The more I think about Ryan Preston, the more he annoys me.

He's devilishly handsome, sure, and his dark eyes and lean body are the stuff of every gay kid's wet dreams, but everything about his personality oozes a combination of self confidence, flattery, and downright conceit that makes me grind my teeth each time I hear his name.

And his name is mentioned a lot; he's popular, really, really popular. In a town where everyone knows everyone, everyone seems to like Ryan Preston, even the gap toothed, wrinkled old lady named Rita that cleans Martha's house once a week.

"I clean the Preston's house too, you know," she says to me on my first Friday afternoon in Prestonville. She looks at me with a smile, I think she wants me to be impressed.

"I don't care about the Prestons!" I cross my arms and keep my feet propped up on the mahogany coffee table she's dusting, staring at the vase full of wild flowers grandma placed there that morning. She is at her Baptist Women's association meeting. She'd left strict instructions for me to be nice and stay out of Rita's way before she left the house in her customary modest dress, practical heels, pearl necklace, and lace gloves.

"But they are such nice boys," Rita continues, unaware of my stormy expression because she's bent down and dusting one of my grandma's hundreds of porcelain nick-nacks.

"Not to me," I say, remembering Ryan's irritated expression as he looked at me. I balled my hands into angry little fists as I watched Rita clean, my only form of entertainment on that boring afternoon.

"You're probably just imagining it."

Has she already caught on to my propensity for imagining that people hate me?

"I don't think so."

She only responds with a shrug of her shoulders and a soft, pensive "hm."

There's nothing else to do but watch her clean, eat, and walk around downtown. I choose to do the latter, because I can't stand watching Rita dust one more nick-nack and I couldn't possibly stomach another peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I walk into the little town square, avoiding the gravel path dotted with random pieces of litter and instead choosing to tread across the grass. The foliage beneath my feet is slowly beginning to wilt into brown, the color it should be during fall, but the trees are still a bright, maddening green, and the heat is still unbearable.

The big tree in the center of the town has a bronze plaque drilled into its trunk, an engraving pronounces it to be the "Old Hanging Tree" and a "Historical Prestonville Landmark." Its big, wooden trunk is twisted towards the sky and its thick branches form a maze of foliage across nearly the entire town square and even reach into the old, narrow roads surrounding it.

There are only a few people milling around in the little patch of unmown grass. A little girl and her mom are sitting on the cracking concrete bench to the left of the gravel path and tossing out bits of stale wheat bread to a few white and grey birds assembled beneath them. I wrinkle my nose, I hate pigeons.

The only store that catches my eye is the art store. I walk towards it, certain that Britney will be at the counter smacking her gum. Maybe things will be different today; there may be more than one patron in the tiny, desolate store.

The bell rings above my head as I push my way in and it seems to be a hopeful, cheerful sound, because today there's actually another person in the store, and it's not Ryan or any of the Prestons.

"Hey Brit," I say casually, sidling up to the desk. I still don't really like Britney, but she talks to me and introduces me to other people.

"Dante." She nods and I can tell that it's a slow day by the way her very being practically droops, from her cheerful little pigtails to her heavy eyelids. She looks tired.

"Were you out partying last night?"

"Yeah," she answers. "Jake was there."

She nods towards the one other figure in the room, a boy in a letter jacket even though it's over hovering just below the ninety degree mark outside.

"Hey." He nods towards me dully, his eyes have the same drooping, tired look. "You're that kid, right?"

"That's me." It's how people are beginning to know me; 'that kid,' or 'that faggot' to some of the more obnoxious people. For most, though, the "faggot" part goes unspoken, but I can see it in the subtle wariness in their eyes. I'm an oddity in this town, as out of place as a kitten in a dog pound or a Baptist in a gay pride parade. Everyone hates me here, and I kind of wonder if I deserve it.

"What do you play?" I ask conversationally, even though I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to talk to me anymore.

"Baseball."

He points to the patches on his letter jacket and the "duh" is implied.

"Oh. I hate baseball."

It's true.

"Except for the hot guys," I amend with a grin.

Britney gives a laugh, and by the sound of it I'm not sure if she's laughing because she found it funny or if she just knows that she should find it funny, so she made the sound as a reflex. I sometimes wonder how much of what's passing registers with her, and how much she just goes through on autopilot, because nothing I say seems to shock her at all.

Jake grimaces at my statement and I can tell I've made him uncomfortable.

"What? Don't give me that look," I say. "I only care about baseball because of the guys, straight guys only care about cheerleading and volleyball because of the girls. It's the same thing."

"Whatever, man," he says, but his expressions tell me I've made him think, at least a little bit. Good; the people in this town could do with some thinking.

"I've gotta go," he says to Britney. "Bye guys."

I'm surprised when he includes me in the address. He turns, leaves the store, and joins the woman and her daughter feeding pigeons on the bench across the street. They must be his family.

"He's pretty okay," Britney says as she watches him leave. I shrug.

"Tolerable."

"You hardly find anyone more than tolerable," she says. "Except Ryan." "I'm starting to get tired of hearing that name."

"Welcome to Prestonville, you better get used to it."

...

I go home that afternoon and throw my things on the ground. The house is empty because Martha is at one of her meetings, a church meeting or a community organizer's meeting or a city council meeting. I don't know; they're all the same, all places where she spreads gossip and pats herself on the back for knowing more then her neighbors do.

The vase on my bedside table still holds fresh flowers made of brilliant colors I didn't know could be found in nature, bright greens and reds and purples and blues. I'm amazed they're still alive; I've never replaced their water or moved them into the sunlight or anything. But they stay there, still alive despite the fact that they've been uprooted.

My phone sits on the bedside table, gathering a thin layer of grey dust because I haven't checked it in a week. There's no one to call in this god forsaken town. Its screen illuminates as I press the on button and five missed calls instantly pop up, all from my mom. Shit. It's been ages since I last talked to her. I don't even bother listening to the messages, I know they're full of my mother's concern, increasing to near panic in the later messages because I haven't returned one of her calls.

I suppose I should, but I don't have the spirit to talk to my mother and be reminded of my old life with her, so instead I send a short text message.

Hey mom. Things suck down here. I love you.

As soon as it's sent, my contacts pop back up, and the bold, black word mom is highlighted in blue. Right beneath it, a name catches my eye.

Miller, Nathan

He's still in my phone, just like he's still in my life and still free in the world, no matter how much I don't want him to be. I squeeze my eyes shut as I press the delete button. I should have pressed charges, what was I thinking? He shouldn't be able to give me this sick feeling in my gut still, he shouldn't have left those scars on my back, he shouldn't still be in my phone. There are so many things he shouldn't be, shouldn't have done, but there's only one thing I can do.

Are you sure you want to delete this contact?

I press the ok button as hard as I can and the little message pops up: contact deleted.

Good. He's gone and I can move on.

But I don't feel like I can. I don't feel anything as I throw my phone back on the bedside table and ignore my homework.

...

It turns out that there's a night life in Prestonville. Well, if you can count gathering at the old abandoned drive in theatre at the base of the water tower, smoking, and drinking as nightlife. Britney does it almost every night, which is why, I'm sure, she's as unresponsive as a corpse during the day. I join her that Monday night, not because she presses me to, but because I'm bored and the phone thing shook me more than it should have.

"Sure, you can come," she says. "It's just a couple of kids hanging out at the old drive in though, nothing really special."

"That's fine," I say. "I'm bored enough that I would kill myself just for some entertainment."

She drives me down there, because I no longer have my precious Mini. The drive in is only a few minutes away from down town, tucked between massive trees and big, untamed patches of tall, wilted grass and green shrubs. The old parking lot is littered with foliage pushing its way through chasms in the black asphalt. The big, wooden screen is sagging and losing its white paint, the little shed with the ancient projector in it is decrepit. The snack stand is still in relatively good shape, it has its old tin roof and a faded sign advertising "coca-cola and popcorn, ninety five cents."

There's a small congregation of kids huddled beneath the tin roof overhang, some sitting on the rotting wooden bar and dangling their legs. Most of them have cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.

"Hey guys," Britney says. "This is Dante."

I nod at them and they stare at me, waiting for Britney to introduce them, but she says nothing else, just joins a brunette girl on the bar and grabs for a cigarette and a lighter.

"Hey man." A guy greets me, and I recognize Jake's shaggy blonde hair and droopy green eyes.

"Hey."

"I'm Kevin Dun." Another guy is brave enough to introduce himself. He sticks out his hand and I shake it, noting its rough texture and his hard grip. He is tall and lanky, with closely trimmed brown hair and big blue eyes. He has to be over twenty. "And this is Clark Loon. Don't make fun of his name."

Clark waves and says nothing more, his bloodshot eyes tell me that he's probably been chain smoking for a long time.

"Hey." I can't think of anything else to say.

"Claire McNulty." A little blonde girl bounces forward and holds out her hand. My eyes widen at the outfit she wears, a red and white Prestonvill high cheerleading outfit.

"You're a cheerleader," I observe.

"And if Marsha finds out I'm here she'll cut me," Claire adds. "So I suggest you don't tell her, 'k?"

I don't even know who Marsha is.

"Nothing like being threatened by a ninety five pound white girl," I joke. Everyone else laughs, and I feel like I've been somewhat accepted into this group of outcasts.

One by one more people introduce themselves. Some are obviously uncomfortable around me, most don't seem to care. They're mostly older than high school aged, all obviously small town burn outs. I think I like this little slice of Prestonville society that Britney's introduced me to.

"I'm gay, by the way," I say at the first opportunity. Eyebrows raise and frantic gazes are exchanged by some very uncomfortable people.

"Really?" Kevin asks sarcastically. "Because I definitely hadn't noticed by now." Clark, who seems to be his constant companion, says nothing.

"I'm glad I'm that obvious."

There's laughter; some of it's strained, but mostly I feel good, because I've been semi-accepted somewhere.

As soon as Claire says "so have you met any guys you think are hot?" I think that I fall in love with her a little bit.

"Definitely." I smirk maliciously. "Jake is pretty cute." He squirms uncomfortably and I laugh. Claire and Britney are the only two that join me. "And Ryan."

"Ryan Preston, I assume." Claire smiles knowingly.

"Yeah but I think he's a real asshole."

"That's unfortunate."

"Why?"

"Because he comes around here to hang out sometimes."

"Wait, wait, wait," Kevin says loudly, throwing up his hands as if to stop traffic. "You don't think I'm hot?"

"You're too old for me," I say. I swore off men over nineteen after Nathan.

"He's only twenty," Claire comments. "And I think he's cute." She rubs his thigh and flutters her eyelashes at him; he rumbles low in his throat, and I throw a stick at them both.

"I don't do guys over nineteen anymore."

"Anymore?" Britney asks.

"Something tells me there's an interesting story to that." I can tell Claire wants me to tell the story.

I cast around for a change of subject. Luckily, Jake finds one for me.

"Let's talk about girls now, shall we?"

"I think their curiosity about the gay kid is over," I say. "But please, any questions and comments can be left in my mailbox and I promise to get back to you as soon as I can."

The suns sets beyond the trees and we're bathed in rippling colors of pink and orange. The tall water tower a few yards away sends long, strange lines of shadow over our faces, and bright yellow fireflies emerge as soon as the first grey of dusk settles in on us. I watch the bugs dance above our heads in the fog of smoke and Kevin brings out an arm full of unlabeled glass bottles with amber liquid sloshing around in them. I don't smoke, but drinking is one of the things I do best.

"Cheers everyone," he says as he begins distributing the bottles to different groups. He returns to our makeshift circle and begins by tipping his head and gulping some of the liquid down and then passing it to Claire, who is leaning against Jake's shoulder.

The bottle is slowly passed around, it's given to me after Britney takes two deep swigs, and I turn it over, tilting it with my head and crossing my eyes to watch the warm looking liquid rush through the bottle and towards my throat. The fireflies flash in little, fuzzy yellow dots behind the glass and the liquid is warmer than it looks, it burns ragged as it hits my throat.

Three things happen at the same time. One, I cough and splutter and lower the bottle, demanding to know what the hell kind of cheap whiskey it is, a grin spreads across Claire's pretty face, and a low laugh comes from behind me.

I drop the bottle to the ground and twist around just as Claire cheers "Ryan!" In her excited, girly way.

"Hey Claire." He gives her a one armed hug. Everyone is rising to greet him. Jake and Kevin give him manly hugs and pats on the back, Britney just grins at him. People from other little circles scattered around the broken and cracked asphalt are coming over, greeting him, smiling at him. I just sit.

"Hi, Dante," he says. The group quiets as he speaks, I keep staring at him with wide eyes. "What are you doing here?"

The question is quiet, not impolite, but not meant to be welcoming. I can see the slight narrowing in his eyes, the lowering of his eyebrows. He doesn't want me here. Not one of my new friends says anything in my defense, or gives any reason why I should be there, so I speak for myself.

"Britney brought me."

"Great." He looks at Britney and smiles a little, she doesn't see the glare in his eyes or hear the sarcasm in his voice. I do.

"So, you can't handle our moonshine?" He jokes, looking down at me. I'm still sitting, like an idiot.

"This is moonshine?" I stare at it in horror.

"My brother makes it, colors it, ages it, and then practically gives it to me for five bucks a bottle" he says, and a shadow comes over his eyes as he does. No one acknowledges it, I'm beginning to wonder how he's tricked them into liking him so much and so unwaveringly.

"Good for him," I say, though the thought that I've just drank moonshine is still fresh in my mind. I can feel my right eyes beginning to squint in an involuntary grimace.

Ryan takes our bottle from where it sits on the ground and takes a swig.

"Well, what are you all just standing around here for?" He asks laughingly.

They all disperse back to their bottles of illegally brewed whiskey at his command and he drops into a sitting position in between the ever silent Clark and the ever chatty Kevin. Everyone else sits back in the circle, as if they'd waited for him to sit first.

"You know if it wasn't for Ryan we wouldn't have this place at all." Claire bats her eyelashes at him and he smiles at her. "His dad owns all this land, and lets us use it."

"Really?" I raise my eyebrows. "And I'm sure he has no idea what's going on here."

"He doesn't, and I don't plan on him finding out." He's so confident as he says it that I find myself believing her father doesn't know and won't find out.

"And your brother's illegal whiskey operation?"

"Of course not." Ryan looks at me as if I'm an idiot, which I am, and turns his attention to the rest of the group.

"So why're you so late man?" Jake asks. His eyes glimmer as he looks at Ryan and I can tell he just worships the ground the older man walks on.

"Sorry, family stuff, you know."

The entire circle bows their heads simultaneously, acknowledging his hard family life, and takes a moment of silence as if someone's died or gone missing. I hold my eye contact with him, refusing to bow my head, because these peons in the circle might be worshipful and easily dominated, but I'm not. He stares at me, daring me to flinch. I don't.

It's amazing how the both of us could have taken such a sudden dislike for each other. It seems we were meant to hate each other.

"Is your dad going to be at church tomorrow?" Claire asks, her voice a whisper as if we are standing by Mr. Preston's very death bed and not in a circle drinking whiskey.

"I don't think so." Ryan's evoking all the sympathy he can. "He's been really weak lately, we might just get your dad to come in and speak to him though, if he doesn't mind."

"I'm sure he won't."

"Wait your dad's the priest?" I ask laughingly, turning towards Claire.

"Don't look so surprised!" She's mockingly offended. "I'm a good Christian woman! Really!" She says, and this time I think she might actually be serious.

"And that's why you're in a circle with a gay guy drinking moonshine."

She huffs and sticks out her tongue at me. I grin at her.

"Yeah. FYI I'm gay," I say at Ryan. "I'm pretty sure you missed that part of the conversation earlier." He's just staring at me with those eyes, those intense, dark eyes, and I'm grinning cheekily at him.

"That's good to know." Is all he says after several long, silent moments.

...

The next morning is bright and loud, with yellow sunshine streaming in through my big windows and the sound of birds chirping on the trees outside. Martha is in my room, having just thrown the windows open, shaking me awake.

"What? Why?" I ask as I sit blearily up. The clock reads 7:30 AM and my head is buzzing with a dull headache from my three sips of moonshine last night.

"Get up! It's time for church!" She practically sings as she dances around my room and aimlessly tidies things up.

"I'm not going," I say, dropping back onto the mattress and pulling the quilt and sheets over my head. "Fuck church."

"Dan!" She exclaims. I can see her in my mind's eyes pressing her hand to her chest as if my foul language has give her a heart attack.

"Martha!" I exclaim, mocking her mean spiritedly.

"Come on! Get your lazy self out of bed! You could do with some church."

I snap into a sitting position instantly, narrowing my eyes at her.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

But she's already floating out the door and telling me to wear a tie on her way out.

Twenty minutes and a hurried shower later and I'm outside with Martha, tie and all, wearing a dress shirt with my sleeves pushed up to my elbows, even though my arms aren't thick enough to hold them up. Martha is humming a tune as she sets of walking, I follow behind her and drag my feet as if I'm attached by some invisible string. People who are also walking to church greet us on our way in, but I don't see anyone I know from last night.

The church is a tall, wooden building painted purely white with a pointed steeple that rises higher than any other building in town. It's the center of life in the town, just off the town square. It has a sign that declares it to be the "Prestonvile Holy Baptist Church" in big blue block letters. Beneath the church's title is a nauseating platitude: "Every Saint has a past- every sinner has a future!"

Cheerful people filter in to the church from all directions. They exchange greetings on the cracked concrete steps. Martha is pulled aside more than once and I'm inevitably included in the conversation.

"Oh look at how adorable he is," says one lady, as if I'm five.

"I'm not five, you know."

"Oh of course you're not." But she's still talking to me as if I am, leaning down and speaking slowly. She reaches a hand up and my eyes widen. You can't imagine my horror as she pinches my cheek between her thumb and forefinger, making kissing noises at me. My face brightens to a deep shade of red as my eyes fix on a figure behind us- Ryan Preston, speaking in subdued tones with another group, is watching the scene unfold out of the corner of his eye.

"Oh would you look at his blue eyes, Martha, and that hair! It could use with a brushing, but I'd say you've got a looker on your hands."

I look down at my lanky figure.

"Sure, I'd be a looker, if I was a girl."

But the two elderly women ignore me.

"Tell your Aunty Enid goodbye now."

She bends down to address me again.

"You're my aunty now?"

She laughs, I wonder if she's heard anything I've said at all to her.

"I'll talk to you later, Martha." For some reason she's acts like a normal human being when talking to my grandmother. "Bye Danny!"

Great, another old woman has taken it upon herself to change my name.

"Who is that woman?" I ask, two parts disgusted and one part amazed.

"Enid Walker," Martha answers. "She's my best friend, so try not to embarrass me in front of her."

"I won't make any promises."

I laugh but she doesn't. Ryan is still standing in his group, watching us out of the corner of his eye. Another old woman comes and begins talking to Martha. I only catch a snippet of the conversation.

"Did you see what Enid brought to the last church picnic?"

But then Ryan breaks off from his group and advances towards me.

"What?" I ask as Ryan approaches me, staring at him darkly.

"Nothing." His tone is light and airy, he looks down on me and folds his arms casually as he speaks. "Just wanted to see how you were doing."

"I'm fine." I narrow my eyes suspiciously. "Seriously, what do you want?"

"A conversation."

"Fine, about what?"

But as soon as he opens his mouth, the church bells are ringing and the massive oak doors are creaking open. Martha grabs me by the arm, utters a quick apology to Ryan, and rushes me into the church to we can claim her favorite pew on the front row.

"I see you're getting along with Ryan Preston," she whispers with a smile as the organ beings to play.

"Not really," I reply.

She purses her lips in disapproval and stands as the cross is processed in, dragging me up with her.

The first word out of the priest's mouth is "sin" and I realize that I should have stayed in bed.

A/N: Not as much action as I anticipated or planned in this chapter, it got a whole lot longer than I thought it would! Thank you guys for your lovely, kind reviews.

PS: I have to say that I'm in the middle of finals, so I'm not going to work on this story until after the 17th (my last day) I may or may not get my next chapter up by that Sunday afternoon, we'll see.