They find Josh’s body on a Tuesday.
It’s one of those cold-hot days in October, the kind his mom calls carsick days - when the temperature is fluctuating and deceptive and being in a car for hours is the last thing you want to do. The sun is already burning through the midday Midwest mist that’s ever-present this time of year.
Tyler is riding his bike to school when it happens, having missed his bus just barely. He doesn’t know it yet, but right now the sheriff is pulling Josh’s body out of the water — because it’s not Josh anymore, just a shell, an empty vessel for the boy it used to house — and fighting back tears and bile because goddamn it, he’s just a kid.
And it’s clear Josh is long, long gone, choked to death on brackish water by the cruelty of nature. His skin is blue and green in places from soaking in the lake all night, skin tender and fragile as tissue paper. It’s starting to slough off just a little. Some of the officers gag. Some of them pray.
His eyes, which used to be so deep brown you could drown in them — and oh, the irony of that — are milky now, clouded over with the sediment of death. The medical examiner is quiet as he examines the body. He signs the death certificate perfunctorily and oversees two officers as they place the body in the van. Josh was always skinny, but now he looks like nothing more than a tiny lump of bones beneath the thin fabric of the stretcher under his back and the bleached white sheet covering him.
Tyler right now is in second period, geography, and he still doesn’t know. He will soon enough.
He gets home at a quarter to four, slightly sticky with sweat that has chilled and congealed on his skin from the ride back. His mom is waiting for him at the kitchen table when he comes through the door, which she never does. It’s not a good sign.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at work still?” he asks.
“Sit down, honey,” his mom says. Which doesn’t answer the question at all. “We need to talk about something.”
Tyler cries after. He’s old enough and good enough at controlling his emotions to sit stoic while his mom tells him. But later, after, he goes to take a shower and ends up sitting on the floor, cold like ice on his naked skin, and thinking about Josh.
About how he’ll never finish freshman year, never graduate high school. Never dance with a pretty girl at prom. Never make music in Tyler’s basement again, tapping out drumbeats on the concrete floor. Never again hear the latest records at the only music store in town, big blue headphones smashed down over his ears. Never learn to drive. Never fall in love, get married, buy a house, have 2.5 little Joshes with curly hair and big smiles. Never leave Ohio. Never see the world.
Never talk to Tyler again.
It’s that thought, that Tyler will never get to hear Josh’s voice, his deep belly laugh, never get to see his ear-to-ear us-against-the-world secret smile ever again, that tips him over the edge.
His chest hurts with how much he’s feeling right now. And then it swells and swells and bursts like water from a dam and he’s crying and sniffling and fucking drowning in his tears and snot and saliva and oh God, he’s never going to see Josh again and the water in the shower is pounding on the tile and the bathroom fan is whirring and no one can hear him cry so he sobs and sobs and feels his heart squeeze and contract over and over and over until it feels like he’s just bleeding out his sorrow. And he knows, he just knows it’s always going to feel like this. He’s never going to feel okay again.
By December, Tyler’s got a secret.
Her name is Jenna, or at least that’s the name he gave her. She showed up in the woods one night when they were out trying to find Josh (because he’s not dead, okay, he’s just not) and now she lives in his basement. Jenna’s strange and mysterious and cool. She has a tattoo on her wrist, an honest-to-God real tattoo that might be a J or might be some weird fishhook-looking thing that just so happens to look like a J. Either way, it reminds him of Josh just a little every time he sees it.
She also has a shaved head, like no hair at all, and it kind of makes her look like a boy, but not really because she’s too pretty to be a boy. She also doesn’t talk very much, and when she does it’s in one- or two-word answers. Tyler thinks he might be falling a little bit in love with her.
Which is a relief because, well.
Jenna seems to like his friends well enough. She sits and watches when they hang out, yelling and tossing chips at each other over board games. They don’t play Dungeons and Dragons anymore, not after Josh. And it’s different now, though Tyler’s not sure exactly how. It’s just that they’re all… quieter, maybe. They get lost inside their own heads more often, share silence like they share their snacks. And when they’re all asleep (or trying to be) in scratchy sleeping bags on the basement floor, Tyler swears he sometimes hears one of them crying.
He hasn’t cried himself since… well.
Tonight he and Jenna are hanging out in the basement alone, because everyone else had siblings to babysit or homework to finish or grocery shopping to do with their moms. So Tyler is tucked up on one side of the old battered couch they have down here for some reason, teaching Jenna how to read.
Because, apparently, she doesn’t know how. Tyler has no idea how old Jenna is but he suspects it’s close enough to his age that someone should have taught her to read a long time ago. Sure, she doesn’t go to school, but still.
They’ve been working through one of his old picture books from when he was a kid, the one about Frog and Toad. Tyler thinks it’s cute. And pretty enjoyable – at least enough so that he can help Jenna read through it at her excruciatingly slow pace without getting too bored.
Jenna looks strange in the dim light from the floor lamp next to the couch, different somehow. Her hair is starting to grow out just the slightest bit, enough that the light catches in the longest of the fine blond strands like a halo of fire around her head. Tyler is transfixed by this, and by the way her cheekbones are visible through her pale skin, by the way her blue eyes – ice blue, sharp but not unkind – are staring intently at the page.
He’s not paying attention to what they’re reading anymore, can’t even hear anything over the blood rushing through his ears, so when she puts a hand on his knee, just the softest pressure, he startles.
“I don’t know this word,” she says.
“Meadows,” he pronounces carefully. “It’s like… a big open field of grass and flowers and stuff.”
Jenna reads on. Tyler continues to watch her, to get lost in his thoughts. It comes so easily to him now, the quiet. It feels warm, almost. Safe, almost. But not quite.
“Listen, Frog,” said Toad. “How long have I been asleep?”
“You have been asleep since November,” said Frog.
Tyler has been asleep so long he forgets what it was like to be awake.
The first dream happens the night they find the girl in the woods.
The girl is Jenna, but they don’t know that yet. For now, she’s just the girl. The strange one. The bald one. The one they found in the woods, dirty and in a torn-up yellow sweater. It was raining when they found her, water dripping from Tyler’s hair into his eyes as they combed the woods, screaming for Josh.
Because Josh wasn’t dead. Not really. At least that’s what they were allowing themselves to believe. Because Josh couldn’t be dead. His mom had said she heard his voice the other night while she was trying to sleep. And then all the lights in the house turned on and off like fireflies in August.
Tyler’s mom said Josh’s mom was batshit crazy.
Tyler wasn’t supposed to hear that, but his mom had been doing a lot of whispering on the phone to her friends recently and he’d gotten curious about what she was saying. His mom wasn’t the kind of person to keep secrets unless they were crazy important.
So maybe Josh’s mom is crazy. But Tyler’s known her since he was like five and started going over to Josh’s house after school. Josh’s mom worked a lot, but she would always bake them cookies if she was home, the extra-good kind that came in a tube. Tyler’s mom never bought those kind because they were “unhealthy” and “bad for you.” Either way, Tyler trusts Josh’s mom with, like, his whole life. And he doesn’t think she’s crazy.
Which is why they’re in the woods that night, getting soaked with cold autumnal rain and splashed with chalky mud and bits of leaves. And then she just – appears. Like a ghost or something, just straight out of the trees into the weak beam of light from Mark’s flashlight. She’s wet from the rain, too, bleeding from a cut above her eye and barefoot on the muddy ground.
They take her back to Tyler’s house because his parents are out having a “date night” and his sister’s studying-or-maybe-making-out-with-her-secret-boyfriend in her room. And also because Tyler and his friends aren’t savages. They were raised with some manners, and they know not to just leave this poor girl out in the storm. It’s too late in the year for tornadoes, but you never know.
And then Tyler wakes up in the middle of the night to a tremendous clap of thunder, heart racing. He stumbles to the bathroom in the dark, cups his hands under the faucet and drinks two huge gulps of water, before heading back to bed. It’s only when he gets under the covers again, burrowed in his blankets like a worm in the wet earth outside, that he remembers he was dreaming.
He can’t remember it all, because the more he tries to focus on what he does remember, the more it threatens to dissipate like cigarette smoke, leaving behind nothing but a lingering sense memory. What he does remember, though, is that Josh was there.
Josh was there and Tyler was holding his face in his hands and he was alive. And he was smiling, that big bursting smile that showed all his teeth and made his eyes crinkle up at the corners. And then Tyler was…
Tyler touches his lips with cold, shaking fingers.
No, he thinks. I never… I would never…
He was kissing Josh in his dream. It’s coming back to him a little now, the feeling of lips on his, of warmth, of breath, the smell of Josh that Tyler knows like the back of his hand because he’s grown up with it. And Josh was kissing him back. Gentle. Josh is – was – always gentle. It’s why the other boys at school always picked on him so bad.
Tyler’s stomach is starting to knot up a little, and there’s a strange sensation in his abdomen. It’s a little like being on the roller coaster at the county fair, like the anticipation before freefall, but a little warmer, a little deeper. He feels so weird.
Tyler falls back asleep.
The dreams keep coming.
Tyler’s sister has a secret boyfriend. He drives her home from school sometimes. And he sneaks in her window sometimes. Tyler only knows this because he caught them kissing one time. He didn’t mean to, obviously, he was only coming in to ask if Maddy had any more tape he could borrow because the D&D board had a big tear in it and the others had sent Tyler up to figure out how to fix it.
And then Maddy made it her personal mission to teach Tyler all about kissing and dating and “how to talk to girls” and a lot of other mushy stuff he couldn’t care less about.
“You’ll care someday,” she said.
No, I won’t, he’d thought. And he didn’t. At least not until right now, when he’s hanging out with Jenna in the basement again. Jenna, who he has this gross, massive crush on that makes him want to crawl under a rock and just lie there for the rest of his life until he dies or something. Jenna, who he’s about to kiss.
They were working on her reading again, making progress towards chapter books now. And then they got a little bored and started having a staring contest. And then it was clear to Tyler that Jenna was going to win because of course she was, because she has a mysterious past and doesn’t need to eat that often or even blink, apparently. So then he had to cheat, of course, because he needed to win. Because they bet literal, actual money on this, like ten dollars that Tyler doesn’t want to give up.
So his brain says, Just kiss her. And Tyler pretty much always listens to what his brain tells him for some reason, so he does.
Jenna’s lips are a little cold and a little sweet-tasting from the Skittles she’s been eating. And she’s not exactly kissing him back, but she’s not pushing him away either, so he kisses her for a few more seconds and then breaks away.
“Um,” he says.
“Good,” she says.
“That was… good.”
Jenna leans towards him again, slowly, eyes open but soft. Their mouths meet again, a little firmer this time. And then all the lights go out.
The first time Tyler sees Josh after he gets back is at the hospital.
At first he barely recognizes him, because Josh is practically a skeleton now. He has these dark, dark bruises under his eyes and his hospital gown is falling off his left shoulder, showing a scrap of sharp collarbone underneath.
Josh is sleeping when he comes in and Tyler just – he can’t do this. He tells his mom he feels sick and they have to leave right now and when they get home, he cries in the shower until his eyes feel itchy and swollen in his head.
It’s not until Josh is back home, recuperating on his living room couch under ten pounds of blanket and six pounds of cat, that Tyler feels brave enough to see him again. Even then, he feels almost scared on the drive over (his brother insisted).
He shouldn’t have worried, though. Yes, Josh is still ghostlike, fragile like broken bones and glass vases, but he’s himself. The same. It’s almost like nothing ever happened. It takes six weeks before Josh is ready to go back to school, and even then he’s almost too weak to carry his backpack around. By lunchtime most days he looks ready to keel over.
Josh’s mom doesn’t let him go over to any of his friends’ houses anymore unless he has at least two witnesses at all times on the way there and back, so Tyler starts taking the bus to Josh’s house every day after school. It’s not the most ideal plan, because Josh’s stop is second-to-last on the route and because Tyler tends to get a little motion sick.
But it’s all worth it because it means Tyler gets to spend time with Josh every single day, for hours. Tyler’s mom picks him up at five thirty every day on her way home from work, unless his sister has debate club after school, in which case she brings him home instead. Sometimes with her boyfriend in the passenger seat.
Usually, Tyler and Josh do their homework first, sitting at the kitchen table and eating whatever snacks are in the cupboards. Then they make their way over to the couch or to Josh’s bedroom floor or the porch, if it’s a nice day out, and they talk until it starts to get dark out and either Tyler’s or Josh’s mom pulls into the driveway. Sometimes they take bets on who will get home first. Josh usually wins.
Josh is different now. Strange. He knows things he didn’t know before, things he shouldn’t. Things that haven’t happened yet, sometimes. And sometimes he goes quiet for a while, staring into space. When he’s like that, Tyler can’t make him snap out of it. He just has to wait until Josh comes back to himself.
Sometimes, Josh tells him about what happened while he was… away.
“Everything was gray and black and red,” he says once.
“There were times I thought I was already dead,” he says another time.
“Last night, I thought I was throwing up slugs,” he says today. “I was screaming so loud I almost gave my mom a heart attack. She came running to the bathroom and I was shouting and pointing at the sink, but there was nothing there.”
“Oh,” says Tyler. He doesn’t know what else to say.
“It hurt,” says Josh. There are tears in his eyes.
Tyler doesn’t know what to do. Josh is crying and he doesn’t know what to do. There’s a single tear curving a silver track down Josh’s cheek, then several more chasing it and catching at the point of his chin.
“I wish I could make it better,” Tyler says, more to himself than to Josh.
Josh is sobbing harder now, messily, snot bubbling from his nose and saliva hanging in thin strings between his lips. It’s clear he’s in pain, the way his face is all scrunched up. His hands are bunched in the thin carpet of his bedroom floor, fingers clenching and unclenching repeatedly.
Tyler wishes he could make it better.
Without thinking too much about it, he puts a hand on either one of Josh’s cheeks, warm and wet with tears. He leans in slowly, feeling the irregular hot puffs of Josh’s breaths across his own mouth. He comes closer, closer, until his eyes are crossing and he has to close them. Tyler kisses Josh between one hitching sob and the next.
It’s wet and sloppy and a little gross, if he’s being honest. Tyler has Josh’s tears in his mouth, and his snot and spit and sweat mingled in there too. It’s perfect.
And then it isn’t, because Josh is stiffening up and pushing him away and getting to his feet. His eyes are red-rimmed and wild when he looks down at Tyler. His mouth opens and closes and opens and closes.
“I – ” he starts.
Then the front door slams, making them both jump. Josh’s mother calls down the hallway.
“Tyler! Your mother is here to pick you up!”
Tyler is still staring at Josh. Neither of them have blinked.
“You have to go,” says Josh.
Tyler can’t speak. He isn’t sure what might come out if he tries, what sounds he might make if he opens his mouth. He just nods instead and stands up to leave. Josh takes a step back as he passes him, and if Tyler’s heart wasn’t breaking already, it sure is now.
He doesn’t talk the whole way home, just stares out the window at the blur of houses and cars and trees as they pass.
The first thing Josh says when he comes back is “Tyler.”
Jenna is there, holding his hand, when he comes back through the shadows into their world, the real world. She knows what it’s like, being born back into the world of the living after days and weeks and an eternity underneath it, in the black and gray and red. She knows that when he speaks, when he says Tyler’s name, he’s really saying “Is this real?” and “I’m alive” and “Thank you,” all in one breath.
“I know,” she says in return. “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”
Josh stares up at her in reverence. His eyes are the deepest, darkest brown she’s ever seen.
Josh doesn’t talk to him for days. It’s the longest they’ve gone without speaking in all the time they’ve known each other – except for when Josh was… gone.
At school, Josh is normal. For the most part. He talks to their other friends like usual, cracks bad jokes at the lunch table and laughs when Mark tosses a chunk of sandwich at his face. He comes to their D&D game on Wednesday night, but he shows up late, like he’s afraid to be alone with Tyler at his house. Like Tyler’s something to be afraid of.
Like Tyler’s as bad as whatever it was almost killed Josh – there.
Tyler starts having vivid dreams, but now they’re nightmares. In them, he sees Josh’s wide, wide eyes, like they were when Tyler… and then in the dreams he is the monster, he’s the one who kills Josh, who cuts his throat and drowns his body in the lake by the quarry.
He wakes every morning at 2 a.m., mouth hanging open in a silent scream, sweat cooling like needles on the back of his neck. He’s starting to dread going to sleep at night. He’s starting to look like Josh did when he first got back, thumbprint bruises curved like apostrophes under his eyes.
“What was down there?” Tyler asked once. “What was trying to get you?”
After a moment, Josh responds, “A shadow.”
Tyler waits patiently for Josh to gather his words, to explain.
“It was like,” he starts. “It was like a big shadow, shadows maybe. And it was black and cold and I could tell it was evil. And I had to run or it would get me.”
“What would happen if it got you?” Tyler asks.
“I would die.”
Tyler knows he’s not a monster. He knows he’s not as bad as that shadow… thing. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t question himself still, whenever Josh meets his eyes for a split second before darting away. He feels a little like a monster when that happens, and when Josh starts telling his mom he’s getting behind on homework and Tyler can’t come over anymore.
When Tyler’s mother tells him that, it feels like a slap to the face. Tyler didn’t even know he could be hurt anymore. He thought after his heart broke that it fossilized, like one of those petrified trees he’s read about. He’s learning all kinds of new things about pain recently, it seems like.
The only reason ever Josh talks to him again is because Josh’s mom has to pick up an extra shift at the drugstore at the last moment and Tyler’s parents are the only ones around on New Year’s Day to look after him. Like most things in life recently, Tyler doesn’t see it coming. Apparently, Josh doesn’t either because he looks a little shell-shocked when Tyler’s mom invites him into the living room.
“Did you have a nice Christmas?” she asks.
“Yes,” Josh says. “My brother got me a new bike.”
“Oh, how wonderful,” says Tyler’s mom.
Then she looks over at Tyler, trying to make himself invisible at the kitchen table. “Ty,” she says. “Why don’t you and Josh go hang out in your room for a little while. I’ll call you out when it’s time for lunch.”
Tyler has no choice but to shrug and walk down the hall to his bedroom, not daring look to see if Josh is following him. He pulls out his desk chair and sits down, fiddling with his pens and pencils. He hears Josh sit down on the edge of his bed, making the sheets rustle and the springs groan a little.
Josh sighs. “So,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” says Tyler before Josh can say anything else. “I shouldn’t have done it and I’m sorry everything’s weird now. I miss being friends.” He doesn’t turn around to see Josh’s expression.
“Tyler…” Josh says.
“And it’s okay if you don’t want to be friends or you don’t want to talk to me anymore. I just want you to know I’m sorry, okay?”
He turns around. “You were just… you were crying and I didn’t know what to do but I didn’t want you to cry anymore.”
Josh is looking at him like… well, like he’s surprised for one. And like he’s confused and tired and a little sad. But most of all he’s looking at Tyler for the first time in two weeks and it’s like…
It’s like the expression Tyler knows he gets on his own face when he looks at Josh, like he’s been looking at Josh ever since he started having those dreams and since Josh came back and since Jenna came to their last D&D game and watched them all and took Tyler aside afterwards, before she went home to her new room in her new house with the sheriff, who was apparently her dad or something now.
“You like him,” Jenna had said.
“Of course,” said Tyler. “He’s my best friend.”
“But you’re sad.”
“Because…” Tyler paused. “Because he doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.”
“Not true,” said Jenna.
“Not true,” she repeated. “He’s sad, too. Misses you.”
“He’s mad at me.”
“Because I like him. I like like him.”
“Yes,” Tyler admitted, quietly.
“Like me?” Jenna asked.
“Yes,” Tyler said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Love is good.”
Tyler wanted to correct her, tell her the world was not that simple. But Jenna said it so simply, with such conviction, and he realized that maybe sometimes the world was that simple.
“I want you to be happy,” said Jenna.
“I’m trying,” said Tyler.
And he has been. And now Josh is looking at him a little sadly, a little bemusedly, a little like he’s in love with Tyler. And it’s terrifying.
“Josh?” Tyler asks.
“I’m sorry,” says Josh. “I shouldn’t have freaked out and like, run away or whatever.”
“You didn’t run away.”
“Yeah, but I would have.”
“Why did you stop talking to me?” Tyler asks, and it’s like breaking his own heart in two. “I would have apologized earlier, if you had just let me.”
“Because I was scared,” says Josh.
Josh looks like Tyler’s just punched him in the face.
“No,” he says vehemently. “Of course not.”
“Because I like you. Because I don’t want to lose you.”
Josh is looking at him like he’s begging Tyler to understand. Like Tyler should know what he’s trying to say without actually saying the words. It’s confusing and it’s frustrating and Tyler wonders if this is what an out-of-body experience is like because everything’s so blurry and surreal and upside down right now.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to say,” he admits.
“Ty,” says Josh. “I think I love you. I don’t know if you love me, but I love you so much it makes my head hurt. I think about kissing you all the time and when you kissed me, it was… it was too much.”
And oh. Oh.
That’s not what Tyler expected him to say at all. Josh is looking at him now, shy and scared and expectant, waiting for him to say something.
“I thought I was a monster,” he says. “Like the shadow.”
It’s not what he meant to say, not what he ever planned to admit, not in a million years. But it’s what comes out of his mouth, from his confused little brain that’s been rolled around like a seashell in the ocean these past few couple minutes.
“I would never – ” Josh starts, then shakes his head. “You’re not a monster. You’re nothing like a monster at all.”
He looks up, tries to meet Tyler’s gaze, but Tyler’s vision is blurred now, Josh’s face just a smudge in his line of sight. Tyler might be crying a little.
“Oh,” says Josh. “Oh no. Don’t cry.”
He slides off the bed and onto his knees at Tyler’s feet. He places his hands on Tyler’s knees, a warm, stabilizing presence. Then he stands up a little more, moves his hands to Tyler’s shoulders, to his face, brushes away a few stray tears with his thumbs.
“We’ve gotta stop crying like this all the time,” he says. Tyler laughs a little, weakly.
“That’s better,” says Josh, and leans in to kiss him gently on the lips.
When Josh gets his license the next fall, the first thing he does is drive over to Tyler’s house in his mom’s old beat-up Volvo. He lays on the horn twice, a sad little meep meep. Tyler runs down his front steps and out to the sidewalk.
“You did it!” he cheers.
Josh smiles. “Scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
Tyler slams the passenger side door closed and hits Josh’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “Ha fucking ha,” he says.
“Ooh, look who learned how to swear.”
“Somebody’s been a bad influence,” Tyler shrugs. “Anyway, where are we going?”
Josh adjusts the rearview mirror and shifts the car out of park.
“Wherever we want,” he says.
It’s October again, so he rolls down the window. A cool breeze rushes into the car, worming its way through the holes of Josh’s sweater he didn’t even know were there. It smells like wood smoke – somebody down the street is burning leaves.
Tyler reaches over to cover his hand on the steering wheel.
“The clouds are beautiful today,” he says. “It’s a good day for a drive.”