Jamie of the grease-black hair. Jamie of the brows knitted together in petulant frustration. Jamie of the smooth stretch of skin leading down from his navel and into someplace…secret. The skeletons tattooed on his arms; the angular hipbones jutting out. As his body moves rhythmically above mine, he shifts into focus and I can see him there, brows knit together, lips parted.
Fuck, he breathes. I'm going to come.
His eyes are green like a bottle and just as glassy. They promise a thousand things; they promise nothing at all. There is a smell to him like sawdust and bubblegum and stale chemicals. His hands cup my face, warm and rough as sandpaper.
I love you, he's saying. His breath is moist. I can tell he's going to come. Remember, Liam? I'm the only one who loves you.
I wake with a start.
Sun pours in the open window, bright and harmless as cotton candy. My heart is pounding within the cavity of my chest like a bird beating its wings inside a cage. I'm drenched in a cold sweat, despite the warmth of the day, despite the flannel blanket twisted around me. There's a knock on my door, and a moment later my mother sticks her head in.
"Liam, are you up?"
"Mom," I groan, snatching the blanket over me. "You can't come in here."
"Are you alright?" she asks, mouth creased into a worried frown. "I heard you talking in your sleep."
"Just a bad dream. I'm fine."
"Oh god, honey, your nose is bleeding," she says, striding to my side.
"Mom! I'm fine, really." I raise a hand to my face and it comes back smeared with red.
"I was just going to tell you that your brother needs help packing. He has to leave in an hour. Are you really alright? Turn your head so I can see."
"Stop," I tell her, pushing her hands away. "I said I'm fine. Just get out of here so I can get up, okay?"
She passes a hand through my hair, slick with sweat, and I pull away. "You haven't had a nosebleed for so long," she muses. "Can you help Hamish carry a few things down to the car? He has some boxes and furniture left."
"Yes," I sigh.
"I'll make some breakfast for everyone." She leaves, closing the door behind her. I wait until I her footsteps sound on the stairs, then get up. The blood tastes like metal on my lips, but the dream's lucidity fades in the morning sun, and I focus on pushing it out of my mind completely. In the shower, the blood spirals rose-colored down the drain. But even when I'm done it's still coming, so I clamp a wad of tissue to my face and go to get dressed.
"What happened to you?" Hamish asks, catching me in the hall. He's up and dressed and probably has been for hours. Today's his big day, after all: moving to the city, to the apartment he'll share with his girlfriend, Annie. He got offered an internship at the hospital downtown, so between that and Annie it doesn't make sense to live here with us anymore in our tiny tract house with bedrooms the size of closets and chipped wooden fences encasing every yard. The neighborhood I live in feels like a bunch of dilapidated hamster cages wedged together.
"Nosebleed," I say.
"Obviously," he replies, rolling his eyes. "Will you hurry up so you can help me move my desk? I have a meeting with my landlord at ten so we need to take off before traffic gets—"
"Just give me a minute." I slam the door to my room and lock it firmly. Then I dry off, pull on some jeans, a white button-down shirt, and the boots Luce gave me for my birthday. Luce is my best friend, I suppose. The boots are black with laces and straps; they look like something you could stomp the shit out of somebody in, something post-apocalyptic. They are not very me but they are very Luce. I readjust the leather cuff encircling my wrist, then slide my wallet and cigarettes into my pocket.
Hamish is standing there when I swing my door open again. We're opposites. He has unruly brown curls and flat black glasses that straddle the bridge of his nose and make him look intelligent, which he is. My hair is coarse and blonde like our mother's, bangs always falling into my eyes. Luce says it makes me unbearably cute, but she is full of shit. When she says this she likes to ruffle my hair, which I hate. It makes me feel like a dog getting its ears scratched.
"So," Hamish says.
"Mom said you had a bad dream."
"I dreamt we got stuck in traffic," I tell him sarcastically.
"Are you alright?"
"I really wish everyone would stop asking me that."
He smiles, turning for the stairs. "Then maybe you shouldn't make us wonder."
Half an hour later and everything is packed snugly into his car: all his books and clothes and sheets, his desk and computer and road bike, his winter boots and horrible old mustard-tinged lounge chair. His framed portrait of Hippocrates is nestled comfortably between the front seats. Hamish takes the doctor thing very seriously; it's what he's wanted to be since he was six years old. He studies books of internal organs and their pathologies with the intensity that most guys use to study porn. We stand back to appraise our hard work.
"I can't believe it all fit," he notes.
"It's like Tetris."
"Hey, look," he says, pointing across the street. "New neighbors."
Sure enough, in the time it has taken us to pack his car, a white SUV with tinted windows has pulled up across the street, followed closely by a moving van. The house has been empty for almost a year, ever since the people who used to live there retired and moved upstate. We watch a man and woman get out of the SUV. The man is stocky and thick with arms like a bareknuckle boxer, eyes hidden by black shades, the woman dressed in a matching knee-length skirt and blouse. She follows the man to the front door and waits, head bowed, as he fumbles for his keys. He unlocks the door and the two disappear inside. Two movers get out of the van and start unloading furniture onto the sidewalk, speaking to each other in fast little chirrups of Spanish.
"Boys, breakfast," my mom calls from the house.
"I'm gonna have a smoke first," I tell Hamish.
"It's your lungs," he says, and leaves.
I lean on the hood of his car and slide a cigarette out of my pack. The first drag of the day is always the best. To me, cigarettes are like chocolate: delicious, uplifting. I would rather smoke than eat candy or drink beer. Cigarettes calm and focus my mind, give me something external to concentrate on. I close my eyes and feel the nicotine hit my brain, that tight little wave of buoyancy and airlessness. The sunlight feels warm on my face, and I feel good: no bad dreams to haunt me. No bad dreams at all.
"Got a spare?" a voice asks. I open my eyes.
Standing directly in front of me is a boy who looks to be about my age—I didn't hear him approach. He's lean, belt pulled taut against his hips, tight black t-shirt exposing the ridges of muscle in his arms, which are covered in a whole rainbow of plastic, jelly-like bracelets. He's got a piercing through one arched, perfectly formed eyebrow. His eyes are a luminous brown. But most shocking is his hair: bright, neon, Day-Glo pink. Spikey and electric and splayed up all over his head, like a porcupine going to a rave. He rubs one hand against his jaw, shadowed with stubble, and gives me a crooked grin.
"Sorry?" I say.
"I said, have you got a spare? Cigarette?" I look at him and his smile fades by a fraction of a degree. "I just moved in next door," he says, jerking his head at the house across the street. "Or am in the process of moving. The name's Sage, by the way." He sticks out his hand. His fingernails are painted black with confetti sparkles.
"Liam," I tell him, and shake hands. His hand is dry, warm, and slightly larger than my own. I give him a cigarette and he lights it with a silver Zippo fished from his pocket.
"Thanks," he says. Then, gesturing to my house, "You live here, huh?"
"Apparently," I say.
I should make it known that I'm not a very social person. I don't like people and I don't like small talk. I tolerate my family, but mostly I like to be by myself, or with Luce. She's antisocial like me, so it works. Most people think we deserve each other because we're both assholes. But I'm not an asshole. Or at least not all the time. I just don't like people.
"Looks like you're moving out. College?"
I glance behind me to Haze's car, packed full of junk. "It's my brother's. He got an apartment, that's all."
"How old are you?"
What is this, twenty questions? I think. I don't like questions, either. Especially not questions about myself. "How old are you?" I shoot back.
"Seventeen. My birthday's in May. When I turn eighteen I'm going to drop out and join the circus, or a carnival. Get the fuck out of here, you know? There's actually a lot more job opportunities than you'd expect."
This kid has got to be joking. "What are you going to be, a clown?"
"Fire artist," he corrects me. He puffs excitedly on his cigarette. "Poi, rope darts, bow staff, everything. It's not as hard as it looks. Ever tried?"
"No," I say. I have no idea what he's talking about.
"Or I'll go to Hollywood and start my own film studio." He leans into me conspiratorially and I take a step back. "Start making movies. If you know what I mean."
I'm fairly certain I do, but I haven't known him for more than two minutes and already he's annoying me: his flowing, familiar chatter, that strange, crooked smile, and the little hop-steps he takes, first to one side and then the other, back and forth. He can't stand still.
"I have to go," I tell him, putting out my cigarette.
"Hey, wait! You never told me how old you are."
"When's your birthday?"
"Does it matter?"
"No, just wondering. Hey, which school do you go to, Middleton or Central? I bet we're in the same class."
"See, I was right. Junior or senior?"
"Yeah, me too!" He follows me a few steps up the sidewalk to my house. "Hey, Liam! I'll be around later, if you wanna do something. You know, when you're done with your brother. Just knock on the door. We can get some coffee, take a walk. Or I could show you some fire tricks. But not at home—my parents don't trust me with kerosene and they think it's a waste of time. Maybe you can show me around!"
"We'll see." No way, I add in my head.
"Hey, this is cool," he says, touching the leather cuff at my wrist.
Instinctively I snatch my arm away. Too hard; too quickly. Sage falls silent and looks at the ground, scuffing his sneaker on the pavement.
"I have to go," I tell him, turning away.
"Sorry," he says, watching me. I can feel my heart thumping, anxious, and I jump the three or four steps up to the porch.
"Thanks for the cigarette," he calls behind me, but I'm already closing the door.
In the kitchen my mom and Hamish are sitting at the table drinking coffee. My mom gets up and makes a plate of eggs for me. "Who was that?" she asks, setting it on the table and going to the fridge for some orange juice.
"Just the boy next door," I answer. "Wouldn't shut up."
"Well, I think it's nice. The Peterson's old house has been empty for so long, it's good to see a family moving in again. It'll be fun to have someone your age right across the street. Eat fast, honey, you two have to leave in a few minutes."
I sit down and obediently start shoveling eggs into my mouth. I think my definition of "fun" differs significantly from my mother's.
"Shit, look at the time," Haze says, glancing at his watch. "We really have to go."
"Is Annie meeting you there?" my mom asks him, kissing his cheek. He gives her a quick hug.
"No, she has to work," he answers. "Bring that with," he tells me, nodding to my coffee. "I want to get the bathroom painted before she comes back today, if we can." He grabs his jacket and keys then looks around, mentally checking to see if he's remembered everything. "Okay. Love you, mom."
She kisses him again and I get up, swallowing the last bite of eggs. My mom wraps me in a hug and rocks me for a moment against her.
"God, mom," I say. "I'm just going downtown. I'll be back tonight."
"I know," she tells me. "I just love you. Take care of your brother."
"Um, okay," I say, wriggling out of her embrace.
"I was talking to Hamish," she tells me. "Now go. Drive safe."
In the car Hamish pulls on his seat belt and waits for me to do the same. Sage comes out to grab something from the moving truck, then waves, grinning. Hamish waves back. As we're pulling away Sage winks at me, and I narrow my eyes.
"Sweet hair," Hamish says.
"It looks like a wad of gum," I mutter.
"He seems nice."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means he seems nice. What's your problem? You're surlier than usual today."
"Whatever." I pull out a cigarette and Hamish automatically rolls down every window in the car, like one small wisp of secondhand smoke will cause tumors to sprout spontaneously out of his skin.
"I wish you'd quit," he tells me.
"It's the lesser of two evils," I say, and he shuts up, because he knows it's true.