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An Unpleasant Surprise

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Despite everything Carson has tried to teach Neil during his months at Richland High Neil is still firm in his belief that Halloween is stupid and childish. He can’t tell Carson that he’s faced real life terrors because that would blow up his boring Neil Josten backstory.

Part of Carson’s Halloween indoctrination plan has been movie marathons, everything from kids’ films to gruesome horror. Neil texted Andrew about it, expecting Andrew to back him up, but instead he got roped into watching even more films with Andrew and his teammates. Not that Neil minded. It was fun getting to ride up to Palmetto State and hang out in Fox Tower with the other Exy players. Nicky went nuts every time he visited because, apparently, these were the only times when Andrew would deign to socialize with the others.

Just last weekend they took a break from the Halloween gore fest to watch one of Nicky’s favorite movies, “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Neil sat next to Andrew, their beanbags smushed together so they could see the TV screen. About half way through the movie Andrew had nestled down in his beanbag and tugged at Neil’s shirt until Neil also scooted down so they were level with each other. Neil was glad it was dark in the room because his ears were burning. Andrew didn’t do anything obvious like put his arm around Neil but they were lying down next to each other, arms and legs touching. Neil reached out with his fingers, searching until he bumped into Andrew’s hand. He felt a jolt pass through him when Andrew curled his fingers around Neil’s. He couldn’t even concentrate on the rest of the movie, too aware of Andrew’s touch and breathing. After the movie Andrew drove him back to Columbia, to a random neighborhood that Neil didn’t live in. They sat in the car for several long minutes, Neil’s heart racing. He had seen enough movies to know what should happen next. He glanced at Andrew and was a little disappointed to find that Andrew wasn’t looking back. Neil had cleared his throat and made an excuse to leave and thanked Andrew for the ride. Andrew was quiet and he kept both hands on the wheel as he watched Neil leave.

Now Neil doesn’t know what to think. He was so sure Andrew would kiss him. He’s felt that tension for months and it took him many restless nights to figure it out. Andrew likes him. Andrew maybe, probably, wants to kiss him. At first Neil wasn’t sure if he wanted Andrew to kiss him. Then he thought about it some more and decided that maybe it would be okay. Now he definitely wants Andrew to kiss him. It doesn’t have to be movie perfect. He just needs to know, to be sure. This is all new territory; he’s never liked anyone before Andrew. He’s told Carson a little bit about how he’s feeling, but he talks to Carson’s sister, Juliana more. She’s older and she doesn’t laugh at him like Carson. Even though Carson’s a good friend he makes comments that Neil doesn’t appreciate, like making it seem like Neil’s virgin status is somehow the biggest joke ever.

Right now Neil is browsing Halloween costumes with Juliana and Carson. The local Halloween festival is tonight and they’re planning to attend and then sneak into Eden’s for the Halloween party. Neil’s been to the nightclub a few times but it’s not his favorite place; he prefers the coziness of Andrew’s dorm suite or hanging out at the Ramirez house with Carson, Juliana, and Ezra.

“Ugh, why are all the female costumes so slutty?” Juliana complains. She holds up a sexy nurse outfit and Neil wrinkles his nose. “Right? I’m tempted to buy some scrubs from Wal-mart instead.”

Neil riffles through the costumes but nothing looks appealing.

“I could be a cat,” he suggests hopefully.

Juliana shakes her head and Carson appears at Neil’s side with an exaggerated “rawr!”

“You could be a sexy catboy,” Carson says, playfully scratching at Neil’s arm. “I bet Andrew would love to pull your little kitty tail.”

“Uhh…” Neil stammers. Juliana swats Carson.

“Leave Neil alone, you little perv,” Juliana scolds. She takes Neil’s hand and leads him to the back of the shop. The back wall is covered in props and elaborate masks.

“Maybe this is all you need,” Juliana says. She pulls a couple masks down and hands them to Neil.

They’re glittery, feathery, pretty. Neil shakes his head and passes them back. “Too fancy for me,” he says. He studies the masks and finds a cat one that he likes but he’s too worried about what Juliana will say so he doesn’t get it. However, right next to it, is a fox mask. It’s perfect if a bit elegant. It looks like something that would be worn to a masquerade. He takes it off the wall and shows it to Juliana.

“Oh Neil that’s perfect!” Juliana gasps, clapping her hands together. “Here, try it on!”

The mask covers half of Neil’s face, from his nose to his forehead. It’s a cream color with details and designs done in golds and black. Juliana ties it for him and they study his reflection in the mirror.

“So handsome, Neil,” Juliana says, her hand on his shoulder as she leans her head next to Neil’s. “Let’s pick out a few more accessories and then you’ll be good to go.”

“What about your costume?” Neil asks, slipping the mask off his face.

Juliana grins and grabs a couple face-painting kits, hair spray colors, and a tube of gold lipstick. “I think I have a few things at home I can whip into a costume.”

They meet Carson at the front of the store where he’s debating between something that’s tight and all pleather and a merman costume. After some intense discussion with Juliana, Carson settles on the merman.

“Won’t you be cold?” Neil asks as they bring their purchases to the counter.

Carson laughs. “Probably! But I haven’t been working on these abs for over a year just to cover them up tonight.”

Ever since Carson turned eighteen he’s been taking his party life very seriously. Neil doesn’t really get it, the way Carson wants to have everyone looking at him and wanting him. Really, the two of them couldn’t be more opposite if they tried and yet they still get along, as long as they steer clear of one of Carson’s favorite topics: sex.

Back at the Ramirez house, Juliana and Ezra help Neil put together an outfit from their wardrobes. Neil can usually fit into Ezra’s pants and Juliana’s shirts and tonight they’ve created what Juliana calls a sophisticated and mysterious look: dark skinny jeans paired with a loose black cable knit turtleneck.

“Now for the finishing touches!” Juliana announces before sweeping Neil into the bathroom. Ezra follows them and perches on the edge of the tub, watching as Juliana breaks out the makeup and hair colors.

Ezra and Juliana chat while Juliana works. Neil’s back is to the mirror so he only has Ezra’s reactions to go by. Carson’s little brother beams and gasps as Juliana does whatever it is she’s doing.

“I can’t wait until I’m old enough to go clubbing,” Ezra says. Tonight his friends are coming over after the festival to watch movies. Neil sort of wishes he could stay in and watch movies, too.

“Ah! No!” Juliana protests. “Not my baby brother! You can’t ever grow up.”

Carson pops in a few minutes later, shirtless, and crowds in next to Neil.

“Is it me or is it hot in here?!” he says, fanning himself dramatically. Neil blushes and looks away.

“It’s hot,” Juliana says dryly, “because there are four people in here and no ventilation.”

“Ugh, I know,” Carson agrees. “Let’s pretend it’s preparation for tonight.” He takes two starfish stickers out of his pocket and carefully applies them on his chest, right over his nipples. He flexes his abs a few times and blows a kiss to his reflection. “Juli do my makeup after Neil, please?”

Juliana takes the tube of lipstick and leans in, rubbing it over Neil’s lips.

“Well, since you said ‘please,’” she mutters. “There you go, Neil. All done. Well, except you need Ezra to paint your nails black.”

Neil stands up and turns to take in his transformation.

He scarcely recognizes himself. Besides the gold lipstick he’s now sporting black eyeliner, gold eye shadow, something shimmery on his cheekbones, and he has streaks of gold highlighting his black hair. He puts on the mask and Carson ties it for him. The four of them stare at his reflection.

“Damn, Neil,” Carson breathes in his ear.

“I know, right?” Juliana grins.

Ezra blushes and looks away.

“I think you’re giving my baby brother a sexuality crisis,” Carson jokes. Ezra smacks him before storming out.

“You’re such a dick,” Neil says.

“Yep,” Carson winks. Juliana rolls her eyes and gets to work on Carson’s merman makeup.

—–

Three hours later the trio is artfully attired and en route to the Halloween festival. Juliana drives and Carson plays DJ, playing songs from his spooky party mix. Neil sits in the backseat and clutches his phone. Over an hour ago he texted a picture of his costume to Andrew and he hasn’t received a reply, which is troubling. Andrew almost always writes back immediately unless he’s in class or practice. Not that Neil texts him during those times. It’s embarrassing to admit but Neil has Andrew’s schedule memorized, everything from class to practice, study hall to his weekly appointments with his therapist.

Juliana circles around several blocks before finding a parking spot on a residential street. They pile out of the car, Juliana already on the phone with her friends. She waves bye to Neil and Carson and struts off looking totally badass in her shredded dress, her hair teased up and wild.

“Who is she supposed to be?” Neil asks Carson.

“The Corpse Bride,” Carson replies. He’s texting someone and nearly walks into the street before Neil catches his arm.

“Your sister is so cool,” Neil sighs. Hanging out with Carson always makes him homesick for the family he’s never had.

“Hey!” Carson slaps a hand over his stickered chest. “What about me?”

“You’re okay,” Neil teases.

They bicker back and forth until they reach the entrance to the festival. Carson has people turning heads left and right, some with admiring glances and some… not so much. Carson holds his head high and Neil glares at anyone who gives his friend dirty looks.

“Damn, I should have worn my rainbow flag,” Carson whispers. “Really rubbed it in those motherfuckers’ faces.”

“There’s a face painting booth over there,” Neil gestures. “I bet they’d paint a rainbow on you.”

Carson beams at him. “Sometimes I forget how much I love you,” he says, and pulls Neil into a tight side hug.

“Yes, yes,” Neil says, worming his way out of Carson’s hold. “Save it for Darren.”

“I’m saving a lot for Darren,” Carson grins.

Ten minutes later Carson has a rainbow heart painted on his bicep and he’s smiling so big that it’s nearly blinding. They wander through the festival, checking out the different booths, buying snacks, and counting down the hours until the party. Neil checks him phone obsessively but still nothing from Andrew. Maybe he read things wrong? Maybe Andrew was just being friendly this whole time and Neil thought it was more than that. Carson’s been saying that Andrew had a thing for Neil and Neil trusts his judgment in these matters and yet… nothing. Neil scowls at his phone and finally decides to turn it off.

“Oh Neil, check it out!” Carson tugs at Neil’s arm, pulling him towards a new attraction. “It’s the haunted house!”

Looming in front of them is a downtown storefront that’s been transformed into something from those scary movies Carson loves.

“They’re going real down home southern gothic, huh?” Carson observes.

Neil nods. The windows are thick with dust and cobwebs. Spanish moss hangs from window ledges and piles around the front. An old cross hangs crooked on the door. Neil spies what looks like a dead possum tacked up by the tail.

“That’s not real, is it?” he whispers to Carson.

“Difficult to say,” Carson murmurs.

Although Neil isn’t eager to go inside he can’t say no to Carson so they pay the terrifying old woman (her apron is stained with fake blood and her false teeth are appalling) and enter the building.

The interior is nearly pitch dark. Carson holds the lantern the woman gave them, its feeble yellow light illuminating only a small area of the room. Neil doesn’t want to appear cowardly but he is freaked out. He huddles next to Carson and scans the room. He knows it’s fake, a setup, but it feels like his worst nightmares. He can imagine killers – his father’s men – waiting in the dark to capture him.

The floor creaks as they edge into the room. Soft sobbing comes from one of the corners, then the scrap of metal on wood. Neil feels the hair on his arms stand straight up.

Carson moves towards the sound and Neil wants to snatch him back, to bolt for the exit and leave. Instead he steels himself and follows the light, follows the trail of ruddy grime smeared on the floor.

The weeping gets louder. Carson raises the lantern, revealing a figure hunched in the corner. Neil guesses the person is a woman because they’re wearing a long white dress or shirt. Well, it used to be white, now it’s nearly grey with dirt and stains. Neil hides behind Carson, irrationally undone by this person cowering on the floor.

Carson takes another step forward and – without warning – the person twists around and lunges for him, face ghastly and twisted, teeth gnashing and blood oozing down their chin.

Neil yells. Carson yells. The zombie person shrieks as the chain around their ankle pulls them to a halt. Still the zombie thrashes and claws for them, yellowed eyes glaring.

“Oh my fucking god. Oh fuck. Fuck me,” Carson gasps. Neil can’t say a word, his heart feels like it’s about to escape from his chest. “Jesus Christ! I almost shit myself. Neil, you okay?”

Neil grabs Carson’s arm and nods his head even though Carson can’t see him in the dark. “Let’s-let’s k-keep moving,” Neil says.

They retreat carefully, backing up so that they can keep the zombie in view. Really, whoever did the makeup was too good and the actress? actor? deserves a medal.

The next room is just as terrifying, so is the one after that. They’ve encountered a cannibal and a werewolf and Neil has no desire to go upstairs but he can’t leave Carson by himself.

“I hate you,” Neil whispers fiercely as they climb the staircase. “You owe me… I’m not sure what but it’s a lot.”

“You’re the one always crashing at my place,” Carson reminds him. “I think this is payback, don’t you?”

Neil can’t argue with him but it feels like a low blow. He says nothing, smarting from Carson’s casual comment. He knows Carson didn’t intend to be mean, that Carson doesn’t know any better, but still.

Upstairs they find a large room with a bed in the middle. A man is strapped to the bed, his wrists and ankles stretched out, bound to the posts. His shirt is missing and his bare chest and arms are crusted with wounds and decay. He moans deliriously, blood seeping from his black eyes.

“Ah dude, that’s sick,” Carson says. Neil glances around the room at the burning candles, the upside down crucifix, the ancient Bible lying face down on the floor. He knows this scene and immediately feels comforted by the familiarity. It’s just pretend.

Then the man’s head snaps to the side and his body bows against his restraints.

“Neilllllllll,” the man sings, his voice hoarse and wretched. “Neillllllll.” His sightless eyes pin Neil to the spot. Neil can’t breathe, can’t move. “I found youuuuuu.”

He doesn’t hear the cracked, southern drawl in the man’s voice. He hears his father’s cold, precise tone. He hears the end of Neil Josten.

A hand on Neil’s wrist jerks him out of his paralysis. Without thinking Neil viciously kicks out at the person, ignoring their cry of pain, and sprints for the stairs. He makes it half way down before crashing into someone. For several confused, terrified moments Neil fights against the person until whoever it is manages to wrap him up in a tight hug, pinning his arms.

“You’re okay, you’re okay,” the person says. “Take a deep breath. Let it out. Again. Breathe. Good. You’re doing good. One more time. Breathe. And let it out.” Neil shivers and obeys the voice. He feels weak, like his legs are about to give out. It’s been forever since he’s been triggered like that.

“Carson?” the person calls out. “Are you okay up there?”

“Yeah.” Carson doesn’t sound okay. “How’s Neil?”

“He’s… I’m going to take him outside and get some air.”

Neil doesn’t know if he can walk but his helper gets an arm around his waist and slowly guides him down the dark stairs, a narrow hall, and out into the dim twilight.

Andrew leads Neil over to the sidewalk and they sit down on the curb. Neil blinks up at Andrew, his heart finally slowing. He’s too wrung out to be embarrassed. He carefully leans against Andrew until his head is resting on his shoulder.

“Sorry,” Neil whispers.

Andrew pushes Neil’s mask back so he can see his face. “Don’t be,” Andrew replies. “It was a shitty thing to do.”

Neil frowns. “What… are you talking about?”

Andrew sighs and brushes Neil’s hair off his forehead. “I got a text from Carson saying that he was going to prank you in the haunted house. He thought it would be hilarious. I tried texting and calling you to warn you but you never got back with me.”

Neil blushes. “I turned my phone off because… well, because you didn’t text me back earlier.” He ducks his head and stares at the black polish on his nails. “It’s stupid.”

“Oh.” Andrew pauses, his hand resting against the back of Neil’s neck. “I tried to get in touch with Carson, too, to tell him not to do it. Obviously I failed.” Andrew strokes Neil’s hair; each touch careful and softer than Neil ever thought Andrew was capable of.

“It’s… whatever.” Neil feels like crying. Because he’s a mess and he’s always going to go through life afraid. He had spent the last four months relaxing, letting his guard down, making friends, and even hoping that someone might like him, but it’s all a farce. He is the Butcher’s Son and someday that incontrovertible fact is going to catch up with him. Hoping for a better outcome is simply foolish – and dangerous – denial.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Andrew asks.

Neil shakes his head.

“Alright. Well, how about I tell you why I didn’t text you back earlier?” Andrew’s suggestion takes Neil by surprise and distracts him from his misery.

“Okay,” Neil says. He tips his head so he can look at Andrew.

Andrew’s fingers comb through his hair, trace the curve of his ear. Neil feels like he’s melting. No one’s ever touched him like this, like he was something – someone – special.

“This is the wrong time to tell you,” Andrew admits. His voice is quiet, like he’s sharing a secret. “I couldn’t text you back because there was nothing I could honestly say that wouldn’t reveal how I feel about you.”

Neil’s heart skips a beat. He wants to grab Andrew’s hand and demand to know exactly how he feels. So he does.

“Andrew.” Neil sits up and holds Andrew’s hand between his own. “Tell me. I- I need to know.”

Andrew moves his hand until he’s cupping Neil’s chin. His expression is more open than Neil has ever seen it. Andrew’s looking at him like… Neil’s face burns.

“I wanted to tell you that I can’t look at you without thinking about kissing you.” Neil feels like he’s going to pass out. “I could quote you hundreds of cheesy movie lines but what it comes down to is this: you’re the person I think of the most and the one that I dream about.” Really, Neil is seconds from swooning. “And if you make me keep confessing while giving me that look I might die. Just saying.”

Neil releases Andrews so he can cover his face and hide his wide smile. He’s going to spontaneously combust. It’s sad that his demise will come so soon after the happiest moment in his life but life is never fair.

“Neil, say something.” The tension in Andrew’s voice pulls Neil out of his happy, internal melt down.

Andrew’s shoulders are tight, his hands balled up and resting on his thighs. He’s so wound up that he looks like he’s about to explode, too. Neil holds his hands out and Andrew places his palms over Neil’s.

“I was hoping you would say that,” Neil says. “I thought that I was the only one who was feeling things. And I’ve never felt anything like this before and it was awful, thinking that you didn’t like me back.”

“Why would you think that?” Andrew asks, bewildered.

“Because! You drove me home last weekend and you didn’t even try to kiss me good night! Even though we held hands during half the movie and all I could think about was you. I don’t even know how the movie ended or what happened to Elizabeth—”

Neil’s digression into Pirates of the Caribbean is cut short by Andrew’s finger pressing against his lips.

“Neil,” Andrew says, his face as serious as Neil has ever seen it, “I really want to kiss you now. Yes or no?”

Neil smiles and pushes Andrew’s hand out of the way.

“Yes.”