The two of you stand at the edge of the sidewalk, waiting for the sign to flash on so you can cross the street. You are nervous, and you look at him for reassurance, but he only laughs.
"Nervous? Don't be such a chicken."
"It's my first day of high school!" you protest. "I don't know anyone." Only you, is the silent addendum.
"You'll make plenty of new friends. Relax."
"You sound like my mom."
"Smile, and the world will smile back at you," he mimics, and you laugh. You can't help it; nervousness evaporates before this companionship, as transient as you believe it to be.
You are a freshman and he a sophomore. You wonder if his year in high school, while you were stuck in the paltry world of eighth grade, has erased the childhood friendship you so painstakingly built. He didn't speak to you much that year, and when he did the conversation was littered with names you didn't know—Mary, Aaron, Chris, Jason, Monica.
And now that you are here, with him, will it be like it was before? You doubt it. He will go with his friends, leaving you stranded, floundering about, trying to "make plenty of new friends." You can't, and you know it.
Is it really your fault that he is the only one you have ever needed?
"Room 206," he reads off the slip of paper that has your schedule printed on it. "Right down here," and he puts a hand on your back to steer you in the right direction. It is obstructed by the backpack you wear, but you can still feel the weight pressing down on you. It's a reassuring pressure; you wish you could feel the warmth of his skin, leeching into yours. You blush when you think that. He doesn't notice; he never does.
He laughs when you arrive at the classroom. 'World History honors," he whistles. "You overachiever. Maybe you can help me with my homework."
"You have this class too?"
"Hell no! Just regular World History. Ten times easier, I'll bet."
You blush at the mistake (he's so good at twisting you into mortification), and suffer a hair-ruffling before he abandons you at the door.
You take a deep breath. Step inside.
You've been friends ever since you were five and he was six, when he kicked over your sandcastle, and then helped you build a better one.
"Why are you always alone?" he asked as he molded some sand into a tower: bigger, taller, sturdier than yours.
You shrugged, awed that this first-grader was talking to a puny kindergartener like you.
"Are you shy?" he pressed.
"Well, then you can play with me," he announced. He poked you. "What's your name?"
"Simon," you murmured.
You thought he had a nice name. You still do.
From kindergarten to seventh grade he made friends, got into fights, flirted with girls, and dragged you along with him, a half-unwilling accomplice. Then in eighth grade he left; you struggled along on your own, hopeful because next year—next year—
It's not that you dislike other people. It's that they terrify you, with their loudness and gestures. You like a lot of people, even if you find it hard to talk to them, but he is the only one who makes you feel safe. Secure.
You don't know why; and you don't know if, given a choice, you would have picked somebody else to rely on like this. Maybe you would (or should).
He isn't exactly the safest person to entrust your heart to.
It's a schedule as set as the one for your classes: in the morning you go from room to room, alone, usually; at lunch you wait for him outside the cafeteria, scan the crowds until you see him striding towards you, so sure and confident; and then you wait for him again, after school, until he punches you on the shoulder and the two of you walk back to your house.
At lunch he always tells you to be more outgoing, friendlier. He's not telling you to get lost or anything, you admonish yourself. So you swallow the mutinous (true? No) thought and tell him about Tyler, or maybe Kyle. Once in a while, you mention Katie—but his face never betrays any flashes of jealousy. He's only happy for you.
It doesn't mean that he doesn't care; he does. Just not the way you do.
Whenever your class does a project that requires partners, you don't have a problem finding one. Somebody always walks up to you and offers; you have to do nothing. "It's because you're such a pretty boy," he teases. "I bet half the girl in your class have secret crushes on you."
You do notice that most of your partners are girls. But it doesn't matter to you because they are not him. Him—him—him—
And you are flattered, in a twisted kind of way, that he thinks you are a pretty boy. Only it's too bad (so sad) that he is not interested in pretty boys—only girls.
"Katie," he jokes one day. "Katie and you. Are you guys dating or something?"
"What? No way!"
"Why not? She's cute."
"So why don't you date her?" Even though it stabs you to say it, you do. There's an act to keep up here, because if he ever sees beyond the stage you've constructed, your one-man audience will dissolve into a no-man's land.
"Uh—no. She's a freshman, dude," he replies quickly.
And you? You're a freshman too. And a boy. Two strikes. What will the third be?
There are times when you want to hit him over the head. This is one of them.
His eyes follow Tina Cabot as she walks past the table you are sitting at. "Hang on a sec," he tells you, and slides out of his seat to follow her. You watch her laugh when he smoothly beats Chris Watkins to the spot next to her. Chris scowls. Tina grins flirtatiously. And he says something, probably a compliment or joke that makes Tina throw her head back, slender body rocking with glee.
You turn away from the admiration in his eyes.
He doesn't come back to your table; when he walks out of the cafeteria without you, Tina hanging on his arm, a quick grin and shrug of the shoulders are all he offers you. It isn't even an apology.
He doesn't even realize that you are upset until you are walking home together. "What's wrong? You've been really quiet."
"What, you're not going to tell me?"
"What could I tell you? It's nothing."
He stares at you. "What is up with you?"
What is up with you? you want to ask. But you already know the answer: it's Tina Cabot. So you say, "It's nothing. Quit bugging me."
"Fine, whatever. Don't talk to me," he huffs; and, subject dismissed, he moves on to the next one: Tina. Of course.
You start eating lunch with Tyler because Charlie is busy working on Tina, and apparently he needs all the time he can get. Tyler is nice; he doesn't ask any questions, so you can while away the half hour with meaningless small talk.
Charlie doesn't comment on this, except for one time.
"How's it going with your new best friend, Tyler?" His face is perfectly plank, all friendly inquiry.
"He's not my 'new best friend.'"
He sighs. "I really don't get you these days. You barely even talk to me, and when you do, I don't understand you."
That is the last thing you expected to hear from him. "I don't talk to you?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, you don't really tell me anything, you know?"
"I talk about a lot of things," you counter.
"Yeah, but—man, forget it."
You can tell the topic is beginning to tire him, so you let it drop. As always.
"Hey," he says a couple of minutes later. "Why don't we go to the movies this weekend?"
"Why?" You can't help but cheer up; finally, he is giving you a chance to be alone with him. But he quickly machine-guns down your hope.
"I was thinking about asking Tina out, but I'm too scared to go alone." He laughs. "So we could, you know, double-date. You could ask Katie to come."
Damn it. Damn him, damn Tina. "I don't know."
"Come on," he wheedles. "Come on, Simon. Do me a favor, please?"
"I have homework."
"Screw homework! You'll have plenty of time for it. Come on; it'll only be for a couple of hours."
You capitulate after he nags and pleads the whole way home. "Fine, fine! I'll go!"
"Thank you," he says, grinning, and you sigh.
What the hell have you gotten yourself into?
"How do I look?" he asks nervously. You are sitting in his mom's car, parked at the far end of the lot. He doesn't want anyone to see him come out of it, and if that means an extra-long trek to the theater, he's willing.
"What do you want me to say? That you look hot?" Because he does. He is wearing jeans and deep red polo, a color you think only he can pull off so perfectly, with his burnished copper hair and twilight blue eyes.
"You look fine."
He gives himself a once over before opening the car door. "Bye Mom," he calls automatically over his shoulder. "I can't wait until I get my license," he confides to you as you hurry across the asphalt with him. "Then I won't have to keep begging rides from my mom. Jesus, what a pain."
Katie and Tina are already waiting in front of the theater, chatting about nothing in particular. You can tell Katie is uncomfortable with Tina, so you walk inside with her first to buy the popcorn.
"Thank you," she breathes once you to are safely through the doors. "I really have no idea what to talk about with her."
"I wouldn't either," you agree, and she laughs.
The movie is sappy and boring. He sits two rows back with Tina, and you pretend that it is the movie that has you so interested, not the noises coming from their general direction. At least there must be a merciful god up there, if not a generous one, because Katie doesn't try to hold your hand or lean her head on your shoulder. You're not sure if you could handle that; Charlie, judging from Tina's giggling, is more than capable.
You stare straight ahead the entire time.
Outside, the night is falling; it's not cold, only a little cool, but Tina manages to cajole him into giving her his jacket. Just to be polite, you offer Katie yours. She declines.
"I'll give it back to you at school," Tina is telling him, plucking at the sleeve of his jacket. "Or you can come to my house and pick it up."
You bite your lip to keep from talking at that, or from talking at all until you are back in his mom's car, which is once again hiding at the far end. You answer his questions with minimal words, looking at your hands or out the window. When he runs out of words your eyes begin to droop. You're tired: of him, of yourself, always hiding; and from that stupid double date that was miserable. It's nice to just sleep sometimes; to forget.
You wake slowly when the car stops. Vaguely, you remember a dream. It was a nice one, and you try to remember it but all that comes up is a feeling of warmth, connection. There is a sense that you have only been asleep for a few minutes, but he tells you it's been a while.
"We made a stop at a gas station," he mumbles. "You—well, I'll see you tomorrow."
You don't wonder at his change of words as you struggle drowsily out of his car, trying to hold onto the sensation of that dream. "See you," you yawn.
"Yeah. See you."
The warmth is quickly slipping away, and soon all that's left is the dark void of the driveway.
He doesn't show up at your house the next day, and you don't see him at school either, after he veers toward Tina as soon as the two of you step on campus.
It's like he's avoiding you. At lunch, he doesn't give you his (now) customary wave from Tina's side, just focuses on the girl next to him, nothing else. You try not to stare at him, or act like anything is wrong at all.
Then it happens, and you think this must be the third strike. You stand by the benches after school, waiting for him, but he doesn't come. Five minutes, ten, fifteen. The stream of people flowing past you slows to a trickle. You wonder where the hell he could be, and as if in answer you see him, all the way across the quad. He is sitting with Tina's friends, Tina herself on his lap, still wearing his jacket.
Stupid asshole, you think viciously. The least he could have done was tell you to walk home by yourself, instead of leaving you hanging here like an idiot.
His eyes lock onto yours when he senses your stare. He looks surprised. You make sure to look him squarely in the eyes. Then you deliberately turn and walk away.
You can't wait any more.
You can't tell him what happened at the gas station while he was asleep. You just can't, because if you do—what will happen? You can't tell and you hate it. You can never tell what he's thinking, and that's what scares you. He's always so quiet, so drawn into himself; so fucking mysterious. It's always been so irritating to you.
You're not sure when it also because such an obsession, trying to crack that shell.
You've known him since he was in kindergarten. He was that kid, the one who sat by himself and built sandcastles. You wanted to know him, even then, except you didn't think of it that way. Then, all you were interested in finding out was what the heck was so fascinating about those sandcastles of his. So you kicked one of them over one day. You figured if you did, then he'd have to start over and you could help him. Then maybe you'd discover the mysteries of sandcastle-building yourself.
You never did. You still haven't.
You kept him close to you all those years because you were afraid that if you didn't, he'd just retreat back to his own little world, and you wouldn't be able to follow. High school scared the shit out of you. You will never tell anyone that, but god, it did. It was completely new territory, and of course, you had to start it out at the bottom of the food chain as a freshman.
And it wasn't just that. It was having to leave him, too. You worried that all those years he was just humoring you, hanging around because you wanted him to. So you threw yourself into high school-life, and tried to build a new world that didn't revolve around him.
He just continued on his way, universe completely undisrupted.
When did it happen, anyway? When you started trying to memorize everything about him. It's like you have a collection of photographs of him in your head. There's the earliest one, of him playing in the sand. Then there's the one that you look at the most. It's the one where he's standing straight and tall, so aloof from the rest of the people swarming about him. He's wearing your favorite shirt, the button-up one that's black with thin, widely-spaced stripes. It's matched with a pair of faded jeans, frayed at the cuffs. They pool over his worn Converse sneakers.
You know every detail of this picture. You know the way the black shirt highlights his pale skin, the way it accents his thin shoulders. You know how his jeans hang on his hips, falling straight down so that you can't help but notice how long his legs are. You are familiar with his battered sneakers; you always know when he's been running or in a hurry because the laces never fail to come undone if he's going too fast.
You know all these details by heart but you keep going over them anyway. Maybe one of them is the key to unlocking that door he keeps closed to you. You hope so, anyway.
He seems to adjust to high school just fine. At least, he's no different than he was in elementary school, or junior high. You're happy to find that he's still willing to eat lunch with you, and you look forward to the times when you can talk to him.
You try to encourage him to talk to other people; to reassure yourself that yes, not everything had to be done "with him." It almost convinces you when he talks about Tyler and Kyle. And Katie. He talks about her rarely, but when he does—god, you see the way his face softens, the way it becomes in drawn. You want to take back your words then, haul him close to you and just keep him for yourself. But you can't. So you try to isolate yourself instead, stay away instead of close. That's why you attach yourself to Tina Cabot.
She's safer to trust your feelings with than he is.
It has to stop, you tell yourself. It has to, because you just can't feel this way about your best friend. You can't be obsessed with him, can't think about him all the time like this. You can't exhaust yourself battering away like an idiot, trying to break the walls down so he will finally, finally let you in.
You can't think of him that way. The way that has you wondering what he would taste like if you decided to kiss him, or noticing how thin his wrists really are, how you could wrap your fingers around them easily to hold him in place as you straddle him in bed. It's too noticeable, you think, how you always stare at him when he's eating or talking, watching his mouth move, tracing the curve of those full lips with your eyes.
Pretty boy, you tease him. He really is one, with dark hair and darker eyes that remind you of a time when you looked up at the night sky and didn't see any stars, only a pitch-black expanse. You remember thinking you could be completely enveloped in that darkness, and never come out. His skin is pale; not pasty but fair, and he never seems to tan. You like it that way.
You don't want him to find out, though. It'll just scare him away. You swear you'll stop. Soon. If you can.
You ask Tina to go to the movies with you, but you really just wanted to go with him. You wanted to spend some time with him, in anyway way you could. He's been hanging around Tyler so much, although that might be your fault. You're such an idiot, always blundering and making mistakes and backtracking on your decisions. Sometimes you manage to make it right. Often you don't.
"How's it going with your new best friend, Tyler?" you ask, trying to be casual.
"He's not my 'new best friend,'" he murmurs.
You sigh. Of course he'd say that. "I really don't get you these days. You barely even talk to me, and when you do, I don't understand you."
He stiffens up, and you kick yourself. Idiot! Now he won't tell you anything at all. "I don't talk to you?"
"Well, yeah." You are surprised at his vehemence. "I mean, you don't really tell me anything, you know?"
"I talk about a lot of things."
"Yeah, but—" But they don't mean anything! you want to cry. He is looking at you expectantly, waiting for you to finish the thought that you can't. So you say, "Man, forget it," instead, and shut your mouth. There is silence as both of you walk on; it crowds with what you want to say, with what he never says. You need to break it—somehow. "Hey," you start. "Why don't we go to the movies this weekend?"
You try not to swallow too visibly. Okay, so maybe you can't give up on him as easily as you thought you could. Maybe you'll never be able to; the thought flits through your mind. Maybe—forever—no. You can't think that way. If you're going to be an idiot, at least you shouldn't torture yourself with that image of forever—always—no end. You try to laugh away your fear. "I was thinking about asking Tina out, but I'm too scared to go alone. So we could, you know, double-date. You—" go, go ahead, "could ask Katie to come."
"I don't know." But you can see the look in his eyes. Of course, he'd come for Katie.
"Come on," you cajole. "Come on, Simon." His name rolls off your tongue; you savor it. "Do me a favor, please?" Indulge me.
"I have homework."
"Screw homework! You'll have plenty of time for it. Come on; it'll only be for a couple of hours." You try to talk him into it, and finally he gives in.
"Fine, fine! I'll go!"
You grin, ecstatic. "Thank you!"
He sighs, but still—he's going.
"How do I look?" You fiddle with the collar of your polo. Maybe you shouldn't have worn this color. It's so…garish.
His one-word answer irritates you. "Just fine?"
"What do you want me to say? That you look hot?" he asks sarcastically.
Your heart nearly stutters to a stop. "Do I?"
"You look fine."
He looks absolutely gorgeous. He's wearing your favorite shirt, and a pair of jeans that are tight in all the right places. "They're old," he grumbled when he climbed into the car earlier that evening. "That's why they're so small—" You both glanced at the offending article of clothing, he irritated, you admiring. "But it was the only clean pair I had," he finished, and you had to look away.
Now you draw in sight of the theater, spotting Katie and Tina. Immediately, he pulls Katie into the lobby, and you almost scowl at Tina, who latches herself onto your arm. Well, you did bring this on yourself.
He doesn't stop watching the move once, even though it's excruciatingly boring. Or maybe it's Katie he's busy watching. In the darkened theater, two rows behind, where Tina dragged you, you can't see anything. Except maybe Tina, who giggles at the completely un-hilarious jokes and grabs your hand every time you try to get some popcorn.
All in all, you think as you walk outside, it was a completely horrible date. It wasn't Tina. It's not her fault, really. It's just that it wasn't her you wanted by your side.
It's not cold outside, but Tina shivers and asks you, sweetly, if she can borrow your jacket. You comply; out of the corner of your eye, you see him ask Katie, "Are you cold? I'll lend you my jacket."
She says, "No. It's fine. It's not that cold out."
Thank god. Otherwise you might have yanked your jacket off Tina and draped it protectively over him. You don't want to see him shiver.
"I'll give it back to you at school." Tina is speaking to you, tugging on your jacket to indicate that she is talking about it. "Or you can come to my house and pick it up." No thanks, you think.
He is mostly silent in the car. Your words don't rouse him, only seem to make him drowsy. Soon he is asleep, head leaning on the window. You imagine it leaning on your shoulder.
"I need to fill up the gas tank," your mom announces, cutting into your fantasy. She pulls into a gas station and gets out. You watch her walk into the tiny store, then turn back to him.
The harsh neon lighting of a sign nearby shines on him. In the vivid glow his skin is paler than usual, almost luminescent. Hesitantly, you reach out and trace the curve of his chin. When he doesn't stir, you continue to trail your fingers down, down until you find the pulse beneath his ear. It throbs against your skin, steady, constant. What does he dream about, you wonder. Katie? You?
You take your fingers away, lean forward. Kiss his neck gently, and settle your mouth over the pulse, so now it beats against your lips. "Simon," you murmur into his skin, and it's so surreal, so outlandish, the two of you molded together by flashing lights and a slow, beating pulse—it's what you want. But you can't have it; you saw the way he looked at Katie. For now though, for now you can snatch at it, for just a little bit. You bask in the glow.
Then your mom yanks open the door, and you jerk away.
The moment is shattered.
You avoid him the next day, and the day after that at school. The memory of that night at the gas station is more than enough to remind you that you should stay away from him—for his good, for yours.
School ends, and you realize that Tina still hasn't given you your jacket back. You find her at her locker, wearing your jacket; she laughs, teases you, pulls you over to the grass. You are more or less forced to sit down with her friends. Before you can stop her, she crawls into your lap, ensconcing herself there. You shouldn't be here right now. But you play along anyway.
You've been there for ten, fifteen minutes when you feel the force of his gaze all the way across the quad and look up. He should have been home by now; you thought he'd leave without you if you didn't show up. But there he is: he's been waiting, and he's staring at you, angry, hurt—and oh. You finally see it. For once, finally, you understand him. He was waiting.
Your eyes lock, and then—and then he walks away.
You scramble to your feet, dislodging Tina. "Charlie?" she asks, confused.
"I'm sorry. I have to go. I—" You look at her, sitting staring up at you. "I'm really sorry, Tina." You rush off without waiting for an answer.
You know where you're going, where you have to go. It's been years, but the way is still familiar, and you arrive before you even manage to formulate what you're going to say. The playground is empty, the children gone by now, but he's there. He's sitting on the edge of the sandbox, staring moodily at the ground.
Slowly, you walk forward, into the sand. It shifts, sucks at your feet. You kneel down in front of him. "I knew you'd be here," you say. He doesn't answer you, so you begin to gather some sand together. "Simon. I know I've been an idiot. But please, let me explain." Your fingers tremble as you heap the sand together; he's not listening. "Simon—" You can't go on. The pile disintegrates.
Then, he asks, "What are you doing?"
"Trying to build a sandcastle," you whisper.
He crouches down next to you, reaches out a hand. "Then let me help you."
You grab on tight, and don't let go.