here this late very often either. Let's go." The walk back was terrifying. Scott couldn't see the trail they followed at all. The lack of human voices scared him more than hearing those strangers roaming the woods. His eyes played tricks on him. Every shadow appeared to move in the wind, and he swore he heard something always rustling behind him. Whenever he stopped to look back, it stopped and all he could hear was the sound of the creek nearby. Scott held tightly to Cyrus's hand in the dark. Cyrus was more confident in maneuvering through the darkness. He got them both home quickly. Cyrus dropped his backpack by the front door. "We made it." Scott threw the blanket on the sofa. "No offense, but I don't want to be out there that late again." "Yeah...me either. You know, I'm really getting the appeal of the super comfy bed and no distractions thing. Could you imagine if we were in the middle of it when they came by?" Cyrus plopped down on the sofa. Scott noticed a leaf in Cyrus's hair. He pulled it off. "Probably wouldn't have ended well." "For them. I ain't going down easy." Cyrus said. He watched Scott take his shirt off. Cyrus asked, "Showering?" "Yeah. I smell." "Mind if I join you?" "I was going to take a bath. Is that okay?" "Yeah." Scott got the bath ready. He was a little excited about this. He hadn't shared a bath with Cyrus before. They hadn't slept in bed together yet either. They'd only been dating a week, but since they shared the apartment, Scott hoped that would mean they'd get to those things faster. He was embarrassed that he wanted that so badly. Part of his desire to rush forward came from fear. He didn't want Cyrus to disappear. Surely, some disaster was on the horizon. He couldn't stay this happy for long. They got in the bath together. Scott took the side closer to the drain. Cyrus got in behind him. He felt Cyrus put his arms around his waist. Scott pulled his knees in tight against his body. He watched the ripples in the water. Cyrus leaned in against his back. The warm contact comforted and terrified him. He couldn't place why it made him so uneasy. There was something there in his mind. Touch, warmth, water---those pieces connected in a shade of red. He tried to conjure the memories forward, but they refused him. Cyrus rested his head on the back of Scott's shoulder. "You know, this is kinda nice, doing this together." Scott sensed Cyrus drifting in and out of sleep. Shallow breaths heated his neck. Cyrus mumbled something, but Scott couldn't understand it. The ripples bloomed into crimson around them, and so did all the water on his hands, seeping out vertically down his veins. A raspy voice whispered in his ear louder than anything in the room. "See? It's all better now." Scott's heart raced. He straightened his posture. That woke up Cyrus. "What's wrong?" Cyrus asked. Scott caught his breath and concealed his fear. "Nothing. I fell asleep for a sec." "Think I did too." Cyrus held him tighter. He nuzzled his face against Scott's neck. "You know, this is one of the things I missed from when things were still good with Lidia. We used to bath and shower together a lot. I really like doing that. Sorry to bring up my ex...I just...miss doing things like that with someone else." "It's okay. I don't mind showering with you, if you really like doing that." Scott said. "Really? It won't bother you?" "No, it's fine." Scott's mind drifted back to that crimson image. He looked at his wrists. For a moment, he saw red. Scott blinked and it was gone. "Do you think I'm clean?" "Huh?" "Sorry. I'm half asleep." "Yeah...I don't think I can stay in here much longer. Wanna call it a night?" Cyrus asked. "Yeah." Scott put his hand over Cyrus's under the water. "Hey, um, do you wanna sleep in my room tonight? Since we're dating...it's not like we need to sleep in separate rooms...unless you want to." Cyrus kissed him on the cheek. "I'd love to." "Am I being selfish?" "No, you're being adorable." Cyrus stood up and got out of the bath. They cuddled before falling asleep in each other's arms. Scott dreamt about the dark forest again. The moon and stars flickered above him and the sound of the creek was drowned out by a distant howling. The monster didn't come, nor did the green glow. He couldn't find his way out of the woods, but nothing attacked him. Scott listened closely to find what direction the coyote was howling from. Rather than around him, it sounded as if it was coming from above. Scott looked up. Only the moon and the stars were there. When he woke, Scott swore he still heard howling. He looked over. Cyrus had already gotten up. Scott went to see what he was doing. Cyrus was in the kitchen, cooking and talking on the phone. "No, Mom, I told you. I broke up with her already. Yeah, well, there's no amount of looking cute together that is going to make me not care about her cheating on me." Cyrus said. Scott listened to the conversation from the dining table. "I'm not going to forgive her to get her back. It wasn't a mistake. She's already dating the guy she cheated on me with, and that's exactly how I ended up with her. She's a lying, cheating bitch and I'm not playing that game anymore." Cyrus didn't notice him there. He was too involved in his conversation on the phone. Scott couldn't hear what Cyrus's mother was saying. "I'll visit when I can. Plane tickets ain't cheap. No, I'm not moving back in. Mom, I'm twenty. I can take care of myself. If you want to see me that badly all the time, you can get on a plane yourself. Y'all have more money than me." Scott wished he could hear the other half of the conversation. Cyrus sounded annoyed, but Scott was jealous at the idea of having a mom who begged to see him. "Yeah, yeah. Okay. I'll try to save up for that. I can't make any promises. Okay. Bye." Cyrus hung up the phone. "Your mom?" Scott asked, mostly wanting to get his attention. "Yeah. She's so clingy. She thinks if I'm not attached to a girl 24/7, I'm going to die alone on the streets or something. Think she does this cause I'm the baby. She never bugs my other brothers like this." Cyrus finished up cooking. He brought a stack of pancakes and syrup over to the table. "How many brothers do you have?" Scott asked. "Three. Seriously. Nearly everything I owed as a kid was a hand-me-down for the earlier part of my childhood." Cyrus said. He looked over at Scott. "Do you want me to fix ya somethin'?" "No thanks. I'll make something later." Scott said. "What are you brothers like?" "My oldest brother, Jake, is working overseas with the military. He does top secret stuff. I don't really know exactly what, cause he can't tell me. He's always been really serious about...everything. The second oldest one is Todd. He works at some park over in Africa with lions and he's really oblivious to everything. I don't know how he hasn't gotten eaten yet. Third down is Chris. He's running several luxury dog kennels across Florida. All you need to know about Chris is that he's annoying and he will do anything to be the center of attention. Ugh...Then there's me, the mechanic living in the shitty outskirts of Atlanta." Cyrus poked at his food. "Jealous?" Scott playfully teased him. "Nah. I wouldn't want to do any of that shit. I'd rather work on cars." "I wouldn't want to do any of your brother's jobs either. At work, no one really pays attention to me, and that's exactly how I want it." Scott took Cyrus's fork and ate a bite of a pancake without any syrup on it. He grimaced. It was still too sweet for him. "So, your parents live out of state? Are you not from here?" "I'm from Decatur. It's my parents that moved away, not me. They moved out to Arizona to be one with nature or something. Cause apparently the city in the forest didn't have enough 'nature' around it. It's like damn, how many coyotes do you really need in your life?" Scott laughed. "Are they New Age types?" "Wiccans." "Really?" "Yeah. For now. They were Zen Buddhists five years ago, when they lived in California for a year before moving back here." 'That's a lot of moving.' Scott thought. "Are your parents really wealthy?" "After my grandparents died, Granddad left a big inheritance for my dad and all of us. They got their hands on that about ten years ago, and they've been going wild with it since then. My brothers always had bigger ambitions than me, so when they spent money on us kids, it mostly went to them. I never really cared for much, so they didn't bother with getting me much. I just took what was already there, and figured, well, this is good enough." Cyrus sighed. "Maybe I'm stupid, but I didn't want to be the spoiled baby brother. If my brothers had dreams, I wasn't going to be an obstacle in their way. My parents didn't really care that I didn't ask for much either. They hardly noticed me back then. Now that I'm an adult and all my brothers are off in their own worlds, I'm the one they're always calling and crying over." "Sounds like they're lonely." "Maybe." "Hey, about last night," Scott said. "I know it didn't go as planned, but it was nice until that point. I might need a while before we take any camping trips though. I don't really know anything about that, and I don't like going into anything unprepared." Cyrus's mood changed at the word 'camping'. His eyes brightened. "You really want to?" Scott nodded. "Is there anywhere nearby we could see more stars?" "I have a few locations in mind...Hmmm...maybe we should rent an RV for your first trip." "Is that cheating?" "People who make a show out of using the bare minimal are just as pretentious as people who sit in RV's worth more than houses claiming their roughing it. Don't worry about that shit. We'll do what you're comfortable with." Cyrus leaned in a little. "And just between you and me, I'd rather be in an RV myself. More protection and no worrying about getting completely flooded out by some week long rainstorm in July when you only went out to drink and mess around with firecrackers." "Are you speaking from experience?" "What gave it away?" Cyrus asked with a grin. "If you want simple, we'll get a tiny camper. We'll just bring a few things and I'll set up my telescope." "That sounds nice." Scott thought about last night. "Do you think we're moving too fast? Should we really be planning trips like that so soon?" "Nah, we would have done that as friends anyway. Don't worry about that. The right pace is whatever feels right." "Hey, tonight, could we get a movie?" Scott asked. "I thought you didn't like going out to movie theaters." "No, not to a theater. I mean rent a movie to watch a home. We could pick one out together." Scott said. "What kind of movie do you wanna watch?" "I don't care. Anything you want is fine." Later in the day, they went to Blockbuster to pick out a movie. Nothing new sounded interesting to either of them. Scott asked Cyrus to pick out something they could laugh at. Cyrus chose a kids B movie he watched once with Cynthia not long before she moved away. The movie was about a boy finding a baby dragon and giving it cheese to eat. Scott found it goofy but cute in a way. He was more interested in the castle in the movie than anything involving the plot. Talking about camping trips with Cyrus earlier got him thinking about going on trips other places. A trip to a castle would be too much for them to afford. Scott resigned to the fact that one would have to stay in his dreams. They had a good laugh at the movie and took the telescope out afterwards. Cyrus showed him what constellations were in the sky that night. Around midnight, they turned in. Scott clung to Cyrus more than the previous night. For every moment he was happy, he became more desperate. This was the happiest he'd ever been in his life. When Amy was there, he sometimes became clingy with her when she was really nice. He never had anyone else who cared about him. She didn't care that deeply either, but there was something there. It was at least more than what his parents gave him. She'd get annoyed with him and push him away eventually. He didn't mind. That was better than nothing. Looking back, he was annoyed she found his simple requests so bothersome. Scott buried his head against Cyrus's chest. He listened closely to Cyrus's heartbeat. He fell asleep there, listening to that steady rhythm. His dream this time was about the monster. It was chasing him through the forest. He ran, but his feet gave him away. His footprints glowed a bright green. Scott woke up as the monster grabbed his arm. He looked around the room. Every corner felt like something was there. Scott woke Cyrus. "What's wrong?" Cyrus rubbed his eyes. "I...I don't know. You don't see anything weird in the room, right?" "Turn on your lamp." Cyrus said. Scott turned on the lamp. Cyrus closed his eyes when the light came on. He opened them and looked around. "There's nothing there. Did you have a nightmare again?" "Don't laugh." Cyrus smiled and pulled him down into an embrace. "Leave the light on and forget about it." "I can't. I can't get back to sleep." Scott said. His body was too excited from the dream. He wanted to run somewhere. "My dad always said the quickest way to fall asleep is to tire yourself out. Let's do something physical." "I'm not in the mood right now." "I mean exercising, but that is also a good idea." "Exercising? Like what?" Cyrus sat up. He looked around for his clothes. Cyrus put a pair of pants on. "Bet nobody's on the basketball court right now." "You can't be serious. It's the middle of the night." Scott thought that idea sounded more terrifying than staying with the lights off in the apartment. "Who knows who else is out at this time." "If somebody's already there, we'll get out of there before anything happens. I doubt anyone's gonna bother us." Cyrus put his shirt on. "We'll do ten minutes. That plus the walk there should be enough to tire you back out." "We don't have a basketball." Scott said. "Actually, I got one the other day." Cyrus handed him his clothes. "Come on. We're in Atlanta. It's not going to be that dark out, or quiet." "Okay, okay." Cyrus and Scott walked to the overgrown basketball court in their pajamas. Scott flinched at every slight noise. Cyrus tossed him the ball. "We don't have enough people for a real game. Let's just play horse." "Um...I don't know what that is." Scott said. He held the ball up. "Actually, I don't know...what to do with this either." "Well...guess I'm teaching you the basics then." Cyrus looked annoyed. "I'm sorry." Scott apologized. "What are you apologizing for?" Cyrus took the ball. "I don't get it. What did your parents actually let you do?" "Not much." "Well, they're not around you anymore and I am. So, whatever you wanna try, we're gonna do it." Cyrus put his arm around Scott's shoulder. "We'll start with dribbling." "What the hell is that?" Scott didn't like how that sounded. "Watch and learn. We'll work on this for tonight." Cyrus dribbled the ball. Scott watched him. "Are you sure I can do this?" "Of course you can. You just need to practice at it a while. Remember when you thought it'd be too hard for you to learn to do a flip? But you did it that day, didn't you?" Cyrus tossed the ball back to Scott. "Give it a try. It's okay if you mess up. keep trying. That's how you get better." Scott held the ball. 'Why is this so intimidating?' He bounced it against the ground. It nearly escaped him on the way back up. Scott caught it and held onto it tightly. He looked up at Cyrus. 'Oh, that's why. It's because I should already know this. He must think I look like an idiot.' Cyrus sat down on the half-rotted bench nearby. "I know what you're worrying about. Just keep going. There's no one here to see you but me." Scott forgot about how terrified he was of that dream or anyone lurking around in the night. The single, dim streetlight that lit up the court flickered. Cyrus watched him from the bench, half-asleep. After a few minutes, Scott was ready to go back inside. He fell asleep easily and did not have another nightmare that night. Scott's nightmares became less frequent. This nighttime training turned into a fun activity for them on the weekends. Scott was able to play with Cyrus by the third weekend. He was grateful Cyrus was willing to teach him such basic, childish things. Having been isolated from society for most of his life, Scott was never quite sure what was "normal" to know and not know. Whenever he let it slip he didn't know or do something "normal" to everyone else, usually someone would mock him for it. He remembered those times well, and avoided those topics for fear of being mocked again. He'd only had four years of "freedom" from that place. There was only so much he could learn in that time, and he was already an adult now by society's measures. What Scott read as annoyance from Cyrus he came to realize was directed at Scott's parents, not at himself. The last four years had conditioned him to think it would be at himself for being ignorant. Cyrus patiently led him through learning the little small things no one else cared to show him. At work, people were noticing their closeness. Scott reminded himself to keep some physical distance between them in public. He'd become so used to how they were now in private that he sometimes forgot he shouldn't reach for Cyrus's hand or hug him. Scott came to understand Cyrus's frustration at hiding it. It wasn't fair, he thought, that other couples could kiss each other goodbye in public and hold hands while he had to settle for a wave or walking by his side at a safe distance. His efforts weren't working. No one asked, but Scott noticed the looks from some of his coworkers. Scott continued on as he always did, avoiding talking to anyone he didn't have to. He'd eat lunch with Cyrus, which usually meant Charlotte was also with them. Being around her was easier than his other coworkers, largely because he got the feeling a few of the people there didn't like her for some reason. He didn't understand why. He didn't talk to her much, but he didn't mind being around her. Charlotte sat beside Cyrus and said. "You've gotten real buddy-buddy with Mr. Silent Treatment. How'd you do it, Cyrus?" "He takes a while to let people in. That's all." Cyrus said. Scott listened to them talking. He was sitting with his back turned to them. He thought it might help with how people were reacting if he pretended to ignore Cyrus sometimes. "What's he like outside of work?" she asked. "He's a nice guy." "Do you know if he's single?" Scott covertly glanced back at that. "He's not. Sorry, Charlotte." "Damn. He's always so quiet, but he's really cute. Figures he'd be taken. What's his girlfriend like?" Charlotte's words made Scott grin. 'She thinks I'm cute?' He felt a rush at that. Cyrus scratched the back of his head. "Uh, she's really social. The outdoorsy type." "Huh. Wouldn't have guessed that. What's she look like?" "She's a brunette. Pretty blue eyes. Really cute." Cyrus said. Scott held in his laughter. 'Did you just call yourself cute?' "I bet she must be." Charlotte nudged Cyrus. "What about you? Did you ever find a girlfriend?" "Yeah, I'm seeing someone right now." "How's it going?" "It's been going well. We get along pretty good." Cyrus said. He leaned over and grinned. "She's really hot." Scott smiled. He was glad he wasn't looking at Cyrus. He'd be too embarrassed to face him. "What's she look like? Do you have a picture of her?" "Not yet. Um, she's blonde and she's got pretty brown eyes." Cyrus said the next part louder. "I could stare in them all day." "Oh, brother." Charlotte rolled her eyes. "Hey Scott, do you have a picture of your girlfriend?" Scott glanced back. He shook his head. "She's camera shy." "Awe. You should bring her by some time. You too, Cyrus." Charlotte said. "Uh, I don't know if I can. She works the same time as us, same days." Cyrus said. "Same. She's at work right now." Scott said. He struggled to keep a straight face. "Then you're off at the same times, right? We should hang out after work some time." Charlotte suggested. Cyrus exchanged glances with Scott. "Yeah, sure. We should do that some time." Scott couldn't hold hands with Cyrus in public or kiss him goodbye, but he had to admit, this was pretty funny. After work, they ate dinner together and worked on their budget for the next two weeks. Cyrus watched TV while Scott cleared off the table. The sky was darker than it should have been at that time of day, and the wind was fierce. A big storm was coming through. Scott watched the old pine trees sway and listened to the howling wind. An alert went off on TV. Cyrus yelled to Scott. "Hey, we're under a tornado watch." "Okay." Scott yelled back. He looked up at the sky through the kitchen window. The clouds above looked strange in color. Scott went out on the balcony to get a better look. Cyrus joined him. "Doesn't look good. There'll probably be one tonight, but I doubt it'll hit us." Scott watched the clouds move overhead. "Yeah, they've never gone through here." Cyrus kissed him on the cheek. "I'm gonna take a shower before it gets bad." Scott nodded and kept his eyes on the storm. Cyrus went inside. Scott had never been in a tornado. He was always somewhere far enough away when one passed through the area. He knew what to look for in the sky though. Scott expected they'd get hail at the very least. Down by the fence, Scott noticed something. On the other side, in the woods, a coyote wandered around. It slipped through the fence at a broken area near the bottom and walked behind the apartments. Scott called out to it. "Hey!" The coyote looked up and grinned at him. Scott thought he heard the animal laughing at him. "Why are you here?" Scott didn't expect the animal to answer. The coyote walked underneath the balcony and howled. Its howling started seconds before the sirens. Scott ran back inside and checked the TV. An emergency alert went off saying there was a tornado warning and to take shelter immediately. Scott banged on the bathroom door. "Cyrus! Get out of the bathroom!" Scott yelled. He banged harder. He heard the water go off. Cyrus opened the door, towel in hand. "What?" "It's a warning now." "Shit. Where's it at?" "I haven't looked yet. I didn't see anything outside." Scott said. Cyrus wrapped the towel around his waist. He grabbed the remote and changed the channel to the local news. The weatherman showed a map of the expected path of the tornado. It was passing through their county, but they were not in the direct path of it. Thunder rumbled outside. The wind blew open the back door. Scott closed and locked it. "It's about to start." Cyrus dried himself off. The wind picked up outside. "Yeah." Scott moved away from the door. "We're on the second floor. Do you think we should go somewhere else?" "Nah, we'll be fine." Cyrus grabbed his clothes from the bathroom. "Worried?" "I dunno." Scott sat on the couch. "If it starts getting really bad, we'll leave." Cyrus joined him after putting his clothes on. It poured down outside. Scott heard things left out on other balconies moving around in the wind. Cyrus put his arm around Scott. "The warning ends at nine. Let's talk about something else. Anything you wanna watch?" "I'm not scared." Scott said. "I never said you were." Cyrus kissed him. "Whaddya wanna watch?" "Something not serious." "Um, how about Friends?" Cyrus flipped through the TV guide. "Fuck no. Something actually funny." Cyrus laughed. "Oh, not a fan? Me either. I don't get what people like about the cast. They're all kinda snooty assholes. Hmm...how about King of the Hill?" "Hmm...I've never seen that one. Let's watch that." Scott said. "It's a cartoon. Is that okay?" "I don't care." Cyrus flipped over to Fox. They missed the first five minutes of the show. Scott was able to follow along anyway. Cyrus explained who the different characters were. Scott liked the show enough. He suggested to Cyrus they watch it together next time it came on. His old favorites were starting to bore him. The storm calmed down some after the show ended. Cyrus looked for something else to watch. "Hey, do you still wanna go camping some time?" Scott got more comfortable on the couch by laying down and resting his head in Cyrus's lap. He looked up at Cyrus. "Yeah, if we're renting an RV." Cyrus said, "I wanna go camping in the Okefenokee or Amicalola Falls. What do you think?" "I have no idea where either of those things are, but I'm pretty sure one is a swamp with crocs." Scott said. "Gators." "Yeah, I'm not doing that one." "Amicalola it is." "How far is that?" "Driving distance." Cyrus played with Scott's hair. "Anywhere you'd want to go farther than that?" Scott asked. "If money wasn't an issue, I'd travel the world." Cyrus said. "We could save up for a bigger trip." "Would you really go with me?" Cyrus asked. "All I've ever known is Georgia. Might be nice to see what it's like other places." Scott said. "I want to see a castle." "A castle, huh? Didn't expect that, but if you wanna see one, I'm down for it. That might take a while to save up for." "That's okay. I think we should try camping nearby first." Scott imagined them in a small RV in some woods far away. It sounded nice. Scott put his hand to Cyrus's face. 'Maybe...maybe it's alright. No one's come after me in a long time. Maybe I can keep this.' Scott fell asleep there. His mind conjured up bits and pieces of memories. They came to him in flashes. His parents presenting his little brother to him, how small the baby was when he first held him--it was too vivid. He could feel the weight of that little baby wrapping his hand around one of Scott's fingers. Then it changed to another day. His parents had him out on the table. They marked him up for where they planned on cutting him up for the tests they were performing. He watched them do it to his younger self, standing behind his parents and looking down. He was underneath Cyrus in the present, staring into his eyes. In his dream, they were too bright and too deep a blue. He wondered why Cyrus never asked him about all the scars on his body. Before he could say anything, he was in the bath with Amy. She washed off cuts on his wrists and arms. He fell backwards through her and the the water, down into the bed. Amy hovered over him, naked as he was. Scott looked down. His body was covered in red sharpie, with lines drawn across different limbs and one across his stomach. She held the sharpie in her hand and looked for a new place to mark him. "What are you doing?" Scott asked. "Drawing up what parts are to be cut up and sold for what price. Here's the good stuff right here." She drew a line around his genitals. "I'm not a cow." Scott said. The sensation of the wet marker across his skin disgusted him. She drew a line across his neck, pressing down so hard it hurt. "You're no fun, baby. Draw on me." Scott couldn't shake that something was wrong with this memory. Then, he remembered. 'No, it was a green sharpie. She always wrote with that damn thing.' The smell of sharpie gave him a headache. He hated it. Amy shook his body. "Wake up, Scott. Wake up!" Scott opened his eyes. Cyrus stared down at him. "Hey, sorry to wake you, but it's getting late. Let's move to the bed." Scott looked at himself. There was no green or red. He got up and went to bed. Scott slept in the next morning. It was Saturday. He didn't need to be anywhere, and he didn't want to get up. It was lightly raining in the morning. Cyrus woke him around eleven. "Hey Scott, you gotta see this." Cyrus said. "What is it?" Scott rolled over in bed and pulled the blankets up higher. "Our apartments are on the news." "What?" Scott sat up. "Come look." Scott got up and went to the living room. On the TV, a rerun of the morning news showed a destroyed building. Scott recognized the location immediately. It was the third building the landlord didn't rent out anymore. "Last night, a tornado ripped right through here, completely destroying the apartments behind me. The other two buildings were spared. Fortunately, according to the owner, this building was currently empty for repairs. There were no injuries. However, other areas did not fair as well." A middle aged woman stood in front of what used to be the third building. "For repairs. Repairs my ass." Cyrus said. "Apparently, there was a tornado last night and we slept through it." "How?" "I don't know." Cyrus said. "It was worse other places. We were really lucky." "I can't believe it actually touched down here." "Me either." Cyrus put on a jacket. "I'm going to go by and look at it before I head out to the store. The rain's finally letting up. Did you need anything?" "I'm good." "Be back in about twenty minutes." Cyrus kissed him before leaving. Scott went out to the balcony. The rain had turned to a light mist. Scott saw some of the damage out there. In the area close to where the third building used to be, he saw a line where trees had fallen. He couldn't see the wreckage of the building itself. The other building obscured his view. The snapped trees and exposed red clay were more than enough to convey what he couldn't see. Scott looked over at the fence. Where the line of destruction was, a chunk of the fence was completely missing. He went over to get a better look. The line through the woods went on to the horizon. He couldn't believe he didn't hear it come through. A tuft of fur fell from the broken metal. Scott picked it up. "A dog? Or..." Scott had a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. It dawned on him he should be in shadow right now. He looked over to where the third building should be. A large pile of red bricks lay scattered about. Broken toilets and bathtubs were everywhere. Wires were left ripped apart and exposed. The sight made him sick. Scott went back inside his apartment. He didn't want to think about that any longer. He'd escaped death once again. The phone rang. Scott jumped. He took a deep breath and answered it. "Hello?" Scott heard heavy breathing on the other end. "Hey, Scott, can you pick me up?" Scott's hand shook. "Where are you?" "You know where that tree almost fell on us? Right there. Um, could you bring a first aid kit?" Cyrus asked. His breathing worsened. "Are you okay?" "Haha...I dunno." "Do I need to call an ambulance?" "I can't afford..." Cyrus's voice sounded far away. Scott put his shoes on while he talked on the phone. "I'll be there soon. Please call an ambulance if you need to. I have some money I can lend you." "I don't want to hang up." "Cyrus? What's wrong?" "I love you. Say it back." "Cyrus?" Scott's heart pounded. "Say it back. Please, say it back." Desperation was all Scott could hear in Cyrus's voice. "I love you. I'm coming to you." Scott didn't want to hang up either, but he had to. He ran as fast as he could to that place. It wasn't that far away from the apartment. Scott hadn't run like this in years. The last time, he was running from the police and those people from the lab. Cyrus's car came into view, but he didn't see Cyrus. As he got closer, Scott saw one of the tires was flat. The side of the car was covered in red splatter. 'No, no, please, no...' Scott braced himself for what he might see. He ran around the front of the car. There, he found Cyrus in a pool of blood. Scott got down on his knees and held him. "What happened?! Who did this?" "A man from the moon." "What?" "Moon and coyote came..." Cyrus mumbled his words. "What are you talking about?" Scott asked. He searched for the source of the blood. Cyrus had been shot in the chest. Scott tried to stop some of the bleeding. "The coyote scared him away." Cyrus caressed his face. "I love you. I love you. I...Please stay here." "I'm calling 911. Where's your cell?" Scott looked around for it. He saw it lying on the ground. Scott picked it up. "I can't afford it. I don't have insurance." Cyrus said. "Cyrus, if I don't call, you are going to die." Scott said. His voice was harsh to hide his fear. "My funeral will be cheaper than my hospital bill. It's okay. They probably won't make it in time." "The hell it's okay!" Scott dialed 911. "I'm not letting you die." The operator picked up. Scott let them know where they were. The operator told him it would take at least fifteen minutes before anyone could be there. Those were the longest fifteen minutes of his life. As he waited there, holding Cyrus close, he saw a coyote watching them from the woods. The coyote howled just before Scott heard the ambulance sirens. He rode in the ambulance with Cyrus to the hospital. When he arrived, Cyrus was rushed away. A nurse asked him some time later, "Who are you to him?" "I'm...I'm his brother. Can I see him?" Scott asked. "For a little while. He's conscious right now." "How is he?" "We're working on getting him stable. It's going to be a long night tonight. Are you staying?" She asked. "Yes, ma'am. Is there a phone I can use? I have some calls I need to make on his behalf." "There's a phone in his room. This way, please." The nurse led him to Cyrus's room. She opened the door for him. "Mr. Corbin, your brother's here to see you." "Thank you." Scott said. He closed the door. Cyrus rested in the hospital bed. His chest was bandaged up and his skin looked pale. Scott stood beside the bed. He held Cyrus's hand. "Cyrus..." "Hey, Scott..." Cyrus forced himself to smile for Scott. "I'm alive." Scott sat on the bed. "What happened?" "I know who you are." Scott's body tensed. "What?" "That man told me about you...that they made you to be a lab rat for research and you ran off. That's what he said, the man from Moone & Wolfe. He's the one who shot me." Cyrus said. Scott's shoulders shook. "Why...why would he tell you that?" "Because he thought I was going to die and I asked. A last request." Cyrus coughed. "He didn't count on that coyote biting his hand before he could get in a headshot. Why didn't you tell me about any of that stuff with those people?" 'The coyote...?' Scott didn't know what that was about. He assumed Cyrus wasn't thinking right. Scott looked away from Cyrus. "I didn't want anyone to know about my past. I thought if I kept quiet...I could avoid something like this. I'm sorry. I'll go away." "No...you better not disappear on me after I nearly died! I'm not giving you away to that psycho!" Cyrus attempted to sit up. He couldn't. "Scott...I don't care where you came from. None of that matters." "But..." "I love you." Cyrus held tight to Scott's hand. "I don't know all of what they did to you, but I'm glad you ran away and I'm glad I met you. So...are you going to tell me the rest?" "You really want to know?" "Yeah. Tell me everything." Scott pulled his hand away. "That man who came...I don't know who they sent, but he wasn't lying. My biological parents were chosen to create me for research. The people I called my parents were the researchers in charge of handling me. I couldn't tell you what their goals were or anything like that. I wasn't important enough to know. Eventually, the people I called my parents had a child of their own, to use for the same purposes. I was deemed useless after they did some years of testing on him. They planned on killing me because I didn't have a value to them anymore. I ran away and eventually, I met Amy. She took me in and I've been avoiding getting too close to anyone since then out of fear someone might give me away or the people from the lab would come back and take someone from me to get me to go with them. I'm so sorry...I shouldn't have said yes to you. I should have pushed you away." Cyrus gave him an intense stare. "No. No one deserves to live in isolation. Besides, this isn't my first run in with those assholes." "What?" "I have my own story with them. I went to one of their hospitals in Decatur for a few months when I was in middle school." Cyrus said. "In sixth grade, I got really depressed and I couldn't function. Couldn't do anything at school. Tried to kill myself. My parents sent me there because they have really great reviews. Those three months were hell. They made me sleep on the floor, shoved pills in my mouth any time I questioned what they were doing, and put me in confinement for a full day because I was too 'disobedient' and 'dangerous'. I didn't want to eat the food that day. I was allergic. Eventually, I tried to stay as quiet as possible just to get out of there." "Do your parents know about what happened?" Scott asked. "They spent so much money on it. I couldn't tell them. I felt so bad I wasted their money. I couldn't tell them anything. I went back to school and tried to do my best to get through it. I knew by the time I was fourteen there was no way in hell I could handle college. I can't. I can't handle any of those jobs my brothers do. This is what I can manage. It was...I don't know...I'm probably going to be fired now..." "There's no way they're going to fire you for getting shot. Everyone loves you." Scott said. "Love won't get work done." "We'll worry about that later. We should contact your parents. What's their number?" "I'll call myself." Cyrus said. "Hand me the phone." Cyrus contacted his parents. They would be flying out as soon as they could get tickets. Scott called their boss while Cyrus took a nap. "Hello?" "Hey Joe, this is Scott...I'm at the hospital right now with Cyrus. He won't be able to come in Monday, and I'm not sure if I can either." Scott said. "Hospital? What happened?" Scott made up a convincing sounding story. "Someone shot him. Tried to rob him. Cyrus's family all live out of state. I'm going to stay with him overnight." "Jesus. I am so sorry. How's he doing?" Joe asked. "He's been talking to me, but he's asleep now. The doctor wouldn't give me a clear answer. Do you want me to come in Monday?" "No, you stay there with him until his parents get there. I'll stop by tomorrow afternoon. Keep me posted." "Alright." Cyrus's parents called the next morning letting Cyrus know they would be boarding a plane soon. Joe visited at three. He gave Cyrus some money to help pay for bills. Joe spoke to Scott alone on his way out. Scott walked with him to his car. "How are you holding up?" Joe asked. "I'm alright." "I was worried about you, especially since Amy's run off again. She didn't tell me much about your past. I know you ran away and you were living on the streets." Joe lit up a cigarette. "I've been there, on the streets. Did a lot of things I'm not proud of. That's why I hired you. You're young. I don't know what you've seen or done, but I know how hard it is. If you need anything, let me know." "Thank you." Scott wanted to tell him more, but he couldn't. He was too embarrassed. "I've done a lot things I'm not proud of either." "Humans will do a lot of things to survive. I'm not saying you should be proud of whatever you had to do, but you don't need to beat yourself over it either. Look after Cyrus for me." "I will." Scott waved goodbye and went back inside. Since Amy left, Scott had been thinking a lot about her, most of it negative. She did a lot of bad things, and she took advantage of him when he was the most vulnerable. But it wasn't all bad. There were good times too. He had a roof over his head, food to eat, and he could walk around freely and buy whatever he wanted. His first job, he hated it, but it gave him plenty of money. She set him up with both of the two jobs he'd had. As messed up as it was, she gave him skills to survive. For that at least, he couldn't outright hate her. His mind was always split in two when thinking about her. That was all in the past now. It wasn't a good or bad time. It simply was a time he lived through, and he survived it. She was gone now. He didn't need to analyze all of what happened. He decided to be grateful for the good things, and grateful too for the lessons he learned about what he shouldn't let people get away with. Even at her worst, she wasn't like the people from the lab at least. She was his first encounter with anything normal, as unstable as that experience was. She gave him enough to get by on. The rest he owed to Cyrus, who with such patience and kindness broke through his barriers and helped him along with all those little things no one else cared to show him. He could let go of Amy. He didn't need that toxicity in his life, for whatever lessons he learned from it. Cyrus, he didn't want to let go of. Scott opened the door to Cyrus's room. 'How do I protect you from them?' Cyrus was sitting up, eating lunch. He counted up the money in the envelope Joe left. "All that generosity and it won't pay for half my bills." "I've got the rest covered." Scott said. "How?" "Don't worry about that." "That's a lot of money for you to tell me not to worry about it." Cyrus said. He narrowed his eyes. "Scott, be honest with me. How did you come up with that kind of money? You said yourself you couldn't make it on your own. What did you do?" "I've been putting money away for a while. Technically, I might have been able to get by without a roommate for a while off of it, but I kept the money for absolute emergencies." "You're still not saying how you got it. That's a lot of money." "I used to..." Scott stared at the floor. "I haven't done this since we started dating, but I...sometimes slept with people for cash." "What?!" "You heard from that man about some of my past. When I ran away, I was homeless for a while...and Amy...Amy did that kind of work. She got me into it to make more money. I didn't do it much after I got this job, but I have...done it occasionally for some of my regulars." Scott hated letting Cyrus hear that. Cyrus's eyes widened. "I don't know what to say." "I didn't want to tell you about that. It's not something I'm proud of. I've done a lot of...things I'm not proud of for money." "Money's money. It doesn't matter how you got it. It's not like you killed someone for that, right?" "It mostly only came from that." "I'm not mad or anything. It's just a job, right?" Cyrus realized the detail Scott avoided mentioning. "But wait...you're eighteen." "Yeah." "Oh...uh...did your clients know...?" "That was part of the appeal." Scott said coldly. "Okay...uh, sleep with anyone famous? I always heard really shady shit goes on wherever there's people with loads of money." Cyrus took the information better than Scott expected. "You'd be surprised how many politicians campaigning on morality and family virtues wanted a night with me. Same goes for athletes." Scott said. Mr. Smith, his richest client, was quite famous. The name Smith was an alias to avoid anyone finding out who he was. Scott knew his real name, but Mr. Smith made it very clear to him letting anyone know that name would get him killed. He was one of many clients who threatened him like that. "Wow." Cyrus's disbelief was apparent on his face. "Here I am, broke as hell, and the only reason I'm not going to be in debt is because some rich fuck threw money at a teenager to cheat on his wife with." "The world is dark and disgusting, mostly." Scott put his hand on Cyrus's. "But it's not all bad." "Yeah." Cyrus's eyes were heavy. "So...that guy, do you think he's going to come after us?" "I don't know." "Do you know why they run those hospitals? I've been thinking...if they were willing to have children solely to run tests on them, what were they doing to me while I was in there?" Cyrus asked. "Is something about me different from having been in there?" "I don't know. I don't know what they did in the hospitals. It's likely they tested out some drugs on you. They never told me much, but I did hear some of the researchers talking about how they couldn't do anything as severe as what they did to me there because the parents expected the kids back at some point. They weren't allowed to kill you. So, it was mostly testing out non-lethal things. They probably put you on Aequa, if I were to guess." Scott knew a little about that. When he was really young, he was given an early version of the drug. He couldn't remember what it did to him other than making him forget everything from that time period. "I think so. That sounds familiar. What does that do?" "On paper, it's an antidepressant. What it actually does is make your mind more susceptible to memory alteration. That's what they like most about it. It's other side effects are decreases in emotional responses and low libido. Those were welcomed side-effects, from what I heard and those side-effects help the drug not stand out next to other antidepressants." Scott said. "What's the point of that?" "This is just a guess, but I think they want an easy to manage population. There's a department in the company dedicated to researching how to manipulation people, but I don't know their end goals. That was for important people to know. Some days, I never left the hallway my room was on." Scott remembered the white walls of the hallway. There were no windows nor any colors inside the building except for white, black, and gray. Whenever he went outside, his eyes had to adjust to all the bright colors. His parents dressed like that too, in black and white. Their white lab coats were always perfectly clean and without a single wrinkle. Whenever they got his blood on their clothes, the coats were destroyed and a new, perfect lab coat was brought out. He was given gray clothes to wear, because he was naturally "dirty". He imagined they wanted a world where everyone was perfect like those white coats and all the people who weren't would be thrown away. "Are they going to come after us again?" Cyrus asked. "I don't know." Cyrus held Scott's hand tightly. "We'll survive. I swear. I'm not dying any time soon. Maybe our coyote friend will help us again." "What?" Scott gave him a weird look. "I thought I mentioned it to you. That's why that bastard ran off. A coyote ran out of the woods and attacked his arm. The dude ran off after that." Cyrus moved his hand in the air to mimic the coyote running out from the woods. Scott was in disbelief. "That was real? I thought you were delirious when you said that." "No, he was there. He came after that bastard shot me and took my gun. He stayed by me until you showed up. I thought he was going to eat me, but he just sat there watching me." Scott thought back. "I..I did see a coyote nearby...but why would..." "Who knows." Cyrus tugged at Scott's sleeve. "Kiss me." Scott leaned down and kissed him. 'Should I run?' Scott pulled away. He stared into Cyrus's eyes. 'I can't.' Cyrus matched the intensity of his gaze. "I love you." "I love you too." Scott kissed his hand and pressed it against his cheek. Cyrus's parents arrived later that day. They rented a hotel nearby and stayed with Cyrus while Scott went back to work. As soon as the doctor allowed it, Cyrus came home. He was ordered to stay home for a while before returning to work. Cyrus's parents helped Cyrus during the day, and Scott looked after him at night. They decided to keep their relationship a secret from them for the time being. Scott introduced himself to them as a friend and roommate. While Cyrus recovered, his parents offered to pay his half of the rent. Cyrus recovered well. On a Sunday, he sat with Scott on the couch and discussed going back to work. "I think...tomorrow, I want to try going into work." Cyrus said. "Are you sure?" "Yeah. I'll help out with simple stuff. Nothing too strenuous. I can't stand sitting at home like this, and I've gotten my strength back." "If you're sure..." Scott worried about him overexerting himself. "Don't worry. I'm not going to do anything that'll open me back up." Cyrus pulled up his shirt. "Besides, there's not really anything to open up at this point." Scott felt over the place where the bullet went through. "Alright, but you're working the front for now." "Okay, okay." Cyrus rolled his eyes. "I'm really okay, you know." "Just to be safe." On TV, a rerun of the morning news came on. "Bout time. I missed it this morning." Cyrus said. He turned the volume up. "Breaking news. Police have finally caught and arrested the person responsible for the string of serial killings in several states. Police have connected Lynne Jones to killings in at least three different states across five years. Jones's target victims were teenage boys, largely runaways and homeless children." The news station put up a picture of Lynne Jones. Scott recognized her face. There was no way he wouldn't. Scott's stomach turned and his body went cold. Cyrus looked over at him. "Hey, are you okay?" Scott got up and rushed to the bathroom. He barely managed to make it to the toilet before throwing up. His body shook. Cyrus followed him into the bathroom. "Scott, what's wrong?" Scott couldn't speak. He threw up again. "Scott? Are you okay?" Cyrus sat on the floor with Scott. He rubbed Scott's back. Scott breathed heavily. He wiped off his mouth. His eyes watered. "Amy...That was Amy on TV." "The news reporter?" Cyrus asked. "No...that woman...the woman they arrested." Scott leaned into Cyrus. Every part of his body tensed. His mind was too overwhelmed to think anything clearly for long. He felt so sick he wanted to die. "Oh my god." Cyrus's eyes widened. He wrapped his arms around Scott. Scott pressed his face into Cyrus's chest, listening to his heart race. "Shh...it's gonna be okay. They arrested that lady. You're safe." "I...should I call the cops?" "What for?" "I know a lot about...the things she did...if I tell them everything, they might find other missing boys." Scott felt like he might throw up again. He went into denial. 'This can't be real. She was bad, but not that bad. She helped me get work. She protected me from the police.' Scott rationalized to himself. 'She hide me from the police. Oh my god.' Scott broke down. He covered his face and cried. "Shh...I'll keep you safe." Cyrus kissed the top of his head. "How can you keep me safe if you're not safe?" Scott felt over the place where Cyrus was shot. "Why am I alive?" "What?" "Why didn't she kill me?" Scott's mind flooded him with memories. All the nights she made him stay in her room, all the times she had him alone in the bath, all the mornings she hung on him asking him about breakfast--any one of those days she could have done something. 'What was she planning? Why didn't she do it?' His mind went to his deepest fear. 'Am I not good enough even for that?' Cyrus rubbed his back. "Shh...don't think about that. It doesn't matter why. What matters is you're here, and it's going to stay that way." "I should have died so many times by now, for so many reasons." Scott said. "We all risk dying every day we get up, but we keep doing it. Don't think about why she didn't. Let's call the cops and get that over with. She won't hurt you now. She's going to be in prison for a long time." Cyrus kissed him again. "I just want one day where nothing bad happens. Just one day." Scott clung to Cyrus. "There have been plenty of those days. You're forgetting them." Cyrus cupped his face. "And there will be plenty more. I promise." Scott wanted to believe him, but he couldn't. An officer arrived not long after they called. The officer came to their door. Cyrus let him in. "Thank you for calling us. Now, which of you is Mr. Scott Thomas?" The officer asked. "I'm Scott." "You called earlier claiming you lived with Lynne Jones and have information on her." "Yes, sir." Scott said. "And who are you?" The officer looked over at Cyrus. "I'm his...I'm his boyfriend. My name is Cyrus Corbin." Cyrus said. Scott waited to see how the officer reacted to that. He didn't seem to care. "Okay, when did you move in here?" The officer took notes. "I moved in shortly after that woman moved out. I was staying in that room initially, but I use the other bedroom now." Cyrus said. "Did you know Lynne Jones?" The cop asked. "No, I never met her." Cyrus said. "Okay, Mr. Thomas. How long did you know and live with Ms. Jones?" Scott felt a knot in his throat. "Four years. She picked me up off the street when I ran away from home. I moved in when I was fourteen. I gave her money and she paid the bills until I was eighteen and put on the lease officially. I knew her as Amy McKoy. She never called herself Lynne around me." "Uh huh. Did you have any other connection to Ms. Jones?" The officer didn't look up at Scott. He focused on his notes. Scott paused to think over his response. "We were involved...sexually." The officer looked up at him. "You were seeing Ms. Jones?" "It was only for sex. We weren't dating or friends." Scott clarified. "Why did she offer to take you in?" "She said initially it was out of kindness, but she expected me to sleep with her in exchange for staying here. I think she was always intending it to be for sex. Um...I may have done some illegal things at her request." Scott shifted his gaze between the officer and the floor. "What sort of illegal things?" The officer narrowed his eyes. "To pay the bills before I could get legitimate work, I did sex work alongside her. When we did that work, she called herself Kitty." Scott felt sick again. "Am...am I going to jail?" "No, we won't be taking you in. Did you have a choice in the matter with this work?" The officer asked. "She always framed it like I did, but I knew she'd throw me out on the streets if I didn't...and I didn't know what else to do." "Do you know of any other young men she associated with?" "No, I don't, but she only came home about three or four days of the week. I assumed she might be working with other people. She went by Baby Girl on the other side of town." "When and why did she leave here? Did she tell you?" The officer flipped to a new page in his notepad. "She left earlier in the year and didn't tell me where she was going. She said she needed to start over and someone was after her. I assumed she did something really illegal, but I didn't know what. I know don't know if this will help, but I still have the contact information for several of our regular clients." "That would be useful. Why don't you bring that to me?" "Yes, sir." Scott went to his bedroom to get the little book he kept all that information in. It was filled with alias for all sorts of people and notes about their preferences. He hadn't looked at it in a while, and he hesitated in turning it in. If he gave it away, he likely wouldn't get it back and he'd have to start over if he wanted to get back into that work. Scott caught himself in that train of thought. He wasn't going back to that. Scott returned and handed the notebook over to the police officer. "This is it. A lot of the people in here were primarily my clients, but many of those people knew Amy before I ever did any services for them." "Is there a reason you waited until now to come forward about this?" The cop asked him. "I didn't know she was doing anything like that. I don't really know much about these serial killings. I saw her picture on TV and I...I felt like I had to tell you anything I could." "You said you were eighteen right now, Mr. Thomas?" "Yes, sir." "Then you're lucky, Mr. Thomas. You're exactly her type. She likely was planning on turning you into a victim as well. Ms. Jones targeted teen males with the lure of sex, gifts, and housing. She often rented multiple apartments and kept boys around in each. We have evidence to suggest she arranged clients for these boys to have sex with for pay to keep up this lifestyle of hers. As to why she didn't hurt you, I don't know." The officer explained. Hearing all of that sent a shiver down Scott's spine and a dagger through his heart. 'Then...you never cared about me at all...just like my parents.' Scott wanted to break something. He balled his fists. "What exactly did she do to her victims?" Cyrus asked. "Dismemberment. Her calling card was arranging the body parts in shapes alongside rivers and creeks." Scott didn't want to hear anymore. Cyrus put his hand to his mouth in disgust. "Why the hell would someone do that?" "We haven't gotten to the heart of her reasons yet. Do you know any other locations Ms. Jones frequented?" The officer asked. Scott nodded. He got out a map and marked several places on it. He couldn't steady his hand. "These were the places I know she's worked at before and the places she liked to meet up with people at. There may have been others. I can't really remember. She was here about three to four days out of the week. I don't really know what she was doing those other days." "Is there anything else you want to tell us about, Mr. Thomas?" "I can't think of anything." Scott handed him the map. "My name isn't going to be connected to anything public, is it?" "We'll keep your identity private. If anything comes out connecting you, we can provide you with protection. Thank you for your help. We'll contact you again if we have further questions." Scott wanted to be relieved at hearing that. He only thought about how easily he could probably be tricked into being cut up. After the officer left, Cyrus led Scott over to the sofa. He hugged him. Scott struggled to not break down again. "This can't be real. It's too much...why...why are people like this?!" "Most people aren't." Cyrus said. "Only the people who stay around me. What's wrong with me?" Scott raised his voice. "I'm here." "And what are you? Do you want to kill me to? Am I too stupid to see it?!" Scott yelled. "Scott, you're talking nonsense." Cyrus spoke calmly to him. "I know it hurts. I can't imagine how much it hurts, but I'm here for you. I mean it. No ulterior motives, no strings attached. I love you." Scott stared at him. He forced himself to recall every happy moment with Cyrus he could think of. "Please don't be a monster in disguise. I can't take any more." "I know." Cyrus held him close. The rest of the day went by in a daze. Scott's thoughts returned over and over to Amy. Those happy moments he made peace with before were now irreversibly tainted. He hated her. He hated himself. 'Why am I so stupid? I ran away to the same monster.' Scott's mind went in circles about Cyrus. His years of isolation in that lab left him social ignorant. What if he was wrong about Cyrus being a good person? What if he was only seeing what he wanted to see? Cyrus seemed so nice. Scott told himself that had to be real. He had to believe it. Everyone couldn't be a monster. All the usual things that gave Scott little moments of happiness didn't do anything for him that day. Time passed by both too quickly and too slow. Scott moved through the day in a zombie-like state. Cyrus kept a close eye on him, never letting Scott out of his sight for long. He cuddled Scott in bed. Scott's mind was elsewhere. Cyrus rested his head on the same pillow as Scott. "Hey, how are you feeling?" "Like shit." "I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do?" "No. I don't...I don't think anything will help right now." Scott said. He stared at the ceiling fan. "If there's anything I can do, I'll do it." "Cyrus." "Yes?" "Could you say you love me again?" "I love you." "Thank you." Cyrus turned out the light. "Night." "Night." Scott closed his eyes. He listened to Cyrus breathing beside him and the sound of the fan spinning around. Those soft noises faded out, replaced by the sound of running water. Scott ran through the night. Footsteps and shouting echoed behind him. His shirt's left sleeve was torn, the hole covered in green. His knees were covered in the same green. Scott ran toward the water, hoping to lose those people on the other side. He saw it in the distance, glowing a bright green. The banks were the same color, fainter in appearance. Scott ran through it. The water splashed and covered his shorts. He glowed brightly along with the creek. Down beside him, he saw it. The monster with the stringy worms growing out of its head and claws on its hands. It smiled at him, covered in as much of that bright green as the body underneath it. The moon above, brighter than the green, illuminated everything. The monster, mouth oozing with green liquid, smiled at him. It put a finger to its mouth. "Shhh. I found him. I didn't take him." Scott stepped back. Fur brushed against his side. The coyote, dripping in stars and moonlight, howled away the night. In a flash, the sun replaced the moon and all was clear. Where green glowed, red stained. The creek washed away the blood soaking into the red clay. Amy sat crouching on the ground in ripped shorts and a crop top, as red as the earth and the boy beneath her. Her stringy hair dripped and a set of scratches on her face oozed. Her teeth were covered. She smiled so widely he could see most of them. "Hide with me." She said. He heard the cops getting closer but he couldn't look away from that woman's smile. "I'll keep you safe." The coyote bit his shirt and pulled him away from the creek. He let it lead him through the forest. Scott heard the police closing in and Amy calling out to him. "Stop resisting arrest!" "I'll keep you safe." The coyote tugged at his shirt every time he wanted to look back. The forest thinned until he saw the fence. Cyrus waited for him on the other side. Cyrus climbed up the fence and offered Scott his hand. Scott looked down at the coyote. The coyote grinned. Scott reached up and climbed over. When Scott woke up, remembered how he really met Amy. The first time he saw her, she was down by the creek in the woods behind the apartments. He passed her while running from someone. Scott wasn't sure who it was anymore. He caught a glimpse of her there as he ran, covered in blood. At the time, Scott thought he saw someone laying there beside her, but he couldn't clearly remember that part. There was so much chaos going on in his life at the time that he didn't think much of it. If he did see something horrid, there wasn't anything he could do about it. He couldn't go to the police. Moone & Wolfe had people all over hunting for him. He let it go, a strange, disturbing memory among many others. When he saw Amy again, he thought she looked like the woman from that day, but she never suggested she'd ever seen him before and he knew the woman that day definitely saw him. Scott assumed he mistook her for that strange lady in the woods. Now that he thought about it, he was certain he wasn't mistaken that day. He didn't want to believe who she was. If he accepted that she was the same woman, he had to accept he was being led into a trap and he wanted nothing more than to deny that. He'd worked so hard to deny that that he nearly forgot about that memory altogether. Scott got ready for work. He found Cyrus in the kitchen making breakfast. Cyrus brought him a cup of tea. "Hey. How'd you sleep?" "Well, I didn't wake up until morning. That's a positive, I guess." "Did you have a nightmare?" "Hmm...I don't think it was a nightmare." Scott sat down at the table. "Are you going in today?" Cyrus sat across from him. "Yeah. There's nothing wrong with me." "I know that, but...well, if you're sure..." Cyrus said. "I'd rather be at work doing something than sitting at home alone." Scott said. "Hmm...that is probably for the best. We can leave early if you need to." "I'm okay." Scott said. He said it more for himself than Cyrus. Cyrus's first day back at work went well enough. He clocked out an hour early and waited for Scott to finish his shift. Scott threw himself into work. The more he had to do, the less time he had to think. He barely ate anything. By the end of the day, they were both worn out. Cyrus went straight to the couch. He flipped through channels. "Hey, it's going to be a full moon tonight. Do you want to look at the stars?" "Hmmm...I might." Scott tossed his dirty clothes to the floor. "Are you okay?" Cyrus asked. "Think I need to get some fresh air. I'm gonna go on a walk." Scott went and grabbed some clothes from their bedroom. "Hey, take my cell." Cyrus tossed him his cell phone. "I'm not going that far." Scott said. "Just in case." "Alright." Scott carried the phone with him out the door. Scott walked along the fence behind the apartment. He visited where the third building used to be. The damaged part of the fence had been replaced and much of the collapsed building was gone. The trees torn down and the exposed earth remained behind as a reminder of what happened. Scott dropped to his knees. He overdid it at work. Everything in his body ached. Scott clutched the metal fence, using it as support to stand back up. Scott heard something behind him. He looked back and saw only the empty place where the building was. When Scott looked back at the line of lost trees, a pair of legs blocked his view. Scott slowly looked up. A man in a white lab coat and a black suit stood on the other side of the fence. He recognized the man's face. He was the person his parents reported their findings to. The man's name was Tom Summerfield. Whenever he came to the lab, the tests were always more brutal than usual. Scott bowed his head and begged. "Please, have mercy on me. I won't ever tell anyone about what happened in there. Please, please let me live a normal life. I'll take those secrets to the grave." "I see no reason to trust you." The man pulled a gun out of his lab coat pocket. "Please...you can watch me...record me...just let me be." Scott pleaded with him. "I can do with you as a please regardless. You have nothing to offer me." Scott reached his hand through the fence and tugged at the man's pants. "Please...I am nothing. I've done nothing all this time. Why kill me now?" "You managed to evade us for a time. We finally caught up with you thanks to all your dealings with law enforcement recently." The man said. "If you have to kill me, please leave Cyrus alone. You can give him that treatment. You don't have to kill him if he doesn't remember me." Scott bowed his head deeper. 'Please...why does it never end?' "It can't be only him. If I make him forget you, I have to make everyone forget you. It's easier to kill one person than alter the memories of many. He has to die too. You're both too connected to other people to make it easy for us." The man pressed the gun against the top of Scott's head. Scott braced himself for the end. He saw something before he fully closed his eyes. Scott opened them again quickly. A coyote stood behind the man. Desperate and afraid, Scott reached out to the only one he could. He whispered, "Help me." "What are you on about, boy? This is merely business." Tom Summerfield said. The coyote howled behind him. Tom turned around. He pointed his gun at the coyote. "You again." Tom pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He did it again. Nothing. "What the hell?" Tom did it several times. The coyote charged at him. It knocked him to the ground. The gun fell from Tom's hand, landing several feet out of Tom's reach. The coyote snapped at his neck and face. Tom used a stick to block the coyote's teeth from sinking into him. "What are you, beast? Leave me be. It's time for wolves to return to their home. I'll have you a corpse soon enough, you filthy scavenger." The coyote bore its teeth at him. Tom said. "Call off your beast and I'll leave you be." Scott didn't know why Tom thought Scott could do anything about the coyote. He went along with it. "How do I know you'll keep your word?" "I always reward those who follow orders," he said. Scott considered asking the coyote to eat him. He decided against that. If that man died, the company would send someone else in his place. He asked something else of the coyote. "Let him go." The coyote got off of him and stepped aside. Tom dove for the gun. The coyote tackled him again. It growled at him. Tom rolled out from under it and ran a few feet away from it. "Enjoy your time, boy. Continue being nothing, and I'll leave you be." Tom scurried away like a squirrel running from a dog. Scott watched him disappear across the horizon. He looked over at the coyote. "Who are you?" The coyote looked him dead in the eyes, then over at the balcony. Scott looked over to see what the coyote was looking at. There was nothing there. When he looked back, the coyote was gone. Scott went back inside the apartment where Cyrus was waiting for him. The woman Scott knew as Amy McKoy went to prison, set to serve several life sentences. He sometimes thought about her, but she entered his thoughts less and less as time passed. The nightmares about the monster and the green in the night stopped entirely. Cyrus went back to working like before, making a complete recovery from his injuries. No one approached them again from Moone & Wolfe, but Scott did sometimes hear a coyote howling in the woods when he and Cyrus looked at the stars together at night. Charlotte got a new boyfriend, and Cyrus came out about their relationship to her not long after that. They decided for the time being to continue keeping it a secret from everyone else at work. Before Scott knew it, the year was nearly over. Halfway through November, when the air was getting colder and the leaves covered the ground, Cyrus got a call from his mother. Scott half listened to their conversation. Cyrus talked on the living room phone. "You know money's really tight for me, Mom. I know...Okay, okay...um...actually...could I bring someone with me? Yeah...maybe. Are you sure it's not too much? Okay. Um...yeah, we can share a room. Um...well, uh...Yeah, it's kinda like that. One bed's fine. Uh...it's been some months now...Yeah. Sorry, I didn't think about it then. There were other things on my mind. Uh...look, I'll explain everything then. Okay. Okay. I love you too. Bye." Cyrus hung up the phone. "What was that about?" Scott asked. "My mom wants me to go out to Arizona for Thanksgiving and I might have...invited you along too." Cyrus said the latter half much quicker than the first half. "What?" "Was that a bad idea?" "Who are you going to say I am?" Scott asked. "I was going to tell the truth." Cyrus said. "Are you sure?" "Do you not want me to?" "If you want to, it's fine with me." Scott said. "What if they don't like me?" "I doubt that." "Arizona...I've never been there. I guess this means this is our first trip together." Scott smiled a little at the thought. "Yeah, it is, isn't it?" Scott spent the next week anxiously excited. Cyrus told him Cyrus's parents would be picking them up from the airport. Cyrus asked Joe to drop them off at the airport. The plane ride was a little scary. Scott had never been on a plane before and he had no idea what to expect. Both airports confused him. Cyrus helped him through it. Cyrus and Scott looked for Cyrus's parents in the crowd of people waiting for their friends and family. Cyrus saw his mom waving a big sign in the air. He led Scott over to them. "Cyrus!" His mom shouted. Cyrus hugged each of his parents. His parents looked around. Scott felt their eyes on him, staring awkwardly. "Cyrus, is this your guest?" Cyrus's dad asked. "Mom, Dad, you met Scott before." Cyrus took a breath. "He's my boyfriend." "Oh..." His mom said, eyes wide open. Cyrus's dad said nothing at all. "Hello again." Scott waved at them. 'Maybe I should've stayed home.' "It's nice to see you again, Scott." Cyrus's mom said. They walked out to Cyrus's parents' vans without saying much. The tension in the air made Scott want to disappear. Cyrus's parents opened up more once they were in the van. "Why didn't you tell us before?" Cyrus's dad asked. "I told you...I had a lot on my mind then. I nearly died. That was too much to deal with then." Cyrus said. "So, what's this about? Since when were you gay? You've had at least ten girlfriends. What was that about?" His dad asked. "I like girls too." Cyrus said. He was less tense than Scott was. Scott stayed quiet, doing his best to be ignored. "Then Scott is an exception?" Cyrus's mom asked. "No, I like guys." "Are you sure?" His dad asked. "Yes, Dad, I'm sure." "You two are using condoms, right?" His dad asked. "Peter!" Cyrus's mom yelled. Scott's face went red. "What?" His dad looked at her. Cyrus sighed and rolled his eyes. "Yes, Dad." "How did you two meet?" Peter asked. "At work." "So, when did you realize you, uh..." Peter was too embarrassed to finish his sentence. "I've known...for a while." "What should we tell your brothers? They're all here." Lisa, Cyrus's mom, said. Cyrus winced. "Oh god...I guess just tell them the truth." Scott kept his eyes out the window. The land and houses looked nothing like anything he'd seen in Georgia. He wished he owned a camera. Cyrus's parents house was a two story house. Scott loved the way it looked. "We can get your things later. Let's go in." Lisa said. Scott walked a little behind Cyrus, not wanting to stand out. Inside the house, three men were sitting at a table. One was dressed in a khaki button down short-sleeve shirt and khaki shorts. He was rolling an apple across the table for some reason. The oldest looking one was dressed in a polo and jeans. He was watching the man in khaki roll the apple around. At the end of the table was a man dressed in designer clothes flipping through a men's fashion magazine. Peter tossed his keys in a dish. "We're home. Cyrus is into guys now." "Goddamn it, Dad." Cyrus let out a deep sigh. All the brothers looked up. The one in the polo said, "What's going on?" "That guy is Cyrus's boyfriend." Peter pointed to Scott. Scott hated having a room full of people staring at him. His went beet red. "H-hi." "Anyway, so that's that. Let's move on." Cyrus said. The one in the khaki clothes kicked a chair out. "Oh, hell no. Sit down." "Both of you." The one in the polo said. "What's your name?" "Uh, Scott. Scott Thomas." Scott said. Cyrus held his hand and walked with him over to the table. He pulled out a chair for Scott. The three brothers watched them. "Oh shit, you weren't screwing with us?" The one in khaki said. "Scott, these are my brothers. This is my oldest brother, Jake. That's Todd. And that's Chris." Cyrus pointed to each of them. Jake was the one wearing the polo, Todd was the one in khaki clothes, and Chris was the one in designer clothes. Cyrus looked at his brothers. "Don't fuck with him, or I'll make you regret it." "Ooh, scary~!" Chris laughed. "So, are you gay?" Todd asked as Jake knocked the apple Todd had been rolling off the table. "No, I like women too." Cyrus said. Chris stood up and cleared his throat. "Hey, since we're doing coming outs and all...I'm gay." "We know." Jake, Peter, and Lisa said in unison. "I didn't know!" Todd said. "Me either!" Cyrus said. "That's because you two are dense." Jake said. Interest in Chris's outburst quickly disappeared. Todd turned to Scott. He asked, "How long have you been dating Cyrus?" "Um, since July." Scott said. "Wow. How the hell do you put up with him?" Todd teased Cyrus. "Ass." Cyrus said. "What happened to whats-her-name?" Chris asked. "Mom said she cheated on you with some guy from work." Todd leaned toward Cyrus. "Yeah." "Does no one want to ask me questions?" Chris complained. "No." Todd and Jake said. "Awe." Chris sunk down in his chair and went back to looking at his magazine. "Were you there when Cyrus got shot?" Jake asked. "I got him to the hospital, but I wasn't there when it happened." Scott said. "Holy shit." Todd's mouth hung open. "Damn. Cyrus, you owe this guy your life. No wonder you're fucking him." "Todd, don't say things like that." Lisa said from the kitchen. "Jake, did you check on the turkey like I asked?" "Yeah, Mom." Lisa, Peter, and Jake prepared the table with food. There was so much of it the table was completely full. Scott had only ever seen things like that in movies and on TV. He couldn't decide on where to start. Cyrus fixed his plate for him. The food was even better than he anticipated. "Scott, did you already visit your family?" Peter asked. "I haven't talked to them in years." Scott said. 'Why are they focusing on me so much?' "Something happen?" Lisa asked. "I ran away from home." "Why? Was it because you like guys?" Chris blurted out loudly. "No. Well, that wasn't a major factor. They weren't good people. I don't really want to talk about them." Scott moved food around on his plate. He avoided making eye contact. "Is Cyrus your first boyfriend?" Lisa asked him. "He's the first person I've dated." "Wow, really? You've never dated anyone before?" Chris asked. "But you're so cute." "I was more into very...temporary company." Scott mumbled. "Ooooh." Todd laughed under his breath. "Nothing wrong with that." Chris said suggestively. Lisa shook her head. "You only say that because no one wants to stay with you." Jake teased his brother. "Plenty of men find me attractive." Chris proudly proclaimed. "And none of them stay, clearly." Jake said. "You don't know." "How many boyfriends have you had, Chris?" Todd asked with a grin. "That's not important." Chris turned his nose up and looked away. "How'd you guys end up together?" Todd asked. "Uh...well..." Scott looked over at Cyrus. That was definitely not a story he could share with them. "It just sort of happened. We'll leave it at that." Cyrus said. "What's that about?" Todd asked. "Sounds like it's a racy story." Chris wiggled his eyebrows. "Yeah, let's not. I'm trying to eat." Jake said. "Like I'd tell you about anything like that. Gross." Cyrus said. Chris snatched the remote from the living room and turned the TV on. He turned his chair slightly to get a better view of the TV. A special was on about the serial killings of the teenage boys. Scott froze. He grabbed Cyrus's hand under the table and held it tightly. Cyrus reached across the table and cut the TV off. "Why'd you turn off the TV? I was watching that!" Chris whined. "No one wants to watch anything about murder at dinner." Cyrus said. "I've been following that case for months now!" "Well, we're not following it tonight!" Cyrus tossed the remote onto the kitchen counter behind them. "What's your problem?" Chris asked, angry. Scott said to Cyrus, "It's okay if they know." "You sure?" "Yeah." "Okay." Cyrus watched all of his family stare at him. "I'm going to explain this once and we're not getting into it. That woman, the serial killer, is someone Scott used to be involved with. According to the cops, she was grooming him to be one of her next victims, but she left town before doing anything to him." "Quit fucking with me." Chris searched Cyrus's face for any signs he was messing with him. "I'm not. It's real." Cyrus said. "Are you really being serious right now?" Todd leaned in. Scott faced the family and said, "It's true. Amy...uh, Lynne used to be my roommate and uh, we were...involved. I didn't date her, but, well, she used to do a lot of favors for me. I didn't realize what she was really after until later." Chris's mouth hung open. "Oh my god...I can't believe it...What was she like?" "Chris!" Cyrus yelled at him. "I don't want to talk about her either. Sorry." Scott said. "I really don't like talking about my past. None of it is very pleasant." "No need to apologize. We're the ones who're being rude. We've been hitting you with questions since you got here." Jake said. "It's because you're dating our baby brother. We have to know if you're a good guy or not." "Yeah, sorry. We can be a little too much when we're all together." Todd said. "But mostly it's Chris's fault." "No, I get it. I want to protect him too." Scott looked over at Cyrus and smiled. He rose in Cyrus's face. "You're all embarrassing me." After dinner, Scott, Cyrus, Todd, and Jake hung out in the living room. Scott leaned against Cyrus on the sofa. Between stuffing his face with food and the plane ride, he could barely keep his eyes open. Chris was in the kitchen with Cyrus's parents. Todd watched him. "I swear to god Chris is trying to out gay y'all or something. He's jealous you came out first." "Chris can't stand not being the center of attention, you mean. He's two years older than me and acts like he's twelve." Cyrus said. "I can't believe I never realized Chris was gay. Now that I know, I can't believe I didn't know for so long. It's so obvious now." Todd yawned. "Cyrus is still surprising though. I can't believe it. You were always chasing skirts." "I still like girls, you know. I'm not gay." Cyrus added. "Okay, but how did you two really end up together?" Todd asked. "We were watching porn, then we ended up in bed, and yeah, that's pretty much it." Cyrus said. "What?" Todd raised an eyebrow. "Look, it started with a cell phone and then there was an AOL trial disc and I don't know what happened after that." Cyrus shrugged. "What?!" Jake laughed under his breath. "Reminds me of a crazy night back in college." "Y'all're all weird." Todd shook his head. "I'm the only normal one here." Chris joined them in the living room. "Normal? Todd, you work with lions." "You work with poodles." Todd responded. "Exactly. Poodles and chihuahuas. Neither of those can kill me." Chris made his voice more effeminate. "I trust my cats." Todd turned to Scott. "Scott, you and Cyrus should come see the park some time." "I doubt we'd be able to afford it." Cyrus said. "Mm...maybe I can work something out. Then you can meet my girlfriend." Todd opened his wallet. He took out a picture and handed it to Scott. "She's something else, huh? She speaks thirteen languages. I only speak seven!" Scott looked at the photo. Beside Todd stood a black woman dressed in clothing Scott had never seen before. The scenery behind them was breathtaking. Scott handed the photo back to Todd. "She's very pretty. Could she not come?" "Nah. Couldn't arrange things in time. There's always Christmas." Todd put the picture away. "What about you, Jake? Where's your girlfriend?" "We broke up." Jake said. "Why? You two were together for three years." Cyrus said. "Her father wouldn't let me marry her, then he forced her into marry someone else." "Oh...I'm sorry. I guess that sort of thing still happens...Have you talked to her any?" Cyrus asked. "No. I don't want to talk about it. There's nothing I can do. I'm about to be moved over to Okinawa soon anyway. Time to start over again." Jake said. His face was blank. "You seem...calm about all this." Todd said. "It happened a few months ago. I've accepted it." Scott leaned over further. He struggled to not fall asleep. "Jet lagged?" Cyrus asked him. "Think I ate too much." Scott rubbed his eyes. "You can go ahead and sleep if you want. I'll be in bed soon." Cyrus said. "I can make it." "You two look really good together." Todd said. "Come on." Cyrus said. "You do. When are you getting rings?" Todd asked. "We can't get married." "Not legally, but that doesn't mean you can't still do it. I bet our parents know some witch or something who'll do a ceremony for you." Todd said. "Are there a lot around here?" Jake asked. "Not sure about witches. Definitely the New Age type." Cyrus said. "That's what Mom told me." "We can make it star-themed." Scott said, barely conscious. "See, he's getting into it. That's a good sign for you, Cyrus." Todd said. Scott was so tired he laid down on the couch. He rested his head on Cyrus's lap and fell asleep. The brother's conversation leaked into his dream. "Oh, he's out." He heard Todd laugh. Scott felt someone touching his hair. "Still can't believe you're dating a guy." Jake said. "Well, you're gonna have to deal with it." "So, like...what do you do in the bedroom?" Chris asked. "None of your business." Cyrus said. "Come on. Are you top or bottom?" Chris persisted with the topic. "I'm not telling you anything about that." "We're all adults here. What's the big deal?" Chris said. "Being an adult doesn't mean I want to talk with you about it." Cyrus said. Scott heard their words, but he didn't follow the conversation. In his dream, he went back to the table and ate another helping of food. He mumbled in his sleep, "Where's the gravy?" Scott slept there for an hour. He woke up from his nap a little refreshed. When he woke up, Jake was the one out cold in a chair. "Hey, you're up." Cyrus said. Scott sat up. He wiped drool off his face. "How long was I out?" "Bout an hour." "Sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep. Is it night already?" "Yeah. You wanna go out on the deck?" Cyrus suggested. "Sure." They went outside to get some privacy. Scott leaned against the railing. "Your family's nice." Scott said. "Ya think? They're not annoying you too much?" "No." Scott leaned against Cyrus. "Is this real?" "What is?" "You're not going to disappear, are you?" Scott held onto Cyrus's arm. "No." Cyrus turned to face him. He cupped Scott's face, then kissed him. Scott wrapped his arms around Cyrus's neck. He kissed him back. Inside, he heard Chris say, "Oooh! They're kissing!" Cyrus broke the kiss to yell at him. "Shut up!" Scott looked up at the sky. It was like Cyrus said. There were far more stars visible than where they lived. He wondered if there was a place he could see even more of them. "There's so many." Scott said. "Yeah. It's beautiful. I always wanted to live somewhere like this." "Why don't we?" Scott asked. "Would you really be happy out here?" "If I'm with you, why wouldn't I be?" Scott pressed his forehead against Cyrus's. "At least take me on a trip here. Promise?" "I promise." Cyrus said. He looked over and pointed at something. "Look, a coyote." The full moon above them lit up the land. A coyote ran across the horizon. Scott looked more closely and saw something else there. He smiled. "Oh, I think it has a mate. I wonder where they're going." "Who knows." Cyrus kissed him again. "Ready for bed?" "Yeah." Cyrus led Scott up to the room Lisa set aside for them. There was a single queen sized bed in the middle of the room. One wall of the room was a window overlooking the land. Cyrus pulled the curtains back so they could get a full view. Scott sat on the bed and looked out. "What a beautiful view...even here, you can see so many stars." "Hey, remember how I told you I wanted to do it under the stars, but that didn't turn out as good as I hoped? You know, it's pretty comfortable here and there's plenty of stars." Cyrus got on the bed. "Thought you'd suggest something like that." "Is that a no?" "It's definitely not a no." Scott pulled him down into a kiss as Cyrus undressed himself. Scott slept peacefully that night. Nothing woke him, and he didn't have a single nightmare. In the morning, Jake woke him. "Hey, came to ask you something." Jake said. Scott rubbed his eyes and yawned. "What?" "Can you help me get everything out of the van? Everyone else won't get up." Jake said. Scott nodded. "Give me a couple of minutes to get ready." "Yeah, sure. I'll be out front." Scott looked at the time. It was seven in the morning. Jake took him out to the van and opened the back. He hopped into the vehicle. "So, Scott Thomas, huh. Never thought I'd meet someone as famous as you." "Excuse me?" "AB14. That's what they have listed on your official records. Second out of countless children to make it past the age of five under the moon's knives and needles." Jake sat down in the van facing Scott. "You must be pretty damn tough. Heard you outsmarted those morons over there some years back." Scott stepped back. "How do you know all that?" "Don't worry. I'm not from the moon." Jake said. "Technically, I work for them on paper, but I serve someone else." "Who?" "Do you know of Aurora?" Jake asked. Scott knew that name. He heard his parents talk about them a few times. "I have heard a little about them, but I don't really know who they are." "I can't tell you much, but back at the beginning of the century, the family that owned Moone & Wolfe split in two. One side kept the company and changed their last name to Summerfield. The other side kept the name Blackwell. The families that had supported the Blackwells for centuries split on who they went with. Those who kept the name Blackwell and left the company formed Aurora. That's the gist of it." Jake said. "I don't understand what you're talking about." "All you need to know is I'm not with them. I'm on your side." "What does Aurora do?" Scott asked. "Our purpose is to set things right." Jake said. "What does that mean?" "Don't worry about that." Jake hopped out of the van. "Forget about the moon and us. We'll handle them. I will warn you. If we fail, get out of the country before 2010." "Why? What's going to happen?" "That's when they plan on seizing total control. I doubt they'll make that deadline. They've missed others before, but the current director is much more competent than his father was." Jake put his hand on Scott's shoulder. "If you need help getting out, I'll find a way." "Why would you do that?" "You saved my brother." "If you know all about them, you should know he was shot because he got close to me." Scott said. Jake shook his head. "No, he got shot because they wanted him dead like they wanted you dead." "How did you join these people? Is your family connected?" "No, Rob Blackwell hand selected me after Tom Summerfield also selected me." Jake laughed about it. "Tom thinks I'm working as a double agent, spying for him about Aurora, but I've been feeding him false information for years." "What if you get caught?" Scott asked. "I won't." Jake said. "I heard from Mom and Dad you helped take care of Cyrus after he got shot. You paid the hospital bills too. You really like my brother, don't you?" "I'd do anything for him." Scott said. "Keep my brother happy. I'll take care of the rest." Jake gave him a devilish smirk. "Tom will be experiencing a nice little loss of data and some missing documents soon for targeting my baby brother." "You're insane." "Yep. Always have been." Jake said. "All the things you tell your family about...is that real or a cover?" Scott asked. "Some of its real, some of its not. They give me a script to follow." Jake grabbed one of the suitcases from the back of the van. "We better get these down. I'm sure Cyrus is going to be wondering where you are." "Right." Scott said. He and Jake brought everything from the van into the living room. Lisa, Peter, and Chris were in the kitchen. "I don't care if you're gay. I don't want to see you in Daisy Dukes." Was the first thing Scott and Jake heard when they came inside with the last of the luggage. Chris was wearing hot pants and Peter was not happy about it. "Dad, quit being so close minded." Chris hiked them up higher. "I can see half your ass. Put something else on." Peter demanded. "Dad, don't acknowledge it. You're giving him what he wants." Jake said. Chris walked over to Scott. He leaned against the counter, showing off the backside of his shorts. "Oh hey, Scott. What do you think of my look?" "Reminds me of when I had to work street corners." Scott said without an ounce of emotion. "Ew, you worked as a prostitute? What's with that?" Chris gave him a nasty look. "You should know why. Weren't you following that bitch's case for months or some weird shit?" Scott walked passed him, giving him a dirty look back. Peter and Jake laughed. Scott went to Lisa. "Excuse me, Lisa, do you have any tea I could make? I can't drink coffee or juice." Lisa held back her laughter. "Oh, we have some raspberry tea and I think there might be some chamomile. Can you drink that?" "Yes, ma'am. Raspberry sounds nice." Todd strolled into the kitchen in his pajamas and with unbrushed hair. He yawned, looked at Chris, and grimaced. He covered his eyes. "Ugh, what the fuck? I can see everything. I'm blinded!" "Goddamn it, Chris. You made Todd blind." Peter played along. "Knew it would happen one day." Jake added. "You are all so unsupportive of me in a very sensitive time in my young life." Chris stormed out. "What?" Scott asked. "Oh, don't mind him. He's always looking to get a rise out of people." Todd said. Peter shook his head. "That boy ain't right. So Scott, I know we hit you with a lot of questions yesterday, but I was curious, what kind of hobbies you got? What do you do for fun?" "Um, Cyrus and I have been stargazing a lot lately. We were planning to save up for a camping trip. Hmm...I like reading a lot, and lately, I've been learning a lot about how to use a computer. I don't know if that counts as a hobby though." Scott got the kettle ready on the stove. "How old are you?" He asked. "Oh, I'm eighteen. I'll be nineteen next April." "You in college?" "No. I can't afford anything like that. I don't think I'd do good there anyway. I barely got my GED. I'd rather just work full time." Scott said. "Cyrus is like that too. Well, college isn't for everyone." Peter said. Lisa readied the teapot. She steeped the tea for Scott. "So, you two have been dating around five months now. Are you going to look for a house together sometime?" Lisa's question got him worked up. "Um...well, we haven't really thought that far ahead. We've been thinking more about planning that trip. I don't know when we'd be able to save up for a house." Lisa poured him a cup of tea. "How much sugar do you want, dear?" "Oh, none. I can't have any, but thank you." "Are you diabetic?" "No, it's more like an allergic reaction." "Oh, what kinda of foods are okay for you to eat?" Lisa asked. Scott's stomach growled. "Um, actually, is there any more turkey left?" "There's some in the fridge. Help yourself." "Thank you. Is there anything I can do to help around the house? I feel like I'm imposing here." Scott opened the fridge. He pulled a plate of carved turkey out. "You don't need to do anything. You're our guest." Lisa handed him the cup of tea. Cyrus finally came out of the bedroom and down the stairs. He was talking to someone on a cordless phone. "No, fuck off. Don't call me again and don't you ever call me at my parent's house." Todd looked over and whispered. "Uh oh..." Cyrus hung up the phone. "Fucking bitch." Lisa and Peter exchanged looks. Lisa asked, "Who was that on the phone?" "Lidia. Begging me to come running back to her stupid ass." Cyrus went into the kitchen with them. He pulled a mug down from the cabinet and poured himself a cup of tea. "She's still calling you?" Scott asked. "Yeah. Apparently, Travis broke up with her three weeks ago. She's been calling me nearly daily now." Cyrus picked food off the plate Scott set aside for himself. "Lidia seemed like such a sweet girl." Lisa said. "Mom, you think everyone seems like a good person." Cyrus looked around. "Chris still in bed?" "No, he's awake." Todd snickered. "What happened?" "It was a fashion malfunction." Jake said. "Is it a malfunction if it's intentional?" Scott asked. "Fashion disaster. Be glad you missed the booty shorts." Jake cringed. Cyrus nearly spit out his tea. "The what?!" Scott laughed along with them. He looked around. The room was full of people and he was part of it. It was a little awkward, but he was having fun. A pain stung deep inside him for the child he once was who wasn't allowed this kind of normalcy. Scott wanted to go back in time and tell his younger self to hold out a little longer. The eighteen years he'd live so far were hell, and this current year was no exception to the barrage of terrible things. In spite of all that, Scott was glad he ran away. All the pain, all the betrayals of trust and love, all the disasters--none of them were worth giving up for. Scott looked over at Cyrus laughing with his family. He smiled and took hold of his boyfriend's hand. As with all the bad memories, nothing could take away this one either. He'd keep them all inside. Tomorrow may be another disaster, but he'd take that for the hope it might bring him another brief moment of happiness. At the end of the week, Cyrus's parents approached them on the back deck while the other brother's packed. Lisa started the conversation. "You know, Cyrus, you can move back in with us for a while. I'm worried about you going back. We don't mind if Scott stays too." "What? I don't know. This isn't anything like Atlanta." Cyrus said. "You can get a job here. There's always going to be people who need their cars fixed." Peter said. "I don't want to be a burden." "Cyrus, you never burden us. For once, do it." Peter said. Scott was moved by their words. He asked, "Would you really do that for us?" "Of course." Lisa nodded. "Scott?" Cyrus turned to him. "I've been wanting to move anyway. I'd been saving up for it, but...well, my savings account is empty now because of everything that happened." Scott said. Peter said to Cyrus. "Stay here and get back on your feet. We've all left Georgia. There's no reason you need to stay rooted there." "There's nowhere to rent around here." Cyrus countered them. "Save up for a house." Lisa suggested. "That'll take too long. I can't..." Peter stood close by Cyrus. "Cyrus, when your brothers all turned eighteen, we paid for them to go to college and gave them cars. You moved out at seventeen and bought your first car on your own a year later. We never gave you your gift. We don't care if you go to college or not. Use the money to put a down payment on a home." Scott and Cyrus both looked at each other. Cyrus shook his head, his eyes wide open. "I can't...I can't accept that...it's too much." "Cyrus, take the money. We're broke." Scott took his boyfriend's hand. "I want to live nearby. It's beautiful here." "Are you sure?" Cyrus asked. "What's left for us in Atlanta? Georgia? We don't have to be there." Scott said. "Alright, alright. You win." Cyrus dropped his shoulders. "We have to get our stuff." "And break the lease." Scott added. "Shit." "We'll help you with the moving costs. Don't worry about it." Peter said. "Why would you do that?" Cyrus asked. "Did you forget who we are?" Peter laughed. They returned home by the following Thursday afternoon. The following day, Cyrus informed their boss and Charlotte that they were both moving to Arizona soon. Charlotte exchanged email addresses with Cyrus. They spent the rest of the time before the move packing and cleaning. Cyrus took them on one last trip to the Blockbuster they always went to. It was only a store, but it held many happy memories inside it. The last movie they rented from that store was the silly B movie about a dragon and cheese. They laughed at the low budget effects at some parts and the over the top entrance of the grandfather character. It distracted Scott from thinking about how empty the apartment looked with everything in boxes. The final day came. Nothing was left inside the apartment. Scott wandered around it one last time. He looked in each of the bedrooms, the one that once belonged to him and the one he dreaded seeing again. Scott closed the doors on both of them. He went out to the balcony. Scott didn't look for anything in the woods. He avoided looking at the fence. His eyes were on the sky. The view above him was about to change. He welcomed it. "Scott, are you ready?" Cyrus called out to him from the front door. "Yeah, I'm coming." Scott said. He locked the back and then the front door. Peter paid a service to have their things driven out to the house. Cyrus and Scott took turns driving the car from Georgia out to Arizona. On the way out, they passed by the laundromat and the place where the third building once was. All that remained of the building was an empty, dark hole and dust. The shop, the library, the Blockbuster, the grocery store, all the familiar places he knew as part of his home passed by them and vanished. A part of him already missed those spaces and another part of him was glad he would never have to see them again. He stayed with Cyrus's parents in the same bedroom as before. Cyrus and Scott found work at the same place. The money Cyrus's parents gave them was enough for them to move out somewhere right away, but Cyrus wanted to take his time getting adjusted to the area and finding a nice home. Scott did what he could to help around the house. They offered to pay rent to his parents, but they refused to take any money. They told them to keep saving up. The first year there, they got a new car so Scott would have his own. The following year, they started looking for a house. The amount Cyrus's parents gave him was more than plenty for a nice down payment. They didn't have much trouble getting approved for a mortgage. Five miles from Cyrus's parents house, they found a little house that they both liked. Cyrus found it first. He drove Scott out to see it. It was a single story house with two bedrooms and one bathroom. The house was a reddish brown color, deep in shade like the red clay he left behind and a warm sunrise. Scott ran his hands over the side of the house. "What do you think about this one? It's small, not much land, but it's kinda cozy, don't you think?" Cyrus asked. "It's nice. Do you want this one?" Scott peeked through the window. The floors and cabinets were made from a dark wood. "Yeah. I've been looking at it every time we drive by. What do you think? Do you want to keep looking?" Scott walked along the side of the house. There wasn't much in the back, but it felt far away from everything, like they would be in their own little world. Scott imagined what the stars would look like from the backyard. "I want it too. Let's get it inspected." Cyrus's face lit up. He let out a sigh. "We're really doing this, huh?" "Changing your mind?" "Nope." Scott put his arm around Cyrus's. "Hey, we should go on a trip with your family next time anyone invites us. I want to see other skies. Imagine the stars above the Sahara." "I don't know how you put up with my family." "When we sign the papers on the house, let's buy a new telescope. A nicer one." Scott kissed him on the cheek. "Yeah, we should." 'Is this really the end of it?' Scott thought back on the last few years. He remembered his parents and how their actions left him struggling to manage basic interactions outside their little bubble of torture and how even now he struggled with certain things. He thought about the many times he brushed with death, from the fallen tree to the tornado that decimated one third of the apartment complex to his encounter with that man from the lab. Scott thought about Amy, and how much it sickened him when he accepted what she really was. Disaster could come again at any time. That man might not keep his word and the people from the lab might come after him again. Pain and fear swelled inside him. 'I'll never know.' Scott looked over at Cyrus. Cyrus was so happy about the house. Scott smiled and held his hand. 'I'm not going to think about that anymore.' They signed the papers before the month was out, and lived there watching the stars under quiet nights.