Obviously, things changed after that.
School was pretty much the same; we weren't exactly going to kiss goodbye in the halls between classes or anything. We walked together in the mornings and sat with everyone else at lunch, talking and laughing at stupid jokes. And maybe sometimes I'd look over at him and our eyes would meet and yeah, I'd be gone, but if I'm going to be honest, that wasn't very different from before.
What really changed was after school. We never went to Byron's house anymore -- it wasn't even an option, unless we wanted his parents, all nine hundred siblings, Pow, and the ghost of his dead hamster to figure out about us. No, it was always my house. We'd slam the door closed, walk right past the living room -- no way we were going to stick around there, not when my mom came home early sometimes -- and headed right up the stairs to my room, which was now like the best place ever, as far as I was concerned.
Better than my room in California, better than fucking Disneyland, because as soon as the door was closed, we'd drop our stuff -- the sight of Byron shrugging off his backpack had suddenly become such a goddamn turn-on, I don't even know -- and climb onto my stupid high bed, and make out.
It was really just kissing, more or less – we barely touched. I don't know who decided that was a good idea, or if it was something that just happened, but even when we leaned in close, there was always this careful gap between us on the bed. Between our hips, to be exact, and I don't know if this was our concession to going slow or what, but it was always there. It was probably a good thing – God knows I didn't need another excuse to freak out.
And anyway, it wasn't like we even needed that part of it. Not yet. Because, Jesus, just kissing Byron wasn't even close to old yet. The heat of his mouth, and the way he always tasted like something sweet – I realized I really sort of liked sugar when I tasted it on his tongue – and how he kissed harder and more intensely than any girl I'd ever been with.
And sometimes he'd stop just to look at me and smile, his cheeks flushed and eyes bright, like we had some big awesome secret. Which we did, and…I don't know. Right then he was more my best friend than ever, and I'd just have to kiss him again, again, and he never said no.
That wasn't ever going to get old. I could tell.
"Here," James said, handing me an index card. It was a Thursday morning, just a couple weeks after Byron and I started – I don't know what to call it. I guess you could say I was participating in afterschool activities for the first time ever. Anyway, Byron and I had just gotten to school, and he was waiting for me while I dug around in my locker for some history notes when James wandered up.
I looked down at the card in my hand. In red Sharpie, he'd written, YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO WAKE THE DEAD, FRIDAY 8 PM, CASA DE JAMES. He'd even scribbled a little Pacman-esque ghost on the bottom, as if that'd clue me into whatever the fuck this meant.
"Uh – what?" I said, glancing over at Byron. He was looking down at a card of his own, a similar what-the-fuck expression on his face.
"Remember when I found the Ouija board at Haley's?" he said, grinning ear to ear. "I figured we should use it."
"What for?" I'd seen the Parker Brothers logo on the side of the box – I didn't have high hopes of, like, asking my dead parakeet if they had tofu in Heaven.
James, on the other hand, wasn't so much a skeptic. "To, like, call on the dead and talk to demons and whatever you do with a Ouija board." There was a pause before he added, "My parents will be gone, and my older brother can get us beer."
Which, all right, was a much better argument, but it still sounded lame. I mean, essentially James was inviting us to come over and play board games, and I had a lot of better things to do with my time. Like, oh, I don't know. Sleep. Stare blankly into space. Watch a Golden Girls marathon. And come on, it was tomorrow? Way to plan ahead, Captain Kangaroo.
So I was just about to open my mouth and politely decline when Byron piped up with, "Okay. I'm in."
My mouth maybe dropped open at this point. Not so hot, I know, but I'd figured one more item – hang out with Byron – had been a given on that list of much better things to do with my time. Mom and Richard usually went out to dinner on Fridays, so the house would have been ours.
But I guess he did realize that, because he just gave me this quick sidelong glance, like a warning, so reluctantly I said, "Yeah, me too."
James' grin grew even wider, which was kind of embarrassing, for me at least. "Great! Well, I need to give the rest of these out." He waved his handful of cards like a fan. "See you at lunch." And he dashed off into the crowd, his carrot-red hair making him stand out like a target.
As soon as he was out of range, I turned to Byron and hissed, "I told you that my mom and stepdad are going out on Friday."
"Yeah, I know." He looked away, absently tugging on the ends of his backpack straps. "But we've been, um, hanging out on our own a lot lately."
"Don't you think that might be…" He lowered his voice a little. "Suspicious?"
"Oh." I hadn't really thought of that. Or, okay, I hadn't thought of it at all. I mean, I always tried to be careful not to get caught, and I always timed things so no one else was around when we were making out, but the idea that someone might put two and two together without seeing us had never crossed my mind. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
He nodded. "So we should go. It won't be so bad – James can be a lot of fun. And besides," he added, with a wide, open smile, "we'll have some time to kill before it starts."
And God, I was such a sucker for that smile.
With a smile of my own that I just couldn't fight, I said, "Yeah, well, I still think Golden Girls would be better."
"Okay." Byron paused, blinked a few times. "But for the record, I like Rose the best."
Much to my complete and utter total fucking shock, James somehow managed to talk the rest of our group into trying to talk to the Ghost of Christmas Past too. But by lunch, I'd sort of figured out his main selling point.
"Budweiser," Adam was telling James firmly, slapping the tabletop for emphasis. "Or maybe Miller, or Coors. No light beer, that's gross, and no Foster's. I don't care if you're Australian, it's nasty."
"Yeah," Shea agreed. "And can your brother get us vodka too?"
"And Red Bull," Scott added.
"We can get our own Red Bull, moron," Jordan said, rolling his eyes.
"I heard Rihanna drinks whisky and apple juice," Haley piped up.
Sara looked appalled. "That sounds disgusting."
James, meanwhile, was taking notes on all this, furiously scribbling their orders at the bottom of a page of math notes. He looked up at Byron and me and asked, "What about you guys?"
We glanced at each other – I don't know why we were always giving each other an eyeball consultation – before Byron said, "Beer's fine for me."
"Rum," I said. "I'll bring my own Coke." Not that soda was a healthy choice, but at least it made the rum go down easier. Ultimately, I figured that was more important than health.
"Rum and Cokes are my favorite!" Haley said with a little gasp, like this was the most amazing coincidence ever. She was sitting to my right, and on my left, I could feel Byron tremor a little with a silent laugh.
Which made me smile as I told her, "I'll bring enough for you."
She brightened, encouraged by my smile, I guess, and said, "You know, my parents just got a huge flatscreen – it practically takes up the whole wall. You should come see it sometime."
Oh Jesus. The table had gone quiet, not so subtly listening to Haley put the moves on me (also not so subtly). There was no way I could tell her no without a) looking like a dick, b) embarrassing her, and c) making everyone think I was totally gay and therefore probably having a torrid gay romance with Byron, who was also gay. Fine, maybe that one was a stretch, but still.
"Yeah, okay," I said awkwardly, forcing the smile to stay put.
"What are you doing after school today?"
Jesus Christ, this girl moved fast. Normally I liked that, but this was like the worst timing ever. I glanced over at Byron again, but this time he seemed really involved with staring at his cup of blue Jello.
"Um, nothing, I guess," I said slowly.
"Great! I'll meet you at your locker, okay?"
"I – " But then the warning bell rang, and everyone started getting up and gathering their things.
"Bye!" Haley called out cheerfully as she dashed off, Sara close at her heels, scowling.
I just kind of sat there – what had just happened? But then Adam slapped me on the back, grinning.
"Nice one!" he said. "Only here a few months, and you got dates with both of them!"
A what? "It's not a date," I said quickly, looking at Byron again. But he wasn't looking back – again.
"Haley thinks it is," Adam said confidently. He ruffled my hair good-naturedly–thanks, asshole—and added, "Tell us how it goes!" before he headed toward the door.
The other guys were gone by then too, but Byron was still there, sliding his three-ring binder into his backpack.
"It's not a date," I whispered to him urgently, touching his arm. We didn't touch a lot at school, or at home really, with that stupid unspoken rule; he stiffened, but didn't pull away. "I didn't have an excuse, other than—you know. It's like a cover thing, like you said."
"Yeah, I know," Byron answered, but his voice was a little cool. In one quick motion, he zipped up his backpack and swung it onto one shoulder, stepping away from me. My hand just sort of slipped off his arm. "So I'll see you tomorrow, I guess."
He walked away, and I stood there for a while, feeling stupid and confused and annoyed with him, honestly, until the bell rang.
I was late to class.
True to her word, Haley was hanging out next to my locker after school. Her face sort of lit up when she spotted me, which, God, was kind of embarrassing, and she waved. "Hey, Jeff!"
Like I would've missed her? But I just smiled a little, already feeling exhausted by whatever the hell this 'date' would bring. "Hey," I said, opening my locker and grabbing the novel I was reading for English.
"Ready to go?"
"Ready as I'll ever be."
She didn't really catch my lack of enthusiasm. "Great!" Barely waiting for me to slam my locker shut, she grabbed my arm and half-led, half-hauled me down the hallway. I panicked a little, wondering if she was going to try to hold my hand, but she let me go once we reached the exit.
The walk to her place wasn't so bad. Haley lived pretty close to school, so it didn't last long, and she got caught up in telling me all about this bitch of a teacher she had for PE, so really all I had to do was nod and say, "Uh-huh." Which was good, because seriously, all I could think about was how Byron was mad at me, even though this so wasn't my fault. He was the one who said hanging out too much might seem suspicious, not me.
"…so she gave me a detention! Even though I was like, Ms. Green, it's nine billion degrees below zero today—do we really have to dress out?" Haley was saying as we walked in through the kitchen door.
"Uh-huh," I added eloquently.
"Anyway." She dumped her backpack on the table and ran her hand through her long, blonde hair; it was sort of pretty. "Do you want a snack or anything?"
"I'm cool," I said with a shrug, mostly because I'd learned not to trust anybody in Stoneybrook with the concept of vegetarianism, not even Byron (hello, Altoids totally have gelatin, though I appreciated the effort he went to to make sure my mouth tasted like curiously strong medicine).
"Yeah, you are," Haley answered with a flirtatious little grin, then took me by the wrist and led me out of the room. "Come on, I'll show you the TV."
It was in the den, the set of our Mario Kart tournament, only now it was complete with, no joke, the biggest screen I'd ever seen outside of a movie theater. It hung there, taking up almost half the wall, silent and black, and as I stared at my own reflection in its surface, I wondered why Haley had never told us that her parents were freaking millionaires.
"Well, here it is." She sat down on the couch with a sigh, pulling along; I fell against her a little, then inched away a couple inches. Picking up the remote, she flicked the TV on and started scrolling through the channels—they must have had hundreds of them. "What do you want to watch?"
"Uh, MTV I guess," but when she switched over to channel 502, it was one of those shows where blonde girls talk shit about each other. But I didn't really feel invested in channel surfing, so we just started watching in silence.
After a couple minutes, she got close again and slipped her arm through mine, resting her head on my shoulder. Which—DANGER, DANGER, Will Robinson, but after a little while of me sitting there as tense as a mother fucker, she didn't try anything else, and I relaxed. It was totally baffling to me that Byron and I felt like we shouldn't touch even when we kiss, but Haley could just snuggle right in. But I figured it wasn't like it was cheating or anything, and—cheating?
It occurred to me, sitting there, staring blankly at a bunch of blonde girls I couldn't tell apart, that Byron and I had never really said what we were to each other. Best friends, yeah, but the whole making-out-I-am-so-gay-for-you part made it a little more complicated. I felt like I shouldn't be, you know, hooking up with anyone else, but it's not like we'd ever made that an official rule.
But what if Byron took that to mean he could do whatever he wanted? And, oh God, I thought, what if he's at Scott Danby's house right now? Sure, Scott was pretty much the definition of heterosexual future frat boy douche, but I'd been pretty girl-centric too, until now. Eventually, Scott's tiny dinosaur brain was going to comprehend that Byron's eyes were really, really pretty and his bottom teeth were crooked, and then what?
I was so deep into this horrifying thought that I didn't notice for a few seconds that Haley had turned her face in toward me and was slowly nuzzling my neck.
Shit! I practically fell to the floor, I shoved myself away so fast. She stared up at me, blinking, confusion already dawning across her face.
"Uh," I said out of nowhere. "How are you?"
"What?" Just as quickly, confusion turned to annoyance. I couldn't blame her—if I were some hot girl getting rejected for no apparent reason, I'd be pissed off too.
"I mean…" I had no idea where I was going with this, so I thought fast for an excuse. "I mean, you said you have no one to talk to about, um, your brother. So I was just wondering how you were doing with that."
Immediately, I felt like the biggest asshole on the face of the Earth. I felt even worse when her face softened, eyes going sad.
"Oh." She shifted back, away from me, thank God. "It's, you know. It sucks. It always sucks. And his birthday is coming up, and Mom and Dad always get so…" Haley looked down for a second, fiddling with her bracelet absently. When she looked up again, her eyes were wet. "Actually, you know, can we not talk about this right now?"
Christ. "I'm really sorry."
"No, don't be," she said quickly. "Nobody ever asks. It's really cool of you. And I do want to talk, just—not now."
"Okay, yeah, sure." I tried to sound caring, tried not to sound like a jerk.
"I'll come to you—or call you or something, when I'm ready. Would that be all right?"
She smiled suddenly, and it wasn't her big, fake smile she flashed around school. It was something genuine, and it was horrible and beautiful all at once. "You're a really nice guy, Jeff."
But I wasn't. I really, really wasn't. And if she knew I'd just used her dead little brother to cover up why I didn't want to mess around with her, she'd realize that. She wasn't going to, but I did.
Now firmly on opposite ends of the couch, we went back to watching TV. The stupid girls on this show, they had much easier lives.
"So, what'd you guys do?" Byron asked.
It was Friday afternoon, and we were hanging out in my room, wiling away the hours until James' idiotic ghost thing. He was trying to act all casual, but it wasn't working. I mean, I'd seen him at lunch when the other guys were all trying to get me to talk about my "date" with Haley—he'd gotten quiet, as usual. And it's not like I even told them anything.
Or maybe he was worried because I hadn't told them anything.
"Are you jealous?" I was stretched out on my bed, grinning over at him. He was sitting at the foot, back against the wall with a book in his lap, trying to pretend like he was going over Othello. That wasn't working either.
"No," he said, totally unconvincing. Which, I don't know, made me feel kind of good. Good in a fucking awful way, but good.
"You so are," I said, teasing, and nudged his thigh with my toe. He slapped at me in protest, but it was light, good-natured, and then he wrapped his hand around my foot, squeezing lightly.
And why would a move like that go straight to my dick? I curled over onto my side, trying to hide it, and said, "We watched a Corona del Mar marathon, and then her dad came home and started cooking pot roast, so I left."
Byron raised his eyebrows. "Seriously? That's it?"
"Yeah." I couldn't bring myself to bring up the Matt thing—I felt too ashamed—but he squeezed my foot like he was comforting me anyway.
"She didn't try anything?"
I hesitated. It would probably be easier on everyone to say she didn't, but it was kind of obvious that she was into me. "Well…I mean, she tried to cuddle with me or whatever, but I moved away."
I hadn't even realized how tense his shoulders were until they relaxed, just then. "I guess I can't really blame her," he said with a half-smile.
"For trying to cuddle with me?"
"You've never tried it."
I couldn't even believe I said that.
I don't think Byron could either, because he sort of went quiet for a second, still holding onto my foot. But then he tossed the book on the floor and—I really couldn't believe he was doing this—crawled over toward the head of the bed and lay down facing me.
So much for our no-touching rule. We were stock still, two parallel lines, until Byron draped an arm around my waist. Automatically, I shifted in closer to him, all body instinct, knocking our knees together and staying there. I prayed to God that he couldn't feel what was going on below my belt.
"Like this?" And he smiled, and his eyes were so damn reassuring and sweet that I couldn't help but grin and nod.
In fact, I did more than that—I wrapped an arm around him too. His shirt had gotten hitched up a little, so when my hand found the small of his back, there was warm, smooth skin that I couldn't help but stroke.
But it was just touching. We were still going slow.
"So what'd you do yesterday?" I asked, voice casual. "Scott Danby?"
I guess I'd been kind of distracting him, because it took a second for his eyes to un-glaze, and then he laughed. "Um, yeah, if by 'Scott Danby' you mean 'my chem lab report.'"
My thumb found the dip of his spine, and I liked the way he arched toward me a little as I traced it upward. "What's with you and Scott anyway?" he asked. "You're so weird about him."
"He's an idiot," I said, but the thing was, it was more than that, but I didn't know what, exactly. He just grated on me—it was like this chemical, visceral reaction whenever I was around him. Hate at first sight.
"He's not that bad," Byron said. His hand had found its way under my shirt, running all the way up between my shoulder blades and back down again. I couldn't believe a touch so simple could feel so fucking nice. "But I'm still not interested in him, not like that. Not even if you weren't here."
Seriously, that was such a relief to hear that I leaned in and kissed him, soft and sweet. It lingered for a second, but didn't go any deeper. When I pulled away again—not very far—Byron was smiling.
"Mm," he murmured, and Jesus, that was so hot that I couldn't help but shift in closer to him and kiss his shoulder.
"If you weren't here," he went on, "you'd still be with that girl."
I lifted my head. "Huh? Mandy?"
"Um, I doubt it." I lay back down so we were looking at each other again and went on, "She was cool at first, but after a while she got really annoying. She liked to play head games, and she wanted to be with me all the time. We would have broken up no matter what, even without the, uh, pregnancy scare thing."
"I'm with you all the time."
"Yeah, but I like it with you," and when I leaned in I kissed the first thing my mouth came in contact with, his chin.
I guess that was a good answer, because he slid his hand from my back to my chest, petting lightly. His thumbnail grazed one of my nipples, and I had to close my eyes and suck in a breath. He was polite enough not to acknowledge it.
"What about you?" I asked. "Is there anyone you'd be with if I weren't here?"
"No." I liked that answer, so I kissed a line along the curve of his neck. And okay, maybe I bit a little, but just once or twice. Byron shivered and made this sound, this little, "Oh," and okay, that was the hottest fucking thing ever.
Apparently, he agreed, because when he hugged me in a little tighter—oh God, oh God, oh Christ, I could feel him, if you get me. And while before I'd been worried about him noticing my hard-on, the other way around, I was totally fine with.
Maybe that was weird. I'd never been with any other guy before, and maybe I should have been freaked out by it, or at least more nervous, but I wasn't. I was too excited, by the touching, by going further than I had with anyone since Mandy, by the fact that he was so turned on by me.
But still, we were going slow. Slow.
Reluctantly, I said, "Maybe we should stop," but I didn't move away.
"Yeah," Byron agreed, and neither did he.
His hand was running along my stomach, touch gentle, but fingers bigger and rougher than any girl's. My hips jerked reflexively, pushing against his leg, and yeah, hello, now he had to know how into this I was. And I knew that if we were going to keep going slow, we needed to hit the brakes fast.
Shit, shit, okay, I thought. We should just keep talking. Distract ourselves.
"What's the most you've ever done?" I blurted out.
Jesus Christ, was I awesome at picking the wrong things to say.
His hand stilled, but just for a second. "You mean, like, sex?"
No, like on Mario Kart, but I couldn't say that. "Yeah."
Honestly, I expected him to say something like, 'what we're doing now,' or 'making out with you,' but what he really said was, "Um…stuff."
Stuff? "With who?" I demanded.
"Just some guy…you don't know him, he doesn't live in Stoneybrook anymore. We weren't even really—it was just for a couple weeks, we were just messing around. I didn't even like him that much." He kissed me, reassuringly, it felt like, which actually did help.
But when I didn't say anything for a while, he asked, "What, are you mad?"
"No." And really, I wasn't. I'd just had this expectation that Byron had been in a tower, dressed all in virginal white and waiting for me, and it was kind of hard to wrap my head around the fact that it wasn't true. Plus, his thumb had skated over my nipple again, which was sort of distracting. "So what'd you do?"
"Did you go all the way?" I felt like a hypocrite, because Byron knew I had, with a girl, anyway, but I just needed to know whether I should feel totally intimidated or not.
"No!" he answered emphatically, and yeah, hypocrite, but I was relieved.
"Did you go down on each other?"
His face turned such a bright red that he really didn't need to answer, but he nodded anyway.
"Whoa. I've never done that."
Sad, but true. It was something Mandy flat-out refused to do, and I'd been so thrilled about being allowed to do other things that I'd never pushed her. But now, God, all I could think of was Byron, doing that, only when I pictured the scene with pristine, aching clarity, I wasn't seeing him with that faceless Other Guy.
I was seeing him with me.
It was too much to think about, and all this while he was touching me, and I was touching him. And—shit, shit, shit, how could I have ever thought I didn't like Byron this way?
When I pushed my hips into his abruptly, he gasped.
"What's it like?" I asked, breathless.
"I—God, Jeff." Byron's face was still flushed, blue eyes bright and jewel-like in contrast. And even with all the other times he'd surprised me that afternoon, he made my head spin when he said, "I could show you?"
And he touched my belt buckle lightly, then hesitated, waiting for my answer.
This wasn't going slow. This was not going slow.
But what could I do but nod? And I kept nodding, breath growing faster, as he pushed me back flat against the mattress and undid my buckle with a beautiful little click.
And, look. I'm sorry, but a guy has to keep some things to himself. A guy has to have some privacy, and this, this moment, it's mine, okay? Mine and Byron's, and I can't share it.
But I will say this—he kissed me, first.
To be continued.