At eighteen, Neil was alone, with no purpose and nothing to live for. Two years later, he is loved, and loves in return. The barista at the coffee shop knows his order. He has a standing movie night on Wednesdays with his friends. But sometimes the world is too much, and he just wants to run away. He’ll always find his way back home eventually; he has made himself a real home to return back to.
Today is one of those days. He feels watched, hunted, like the ghost of his father is waiting just around the corner, ready to take him away, and hurt him. He had gone for a run before any of his roommates were out of bed, and ran and ran and ran. A couple minutes after he had collapsed, heaving, on a park bench Andrew’s sleek Maserati had pulled up to the curb. Andrew barely looked in his direction when he had opened the passenger side door and climbed in. He helped Neil feel a bit more permanent as he hit the gas and sped down the quiet streets. Instead of driving back to the dorms, he merged onto the highway toward Columbia. Neil just leaned his head against the window and lost himself in the blur of the city and the rumbling of the engine.
Andrew had packed him a little bag with a change of clothes, some deodorant, and some breakfast. He ate a granola bar and freshened himself up a little before sitting back in his chair again.
When Andrew passed the exit for Columbia, Neil sat up a little straighter, “Where are we going?”
“I don’t know, where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know.”
Andrew just kept driving. After a couple hours, when Neil’s butt was getting dangerously numb, Andrew pulled over at a gas station and got out of the car to refuel. Neil stretched in his seat, and yawned, before making his way inside to pee and get coffee for Andrew. Once he had added heaps of sugar to the coffee, and paid for it, he turned to go back outside. Taped haphazardly to the door was a poster for the Chattahoochee National Forest, which was apparently just 30 or so miles down the road. He got back in the Maserati, which Andrew had pulled up close to the door.
“Can we stop at the Chattahoochee Forest?” Neil handed Andrew his coffee and got settled in his seat.
“Bless you,” Andrew took the coffee and took a sip, probably scalding his tongue, before turning the key in the ignition and peeling out of the parking lot.
“Nevermind, just put it in the GPS,” Neil obeyed, getting out the iPhone Allison had bought him last week and putting the name into the Maps app. Dan and Allison had spent a couple hours downloading apps for him and trying to show him how they worked, but he had a feeling that the apps like Instagram and Snapchat would go mostly unused. Andrew had gotten one too, but he mostly treated it like the world’s most expensive bookmark, and had not cooperated when Renee had ambushed him and tried to coerce him into creating accounts for the social media Neil had gotten.
They sat in silence once more, listening to the occasional directions of the phone and heading further northwest. At some point Neil started nodding off, and Andrew turned on the radio to a NPR to pass the time. When they got there, Andrew found a place to park, the sleek car contrasting immensely with the minivans and bumper stickers in the parking lot. He didn’t wake Neil up, but got out of the car for a smoke. Neil drifted into consciousness a couple minutes later, ruffling his hair into further disarray and wiping the sleep from his eyes.
Neil gave Andrew a syrupy sweet smile, and asked, “Will you come on a hike with me?”
Andrew glared as if to say “really? a hike?” but he got his jacket out of the car and started off towards the trailhead, grinding the cigarette butt into the pavement under his heel.
The fresh air had done a good job of effectively waking Neil up, and he walked up to the map of trails behind Andrew. “What’s the absolute maximum miles you’ll do?”
“One,” Andrew would do as many as Neil wanted him to, and they both knew that, but for the sake of his reputation, Neil didn’t call him on his bluff.
“I think we should take the orange trail up to the outlook, then loop back on the green trail to the parking lot,” Neil tied his hair up with a bandana, waiting for Andrew’s response.
They started up the trail, Andrew trailing slightly behind Neil. Neil seemed to be doing better than he was that morning as he trekked up the hill, keeping a steady pace and a sharp eye on the scenery. He was feeling pretty good despite his run that morning and only had to stop a couple times for water breaks. Andrew seemed no more grumpy than he usually was, which Neil took as a good sign, but he had to stop a couple more times than Neil did. Neil blamed the cigarettes.
They passed a family hauling their three kids through the forest, and once they were well past them Neil turned to Andrew with a, “Thank you,” and threaded his fingers through Andrew’s.
“167 percent,” Andrew muttered, but he allowed the soft gesture nonetheless. They continued along the trail like that until they heard voices up ahead, when Neil carefulled detangled their hands and looked resolutely into the dense trees.
When they finally reached the peak of the trail, where there was a scenic overlook, Andrew sat criss-cross applesauce near the side of the cliff while Neil took a selfie with the trees in the background. He sat down next to his boyfriend and showed him the picture before taking one of them together as well and sending them off to the Foxes’ group chat.
Immediately, Nicky sent a message with a multitude of emojis, and the rest of the Foxes sent well wishes. Kevin lamented being left behind, but he was quickly told to shut up by Dan and Allison. Neil just smiled at his friends’ antics, and turned back to Andrew, who had lit up another cigarette.
“You should really quit, you know.”
“And you sound like Kevin,” Andrew quipped, taking another drag and blowing the smoke into the wind.
“I’m serious, Andrew. I’m not just nagging you because of Exy. I want to get old together, and not have to worry about lung cancer,” Neil blushed a little and looked back out over the forest, refusing to meet Andrew’s eyes.
“Yeah, I know, Junkie.”
They sat there for a while, then Andrew stood up, pressing a soft kiss to his boyfriend’s forehead as he went, though if someone had asked him afterward, he would have said it had never happened. Neil went after him, and put one foot in front of the other for the couple miles back down the mountain.
They got back in the car, and sat there for a couple minutes, breathing, before Andrew started the car with a roar, and asked, “Ready to go home now?”
“Yeah,” Neil was in a much better mindspace than he had been in when he had woken up, and though there was some residual anxiety, he was happy to go back to the dorms.
Before pulling out of the parking space Andrew leaned forward with a “Yes or no?” and at Neil’s approval, pressed a light kiss to his lips. Andrew pulled back and ran a hand through his auburn curls, then sat back in his seat, tuning the radio to a classical music station as he screeched out of the lot. They drove back to Columbia with a comfortable quietness, that was occasionally broken up by a soft comment from one of them, but for the most part they were content just to be together.
They stopped in Columbia, pulling into the driveway in the dark and casting the glow of the headlights on the side of the building. Something about it reminded Neil of his childhood, though distinctly calmer and happier. They had the house to themselves, even though the crew had planned to be there this weekend. Both Nicky and Kevin had been bemoaning the cancelation of the Eden’s trip all day, but at the same time both realized that Neil had needed a break, and so they hadn’t been too harsh.
Though it was barely ten, Neil was ready to go to sleep. He took a quick shower, emerging from the bathroom in a cloud of steam and a towel, and going to rummage through the clothes he had left there until he found something sufficiently comfortable. If it was technically Andrew’s shirt that he had picked up out of the drawer, it had just had the softest material of all the options.
Andrew was sitting on the bed, a novel in his hands and his reading glasses firmly in place. He looked up as Neil got on the bed, but didn’t acknowledge him until a quiet, “Yes or no?” was whispered into his stretched-out shirt collar. He nodded, and Neil pressed his face into his neck, leaving behind a trail of light kisses, before just resting his head on Andrew’s muscled shoulder. It was the closest they ever got to hugging or snuggling, but to them it was incredibly intimate, and more than they would have ever thought possible as teenagers.
Though sometimes it’s hard to see the future, the future they had seen for themselves was so far and so much darker than the futures they were living, but at the same time there was no way for it to turn out any differently. At eighteen, Neil was grieving, and expecting his own death, but at twenty-one, he was loved and he loved in return. He was laying in his boyfriend’s arms, with his past firmly in the past, even when it felt close to the surface.
They fell asleep that way, and in the morning, when the sun made its way through the blinds, that’s how they woke up as well. Neil slipped out of Andrew’s arms and the sheets, and padded downstairs to make them both a cup of coffee. He decided to skip his morning run to sit in bed with Andrew and read over his shoulder, munching on toast and diced pineapple and strawberries.
At about ten or so, they made their way to the living room, but they brought their blanket cocoon with them and set up camp on the couch. Andrew turned the PS4 on, and beat level after level on the new game Nicky had bought, while crunching on lollipop after lollipop. By noon, when they had gotten thirteen missed calls from Kevin telling them to get back to the court, they made a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, before changing and getting on the road. Neil sent the overbearing player a message letting him know that they’d be back in time to do an afternoon practice before dinner, which seemed to appease him.
They made it safely back to Palmetto, and after an hour of bouncing the ball back and forth on the court, Neil and Kevin called it quits and Andrew drove them back to the dorms. Someone, probably Dan, had called a mandatory team dinner at the diner, and Nicky and Aaron piled into the Maserati, while Allison took the others.
They pulled up to the restaurant in their sports cars, cracking inside jokes, and having a great time being together, and Neil realized how ridiculous his life really was, how ridiculous living really was. Neil was twenty-one, he loved his friends, and his boyfriend. He was supported and safe, and happy with his life. He was living a life he never expected to live, and he appreciated every second.