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Take That Fork in the Road

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In his heart he must want it to be over because the very instant the ball leaves his hand he knows it's not going to sink. He knows that it will sit out over the plate and Vontura will connect perfectly and the ball will sail in a graceful, fast arc out over the bleachers in left field. The bat will sing when he makes contact. The LSU fans will erupt in a riot of cheers and purple and yellow signs. The Omaha night will resound. All the blood drains from Spencer's face. It takes less than a second for a fastball to reach home plate from the mound. That second is the longest of his life.

It's not his fault. Of course it's not his fault. He pitches a two-hit, complete game shut-out the first game of the series, an effort that is already being talked about as one of the gem performances in all of College World Series history. Still. They lose the second game, and when Johnson walks in a run to tie it up in the top of the ninth inning of the third game, Spencer feels his stomach start to sink. On and on the game stretches, through the tenth inning, the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth -- nothing happening, just out after out. In the bottom of the fourteenth the Tigers get the lead-off man on base. When he steals second on a passed ball, Spencer feels sick. Nougent is up to bat next. Spencer closes his eyes and goes up to Coach and begs to be put in.

He gets Nougent to ground to third and the runner's held at second. Spencer strikes out the next guy, fanning him with a gorgeous fast ball that must top ninety six miles an hour. Jimmy Vontura is at bat; he is LSU's best power hitter and the last out Spencer needs to get his team out of the inning. Spencer gets him to swing at the first pitch, a sneaky slider that starts out outside but cuts and sinks down across the plate. It's not loud; the crowd is almost deadly silent. The next two pitches are fastballs: one's high and outside. The other, Vontura fouls back into the stands. Spencer's right shoulder throbs. He's never pitched on so little rest. Vontura fouls off two more pitches. Spencer misses with a slider and a fastball in quick succession. The count is full. The stadium is hush. It's cool for June but Spencer wipes sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. He stares at the signs that José is flashing, waves off the fastball. He closes his eyes, winds up, and releases.

The LSU Tigers defeat the USC Trojans in the fourteenth inning of game three of the College World Series. LSU third baseman Jimmy Vontura hits a game-winning two-run home run off USC pitcher Spencer Smith, who comes into the game in relief after having pitched a complete game the first game of the series. Vontura is named the Most Outstanding Player, but there's an audible undercurrent of commentary suggesting that Smith's effort was just as outstanding. Spencer doesn't care about any of that. When it comes down to it, they lost. He lost.

The team flies back to L.A. the next day. Nobody talks much. Nobody blames Spencer, but nobody's thrilled either. The Coach gives him a pat on the back and says he's done a fine job. Spencer gets his car from the long-term parking lot at the airport and drives home. He lives alone; the apartment is clean and quiet. He eats a bowl of cereal with no milk and passes out on the couch. The next morning, he wakes up with a sore neck and goes for a run. He picks up a newspaper and there's a little article on the third page of the sports section about the CSW. He reads it and then throws the newspaper away.

Spencer took an incomplete in his Intro to Photography II class that spring semester. It is the first time he's ever taken an incomplete. He takes his school work seriously and he carries a 3.6 GPA as an economics major despite the fact that he misses weeks of classes at a time when the team travels. Still, it had all been a little too much last spring and he'd talked to the professor and she'd let him take the incomplete so long as he agreed to make up the work over the summer. Two days after he gets back from Omaha he gets in his car and drives over to the fine arts building. Campus is eerily empty. There's ample parking and the halls are deserted. Spencer is fine with that. He's still not really in the mood to talk to anyone.

Spencer has a couple of rolls of black and white film he took on his dad's old Minolta. He usually brings the camera when they travel, although it's bulky. There's plenty of free time to take pictures, plenty of things to take pictures of. He figures he can get them developed today, and then see what else he'll need to shoot. The photo lab is locked. He twists the door handle violently, but it doesn't open.

There's a sign taped to the door, written messily in Sharpie. 'Getting coffee :)' it says. 'BRB'. Something about that sign makes Spencer unreasonably angry. The lab tech is supposed to be in attendance at all times. He sits on the floor with his arms crossed over his chest and his bag at his side. The linoleum is filthy. He doesn't care. He takes a ball out of his bag and practices his grips. The weight is familiar; a baseball seems like a natural extension of his arm.

A guy wearing flip-flops jogs down the hall. He's got a huge Starbucks cup in his hand, and he's wearing sunglasses. He's comfortable looking, with an easy smile.

"Dude, have you been waiting long?"

"No," Spencer says. Even though he was annoyed just a few minutes earlier, it doesn't seem worth the effort now.

The guy unlocks the door and flips on the lights. Spencer puts his ball away, picks up his bag, and follows him inside. There are work tables with paper cutters and curly rolls of exposed film. The lab guy drops his coffee on the desk.

"You want a dark room?" he asks.

"Yes," Spencer says.

In the red night of the darkroom, Spencer works silently. It's been months since he's been in here but the sharp strange odor of the developer is familiar. If he doesn't focus on what he's doing, his mind drifts and he finds himself back on the mound, back in that moment after he threw the bad pitch but before Vontura hit the ball out. It doesn't make him sad, or disappointed, or angry. He just thinks about it, how it felt, how afterward when everyone patted him on the shoulder as they trudged off the field it seemed like something happening to someone else, something he was watching from the wrong side of a movie or on television; when he'd dreamed about it, and there have been so many dreams, he'd always been on the winning team.

He can hear music. The lab tech guy must be listening to something. With the door shut, Spencer can't hear well enough to make out what it is. He's a little annoyed. His mother has always said that Spencer needs to have more patience with people. He's always been a loner, always kind of a perfectionist. He never had any particularly close friends growing up, but he didn't need any. He had his little league team, and he had his arm, and from the time he was ten years old he knew what he wanted to do. He doesn't have any particularly close friends now. He still thinks he doesn't really mind, but he's less sure.

By the time the second roll of negatives is in the stop bath Spencer's ready for a break. The red lights make his eyes hurt. He cleans up and takes his negatives to look at in the viewer. There are a lot of pictures of empty stadiums, deserted after games, empty cup and crackerjack boxes blowing down onto the field. There are pictures of highways he doesn't remember taking. There are pictures of cities and towns he doesn't really remember visiting. He remembers every pitch he's ever thrown; in comparison everything else is indistinct and unimportant.

The lab guy has his feet on the desk and his hands behind his head. He's nodding in time to some rock music that Spencer doesn't recognize. He'd been into music for a while when he was a teenager, listening to CDs Brent burned him in his room after practice and sneaking to shows on the weekends if he didn't have a game or tournament, but when Brent moved in his sophomore year he took Spencer's budding musical interest with him. He never knows the songs on the radio these days.

"Hey," the lab guy says. "How'd it go?"

"Good," Spencer says. He dumps his negatives on the table next to a light box and flips it on. Some of the pictures are out of focus. Some of the pictures are decent. A few are good. He starts thinking of which he wants to print when he realizes the guy is standing behind him.

"Those are sweet," the guy says.

"Thanks," Spencer says.

"You on the team?" the guy asks, and Spencer is startled. It's not like he's the quarterback of the football team but he's been a starting pitcher since his freshman year. He's one of Baseball America's top college prospects. He's not used to people not knowing who he is.

"I'm a pitcher," he says. "Spencer Smith."

"I'm Jon," the guy says. "Hey, you guys did awesome this year, right? I think I saw it in the Daily Trojan ..."

"We got to the College World Series," Spencer says slowly. "And we lost."

"That's still pretty wicked," Jon says. "It must have been crazy."

Spencer doesn't know what that means, really. It's one of those things people say, but each game varies only as permitted by the rules and by chance. If he's throwing well, he usually wins. If he's throwing poorly, he loses. Most of the time, he throws well. There's nothing crazy about that.

"It was exciting," he says quietly, not really meaning anything.

"Totally," Jon says. He stares down at Spencer's negatives. "So you doing this just for fun?"

"No," Spencer says. "I have to make up some work. I missed a lot of time this year."

Jon smiles broadly. His teeth are white. "Yeah, I bet."

Spencer doesn't have a response to that. He keeps looking at the negatives. He doesn't like to take pictures of people, usually, but there is a shot he took of José and Frank Macgill warming up lazily before a game. They're tossing a ball back and forth, wrists bent. José's hat is on backwards, and they're not smiling but they look focused and intent.

"This one is good," Jon says, reaching over Spencer's shoulder.

"Yeah," Spencer says. "That's uh ... José Garzon. He catches. And Frank pitches relief."

"Ah," Jon says, sounding like he's figured something out. "Your teammates. Gotcha."

He doesn't say anything else after that but he does stand behind Spencer and watch him for a while. Spencer doesn't mind it, per se, but it's a little weird. Jon smells like coffee and cologne. Spencer cuts the negatives and marks the ones he wants to print. It's two o'clock.

As he's leaving, Jon says, "See you next time."

He smiles. Spencer smiles back. It's a reflex, more than anything.

It's always been weird after the season ends but it's worse this year because of how it ended and also because he's living on his own. He hated the dorms but he isn't sure this much silence is preferable. He goes to the store and makes an omelet for dinner. One of the guys from the team sends him a text message inviting him out to the Brewhaha for drinks. The Brewhaha is a dive bar right near campus, near the dorm where most of the guys live. It's kind of the semi-official team hangout. Spencer hates the place. Still he goes out once a week or so. It seems like the right thing to do.

He showers and gets dressed and catches the bus to campus. He never drives when there's even a chance he'll be drinking. It's a Friday night and the bar is full. Everyone is glad he's come. He smiles and gets a beer and shoots a round of pool. A girl with blond hair and a deep tan smiles at him. He could go home with her, he thinks. He doesn't want her, doesn't want anything close to her, but he could. She knows who he is and she's a junior, same year as him. He could go back to her dorm room and he could kiss her in the dark while she undresses and he could fuck her and leave before she wakes in the morning. He knows he could do that. He has done it before. It's easy, even if she's nothing that he desires.

Instead he leaves after two beers. The crowd is getting rowdy. All the noise is garbled. The jukebox plays Aerosmith and Def Leopard. Nobody pays him any attention. He doesn't say goodbye to anyone. On the ride home, he counts the orange sodium lights that line the road. He loses track at sixty three. It's not quite ten o'clock when he unlocks his front door. He falls asleep on the couch watching ESPN Classic.

He goes back to the photography lab the next day. Jon is there alone again.

"Hey," he says.

"Spencer," Jon says, looking up, smiling. "Hey. How's it going?"

"Good," Spencer says. He pulls his envelope of negatives from his backpack.

Spencer spends several hours printing photos. He never realized before how so many of the ballparks look the same. He prints a picture he took of the crowd the night of the last game in Omaha. Every moment of that night has stayed with him. He needs more pictures of people. His portfolio is supposed to include a variety of subjects in a variety of settings. All his photos are the same.

Jon is reading a book when Spencer steps, blinking, back into the lab from the darkroom. Spencer sits down at one of the tables and rifles through his bag. He's not sure what he's looking for.

"How'd they come out?" Jon asks.

"Okay," Spencer says. "I need to take more, I think. Of different stuff." His brain feels slow and his head feels fuzzy. It's not lack of sleep; it's not a hangover.

"You should go down to the beach with me," Jon says. "I'm going as soon as I'm done here to take some pictures of a friend of mine surfing. He's awesome. You surf at all?"

Spencer frowns. There's something off inside his brain today. "No," he says.

"Dude, I could teach you. It's so sweet. There's nothing like being out there, just you and the water. You never realize what it's really like until you surf." Jon smiles.

"Thanks," Spencer says, but he doesn't commit.

He works for another half an hour. Jon lingers, keeps making conversation. Spencer learns that he's doing his MFA in photography, that he's originally from Chicago, that he plays bass, drums, and guitar, and that he was in a band before he moved out here, a semi-successful band that toured and put out an album and everything. Spencer's not sure why Jon's doing so much talking. He responds cursorily. He knows that he should be curious, should respond in kind, should share all the little kinds of anecdotes that, combined, constitute a life, but he can't bring himself to talk about the game, and that's really all there is.

At three o'clock Jon closes the lab and they walk to the parking lot together. The sun is so bright that Spencer's eyes hurt. As Jon gets into his car he says, "See you tomorrow, man. We'll have to figure out a time for the surfing thing."

"Oh," Spencer says. "Uh, yeah."

Jon honks, throws his decrepit Nissan Sentra into reverse, and pulls out so fast Spencer can hear the tires squeal. Spencer get into his car and sits with his head resting on the steering wheel for ten minutes or maybe fifteen. He doesn't roll the windows down or turn the air conditioner on and sweat wells up on his nose and forehead. When it feels like his skin might be melting to the leather, he sits up, squeezes his eyes shut, and turns the key.

That night he runs six miles because at least running he is doing something, going somewhere, not succumbing to inertia; plus, conditioning is important. It's a struggle for him, anyway, and if he doesn't run he'll be sadly out of shape when the team starts training in the fall. Plus nobody can talk to him if he's running. His parents bought him an iPod for Christmas last year but he never got around to putting any music on it so his music is the whoosh of his breath and the throbbing of his pulse in his temples. He comes home, eats dinner, and jerks off thinking about nothing in particular. He showers and goes to sleep with wet hair.

The next day the heat is bad and there's something catching in his throat that suggests that to try to play nice would be a bad idea. His legs ache but he manages another run, and then drives to the batting cages and spends a few hours smashing balls as hard as he can into the distant netting. He's not a great hitter, but he's not bad for a pitcher and he doesn't make a fool of himself. The crack-crack-crack of his bat as he makes impact is refreshing. He doesn't concentrate on form. He's striving for the easiest, purest motion. It's hot and his hair is damp under the batting helmet. He would just as soon not wear one, but it's a rule so he does.

When his time is up he drives home and spends the rest of the night sitting on the couch, back ramrod straight, knees bent, hands resting on his thighs. The television is turned on, but unwatched. A package of chicken sits defrosting on the counter, forgotten. Underneath, there's a foul pink puddle of water growing as it thaws. The sun sets and the shadows climb out; he doesn't turn on the light. Eventually and without realizing it he sleeps.

The next day is a little better, even though he wakes disoriented on the couch, confused by the reek coming from the kitchen. He's forgotten the chicken. He cleans up the mess and bleaches the counter and then mops the floor. He feels okay after cleaning, so he dressed and drives to school. He hasn't taken any more pictures, but he still has some to develop from the last rolls. Again, the parking lot is deserted. Again the halls echo emptily. Jon is sitting behind the desk reading a book and when Spencer walks in he looks up and smiles. His cheeks stretch.

"Dude, Spencer," he says. "You have awesome timing. I was totally wishing I had your phone number because the waves are ideal today. We are going out later, and it would be an excellent day to learn."

Spencer assumed Jon would forget about his pledge to teach him to surf. "Okay," he says, because he doesn't know what else to say that wouldn't be rude. Besides, he isn't really any more inclined to refuse than he is to accept.

When the lab closes Jon tells Spencer to go home and get changed.

"I'll meet you at your place in twenty," he says, his eyes crinkling.

Spencer's swim trunks are buried in the bottom of the bottom drawer of his dresser. He lives fifteen minutes from the beach but he hasn't been since freshman year. He's taller and thinner than he was when he was a freshman and the shorts don't fit well. Spencer hit his growth spurt late.

Jon honks three times. Spencer pulls on a tee shirt and locks his door. The seats of the Nissan are covered in towels, and there are two surfboards strapped to the roof. Jon's stereo is loud and the speakers make the dashboard vibrate. They sit in traffic. The smog hangs low and dirty in the air. Jon tells a story about his friend's band and a prank they played once on the drummer. Spencer pays attention well enough that he can laugh at the funny parts and ask a few innocuous questions. Eventually, they get to the beach. Spencer leaves his shoes in the car. He carried one of the boards. It's not too crowded. The sand is hot and gritty underfoot.

Jon shows Spencer how to wax the board. That is a comforting repetitive motion. Jon explains that first they'll paddle out together on Jon's long board, Spencer in front. Spencer frowns. Jon doesn't pay attention. He takes off his shirt and balls it up by his backpack. Spencer hesitates, and does the same. He has a monumental farmer's tan -- tan from mid-bicep down; everything else is covered by his jersey. Jon hands him a tube of sunscreen. He applies it heavily to his chest, stomach, back, shoulders. Jon is studying the water.

Someone calls, "Jonny Walker!"

Jon turns. Spencer looks.

A guy with dark hair and big dark eyes is running towards them across the sand. He is maybe two or three inches shorter than Spencer is. He's pretty; not like a girl, but in a way that makes Spencer not want to look away. When he is near enough he launches himself at Jon and gives him an enormous hug.

"Brendon, dude," Jon says. "I can't believe you're here!"

"Oh man," Brendon says. "I know. I told Ryan though; I told him if we went straight to another tour I would fucking go on stage every night in drag, or dressed up like a caveman. I don't even know. There was just no way ..." His eyes are wide and he waves his hands for emphasis.

Spencer shifts his feet.

"Hey," Jon says. "This is my friend Spencer I was telling you about. Today's gonna be his first time out."

"Nice!" Brendon says. "You are going to have a blast, seriously. There is nothing in the world as fun."

Spencer didn't know that Jon considered him a friend.

It is a long and very hot day, and at the end Spencer's arms ache although Jon and Brendon say they're impressed he does so well. He does not feel at ease on the water, not at all. He clings to his board in terror and it is mistaken for temerity. Brendon proclaims him a natural. Brendon is slim and well muscled, under his baggy gimmick tee shirt. They are all weary. Jon suggests they go get pizza.

In the pizza parlor Spencer fights the onset of a headache, brought on by the harsh florescent light and too much salt water and sun. He eats half of a plain slice. Brendon gets two with rice flour crust and soy cheese.

"I'm not like a member of PETA," he says. "But, dude, eating animals is really pretty disgusting, when you think about it."

Spencer's never really thought about it. He knows of PETA only as something on a sweatshirt worn by a standoffish girl in his English 101 class freshman year. When they'd read Lady Chatterley's Lover she'd argued loudly with the professor against the inclusion of such a misogynistic text in the syllabus. Spencer had mostly kept his head down and his nose to his notebook, going over batting orders in his head.

"Ryan always tells me that it's making me anemic but you can totally get more readily absorbed iron from crucifers than you can from a big honkin' old steak," Brendon says, chewing with his mouth open, talking with his mouth full. Ryan is mentioned constantly. Spencer's not sure who that is, but he thinks maybe it's Brendon's boyfriend.

Spencer's never really known anyone like Brendon. He's frantic and kind of flamboyant. Still, he seems like a nice guy, and when he programs his phone number into Spencer's cell phone Spencer is kind of glad.

He is so tired when he gets home that night that he falls right to sleep.

Brendon calls him at eight o'clock the next morning.

Spencer is awake, eating Wheaties and staring brainlessly at a cable news morning show. The boring pretty anchors yap, yap, yap.

"'lo," he says inarticulately, his mouth full.

"Spencer, good morning! It's Brendon!"

"Oh, hey," Spencer says, swallowing.

"What are you doing today?" Brendon says. "You're probably busy or something, but seriously, I want to hang out!"

"Okay," Spencer says. "No, I'm not doing anything."

"Awesome!" Brendon says. "What do you want to do? You pick. We can do anything you want, because seriously, I am sick of doing weird shit. I want to do normal stuff. What kind of normal stuff can we do today?"

Spencer can't explain that normal for him is six hours of baseball camp a day, five days a week, all summer. He just ... he can't let this become about that. Instead he says, "We could go to the movies, I guess."

Brendon laughs. "Perfect," he says. "I'll be at your house in a half an hour." He hangs up.

Spencer eats his Wheaties and takes a quick shower. He is sitting at the table when Brendon pulls up. Brendon drives a very nice car, a nearly new Audi convertible. Spencer knows it must have cost fifty or sixty grand. It is not what he expected at all.

Brendon drives quickly and somewhat recklessly, one arm dangling out the window, the other adjusting the stereo half the time. He is wearing sunglasses and the same clothing he wore yesterday. It's only nine o'clock, and he deflates a little when Spencer tells him it's probably a little too early for a movie.

"We could go get tickets now, though," Spencer says carefully. "And then go um, walk around or something?"

"What a genius you are," Brendon says, literally beaming.

A cleaning guy is still vacuuming the lobby of the movie theater. He spares them a single, askance glance. They have to decide what they want to see. Spencer does not care; he hasn't heard of half of the movies playing.

"Oh, Transformers! Robots in disguise," Brendon singsongs, staring straight up at the marquee. "Or, wait, what about Wolverine? Hugh Jackman kicks ass, man. I could watch Kate & Leopold every night of my life. Or, oh, Star Trek! J.J. Abrams is awesome. I made Ryan watch all of Lost one weekend; even he said it didn't make any sense. J.J. is so awesome, and it's Star Trek. We gotta see Star Trek, right, Spence?"

Spencer shrugs. Nobody ever calls Spencer 'Spence', except maybe his mom. The guys on the team always call him Smith.

Brendon can't figure out the automatic ticketing machine.

The earliest showing of Star Trek is at eleven thirty so they have a long time to kill.

They park the car and walk through the parking lot. Brendon balances on all the cement dividers. His balance is pretty good; he falls only once. He sings to himself. He has a very good voice. Spencer likes to listen to him sing and likes to listen to him talk, and Brendon loves to do both, it seems, even though the stories he tells are fragmented, strange. Nothing adds up: if Spencer couldn't see and feel and hear him, he would imagine him as illusory and insubstantial as motes of dust dancing in a beam of light.

But Spencer doesn't ask the important questions: the who, what, where, when, and why. He doesn't ask and Brendon doesn't tell and Spencer doesn't either. Brendon does reveal that he can speak a little Cantonese. He says something.

Spencer studied Italian in high school.

"Cantate bene. Lo gradisco," he says, his accent flat and poor. It's been years.

Brendon doesn't ask what he says but he beams and kind of dances a little. If Spencer knew what he were doing, he might remember to be mortified.

They have to go to the concession stand before the film. Brendon spends twenty four dollars on a massive tub of popcorn, a veritable barrel of Dr. Pepper, and a bag of gummy bears. They sit near the back of the theater. Brendon props his feet up on the seat in front of his. He crunches audibly as he eats the popcorn. The movie's been out a while, and the theater is nearly empty. Brendon claps after one of the previews. He talks a lot during the movie, which is one of Spencer's biggest peeves. He has been known to shush people. He doesn't care if they get angry. But normally the talking is irritating background noise, other people detracting from his pleasure. It's different when it's Brendon and he cups his mouth and leans near and whispers so that the warm wet of his breath puffs against Spencer's cheek.

It is a good movie. It is an awesome movie. Spencer thinks so and he's never seen an episode of Star Trek in his life. The ground around them is carpeted with popcorn by the end and Spencer stands with a crunch.

"I totally want to be a Vulcan," Brendon says as they walk towards the light and the exit. "I would mind meld the shit out of people. Ryan would never be able to hid the remote for the DVD player again. My victory would be complete."

Spencer wrinkles his nose. "Kirk was much cooler," he says. "It's easy to be awesome when you're an alien. Kirk had guts."

Brendon laughs. "Yeah, he did. He was a striver. And he was hot. That guy was so hot, wow."

Spencer stumbles but catches himself and Brendon stares at him like he's waiting for something, but Spencer doesn't know what so he says, "And how great was Simon Pegg?"

Brendon exhales noisily and there is a moment where everything stops and his face is open and unguarded and Spencer sees something there that he can't recognize, couldn't begin to decode, but then he's smiling again and saying, "Duh, Spencer. How could he not be awesome? Have you not seen Shawn of the Dead?"

They get along well. It's weird because Spencer has a hard time with people; he finds them too obtuse or too obtrusive or too something, usually. He would usually just not bother, but he likes Brendon. He likes him well enough, at least. They go surfing a few more times, although Spencer isn't really getting the hang of it and his shoulders burn a lovely flamingo pink. Brendon preaches persistence and says it took him months before he could do anything. Spencer's not sure he believes that, because Brendon moves easy and graceful through the water in a way that speaks of long experience and natural talent.

There's a lot that does not get said. Brendon is mysteriously busy sometimes, his cell going right to voicemail when Spencer calls. Spencer is busy too, sometimes. He has an appointment with his orthopedist and he gives an interview to a magazine doing profiles on college scholar-athletes, which is so redundant a term it makes Spencer clench his teeth. He goes to the batting cages once a week. He doesn't tell Brendon about all of that. He doesn't want that to be part of it.

Still, he hasn't thrown a ball all summer. He tells himself he's resting his arm, but that's not really it.

He brings his camera sometimes. He hasn't forgotten that he has to hand in his project soon. Spencer is not the kind of person to forget things. He takes pictures of street scenes, of strange trees, of graffiti and store signs. Typical stuff. Brendon, actually, has a good eye for interesting things to shoot, although he claims to be no photographer himself. It's like he's tuned in to the most bizarre things in the world. They're walking down the street and they cross paths with a crowd of people on bicycles, unclad and covered in paint, participating in a protest. He finds a plastic bottle with a rubber bouncy ball inside; the ball is too big to fit through the mouth of the bottle. They decide it is an object of unspeakable mystery and power.

They're at an arcade one day, and Brendon is playing ski ball. He's not very good. He wants to win enough tickets to get a prize, but his balls keep rolling into the gutter. Spencer huffs and rolls one of the balls. He hits the bulls-eye on his first try, and gets a hundred points.

"See," he says, turning. "See, Brendon, I told you it wasn't hard."

But Brendon's not paying attention.

Instead he is smiling broadly at two girls, maybe fifteen years old, maybe a little older. They're looking at him with wide shocked eyes. They're both pretty, both the kind of girls who wouldn't have given Spencer the time of day when he was in high school, with cute expensive clothing and cool haircuts. They look young to him, like children.

"I can't believe it's you," the taller girl says. "Oh my god. Small Robots is like my favorite band ever."

"Oh my god," the shorter girl says. "Ashleigh is never going to believe we met you. She is going to be SO jealous."

"We could take a picture," Brendon says, not hesitant but there's some kind of gloss to him, something invisible and fine that keeps him apart. "Do you have a camera?"

The girls' faces fall. They have no camera, but they have cameras on their expensive cell phones.

"I can take it," Spencer says, stepping forward.

"Awesome," Brendon says, grinning at him. "You're a pal."

The girls stand next to Brendon, too close. His arms loop around their narrow waists and they throw their arms over his shoulder. The taller girl, who is prettier and maybe a little older, leans into him, her body going soft, curvaceous. Spencer tells them to smile and snaps the photo. He takes a second, as insurance. The girls crowd around and coo their approval. Brendon spends a few more minutes with them, but there's not much else to say. They walk away, waving. Brendon waves.

"So, I kind of forgot to say I'm in a band," Brendon says, tense. He rubs his hand against the seam on side of his jeans. "We're called Small Robots. It's just me and Ryan. He plays guitar and I drum and sing and ..."

"Never heard of you," Spencer says.

Brendon relaxes, and smiles.

They win enough tickets for Brendon to get a toy dinosaur with red eyes that light up. He says he's going to give it to his nephew, but Spencer has his doubts.

That night Spencer turns on his computer and searches for Small Robots. There are a lot of results. There are photos of Brendon and a skinny boy with big eyes and floppy hair in strange, monochromatic costumes. There is a Wikipedia article that explains that the origins of the band are shrouded in mystery, but they released their first album, This Captain Code, in 2003 on the personal imprint of Pete Wentz. Spencer doesn't know who that is. There are interviews. There are elaborate fan sites maintained by the group's devoted following.
There are outlandish rumors, also. Brendon and Ryan are purportedly half-brothers, orphaned when their Vegas showgirl mother was knocked off in a mob hit.

Spencer doesn't really care. He shuts his laptop and takes a shower. He goes to bed early because he and Brendon are going surfing in the morning.

He goes to the photo lab that week. Jon is manning his usual post behind the desk. Spencer feels an involuntary moment of guilt, because he hasn't called Jon, hasn't hung out with him too often, and then only with Brendon, too. It's not right. Spencer doesn't have much experience to go by but he doesn't mean to blow Jon off.

"Hey," he says. "What's up?"

"Spencer," Jon says. "How's it going?"

"Pretty good," Spencer says. "I've got four rolls to develop today. I've been out shooting a lot."

"Brendon says you've been bringing your camera," Jon says, placidly. He pauses a beat. "So I guess you discovered his super secret rock star alter-ego, huh?"

Spencer shrugs. The vertebrae in his upper back crack. "I guess," he says. "Like I told him, I've never heard of the band before in my life."

That seems to have been the right sentiment because Jon laughs, throwing his head back and cracking up.

"You're awesome, dude," Jon says.

Spencer works for a long time in the ruby dark. The images resolve as the film steeps in the chemical bath, and Spencer remembers many of the shots with a clarity that startles him. The last few weeks are technicolor and high focus, after a lifetime of only fleeting clarity. He closes his eyes, but he still sees the red glow. He is not a talented photographer. His pictures are not art. Still, there's something striking about some of them, especially the few he took of Brendon. He wonders if it's the subject matter, or if there is something else afoot, invisible but somehow captured on film the moment his shutter snaps.

Jon comes to watch as Spencer looks at his negatives in the viewer. He makes appreciative noises.

"These are good," he says. "These are better."

"Thanks," Spencer says. "It's kind of ... relaxing or something."

"Yeah, that's exactly it," Jon says. "It's kind of awesome how you can take the world and freeze these moments. It makes things slow down."

Spencer closes his eyes, because he knows that feeling: he knows the feeling of infinity between each pitch he hurls towards home plate, the eternity it takes to travel those ninety feet, the breathless ordeal of waiting for a high pop fly to drop and be caught, snug in the outfielder's mitt.

"It's pretty incredible," he says, blinking away the glare of stadium lights.

Spencer stays until Jon is done and then they go and meet Brendon for a game of mini golf. They are all very bad. Jon wins and Brendon buys him a bottle of iced tea as a prize. Jon has to go then, but Brendon decides he's hungry. He wants breakfast food. They go to IHOP. Even though it's seven at night, there's a wait for a table. Spencer doesn't think he's ever been to an IHOP and not had to wait for a table.

"That's because it's the world's favorite restaurant," Brendon says. His hair is sticking up like maybe he was sleeping on it funny and Spencer badly wants to reach over and smooth it for him.

"I thought that was McDonald's," Spencer said. "Isn't that McDonald's?"

"McDonald's doesn't serve real food, Spencer," Brendon says. "So it can't be the world's favorite restaurant. I totally watched an expose about their factory farming practices. It made me barf. Plus, do you know that KFC is called KFC now because they don't serve real chicken? They have this like genetically engineered mutant caterpillar chicken hybrid that's just segment after segment of thighs, wings, and breasts. It doesn't even have feathers, just wiry little hairs."

"Bullshit," Spencer says, laughing. "You are so making that up."

Brendon puts up his hand. "I am so not! Just because you're a meat-eating heathen doesn't mean it's not true."

They get seated. Brendon orders waffles covered with strawberries and whipped cream.

"I bet the cows that gave the milk to make that whipped cream were subjected to the indignity of milking machines," Spencer says, sly.

Brendon gags. "Ugh," he moans. "Don't say that! Spence, you ruined my waffles. You big jerk." He pouts until Spencer offers to share his chocolate chip pancakes. Brendon beams and slides into the booth next to him.

---

Brendon never talks about the band much. Spencer knows now that Ryan is his band mate, and he doesn't think they're really half brothers because he knows Brendon has at least two real brothers and a sister who live in Utah, in Oregon, and in Hawaii, respectively. He also has family in Nevada. The half brother thing just some kind of bizarre rumor that Ryan likes to perpetuate, apparently. Maybe that sort of thing is required, like how after even the worst, most wrenching defeat you have to say that you give the other team credit for a job well done, even in those cases where there's no credit due.

Brendon gets them tickets for a Dodgers game. Spencer doesn't talk about playing, doesn't talk about the team, hasn't breathed a word of any of it, so all he can assume is that Brendon figures he's a fan because he's almost always wearing a Dodgers cap. Anyway, it will be good. Spencer grew up a Dodgers fan, and they're playing the Giants. He's definitely a fan of some inter-divisional rivalry. It'll be good. He tells himself that. Billingsley is pitching against Jonathan Sanchez; it will be a good game.

The seats are the best he's ever had at Dodgers Stadium: field level, ten rows back on the first base side. The day had been hot but night brings reprieve. Spencer's glad he's worn a jacket. Brendon hasn't; the skin on his arm ripples with goosebumps when the wind gusts. It's almost a full house, unsurprisingly. Besides the fact that they're playing the Giants, Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter last week; his star is rising. Spencer's thrown plenty of complete games -- his endurance is excellent -- but never a no-hitter, not even in Little League. His coach is always shocked at that, because his control is really pretty impeccable. He just slips sometimes, is all. It seems like in every game there's one moment where he just loses it for a second, and things spin and blur and some punk outfielder has lofted the ball over the second baseman's head for a little dribbler of a fly into shallow right.

Brendon wants to eat. They leave their seats during batting practice and roam the concourses. The prices are outrageous. Still, they hadn't thought to bring food in from outside. Brendon grumbles about injustice, but in the end he pays eight dollars for a slice of pizza.

"Outrageous," he says, mouth full of tomato sauce and cheese.

Spencer gets a Dodger dog and covers it with sauerkraut. Brendon gags and says, "As if it's not bad enough you're probably eating cows' lips, you've got to cover it with funk cabbage?"

Spencer laughs. "Funk cabbage? Sauerkraut is classic ballpark food," he says, rolling his eyes. "What do you want them to serve? Tofu dogs and seaweed salad?"

Brendon holds his nose. "Fine, eat it, but keep that stink away from me."

They overpay for bad beer and return to their seats. The woman singing the National Anthem has a weak voice, but she's not terrible. Spencer's heard the song so many times: sung well, sung badly, sung solo, sung in medley. Yet when the whole stadium falls hush and rises, and the PA system squeals, and the first note sounds, chills travel down his spine.

Brendon, it soon becomes clear, has only the faintest grasp of the rules of the sport.

"Dude, Spencer, how come he gets to run when the guy out there caught it?" he asks.

The runner at first had tagged and advanced after a deep, deep fly to right field. "As long as he touches the base he was on after the ball is caught, he can try for the next base," Spencer explains. He knows these rules like he knows the shape of his hand; to explain them to someone is a pleasure, and Brendon is full of questions.

It's not the most exciting game of ball ever played, at least not for Brendon. Spencer could watch the pitchers throw all day without getting bored. They are glorious. They are machines dancing as they throw their weight forward into the release. It makes his teeth ache. It makes him long for the leather of a baseball in his own palm. Brendon makes up stories about people in the crowd and whispers them to Spencer, his breath sweet and beery, his hand curled near Spencer's ear. The couple wearing the Minnesota Twins shirts got stuck in LA because a freak summer blizzard in the upper Midwest delayed their flight. The little girl with perfect blond angel curls kicks her feet angrily. She's at the game with her brother and father, but she'd rather be home watching JONAS on the Disney Channel. The heavyset guy who buys and devours six hot dogs is an aspiring professional eater, in training with dreams of defeating Joey Chestnut at Coney Island next summer.

"How do you come up with this shit?" Spencer asks, giggling. They're on their second beers.

Brendon looks wistful for just a moment. "Ryan, actually, taught me how to tell stories. If you think I'm good, you should see him at work. We both write lyrics and stuff, but he's the one who comes up with the album concepts. He's like a mad scientist. I can't wait for you to meet him."

"I want to," Spencer says. He tests the weight of that statement, and it is mostly the truth.

Brendon grins. "Sweet," he says.

There's a commotion and Spencer's head snaps forward. Andre Ethier has hit one deep, long ... it's a beautiful thing to watch it go. It's out, over the wall, and everyone cheers and screams, including Brendon, who forgets he's holding a cup and sloshes tepid Budweiser onto his pants. The Dodgers are up five to two, and it's a fine night for baseball.

"So anyway," Brendon says, exhaling heavily. "I'm going on tour. I'm flying out to Chicago tomorrow to rehearse, and then it's three months on the road, opening for Phantom Planet..."

Spencer stares. "Oh," he says. "That'll be awesome." He knows who Phantom Planet is now because Brendon has burned him some CDs. Also, they did the theme song for that one show; he's not completely culturally illiterate.

Brendon beams. "Totally!" he says. "I mean, LA is incredible and I have had a great time here, but there's some part of me that's like in hibernation when I'm not playing music. Oh man, I knew you'd get it."

Brendon tells Spencer about past tours, other places, foreign cities. It sound great. It sound like an amazing time. Spencer is glad for him with all of his heart except one awful jealous corner that wants to keep Brendon here, at his side, for always, so that they can have as good a time together as they have this past little while. He's never felt quite like this before. He takes a sip of beer to calm his nerves. He lets it go. He breaths and lets it go as far as he can.

The Giants rally in the top of the seventh. They get two men on with no outs, and the heart of the batting order yet to come. Billingsley gets taken out, stalking off the field. Spencer knows that feeling: having your control seized for the good of the team, your game suddenly out of your hands. The next batter fouls out. Spencer explains that to Brendon while the relief pitcher walks the bases full. The atmosphere turns electric. They go to the bullpen again. Spencer closes his eyes.

He shouldn't have asked the coach to put him in. He should have let the relief pitchers do their job. Still, it was his series, his team, and he was so afraid that nobody else cared as much as he did. He told the coach he was ready despite the ache in his arm. He'd been tired. It was eleven thirty at night. They'd been playing since seven. He'd been so sure not only that he could get Vontura out, but that he was the only person who could get him out, who could save their season and all they'd worked towards. It wasn't that he didn't trust the other guys; it was just ... he didn't. He'd never been able to trust them, because he didn't know them, even the guys with who had been his teammates for three years. He would do it himself. He had to. But he'd fucked up. What was the point, if he couldn't even trust himself?

There is a gasp. His eyes snap open. The batter hits a line drive right back at the pitcher, who catches it barehanded more by reflex than anything else. He stares at the ball he's holding in shock for just a second and then throws to first. The first baseman relays to third. The runner on third went; now they have him picked off. He slides into home plate, kicking up a storm of brown dust. The umpire calls him out. The noise deafens.

"Oh man," Brendon says. "That was fucking awesome. I have no idea what just happened, but it ruled. Jonny's so wrong; baseball is definitely not boring."

"It's the best," Spencer says, startling even himself with the vehemence in his voice. "It's the best game, seriously, Brendon."

"Totally!" Brendon says, just as excited even if for no reason. "It's awesome. And you're like a encyclopedia, wow. I feel like I'm sitting next to Babe Ruth."

"I've played since I was five," Spencer says, softly. "My whole life."

He stares out at the diamond. Brendon says nothing. Spencer feels him watching. The crowd settles. Some pre-recorded music plays between innings. The grounds crew tends the infield dirt.

Brendon is staring at him too intently. He reaches up, rests a fingertip on Spencer's cheek. "You have crazy long eyelashes. Ryan would be so jealous. He wore fake ones a few times on our last tour. What a mistake!"

Spencer chokes, and laughs. "Thanks, I think," he says. "Nobody's ever complimented my eyelashes before."

"You're welcome," Brendon says. "But man, your friends must be Philistines, because your eyes are like the fucking prettiest ever."

People don't say that kind of stuff to Spencer. He's not a pretty person. He doesn't have the kind of looks that girls giggle at, definitely not the kind that cute guys pay any attention to. When he was a teenager he was round-faced and chubby despite all the baseball, and short, to boot. He's taller now and in better shape, but as far as the kids at school are concerned, he could look like a troll as long as wins games for the Trojans. As far as certain girls are concerned, the only thing that matters is that he had a ERA under three last year and there are rumors that he'll go in the first round of the draft the year after next.

"You're not going to slap me if I kiss you, are you?" Brendon asks, softly.

Spencer shakes his head.

Brendon leans over, twists, and his lips are soft and parted.

"I feel like a fourteen year old girl," Spencer says mumbling, his cheeks bright red. "Ohmygawd, Brendon from Small Robots just kissed me!"

Brendon laughs then until tears roll down his cheeks. "I think you are my favorite person, Spencer Smith."

Spencer knows that Brendon is his.

The walls are still blue-green dark and the roar of the traffic is light when Spencer wakes the next morning. His phone chirps once, twice, three times, then goes silent. He has a text message from Brendon.

'on th plane bout to go,' it reads. 'last nght was awesome. i dnt know what im gonna do w/o u. come visit me soon!!!'

Spencer squeezes his eyes tight. Brendon's gone, now, text message or not, and the day ahead is laid out in his mind, long and boring and inconsequential, as are all the days after. He rolls over. His stomach gurgles. He goes back to sleep.

He wakes much later, hot and antsy. He goes for a run, but it does nothing to unwind the knot growing in the pit of his stomach. Later, after he's showered, he calls Jon, because he doesn't know what to do. They meet up at the beach and hang out for a while. Jon doesn't say a word about Brendon; instead he tells a long and complicated story about how a friend of his was arrested the night before for an unpaid parking ticket. Spencer only half pays attention. He's glad for the pound and drag of the surf.

When Jon has to leave, Spencer drives back to his apartment and sits in front of the television for a while. He watches MTV, thinking maybe they'll play a Small Robots video, and he'll get to see Brendon. They don't. They seem to play only the same dozen videos over and over, until prime time rolls around and a reality TV show about wealthy teenagers and their super-luxe college dorm rooms begins. Spencer shuts off the TV and makes dinner. He eats slowly, reading an old copy of Sports Illustrated. It's from the previous fall, right after the World Series, and a Rays player is colliding with the Phillies catcher at home plate. It's a messy, awful collision that makes Spencer cringe. He had a tooth knocked out once, sliding into home. His coach tells him to be cautious, now, because his arm is more valuable than one measly run, but he can't not go for it, if he's on third, a mere ninety feet away, and he's got a chance.

He goes to sleep early.

The next morning he calls José. José is surprised. In the three years they've played together Spencer's probably called him no more than twice. He's still in LA. His summer is going well. Spencer makes plans to meet up with him later in the week and toss a ball around. After lunch he grabs his camera and drives downtown to take some pictures. His photography assignment is still hanging over his head. It's a hot day and he ends up sweaty and grumpy, snapping careless shots of thronging tourists and gaudy storefronts. Nothing seems consequential. Nothing is imbued with that secret weight that Brendon seems to spot so easily. There's just filth and heat and smog. He steps in a wad of gum stuck to the sidewalk and can't scrape it off the bottom of his shoe. His left foot sticks a little with each step he takes. If Brendon were here he would insist they take a break and go get Pinkberry. Brendon's not here though. He's in Chicago, and that's as good as another planet. Spencer feels sick for missing him so much. He's known the guy for less than a month. It's not normal.

He buys a six pack of beer on the way home and ends up sitting on his kitchen floor drinking Coronas and going through boxes and boxes of old photographs his mother sent him when his parents moved from Nevada to Virginia eighteen months ago. She'd thought he'd want them: copious snapshots of him in uniform, practicing, posing with a bat over his shoulder. Shots of him pitching. At parties with the boys from his teams. He doesn't want the photographs. This is the first time he's even opened the boxes.

He remembers most of the names of the other boys in the pictures: Spencer has a good head for names. He could probably name the starting nine of every team he's ever played on. Still, there are a few that stand out more vividly in his mind. Tucker Halsted played third base for the Little League team Spencer was on the summer he turned thirteen. He was a year older, and tall, already more like a man than a child in stature. Still, he had a perfect face, blue-green eyes, and blond hair that flopped until he tucked it behind his ear. All the mothers said he ought to model. Spencer remembers the strange, nervous, tight feeling he got in his chest when he sat too close to Tucker; he wanted more than anything for them to be friends, but Tucker was in eighth grade and Spencer was only in seventh, and he was short and boring besides. They never spoke. The next year, Spencer was on a different team. That was the first time he had a crush on another boy, although he didn't know to call it that at the time.

The cycle repeated itself over the years, time and time again. Peter Trulia played on the high school team Spencer's freshman year and had olive eyes, Mediterranean skin, and the body of an underwear model at an age when most boys consisted of bony elbows, pudge, and acne. Chris Hertz was a prodigy; he was the starting left fielder, played piano, and got a fourteen sixty on his SATs. He had narrow wrists and the most beautiful long fingers Spencer had ever seen. Demetri Mantzios was an exchange student from Greece during Spencer's freshman year at USC. His English was good and his face was like that of a perfect marble statue come to life. He tried out for an intramural team that Spencer played on his first fall semester. He'd never played ball before, and Spencer shows him the basics. It was all just for fun, anyway. Spencer was working hard to get into shape for tryouts for the club team; they went running together at the school track on the weekends.

Once, after they walked slowly back from the track, Spencer complained about his aching knees and Demetri laughed for no reason. The locker room was empty, cool cement and florescent light. Demetri's hand fit neatly around Spencer's wrist as he pulled him into an empty shower stall. He turned the hot water on and crowded Spencer up against the back wall until he could back up no further. Demetri smiled at him with closed eyes and kissed him almost violently. His teeth found Spencer's jaw and the hollow of his throat and the corners of his mouth. Their clothes were soaked and stuck. Demetri's shoulders were broad and a little knobby. Spencer's hands found them, rested there. Everything smelled like chemically treated water. Demetri pressed hips hard against Spencer's thigh. His hand crept past the slight soft curve of Spencer's belly and under the waist of his shorts and found his cock. Spencer's eyes rolled back when Demetri gave a first, experimental twist. Demetri's hips snapped once, twice, three times as he came in his dirty gym shorts. Spencer followed a second later, spilling messily on Demetri's circled hand. Then they striped and showered. Demetri's smile was lazy and sated when his dark eyes met Spencer's. They never talked about it. It never happened again. Demetri flew back to Greece in December, his exchange semester over and done. A week later, Spencer shocked everyone including himself by making the varsity team. Things were different for him after that.

Five minutes after Spencer wakes up the next morning he sends Brendon a text asking how things are going. He thinks of calling but he's not sure what time Brendon wakes up when he's on tour. Probably he's up late every night, having a good time, and doesn't rise until mid-morning. Spencer's always been an early riser. He can't help it. The photographs are still all over his kitchen floor. He puts them back into their boxes and sticks those boxes in the bottom of his hall closet. He goes for a run down towards the school. There are a lot of stores around there. There are small, dark music stores crammed into three hundred square feet of storefront. Bored, thin English majors lean over the counters, ignoring the patrons, paging idly through music magazines and copies of McSweeney's. Spencer visits three and pretends to browse before he works up the nerve to ask the guy behind the counter if they have any Small Robots albums.

"It's uh," he says, haltingly. "It's a present for my little sister. That's what she said she wanted. I don't know them."

The clerk makes a sympathetic noise. "Figures," he says. "They're part of that whole movement of prefabricated art rock that's marketed to teenage girls as authentic just because the guys actually play instruments, if you can call it that. As if that makes them any better than N*SYNC or any of that drivel."

Spencer bristles and bites his tongue. He just shrugs like he doesn't really care. He doesn't. He doesn't want to argue with this asshole. They have a couple of their albums. Spencer buys two: Soul Volt, which has an unsettling illustration of a girl with electric blue eyes on the cover, and Land of Youth. Brendon's on the cover of the second one, or half his face is, merged with half of Ryan's face. Their skin is utterly pale and their eyes glow. It's all computer tricks, but it still looks like Brendon. Spencer stares for a long moment before he gets the asshole clerk to ring him up.

He doesn't have a stereo so he slips the first CD into the disc drive of his computer and holds his breath until the first note comes tinny through the little speakers. It is ... it is simple music; just a guitar and a drum set and Brendon's voice, which is gorgeous and rich and fluid. It's unsettling music. It is not happy pop music, despite what the guy at the music store had set. Or maybe it's just Brendon, and his voice, because even though he recorded these songs before they met, it's easy for Spencer to pretend that Brendon's singing just to him.

He lays on his back with his knees bent and listens to Land of Youth on repeat for the rest of the afternoon, until he can anticipate each note and change in tempo and the music feels like it's indelibly ingrained in his mind...

That uneasy feeling in the pit of Spencer's stomach does not abate. He meets up with José at the field and they toss a ball around for a while. José is having trouble with his girlfriend, a sweet girl named Alyssa that he's dated since high school. Spencer knows her and likes her. She wants to get engaged, but José is nervous, feels too young, wants to wait. Spencer listens and gives what advice he can, considering he's never been in a serious relationship of any kind. He doesn't have to talk much when he hangs out with José. They're used to communicating in looks and signs. Spencer's arm is stiff and he isn't throwing as hard as he normally would, but his control is good. They eat lunch in a bar near campus and watch the Dodgers game. They make plans to get together again soon.

He goes to the photo lab and prints some of his pictures. Jon isn't there. Spencer is happy with what he's printed, but he's hesitant to turn in his project, because he knows it could be better. He's fairly sure that the professor isn't looking for works of genius, but it's hard to know what she wants. He prints a picture he took of Brendon on the beach. He's wearing sunglasses and his head is tipped back. He's staring at something up and out of the frame. There's a fuzz of stubble on his chin, and he's smiling. Spencer takes that one home and sticks it on his fridge.

Jon calls him a few days later, out of the blue at eight o'clock at night, to invite him to a party. Spencer doesn't want to go but he goes anyway. They drive forty-five minutes to a house near the beach that is full of light and people. The crowd spills out onto the porch, into the back yard, down onto the beach. Jon introduces him to dozens of people. Spencer smiles. There are four surfboards, three guitars, and an organ in the living room, and a bicycle with a bent wheel. Three guys are passing a joint in a corner. Jon disappears. There is a beer pong table set up in the kitchen. Spencer drinks a beer, and another. He feels closed up, tight. He doesn't talk to anyone. He stands by the wall and feels out of place. He thinks of Brendon. He wonders if Brendon is on stage. He remembers that he's in North Carolina, and that it's almost three in the morning there. He hopes Brendon is getting enough sleep.

Jon finds him. He is pretty drunk, leaning heavily against the wall to stay upright. Spencer drives them back to his place. Jon sleeps on his couch. He wakes up with a hangover the next morning. Spencer has coffee made and aspirin waiting. He cooks breakfast. Jon doesn't talk much. When they're done eating, he leaves.

Spencer gets a headache that lasts for days. He reads reviews of the Small Robots tour online. His teeth clench when people are ungenerous in their praise. He runs in the morning. The days progress. Things are starting to blur again. Time moves fast and indistinct and meaningless. Jon is busy with something, some new girl or something, so he's not around much. Spencer goes surfing by himself. He falls asleep on the couch more than once. Brendon texts him every few days; Spencer makes sure to wait a few hours before texting back. He's not sitting by his phone waiting for a sign. He blinks and the summer is half over and the fall and school and baseball loom large in his future. He has to take Tylenol PM to fall asleep some nights. He ripped the Small Robots CDs into his iTunes; he's listened to most of the songs a hundred times or more. His favorite song is called 'Three Hundred Years in Three Days'. He listens to it on repeat sometimes for hours, until the words become gibberish and Brendon's voice is unrecognizable and the beat of the drum seems to communicate a secret message of universal import. His mother calls. He doesn't call her back.

There are fires in the distant hills, and he can see the smoke like an evil scuff on the sky.

Then Brendon calls him.

"Dude," he says, without so much as a hello. "Pack your bags. I bought you a ticket."

"Hey," Spencer says. "What?" Something inside of him loosens at just the sound of Brendon's voice.

"I got you a ticket. You're flying in to meet us in Buffalo," he says. "I was waiting for you to ask, but no offense, Spence, you're like the most oblivious person in the entire world."

"Hey!" Spencer says, mock indignant. This is so easy. It's so easy to talk to him. "What if I had plans?"

"You'd cancel them," Brendon says. "What could you possibly be doing that would be more fun than coming to see me?"

The honest answer is nothing. Spencer feels that with every cell in his fucking body.

He packs and gets a cab to the airport and he's staring out the window of the plane at the lights of the Los Angeles below him, a reaching web of lights that stretches out into the dark. There are no direct flights to Buffalo; he's got to change in New York City. He doesn't sleep. He is glad but nervous. He doesn't know what he is supposed to do. He doesn't know if it will be different on tour, where Brendon is important and in his own element. He wishes they could go to a secret place, a personal universe of summer and beach and movie theaters with the air conditioner turned too low. He would give Brendon his sweatshirt, this time. It's stupid. He is tired, but he cannot sleep.

He gets a cup of coffee while he waits in JFK. Three hours he has to wait. He sits with his right ankle on his left knee and drinks coffee until he feels hollow and hungry and shaky. He brought a novel that Jon lent him and he reads a little of it but he keeps losing his place and having to start again at the top of the page. They announce his flight is boarding at four thirty in the morning. The rest of the passengers look as tired as he feels. Businessmen have the collars of their shirts open and mothers prod weary children into their seats. He has a window seat again. He watches the sun rise over checkered green fields of New York State. They land. He didn't check any luggage; he just has his one bag. He washes his face in a public restroom sink before he leaves the luggage claim. His skin is greasy, and his hair. He digs a cap from his bag and puts it on. There are tired shadows under his eyes. What if this is all just a bad dream? That does not seem beyond the realm of possibility. He's not sure waking would be an improvement.

---

A driver is waiting for Spencer, holding a sign with his name on it. He offers to carry Spencer's bag but Spencer says he's got it. Spencer sleeps in the backseat of the big black sedan. They drive forty minutes to a nondescript auditorium in the middle of dense suburbs. There are tour buses and tractor trailers parked outside. He follows the driver through a series of hallways that remind him strongly of his high school. The beige and pink linoleum tiles are just the same. There aren't many people around. Spencer is groggy and hungry. Down the hall someone laughs.

There is a door marked 'Authorized Personnel Only'.

"Band's through there," the driver says. He turns and leaves. Spencer hesitates. He pushes the door open.

A tall guy with long hair is wedged into a corner of the couch, staring at his phone. There's another guy with wild curly hair next to him, and a few people on the other side of the room watching something on a small television. There are cans of soda and plates of cookies sitting on a folding table. A fly buzzes, lands, and takes off again. Brendon's on his back on the floor with his knees bent. He's wearing a purple sweatshirt and basketball shorts. He opens his eyes.

"Oh man," he says. "I was starting to worry I mis-booked the tickets and I'd sent you to Borneo."

"Nope," Spencer says. "Although that layover seriously sucked. Are you exacting revenge on me for something?"

Brendon cackles. "Whatever! That's what happens when you make plans with such short notice. Zack bitched at me for twenty minutes for making him get a ticket day of."

The door behind Spencer flies open, nearly catching him in the back. Ryan Ross strides in, wearing very tight vivid turquoise jeans and a shirt of the same color. The shirt material is so thin Spencer can see right through it. Although they are indoors he's wearing sunglasses, two scarves, and a headband with feathers. He takes off the sunglasses to glare at Spencer for a moment, and then he says, "You look like you got lost on your way to a Linkin Park concert."

The guy who is so enraptured by his cell phone laughs. Brendon tries to kick Ryan in the leg without moving. He cannot reach; he flails on the floor. Ryan crosses two thin arms over his narrow chest. Spencer frowns but his cheeks are hot.

Brendon sits up. "Don't be a diva, Ryan. Nobody's impressed."

Ryan sniffs. He stalks across the room and sits next to the guy with the phone, so close he's almost on his lap.

Brendon reaches up. Spencer takes his hand and pulls him to his feet. "Let's go put your stuff on the bus."

Spencer will sleep in the bunk under Brendon's. It is made up with clean sheets. Brendon tells him to leave his stuff, tells him he can take a shower in the venue. The bus is filthy; there are crusty bowls in the sink and flattened juice boxes on the floor. Spencer's eyes feel gummy. They head back inside. Brendon gets Spencer a towel and he takes a shower in the slightly filthy bathroom back stage. There are dark hairs caught in the drain. Spencer stands as far away as he can. The water pressure is pretty low and it takes Spencer a long time to rinse the conditioner from his hair. He puts back on his same stale-smelling clothing. When he goes back out into the dressing room, the noise and laughter and conversation falter, like his very presence is a bane.

Brendon tries. He introduces Spencer to everyone. Mostly they all seem civil, although Ryan sneers and Alex Greenwald, the guy glued to his phone, smirks like he knows something but he won't share the secret. Spencer smiles and is pleasant. He is willing to try hard. It's noon. Brendon wants to go eat lunch at a vegetarian Thai restaurant they passed on their way into town. He gets the tour manager, a surly guy named Zack, to drive them. Spencer is silent and without opinion. A stoic drum tech named Steve comes along as well; he's a vegan and sick of living on hummus and carrot sticks.

Lunch is fine. Spencer likes Steve. He seems like a regular guy. Spencer shares the fact that he played drums for one sad year back in middle school. Brendon pouts and complains that Spencer never told him that. Zack is serene and gruff at once. They order copious amounts of food: spring rolls and rice crepes and pad Thai and pineapple fried rice and strange fake duck cooked with basil and lime and chili peppers. The waitress is friendly and efficient. Brendon makes Spencer try some of everything, even the fake duck meat, which kind of freaks him out. They are all very full afterward, and on the ride home Brendon rests his head on Spencer's shoulder and drowses. Spencer drowses too. He hasn't slept in thirty hours.

He starts to feel better.

But then they get back to the venue. Things are in full swing. The crew is busy at work. Everyone's in motion. Zack reminds Brendon that he has an interview at four and he cannot be late, not this time. Brendon says he has to go shower; he leaves Spencer in the dressing room. Steve, the only familiar face, disappears. People come in and out. Ryan and Alex are still sitting on the same couch. Alex seems magnificently unconcerned. Ryan gives Spencer the evil eye. Spencer stares at his hands folded in his lap. Alex and Ryan are watching Gone With the Wind. Spencer's never actually seen it, but he recognizes Vivien Leigh. A Streetcar Named Desire is one of his favorite films, so he says so.

Ryan stares at him like he has three heads.

Spencer determines to stay silent the rest of the afternoon.

Brendon takes a long time in the shower, but he comes out wearing only black slacks and whistling a happy song. He tries on four tee shirts before settling on the first he'd tried on. It's after two. Brendon cryptically says he's going to get something to drink and beckons for Spencer. Spencer follows. Brendon explains that there's beer, but Ryan doesn't drink and doesn't tolerate those who do very well, so it's always kept segregated in another room. They have a couple of beers each. It seems to relax Brendon; he is in a good mood, greeting people, laughing, tipping Spencer off to inside jokes. The beer just makes Spencer sleepy again; he says little and feels like a hindrance. Three thirty rolls around and Zack comes to get Brendon for his interview. Spencer stays behind. He's wearing a USC cap and one of the guitarists for the other band comes up and says he graduated three years ago. They realize they lived in the same dorm so they talk a little about that, but even though all is fine and civil it's just about the worst, most stultifying conversation ever. Nobody really gives a fuck about the second floor bathroom in Weiss Hall that never has hot water.

Spencer stands on the side of the stage during sound check while everyone rushes around, intent and purposeful. There are more people than he thought there would be. There are a lot of people. Brendon glows as soon as he sets foot on stage, and even Ryan banters sarcastically with the sound engineer. The arena is bigger than it seems from the outside, almost as big as a stadium, but the perspective is different. Spencer's played exhibition games in Dodger Stadium, in PETCO Park, and in those places it's easy for the crowd to become a dark, nervous blur of motion. Here, your eyes are drawn out into the rows of empty seats.

It's hectic and he doesn't feel well and he barely gets to speak to Brendon, let alone spend quality time with him. He hadn't realized that was what he wanted. He doesn't know what to do with himself and he doesn't know the bands whose names are blazoned on the tee shirts worn by the artists, by the crew. Spencer thinks maybe this was a bad idea. This isn't anything he knows. The Brendon outside this bubble of chaos is different, more comprehensible, softer and jovial. Spencer feels the knot in his gut pull tighter. Ryan stands with his hands on his hips staring intently at Brendon as he sings, high notes and then low. His features are softer, his smile almost pleasant. They do this every night; they've done this a hundred, hundred times. It's enough to make Spencer nauseous.

The hour before the venue opens is tense. Brendon and Ryan have to get dressed for the show. Brendon says Spencer can hang out in the dressing room.

"Ryan has a thing," he says. "But whatever."

"You never respect my boundaries," Ryan says, sulkily. "Pre-show rituals are an important part of establishing the state of mind necessary to inhabit the songs fully."

Brendon rolls his eyes, but Spencer actually gets it. "I think you're right," he says, and he thinks of the season he accidentally wore two pairs of socks during the first game he started. He went seven innings and gave up one hit, so he wore two pairs of socks each game for the rest of the season. His sophomore year, the entire team cut their toenails before each home game. Spencer takes a second before the first pitch of each game he starts to count backwards from thirty.

Ryan knits his brow, like he'd been been angling for an argument and is disappointed to have caught agreement. He purses his lips, but says nothing else.

Brendon wears all black: black slacks, black tee shirt, black dress shoes, black top hat. Spencer thinks he looks good, and wants to tell him, but he's still not sure if this is that or if it's something else. This isn't the time to ask, not with Ryan sneaking suspicious glances at him in the dressing room mirror, not with people knocking on the door every five minutes, not with the noise of the audience starting to filter in from the front of the venue. Spencer needs some coffee. He needs to sleep. He wants to go somewhere with Brendon and sit and talk and be reassured, but he can't do any of those things, so he listens to Brendon warm up his voice. Up, up, up the scale he goes, and then his voice slides back down, and on and on, with the dull horrible groan of the crowd growing ever louder.

Then it's time for them to go on. They race through hallways that are different now than they were earlier; not just more crowded but imbued with a strange, tense atmosphere. There are some giggling girls backstage. They've won a contest and they'll be meeting Phantom Planet during the Small Robots set. They are young. They are so young but there is a dark look in some of their eyes. They are not fools, not all of them. They cry out as Brendon and Ryan walk past. Stage crew in headsets and cargo shorts stand at attention, jittery and impatient. There are guitars and guitars, racks of them, and boxes of all curious shapes and sizes. Spencer hadn't realized making music required so much stuff, such a massive physical foundation. He is distracted. He nearly follows them out onto the stage, stayed only by Zack's heavy hand on his shoulder.

The last thing he sees before the lights flare is Ryan reach out and find Brendon's hand.

It is a very good show. Those words are not enough to describe what it is, but Spencer can't find any better. It is amazing. Brendon sings like he's playing to an audience of one. Spencer can almost believe that Brendon is singing to him, although he's not; there's no way he can ever see Spencer standing over in the dark shadows of the side of the stage. Really, Brendon is singing to Ryan. It is obvious. They are a fitted pair, up there on stage. Ryan tries to look stern, fixing his mouth in a grim line, but Brendon's smile gleams when Ryan turns to catch his eye, and then Ryan's face softens. It's obvious. It was obvious to Spencer from the first, before he even knew who Ryan was, before he knew who Brendon was. He should have known. He secretly must have known.

Brendon runs back stage after their set is over and gives everyone high fives. Ryan is more sedate. There's a lot of noise, a lot of commotion as the crew gets ready for Phantom Planet's set; their job is not even halfway over.

Brendon is talking a mile a minute. "It was so good tonight, oh wow, and I didn't even forget the stupid words to stupid 'Potential Difference', which someone had to make as stupidly stupid as possible just to screw me up." His eyes are round and gleaming.

Ryan smiles indulgently. "I told you I would sing it ..."

Somehow that's the most hilarious thing because everyone in earshot laughs and laughs.

Brendon is next to Spencer, then, smiling, smelling sweaty, smelling gross but great. "Hey," he says, dipping his head. His skin is glowing. His hair is wet. "How'd you' like it?" he asks.

Spencer smiles, but it's rough, strained. "It was incredible," he says. "You are so fucking good."

Brendon melts then, a little, and smiles. "Oh awesome! I knew you were a man of discerning taste, Spencer. I'm so psyched you liked it! We're gonna watch Phantom's set if you want to and then they'll probably be a party and stuff on the ..."

"Hey," Spencer says, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Um. Actually, do you think I could head to the bus and grab some sleep? I'm kind of ... I didn't really sleep last night. I'm kind of tired."

Brendon's gleam fades. His shoulders hunch. "Oh yeah, duh. How rude am I? Ryan is going to kill me for being such a rude host. Small Robots, Inc. prides itself on its hospitality and here I am keeping you up all night with this boring music shit." There is an edge of bitterness in his voice now that makes Spencer's heart sting. "Zach will take you to the bus. I'm gonna grab a shower." He smiles, weakly, and gives Spencer a thumbs up. Then he turns and goes.

Spencer could say something, should say anything, but he doesn't.

He's asleep the minute his head hits the pillow, and he sleeps long and hard and dreamless.

In the morning it takes him ten minutes to remember where he is and why there's a ceiling two feet from his face. He's still tired and hungry and his clothes smell like smoke and wear. He rolls out of the bunk and his stomach churns. They're on the road. Checking his phone, it's only six thirty. Nobody else is up. He sits in the lounge alone, worried, not wanting to touch anything, not knowing what to do. He goes up front and talks to the driver for a while. They're on their way to Columbus, Ohio. They've been on the road since four AM. They're going via Akron so as to avoid the Cincinnati traffic. The trip is going to take six hours; they're supposed to get to the venue at ten.

Spencer remembers playing a game against Ohio State University. He remembers most of it well but in particular he remembers having a balk called against him by the awful first base umpire. Spencer doesn't balk. The idiot said he'd feinted towards first but he hadn't; he knows he didn't. He'd argued the call and gotten thrown from the game. He doesn't remember being so angry, ever, but he knows he didn't balk. He's sure of it.

They stop at a rest area and Spencer gets a cup of black coffee. Nobody else is up yet. He reads a copy of the New York Times that is ten days old and covered in mysterious green stains. Pennsylvania rolls into Ohio. The color of the road signs changes, but nothing else does. They get to the venue twenty minutes early. Nobody gets up except Zack, who must have a special timer because he's out the door and off the bus they second they're parked.

Nobody's watching. Spencer could leave. He could write a terrible note and leave it somewhere and walk off the bus and out to the front of a venue and he could call a cab and get driven to the airport and be on a flight back to LA inside of two hours. He could erase Brendon's number from his phone and his music from his computer and burn up the pictures he's taken and strike Brendon's name from his mind.

He doesn't. He pulls a pair of gym shorts from his bag and changes and goes and runs laps around the parking lot until he tastes sweat and can't feel his legs below the knees. When he gets back to the bus, Ryan is sitting in the lounge wearing surprisingly normal flannel sleep pants and a Blink 182 tee shirt. Like this, he looks young. He's cradling a mug of tea that smells strongly of lemon and honey.

"Good morning," Spencer says, panting, wiping his forehead.

Ryan gazes at him levelly. "If you don't fix Brendon, I'll fuck you up," he says calmly. He sips his tea.

"Um," Spencer says. "Excuse me?"

"Whatever you said to him last night kind of ruined him," Ryan says. His voice is pleasant, his tone even.

"I didn't say ..." Spencer starts.

Ryan frowns. "He says you're not an asshole," he says. "Evidence suggests otherwise. Figure out what you did and fix it."

Ryan has his iPhone out now and he's done talking, apparently. Spencer's heart is still beating fast.

He dresses and tries to make himself scarce. He doesn't want to see Brendon. He grabs his camera and walks around outside. He takes pictures of the trucks, of the parking lots, of clouds, of cars. Boring shit. Hardly anyone is around. It's still early, and he's tired. A bunch of the crew are playing baseball in the field behind the venue. It's nothing like it should be. The grass is ankle high and studded with lemon yellow dandelions. First base is a mud bucket. Home is a pizza box. They've only got one bat and a handful of gloves. Still, the sight makes Spencer's heart ache. It's probably not right or fair, but he goes up to one of the guys hanging near third base and asks if he can play.

They stick him on the team that's up to bat. There's no discernible batting order. Nobody is hostile to him, but nobody's really friendly either. He's not sure what Brendon might have said last night, what Ryan might be saying. But the sun is shining and the sky is blue and it's as good a day as they could ask for. Spencer's team kind of sucks. Someone hits a feeble grounder past the guy at second but gets thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a double. A tall guy with dark curly hair is pitching; Spencer recognizes him but they have not been introduced. He strikes out the next two guys to come up to bat. Spencer gets stuck in deep, deep left when his team takes the field. There is an abundance of outfielders. There must be four people playing center field. He doesn't have a glove. Nobody hits a ball anywhere close to where he's playing.

A crowd is gathering. Spencer looks but he doesn't see Brendon. He doesn't see Ryan and he doesn't see Zack. Maybe they're at sound check. The pitcher for the other team retires Spencer's team one-two-three again. He gloats. He's getting cocky. Spencer fumes.

He goes up to the de facto captain of his team, one of the Phantom crew named Erick.

"Let me pitch," Spencer says. "I promise they won't score next inning if you do."

Erick laughs. "Who the fuck are you? Randy Johnson?"

Spencer doesn't laugh. "I'm serious," he says. For some reason it's suddenly urgent that he show this guy that he's not kidding.

"Fine," Erick says. "Jesus Christ." He hands Spencer the ball. "Attention dudes. We've got a Cy Young award winner coming into the game. I hope you have your big guns up to bat this inning."

Spencer knows he's being mocked. He wants to tell these assholes that this is his life; this is the one thing he can do without fucking up. Instead he grits his teeth and heads out to the pitcher's mound, which is a sad little bare patch of sandy dirt. The stitching on the ball is frayed, and it's so scuffed that anyone with a half decent eye could track the ball in the dark. He's just fooling around. His arms not in the condition it would need to be for him to be in top form, but he can do enough get the fools they're send to the plate to strike out.

It's seems like the whole tour is watching now. The other pitcher is talking loudly, deriding Spencer, gloating. The guy at the plate is tall. His stance is not bad. He keeps his elbows in and handles the bat easily. Still. Spencer breathes. The guy catching isn't wearing a mask. He nods, holds up his mitt. Spencer hasn't thrown a pitch in two months, not since he gave up the home run that lost his team the decisive game of the College World Series. This is nothing like that, not at all. Nothing is the same and yet there's a curious heavy weight in his chest that cautions him against overconfidence. Why should he have faith in his own abilities, when all evidence suggests it would be more prudent to doubt? He closes his eyes and he feels the weight of the sun on his shoulders through the thin fabric of his tee shirt.

He sets his foot and enters the windup. He can't get a proper grip on the ball and he can't plant his foot as firmly as he should. His right shoulder is stiff, unstretched and unused to this exertion. The batter chokes up on the bat. He stares out grimly at the mound. There are people talking and there are people laughing and there is a plane droning overhead and the smell of grass and blue skies and it's all so good. Spencer releases the ball. The arcing flight is smooth and fast and beautiful. Oh, it's terrible though to wait even though ever nerve and every cell are on high alert, every ounce of energy he can muster is focused on willing the ball past home plate, fast as a bullet.

The catcher grunts and the umpire calls a strike and Spencer's mouth eases into a smile. This is how things should be. This is easy. He strikes the guy out. He strikes the next guy out and he gets the third to hit a weak dribbler right to the first baseman. Now his team is clapping him on the back and cheering, and the dark-haired pitcher is scowling. Spencer's team gets two runs the next inning, and the game is tied. He gets to pitch again without asking, and he retires the batters in order, quick and efficient and glad. when it's his turn to bat he hits a deep double into the gap in left center. His team scores again. The game goes on, inning after inning. Nobody's really keeping track, and nobody's keeping score. They could play forever, or at least Spencer could, because on a baseball diamond he feels sure, he finds his feet, and maybe all he wants is to know that he knows what to do.

But Zach comes stopping out of the venue and over to the field and summons the crew back to their duties, back to carting and laying wires and plugging plugs and whatever other kinds of alchemy are required to turn such mountains of disordered technology into a rock show.

Spencer is left holding the ball, standing halfway between home and first base. He's not tired; he feels good. He's ready for the night cap. Cumulus clouds glide past, far up, and their shadows slide across the green lawn. He thinks of sunshine and the beach and surfing with Brendon, and his good mood vanishes. He could go all season without letting a runner reach base and he still wouldn't know what to do about Brendon. He sits, not caring if his knees get grass stained. Someone plops down heavily beside him. Spencer stares at the ground.

"So I googled you," Ryan says, waving his iPhone. "Baseball America has you as this year's top player in the California Collegiate league. Congratulations."

"Oh," Spencer says. "Huh. Thanks."

"You didn't tell Brendon that," Ryan says, accusingly. "And you haven't fixed him yet."

Spencer shrugs. "I don't know how," he admits, voice small.

"Just ... fix him," Ryan says. He is wearing gray today, gray and silver: gray jeans and a silvery-gray shirt with three quarter length sleeves and aviator sunglasses with silver frames. "Take pictures with him. Watch one of his foolish movies. Buy him a Fruit Roll-up. I don't know!"

He sounds exasperated, and he's twisting a silver charm bracelet on his wrist nervously.

"But," Spencer says frowning. "What do you mean you don't know?"

Ryan's voice is flat, almost monotone. Spencer can't imagine him writing the lyrics that Brendon's sings with so much life. "He's .... weird," Ryan says, fisting his hand and shaking it so the charms on his bracelet jingle sweetly. "If I'm lucky I can figure out what he's talking about half the time."

"You think Brendon's weird," Spencer says. "That's a pretty rough thing to say about your boyfriend."

Ryan chokes. "Oh my god," he says. "Brendon is not my boyfriend. Brendon has never been my boyfriend, and he will never be my boyfriend. I'm straight." He sounds scandalized. Spencer think he might be wearing sparkly lip gloss. His head is starting to hurt. He wonders if he's heard Ryan wrong, because this can't possibly be right. How could he have gotten everything so backwards?

"But last night you were holding his hand ..."

"He's my vocalist," Ryan says, as if that explains everything. "Besides, I don't believe in breaching the integrity of working relationships with mundane dalliances."

"Oh," Spencer says. "But ... I just." His head falls, his chin dropping to his chest. He feels miserable. He's messed up. He's messed up badly. "I'm not going to do it right."

Ryan laughs then. It's a bright, unexpected sound. "Let folly be the guide of love," he says, and he claps Spencer firmly on the shoulder. With surprising energy he pushes himself to his feet and starts off back towards the venue.

Spencer stays for a little while longer, then stands and dusts grass clippings from his jeans.

He's got to find Brendon. Spencer checks the bus first, but he's not there. Nobody's there. He drops his camera in his bunk and changes his shirt. He doesn't know the inside of the venue. He gets lost and ends up down a dismal hallway, water dripping from the AC ducts overhead. He can't do this. He hates this miserable empty place, he hates the grabby, loud fans, the press of people, the dinky bus, the bad rest area food. He doesn't know how Brendon can do this, except he does, because this is what Brendon loves. A janitor mopping the floor grunts unresponsive when Spencer asks for help finding his way. Spencer despairs of ever escaping this warren, when he turns and there's Brendon, expression a little guarded, hair wet and a towel around his neck.

"Hey," he says. "I heard you pitched a hell of a game."

Spencer laughs weakly. "I guess," he says.

Brendon's watching him curiously. "Dude, you are so crazy," he says. "Why didn't you tell me you were a prodigy?"

"Why didn't you tell me about the band?" Spencer asks.

Brendon shrugs. "I don't know," he says.

"Well I don't know either," Spencer says, a little spiteful. "I wasn't keeping it a secret. I just didn't want it to matter."

"You didn't want it to matter?" Brendon asks. "Spence, it's kind of awesome. You're gonna be like a Major League pitcher and shit. If you get drafted by the Yankees you totally have to introduce me to Derek Jeter."

Spencer rolls his eyes. "I'm not getting drafted by the Yankees."

"Have a little faith! Ryan says you were crazy good."

Spencer shrugs. His eyes are starting to go hot. "See. I just ... I don't care about it. I mean, I do, but I don't want you to care about that, because I'm probably not good enough. I wasn't, and now you think I'm this baseball star and I don't know if I am that person, or if I care about being that person, and all I wanted was ..."

"Woah," Brendon says. He smiles, softly. "No offense, but I don't really give a shit about baseball, Spencer. I didn't fly you out here so you could give me batting lessons. I care about you."

He smiles so kindly that Spencer can't stand to see it. How could anyone be so kind?

"I kind of screwed things up I guess," Spencer says quietly.

"Yup," Brendon says happily. "Ryan wanted to fill your bunk with shaving cream last night. You kind of deserved it but I totally talked him out of it. I figure nobody's perfect, right?"

Spencer swallows because his voice is gone but yes, Brendon's right, and it's the best news he's heard his entire life. "Yeah," he says. "Not me, anyway."

"I'm seventy three percent perfect," Brendon says. He takes a step towards Spencer, so they're close. "But that still leaves me twenty seven percent fuck up. According to Ryan he's greater than ninety nine percent perfect, but that because he's a cyborg sent from the future."

Spencer snorts.

"Seriously, dude, he watches the Matrix like twice a week so he can commune with his fellow machines." Brendon's grinning. All his teeth are very white and he has dimples that Spencer hasn't noticed before. Spencer would like to kiss them. "So, I asked you this already, but you think I can get a kiss without risking bodily harm? I didn't even realize you were an athlete ... you could totally kick my ass, I'm sure. When I was in middle school the kids on the football team used to kick my ass all the time. One time ..."

Spencer is worried Brendon might never stop talking, so he slips a hand over his shoulder and shuffles him closer still, so they're right in the same space, toes touching. He's close enough to see Brendon's eyelashes, and to count them if he wanted.

"Huh," Brendon says. He's a little stubbly and this close Spencer can see the darker and lighter streaks of amber in his eyes. "No putting me in lockers, okay?"

Brendon's on his tiptoes, bridging the few inches of height that separates them.

"Okay. I can handle that," Spencer whispers. "But wet willies are fair game."

And they're kissing and Brendon is laughing into Spencer's mouth and that should be gross, but it's good, so good to have him there and to think he'll stay. They'll stay together for a little while or maybe forever, but it doesn't matter. There will be months apart and many, many cross country phone calls. There will be fights and there will be nights Brendon forgets to call and nights Spencer's too beat after a game to do anything but pass out in bed. They'll hide from everyone and spend weekends at the beach. Brendon will forget to put on sunscreen until Spencer reminds him. Jon will be there sometimes, and sometimes Ryan. Brendon will be his biggest fan. He'll get a custom jersey made, with Spencer's name and number, and he'll buy season tickets even if he can only come a quarter of the time. Spencer will pitch well or he'll pitch badly. Scouts will be impressed or they'll write him off as all hype. Small Robots will release two albums within six months, and maybe they'll have a string of chart topping hits. Maybe they'll toil in relative obscurity. Spencer will show up at shows unannounced and surprise Brendon backstage. He'll learn all the lyrics to all the songs. Sometimes it will suck and Spencer will want to end it and go back to his white apartment and watch TV and not have to think about anything except school and baseball, but the rest of the time it will be so awesome that he'll wonder what he ever did to deserve so much good fortune. He has the game, and he can be with Brendon too. It doesn't matter if things are weird or if they could be better. All he has to do is want it.