The first time Shawn ever kisses Gus it's goodbye. It's nearing the end of Gus' last summer living at home before he leaves for college, and the crisp Indian summer is almost over. Fallen leaves are everywhere, red-gold as a new penny, scuttling dry over the suburban streets. The nights are warm, but they haven't gotten hot enough yet to make Gus' dad break down and crank up the air conditioning to a comfortable level. Unfortunately Gus has never been able to sleep with his window open, so he's half-drowsing in bed, too hot to sleep even with the covers kicked down to his feet, when the squawk of the emergency Gus and Shawn contact system startles him fully awake.
The emergency contact system is a compromise Gus arranged with Shawn years ago, after the third time Shawn underestimated his own strength and cracked the glass in Gus' bedroom window while hucking pebbles at it to wake him up. Now there's an ancient Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle walkie-talkie duct-taped to Gus' bedpost. It's down behind the edge of the mattress where no one can see it, but still close enough to Gus' head to wake him up when it starts making noise. He turns it on every night before he goes to sleep, switching out two sets of rechargable batteries every week or so without fail.
(A month later Gus goes off to college, and for two months, every single night when he goes to bed, this happens: he lies down, fluffs his pillow, closes his eyes, then reaches up over his head and jams his knuckles hard against unforgiving concrete, because the bed in his ancient dorm room is set flush against the wall, and there's no walkie-talkie there. And anyway, by that time Shawn's long gone.)
The other walkie-talkie is stashed in a plastic bag under a rock next to the back fence, where Shawn can get at it easily if he comes up the street behind Gus' house, cuts across the Corbetts' garden, then sneaks up the path between the fence and the side of the Guster house. The walkie-talkies are so old they don't transmit anything but static and howling, but that doesn't matter. All Shawn needs to do is wake Gus up, which he does by pressing the button on and off a few times, and then pressing it even more times in an annoyingly unpredictable pattern that's impossible to ignore, which is how Gus knows it's really an emergency.
Eyes still closed, he gropes for the walkie-talkie and clicks a reply: dot-dash-dot, R for Roger, meaning message received. Then he pulls on a t-shirt and sneaks downstairs. He makes it through the kitchen and out the sliding glass door onto the patio without being detected. It's still a little warm outside but the cool concrete surface of the patio makes him wish he'd put on shoes. He holds his breath as he picks his way through the yard, passing under his parents' bedroom window-- thankfully closed-- then turns the corner of the house and lets out a breath of relief.
When he inhales, the dry reek of stale pot smoke assaults his nose, making his sinuses itch and his lungs tighten. Even if he wasn't absolutely sure his parents would immediately find out, Gus would still have no interest in smoking pot, mostly because being around Shawn for the last couple of months has convinced him that he'd probably die of an athsma attack before any of the supposedly cool effects kicked in. He wrinkles his nose as he opens the gate. It'll be a miracle if this side of the house doesn't already smell like a Grateful Dead concert. Gus makes a mental note to make sure to take the garbage out before anybody else can get to it, for at least the next few days. "Shawn, is that you?"
"That's a definite maybe!" Shawn whispers back. "Gus, hey, Gus." And, yeah, he's so high.
"What's the emergency?" Gus scowls, peering into the dark. It's hard to see much, in this narrow space between the house and the fence. For a second Shawn could be anybody, just some random, slouch-shouldered, floppy-haired white kid in stomper boots and a plaid shirt. Then he inches out of the shadows, looking up at Gus through his bangs, and suddenly he's reassuringly familiar again. Mostly because he looks about twelve years old, thanks to that stupid grin on his face. The raggedly opened plastic bag of king-size marshmallows clutched in one hand doesn't help. Gus doesn't have to be Shawn's dad to detect that Shawn has spent another afternoon getting totally baked in Mandy Rourke's parents' guest house, and gone on to spend the evening shoplifting random items from, probably, the Quik-Stop on Las Palmas where that narcoleptic blonde works the graveyard shift. Gus presses his lips together. He isn't sure whether he's more sad or angry, or which one he'd rather be.
"Oh, hey," Shawn blinks, seeing Gus notice the marshmallows. He holds out the open bag. "Marshmallow?"
"I don't want a marshmallow."
"Dude, it was my best lift ever," Shawn says happily, still holding out the bag. "You should've seen it. I was David Copperfield magical."
"I don't want a marshmallow, Shawn," Gus repeats, batting the bag away in irritation.
Shawn sighs and drops his hand to his side again. "Gus," he says, running his other hand back through his hair. "Gus, listen, I wanna... I wanna talk to you."
Gus curls his toes against the rough flagstone of the path. "Yeah, I guessed that when you used the emergency contact system, Shawn."
This sends Shawn into a fit of chuckles for some reason, which he barely stifles, both arms wrapped around his ribcage. "Dude," he says after a moment, clearly trying to be serious, then gives up and giggles. "Gus..."
"Say what it is, Shawn," Gus says, pressing a hand to his forehead.
"What it is, Shawn," Shawn repeats obediently, then lurches upright again. "Okay, but Gus, I don't know what it is," he protests, swinging his arms up over his head. A lone marshmallow goes flying out of the bag into the Corbetts' yard, and Gus takes an involuntary half-step back.
He was noticeably taller than Shawn for nearly their entire junior year, and then Shawn hit a growth spurt and Gus almost became an atheist. Shawn seems to have leveled out at 5'10, though, leaving Gus safely half an inch taller and with his faith in a higher power intact. It's still kind of an adjustment sometimes. They were always about the same size and build when they were kids, but Shawn ended up thick through the shoulders like his dad, with solid arms and square hands, while Gus turned out to be built more for stealth and speed. More elegantly, that's how Gus likes to think of it, though he knows better than to ever say that out loud. Especially not in front of Shawn.
Squaring his shoulders, Gus crosses his arms over his chest. "Shawn, come on," he hisses. "It's two in the morning and I have a busy day tomorrow. Today, technically. If you want to eat a bag of marshmallows and talk about nothing, that's what your stoner buddies are for, remember? Because I'm seriously not entertained. Look at me, Shawn, I'm not laughing."
Shawn stares at him for a long moment, and then his face scrunches up apologetically. The hand with the bag of marshmallows in it twitches like he's going to try to hide it behind his back, but instead he only sighs and swings his arms like a kid. "Come on, Gus. I just... What am I supposed to do? I know you're busy, you don't have time to... And your parents hate me now."
"They don't hate you, Shawn," Gus says. His throat is oddly tight. He tells himself it's the pot smoke radiating off Shawn's clothes and hair, that's all.
Gus has never been a very good liar. His parents do totally hate Shawn. But only because they think that Shawn is going to deploy unstoppable peer pressure against their baby boy and turn him into a brain-dead stoner. And, okay, so Shawn did invite him over to Mandy Rourke's a few times. And yes, it was an implied invitation to smoke up, and they both knew it. But Shawn only ever asked those three times, and the second and third time were purely pro forma, just to be polite. Gus could tell. And Shawn never brought it up again after the third time Gus turned him down; he barely even mentions it around Gus these days. He's certainly never deployed any kind of peer pressure to make Gus come get high with him.
And the thing is, this is Shawn-- Shawn, who usually pressures Gus to do six new, exciting, borderline legal things before breakfast. Any time Gus has ever done anything memorable or interesting, it's been because Shawn pressured him into it. But when it comes to Shawn's new fun social circle, there's been none of that kind of Peer Pressure, the kind that comes with capital letters in educational filmstrips and after-school specials. Shawn just... dropped it.
Shawn raises his eyebrows at Gus. Gus sighs.
"Maybe a little."
"They hate me," Shawn says, sounding weirdly mournful. He hangs his head. "Gus," he says, swallowing hard, "Gus, you don't hate me, do you? I mean, you would never hate me." His voice actually cracks a little, and Gus blinks hard in sympathy. Shawn's face is shadowed and Gus can't see his expression, only the top of his head and his throat working as he tries to get himself under control.
"Shawn, I don't hate you," he manages. He's not used to Shawn being vulnerable, unless he's setting Gus up for something. Gus doesn't know whether he should say something encouraging, or shut up and pretend nothing is happening, or maybe try to hug Shawn, or whether that would make Shawn take a swing at him, or what the hell is going on.
Then he realizes. Oh god. This is Shawn breaking it off. This is Shawn ending their friendship, trying to make sure they part on good terms, with good memories. Gus has actually worried for the past couple of months about this exact thing, about this exact moment, because what else could it mean that Shawn gave up on getting Gus to come over to Mandy Rourke's? Shawn gives up on a lot of things, but never without a fight. Or, if not a fight, at least some kicking, screaming, nagging and/or whining. But this he'd just let go, and Gus had spent a few paranoid weeks waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it just... didn't drop. Until now, he supposes. This is it.
And it's not that Gus really wanted to be peer pressured into dropping out of college and spending the rest of his life on a couch with Shawn watching MTV, but sometimes he wonders if Shawn even ever cared. If this is how Shawn's planning on leaving him behind. Even thinking about it makes him feel queasy and disoriented, but seriously, what else can it be? High school is over. Gus is going off to college in less than a month. He and Shawn aren't going to be as close as they used to be. It's inevitable; it's what people do after high school. They go to college or they get married or they have jobs, or they wander the earth fighting crime with kung fu like Kwai Chang Caine, and then they drift apart from the people who picked something different than whatever it is that they picked. Gus would give anything for that not to happen, but maybe Shawn is one step ahead of him on this, the same way he's always a step ahead of everyone. Maybe Shawn's already past denial. Maybe he's already moved on to whatever the next thing is.
Shawn's eyes flash up to Gus'. He looks sad and angry, and then he looks down at the bag of marshmallows in his hand. Taking a deep breath, he drops it on the flagstones, nudging it with his boot. Gus looks down, frowning and he really, really should know better by now. It's classic misdirection, one of Shawn's oldest, most obvious tricks. But of course Gus falls for it, and suddenly Shawn's hands are on Gus' shoulders, shoving him up against the side of the house.
Gus tenses. He and Shawn haven't gotten in a seriously physical knock-down drag-out fight since the Cinnamon Festival when they were six. But Gus has found himself wondering lately how a rematch might turn out. Shawn's been so edgy, so off balance. He's constantly giving Gus these weird narrow-eyed looks, snapping at him and bumping him and then acting like Gus is a weirdo for getting pissed off. Gus couldn't figure out if it was the pot, making Shawn more aggressive in a perverse and Shawn-like defiance of all the known laws of biochemistry, or if the new aggro attitude and the pot were just two symptoms of another, underlying issue-- the divorce, or the way Shawn's dad keeps harping on Shawn's spectacular failure to give a crap about applying to college, or--
He certainly never suspected-- He didn't know. Well, how could he have guessed? There wasn't any warning-- not until Shawn's mouth was actually pressed against his, hot and dry and desperate, tasting of marshmallows and pot smoke. Gus freezes, and Shawn's hands leave his shoulders, landing on either side of his face. His palms are clammy and his thumbs press painfully into Gus' jaw. Shawn stutters a choked gasp into Gus' mouth, sucks in another breath, tilts his head and kisses Gus harder, ignoring Gus' complete non-reaction.
It's a terrible kiss. Maybe the worst in all of Gus' admittedly limited experience. Worse than the time Andi Ronningen's braces sliced his lip open and he bled all over her favorite New Kids On The Block t-shirt and ruined it. Worse than the time Keisha Ward tried to kiss him as they staggered away from the Tilt-a-Whirl and the lurch of emotion caused Gus to puke near, instead of directly on, her shoes. To this day, it's one of his proudest accomplishments. It still kind of ruined the mood.
Finally Shawn pulls back, letting his hands drop away from Gus' face, and steps away. Gus' mouth feels bruised, and he resists the urge to scrub at it with the back of his hand. Shawn is strangely silent, strangely still, just... standing there, not jittering or swaying or ducking his head. Calm, for the first time in longer than Gus can actually remember. Gus is the first to break eye contact, staring away into the dark.
"If you're going to hit me, go ahead and do it." Shawn spreads his arms wide, making himself a target. His voice is hardly shaky at all, but the big dramatic gesture is one of Shawn's most obvious tells. "I'll give it to you, man," he insists. "Free hit."
"I'm not going to hit you," Gus says automatically, even though his hands have already curled into shaking fists.
"Gus," Shawn says, and everything he wants to say is right there in that word. Despite all the possibilities flashing through Gus' head, this isn't a practical joke. This isn't Shawn using reverse psychology or running an experiment or just being random or crazy or perversely Shawn-like. "Gus, I just," Shawn says hoarsely, "I feel," and all of a sudden Gus knows what it must be like to have Shawn's memory, his mind, to be able to put together details and patterns and see the big picture all laid out in front of you.
Because all of a sudden he knows exactly what this is. Gus looks at the guy in front of him-- this complete and total stranger, this pod person who's replaced his first, best and only friend-- and he shakes his head in denial, throat too tight and scratchy to risk speaking. He doesn't know what he'd say, anyway, because this isn't Shawn. It's not the Shawn that Gus knows, which means he isn't Shawn at all.
Gus has a lot of time, later, to think about what must have been going through Shawn's head, to think about just how scared Shawn must have been. But right now? Right now Gus is scared and stressed and sleep-deprived and freaked out, and all he knows is that Shawn has gone on without him, abandoned their friendship. Shawn has left him alone. All this time he's been afraid of Shawn taking off, leaving him behind, and hey, he was right, except that somehow he missed it when it happened, and Shawn is already gone.
So that's what's going through his head, all in the space of half a second, and then before he knows what he's doing, before Shawn can finish his sentence, Gus actually does take a swing at him, fist landing on his cheek and glancing off as Shawn flinches back, startled.
And of course it's an awful half-assed punch, because Gus has never punched anybody in the face in his life (again, not unless you count that time in the bouncy castle at the Cinnamon Festival, and although Gus still maintains that he won that fight, to himself he can admit that the K.O. punch was really more than half an accident) but Shawn staggers back, hand flying to his cheek, and Gus feels a sick thrill of horror.
Shawn's laughing hoarsely at Gus even as he straightens up again. "Gus, I'm getting mixed messages here."
"I don't think you are," Gus snaps, trembling, scared. Shocked at himself.
"I guess not."
"Whatever," Shawn sneers. Gus has seen that look on Shawn's face a hundred times, but he's never been on the wrong side of it before. He's never been on the outside. Shawn works his jaw, wincing a little, and they stare at each other for one more moment. And then Shawn lurches forward, socking Gus in the shoulder. His fist lands hard right on the bump of the joint, and Gus' whole arm goes numb and tingly. He grabs his shoulder, gritting his teeth, and Shawn smirks harder.
Shawn doesn't know his own strength, hasn't since his stupid growth spurt, which means that lately he always hits harder than he really intends to. Every time, Gus tells himself that Shawn doesn't mean it-- that he just needs time to adjust to five more inches of height and fifty more pounds of muscle-- but this fucking hurts.
"Have a nice life, buddy," Shawn says, still sneering, and he'd probably kill himself right now if he realized how much he sounds like his dad. "It's been real."
Before Gus can respond, Shawn spins away, jumping to get a grip and then clumsily hauling himself over the fence between the Gusters' yard and the Corbetts'. He lands with a grunt and a curse, and Gus flinches as he hears Mrs. Corbett's precious landscaping being trampled by Shawn's size tens.
He leans back against the gate, still clutching his aching shoulder, and listens until Shawn's footsteps disappear.
Then he takes the bag of marshmallows, hides it under a bag of trash that's already in the garbage can, and goes upstairs to bed.
The walkie-talkie stays silent all night long.
Three days later happens to be Shawn's eighteenth birthday. Shawn had said something vaguely a few weeks ago about having big plans, and of course Gus had made sure he had that day free-- no planning, no packing, no last-minute visits. Not even his parents would try to schedule anything on Shawn's birthday. Gus had even cleared most of the day after that, just in case. But Shawn doesn't show up. He doesn't call.
Gus is torn. He wants to go out and look for him, but what if Shawn calls while he's out? God, what if Shawn does call-- what the hell will they say to each other after what's happened? So instead Gus hides up in his room all day, avoiding his parents' increasingly curious and then infuriatingly relieved gazes.
Two days after that, Shawn hooks up with Lanie Hesselman. They steal her neighbor's car. They get arrested.
(A decade later, Shawn will absolutely make the joke that he was pwning at grand theft auto way before it was cool.)
Gus has never been so out of the loop when it comes to Shawn. The first that he actually hears about it is when Mandy Rourke calls to ask him if he thinks Lanie Hesselman is a squealer, because if Lanie rats out Mandy then Mandy's parents will find out about Deacon, her boyfriend (and, apparently, her dealer). As it turns out, Deacon is a junior in college, and since Mandy is still seventeen, technically their true love is kinda illegal, and if he gets caught then Mandy's parents will totally press charges and-- Eventually Gus manages to interrupt, telling Mandy that he has no idea what she's talking about. Of course she doesn't believe him for a second, because how could Gus not know? Shawn tells Gus everything. They're best friends. Everybody knows that.
"Mandy, wait. What does this have to do with Shawn anyway?" Gus interrupts. And that's how he finds out that Shawn and Lanie are in jail.
He puts the phone down in the middle of one of Mandy's run-on sentences and just stands there in the hall for a minute. For a second he thinks about going down to the station, but it's been almost a whole day already. Not even Mr. Spencer would actually make Shawn spend more than a night in lockup. Would he? Besides, what good would it do for Gus to go down there? It seems like Shawn is trying to burn his whole life down, and Gus isn't sure he wants to get in the line of fire.
Gus, that metaphor starts crying if you even look at it funny, Shawn's voice says in his head, and Gus goes up to his room and pounds his fists into his pillow until his shoulder starts to hurt where Shawn socked him. He's still got a bruise there. It's not even done turning colors yet.
What people are saying, Gus' mother relates coolly over dinner that night, is that Lanie Hesselman's parents went over to Mr. Ellis' house and threw themselves entirely on his mercy-- crying, begging and pleading with him not to ruin their sweet, terribly misguided little girl's life. Apparently it worked; he took pity on them and dropped the charges. Gus' mother doesn't sound terribly disapproving. Why should Lanie's record be branded with a felony over a teenage prank? After all, her only crime was falling in with bad companions. According to the Hesselmans, the whole thing had been Shawn's idea.
"Come on, Mom! Of course they said that-- what else would they say?" Gus demands, sharply enough to get The Look from his mom and dad simultaneously. He locks his jaw, staring down at his plate. But come on-- of course they would say that!
The point is, Ellis isn't going to press charges. Shawn will have a record but at least he won't be a felon. And maybe Shawn will chill the fuck out, now. Maybe he's gotten it out of his system. Maybe. After dinner Gus tries calling Shawn's skeezy apartment, but his phone has been cut off. This isn't the first time it's happened, so Gus doesn't let it worry him.
Not too much, anyway.
He wakes up the next morning and takes the bus downtown to Shawn's skeezy neighborhood. When he gets to Shawn's skeezy building he stares at the buzzer box for almost a full minute. What he's seeing can't be right, but after he looks up and down the block, then back at the buzzer a few times, Gus has to accept it. He's in the right place and he's looking at the right number, but the little stick-on label that used to have Shawn's name scrawled on it has been scraped off.
Gus rings the bell for the skeezy building manager. He rings it for ten minutes, then accepts that the guy isn't in. He sits down and waits. He already knows what he's going to hear when the man finally shows up, so he's not surprised when he finally shows up and says it. Shawn's hit the road, whistling "Vaya con Dios" and leaving half a month's unpaid rent behind. Shawn's such a nice kid, says the building manager. He hates to turn the debt over to a collection agency, seeing as how that can screw up a person's whole credit history, and then just try getting an apartment, or heck, even a job...
Gus has a couple of hundred bucks in his sock. It's his graduation money. His mom and dad gave it to him expecting him to use it on college necessities. Stuff for his dorm room, a transit pass, pizza and a movie now and then. All the little expenses you don't think of when you're moving out for the first time. Well, whatever. Gus digs into his sock and pays Shawn's rent instead. He'll be fine. He has his own savings, and Christmas is coming up. He'll be totally fine until Santa brings him the customary Guster Christmas stocking money. Not that he needs handouts from his parents, anyway. Gus is eighteen years old. He can get by on his own.
The first postcard arrives two months after Gus starts school. Gus' parents forward it on without comment along with the rest of Gus' mail. He's shuffling through it, juggling the mail and a coffee and his psychology textbook, and the postcard slips out from in between an issue of Railroad Explorer and a flier announcing that Terry Moore is going to be a special guest at the '97 San Diego ComicCon. The picture on the front of the card is a random, poorly executed photocollage of a cross-eyed frog wearing a sombrero and drinking a beer, and for a second Gus wonders if his dentist back in Santa Barbara is letting his teenage son design the fliers again.
Then he flips it over and sees Shawn's handwriting, the blocky little letters getting bigger and bigger until he realizes he's running out of room and makes the words smaller again, resulting in sentences that zigzag in stepladder lines across the page. Gus' hands are suddenly shaking too hard for him to actually be able to read the damn card. Swallowing hard, he sits down right there on the grungy floor by the dorm mailboxes, puts down his coffee and his book and his notes and his binder. Steadying the card in both hands, he reads.
BURTON DILLWEED GUSTER you economy size jackhole
I TOLD FRANKIE I WOULD PAY HIM WHEN I GOT A JOB, WHICH I HAVE,
i didn't need your stupid GRADUATION MONEY. I wired you $137
you can pick it up at a Montecito Bank & Trust, bring ID. For the
rest tell Henry you need some of your stuff from my room.
You can pawn anything he hasn't tossed.
I was GOING TO apologize for everything, mostly the hitting,
but now I'm not going to apologize for THAT. Gus you can't let
A few lines in the middle are blacked out with a Sharpie, presumably wielded by Shawn if the jerky scribbling lines are any indication.
nothing at all? Really?
(apparently no cursing on postcards. LAME.)
Anyway GUS you have to come down for spring break. THE GIRLS
ARE SO HOT and I'M LEARNING TO SURF. and CHEAP BEER.
and DID I MENTION: GIRLS.
ps if you have time maybe send my mom a letter please. I am sending
a postcard --> Collège de France (in Paris) but if she's not there
they might not forward it right. Just want to be sure she knows i'm
ok. (Pawn stuff if you have to make int. phone calls.) Say that I
have a job!!!! It's awesome!!!!
ps I stopped smoking.
ps SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES.
ps write back
Gus goes up to his room and sticks the postcard up on the wall next to his bed, right next to the Starry Night poster. It looks good, he thinks. Then, before he forgets, he sets his alarm back fifteen minutes so that he'll have time in his schedule to stop by the campus bookstore before breakfast tomorrow and grab some postcards. Hopefully they'll have some really tacky ones.
That night is the first night that Gus doesn't jam his hand against the wall, trying to turn the walkie-talkie on, before he falls asleep.