1.

he was a kid; he looked fifteen in jackson's eyes, but might have been younger. he was petite, sickly pale in the fluorescent lighting, and cute as a damn button. all giggly and green braces and lying about his age for a tattoo; blatantly, and he didn't have even have a fake id. just a pretty smile, and it seemed like he was flirting, but he was too naive. jackson sensed innocence in the way he averted his eyes and blushed when the tattoo artist admitted bluntly, "you're too young."

but that hardly meant a thing because jackson's voice went soft, he stepped around the counter, and that skinny boy got exactly what he wanted.


2.

he came back the next day and pressed up close to jackson, making the man breathe heavily. it was uncomfortable; jackson was too much older, and laurel (he whispered the name in a kiss, asking for jackson's in return) just seemed wrong beneath his hands-

his clammy fingers stealing youth and laurel's hair was so shinylongblack it looked like silk but jackson liked to pull it when laurel quietly asked him to and they ended up in the room that was really an employee lounge but jackson had been closing and there was no one else and they blurred; they crashed and burned into each other's ashes, one formless entity.


3.

they met once, twice, thrice until it was no longer a matter of counting; laurel was imprinted in jackson's mind-

he was making dinner in his tiny dirty kitchen, and laurel came to him; a clear image while jackson ate cold, burnt macaroni and cheese. then he thought of what his moans sounded like, but then it was his laughs instead and the way he asked the last time they met if they could cuddle.

cuddle.

his food tasted like nothing.


4.

jackson brought laurel home when he asked so sweetly there was no chance of denial; he drove ten miles over the speed limit in a residential area because haste made him less nervous, and when he pulled into his designated parking space he wished he'd taken the highway.

laurel looked out of place on the dingy stairs and in his dingier living room, but maybe he didn't notice because all he said was, "i like your couch."

the man laughed, and they both became better acquainted with the upholstery shortly thereafter, because they knew the purpose of their meetings. or at least jackson did, but laurel was never certain, or jackson thought he wasn't certain because when they were both satisfied he stayed pressed against the man's chest. he didn't ask that time; just took jackson's hand tightly so he couldn't refuse him and then whispered, "i like you."


5.

"do you go to school?"

laurel's impish sentiment had never been returned, but he kept coming back. maybe because jackson kissed him in reply, and maybe because that might have been the same. he sat at the kitchen table and watched jackson cook, "yeah."

"what grade?"

"i'm a senior."

seventeen or eighteen. legal or so close it hardly mattered because it'd only be months; jackson was surprised, "what are you doing, when you graduate?"

"i dunno."

"what classes are you taking now?"

"english, math-"

"i meant, specific."

"oh. nothing special. i like my art class, and my teachers are all really nice and helpful and stuff. i mean, especially miss hart because she's my english teacher, and i'm bad at reading, but she gets it. she let me move to...easier classes."

"oh."

he stirred the macaroni so it wouldn't burn.


6.

"sometimes, i just don't get it," laurel said out of nowhere; they'd agreed to meet after laurel was out of school, and jackson had driven them to mcdonalds, so they could eat parked outside the building. laurel consumed his meal slowly and never talked with his mouth full. "it doesn't come to me. i mean, math makes sense so i'm not dumb. i like it even, but when i try to read...stories and books and stuff they give me...it doesn't mean anything to me. it's weird, because i can talk, but when i try to make words real they're not. y'know?"

jackson didn't know, but he nodded.


7.

"it's really gray out." jackson glanced upward before he continued, "s'probably going to rain."

"i love the rain." laurel walked too close and hugged his arms around himself. he spun and walked still, "i want it to rain, because then it's against the window and sometimes it doesn't thunder and it's perfect."

"you like everything."

"what's the point of not?"

laurel was facing him, grinning so brilliantly jackson was sure he missed the profundity of his own statement.


8.

he wished to be so far away from laurel he'd forget about him, but that wasn't going to happen because he knew he'd break his heart, and he couldn't hurt someone so simple-

not dumb; oblivious and happy and jackson couldn't ruin that because while it wasn't normal, it was enviable. he wanted to smother laurel in his arms and keep him like a prized possession, and he also wanted to never taint him, never ruin what he adored-

he was taking what he wanted, but laurel said he wanted it too; the thought was less and less comforting.


9.

"oh fuck, jackson..." laurel only swore when they were twined in fornication, and jackson fucked him harder in response. their breaths mingled, and laurel whined, but it was never a complaint. his fingers danced up jackson's arm and caressed his neck; he pressed their sweaty foreheads together and whispered, "i love you."

jackson didn't reply, dizzy in pleasure and digging his nails into laurel's hip harder.


10.

"i like the way this looks," laurel said, referring to the stain on jackson's living room carpet; it was red, made with wine, and looked like nothing in particular. "it's pretty, but also dirty."


11.

maybe jackson had gone quieter, or maybe laurel realized that he'd never even said he cared, but the teenager dropped out of his life abruptly.

two weeks passed alone, and it was barren; his stomach rested without the assault of burning anxiety, but he only felt heavier because time crept so slowly without laurel on his arm chattering on about cute puppies and colors and leaves and street signs and sidewalks and graffiti and trees and pedestrians and buildings and the mundane became anything but monotonous because laurel saw something no one else seemed to-

the world was goddamned beautiful, and jackson wondered why he had never realized it.


12.

"we went on vacation," laurel explained, and we was his family, but jackson didn't care because they were peeling off each other's clothing and his tongue burned until he gasped-

"i'm so in love with you."


13.

"what does your tattoo mean?" jackson had done the work, of course, but traced the ink-tree upon laurel's back with the grace of a blind man; the words beneath it caught his attention for the first time since he'd glanced over the design, and he read them out slowly, "there is nothing more ephemeral than life."

"i read it in a book. i don't really know what it means, but i like it. it sounds pretty, and i think i believe it."

"you think?"

"is there anything else i can do?"

laurel giggled, and jackson hugged him until he was sure they were solid.


14.

jackson sat on the street curb a block over from laurel's because he couldn't let the adolescent's parents see him, but that would pass.

everything would pass in days, and they'd have each other at the end of it.