A thump on my window on my window startled me awake, and I sat up groggily, rubbing my eyes. The old Thundercats alarm clock that Mom had bought for me when I was still in grade school read 1:30 – I'd only managed to fall asleep an hour ago. It was only my second night in Stoneybrook for the summer, and I still hadn't gotten used to my new bedroom. The thump came again, louder, and I blinked, swinging my feet out of bed. Stumbling to the window, my feet cold against the hardwood floor, I pulled back the curtain and peered outside.
A lean figure in a denim jacket leaned against the oak tree outside, his face turned up towards my window. A year had passed since I'd last seen him, and he'd changed since then. He'd grown taller, for one thing, and his chest and shoulders had filled in a bit – he wasn't the scrawny fifteen-year-old I remembered. But his blue eyes were exactly the same, as was his posture, which had always helped me to distinguish him from his brothers.
"Shit," I said, opening the window. "Byron?"
He jerked his chin towards the front door, and after a moment, I nodded stupidly, and snuck down the stairs to let him in.
"What is it?" I asked, when we'd made it safely back up to my room, and he was curled up in my desk chair, his arms wrapped around his knees. Everything about him looked miserable, from the defensive curl of his shoulders to the dried tear tracks on his cheeks.
"We got in a fight," he said dully.
"Adam, Jordan, and I. We never fight."
"What was it about?" I asked, wondering what could possibly set the three of them against each other. For as long as I'd known the triplets, they'd been inseparable.
"It doesn't matter," Byron said with a shrug. "It's stupid." He looked up at me through long lashes. "Can I crash here for the night?" he asked.
I shrugged, flattered that he'd come to me, instead of one of his local friends. "Sure," I said. "There's a sleeping bag in my closet."
The phone rang downstairs, interrupting his reply, and Byron froze, his eyes growing wide like a deer in the headlights. Through the floorboards, we heard Richard's voice as he answered it.
"Shit!" Byron whispered.
Mom's voice joined Richard's downstairs. They were too quiet for us to hear what they were saying, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to guess what they were talking about.
Sure enough, Mom called, "Jeff? Wake up honey." Her footsteps started up the stairs.
"What should I do?" Byron gasped.
"Hide!" I said, pulling him out of the chair and shoving him towards the closet.
Switching my desk lamp off, I dove back into bed. When Mom swung the door open, letting in the light from the hallway, I grumbled, pretending to wake up. To my relief, the closet door was closed.
"Dee Pike just called me, Jeff," Mom said, leaning against the doorframe. "She said that Byron went missing. You haven't heard from him, have you?"
I shook my head, hoping that my expression wouldn't give me away. I've never been a great liar. But Mom just looked disappointed.
"Too bad," she said. "You boys were so close when you were kids. I was hoping you'd know where he is."
"He probably just went to a friend's house," I said. "He'll show up in the morning."
"I hope you're right," she said, ruffling my head.
I waited until she and Richard had gone back to bed before letting Byron out of the closet.
"What now?" he asked, looking worried, like he was afraid I'd send him back home. I clapped my arm over his shoulders.
"I know a place where you can hide," I said.
* * *
When Dawn had moved back to California for good, Mom and Richard had converted her room to a guest room. All of her posters and the framed pictures of her friends were gone now – only the yellow bedspread showed that she still came back to visit. Snagging a pillow from the spare bed, I shifted the flashlight into my left hand. Byron watched, wide-eyed, as I found the switch that opened the secret passage that was, in my opinion, the one redeeming feature of my mom's house.
"Are you sure that's safe?" he whispered, as the wall swung away.
"Sure," I said. "I come down here all the time."
Byron looked dubious, but he followed me down the stairs, gripping my rolled-up sleeping bag in front of him like a shield.
"Your sister used to tell all of these stories about this place while she was baby-sitting us," he said. "It creeped me out."
When we were kids, Byron had always refused to watch scary movies. I wondered if he still did. Trying to reassure him, I said, "I don't believe in ghosts."
"Nope. I used to, but I decided they don't exist. I probably just listened to Dawn too much as a kid."
He laughed, but it sounded nervous.
We reached the bottom of the stairs, and I helped him spread out the sleeping bag. I gave him the extra pillow that I'd snagged from my bed, and set the flashlight on the ground, illuminating the dusty wood floor.
"You'll be safe here," I said. "No one will think of looking for you."
"Thanks," he said, nervously. He sat on the sleeping bag, and peered uncertainly into the dark passage. He scuffed at the floor with his high-tops.
"I'll stay here with you, if you want," I offered, the words spilling out of my mouth before I'd even considered them. "It will be like we're camping."
"Really?" His voice sounded disbelieving, as if I'd just offered to trade him a pudding cup for a celery stick. Of course, if I'd had a pudding cup, I probably would. Gross.
"Sure," I said nonchalantly.
"Thanks, Jeff," he said, smiling up at me. He shifted on sleeping bag, making room for me to sit beside him. Too late, we both realized the same thing – we only had one sleeping bag.
Byron turned red, and glanced down at his hands. I should have laughed, should have gone upstairs to strip the blankets off the guest bed, too. Instead I sat down beside him, and touched his shoulder.
"Why did you fight with your brothers?" I asked.
He bit his lip. For a long moment, I thought he wasn't going to tell me. Fine tremors were running through him. "If I tell you," he said, "do you promise not to freak out?"
"Cross my heart," I said, like we were still kids. He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes.
"I'm gay," he said, blushing even redder.
"I was hoping you might be," I said, and kissed him.
As it turns out, I didn't end up going back for the blankets, but we made do.