I have to wipe my eyes as I watch the procession of students file out of the auditorium, cheering and waving to their friends and family. I always get a little emotional about graduation; you’d think I’d be used to it after ten years, but I’ve always been the sentimental type. Anyway, it’s normal enough for a teacher, who watches teens grow up and then sets them loose into the world. But it’s more than that. my students have bright futures ahead of them, full of opportunity and potential; meanwhile I feel like I’m stuck in place, already as far as I can ever hope to go.
But I try not to focus on that as I shake hands and exchange hugs. Some of my favorite students (because there are always favorites, it’s just inevitable) promise to keep in touch; I smile and nod, and think of my brothers, until the smiles start feel a little forced. I make the last rounds, satisfied I’ve said all the necessary goodbyes, and head to my car.
There’s someone sitting on my trunk, I can see long before I reach that end of the parking lot. It doesn’t look like any of my students; it doesn’t look like a student at all, I realize as I walk closer. The long brown hair whipping around in the wind makes me think it’s a female at first, but then he turns his head, and I can clearly see masculine features. Annoyance flares up; the dark sunglasses he wears make him difficult to identify, but he sees me coming, and pulls them off, and I stop.
He grins wide and hops to the ground as I close the distance, pulling me into a tight hug before I can even speak. I don’t know if I can speak, only staring at him for a moment before he pulls me into a second embrace.
“Zac? What are you- It’s good to see you.” And it is good, but completely unexpected.
“Great to see you too, man. Sorry I missed the ceremony, but I probably needed a ticket anyway, huh?”
I take a second to look him over; he’s grown a lot over the years, and even since the last picture of him I saw. His hair is longer than I remember, coming almost past his shoulders, and there’s the faintest outline of stubble on his chin, in the general shape of a goatee and mustache. He’s lost weight, too, or at least been working out, the sleeves of his t-shirt stretched tight around his arms.
“Um, yeah. You look… good.”
“Yeah?” Zac asks, and I think I see his cheeks turn a shade of pink. “So do you. Growing this out?” he adds, ruffling my hair with his hand.
“Eh, just been too busy to have it cut,” I shrug. “So… don’t take this the wrong way, but… what are you doing here?”
Zac stares at the ground for a second, thumbs in his pockets. I wonder why he’s so quiet suddenly. His hair hides his face, and I want to brush it aside, but he looks up before I can move.
“missed you,” he says softly, as if he’s embarrassed about it. There’s something in his tone, though, that hits me like a punch to the gut. I feel guilty suddenly, for not keeping in better touch, even though I know I wasn’t the only one to blame.
“I missed you too.” And I did. I don’t think about it very often, but when I do, Zac is always who comes to mind first. He and I have… had been best friends since we were little, completely inseparable. Becoming famous only made us cling to each other even tighter, maybe more than either of us to our oldest brother. We never understood why, but we never questioned it, either. We just… were.
“So, I was thinking,” he starts, staring at the ground again and kicking at a pebble. “You’ve got the summer off, right?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” I tell him, my head tilting.
“Well, I was thinking of going on a road trip. Take some time to clear my head, ya know? And I thought… Well, you used to love being on the road, so I just thought…” His cheeks are definitely red now, and I hate to admit it, but it’s not a bad look for him. He gives me a hopeful smile, and I feel a twinge in my chest.
“You want me to go on a road trip with you?” I ask, and he nods, biting his lip. It’s an out of the blue request, but when I think about it, I can’t really see a downside. I know I could use a vacation, and it’d be great to catch up with Zac. And there has to be more reason than a whim for his sudden visit, I just know it.
“Yeah, sure. Sounds like fun.”
He looks up at me, surprised, as if he expected me to say no. Then he grins wide, and for a moment he looks like a kid again, and it feels good, but it hurts a little, too. He pulls me into another hug, which I return. I really have missed him. I don’t want to be the first to pull away; apparently, neither does he, because a minute goes by, and then another, and we’re just standing there holding each other. But eventually he does pull back, slowly, almost reluctantly.
His cheeks are red again. I have a feeling mine are, too.
“So when do we leave?” I ask, shifting from one foot to the other. He leans back against my car with an easy grin I was never able to forget.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he answers, gesturing to the jeep parked next to my suburban.
“I… I’ll need to pack, but other than that…” I think hard, making sure I’m not forgetting anything, but as far as I know I’m a free man.
“Hit the road in the morning, then?” He pushes off my car and starts backing towards his own. “I’ll follow you to your house. Or, I could get a room somewhere,” he adds, his brow furrowing.
“No, it’s fine. I’m not gonna make you shell out money for a hotel, of course you’re welcome at my place.”
He nods once, pausing, and for a second I wonder if he wants to hug me again; I don’t think I’d mind if he did. But he gets in his car, and I get in mine, and we both start our engines. I almost wish he wasn’t waiting for me to lead the way, because this is all happening so fast. I feel like I’ve had the wind knocked out of me, and I’m still trying to catch my breath. It isn’t that I don’t want this; I definitely do, for a million reasons. It’s just… I’m scared.
I think about it as I pull out of the parking lot and head for home, keeping Zac in my rearview mirror. I’m scared of how much we’ve grown apart, scared that nothing will be the same, that we won’t be able to pick up where we left off. And not that it’s Zac’s fault, but all the emotions I’d felt back when we split up, all the fear and anger and frustration, are bubbling up to the surface, hanging over my head like a ghost.
I don’t like to think about that time, the darkest period in a life of shadows. To say I didn’t cope with the stress very well would be an understatement. The parties, the alcohol… the drugs… The arguments I had with my brothers, full-blown fights with bloody noses and black eyes. The days we spent ‘cooling off’. The words that left scars I didn’t think would ever heal; the ones that never did. Not all my fault, but I didn’t help, and probably… no, definitely made things worse.
And Zac… Zac, who was still a teenager. Who should have been worried about dating and getting his license, not fighting about the creative castration and whether his brother needs to spend a weekend in rehab. Zac who shouldn’t have had to deal with any of it, who probably had plenty on his own mind, but was forced to shelve it for the good of the band.
The road is just starting to blur as I pull into my driveway. I quickly wipe my eyes, try to compose myself and will my breath to stop catching. I check my reflection in the mirror, thankful my eyes don’t look like they’ll give away my emotional outburst. Zac is here now, and he wants us to spend time together, and that means we’re okay.
“It’s not much,” I say as I lead Zac inside. It really isn’t anything fancy; I could have gotten a bigger house, on more land, with more amenities. But I don’t need it. I have a place to sleep, a place to cook, a place to work; I even have a pool, although I rarely use it. A baby grand sits in the living room, and there’s a keyboard in my office, but those are my only instruments not in storage.
“It’s great,” Zac says, grinning and looking around. I can’t remember what kind of place he has in… memphis? I’m not sure, but that sounds familiar.
“Are you hungry? I can cook something, or we can order pizza.”
“Whatever you want.” Zac shrugs, sitting at the piano. He touches the keys gingerly, as if afraid to break them.
“Do you still play?” I ask quietly; I’m not sure how touchy the subject is for him, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Not really. I kept a kit set up in my apartment for a while, but I needed the space for a while, and then I just… didn’t see much point in taking it back out.” He presses down on a key, the note ringing between us, a little off-key. “Needs tuning.”
“Yeah, I… just haven’t gotten around to it, I guess.” To be honest I haven’t sat at those keys in months; it’s a crime not to take care of such an expensive instrument, I know, but to me it’s almost like a relic from a lost age. I walk over, standing next to Zac, and touch a different key. He smiles up at me, but the smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
“You were always better than me anyway,” he says, and I want to protest, to tell him I was always the weakest link, but there’s something in the way he’s looking at me, so intense, so… apologetic. I get the feeling he’s talking about more than just musical ability. And he’s even more wrong there.
“Zac… no.” I sit next to him on the bench; he scoots over, but there’s not much room, and we’re hip to hip, but I don’t care. “Zac, you’re… you were…” I take a deep breath and try again. “I was the one who fucked up. I should have been more careful, I shouldn’t have… I shouldn’t have given up on us.” I look at him, hoping he can read all the different meanings behind my words.
“I shouldn’t have given up on us,” I say again, quieter. He holds my gaze for a minute, then looks down. His hair hangs in front of his face again, but he reaches up and tucks some of it behind his ear. When he looks up at me again, there’s a hint of a smile on his lips, and his eyes have a bit more spark to them.
“I missed us,” he says softly. His cheeks are red again, and this time I’m okay with admitting I kind of like it.
“I missed us, too.”