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Life Among Aliens: Two Boys

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September, 1981

The thing that'll always stick with me about that day is: rubbers in the dirt.

I have this picture in my head; I'm staring down at my feet, at my old favorite scuffed up sneakers, and I'm dragging my toe through the gravel. There's green glass from busted-up beer bottles glittering like jewels and all these leftovers from the sex somebody had on the elementary school playground. Not that I knew what rubbers were back then. Coach wasn't much on putting anything on his dick. I guess he didn't have too much to worry about that way.

Anyway, I was standing at the fence, fingers looped through the chain link, forehead pressed against it, staring out at freedom, although who knows why? I mean, sure, there was nothing for me at school, but there wasn't anything waiting for me out there either. Maybe I just liked being where I could be alone.

Or maybe I was looking for him. Maybe that's why I'd spent every minute of recess out there by the fence that whole first week of fourth grade. Hoping. I don't know. Sometimes I wonder if I actually saw him at all. I mean, one second he was there and then he was gone, a mirage of flesh and bone. Mostly, I think it really was him, standing across the street from the school, watching. Coach was always watching.

Our eyes locked, just for that one second, the hundreds of yards between us melting away to nothing, and it was like that first day at Little League, only instead of hello this was goodbye. Coach smiled, the way he did sometimes, a little sad, like this world was too cold for us, but he was trying to be brave about it. Like all he wanted was to hold on to me, and warm me up, and stay that way forever.

Only it was a lie. Because one second he was there and then he was gone, and I knew I'd never see him again. Except that wasn't true either. Because I'd see him in every guy I ever fucked. Only I was eight years old then, so I hadn't realized that yet.

"Neil?" It surprised me, and I jerked around. Miss Claridge blinked into the sun, shading her eyes with her hand. "Are you okay?"

I don't know why, but it made me think of this time one of Mom's boyfriends, Chuck, who worked construction, got it into his head to take me to his work site and show me the heavy equipment. "Boys like that kind of thing," I remember him telling Mom, trying to impress her. He was kind of a dick that way.

That day at the work site, they were digging a foundation for a new Walmart or something, the backhoe moving back and forth, gnawing at the ground, until it hit this one spot—I don't know what was wrong with it. But suddenly it just gave way, crumbling like nothing had ever been there, this big, yawning emptiness that kept going and going. Guys in hard hats scrambled around, yelling a whole bunch of shit, but it wasn't like there was anything they could do about it. That hole was just determined to be nothing, to suck everything into its nothingness.

That was how I felt knowing Coach had gone, but I didn't have any words, so I just nodded at Miss Claridge like everything was fine.

She held out her hand. "Come on. You'll have more fun with the other kids."

I curled my fingers around hers and let her walk me back across the playground, and that empty place in me just kept caving in, lighter and emptier until there wasn't anything that could touch me, not even gravity. Kids were shouting and cheering, playing kickball. They seemed really far away, even when I was standing right there in the middle of them, taking a turn, kicking the shit out of that ball, sending it sailing toward the fence, toward that spot where Coach had been, where he'd disappeared into thin air.

What are you when even gravity can't touch you? I haven't ever figured that out.

***

There are these moments I've been keeping track of ever since I lost those five hours. That's what losing something does to you, makes you determined to hold on to everything else that much tighter. Even when what you're holding on to are moments where you feel like your skin doesn't fit you right. Before I started keeping the dream journal, before I thought to write anything down, I'd line up those moments in my head, go through them, one after another, methodical, the way you'd work your way through a rosary. Only with a rosary, you knew what it meant, and I didn't, not for a long time.

The moment I always started with was from the first week of fourth grade.

As soon as I stepped through the big double doors that September, I knew one thing for sure: I wasn't the same kid who'd been looking forward to summer just a few months before. Whatever happened in those five hours—it had changed me. I walked the same halls where I'd learned my letters and memorized the 12-times table, and it felt like I was somewhere I'd never been in my life, like I was wandering across the face of the moon, airless and lost.

The other kids seemed to sense it too, that there was something different about me. Something wrong. Like I'd been broken and put back together with some of the pieces missing. Even the ones I'd been friends with before just kind of melted away. I couldn't blame them. There was this blank space where I used to be. You can't be friends with empty air.

(Later, I'd think that this must be part of their plan—the aliens, I mean. They'd picked me out to study, and left their mark on me in some way I couldn't see but that people could sense just the same. The aliens wanted me all to themselves, to keep their data pure or something.)

Back then, though, those two things were still separate in my mind: the smell of the crawl space and the UFO. So I didn’t have any explanation for why I was standing there on the sidewalk outside the school waiting for the bus to pull up one moment and the next this electric-hot prickle went all down my back. It was like I was being watched, only the watching was like hands. I could taste the tater tots from lunch in the back of my throat, and then blood dripped down onto my lip, and I could taste that too.

(Later, when Avalyn told me about how aliens put chips into people so they can keep track of us, how they're always watching, I thought back to this moment.)

I froze right there, helpless; I'd lost all power over me. Even when the bus pulled up and the kids started to get on, I couldn't unstick my feet.

"Hey, dork, what's your problem?" It was one of the big kids who always sat in the back of the bus. Usually I would have been scared of him, but I didn't even have any fear left in me.

The boy scowled. "I'm talking to you, dork."

He grabbed me and shook me. I'd been pushed and shoved by the big kids plenty of times before, and I always just ducked my head and clenched my hands and waited for it to be over. But I had that sick feeling of being watched, and then actual hands on me, and if I could have clawed my own skin off, I would have.

I wrenched away, flailing, and the world started to spin crazily. When I came to, Deborah was kneeling down beside me. "Brian, Brian, are you okay?"

That day, that was when I first understood that I really didn't want anybody touching me.

(Later, when I'd figured out there was no such thing as UFOs, I went back to the picture I'd kept in my head of that day and pushed past the edges, and lurking there just outside the frame was an outline, all dark and no details, but if I squinted I could make out what I was pretty sure was a ball cap. I don't think that was just my imagination.)


April, 1988

If someone's your soul mate, you're supposed to be able to tell them anything, and I've told Wendy a lot, more than I ever thought I would. But there are some things—I don't even know why I lie. It's just details, not important when you stack them up to the big, ugly things I've shown her. But I can't help feeling disappointed that there's room for distance between best friends, and I don't know who I'm disappointed in: me for putting it there or her for letting me get away with that shit.

"How do you even know about this place?" she once asked, when she came to meet me after I'd finished working the park for the day.

I made up something about overhearing kids talking at school and cracked a sarcastic smile. "Even in a dumb-ass hick town like Hutchinson, you can always find a place like this."

Wendy made a face, but there was this way she looked at me, lingering and sharp, like she was trying to see past my skull, look right into my thoughts. It gave me the idea that maybe I wasn't as good a liar as I liked to think.

If I'd told her the truth, what I would have said was: I heard about it from this one kid at school.

We'd been having sex in the afternoons, him and me, not that it was anything earth shattering. He was kind of pizza-faced, actually, and you could already tell he was going to go bald, probably before he made it to twenty. Of course, even if he had been cute, he would have been a good fifteen years too young to be my type. If you're a queer kid in the Midwest, good luck. You take what you can get.

I was already starting to get bored with it and then that afternoon happened, and I made my big discovery. Not just bored with him, I should say, but bored of having sex just for the hell of it. His mouth, and my hand, always the same, and nothing to make me think of the sharp, pastel smell of Fruit Loops.

We went to his house, the way we always did. His dad was some kind of lawyer, and his mom worked too, and if you lined up my Mom's house next to theirs with its three-car garage and pristine white carpet as far as the eye could see, you never would have believed they were in the same town. On the way there, in the brand new Nissan he'd got for his birthday, he talked about the last ski trip his family went on and how he couldn't wait for the next two years to fly by so he could be on his way to Stanford.

Really, the only thing we had in common was that we both liked dick. I guess that's why we tended to get right to it when we hit his bedroom, clothes flying off, and him falling to his knees. I didn't usually hang around too long after I'd finished him off either. Once we'd both zipped back up, there wasn't much to say.

Anyway, that day he was going at me as usual, and he'd left the door to his room open. He did that a lot. I don't know if it gave him a thrill, the idea that we could get caught, or if he was actually hoping. I'd gotten the idea his parents weren't around a lot, and his mom was kind of uptight. Maybe he wanted to throw it in their faces, that they had a queer kid.

The thing about being fifteen was: it didn't matter if you liked the guy sucking you off or thought he was hot; a mouth on your dick, and you were going to come. That was just the way it was. I was getting close and trying to warn him and staring at that open door. I don't why it bothered me when it never had before, but I kept trying to get his attention: Shouldn't we shut that? I guess I wasn't any too clear, because he just went on sucking, and all the words fell right out of me. You try talking when you're coming in somebody's mouth.

He slid up onto the bed after he'd done me and unzipped his jeans.

"You want me to—" I nodded to the door.

"They're not going to be home any time soon." His voice went murky. "And like my dad would have any room to talk." That was when he told me, about the park, about what his father did there.

I got my hand on him and snuck looks around the room while I jerked him, but I didn't see any family pictures. There weren't any downstairs either; I checked later on my way out. I guess they weren't too close of a family.

The next afternoon, I rode my bike out to that park, and there were men in cars, circling and lurking, like he'd said there'd be. I waited for just the right one—fuck, I was nervous, wiping my palms on my jeans and shit. But then this BMW pulled in, and I don't know why, but that was the one I wanted. The car slowed down, and I started toward it, taking my time. The guy looked me over and nodded at the passenger seat.

"Hey," he said when I got into the car, trying to sound all casual and shit.

He'd lost a lot of his hair, and what was left was going gray, and his face was too heavy and red in patches like he drank. I didn't know if this was that kid's dad, because there hadn't been any pictures, but it might have been.

"I know a place. That okay with you?" he asked as we drove out of the park.

I nodded, and I could see how this was going to go, as clear as I could see the road up ahead, a flat ribbon all the way to horizon. He was going to ask me what I liked, what I wanted to do, and I was going to say: anything.

Before we even made it to that crap-ass, by-the-hour motel, I could smell the Fruit Loops.

***

Sorry, Dad. That became kind of a theme for me. Even after he'd gone, I'd still sometimes find myself saying it, just kind of mouthing it at the air when I'd done something I knew he wouldn't approve of.

Like waking up from a nightmare with wet sheets at fifteen years old.

It hadn't happened for years, not since right after that summer, when whatever I'd forgotten still had a grip on my body. But the dream that night had been—I guess clear is the word. It catapulted me all the way back to when I was eight years old.

In my dream journal I wrote:

I don't know where I am or what I'm doing there, but I'm on my back, and I'm staring up at nothing, or maybe it's something, but it's so far away I can't tell. It's cold, and I don't have any clothes on, and I don't know where my clothes went. My uniform, that's what I was wearing at the game. But I can't move, can't look for it. And then someone's there. Or something. All I can see are eyes, black as night, like they're going to swallow me up, and I'm never going to get away. And then there are fingers, all clammy and not-human-like, moving in a line down my leg…

I'd never been touched in one of my nightmares before. It was always just the looking into nothing, and the not knowing where I was, and not being able to move. Those alien fingers—or what I'd later come to believe were alien fingers—this was something new, and that must have been when I'd lost control of my bladder.

Not that I wrote that down in my journal. Some things I would have liked to be able to forget.

Sorry, Dad.

There didn't seem like anything else to do but get up and wash the sheets. I couldn't leave them for Mom. So I bundled them up and crept down the hall to the laundry room and fished the Cheer down from the shelf.

I must have been concentrating pretty hard on getting the right amount of suds in, because I didn't know anyone was there until Mom's voice made me startle. "Honey, what're you doing up?" She bustled on in and looked over my shoulder. "Oh, Brian. Don't you worry about that. It's perfectly normal for a boy your age. Just leave it. I'll take care of it in the morning. There's more sheets in the closet."

She padded off back to bed, and I was stranded there for a moment, confused, because I was pretty sure this was just about the opposite of normal for a boy my age, and then I realized what she must have meant. Heat prickled up my cheeks, and even the tips of my ears went suddenly too warm. The house was so still it made my thoughts feel painfully large, and I couldn't decide which was more embarrassing: what my mother thought she'd caught me at or the fact that I had no interest in it at all.

I left the sheets washing, and pulled out clean ones from the closet, and got back into bed. Squirreled away under the mattress, tucked up in the slats, as hidden as I could get it, was a magazine. One of those kinds, you know what I mean.

One day at school, just as I was heading into sixth period, Terry Kirby called out, "Hey, Brian, wait up."

Which should have told me right there that something was up, because I hadn't thought Terry Kirby even knew my name. But I waited up, like he said, and he smiled, like we were friends. "Here. I've got something I think you're going to like." He pushed that magazine onto my stack of books.

I tried to push it back, but he dodged and ran on into class, and then I had to scramble to shove the magazine in between my notebooks so Mrs. Landers wouldn't see. There was snickering at my back the whole period, and when the bell finally rang, I got out of there as fast as I could, and went home, and hid the magazine where hopefully nobody would find it.

Of course, I could have just thrown it away. Stashed it at the bottom of the garbage under the remains of the pot roast Mom had recently cleared out of the fridge. But I didn't. I don't know if I wanted to look at it, or just wanted to want to. Days went by before I fished it back out from its hiding place. I locked my door and turned out all the lights except the one by my bed.

But once I'd actually opened up the magazine—nothing. I flipped through the pages, and I didn't even blush. It was like something from another planet. Nothing that had anything to do with me. I mean, I knew what guys did with those magazines; I wasn't totally naïve. When I thought about doing that, when I tried to imagine wanting to, it made my skin feel two sizes too small.

That's another of those moments I keep a catalog of. When I realized that I didn't even want me touching me.


December, 1991

I don't know what gave me the idea. I guess since I was trying to go straight, so to speak, trying to do a normal job and make money the way normal people did I thought I should take a stab at having a normal relationship. Or, really, any kind of relationship. I'd always just fucked and, after I'd made my big discovery at fifteen, fucked for money. All these faceless guys. I could remember what they'd done to me, but never what they looked like.

The only thing I ever had that was anything like a relationship was with Coach.

But then this guy came into the sub shop the second day I was working there. He spent a long while looking up at the board and flashed me this smile and asked, "What's good? What do you recommend?"

He wasn't bad looking, and I knew what he wanted, but I was so used to blowing off the ones my age that I only mumbled, "Whatever. It's all the same."

If it had been me, I wouldn't have come back for more of that, but this guy did, every day for a week, to order some crappy sandwich and stare at me while I made it. Not that I could really feel it, his gaze on my skin. Not after the way Coach used to look at me, just stare and stare, like he was trying to take my molecules apart. Being wanted in an ordinary way—that was like not being wanted at all.

Still. I was trying to be normal.

"You want to do something sometime?" I asked one day as I handed over his tuna sub.

His eyebrows shot up like I'd shocked the hell out of him. "Yeah," he hurried to say. "Yeah, that's great. Tonight?"

"Sure." I smiled the way I did with johns, head ducked down, a look through my lashes.

He stared at me like he could already taste me. That shit worked every time.

We went to a club he knew, and drank these stupid, sweet cocktails, and got sweaty on the dance floor, plastered together, my clothes sticking to my skin. Afterward we went to his place, and I got him down on his hands and knees on the bed, and he gasped, all high and breathy, while I went at him. That part was good, always was, the power of it, knowing I could make a guy shake and beg and come apart with my hands or my mouth or my dick. I could still taste that cloying sweetness from the drinks in the back of my throat, and the sounds coming out of the guy kept getting higher and more desperate. He was so tight around me, and, fuck, even tighter when he came.

You'd really think I would have gotten off.

I got up mumbling about needing to take a piss and shut myself in the bathroom and jerked off, quick twists of the wrist, just to be done with it. The guy was stretched out when I came back, blinking at me, soft and sleepy. "You gonna stay?"

I'd never shared a bed with anybody, and I didn't know what the fuck to do, and all I wanted was to throw my clothes on and get out of there. But—normal. So I sat down and after a moment lay down, slipping under the covers by inches, not in any hurry to have his skin against mine. But he let out a sigh and flopped over, arm going around me. I stared up at the ceiling, watching the shadows shift, as trapped as if that ceiling had come falling down on my head.

When the light started sifting through the window, I wormed my way out from under him and pulled my jeans on. Before I could sneak out, he murmured and stretched and sat up. "Am I going to see you again?"

I should have said no. Normal was some hard fucking shit. Instead I let it drag on for the better part of a week.

That last night I was supposed to see him, I was walking to his house after work when the car pulled up. I was walking there, and it was going to be like it had every other night: we were going to go to some bar, and get drunk, and go back to his place, and fuck. And I was going to end up slinking off to the bathroom again, because I could only pretend to be normal.

Then that car slowed down, and the guy looked at me like I was something in a store window. And I knew exactly what to do about that.

Later, of course, I'd regret going with him, but in that moment I was just so fucking relieved.

***

I know exactly what gave me the idea. It was Eric. Probably it would have made more sense if it had been Avalyn, from when she—but honestly, I tried never to think about that. Eric, though. He asked, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.

"So, tell me something, Brian. Do you like girls? Boys? What?"

We were eating lunch at the burger place we went every Tuesday after we'd finished with our classes. He watched me, taking a long sip of his soda, and there wasn't anything mean about it. He wasn't making fun of me. He just looked really curious.

I didn’t know what to tell him, and when the silence stretched out, he started to get this worried look. "You know I didn't mean anything by that, right? I'm not trying to hit on you."

"No, no, I didn't think—it's okay."

He nodded, and gave me one last, long look, and that was the end of it. Eric was cool that way. He wouldn't push when I really didn't want to talk about something.

Although this was more me just not knowing the answer.

That was what did it, what got me thinking, and if I hadn't been thinking, I wouldn't have paid any attention when I ran into Charlotte Bristol.

We'd gone to school together up until the third grade when her family had moved away, but we'd never been in the same homeroom, and I can't remember us ever saying a word to each other. Sometimes there are people in your life that you only ever see out of the side of your eye. That was us.

I didn't even recognize her when I ran into her outside the Chem building. She was the one who figured it out. "Brian?" she said, eyebrows pinched together.

She had to tell me who she was, and we laughed the way you do when you don't know what to say, and she smiled then, like a goodbye.

"Have—how have you been?" The words got tangled up coming out of my mouth, and I didn’t even know why I wanted her to stay.

She smiled again, only it was different this time, an opening, not an ending. "I've been good, Brian. Going to school and everything."

"Yeah. Me too."

We stalled again, both kind of shy, ducking our heads and sneaking glances at each other. Charlotte made me think of girls in the old movies my mom liked to watch, round-cheeked and sweet looking, wearing a cardigan the color of dandelions. I don't know if it was her perfume or shampoo or what, but she smelled like flowers too.

"I'm always around here on Wednesdays. Maybe we'll see each other again?" She looked up at me hopefully.

"That would be nice."

She smiled and turned to go, and halfway down the sidewalk she looked back over her shoulder, and she was still smiling.

As breakthroughs went, maybe it wasn't much. But I carried that picture around in my head, of her smiling at me. When I woke up from the nightmares that were coming more and more often, sick all over and shaking, I'd turn that picture over in my mind. For those five minutes when I'd been talking to Charlotte Bristol, I felt a little less lonely in my skin.

There was a calendar hanging on the wall in my room, and every night before I went to bed, I drew a big "x" through that day.

One more down. One day closer to Neil McCormick coming home. One day closer to answers.


Christmas Eve, 1991

Eric didn't say anything when he picked us up afterward. He must have seen from our faces that we didn't want—that we couldn't talk about it. And even though I wished me and Brian could rise like two angels in the night and magically disappear, gravity had gotten a hold of me again, so hard and so fierce it was a miracle I could even breathe.

***

All I'd wanted was just to know, and then I did, and everything was different and nothing was. When I closed myself up in my room that night, I tore out each page of that stupid dream journal. Then I lay on my bed and stared up at the ceiling, where the solar system used to be. But it was only blank then.


Afterward

After Neil started working at the burger place, I still went there every Tuesday with Eric, the way we always had. Neil's mouth would lift up at the corner when he took our orders, and we'd get extra fries, and sometimes he didn't charge us for our sodas.

"Thanks," I always told him.

Sometimes he'd smile, and then he'd walk away, and me and Eric would talk about classes, about how we weren't going to finish our papers on time, about what we were taking next semester.

It was different when I stopped by after closing, no regular routine to it, just odd moments when my feet carried me there. I always went alone, knocked on the glass door, and Neil stopped what he was doing, walked over, and for a moment just stared, like he might say: "We're closed" or "We don't want any."

Instead, he opened the door, and that little half-smile made an appearance. "You show up after close, and I'm going to put you to work."

"My mom says I'm pretty good at cleaning up the kitchen at home."

I'd said that before, lots of times, but it still made Neil's half-smile get a little bigger.

He put me to work on the salt and peppershakers, and I sat at the counter, carefully filling them up. We didn't say much. Actually we never did. Never had. Not since.

Sometimes I wondered why I did this, why I came here, what I was hoping for. Just something about having Neil there, even if we weren't talking, felt more real than just about anything else. Maybe it was because in that moment when I'd been the most alone in my whole life—I wasn't.

Maybe if I could just hold on to that, then one day I really would be less lonely in my skin.

***

The first thing I thought when Eric started sending me those postcards talking about this guy Brian who wanted to meet me—the first thing I thought was: Fuck no. I told myself I wasn't ever going home again, would never step foot in the whole fucking state of Kansas for the rest of my life. I'd never let that fuzzy picture of the dorky kid I could barely even remember go clear and sharp and unforgettable in my head. Why the fuck had he come looking for me after all that time? I didn't know, but I was pretty damned sure I didn't want to be found.

Then Brighton Beach, and I never wanted to be lost again.

"Can you do the sugar too?" I asked.

Brian nodded, the tip of his tongue peeking out from between his lips, concentrating way too hard over work a trained monkey could do. He was conscientious that way.

Here was another thing I used to dread: these closing-time visits of Brian's. Because I didn't know what the fuck he wanted. I didn't have anything else I could tell him, and there wasn't anything I could do to make it better. It probably took longer than it should have to figure out that all Brian wanted was just this. The quiet and the routine of closing up and the two of us together. It didn't even seem to matter to him that we had next to nothing to say to each other. That we only had the one thing in common.

I guess that one thing was pretty much everything.

After a while I started to look forward to him showing up. Because the thing was: the night I told him the story of what happened that summer, he started shaking so hard I thought he was going to fly apart, and I was the only one there, the only thing that could hold him together. That still surprised the shit out of me. I never could have imagined I'd ever be anyone's glue.

"I'm done with these." Brian walked the line of tables, putting the salt and peppershakers back where they belonged.

I nodded and started wiping down the pie case, and the ground felt solid beneath my feet, and the ceiling wasn't pressing down on me like it was trying to crush me, and I thought maybe I'd finally gotten that problem with gravity worked out.

***

"I really didn't think you'd still be around come February," I ventured, settling back at the counter to deal with the sugar dispensers.

It's just for a while longer, I thought just a second before Neil said it out loud.

It wasn't a lie exactly—I could tell Neil actually believed what he was saying—but I was also pretty sure he wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. Wendy's pissed, Eric had told me. She keeps writing Neil, and he won't write back, won't say when he's coming back to New York, or even if he is. I didn't know what that was about. Maybe Neil would tell me sometime. Maybe he wouldn't.

Anyway, there was something else I wanted to ask him.

"Would you kiss me?"

Neil's head snapped up, and he gave me this long, narrow look. "I'm pretty sure you're not queer."

"Would you do it anyway?"

I couldn't explain why, couldn't make the words come out. There was just a part of me that believed that if I could go back to the last moment, the last touch before I got broken, maybe one day it would be okay. Maybe one day Charlotte Bristol, or someone like her, could be something more than a picture I kept in my head.

Neil went on staring, so long and so steady that I wanted to take it back, babble out "I'm sorry," but then he said, quiet and clipped, "Close your eyes."

***

Here we go. I couldn't help thinking it, even if I didn't want to.

I leaned in and pressed my lips against Brian's, soft and a hell of a lot more innocent than I had when we were eight years old. Brian didn't move, didn't kiss back, but he didn't open his eyes either. So I just kind of lingered there, mouth to mouth, like I was trying to revive him, like we might be able to revive each other.

For as long as I could remember, I'd always wanted something when I was this close to a guy, but not now. I didn't want to take anything. Didn't have anything to prove. This was just because Brian had asked me, because it seemed like it was important to him. When he finally opened his eyes, and I pulled back, there was a little bit of clear space inside me that hadn't been there before.

Brian ducked his head, and, fuck, he was actually blushing. There was no way I could keep from smiling at that.

"I'm pretty sure I like girls," he said apologetically.

And then I was just laughing, and Brian was too, and I realized that it didn't feel at all like Coach was watching us.

"I was thinking maybe we could go to the movies sometime, you and me and Eric," Brian said, a little haltingly. "I mean, only if you want to."

I almost laughed at that too. Because it was such a normal thing and so not normal at all. Maybe that was just the best we could ever hope for—since we couldn't go back in time and make everything different—maybe all we could do was keep going, one shaky step at a time, until we didn't have to pretend about anything anymore.

"I've got Mondays off," I told Brian.