"Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely."
—Edna St. Vincent Millay
"I have to go," Pete said, his fingers had been gripping the edge of his messenger bag for the last ten minutes.
"Why? Afraid Santa is going to find you out of bed?" Henrietta dropped her cigarette into her lukewarm coffee. If an anthropologist ever got around to studying his group of friends, Pete was sure the significance in the gesture wouldn't go unnoted. It was a symbol; no more coffee, no more conversation, the torch was diminished, time now for the freezing walk to their shitty cars.
He was used to dealing with her questions, but tonight Michael was here. And while the taller boy was less talkative, he'd always been more observant, as it usually goes. He'd been staring at Pete's fingers, at the way the red-haired teen fumbled a few ones onto the table. It was the appropriate tip, 20%, an estimate way over what the four of them typically mutually came up with. Sometimes because it was all they'd had, other times out of contempt.
"I don't like the expectation you're setting," Henrietta eyed the money with a raised eyebrow, "I think it's pretty fucking unfair to the rest of us." Firkle was scrolling through his phone, his eyes glazed over with the trademark haze of too much caffeine. It wasn't exactly the roaring support Henrietta needed to back her outrage.
It'd always been hard over the years not to point out the free car, budget for clothes, and weekly allowance Henrietta's mom had always given her. Surely out of some hope for likeability that had never really panned out, and now out of habit. Or maybe it was because she just didn't realize that most parents weren't like that, most parents really didn't give a damn. If that were the case, it was better that she never left the house, never found out that anyone lived any other way.
When he'd turned eighteen last August, his step-dad had done the same disappearing trick that his mom had. Leaving him with the rent for the trailer they'd all shared. He'd never been happier to live in the white trash utopia that was the trailer park than when he found out the rent was only $350 per month. Still, between that and utilities, it was a struggle every month to keep the lights on. None of his friends knew that, no one did. None of his friends knew that besides the reduced school lunch he got everyday, he survived exclusively on jars of peanut butter and out-of-date bread he pulled off the shelves at the food bank. The job he had at the comic shop in the mall gave him the store credit he needed to take home the latest Walking Dead every week, which is probably all that mattered most days.
"Whatever," he said, tugging his scarf under his chin, "take two of those dollars away and buy yourself a sense of purpose you Ebenezer bitch." Henrietta smirked approvingly like he'd done something right. Being cunts to one another was their way of being friendly. Anyway, Pete knew she wouldn't ever really understand how long people worked for so little money, and even if their waitress was a harpy bitch, she was still a person by someone's standards. He knew the anguish it took to get out of your car walk across the parking lot to the front doors of your employer. Pete didn't really pay attention in biology, but he was fairly certain that standing behind a register all day or carrying plates of fried potatoes wasn't what humans had really evolved to do.
"So it's Christmas Eve, where do you have to go anyway? Emergency run on Spider-Man?"
Pete was sure she could have come up with something cleverer if she knew anything about comics. Michael shifted in his seat and closed the anthology he'd been flipping through for the last half and hour.
"Can you give me a ride?" he asked, slipping the book into his bag because he already knew the answer. They'd all been surprised last year when Michael had sold his beat-up Jetta to pay for his textbooks and have spending cash. It seemed like he'd emerged one day from his bedroom with this idea of becoming some literary scholar. Public school did little to prepare him for the crushing pretentions of a private university, so the fact that none of them had heard from him since October wasn't a surprise.
"Yeah," Pete glanced at the clock that hung next to the TV the diner had installed last year. The plastic front of the clock always been pocked with grease stains that didn't make gravitational sense. The numbers looked warped and grimy behind them.
Michael pulled out a cigarette as they walked and offered the pack to Pete. "Nah, I'm good," he shoved the key into the frozen door, feeling the metal fighting him as he twisted it.
"So has the United States Health and Human Services claimed another victim? Have you quit?" Michael always phrased things like he couldn't give a damn about the answer as long as the question was interesting. So Pete didn't feel the need to give him a straight one.
"Something like that," he mumbled, turning up the dial so that Morrissey broke through the empty streets. The month he'd spent quitting smoking cold turkey had been meant with cold sweats, tremors, and pillow sinking headaches. A reaction he thought was probably fair, considering the fact it'd what his body had known since he was ten.
Michael only shrugged and did nothing more than mouth the words to the songs under his breath, white puffs of air, even when Pete drove through two stop signs on the way to his house.
"So are you still seeing him then?" he said as Pete idled in his drive-way.
A couple reactions that he'd planned laced through his mind as he thought all the ways Michael may have caught on to the relationship he'd been trying to hide for the last year. The easiest thing to do would be to feign ignorance. But that wasn't nearly as cool as feigning indifference. "You all know?" He flicked off the defrosters and pushed his hair away from his eyes.
"Well, yeah," Michael stubbed his cigarette into the lid of gas station coffee Pete kept meaning to throw out.
Pete's eyebrows drew together as he tried to think of any clues that he could have picked up on that his friends were on to him. "Even Firkle knows?"
Michael looked out the window, at the dark house he was about to walk into. "Nah, I don't think so."
Pete pulled at a fraying thread on his fingerless gloves. "Henrietta hasn't said anything…" he mumbled, glancing over at Michael. Should Henrietta ever find out, he'd always imagined the 'oh-my-fucking-gawd' that would radiate through every hall of the school, shaking the chalk writing off the boards and library books off shelves.
Michael shrugged, "Not Henrietta, no, she doesn't pay attention to anything but herself."
"So…really, only you know."
"I guess," Michael said, tilting his head to the side, "anyway, how very Shakespearian of you."
"Yeah," Pete said, accepting that as Michael's approval, as his friend stepped out of his car.
"Tell him hi, actually, no—don't. He's still…him…"
Pete rolled his eyes, "I think that's what I like."
Michael nodded, and hauled his messenger bag off the seat. "See you," he said with a wave.
Pete drove the five blocks home in silence, feeling lighter than he expected he would. It'd been this big secret, midnight meetings in cemeteries and trips to diners the next town over. Maybe it was just something about the drama that'd appealed to them both. After all, what did it matter, now Mike was in Boston, getting classically trained in sculpture and paint or whatever. There wasn't any chance anyone would see them together, because they never were. The best he had were the 3AM phone calls, Mike woke up at 5 for a job he had, cleaning out the kiln before classes, and with the time zone difference, it was really the only time they had to talk.
Pete's headlights shone in on the trailer, and through the windows he could see the superhero cardboard cut-outs he was allowed to take home when they were no longer needed for whatever they'd been promoting. Sometimes he wondered if from the outside it looked like there were people visiting him, if the shadows and outlines of the cardboard cutouts were that convincing, like that scene in Home Alone. It was hard to tell when he already knew what they were. He turned off the ignition and looked down at his phone. It was 3:10 already and he had no missed calls.
He called Mike's number and waited. Usually they talked about their days, with Mike doing most of the talking, unless Pete had something to rant about. And Mike would offer up reasons why the subject of the rant shouldn't be villainized. He was always on the side of diplomacy, which always left Pete feeling defused and calm, like he used to be when they'd lie in bed together, side-by-side, wisps of green hair itching his cheek so he'd bury his head further into the hollow spaces in Mike's back where it was warm and soft. But no one answered his call. And he stuck his phone in his pocket and shut the door behind him and crammed the bath towel under the space between the door and the floor to keep the cold out. He flicked the space-heater on and sat on the futon his mom had called a couch.
Mike never really talked about the new friends he was making at college. But that's what people did at college, or so the movies said; made friends, went to parties, and learned valuable life lessons via shot glasses. Of course tonight most people would be with their families, but Pete was sure others had stayed behind, and hung tapered Christmas lights over bunk beds, and passed around mulled wine, because they were artsy kids, of course it wouldn't be a keger. In the morning Mike would call and promise he'd just fallen asleep, that he'd been just as bored and lonely as Pete. Whatever he thought he'd need to say to make Pete feel okay about getting his voicemail.
Maybe if he'd bothered stringing garland over the door, or if he hadn't left the baggie of Christmas cookies Mrs. Biggle gave him on Henrietta's dresser, he wouldn't feel lonely. Like all the emptiness in the trailer didn't want him there, wanted to be alone, and would do all it could to persuade him to leave again. It was times like this he understood why his mom left. And maybe he could go to wherever she'd go, maybe there was a path that only showed itself when you were discontent enough to see it. He almost wanted to open the door but instead he shut his eyes.
When the door tried to open, it got stuck on the towel he'd shoved under it. "Pete!" Pete opened his eyes and stared at the wide smile stretched across Mike's face as he squeezed in the door.
"Hey," he said, standing up, fuzzy with sleep.
"Come here," Mike was holding out his arms, looking like an apparition and less of a real human being. His coat was buttoned to the chin and a long green scarf had come undone and the tassels were hitting against the backs of his knees, "I haven't seen you in five months, I think I'm entitled to a hug."
Pete crossed the space between them and let Mike squeeze him close. "You're so thin," Mike said into his hair, as he hands trailed up Pete's ribs and back down to his hips.
"You're just used to accounting for the freshman fifteen," Pete mumbled, feeling Mike's cheeks swell under his lips.
"Why didn't you tell me that you were coming home?" Pete asked, pacing and glancing out the window. Mike's Corolla was parked next to his car, and in the back he could see mounds of boxes and bags.
"You drove here? How long did it take?" he asked, glancing back at Mike. He flicked a light on, as Mike ran a hand over his hair.
"Yeah," he said dismissively, his fingers clinching on the material of Pete's cardigan to pull him back over to the couch. "Merry Christmas," he said, smiling briefly.
Mike's blue eyes looked dark under the rings of eyeliner smudged and smeared around them. "Hey, I got you a present," he said, turning to pull something out of his bag. "Close your eyes, I didn't have time to wrap them," he continued. Pete looked like he wanted to say more, but Mike turned back and shot him a look, "Please?"
Pete closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of something being placed on the table in front of the couch. "Okay," Mike said.
Pete opened his eyes and stared at a collection of about ten dirty coffee mugs sitting in a row before him. Maybe Mike was a ghost, some sort of spirit that only spoke in literary symbols and allusions that he'd need Michael to interpret for him.
"They're from all the diners I visited," Mike explained, "and all the tea I drank along the way back to you." He looked away from Pete to lean forward and twist one around so they could see the diner's logo more clearly. "I just asked them how much they'd want for the cup and sometimes they just said I could take it, wasn't that nice? They're kind of dirty still, and I think one still has honey on it, but I tried to clean them in with water bottles."
Pete looked at the row of empty mugs sitting in front of him and back at Mike's fingers tapping rapidly on his knee.
"Was it stupid?" Mike asked quickly, cutting off whatever Pete was about to say. "It was, ah, I'll keep them, it's cool, who has space for stuff like this," He laughed stiffly and leaned back, looking pensively at a pile of comics stacked on the end table beside him.
"Hey, no, I like them, but what's going on? You look like hell, it looks like your entire life is shoved between your dashboard and backseat, and you show up on my doorstep in the middle of the night with a sack of dirty dishes."
"Pete," Mike said with a tired sigh, "—it's Christmas morning, let's not curse, let's not be upset. Just let me kiss you," Mike leaned over, his eyes already closed, and Pete couldn't help but let him. He smelled like gas station bathroom soap, the sticky lemon scent in Lipton tea, and granola bars. And when Pete pulled back Mike's eyes were full of tears.
"What's going on? Mike? Come mere, shush," Pete pawed his chipped black nails into the back of Mike's scarf but it slid through his fingers as Mike stood up and walked back towards the door.
"Nothing," he said, trying to smile, but it contorted funny for a second before he turned his back entirely to Pete. "Sorry."
"Is your step-dad at work already?" Mike asked, a bit too quiet at first, and he must have realized it because he repeated himself without Pete asking. "Because I brought him one of those Reese's Peanut butter trees. They're not really good for you, but I couldn't find organic candy at the gas station and everywhere else was closed."
Pete's eyes flicked from the crumbled shiny wrapper between Mike's fingers to the pooling tears at the bottom of the older boy's chin.
"Sit down and please just tell me what the hell is wrong." Pete wished he was more in practice about remembering not to curse around Mike. He stood up and closed the space between them. He pulled Mike's scarf off his shoulders and used the ends to wipe away his tears. Mike's hair was longer than he remembered, flattened against his forehead and in need of a wash.
"I just left, you know? Nothing is wrong, not really, just nothing is the way I thought it might be. It hasn't been. And I just needed to be the one in control of that for a couple days. If I have to be alone, let me be alone in my car, not alone in a dorm room. If I have to feel like a failure—let it be by choice rather than by mandate. Sorry," Mike cleared his thought and shook his bangs out of his eyes, "it's Christmas, we shouldn't be talking about this."
"Mike, you can be upset, you can be mad. If you want to kick a hole in the shitty paneling, you can, I don't care. If you want me to get in the car with you and drove six hundred miles and collect fifty more mugs, I'll do it. But you don't have to feel bad about that too. You're, you know, a little anarchist. I always knew it."
Mike sniffed, and his lips quirked up a bit as he wiped his eyes on the back of his hand, leaving a weird gray smudge by his temple. "It's just; you were the only person that ever thought I was cool. And it shouldn't matter, but it did."
"That's not true," Pete said, as he pulled Mike back with his towards the sofa, "you have lots of friends." They sat closer now, their thighs pressed together on the same cushion.
But Mike was done talking now; he slumped down in the couch and leaned his head onto Pete's shoulder. Their fingers threaded together as they listened to the sound of the wind hit against the siding.
"All of this is okay. You know? Because you and me," Pete began, "we'll go to all the shitty diners in Colorado and in Utah and Kansas, you'll order every cheap tea off their menu and never complain that it's stale because only crazy vamp kids and old British ladies order it. And they don't see much of either. And I'll order more than just coffee, because I won't need money for bills anymore. I'll have French fries and grilled cheese and chocolate milk shakes."
"And we'll still get exercise though," Mike interjected sleepily.
"Yeah because we'll stop at all those historical outdoorsy monuments that people plant alongside roads, and read them all. And we'll learn about all the great Coloradans who founded this pointless state. And at night we'll park alongside rest stops, and lay in the back seat together."
"Because I love you," Mike said through a yawn.
"And I love you," Pete confirmed, "and fuck the conformists."
Mike's breathing had slowed and lengthened, and Pete laid his head on top of Mike's. Across from them the off-white mugs reflected the Christmas lights of the trailer next door, just faintly, and maybe in a way that Pete was imagining.
Outside it was Christmas, it wasn't even a real day, so he shouldn't have to make real decisions or think too much what was light and what was dark.