Chapter Fourteen: Discovery
That day, I learned that my bed was too small for more than one person. Nick and I had to squeeze close together just to keep from falling off. I didn’t mind that. Our heads landed right next to each other on the pillow. Nick looked at me and giggled. Not a chuckle or a snicker or a guffaw, but an honest-to-god giggle. I swear, if it had been anybody else, I probably would have rolled my eyes, but since it was Nick, I thought it was the cutest thing in the world.
We laid there for a long time, sometimes talking, sometimes not. When we spoke, we drifted from simple topics to complex ones, just letting our words go where they wanted to go. When we didn’t speak, it the same way: floating between light, silent smiles and deep, intense stares. I was hoping that he didn’t expect any deep thoughts to come from my silences, because my mind had been reduced to mush.
Our feet were tangled together. From my perspective, it was difficult to tell which feet belonged to whom. I could make a fair guess, based on the sock colors, but then again…
“Hey, Bran, you home?” Mark called from the hallway outside my room.
Nick and I both jolted and rolled apart. This caused him to roll into the wall, while I rolled onto the floor, causing a loud “thump.” Nick rolled back and looked down at me over the edge of the mattress.
I heard Mark mumble “What the hell?” from the doorway. He looked at Nick, then me, then back at Nick. How long had the door been open? How much had he seen?
“I knew it!” He shouted. Nick turned pale. “I knew it all along. You really are an escaped convict! And now you’re trying to murder my brother by hurling him from his mattress!”
“Well, that was stupid.” I said. “Now he knows that you know. You’re next.”
“Ha! It’ll never work. I’ve taken to sleeping on the floor.” Mark said, punctuating his point with a jab of his index finger. “No one would ever believe that I fell from my mattress.” He spun to glare at Nick. “And there’s the flaw in your master plan. You’ll never get your hands on the Collier fortune!”
Nick was still ghostly white. I could see why – he was almost seen in a rather compromising position. Sure, we had all our clothes on, and weren’t doing much more than talking, but still…
“What’s going on?” Dixie squeezed through the door around Mark. I groaned under my breath. Was everybody in town going to show up?
“Nick’s trying to murder my brother. For the money.”
“I don’t see any murder weapons. Strangling?”
“No, actually. He just threw him violently from his own bed.”
Dixie looked at the bed, where Nick was sitting, then down to me. She clicked her tongue.
“What?” I asked, pulling myself to my feet.
“Oh, nothing.” She shrugged. “Um…I just came over to see if I could borrow…” She glanced around, and grabbed a CD that was sitting on my bookcase. “This.” She held it up. It was a copy of Milo Goes to College that I had borrowed from Alex.
I knew better than to loan out something that wasn’t mine, but at the same time…I really wanted her to leave. No offense to Dixie, but Nick and I had been in the middle of something. Kind of. We had been in the middle of doing nothing, together, and that was almost the same thing.
“Sure, you can borrow that. No problem.”
“Cool. I’ll bring it back tomorrow, okay?”
“Thanks. See you then.” She left, and Mark followed her out, probably to escort her to the door. That was something Dad had drilled into us since we were kids – never let a guest leave the house without closing the door behind them yourself. It had gotten to be a reflex, even with people like Dixie who were always there. That left me alone with Nick once again. He was quietly studying the carpet.
“Nick? Are you okay?”
He nodded, exhaling. “They…almost saw us.”
“Yeah. But it’s okay, they’re cool. They both know about me already, and they wouldn’t tell anybody.”
“But what if it hadn’t been them? What if it had been somebody else? Somebody who would spread it around? Oh, god.” He looked up, his eyes desperate. “If my parents find out…”
At his mention of being careful, I walked over and locked the door. “They wouldn’t hurt you, would they? Or kick you out?”
“I don’t know. Probably not that extreme, but…” He shook his head. “But they wouldn’t let me see you any more, obviously. And they’d probably home school me full time. I’d lose my room in the basement and have to go back to the couch – less privacy means less time to get in trouble, you know? And I’d probably never be allowed outside again.”
I walked over and hugged him, as much for my own comfort as his.
“Were we just…doomed from the start?” He asked. “It’s just a matter of time, now, isn’t it? They’re going to find out eventually.”
“Do you want to stop? If you need me to leave you alone…”
“No. I just hate that it has to be like this.”
“Me, too. But I guess we shouldn’t hate it.” I sat down next to him, both of us now perched on the very edge of my bed. “Your past, your parents, all these stupid circumstances. All that stuff is at least a part of what makes you who you are. And I love who you are.”
“You…you’re…” Nick didn’t finish that thought. Instead, he turned and mashed his lips against mine. It was clumsy and unexpected and I loved it. I’m not sure who started moving first, but we ended up on our sides again, all hands and lips and heartbeats.
Afterwards, he laid his head across my chest and I held him while he fought back all his fears. I spoke to him the whole time, reassuring whispers that probably wouldn’t make much sense if you saw them spelled out. When he was under control, I tilted his head a bit so I could look into his eyes. His big, brown eyes – the first thing I’d ever noticed about him.
“Nick…” I said. “You kissed me.”
“It, uh…it felt like the right thing to do.” He gave me a goofy smile, which I couldn’t help returning.
“Yeah, it felt pretty right on this side, too. It just kind of surprised me.”
“Because of the stuff that happens afterwards?”
“Trust me, it’s worth it. It’s worth it and a half.” He was drawing circles on my side with his index finger as he spoke, like he wanted to keep touching me but couldn’t think of a better reason. Not that he needed one. “And then two more halves. And maybe three tenths. But not four, because it’s got to end somewhere.”
“Yeah, you wouldn’t want to have too many tenths of…a half of…whatever we were talking about.” The whole of my brain had been confined to the place his fingertip was touching. “What were we talking about?”
He chuckled, and I felt it echo from his chest to mine. I leaned down to kiss the top of his head, and that was the last either of us moved for a while.
“Are your parents going to start wondering where you are?” I asked.
“Not until later. They’re busy, today. They won’t notice I’m gone.”
“Are they busy a lot?”
He sighed. “No.”
“Oh.” That said it all. If we were going to keep this up, we’d have to make the most out of whatever quick meetings we could manage. Right then, holding him, feeling every breath between the two of us, I felt like we were doing just that.
It was three o’clock when Nick said, grudgingly, that he should probably head back home. The ride was quiet, once again, but this time it was more contented than awkward. At red lights, I would look over at Nick and feel this…this burst in my chest, when I noticed that he was looking back at me. I couldn’t stop smiling. I think my lips were confused.
I pulled into the church parking lot – the one that we shoveled, together – and parked. He didn’t reach for the door handle.
“I wish I could kiss you goodbye,” He said, “But I don’t want to be alone, after…you know.”
I took his hand.
“Aw, man. Now I don’t want to go.” He glanced out the window. “That drive seemed really fast. You want to drive around the block again?”
I smiled. I don’t know what made me do it, but I flipped his hand over and slowly, carefully, kissed his palm.
He sucked in a breath and twisted in his seat. “You wouldn’t have done that if you knew what I’m planning on doing with that hand, later.” All of a sudden, his eyes widened and he turned bright red. “I…said that out loud, didn’t I?”
I burst out laughing and fell back against my seat.
“Hey…kiss me and then laugh at me, huh? I see how this is.” He grabbed my hand. I stopped laughing as I felt his lips on my palm. I felt a significant increase in blood flow, so to speak, as he straightened up. “See?”
“Y-yeah…” I felt a slight dampness on my hand.
We stared at each other for a few seconds, or maybe minutes, before we snapped back into reality and he reached for the door. He missed the handle the first time, because he was still looking at me.
“L…love you.” He said.
“Love you, too.”
I drove right past my street on the way home.
About an hour later, I was daydreaming in my room when Dixie came back.
“Here you go.” She handed me Alex’s CD.
“Oh. Right. Thanks.” I put it back on the bookcase where she had first picked it up. “Done with it already?”
“I didn’t want it in the first place.”
“Huh? Then why’d you borrow it?”
“Well…I was just coming over to hang out, but then I saw what was going on, and figured I should leave you guys alone. I just used the CD thing as an excuse.”
“What do you mean, you saw what was going on?”
“You and Nick. Give me some credit, Bran.” She motioned to my bed. “Mark said that Nick shoved you off of your bed. Which means that, at some point, both of you were on that bed – that small bed – at the same time.”
“So? That doesn’t-”
“Then Nick was there looking like he had just swallowed a goldfish.” She added. “And just the way you’ve been acting when he’s around. I know you. I know how you act when you’re around new people. You don’t act like that with him.”
“I’m that obvious?” I sighed.
“Only because I already knew you were gay. Anybody else would’ve just figured you were…well, actually, more normal than you usually are.”
“So…you think Mark knows, too?”
“Huh. Maybe. Wouldn’t he say something, if he did?”
“I don’t know. He tends to not just come right out and say stuff, if it’s something serious.” I thought back to the night I found out he was graduating early, and how I had to basically ambush him in the middle of the night to get a straight answer. “I guess I’ll find out, eventually. But, for now, you can’t tell anyone. Okay?”
“Once again, Bran, give me some credit. I haven’t told anyone about you. Why would I tell anyone about you and Nick?”
“Yeah, I know, but…you saw his mom, that one time. You know how bad it could turn out.”
“Yeah, I do. To tell you the truth…” She trailed off.
“Nothing. It’s none of my business.” I waited for her to continue, because when Dixie says ‘it’s none of my business’, she always keeps going. “But…is this a good idea?”
“Probably not, no. That’s why I didn’t want to…you know, pursue it. But, he’s so…he wants to. And I want to. And we both realize that it’s stupid as all hell, because of what could happen with his parents, but we still want to.”
“Yeah, but even without his parents, did you ever think…have you ever heard of Wounded Bird Syndrome?”
I shook my head.
“It’s when you start going out with somebody who seems really sad and vulnerable because of…I don’t know, some weird parental instinct, or something. And you feel like you really like them, but really, all you’re interested in is helping them, because of sympathy or empathy or whatever -pathy it is. It’s like picking up a wounded bird on the side of the road – feels really good at first, helping it. Then it starts to feel like a chore, looking after it all the time, and it starts squawking at you all night, pecking up your stuff, molting all over the carpet until you can’t stand the thing any more. Then the bird starts to get better and you realize – oh, shit – you weren’t really interested in having a pet bird at all; you were just fascinated with the idea of easing its pain.”
She paused and took a deep breath.
“I guess I’m just saying that it would really suck if his parents found out and he had to go through all that stuff just because you thought you wanted a pet bird.” She said.
Wow. What a thought. For all my self-proclaimed cynicism, I couldn’t believe that I’d never thought of that. I’d always kicked around the idea that it would be impossible for Nick and me to get together, but I’d never stopped to think that if we actually did wind up together, things might not work out. With an oversight like that, they just might tear up my membership to the International Cynics Society. (They’d probably be muttering “I never really believed in him; not from day one,” as they did it.) I’d deserve it, too. Calling myself a cynic but thinking that a secret high school relationship would work out with no problems? It just doesn’t fit.
“I do want to help him,” I said, “But I want to help him because I care about him. Not the other way around.” But was I helping him? He cried when I kissed him. What’s that say?
Dixie climbed onto my bed, sitting cross-legged at the opposite end from me. “What do you want to help him with?”
“It’s…it’s like he doesn’t realize…” I stopped. “Hang on. I don’t know if I should be talking about it behind his back.”
“Fair enough. If you ever do need help, though...”
“I know. You’re at the top of my list.”
“I’d better be. I’ve seen some of the guys you’ve been hanging around with.” She said, which made me laugh. “Well, I told my mom I’d be home in ten minutes. If you do want to talk, I’ll stick around, but otherwise…”
“No, it’s okay. I just want to think things out on my own for a while.”
“Cool. See you later, then.”
After I walked her to the door, I thought of something she’d said. Her mention of “those guys I’d been hanging around with,” specifically.
Being with Alex had taught me about relationships – what I like, what I don’t like, and that I shouldn’t settle. From him, I learned all about being myself. I know that sounds a little after-school-specially, but it’s true.
Corey had taught me all about standing up for myself. Not overtly – he never lectured or instructed me – but just being around him, watching how he carried himself, how he stood up for friends. I’d absorbed a lot of that, and it had come to a head when I’d taken a swing at Alex.
Before I’d met them, I wasn’t happy with myself, but at the same time, I didn’t want to change. I understood being shy and aloof, letting other people walk all over me in the hopes that they’d just keep walking, rather than pausing to wipe their shoes. Now, though, I was happy with my position in life. Don’t get me wrong, I still think high school sucks, and I don’t strut around or anything, but I’m pretty sure that if it hadn’t been for that added confidence that I’d picked up from Corey and Alex, I never would have had the guts to keep pursuing Nick.
I was intensely glad that Dixie had dragged me to that Cursives meeting. Maybe the only way to really make any changes is to allow yourself to be dragged into something unfamiliar.
I took out my phone and dialed Alex.
“Brandon. What’s up?”
“Hey. I was wondering…are there any shows coming up?”
“Yeah, probably. What kind of show?”
I thought back to my split lip. “The kind where I don’t get my ass kicked. Like that one at Val’s.”
He laughed. “I’ll check around. Coming to practice on Friday?”
“Sure. I’ll give you back your CD.”
“Did you like it?”
“It was all right. I think you guys’ songs are better.”
“Dude…did you just say you like us more than the Descendants?” He snickered. “I’ve got to tell the guys about this.”
“You guys don’t have to laugh every time I show off how non-punk I am. I’m not a punk.”
“How can you be?” He quoted, almost automatically.
“Show me the way to conformity.”
At that point, we both broke into song, belting out “I’m just a squaaaaaaare, goin’ nowhere!” and laughing at each other’s Milo Aukerman impressions.
“See you on Friday, then.” He said.
“Yeah, see you.” I hung up. I wondered if there was any way I could take Nick to a show. Introduce him to the freedom, the excitement, the unexplained trust in strangers that I’d felt at my first show with Alex. It would be great. Plus, it’d be like…well, like a date. If only he could get away from his parents long enough to do it.
Later that night, Mark strolled into my room without knocking and handed me a spoon.
He cocked his head. “It’s a spoon, Brandon.”
“I mean, what’s it for?”
“Most people use them to eat stuff. You know, soup, cereal, that kind of thing. Dishes have been known to run away with them.” He rolled his eyes. “They really dumbed-down the curriculum after I left, huh?”
“Are you going to tell me why you just gave me a spoon?” I asked. “Because right now I’m seriously considering throwing it at you.”
“I figure if you start now, you’ll be able to dig a tunnel into First Baptist by next winter. It’ll be hard at first, since the ground’s frozen, but maybe you could strengthen the spoon, somehow.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh! You could weld a coin to it, like the guy in that prison breakout movie.”
I felt myself blushing. “So, you know, then?”
“Well, I did kind of see you in bed together.”
“And you’re okay with it?”
He groaned. “We’ve been over this, man. You know I am. Why do you think I gave you that spoon?”
He sounded exasperated. “It was supposed to symbolize my endorsement of your relationship. I was trying to do it with a little subtlety and class, you prick.”
“Oh.” I turned the spoon over in my hand. “Classy.”
“So, how long have you guys been…?”
He laughed. “Oh. Okay. Guess you’ll be spending most of the week quivering and drooling, then.”
I knew what he was getting at. He only had a few more days before he had to leave for school.
“Yeah, but I’m not going to totally ignore you. We’ll still have a lot of time to hang out,” I said. “His parents…they don’t let him out, much.”
“All the more reason to get started on that tunnel.” He nodded toward the spoon, which I was now twirling between my fingers. “I don’t know how to weld, but maybe Mom does.”
“I kind of doubt that,” I said, “And besides, she’d probably ask why I need to learn to weld.”
“Well, that’s easy. Tell her you’re going to bootleg some booze, and you need to make sure the distillery’s airtight. Or, tell her that you want to tunnel into First Baptist so you can make out with your boyfriend. Whichever one you think she’ll prefer to hear.”
“I don’t think she’ll buy either one.” I looked down and watched the spoon weaving its way between my fingers. “Um…do you think I should tell them?”
“I don’t know. They might be counting on you to be the normal one.”
“Yeah. You deciding to be a comedian didn’t help, there. Now they probably want me to become a doctor, just to make up for you.”
“I don’t really want to be a comedian. I just said that to screw with ‘em.” He laughed. “Seriously, though, you might want to tell them. You know they’ll be okay with it.”
“Yeah, but it’s weird, you know? Even if it was a girl, talking to Mom and Dad about it…”
“Yeah, I know. It was worth it for me, even if I did have to listen to Dad attempt a condom speech again. He hasn’t gotten any better at that speech, by the way. But Dad would slip me some extra cash if he knew I was going on a date. Mom would overlook it if I came in a couple minutes past curfew. Stuff like that.”
He nodded. “Yep. And since you’re going to have to hide it from his parents – you are, right? – it’ll probably be good to have at least one set of adults on your side. Or, at least, one set that you aren’t trying to hide from.”
“Maybe you’re right. Still doesn’t make it any less weird.”
“As far as I can tell, nothing ever does.” He turned to leave.
“Yeah?” He paused at the door. I whipped the spoon at him. It bounced off of his shoulder. “Hey!”
“Knock before you come in here, or next time it’ll be a fork.”
“You would fork your own brother?” He shook his head in mock disgust.
I groaned and smirked at the same time. “Just get the fork outta here.”
“Nah. I’ll take the spoon with me, though,” He said, picking it up and walking out. “Since, obviously, you know nothing of symbolism. Jackass.”
“Hey, Mark. Help me out, here.” I called after him, flashing a certain hand gesture. “What’s this symbolize?”
“I bet I can guess without even looking,” He called back. “Is it brotherly love?”