“Neil! Hurry the fuck up! Coach wants us out in the parking lot yesterday!” Will pounds on the door of the bathroom stall and Neil bites back all the shit he wants yell and does a final adjustment of his shirt, making sure it covers everything. He takes a deep breath, reminding himself that he joined the exy team because exy is life, not for the annoying teammates. He slides the lock back and steps out. Will gives him a horrified once over.
“Uh, dude, did you miss the memo? This is a car wash.” Will’s standing there in swim trunks and flip-flops, probably to show off his athletic build. His dark skin is scar free and suspiciously gleaming. Neil wonders if he applied cocoa butter or shea butter or something because nobody’s skin is naturally glowy like that.
Neil plucks at his oversized T-shirt. It’s a thrift store find but Neil really likes it because it’s merch for his favorite team, the Palmetto State Foxes. Kevin’s team. He’s wearing a pair of black sweat pants that need to be washed anyways and Crocs, also from the thrift shop, also orange.
Will is still looking judgy, scowling even.
“Look, this isn’t a beauty pageant,” Neil snipes. “We’ll be washing cars all day. Excuse me if I don’t want to get majorly sunburned.”
“Aww, I forgot you pasty folks do that,” Will grins. “Don’t worry, Coach has sunscreen. You ready?” Neil nods. “Alright rookie, let’s go. We’re all betting on who can wash the most cars; if you win you get pizza!”
Neil trudges after Will. It’s weird to be at the school on a Saturday with other people around. Neil hasn’t been in town for too long, just the summer, but he’s taken to breaking in and staying at the school whenever possible; it beats the rundown places he’s been squatting in. And the school is air-conditioned. Summer in South Carolina is no joke, especially when you don’t have reliable access to water. He can’t believe that he’s actually doing this: enrolling for his senior year at a public high school and playing exy. He only just managed to get it all together in time for the new school year but still… it’s breaking all the rules.
“Ladies!” Will yells, sprinting towards the rest of the team. “I have arrived!”
The girls laugh and yell back insults and compliments; Will’s the natural leader on the team but he’s too rowdy and unfocused to be captain, that role landed on Janelle. She’s too busy talking to Coach to pay any attention to Will, who is flexing obnoxiously.
“Hey Neil,” Carson says. He’s sitting in the shade of the pop-up tent, fanning himself and looking like death warmed over.
“Bad night?” Neil asks conversationally. Carson’s pretty cool, even if he parties too hard.
“Dude…” Carson yawns. “Eden’s Twilight on a Friday? Lit. I never even went to bed. Plus the Minyards were there so you know… well, I guess you don’t.”
Neil shrugs and shakes his head. Ever since he’s joined the team he’s heard story after story about Aaron and Andrew Minyard, mostly about Andrew. He wasn’t sure if he believed any of them because really, could anyone be that infamous at eighteen?
“I don’t know how he does it, that guy has mad connections, but he got Jell-O shots for the table. And he had this dude with him, looked like a walking ad for depression meds, kind of like you.”
Neil smacks the back of Carson’s head. “Fuck you,” he mutters, but he smiles enough so that Carson knows he’s only playing. Sort of.
“Damn it, Neil! I have a hangover!” Carson complains.
“You have a what now?” Coach stands outside the tent, legs spread in a macho stance, fists pressed to his hips. He looks like a drill sergeant, if drill sergeants wore incredibly tacky floral print shirts, jorts, and those weird hippy shoes. Coach Parker was born bald and his scalp never took to growing hair, but the rest of his body certainly did. Neil does not want to see so much arm hair ever.
“Uh, nothing, Coach,” Carson replies.
“Damn right,” Coach snorts. “Well, are you two going to come help? The girls are on sign duty first so I need you slackers over by the hoses and buckets, ready to go. Those new jerseys aren’t going to buy themselves.”
Neil nods and starts over to where the rest of the team is hanging out, spraying each other with hoses and blowing soapsuds everywhere. He thinks it’s a bit sexist to put the girls on sign duty, even if it was the girls who decided to wear short shorts and bikini tops. He has no idea how that was allowed but he’s not about to say anything.
“Hey Neil, wait up a sec,” Coach calls. Neil pauses, dread curdling in his stomach.
“Yeah?” He schools his tone to casual.
“Relax, kid,” Coach says. “I just wanted to say that I like your shirt.” They walk towards the team, Neil speeding up to match Coach’s longer strides. “My pal, Wymack, is the coach there. He’s got a team of scrappers; you’d probably fit right in. You thinking about college?”
“Uh, not really,” Neil hedges. He hasn’t thought beyond his immediate day-to-day needs in years. The future is a dream that belongs to other people.
“Well, you got a decent transcript and from our summer practices I can see ya got talent. And you’re fast as fu—I mean, you got speed, kid.” Neil nods which doesn’t seem to be enough of a reaction for Coach who sighs heavily. “Think about it. You know how that song goes, ‘History has its eyes on you.’” Coach starts humming and Neil’s eyes bug out as he tries to keep his reaction from showing. His teammates aren’t so considerate.
“Oh hell no! Y’all Coach is about to bust out the Hamilton AGAIN!” A chorus of “no!” “God save my ears!” and other well-intentioned heckling ensues while Coach belts out the lyrics to “History Has Its Eyes On You.” Neil shakes his head and grabs a bucket, squinting in the early morning light. It’s already hot and humid but in spite of the earliness he’s kind of excited about spending the day with the team. Marcus and Lionel have joined Coach in singing, though Neil knows this is just so they can steer the sing-a-long to other songs and getting Coach to agree to their DJing the rest of the day. Ryland is texting someone, probably his girlfriend. Will is doing handstands and back flips while Torrance films.
They get their first customer, Ms. Jackie, one of the English teachers. After that more teachers, friends, and family show up. The girls join the car washing action and some of the guys take up sign duty. The music is pumping, someone brings them a cooler of drinks, and it’s almost like a block party. The cleaned cars park a little ways away and soon a whole crowd of adults are standing around, talking loud and probably reminiscencing about high school days or bitching about their lives.
No one asks where Neil’s parents are; they learned early on that it’s a sore subject for him. Carson sobers up and does his best to include Neil in the jokes and banter. Neil plays up his shy guy façade and focuses on washing tires and rims. Each of them got to pick an area of the car to clean and Neil took the wheels. Torrance made a bullshit comment on Neil being perfect for the job since he was so low to the ground; Neil “accidentally” sprayed Torrance in the face.
“Ay, man, don’t be hatin’ on short dudes,” Carson yells at Torrance. “You know either one of the Minyards could kick your ass and they’re shorter than Josten.”
Natalie perks up. “Oh man, you remember that time Andrew beat the shit out of that guy from Northside because he called Dustin a you-know-what?”
“Aww, that was epic!” Will chimes in. “He fucking destroyed that dude! Got suspended for a week, right?”
“His cousin Nicky was so pissed,” Natalie adds.
Neil’s heard about this, too. Apparently the most troublesome ex-members of Richland High’s exy team live with their slightly older cousin. The rumor is that their mom died in a car accident and the Minyards chose to live with their cousin Nicky instead of their aunt and uncle. Even though it’s been over a year since that happened it’s a story that never grows old and soon all his teammates are trading stories.
“Speak of the devil,” Carson mutters. Somehow he’s ended up standing behind Neil without Neil noticing. His heart jumps and it takes a lot of self-control to keep from striking out reflexively.
Neil follows Carson’s gaze and sees a sexy sports car pull into the lot. All heads turn towards it and the conversation quiets. Neil’s heart constricts because sitting in the passenger seat is Kevin Day, which means the blonde in the driver’s seat is…
“Andrew Minyard,” Carson supplies. He grins suddenly. “I know most people think he’s a psycho bastard but he’s alright.”
“You’re just saying that because he gave you free Jell-O shots,” Neil replies. He can’t take his eyes off the car; specifically, he can’t look away from Kevin.
“Buy me alcohol and I’m your bitch for life,” Carson laughs, elbowing Neil. He trots over to say hi to Andrew but Neil hangs back, nervously wringing out his sponge. Andrew’s smoking and he belligerently blows smoke into Carson’s face and flips him off; Carson waves the smoke away and coughs. Then he starts gesturing to Neil before waving Neil over. Now Andrew and Kevin are looking at him and Neil feels like a deer in the headlights. He turns around, ears burning, and grabs a bucket but there are no cars to wash, just Andrew’s sports car which is pulling forward…
“Neil! This is Andrew and Kevin,” Carson is at his side again, going for a side hug that Neil neatly ducks out of. “Andrew came here to laugh at us high school losers,” Carson continues, “but he won’t let any of us heathens touch his Maserati so he’s got a bit of a dilemma—”
“You. New kid.” Andrew interrupts Carson’s rambling and stares directly at Neil. “You’re up. Get one scratch on the paint and I’ll beat your ass.”
The rest of the team has gathered around, eager for some new drama. Andrew gets out of the car and Neil is surprised, even though of course he knew about this, to find himself taller than the aggressive blonde. Even though he has about three inches over Andrew, Andrew has easily got him beat in terms of muscle mass. Neil swallows and takes a step back, holding the bucket of soapy water to his chest.
“Andrew, lay off,” Kevin says. He looks as hungover as Carson did earlier, and not at all like he wants to be in a high school parking lot on a Saturday morning. The team gives him admiring glances because it’s The Kevin Day, exy legend, frowning at the lot of them.
Andrew ignores Kevin and gives Neil a long look, smirking at the PSU shirt.
“Aiming a bit high, aren’t you?” Andrew asks, pointing at the logo.
Neil shrugs. “We’ll see. Are you… looking forward to the season?”
Andrew takes a drag of his cigarette. Coach is talking animatedly to Kevin and the rest of the team has decided to swarm him now that the ice has been broken. Only Carson hangs back, giving Andrew and Neil a concerned look.
“Oh, sure. Having Day is going to be a game changer for the team.”
“That should be interesting.” Neil agrees. “I’m hoping I can come to the local games at least.”
“Yeah?” Andrew looks him over again, eyeing his Crocs with derision. “Well maybe I’ll see you around.” He glances at the car. “You better get busy. There’s an extra tip for the team if you do a good job.”
Neil wants to refuse but he can’t, not when the entire team is counting on him. He grabs the sponge and starts washing the roof, having to stand on his tiptoes and lean flush against the side of the car to reach the middle part. He circles around and gets the other side and then sprays off the suds. It’s going to take forever to wash the entire car by himself and to do it to the standard that this – Maserati, was it? – deserves. Neil gets to work on the windows and windshield. Someone changes the music to 80s power ballads, fight songs fit for a montage sequence which is when Neil realizes that Torrance is filming him. Neil flushes.
“Guys, stop,” he pleads, suds dripping down his arms. At this point his clothes are pretty damp and clinging and he already feels weirdly exposed.
“Get a move on, beauty queen,” Natalie teases. “We need premium footage of you washing the hood.” The other girls laugh but it’s good-natured. Neil sighs and starts washing the hood amidst wolf-whistles and taunting. The music changes again to some cheesy song about car washes, then a song about milk shakes. Neil tries to tune it out and get the job done but he’s too aware of his teammates’ gazes to really focus.
Then he hears Andrew’s voice from the other side of the lot. He turns and sees that Andrew is challenging the other guys to do stupid stunts. Their attention wanders from Neil and he can breath easier. Before long he’s only got the wheels left. He makes sure they’re extra sparkly, a small gesture of thanks to Andrew for distracting his audience.
Neil climbs to his feet and starts drying the car. The team is still horsing around and Coach announces that pizza is on its way. Neil leans across the windshield, towel in hand, when Andrew shows up. He’s a little sweaty from whatever he’s been doing, a little flushed from the heat and the sun.
“Need a hand?” he asks before grabbing a spare towel and taking a spot on the other side of the car.
“Uh, sure,” Neil says, taken aback. “Thanks. And thanks for, you know, earlier.”
Andrew nods and starts drying the other side of the windshield. Neil can’t help but notice that Andrew’s arm muscles flex impressively with every motion.
“They’re not bad, as far as teammates go,” Andrew comments. “When did you join the team? You weren’t here last year.”
“No, I, ah, just moved here over the summer. I’m from Arizona.”
“What position do you play?”
“Striker. That’s the only free spot they had open. What about you?”
“They didn’t tell you?” Andrew pauses to stretch and Neil watches before remembering that he’s supposed to be working.
“They- they did. Just trying to make conversation.”
Andrew grunts. “I’m sure they told you all about me.”
“And your brother,” Neil supplies.
“Right. Aaron.” Andrew scoffs and slides his cloth over the hood. “The way I see it, you’re the real enigma here. Tell me about yourself.”
Neil balks at the request but he has to say something…
“Neil is our fastest player!” Carson announces. Neil jumps. This guy… ninja skills off the charts. “He’s got amazing footwork, too. Can you believe he’s a rookie?”
Andrew shoots Carson an annoyed look but simply says, “Beginner’s luck?”
“Something like that,” Neil mumbles.
With Carson there to facilitate the conversation Neil is able to avoid sharing much information but he’s keenly aware of Andrew’s eyes on him. Carson asks about Andrew’s new teammates and about the campus. Neil pays attention, especially when Andrew describes what Kevin’s like. Apparently the two of them room together. Neil wants to know the truth behind Kevin’s sudden transfer to PSU but he doesn’t want Andrew to know he’s interested. Before too long Neil and Andrew have the car dried off and gleaming. A queue of cars has lined up behind the Maserati so Andrew moves the car but doesn’t show any sign that he’s going to leave. He wanders off to check on Kevin and Neil gets roped into washing more wheels as the team leaps into action.
Neil feels unsettled by his conversation with Andrew. He can’t put his finger on what’s bothering him. The way Andrew looked at him? Or was it that Andrew didn’t seem to believe a single thing he said? When he gets a brief break he looks around and realizes that Kevin and Andrew have left. He’s surprised to find that he’s disappointed; it feels like he’s been left hanging, like he has unfinished business. Which is ridiculous.
The day ends and the team has successfully raised the funds they need for new uniforms and equipment. Coach gives them a pep talk, heavily laced with Hamilton quotes, and dismisses them for the day. School starts the following week and Neil feels excitement and anxiety eating away at his stomach.
“Neil!” Carson yells. “Are you heading home?”
“Yeah,” Neil answers, lying smoothly. “What’s up?”
“If you’re not too wiped want to come out with me tonight?” Carson’s practically bouncing up and down, his tight curls flopping around.
Neil wipes his hands on his already soggy sweatpants; the weight of his clothes is getting burdensome. “Really?” Neil asks. “You’re not exhausted right now?”
Carson waves his hand. “Yeah, but Andrew said to invite you and I’m not missing your first excursion to Eden’s for anything!”
“I don’t think I’m old enough,” Neil excuses himself. “Don’t you have to be 18?”
“That’s why we got our inside man,” Carson winks. “Andrew. If he vouches for you then you’re good. He used to work there and knows everyone.”
Neil frowns. “My parents might say no.”
Carson snorts and grabs Neil’s shoulders, his grip firm but still friendly. “Not to be a peer pressure PSA, but… Andrew Minyard invited you. Aren’t you curious? That guy doesn’t take interest in anyone, ever. Trust me, I tried to get his interest for a year and nothing. And I’m fucking adorable.”
Carson, Neil thinks, is adorable, if you like guys who look and act like puppies. Neil does not. Neil doesn’t think he likes anyone.
“Are you gonna keep pestering me until I say yes?” Neil asks. Because he is a little bit curious.
“I will be your own personal leech until you say yes,” Carson answers solemnly.
“Fine.” Carson cheers and pulls out his phone, presumably to text Andrew. Neil heads to the locker room to shower and change into his faded jeans and black T-shirt. He yawns and stretches, wishing he could just curl up on the cot he found in the trainer’s room.
“Neil!!!” Carson yells. “Let’s go! You can come over to my place and we’ll chill. Your parents give the okay?”
“They didn’t answer so they’re probably out right now. It’s cool.”
“Oh dude, your clothes though.”
Neil gives Carson an exasperated look. “Jesus, what is it with this school? Everyone is like the fashion police.”
“It’s cool, bro. You can borrow some of my clothes for tonight.”
Neil eyes Carson who is half a foot taller than him with a build to match. “Your clothes will fall right off me.”
“Fine, borrow my brother or sister’s clothes. We’ll get you stylin’. The Ramirez Siblings will not let you down!”
Carson lives up to his word and later that night when they sneak out to the club Neil is wearing tight jeans (compliments of Carson’s brother) and a loose, somewhat shredded black long-sleeved shirt (compliments of the sister). He also borrowed a grey shirt to wear under the black shirt. Juliana, the sister, even coerced Neil into letting her fix his hair and give him a subtle makeover, if black eyeliner could ever be called subtle. By the time they leave Neil looks like a totally different person, which is a good thing.
The club is packed and Neil feels like a shrimp in the midst of a sea of larger, older people. He holds onto the back of Carson’s shirt and follows him through the crowd until they reach the table where Andrew and Kevin are holding court. Another blonde sits with them, as well as a dark skinned guy who is talking excitedly about something. He shuts up, briefly, when he sees Carson and Neil.
“Carson!” The guy yells. “Back for round 2? I’m proud of you, guy.”
Carson walks over and hugs him. “Nicky, good to see ya. I’m here because of this one,” Carson gestures at Neil.
“Oh! Cutie! But probably under 18, right?” Neil nods. “Too bad. I’m Nicky, that’s Aaron sulking over there and—”
“Nicky,” Andrew cuts in, “Neil is here because I asked.”
Nicky is shocked into silence for a moment. Kevin snorts and Aaron looks 100% done with all of them. Carson hums happily and grabs a shot from the table. Neil pulls at his shirt and tries to maintain eye contact with Andrew.
“Well, damn,” Nicky says. “That’s, ah, new.”
Andrew rolls his eyes. “Why don’t you get lost so Neil and I can chat?”
“Sure, whatever you say, cuz,” Nicky winks at Neil and grabs Kevin’s elbow. “Day, you’re with me. Aaron…” But Aaron’s already gone off on his own. Carson gives Neil an encouraging slap on the back and leaves with Nicky and Kevin. And then it’s just Neil and Andrew and a table full of drinks.
Andrew pats the chair next to him and Neil takes a seat, shifting nervously.
“So…” Neil has never felt more awkward in his life. “What is this, exactly?”
Andrew picks up a glass of amber liquid and takes a slow sip. “Let’s call it an interview.”
Neil snorts. “What position am I applying for?”
“That remains to be seen. You’re a mystery, Neil Josten. New kid comes to town, picks up a racquet, supposedly for the first time, and is revealed to be an exy prodigy? Sounds too good to be true.”
“I don’t see how it’s your problem,” Neil challenges, “you’re not on the team. You don’t even go here.”
Andrew laughs. “Nice. Maybe I heard a rumor that you might try for PSU. Maybe I want to see if you belong with the Foxes. Maybe I just think you’re interesting.” Andrew slides a shot glass to Neil and Neil slides it right back.
“Thanks but I don’t drink,” Neil says. “You shouldn’t, either.”
Andrew acts scandalized. “I shouldn’t? Gosh.”
Despite everything Neil smiles. Andrew doesn’t smile back. Instead his gaze gets direct, like he has some sort of laser vision that will reveal all of Neil’s truths. Neil forces himself not to look away and then finds that he can’t look away.
“You’re not even remotely afraid of me.” Andrew’s voice is quiet, almost lost beneath the beat of the music and the dull roar of conversation.
“You don’t seem that scary,” Neil admits. “And before you ask, yeah, I’ve heard all the stories. You’re a real problem child.”
Andrew scoffs. “Did you just call me a child?”
“Fighting all the time, getting suspended? Seems childish to me.” Neil gets the feeling he’s on thin ice but it’s sort of fun pushing back, going toe to toe with the guy he’s heard so much about. “Anyways, you’ll be in college soon. Better do some rapid maturing.”
“Wow.” Andrew leans back in his chair and finishes off his drink in one long swallow. “Wow. They broke the mold with you.”
Neil shrugs but maintains eye contact. He’s starting to like the color of Andrew’s eyes: hazel, almost gold. He’s starting to feel unexpectedly intrigued by the short, feisty blonde.
“Damn straight,” Neil replies. “So, you gonna buy me a drink?”
And, to Neil’s unending surprise, Andrew does. They split a Coke and the conversation starts, ebbing and flowing, evolving. Neil keeps his secrets tucked away but somehow they keep finding things to talk about: exy, Coach Parker, Neil’s teammates, Andrew’s teammates and Coach, favorite drinks, favorite foods, movies, criticizing the other club goers, cars. The others come back from time to time to get drinks or take a breather, and they join in the conversation. Carson seems ecstatic that Neil and Andrew are getting on; Nicky looks cautious; Aaron looks bored; Kevin looks exhausted. Neil remembers, suddenly, that this is the second night out for the group, no wonder they seem to be lagging (except for Andrew, of course).
Around two am things start winding down and everyone decides to call it quits. They all walk out together, some of them stumbling from fatigue or drunkenness. Carson arranges a ride home for he and Neil and Andrew waits with them, smoking. Neil watches him, feeling a strange pull that he’s never experienced before. Maybe it’s just that, under the street light, in this unfamiliar parking lot, Andrew has a cool, timeless look. It’s like he’s an unmovable force, larger than life even though he stands at five foot nothing. He catches Neil staring and frowns.
When their ride pulls up Carson hurries over and climbs in the passenger seat, giving the driver a brief peck on the cheek. Neil starts to follow but stops when Andrew touches his wrist; the contact is brief but it still sends a jolt through Neil.
“Keep in touch, okay?” Andrew says, passing Neil a folded slip of paper and Neil doesn’t even have to open it to know that Andrew’s number is scrawled inside.
Neil nods, tucking the paper into his pocket. “Yeah. If I can, I’ll come to your games. I would really love to watch you play, see if you live up to the hype.”
Andrew’s grin is sharp. “Oh, I always live up to the hype.”
“I bet you do,” Neil smiles back. Andrew takes hold of his wrist again, trails his fingers down the palm of Neil’s hand. It’s a small gesture but Neil feels shaken. He catches Andrew’s fingers in his for a quick moment before pulling away. “I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah, you will.”
Neil is quiet the whole way to Carson’s house but his mind is busy, replaying the entire night, all the words and looks. It’s all adding up to something and Neil can’t wait to find out what that is.