It would be misleading to say that Shawn and Gus had always been friends. When Gus had first met Shawn, in Ms. O'Malley's kindergarten class, he'd recognized Shawn immediately for what he was: a troublemaker.
Gus knew all about troublemakers. His parents told him to stay away from them. Kids like that weren't fun to play with.
Except it seemed like Shawn had a lot of fun playing with the other kids. Gus stayed away from Shawn, but he couldn't help it if he was a curious kid – it was a sign of an intelligent mind. His findings prompted something of an existential crisis for a boy who had never before had cause to doubt what adults told him.
Gus liked certainty, which was a rare commodity around Shawn. The solution was obvious, and Gus followed it without regret: Gus avoided Shawn.
(It would be misleading to say that Shawn and Gus had always been friends, but Shawn will make a living misleading people professionally, and working pro bono for people he really likes. Gus will come to accept this as a very small deception, but he will remember the real version all the same.
Gus will always be a champion of pointless gestures.)
Perhaps it would be better to say that they began on the playground, so late after school that Gus has already missed his favorite television show for the day. That's where the story would start if Gus were telling the abridged version, leaving out the things that made it dull and ordinary.
They were the only two kids left at school, and the only other person in sight was the teacher who was watching them and probably hating his job. Gus had discovered that he couldn't play dodge ball or four square alone, and that kicking a ball around by himself was really boring. So he went over to Shawn, who was trying to walk on his hands.
"Why haven't your parents picked you up yet?" Gus asked him.
"They can't. They're out at sea." Shawn tried to lift one hand and wobbled dangerously.
Gus was immediately interested. "At sea?"
"Uh-huh. On their pirate ship. Normally my dad would send his first mate to come pick me up from school, but today they have a really important mission coming up and need all hands on deck." Shawn was squinting into the distance. Maybe that helped his balance. Maybe he just didn't want to talk to some boring landlubber kid.
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"Not for my parents." Shawn tumbled, with a least a modicum of grace, and picked himself back up. "They're pros. Best pirates in the seven seas."
Gus felt the need to defend his family honor. "I'm glad my parents aren't pirates."
Shawn narrowed his eyes. "What do you know about it, anyway?"
"Pirates are bad guys." This was true. Gus' mom had read him Peter Pan as a bedtime story.
"That's just what people say, 'cause they're jealous that they're not pirates."
"I don't see what's so great about being a pirate, anyway."
"You get to live on a big boat, and find treasure, and fight with other pirates. It's awesome."
Gus didn't think that sounded awesome. Not the teeniest, tiniest bit. Nope.
"Why don't you go to pirate school?" Surely there was a pirate school, where pirates learned things like sailing and mapmaking and using hook hands, which Gus thought must be awfully difficult. He didn't know why anyone would have a hook hand. Shawn had two non-hook normal hands, so maybe that was something only grown-up pirates did.
"I get special pirate lessons when I get home," Shawn said. "But I have to go to normal school first so people don't figure out who I am."
"Shawn!" a voice called out, and both boys turned to see an angry man walking their way.
"Crud," Shawn said, and Gus would have thought pirate kids weren't afraid of anything.
"Who's that?" Gus asked, but didn't get an answer.
"Come on, Shawn, we're late," the man snapped.
Shawn looked down at the ground and muttered, "It's not my fault you just got here."
"It's your fault that I had to talk to Ms. O'Malley, again, which means we're going to have another talk with your mother when we get home."
Was that guy Shawn's dad? He didn't look like a pirate. Gus watched them walk away, Shawn trailing several feet behind and dragging his feet, and decided to forget about the whole thing.
(When they are older, a pretty woman will ask them how they met, and Shawn will say that Gus collected box tops and sent them in for him, and Gus will say that the prize always looks cooler than it really is.
Whatever else is or is not true, Shawn always was and always will be a troublemaker.)
Shawn stayed on the periphery of Gus' life for the next few months. The politics of friendship at that age were driven more by geography and gastronomy than anything else – Gus' closest friends were the kids that lived nearby and/or had lunches worth swapping for. Shawn didn't live on his street, and his mom paired peanut butter with bananas instead of jelly.
Besides, Gus heard enough of Shawn's stories to know that he wasn't really a pirate, or an astronaut in training, or a backup singer for Michael Jackson. The knowledge that there would be a different story the next day took something out of each day's story – but Gus had to admit that even with something missing, they were better stories than anyone else had.
The first time they really hung out, it was because Shawn's mom met Gus' mom at the school's open house and the two of them had started talking about boring mom stuff. Only it wasn't boring to them, and they had so much fun that they wanted to keep talking about it. So Gus found himself, without getting a choice in the matter, dragged over to Shawn's house bright and early one Saturday morning.
He hadn't even had time to let his cereal turn the milk green, which was the best part of breakfast, although it did make the cereal soggy.
Shawn's mom knelt down next to him and said a friendly hello. Gus, suddenly stricken shy by this strange woman looking him right in the eyes, tried to hide behind his mom's leg.
Both women laughed at him.
"How are you today, little Burton?" Shawn's mom asked, and Gus and his nerves blurted out the first thing they could think of:
His mom tried to make some excuse or explain away his answer, but Shawn's mom just smiled at Gus, not laughing again, just looking at him like she knew all about green milk and cereal and the sacred rituals of Saturday morning and how traumatic it can be to interrupt them.
"Let's see what we can get you, hm?"
And Shawn's mom took him into the kitchen and sliced him some pineapple, and Gus felt nervous and shy around her for the last time in his life.
(Gus will start inviting himself over to the Spencer house, unannounced, in high school. He won't know what to say about it, or whether he'll be doing more harm then good; he'll only know that the thought of an empty seat at the dinner table makes him unbearably sad. He'll think about a smile that made everything okay again, and he'll make jokes and play around and know that he's not even close to making up for that smile, but he won't know what else to do.
Gus will be there for as many Christmases and Thanksgivings and birthdays as humanly possible. Henry and Shawn will never comment on it.)
The rest was history, if history were less concerned with the battles of great generals and more concerned with juvenile pranks and uncontrolled laughter.
Pranks and laughter could only go hand in hand for so long though, and after all, Shawn was a notorious troublemaker. So it shouldn't have come to such a surprise to Gus when he found himself scared out of his wits one Halloween when everything backfired on him.
He'd only been trying to hide a jack o' lantern in the tree outside Shawn's bedroom window. Shawn had admitted that the eviscerated, glowing pumpkins creeped him out. Gus had nodded solemnly and immediately started plotting how best to use this information, as any real best friend would.
He'd been so proud with the plan he'd come up with, too; not just carving a pumpkin and placing it somewhere guaranteed to catch Shawn off guard, but placing a flashlight inside, instead of a candle, so that it wouldn’t burn out before Shawn had a chance to see it and be startled.
What he'd forgotten was how difficult it was to climb the tree outside Shawn's window, not to mention the added impediment of hauling up a heavy but fragile gourd with him.
He was almost high enough when he slipped, and foolishly he grabbed to save the pumpkin instead of himself. He fell five feet and his legs caught on a branch, leaving him hanging upside down.
He could have pulled himself back upright if he'd let the pumpkin go. But there was the thought in his mind, of all the harmless little pranks Shawn had pulled on him, and how much he longed to pull one on Shawn; not for revenge but for respect, to have his best friend, the master of ceremonies of the elementary school prank world, know that he too could pull something like this off.
So Gus tried to balance the pumpkin on the branch by his feet.
That was when he fell.
He wasn't too badly hurt after all – what he'd thought, tearful and refusing even to look, was a broken wrist was merely sprained, according to Shawn's dad's terse assessment. He had a bunch of bruises and scrapes, and the next day there would be a nasty-looking bump on his head.
There was a lot to answer for after Shawn's parents walked him home. His parents were so mad, and Gus didn't think about how afraid they were, he just thought that he didn't want them to be angry with him anymore. So he told them what any little boy would tell his parents.
"It was Shawn's idea, he dared me to."
Gus's dad had a long phone call with Shawn's dad after that. Gus didn't see Shawn outside of school for three weeks.
Gus was almost afraid to talk to Shawn the next day, sure that Shawn would be mad at him for getting him in trouble.
Instead, Shawn rolled his eyes. "Jack o' lantern in the tree? Nice try. At least you got that cool-looking bump."
Gus shared some of his left-over Halloween candy with Shawn – Shawn's all being carefully rationed due to the twin reasoning of "it's too dangerous to take candy from strangers" and "the last thing you need is a pound of sugar in your system" – and thought that there was no harm done, after all.
(Gus's parents will try every tactic in the book to get Gus to stop hanging out with Shawn. When Gus goes off to college and Shawn falls off the face of the earth, they won't even bother to hide their relief. They won't ask after Shawn, and when Gus will tell them about the postcards he's received, they'll nod politely and change the subject.
Gus won't know what to do with the seashells Shawn sends his parents one day, out of the blue, especially since he knows Henry checks an empty mailbox day after day. Gus will never know how to tell Shawn my parents hate you and he definitely won't know how to add and it's my fault.)
Gus took falling out of a tree and onto his head as a bit of an omen, as warning of things to come.
Shawn took it as a challenge.
The bigger they got, the bigger their adventures had to be, or so Shawn assured him, repeatedly.
Gus would have been happy playing with action figures at home. His grandpa had just bought him a new set. It had dinosaurs.
"I don't even want to go jet-skiing," Gus insisted.
Shawn stuck his head up from under the control panel of his dad's boat, which they didn't have permission to be on, and they definitely didn't have permission to be driving. That wasn't going to stop Shawn from trying to hotwire it, though, the way he'd seen the bad guys do on an episode of Miami Heat.
"So what do you want to do, Gus? Just lie around all day like a Raggedy Ann doll?" Shawn flopped his arms around limply, like he had no bones. "Don't be a Raggedy Ann doll, Gus. Be cool."
"You don't know how to drive that thing," Gus pointed out.
"You don't drive a boat," Shawn corrected him. "You commandeer one. Which is what I'm doing."
"And you don't have any jet skis."
"Come on, Gus," he said. "This will be super fun."
The word no rose to Gus's lips for the tenth time that day, the hundredth time that month, the thousandth time in their friendship.
Shawn's face fell.
Gus couldn't quite get no to leave his lips and become a word.
Whatever expression crossed Gus's features at that moment, Shawn must have picked up on it. He broke out into a huge grin.
"You won't regret this, Gus," Shawn said cheerfully, jumping back to do something with the ignition that was just as likely to blow them up as start the boat.
Ah well. Dinosaurs weren't that cool, anyway. But Gus had to make one last protest before surrendering.
"This has to be the dumbest thing you've ever done, Shawn."
(Two decades later, Gus will have said this to Shawn two hundred and eighty-four more times, and he will have been right at least three dozen of them.)
Gus knew who was banging on his bedroom window at midnight, because who else could it be, really. What he didn't know was what Shawn was doing out of his house at midnight, on a school night the night before a quiz, Shawn, was nothing sacred. Not to mention that Shawn was grounded for a week and would probably earn himself another week's house arrest when Henry found out about this little venture, as he nearly always did.
On second thought, that probably explained the why of Shawn's visit. He never turned down a chance to test Henry's boundaries, always sure that this time he'd find the weak spot.
"What do you want, Shawn?" Gus asked, opening the window. He didn't bother whispering; he and Shawn had done extensive testing over the years, and could say with a reasonable margin of error that Gus's parents wouldn't hear anything that happened on this side of the house.
"I'm springing you loose," Shawn said. He had the collar to his trench coat popped, giving him a shady and suspicious look. Gus knew, just knew, that he had only worn the coat so that he could pop the collar and look suspicious.
"You're the one who's a prisoner, Shawn."
"Am I, though? Aren't you a prisoner of your mind?"
"Oh. Well, come out with me anyway."
Gus thought about arguing, but the argument would probably take longer than whatever it was Shawn wanted to do, and at this point, Gus just needed to get as close to a full eight hours as he could. X wasn't going to solve for itself.
He slipped on a pair of shoes and jumped out the window with the ease of years of practice.
Shawn gestured for him to follow, and Gus did. He hoped Shawn would get to the point soon, but until then, Gus was happy to walk along beside him.
Shawn didn't get to the point, which wasn't too weird; but he also didn't talk, which was very weird. He was bursting with pent-up energy, snapping his fingers, putting his hands in his pockets, taking them back out and running them through his hair.
Gus watched Shawn with wide eyes, wondering if he should be nervous, wondering when he'd ever not been nervous about Shawn on some level.
Shawn finally spoke, not so much for the sake of communicating, more to project his energy out into the space around him. "Is it just me, or is it hot tonight?"
Gus wasn't impressed. "It's 70 degrees out and you're wearing a trench coat."
"Right." Shawn laughed and took the coat off. "I don't need that. It's just going to weigh me down." He draped the trench coat on a white-picket fence they walked past and didn't so much as look back.
Gus did look back, but he didn't pick it up. He'd make sure he got it later that evening, on his way back home, after whatever mad fancy this was had passed.
Shawn finally came to the point when, a block or two later, he picked up a backpack that was stashed, along with Shawn's bicycle, behind a tree.
"Here we are," he said. "End of the road."
"That's it?" Gus asked. "You dragged me out here to show off the backpack that you can't be bothered to bring to school?"
"No, I dragged you out here to see the totally awesome backpack that I packed all by myself." Shawn flipped it open to show off the contents.
Gus reached in and pulled out a package of double-stuffed Oreos. "Yeah, I can tell you packed this yourself. Where're you going, campfire night at Camp Tikihama?"
Shawn looked almost disappointed with Gus. "No, man. I'm going. Just – going."
It took several seconds for Gus to really understand what Shawn meant, and a few more seconds after that before he could respond.
"You're running away from home and all you're taking is a Mr. T action figure?"
"Not all," Shawn pointed out. "There's a Swiss army knife, too. That counts as like five things, right there. Besides, Mr. T is still in his packaging. He's a collector's item. That's money in the bank."
"Collector's items appreciate in value over long periods of time. You bought that last month."
"So I'll hold onto it for a bit longer. I'll get along fine until then."
"No, you won't, Shawn," Gus said. "Because you're an idiot. You're going to get in all kinds of trouble."
Shawn's eyes flashed with anger. "I can take care of myself," he said. "I shouldn't have even told you I was going. I knew you wouldn't get it."
Gus experienced a moment of pure terror, that Shawn was going to vanish and that there wasn't nothing he could do about it. And in his terror, he found clarity.
Shawn spent every day proving to Henry that he could do anything Henry asked, and he hated it. The last thing Shawn needed was for Gus to give him another challenge.
"I get it," Gus said. "Santa Barbara's boring. Hell, I want to get out of here and have adventures, too. But you're just a kid. I'm just a kid, and I don't want my best friend to go off and have adventures without me."
Shawn looked thoughtful for a moment. "You could come, too."
Gus shook his head. "Then who would look out for Joy?"
"I guess you're right," Shawn sighed. "Fine, I'll stay."
Gus smiled the way only a kid can, when all of his problems are solved forever.
(When they graduate from high school, Shawn will disappear, and against all reason, Gus's life will continue on without him. The absence of Shawn will influence Gus as surely as a confident smile and a dare ever had – there will be days when he worries, days when he's angry, days when he pretends it doesn't bother him, days when he isn't sure Shawn is ever coming back...
But today. Today, Shawn is undoubtedly, substantially, terrifyingly there, and if Gus has no idea what Shawn is going to do next or when he'll disappear, he knows that for now, all he has to do is reach out and find Shawn, larger than life, ready for anything.
It's a start.)