For the first time in his life, when Roy's parents ask him what he wants for his birthday, he can't think of a single thing
For the first time in his life, when Roy's parents ask him what he wants for his birthday, he can't think of a single thing. Nothing that they can give him, anyway. What he really wants is a car and a license, but this birthday is only his fifteenth, and that sort of freedom is still a year away. He would be happy to turn any cars he received over to Mullet Fingers, who is sixteen, but that would be hard to explain to his parents, and anyway Mullet Fingers doesn't exactly have a license.
"I can drive, though," he tells Roy one afternoon when they're hanging out on the uninhabited island that has served as Mullet's main base of operations for the past year. Roy is lying in a hammock that he brought to the island several weeks ago, a history book he's lazily attempting to read open on his stomach. Mullet is sitting beside him and a gutting a fish. Roy is trying not to make faces, but he still hasn't gotten used to the sight of fish guts. Or the smell.
"How'd you learn how to drive?" Roy asks. He's not really surprised to hear this -- he's yet to discover anything Mullet Fingers can't do -- but it doesn't make any sense. Mullet ran away from boarding school at thirteen, and as far as Roy knows, he hasn't had much access to automobiles since then.
"When I was a kid, there was this video game in the pizza parlor near our apartment. It was a racing game with a wheel and a shift and everything. I had the top score for three years, til we moved here." Mullet beams proudly, and Roy tries not to laugh.
"You don't think it's different in a real car?" he says.
"Well, sure, but the basic principle is the same. I bet I could drive great if I ever got the chance." He turns back to the fish and scrapes the scales away more forcefully than before. The pinpricks of worry that always poke at Roy when he considers Mullet's future begin in his chest. How will he ever get his driver's license? How will he ever have a job? His missing persons case has been closed by the Florida police department, partly due to his mother's disinterest. In another four years he'll be legally declared dead, and that's the best case scenario. If he's found before he turns eighteen, he'll be sent away, probably not to any place as nice as boarding school this time.
"When I get a car, you can drive mine," Roy says, as if this resolves things. Mullet laughs but doesn't look up from his work. Roy watches him over the edge of the hammock, wondering if his shoulders don't look a little bit bony. It was a hard winter; not cold but very rainy. Roy and Beatrice eventually persuaded Mullet Fingers to at least stay in the shed behind Roy's house when the weather was bad. Roy had really wanted him to stay in his bedroom, but Mullet always got nervous about being caught there and never lasted the night. More than once, Roy had gone out to the shed and stayed with him, on a pile of blankets and pillows he'd secreted away from the house. He now tends to get embarrassingly excited by the smell of potting soil and grass clippings, because they remind him of his nights with Mullet Fingers, the rain pelting the window while they huddled close to stay warm.
"I'm so glad it's finally summer," Roy says, thinking aloud. He won't have to worry about Mullet quite as much, though worrying about him has become such a regular pastime that he's pretty sure he'll never be able to entirely stop.
"Yep," Mullet says. "Best time of year."
This is as close as he'll get to expressing relief that the rainy season is over. Even when his teeth are chattering and his stomach is growling, he has a policy of never complaining that actually irritates Roy a little bit, though he knows it's only because Mullet is aware of the fact that it could be worse. He could be on lockdown in boarding school up north, far away from the ocean and the things that he loves, including Roy.
At least, Roy hopes that he's one of the things Mullet Fingers loves, and one of the reasons he wants to stay. They haven't exactly talked about it, but Roy once asked Mullet to come and see him every day, and the fact that he now does continues to be shocking to Roy. Mullet Fingers doesn't like being told what to do, and often will go out of his way to do the opposite. Roy keeps expecting him to get bored and find some other way to spend his afternoons, but he shows up every day, smiling through Roy's bedroom window from the roof of the back porch, or sitting down by the water waiting for Roy to sneak up behind him and thump his shoulders.
Roy falls asleep reading about the Spanish Civil War, his heavy history book resting just below his chin. He's trying to study for his upcoming final exam, but it's too hard not to drift off with the the hammock swaying in a soft breeze and the sun just a warm flicker on his face as it filters down through the trees. He wakes up when he feels the book being pulled off his chest, and opens his eyes to see Mullet sitting on the hammock beside him, frowning down at the book.
"You're lucky you don't have to study this stuff," Roy says without thinking. Mullet Fingers smiles in his secret way, as if he knows something Roy doesn't and pities him a little. He looks down at Roy, watches him yawn.
"I know I'm lucky," he says. He puts a hand on Roy's stomach, tracking the progress of his breath as if it's something fascinating, a whirlpool or a migrating bird. Roy waits for him to lean down and curl around him, but instead he gets up, leaving the hammock rocking wildly in his wake.
"Fish is ready if you're hungry," he says.
Roy sits beside him on the overturned log he uses as a dining room, and has a few polite bites of the fish he's cooked. Mullet eats most of it, along with some of the potato chips Roy brought him from his school's vending machine. There is nothing Roy likes more than carrying around little trinkets or packages of food all day, thinking about how he'll eventually bring them to Mullet. It makes being apart from him a little easier.
"My parents have been asking what I want for my birthday," Roy says as Mullet works on the chips, watching the smoldering remains of the fire he used to cook the fish. "I don't really want anything, but if you want something, I could ask them to get it for me, then I could give it to you."
Mullet is quiet for a moment, as if he's considering the offer.
"Won't they wonder where the gift went?" he asks.
"I dunno. Maybe it was a dumb idea. I just can't think of anything."
"You could ask for money."
"What, so I can give it you?" Roy jokes. He waits for Mullet to laugh along with him, but he doesn't. He crumbles the potato chip bag into his fist and gets up to put it into a trash bin he keeps by his tent.
"Hey," Roy calls as Mullet heads toward the island's narrow beach. "I was only kidding."
"I know." Mullet doesn't turn back, just walks straight into the ocean. He's shirtless and wearing his swim shorts, like always. Roy follows him, and stands on the beach feeling guilty, though he doesn't know what he's done. He takes his shoes off and walks down to the water to wash the smell of fish off his hands. Mullet is swimming out toward the sandbar that appears at this time of day, when the tide is out. He turns back toward Roy and waves.
"C'mere," he calls. Roy hadn't planned on getting wet, since it makes the journey back to his house uncomfortable in damp shorts, but he takes his shirt off anyway, glad that Mullet no longer seems to be annoyed with him. It happens occasionally and usually doesn't last long.
He swims out through the shallow green-blue water, and meets Mullet where the water reaches their knees. He's standing and watching a type of fish Roy doesn't recognize swarm around his ankles and peck at him curiously. He grins at Roy as if this phenomenon is marvelously entertaining, and Roy checks for nearby boats before he leans against him. He doesn't often worry about the fact that he and Mullet are both boys and that people might stare if he's not careful, because they're usually hiding anyway. His feelings for Mullet arrived before he'd had time to worry that he wasn't nurturing a developing interest in girls along with the rest of his friends, and he and Mullet have always had bigger things to worry about.
"What are they?" he asks when he's got his hands on Mullet's hips, chin on his shoulder.
"Leatherjackets." Mullet reaches back to lock his arms around Roy, and the fish begin to investigate Roy's ankles as well. Roy could almost fall asleep like this, out here in the middle of the ocean with the sinking sun not too hot on their shoulders. It's five o'clock, and he only has another hour or so with Mullet before he has to get home for dinner. His parents think he spends his afternoons in various extracurricular clubs at school. Roy has been careful to "forget" to buy his high school yearbook both years, so that they can't ask him why he's not in any of the club photos.
Mullet goes to the sandbar and stretches out on his back, shuts his eyes. He likes the feeling of the sandbar slowly disappearing around him, and Roy pretends to like, too, though it makes him a little nervous. He lies down on his stomach so he can keep an eye on things.
"When's your birthday?" Mullet asks. Last time this year they were only seeing each other infrequently, and the year before that Roy was still chasing him around town, trying to figure out who he was and why he always ran away.
"May fifteenth," Roy says. "After the last day of school."
"Why?" Roy asks. Mullet only smirks mischievously in response. Roy slings an arm around him, leans in to kiss his neck.
"You'll get sand in your mouth," Mullet says.
"Like I care." Roy has a theory that the taste of Mullet's skin changes as it gets darker throughout the summer. This will the be the first summer when he can truly test his hypothesis.
When the sandbar has grown so skinny it can barely hold the two of them, they swim back to the beach. After drying off a bit, Mullet grabs the oar for the tiny rowboat he uses to traffic Roy and Beatrice to and from the island. Roy hates the sight of it, is never ready to leave. If Mullet were a normal boy, Roy would dream about the day when they could go off to college together and share an apartment, but Mullet hasn't even finished middle school, and certainly won't go to college. Roy worries about how he'll ever find a job, and about how hard it might be for them to stay together after he finishes school. He's afraid that Mullet will by then have gotten tired of him, and will move on to Madagascar or some other wild place where people like him can continue to run free.
"Want to go see the owls?" Roy asks as he rows back to the beach with Mullet reclining in the front of the boat. He asks him this all the time, though he always gets the same response.
"Way too dangerous for me to go there. Go see them for me, though. Tell them I said hi."
Roy kisses him goodbye in the boat. Mullet never climbs out onto the mainland beach unless he has errands to run around town. The sunset is beginning out over the ocean, and the world has gone quiet except for the cries of gulls. Roy clings tight and kisses Mullet with clumsy urgency, lets him drag his fingers too hard through his hair. Eventually he'll actually have to leave the boat, but he always puts it off for as long as possible.
"Go see the owls for me, Roy." This is how Mullet reliably gets rid of him. Roy kisses each part of his face one more time: his cheeks, forehead, nose, eyelids, and finally his chin. It's gotten to be a kind of ritual.
"See you tomorrow," is always the last thing Roy says before turning to go. It's more for his own sake than Mullet's, because he's got to remind himself all the time that the magic barefoot boy won't disappear overnight.
On the morning of his birthday, Roy wakes up grinning, less because of turning fifteen and more because school is now out for the summer. He did okay on his exams, better in math and chemistry than Spanish and history, and he hasn't gotten his grades yet, but for now he's just glad to have the whole summer ahead, with no reason to be away from Mullet Fingers until dinnertime.
His mother makes him chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast, and his dad presents him with the gift Roy finally thought to ask for: a fancy new tent for camping. Roy plans to let Mullet Fingers use it between family camping trips, which, knowing his parents' work schedules, will probably be a very long time.
After eating, he jogs over to Beatrice's house, bringing the tent along with him. He tells his parents he wants to try it out in her backyard, and if they're suspicious Roy doesn't catch it. Beatrice told him yesterday that she has a special surprise for his birthday, and Roy hurries along with the heavy tent box in his arms, hoping that the surprise will involve her step-brother.
When Roy rings the bell at Beatrice's house, he hears a muttered litany of complaints that lets him know who will be answering. Lonna pulls the door open with her usual bleary look of disdain, and she surveys Roy as if he is the most irritating part of her day so far. He's had the misfortune of meeting Mullet Fingers' mother only a few times before, and he finds her sincerely frightening. It's obvious that she was once beautiful, and Roy can see a somewhat disturbing resemblance to Mullet Fingers in her now wilted face. She still takes pride in her figure and is rather slight; Beatrice claims she eats nothing but cottage cheese and cantaloupe.
"What the hell are you so happy about?" she asks. Roy mashes his lips together, hadn't realized that he was still smiling.
"Nothing," he says. "Is Beatrice home?"
"I'm here," Beatrice calls from the living room. "Lonna, will you let him in?"
"I'm not stopping him," Lonna mutters, sauntering off toward the kitchen. Roy walks inside the somewhat dank living room and shuts the door behind him. Beatrice is stuffing food into a back pack on the living room couch.
"You're getting too old to eat that sort of junk food," Lonna calls from the kitchen as Beatrice tries to zip the bag shut, a bag of pretzels caught in the zipper. "And I've told your father about the way you hoard it. That's called binging, dear, and it's not healthy."
"God," Beatrice moans. "Let's go."
She and Roy hurry out the door, Lonna still shouting remarks about Beatrice's weight as they go. Beatrice's eyes are red-rimmed, but Roy pretends not to notice. Beatrice is not horribly fond of talking about her feelings.
"She's awful," Roy says as they head down the road. Beatrice shrugs and blinks rapidly for a moment. Roy has no idea how Lonna could have produced Mullet Fingers, and hopes that she was different when he was very young, though there's been no indication that she's ever been anything but surly and heartless. Beatrice claims Mullet's father was a football player who abandoned Lonna during her cheerleading days. Whoever he was, Mullet has never met him.
"My dad says Mullet just reminds her of that guy who ditched her when she was pregnant," Beatrice once explained. "It's so unfair. As if it's his fault his dad was a dick."
Roy has never talked to Mullet about any of this. He wouldn't know what to say. He hardly knows how to comfort Beatrice when Lonna and her father get into particularly bad fights.
"What's that you've got?" Beatrice asks. They're heading toward town, Roy's hopes that Mullet Fingers will be involved in this surprise beginning to dwindle.
"A tent my parents got me for my birthday. I thought Mullet could use it."
"Nothing." Beatrice grins to herself, and Roy scowls. He doesn't see why she continues to find the whole thing so amusing. He doesn't tease her for dating dim-witted jocks who let her push them around until she dumps them. This week it's a shortstop for the varsity baseball team, a junior named Steve who has a gap between his front teeth that makes him look like an idiot. Roy and Mullet both disapprove, Mullet despite never actually meeting him, but this is true of all of Beatrice's boyfriends.
Much to Roy's disappointment, his birthday surprise seems to be lunch at a sandwich shop with noneother than Steve the shortstop. Confused, he slides into a booth opposite Steve and Beatrice. She kisses Steve hello, and Roy slumps beside his tent box miserably.
"Hey," Steve says. "I hear it's your birthday. What are you, thirteen?"
"He's fifteen, Steve!" Beatrice punches his shoulder.
"Not so hard!" Steve protests. Roy tries not to laugh, fails.
"Steve is sixteen," Beatrice tells Roy, as if this fact is suddenly very exciting. "For your birthday, I thought maybe he could rent us a boat for the day. He's got a license and everything."
"Just don't wreck it," Steve says.
"I won't." Roy beams at Beatrice. If a boat is involved, Mullet Fingers will be, too.
"We won't," she says. "I'll drive."
"You know, I'm a pretty awesome boyfriend, renting a boat for my girlfriend so she can hang out with some other guy," Steve says. Beatrice gives him a disbelieving look.
"Steve, you thought he was thirteen."
"So? I don't see why I can't come."
"Because Roy doesn't like you, okay?"
"Beatrice!" Roy's face turns red, and he tries to laugh this off when Steve gives him a wounded look. "That's not true." He hopes this won't spoil the plans to spend the day on a proper boat. He hasn't been on one with Mullet Fingers since the day he swiped a small one from the marina and took Roy on a tour of the coast. Roy didn't realize it at the time, but in hindsight, he's pretty sure that was the day he fell in love with him.
"I'm kidding," Beatrice says. She kisses Steve's cheek. "It's just a best friends only thing, okay? I promise Roy won't steal me away from you."
"What's with the tent?" Steve asks, still suspicious.
"Oh -- Roy -- borrowed that from me, and now he's bringing it back." Beatrice kisses him again. "Let's go rent the boat now, huh?"
Beatrice can talk boys into doing pretty much anything, through some combination of her looks and ferocity, and Roy has become accustomed to it by now. Steve rents the boat obediently, and hands over the keys. Beatrice gives him a final peck on the cheek and dismisses him with a wave.
"He's getting on my nerves," She mutters as they pull away from the dock. She says this about all of them, eventually.
"Why?" Roy asks. "He did what you told him to."
"Exactly! They all do! What I wouldn't give for a guy who'd tell me where to shove it when I order him around."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"You think I don't know that? Roy, you don't know how easy you've had it. You'll never have to worry about dating."
"Never?" Roy would love to know how she's so certain, wants to believe she's right.
"If my brother's put up with you for this long, chances are he'll be around for awhile."
"Really?" Roy hopes he's managed to make this sound like a casual inquiry. The look Beatrice gives him tells him he hasn't.
"You might have noticed that he's kind of stubborn," she says.
Roy hopes that being stubborn and being with him mean the same thing, that Mullet Fingers thinks he's something worth fighting for.
It's a perfect first day of summer, the air clear and the ocean calm. Roy leans back on the floor of the little motor boat and watches the cloudless sky while Beatrice drives. She looks like a warrior princess with her braids flying back behind her, and he realizes he should have asked for a camera for his birthday, because he knows already that he's going to want to remember everything about this summer.
They arrive at the island where Mullet Fingers lives alone just a bit after lunchtime. Beatrice carries the pack full of food while Roy brings the tent. He's tripping over himself with happiness, ready to get back into the boat and spend the day listening to Mullet Fingers describe bird behavior and tick off the scientific names of snails. How he knows all of this, Roy has no idea. It seems to be instinct, as if he was born wild, and Roy often has to remind himself that Mullet once had a home and a family, did homework and slept in a real bed.
Roy smiles when Mullet emerges from his tent with surprise, still working on fastening the top button of his swim shorts. He wants to fall onto him, but only squeezes the tent box and stands in place. He and Mullet never go near each other in Beatrice's presence, out of respect, and because Roy is pretty sure she had a crush on one or both of them at some point.
"What's that?" Mullet asks. He nods toward the tent box.
"I thought you could use a new one." Roy dumps it into his arms, and Mullet stares at it as if it's a bug at the end of his nose. He puts the box down and opens it, pulls at the tent fabric.
"It's red," he says.
Mullet looks up with the pitying expression Roy hates.
"It would attract too much attention," he says. "That's why the one I have now is khaki-colored and looks like crap. It blends in. Thanks for the thought, though." He packs the tent back up, and Roy stands looking at the box, dejected.
"I made you brownies," Beatrice says. She hands Mullet Fingers the pack full of food.
"With Lonna's soy milk?" Mullet asks, making a face.
"Beggars can't be choosers! But no, I bought real milk for the occasion."
Mullet gives her a grateful smile, and Roy briefly burns with jealousy.
"Are we gonna use this boat or what?" he asks.
"What boat?" Mullet looks over his shoulder, and his eyes go wide. He grins at Roy.
"You stole that?" he asks, obviously impressed.
"Yeah, and hell froze over," Beatrice says. "Steve rented it for us. We have to return it by ten. It's for Roy's birthday."
"Oh, yeah, your birthday," Mullet says. Roy tries not to feel let down by the fact that he forgot. He and Beatrice have never bothered to bring Mullet a calendar; it's not as if he'd have use for one. He's not mad at Mullet, only at himself, for bringing the tent, for not stealing the boat.
They take the boat out with the brownies and some sodas, Beatrice driving. Mullet Fingers has no interest in the boat outside of where it can get them, and he stands behind Beatrice to navigate. Roy sits in the back and chews his fingernails, a habit he's supposed to have grown out of.
Beatrice drives them up the waterway to the dock of an abandoned building that used to be a crab restaurant. This part of town has died away completely, and Roy has heard rumors that kids from his school come up here to smoke and raise hell.
"I saw an otter here the other day," Mullet says, as if this is reason enough to come.
They tie the boat the creaking dock and walk around the old restaurant, peeking in its windows. There is graffiti on the walls inside, and Roy can see spiderwebs shining on the roof beams. Beatrice is obsessed with ghosts lately, and has decided the place must be haunted. She creeps around to the front to see if she can find a way to get in, and Roy hopes she won't find one. Mullet Fingers walks back down to the water to watch a pair of spoonbills fishing. He looks back at Roy with confusion.
"What are you doing?" he asks, as if it's a given that Roy should follow him wherever he goes. Roy considers having a sulk, but only for half a second. He walks down to stand beside Mullet, checks over his shoulder before touching his hand. Mullet smiles and kisses him quick on the mouth, looks up toward the restaurant, kisses him again.
"Beatrice doesn't really believe in ghosts," he says. "She just likes creepy old buildings."
"Lonna was being mean to her," Roy says before he can stop himself. Mullet's smile melts away, and he glances up at the restaurant again.
"What did she do?" he asks.
"She noticed that Beatrice was taking food out of the house. I guess she thought she was going to eat it all herself."
Mullet frowns. He's absently fooling with the belt loop on Roy's shorts, twisting it between his fingers. He often does this when he's thinking, and if Roy is wearing swim shorts he folds the waistband down instead.
"She should know better than to take food out of the house when Lonna is watching," Mullet says. Beatrice comes around the side of the building, and Mullet lets go of Roy's belt loop.
"How did you end up so nice?" Roy asks. He stops himself before clarifying the question, figures he doesn't need to. Mullet looks at him as if he'd forgotten he was there.
"I'm not that nice," he says.
"Bullshit." Roy tries out all of his curse words on Mullet, because he always smiles when Roy does anything even vaguely bad. This time, though, he only walks up toward his step-sister. Roy follows him, like always.
"It's boarded up," Beatrice says, to Roy's relief. "Why'd you want to come here, anyway?" she asks Mullet.
"I'll show you," he says, and he tromps back toward the water. Roy and Beatrice trail behind him, and Roy casts a last look at the abandoned restaurant, feels like he's being watched.
They walk down to a cove that is shaded by trees, the water still enough to grow algae at the edge. It's lapping slightly in the wake of a far-off motor boat, dark and deep beneath the shade of the trees. Mullet jumps in without preamble, and Beatrice groans.
"I didn't bring a swim suit," she calls when he surfaces.
"Well, that was dumb."
"Yeah, okay. What are we supposed to be looking at, you with algae in your hair?"
Mullet reaches up looking for the slimy stuff in his hair, but there is none, and Beatrice laughs. He glowers and disappears beneath the surface again. Roy likes to imagine their first meeting, at their parents' wedding. Mullet would have been dressed inappropriately, probably barefoot, and Beatrice would have leaned in a corner at the reception, glaring at everyone. He can't envision either of them exerting the effort required to charm the other, but it must have happened somehow. He thinks they must have noticed each other's unhappiness and bonded immediately.
"They're here!" Mullet calls when he pops back up, spitting water. Roy grins and hurries down to the water, knows this will be good. Beatrice follows, taking off her shoes as she goes. Roy flings his shirt away and jumps into the water, splashing Mullet as much as possible. He's already underwater again by the time Roy surfaces, and he tugs on Roy's ankle. Roy slips beneath the water and opens his eyes, sees Mullet floating below him, his hair greenish and moving like seaweed. He points, and pulls Roy down next to him.
Something moves through the water maybe twenty feet away, bulky and pale blue. Roy is startled for a moment, wouldn't be surprised if Mullet swam up to a shark and tried to befriend it. But it's not a shark.
"What are you looking at?" Beatrice shouts from the shore when they come up to gulp air, Mullet laughing.
"A manatee," Roy says. "Come see it!" He's never been in the water with an animal this big; it's weirdly thrilling. He drops down below to look again, and sees another puffy sea cow swimming beside the first. He reaches up to yank on Mullet so that he'll see, but he's already ducked beside Roy again, and he smiles at him under the water.
Beatrice eventually joins them, wearing her sports bra and shorts. They stay in the water until the manatees swim quietly away, their chubby tails finally disappearing into the blue. They're all giddy when they climb out, as if they're the first people to ever see these creatures and they don't even know what to call them yet.
"I come here almost every day since I first saw them," Mullet says as they return to the boat. "They're not always here, and I haven't seen them in a week. They must have come for your birthday," he says, slapping a wet hand onto Roy's shoulder.
Beatrice drives the boat out to a quiet section of the waterway and turns off the motor, lets it rock on the water as the three of them dry in the sun. There is more brownie eating and soda drinking, and by three o'clock they've all had far too much sugar. Mullet does back flips off the boat into the water, and Roy gets a bad case of hiccups from laughing at Beatrice's imitation of their math teacher.
Roy crashes around four o'clock, stretched out on the padded seat at the back of the boat with his legs thrown over the side. He shuts his eyes and listens to Beatrice squeeze water out of her hair and back into the ocean. Mullet is somewhere, quiet.
"Roy told me Lonna was bothering you," he says, and Roy cracks an eye, sees him sitting on the dash near the wheel. He shuts his eye again, pretends to be asleep.
"When isn't she?" Beatrice says.
"It's not your fault. Don't worry about it. Two more years of school and I'm out of there. If I can get a soccer scholarship, I'll go all the way to California."
There is a heavy silence, and Roy sucks his breath in as quietly as possible, holds it.
"You'll be working for some national park by then, I guess," Beatrice says, trying to project a sort of confidence in Mullet's future that Roy sees through even with his eyes closed. She's just as nervous as Roy about what will become of Mullet.
"Or eating out of dumpsters," Mullet says.
"Don't say that."
"What sort of park is going to give me a job? They won't even let you handle animals unless you have licenses. You get licenses by going to school."
"You can go to school -- when you're eighteen --"
"I can finish seventh grade when I'm eighteen? Yeah, that'll be fun."
"Anyway, Roy will take care of you," Beatrice blurts, and Roy feels the words strike his chest like one rock after another. He wishes she hadn't said that, though it's true that he's willing. Mullet will take it the wrong way.
"Roy will be off at college," Mullet says.
"Oh, please." Beatrice's voice drops to a whisper. "He'd follow you to the ends of the earth."
"So you think he'll be eating out of dumpsters with me?"
"I don't see why --"
"Let's stop talking about this," Mullet says. He makes sure this will happen by diving into the water. Roy pretends that the splash woke him, sits up rubbing his eyes.
"Where's your brother?" he asks. Beatrice gives him a look, clearly knows he was eavesdropping but doesn't say anything. Mullet surfaces ten feet from the boat and begins to swim farther away. Roy is pierced by sudden panic, and can't hold his voice in.
"Hey!" he shouts. "Where are you going?"
Mullet stops and looks back, waves. He disappears underwater, and Roy goes to the side of the boat, prepared to throw himself in. He stops himself when Mullet reappears, swimming back to the boat.
"To the ends of the earth," Beatrice says, now as if she's kind of sad about it, as if she knows it will all be in vain.
They stop at a hamburger shack with a tall deck over the waterway to pick up some dinner. Beatrice does the ordering, leaving Roy and Mullet floating under the deck in the boat. They sit with their shoulders pressed together and listen to the noisy conversations above. Roy's heart is beating fast; he doesn't like having Mullet this close to other people, though to most he's just a random teenager. Mullet takes hold of Roy's hand while they wait, which puts them in another type of danger, and Roy avoids looking at him for as long as he can, kisses him when he finally does.
Beatrice clears her throat, and Roy pulls away from Mullet with his lips still wet, had lost track of the time. He's bright red and stammering, but Mullet only laughs. Beatrice hands him two take away bags.
"Where's yours?" Roy asks.
"I'm having dinner with my boyfriend," she says. "You guys enjoy the boat -- Steve will meet you at the marina at ten to turn it in. Don't be late!"
"Are you sure you don't want to come?" Roy asks, though he's sure this time alone with Mullet is part of his birthday present from her.
"I've got to change out of these wet clothes," she says.
"Steve will enjoy that," Mullet says. She sticks her tongue out at him and waves, trots back up toward the restaurant.
Mullet takes over at the wheel of the boat, and Roy sits beside him while he drives, eating french fries. The day has cooled off just enough to be comfortable, and the sky is still bright but paling at the horizon, preparing for the sunset. Mullet parks the boat near an inlet where a flock of seagulls has gathered to preen and chatter. He and Roy sit on the cushion at the back of the boat and eat their hamburgers in peaceful silence, watching the birds.
"I love it here," Roy says.
Wherever you are. It's too corny to say, doesn't matter that it's true. He shrugs, and Mullet elbows him, grins.
"Did you have a good birthday?" he asks.
"It's not over yet."
"I guess that's true."
They drive out to the ocean and take turns at the steering wheel, the little boat zipping over the waves as if it's a stone someone skipped. Bigger boats honk greetings at them as they pass; it's a beautiful evening and there are a lot of them out on the water. Roy thinks briefly of his parents, the birthday cake his mother probably made. He feels guilty, but he's fifteen now, and they've got to expect him to have a life. He thinks about what Beatrice said and knows that it's true. He would follow Mullet anywhere. He's no different from Steve, except that he hasn't gotten on Mullet's nerves yet.
They drive toward the reserve and stop the boat about half a mile from Mullet's island. Roy can't see his tent from where they've stopped, but imagines the giant red one he brought would be easily visible. He often feels like a naive idiot around Mullet Fingers, who seems to know everything. Roy hopes he's wrong about his own future, though in some ways he can't see how he could be.
Mullet sits on the floor of the boat and leans back onto the cushioned seat. Roy flops down beside him, stretching his slightly shorter legs out alongside his. The two of them fit the width of the back of the boat perfectly, side by side. Mullet puts his arm around Roy, and Roy feels like he should say something, as if this is an occasion that should be marked by serious talk. He can't think of anything that wouldn't come out sounding stupid, and he knows Mullet is perfectly happy with the just the sound of the water slapping the sides of the boat.
"Hey," Mullet says after the sky has grown fully dark, the stars shining bright as a map now. Roy still thinks they were prettier in Montana, but he's learned to love them here.
"What?" he asks. He turns his face into Mullet's neck, which smells like the sea and the salt air, like everything clean and good that is always in danger of being ruined.
"Show me the constellations," he says, even though he's told Roy before that he doesn't believe the stars are organized and doesn't see any swans or bulls or even dippers up there.
"I've shown you," Roy says. He'd rather be kissed. It's his birthday, after all. He turns to look at Mullet impatiently, and is startled when he sees Mullet watching him like he's trying to memorize him.
"Don't look at me like that," he says.
"Like you're never gonna see me again."
Mullet turns back to the stars, shakes his head. "I wasn't," he says, but he seems to know that he's lying. Roy fidgets until Mullet's hand slides up into his hair, and then he goes still, shuts his eyes. He can still see the stars on the backs of his eyelids.
"You wanna stay out here awhile?" Mullet asks. This is the only thing in the world that makes him nervous, and Roy likes that he can hear it just a little in his voice. He nods as if this is a very serious question, his eyes still shut, and scoots down until he's lying on the floor of the boat. Mullet leans over him, spreads a hand across his chest.
"What do you want to do?" Mullet asks. Roy cracks his eyes open, doesn't want to miss the way he chews his lip after he asks this question, every time.
"Everything," he says, which is a not technically true, but Mullet Fingers knows this. He kisses Roy hard, then progressively softer as he grows distracted, until they're just breathing onto each other's faces. Mullet Fingers knows what Roy means by everything, and Roy knows, sort of, what he means when he looks at Roy and says Hey, like it's the beginning and end of a conversation they don't need to have.
Roy is exhausted to the point of disorientation as they drive toward Mullet's island, and he stands behind Mullet with his hands on his shoulders, as if Mullet is a sail and Roy must point him in the right direction. When they reach the island's shore, Roy clamps his hands down so that Mullet will stay in place.
"I made you something," Mullet says.
"Really?" Roy perks up; he'd thought the evening was over. He doesn't have a watch and has no idea what time it is. If they're late returning the boat, Beatrice will kill them both.
"Yeah," Mullet says. "Wait here."
Roy doesn't want to wait, but he knows how hard it would be to leave the island if he followed Mullet into his tent and got comfortable inside that dark and snug little cave. It's his goal to sleep there this summer, and he's already practicing stories he can tell his parents, excuses for spending the night away. Mullet returns carrying the tent box Roy left on the ground near his camp, and Roy takes it, feeling dumb all over again.
"Here," Mullet says, still standing on the shore. He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a small wooden figurine. Roy holds it close to his face to examine it in the dark. It's a little owl, carved out of soft wood and painted with some type of deep red dye.
"Happy birthday," Mullet says when Roy looks up, beaming. "I made that with wood from a blackgum tree that got hit by lightening. Maybe it'll be lucky or something."
Roy is careful to tuck the owl into his pocket before stumbling clumsily out of the boat and falling onto Mullet. He hangs on his shoulders for a long time, his feet in the water, doesn't know what to say. Mullet kisses him through his hair, and scratches the back of his neck as if to wake him up.
"You'd better get that boat back," he says. "It's a long way to the marina. Will you be okay?"
"Yeah," Roy says automatically, and then he thinks better of it. "Or no. Maybe not." He begins concocting a plan -- if he can convince Mullet he needs his help to drive the boat to the marina, he'll be stuck on the mainland without a way to get back. Then he'll have to sleep in Roy's bedroom. Roy bites down on the tip of his tongue, thinking seriously about this. His bedroom is the most dangerous place in town for Mullet, outside of Lonna's house, but he can't shake the feeling that if he gets him there he'll be safe.
"Need me to come with you?" Mullet asks.
"But how will you get back?" Roy asks. He'd feel too guilty if he didn't mention it.
"I'll just sleep in the Molly Bell." Mullet shrugs as if this is obvious.
"You could sleep in my room," Roy says.
"Roy." Mullet squeezes his shoulders. "I can't."
"I know." Roy hugs him again around the middle, hides his face against his chest. Sometimes this secret makes him feel like he's going to burst apart at the seams. It's a good feeling, mostly, but he knows he won't be able to hold it in forever.
"You want me to drive this to the marina?" Mullet asks.
"No, I can do it. I just -- you know."
"Yeah." They look at each other for awhile without speaking, and Roy's bones begin to ache the way they do whenever he leaves.
"Thanks for the owl," he says. "I love it."
"Some things always make me think of you."
"Yeah. And, just. A lot of things."
Roy grins and kisses him one more time before stepping back into the boat. Once he's started the motor and headed for the marina, he doesn't turn around for another look, knows from experience that doing so only makes leaving worse. He feels like this should be getting easier, but it's not. He reaches to pat the pocket where he slipped the owl Mullet made for him, knows that they need all the luck they can get.