Summer camp is a terrible idea.
Aaron had stared at Abby from across the dinner table for five whole minutes, mouth agape and mashed potatoes dripping off his fork, when she had suggested it.
“It’ll be fun,” she had insisted. “I just don’t want you to be alone here while I’m away.”
“Mom,” he had whined, horrified, completely forgetting his reservations about calling her the ‘m’ word.
A mosquito lands on his arm. He kills it with a resounding smack, wiping away the blood on his shorts. It’s gross out here in the woods, with the humidity and heat. He’s already slaughtered four mosquitoes in the two minutes that he’s spent queuing up for the food in the cafeteria; soon, he'll have the reflexes of a professional insect extinguisher.
Can’t they at least close the goddamn windows?
The chirp of crickets buzzes in his ears, sweat sticking his shirt uncomfortably to his torso. Why did Abby suddenly want to send him to summer camp anyway? Is this some sort of premonition for worse things to come? Is she finally changing her mind about keeping Aaron? Aaron doesn’t know if that’s allowed, giving back the kid that you adopted four years ago because he’s growing to be a troublesome pubescent boy.
No, no, no. Abby would never. She said it herself, didn’t she? The only reason she wants him here in Hamilton County is so that he won’t be cooped up inside the house all by himself back in Charleston while she has to be in New York for some course she’s taking as part of her promotion.
Lunch is a sordid looking thing, served on a plastic tray that he carries despondently to an empty table at the back of the dining hall. He shoves some of the brown goop into his mouth and is surprised to find that it tastes pretty decent. He assumes they’ve blended all the vegetables and meat together into what he thinks is a type of stew, because there isn’t any other dish on the tray that bears any greens. Small mercies.
Abby still has to sneak vegetables into his meals sometimes because you can’t expect to only eat carrots and fried chicken for the rest of your life, Aaron.
Damn it. He misses her already, which is so stupid. It hasn’t even been a day since he last saw her. She had flitted about as she made sure Aaron had everything he needed with him, wringing her hands and re-checking his luggage over and over when she dropped him off. She had made him promise to keep her updated, and he hadn't had the heart to remind her that the reception was going to be awful out here in the middle of nowhere.
Sulkily, he stabs a chunk of apple and munches on it. If Abby is so worried, then maybe she shouldn’t have sent him here. Just let him stay in his room and play games all day. It’s summer, after all. He’s studied hard all year long and he thinks he deserves that much, at least.
“Hi,” a voice above him says. A girl with wavy, shoulder-length auburn hair and electric blue eyes smiles at him, holding a tray. “Are these seats free?”
Aaron swallows his food down with an audible gulp. Jerkily, he nods.
“Thanks,” the girl says, sitting across from him. “My friend is going to join us soon. I hope that’s okay.”
Again, he nods.
Shit, he thinks. She’s cute.
“Aaron,” he mumbles.
“Katelyn!” a different girl exclaims, stomping over to their table. “You won’t believe what just happened!” She plops down beside Katelyn with a huff, throwing her ponytail over her shoulder. “This rude guy cut the line in front of me and swiped all the pudding. When I called him out, he just stared at me, dropped a spoonful of the pudding on my shoe, and walked away. So freaking rude! Honestly, what is up with -”
She stops mid-rant, eyes widening when she sees Aaron. “It’s you! The little jerk who stole all the pudding!”
Aaron stops mid-bite, eyes narrowing at this accusation. “I did no such thing.”
“I saw you! And I talked to you!”
“El,” Katelyn says, her tone pacifying, “he’s been here the whole time.”
El looks less disgruntled now, confusion working its way between her brows. “I could’ve sworn it was you.”
Aaron eyes her skeptically. “Right.”
An awkward silence follows.
“So,” Katelyn says, dispelling the weird vibe, “Aaron, is it your first time here at Camp Walden?”
Aaron confirms this with a nod.
“This is our second year,” she supplies, smiling broadly.
Shit, Aaron thinks. She really is cute.
“You from out of state?” El asks through a mouthful of stew. She’s less annoying now that she isn’t pointing fingers at people.
“Yeah. South Carolina,” Aaron says. He suddenly feels very conscious of his Southern accent and makes a mental note to either tone it down or speak less. The latter is much easier, since he has the social graces of a walnut, a trait that’s made even more debilitating by his squeaky voice. He knows from his extensive reading that it’s one of the early signs of puberty, this unpredictable quiver in his voice.
Puberty is going to be tons of fun, he reckons.
“We’re both from Illinois,” Katelyn says, daintily taking bites of her apple slices. “Different cities, though.”
“Is this camp famous or something?” Aaron can’t help but ask.
El shrugs. “Sort of. I mean, some people come all the way from the west coast to attend the camp, so I guess it’s pretty good.”
“Last year, I shared a cabin with a girl from Alaska.” Katelyn smiles again. “It was a lot of fun.”
Aaron’s cabin mates are three other boys that he ignored when he claimed one of the bunkbeds and put away his stuff. He doubts that it’s going to be a lot of fun, sleeping in the same room with a bunch of strangers for the next eight weeks.
Katelyn and El have signed up for swimming lessons at the lake and they bid him goodbye after lunch. He’s almost sad to see them go, since they’re the first people he’s spoken to here. Truthfully, he feels a little lonely.
Reluctantly, he joins a group that ventures into the woods to study the flora and fauna that can be found in that area. He gets a ton of mosquito bites before he remembers that Abby packed him some insect-repelling cream, which he marvelously left in his luggage. Just marvelous.
His roommates decide that it’s a great idea to stay up all night playing Dungeons and Dragons, and Aaron wakes up the next day feeling more rotten than he did the day before.
He remembers to bring the cream with him today, slathering it all over his arms and legs before he forces himself out of the cabin. He browses around the activities that are offered at the camp and finds nothing that fascinates him.
He sees Katelyn and El again during lunch, and Katelyn suggests that he tags along with them for archery. Afterwards, they saunter together towards the lake for a swim.
Katelyn is - amazing, really. Her auburn hair glitters into a shade of burnish red as she walks into the sun, hopping onto a log and balancing herself as she walks across it. She loves swimming a lot, she says, and - as Aaron himself had witnessed - she’s really good at archery, too.
Aaron can’t stop staring at her. Summer camp suddenly doesn’t feel like such a terrible idea anymore.
A week passes before Aaron’s world is uppended.
The sun has just set and he’s heading to the dining hall for dinner when one of the counselors - a young man by the name of Josh - apprehends him by the elbow and staunchly tells him to return all the popsicles right this instant.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he tells Josh.
“Feigning ignorance isn’t going to save you, you know,” Josh says, aiming for a strict tone and wobbling a little on the landing.
Incredulously, Aaron snaps, “Why does everyone keep thinking that I’m stealing food?”
“Come on, Andrew. One of the kitchen staff saw you carry out a box of popsicles.”
Aaron’s lips twist into a scowl. “My name is Aaron.”
“I - what?”
“I don’t know who this Andrew is, but you’ve got the wrong person.”
Josh is tall and broad, but he looks pretty harmless now, consternation marring his expression. “I’m just gonna - you know what? Maybe I should check the roster.”
No shit, Aaron thinks.
Josh leaves, mumbling to himself.
What was that even about?
Aaron doesn’t have time to wonder about it. A figure dashes away from the cafeteria and barrels into him, sending them both crashing onto the ground.
Aaron groans, eyes screwed shut. He opens them to find himself staring down at him.
“What the -”
His look-alike pushes off of him and continues running, and Aaron wastes no time in scrambling to his feet and chasing after him.
Twigs snap and leaves crunch underneath his shoes as he sprints between trees, his lungs getting heavier with each intake of air. The boy in front of him finally winds down to a stop near a boulder, doubling over to catch his breath. At least Aaron isn’t the only one who needs to work on his cardio.
Once they both gather their bearings, Aaron manages to get a good, long look at his look-alike.
The resemblance is uncanny.
The same straw-colored hair, the same hazel-brown eyes, the same shape of nose and mouth.
What in the ever-loving fuck.
“Huh,” not-Aaron says, looking far too nonchalant about all this. “Didn’t think I had a clone. What did they say about meeting your doppelganger?”
“I - I think it means you’re about to die,” Aaron says through a tight throat.
His ‘clone’ circles him like a shark, studying him from head to toe. “You’re slightly scrawnier,” he observes, coming to a stop in front of Aaron, “same height, though.”
“Hey, who are you calling scrawny?” Aaron squints. “Is that chocolate on your chin?”
Not-Aaron swipes a thumb over his chocolate-stained chin and licks it. Aaron makes a disgusted noise.
“The name’s Andrew. Who are you?”
Aaron takes a few seconds to answer. “Aaron. Winfield.”
“So, Mr. Winfield.” Andrew steps closer, almost threateningly. “Want a Dum-Dum?”
“A lollipop. Try to keep up with the class, now.”
“Oh. Uh, only if you have the bubblegum flavor.”
“What do you think I am, a heathen without any taste?” Andrew reaches into the black fabric encasing his left arm and takes out a lollipop, tossing it to Aaron. “It is the only flavor worth eating.”
Aaron rolls the stick between his fingers. “Lots of people think it’s a weird flavor. They say that if I wanted the taste, then I should just -”
“Buy some chewing gum and eat that instead?” Andrew fishes out another lollipop from his armband and brandishes it in the air. “I have heard of that one plenty of times.”
“They just don’t get it! I don’t want to chew on some gum - I just want the taste. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried explaining it to them.”
Dramatically, Andrew sighs and shakes his head. “People are idiots.”
Aaron feels his lips working into a smile. They suck on their lollipops, the last rays of the sun guiding them back towards the lake.
“Did you steal a bunch of popsicles, by the way?” Aaron watches as Andrew kicks a pebble into the water. He looks at Aaron, impassive face shifting into a light smirk.
He brings Aaron to a secluded part of the campgrounds, behind an unused building. There’s a dilapidated shed with a door that squeals when it’s opened, and Andrew lugs out a cardboard box, dropping it by Aaron’s feet.
Intrigued, Aaron opens the flap. Inside the box is a...castle?
He frowns. “You’re using the popsicle sticks to make a castle?”
“It is a side effect of eating all the ice cream.”
Aaron snorts. “There’s no way you ate all that ice cream by yourself.”
Andrew holds a finger up in warning. “Do not underestimate a man’s ability to consume a frozen dessert.”
“How are you not sick?”
“I drink eight glasses of water per day.”
Aaron can’t tell just how much of it is a joke, since Andrew is so deadpan about it all.
Andrew stows everything back to its place and leads the way back to the cabins, switching on a flashlight that he pulls out of his armband. Aaron doesn’t even want to know how.
“Where are you from, Andrew?”
“The golden state,” Andrew replies, chucking his lollipop stick into some bushes. Aaron keeps his in his pocket.
“I was born in California,” Aaron reveals, “but I’ve lived in South Carolina for a while now.”
“I would rather be dead in California than be alive in South Carolina.”
Aaron rolls his eyes so hard he’s surprised he doesn’t give himself a headache. “Do you live near Hollywood?”
Andrew makes a derisive noise. “No, I do not, thank fuck. I live towards the north of the state, in Oakland.”
“How can you say the f-word so freely?”
“The ‘f-word’?” Andrew snickers. “What are you, eight?”
“I’m twelve, so shut the fuck up.” Aaron claps a hand to his mouth as soon as the words fly out. That would have cost him a dollar in the swear jar. Abby says that she doesn’t mind it if he cusses, as long it’s not under her roof.
Andrew’s lips twitch. “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“You’re such a bad influence.”
Andrew stops in his tracks. He clicks his flashlight off and on, tapping his foot against a rock, a hand on his chin like he’s deep in thought. “You’re twelve, huh?”
Aaron nods. “I’ll turn thirteen on November 4th.”
“What a coincidence,” Andrew murmurs, which suggests that it is anything but. “So will I.”
The porch lights of the surrounding cabins illuminate the path towards the lake. Aaron can hear the indistinct chatter and laughter of some of the campers. His stomach rumbles from missing dinner, but his hunger feels unimportant right now.
Aaron narrows his eyes, mind racing as he takes in Andrew’s appearance once again.
“Andrew -” he clenches his fists - “are you, by any chance, adopted?”
Andrew stops stroking his chin and buries his hand into his pocket. “I am. I assume that you are, too.”
“Did - did they ever tell you about your real parents?”
Listlessly, Andrew shrugs. “Apparently, my mother gave me up when I was a week old. There isn’t much to tell.”
Aaron swallows. His throat feels dry and raw. “Mine gave me up when I was three. I don’t really remember her. They told me though, when she died. About five years ago.” Not that it had mattered much to him. He had already been placed with Abby by then, and the world had started to look like a much, much brighter place.
Andrew’s eyes cut to him, sudden and sharp. “What was her name?”
Aaron rakes a hand through his hair in a nervous gesture. “Tilda Minyard.”
Andrew’s gaze remains unwavering, impenetrable. No twelve year old should be able to look so formidable. “So was my mother’s.”
A breeze blasts by, the leaves rustling and shaking above them. Aaron’s heart is thumping wildly in his chest, blood roaring in his ears.
“Andrew, do you think…” It takes him a while to finish the sentence. “Do you think that we might be brothers?”
Andrew blinks, slowly. His face doesn’t look quite so severe and detached anymore, with the ghost of a smile on his lips.
“Aaron,” he says, “I think we might be twins.”
The facts are these: both of them were born in Sacramento, California. Aaron was brought over to South Carolina as an infant, and Andrew stayed in the system until he was five. Their biological mother was Tilda Minyard, and their father’s whereabouts have never been known.
“He could be dead for all I care,” Andrew says, and Aaron silently agrees.
There is no way to know with a hundred percent certainty if they really are twins unless they do a DNA test, but they feel pretty confident about the probability that they came from the same womb, their physical attributes aside.
“What’s your dad like?”
Andrew taps his phone screen a few times and slides it across the table to Aaron. What greets him is a picture of a brown-skinned man with severe eyebrows and tribal flame tattoos crawling up his arms, dressed in jean shorts and a ratty band t-shirt, his hand in a cookie jar.
“I caught him red-handed,” Andrew explains. “He’s not supposed to be eating those.”
Aaron shows him a picture of Abby next, the one where she has her cheeks painted with dahlias at the carnival they went to last autumn.
The corner of Andrew’s eyes twitches. “I know her.”
Aaron starts. “You do?”
“Hmm. Well, I know of her. I have seen a photo of her in Coach’s office.”
“You call your dad ‘Coach’?”
“You ask a lot of questions,” Andrew says, but he clears Aaron’s confusion up anyway. “He coaches the football team at Berkeley.” A pause. “You call your mother by her name most of the time yourself.”
The way Andrew said the word ‘mother’ has Aaron bristling, even though he knows what Andrew is implying. It’s not like he doesn’t want to call her his mom, because he does, and because she is, in more than just the legality of it. But it can be a little embarrassing sometimes, he supposes, and a little scary. He’s heard about how it could all crumble away so easily.
“How do you think they know each other?”
“Adults work in mysterious ways.”
“Is your dad single?”
“He is hopeless at romance.”
Aaron guesses that that’s a hard yes.
“Abby is, too. She’s a workaholic.”
“She has time for you though.”
Aaron ducks his head a little, sniffing. “Yeah.”
She likes to say that she only needs Aaron to have a fulfilling life - nothing else, not even her job, can make her happier. She can be so sentimental sometimes.
Andrew twiddles with the knife from his plate, exuding an air of boredom. Aaron wonders if he looks like that too, disconnected from everything.
“It’s nice that you have a whole cabin to yourself,” Aaron comments, glancing around the room. It’s drizzling outside, water rivulets streaming down the window, the trees swaying.
“The isolation cabin isn’t too bad, if I say so myself.” Andrew picks his fork up next, randomly stabbing the morsels of chicken on his plate.
Aaron frowns, lips pursing. “Wait. Did you get yourself put here on purpose?”
“What do you think?”
Groaning, Aaron leans back against his chair. “Why didn’t I think of that?” He could have avoided listening to his roommates ramble about board games aeons ago if he did.
“There is still time for you to get into trouble and be placed here if you wish.”
“Yeah? Got any ideas on what I could do? What did you do?”
“I am not going to let you plagiarize my ideas.”
Aaron rolls his eyes. He sees Andrew here in the afternoons, and sometimes they meet behind the unused building or by the lake after dinner. They talk about everything and nothing, about the pretentious assholes at their school, their favorite and least favorite food and how gross pistachio sounds but it doesn’t actually taste bad when made into ice cream, their favorite movies and shows and how The Human Centipede should have never been put into existence, about on a scale of one to ten how fucked up is it that moose are preys and not predators, about their respective adoptive parents and their pets and what they miss most about home.
Much to Aaron’s shock and disgust, Andrew had voluntarily signed up for summer camp. He didn’t say why, just that it’s the first time he’s done it, and when Aaron asked why this camp in particular, a camp that’s literally on the other side of the country, he shrugged and said, “It’s one of the more expensive ones.”
Aaron doesn’t know what kind of grudge Andrew has against his dad’s wallet, but he guesses it’s not an issue worth pursuing. The camp brought them together, after all.
Today, after lunch with Katelyn and El, Aaron finds himself laying on the floor of Andrew’s cabin, gaze tracing over the whorls of the wooden ceiling above him.
“Do you ever wonder what it’s like to be in my shoes?”
“I don’t think I can fit into your shoes.”
From his position on the floor, Aaron kicks Andrew’s foot. “You know what I mean.”
“I suppose it would not be a stretch to say that I am curious about how it feels to have a mother.”
Aaron sits up and crosses his arms on the edge of the bed, staring up at Andrew. “I’ve always been curious about how it feels to have a dad.” Not that he’s not grateful for what he currently has, but sometimes he wonders.
Andrew, leaning against the wall with his feet dangling off the bed, dog-ears a page of his novel, closes it, and raises an eyebrow at Aaron.
“Care to enlighten the class?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know that look on your face. You are thinking about something hashtag deep.”
“You’ve known me for two weeks. You don’t know shit.”
“Oh, but I feel like my heart has known you since the dawn of time, dear brother.”
Aaron can’t help but snort. Seriously, how can Andrew say these things with a completely straight face?
Picking at the bed linen, Aaron collects his thoughts. “You’re always saying how bored you get sometimes at home, right? So maybe you’d like to - I don’t know - to...switch places with me?”
At Andrew’s silence, Aaron is quick to add, “For just a while! Maybe a week or so, before school starts again in the fall.”
Andrew drums his fingers against the front cover of his novel. “Seeing how the other half lives, huh?” he muses, head cocked to the side in thought. “I’m considering it, I’m weighing the pros and cons, and I think I accept your proposal.”
“We’re twelve. There is not a better time in our life for us to make impulsive decisions.”
“Pretty sure that’s not true but - you’re serious?”
“Why are you so surprised? You suggested it.”
Aaron rubs the back of his neck. “I mean, yeah, but I just thought that you would say that it’s meaningless or something. Like, what’s the point of doing it, aside from seeing how the other person lives?”
Andrew shrugs, careless. “Maybe this will bring your mother and my father together. Who knows? Maybe they’ll get married and we’ll start living together like your typical humdrum family.”
Aaron feels himself smiling a little. “Are you saying that you want to play matchmaker?”
“I did not say that. I was simply saying that if we swap places, they would have to swap us back at one point. And since they somehow used to know each other...”
“Maybe we’ll find out more about their relationship too.”
“Precisely.” Andrew leans forward on his elbows, closely examining Aaron’s face.
“Your eyes are perhaps further apart from each other than mine,” Andrew surmises.
“They are not! And you -” Aaron jabs a finger towards Andrew’s nose - “you have a lot of freckles, much more than I do.”
Andrew takes no offense at this, running a hand through his own hair. It makes Aaron reach for the top of his own head in an act of self-consciousness, but he can already guess what Andrew is thinking even before he says it.
“What do you say to a haircut, dear brother?”
“I love your new haircut,” Katelyn gushes, pinching a strand of Aaron’s hair between her thumb and forefinger. “Who did it for you?”
“A - a friend,” Aaron says, a flush creeping up his pasty face. He’s convinced that he looks like an unattractive tomato right now.
“An undercut, huh?” El says, chin on her palm. “Maybe I should try it out too. My mom would go ballistic.”
“Gosh, your hair is so soft, Aaron. You need to tell me your secrets,” Katelyn teases, blue eyes sparkling like the water in the lake.
“I just use regular shampoo.” Aaron tries to eat his lunch, but he’s too busy being distracted by Katelyn’s presence next to him.
“Good thing the lake doesn’t have chlorine in it. I think the swimming pool at my neighborhood rec center has too much chlorine in it, so now my hair is always frizzy.” Katelyn sighs. “I’m really going to miss this place.”
“Hey, there’s still some time left. You can swim to your heart’s content until then.” El takes a slurp from her juice box. “What about you, Aaron? Anything or anyone in particular you’re gonna miss when you go home?” She waggles her eyebrows at him, lips curled around a suggestive smirk.
Aaron chokes on his turkey sandwich. Katelyn thumps his back as a cough wracks through him, handing him a glass of water in the process.
“You okay?” Katelyn asks once he’s drank some water.
“Yeah,” he rasps out, glowering at a smug El.
Elizabeth’s little jab does, however, remind him that he needs to get Katelyn’s contact information. He scrounges up his courage and whatever scraps of his social charisma he has and somehow manages to actually get the words can I have your number out of his mouth after lunch.
“Oh, sorry, I don’t have a cellphone.” Katelyn smiles at him, sheepish. “My parents say I’m too young for one and that they’ll get me one when I’m in high school or something.”
Disappointment settles inside Aaron’s stomach. “I mean, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Your parents are - smart to do that. Really smart.” He bites his tongue to stop himself from saying anything stupider.
Katelyn only laughs. “I guess they are. But I have a laptop and an email account, so if you don’t mind, maybe I can give you that instead?”
“Yeah. That’s - yeah, that’d be great.” Because his brain can’t seem to function very well that day, Aaron flutters his hands about as he fumbles for a pen and paper so Katelyn can jot her email down. Later, he will realize - with great mortification - that he could have just asked her to type in her email into his phone.
A pen and notepad suddenly enter his line of sight. “Oh, perfect. Thanks.”
He grabs them before he realizes that Andrew is the one to offer them. His eyes almost bulge out of his skull.
Katelyn looks as surprised as he feels, eyes wide and lips parted.
“Aaron, you have a…”
“Clone,” Andrew finishes, a lollipop sticking out of the corner of his mouth.
“I...see,” Katelyn says, even though she clearly does not. Haltingly, with her eyes darting between Aaron and Andrew, she takes the pen and notepad and writes down her email, then gives them back to Aaron.
“I’m going to catch up with El now. She’ll be wondering where I am.” With an inquisitive stare, she waves Aaron goodbye. “I’ll see you tomorrow at lunch.”
After she disappears out of sight, Aaron wheels in on Andrew. “Andrew!”
“You totally freaked her out!”
“She will notice that there are two of us soon enough. A lot of the people here have.”
“Yeah, but you could’ve handled that more...delicately?”
“Who was that chick, anyway? Your girlfriend?”
Aaron’s throat makes a strange noise that’s half a growl and half a protest, his cheeks heating up. “She is not!”
“I would have questioned your taste if she was.”
“Hey, she’s a cute girl.”
“But she is -” Andrew’s lips twist in disdain - “a girl.”
“What are you -” Aaron stops. Scrutinizes Andrew for a long while. “You don’t like girls?”
Andrew slants him a bored glance before ambling away. Aaron hastily catches up to him, staring at the side of his face.
“Maybe,” Andrew finally says.
“Okay,” Aaron says. “What about boys?”
“What about them?”
Rolling his eyes - something he does a lot around Andrew - Aaron clarifies, “Do you like them?”
Andrew is quiet for a long time. Aaron tears the topmost page off the notepad, the one with Katelyn’s email, and passes the notepad and pen back to Andrew, who tucks them inside his armbands. Aaron’s already ceased hoping to hear an answer when Andrew says, “Maybe.”
“Okay,” Aaron says.
They leave it at that.
Aaron tugs his beanie over his forehead, the material scratching his eyebrow. Why does Andrew’s wardrobe consist of so many black outfits? And why does he insist that Aaron wear a stupid skull beanie when it’s ninety degrees out?
He doesn’t let his discomfort translate into his expression; he’s Andrew now, and Andrew rarely shows any outward signs of emoting.
“You have everything with you?” Andrew asks. He’s wearing Aaron’s NaBrO t-shirt that he got at a science fair a couple of years ago, foundation obscuring some of his freckles. Aaron told him that it wouldn’t matter - it’s not unusual for him to get more freckles during the hotter seasons - but Andrew seemed to derive a morbid sort of joy from stealing the foundation from an unsuspecting girl and experimentally smudging it over his face.
“Yeah,” Aaron answers, patting the duffel bag resting against his hip. He has Andrew’s backpack on his shoulders, and Andrew has Aaron’s. “Abby is going to pick you up and then bring you back to the hotel she’s been staying at for work. Then -”
“We will fly back to Charleston tomorrow morning. Yes, I know.”
“I’m just - a little nervous, okay? Sue me.” Aaron fusses with his armbands, resisting the urge to peel them off. Andrew himself keeps absently rubbing his bare forearms, the skin a much lighter shade than the rest of his body. He wonders what kind of lie he'll come up with to explain that.
“You have nothing to worry about. Coach will come get you at the airport.”
“Yeah, but I’ve never travelled alone before. And it’s going to be a pretty long flight. What if - what if I get lost or something, and I can’t find my gate?”
“You will have an escort. They usually provide you with one when you are under eighteen and travelling alone. We have been over this.”
Aaron breathes in and out through his mouth. Right. He can do this.
Andrew holds up his phone, giving it a pointed shake. “Just text me if you need to.”
Fortunately, they have the same phone models, so all they had to do was swap their cases to keep any unnecessary questions at bay when they get home. They had debated over whether they should swap phones or not, but decided that there wasn’t any concrete reason to do so. Any texts Abby sends to Aaron’s number and Coach to Andrew’s, they can just reply as normal. Besides, the likelihood that they’ll receive messages from their parents are relatively low since they’ll mostly be at home for the remainder of summer break, and they’ll - hopefully - be switched back before then.
It’s only for a week. He’s been away from home for the past eight weeks - what’s an extra week more? It’ll be fine. Right. They can do this.
“Oh,” Andrew says, “it’s your girlfriend.”
Aaron’s head whips up, eyes dashing over the crowd. He finds Katelyn waving at him from the back of a bus, her smile huge and bright. Dazedly, he smiles and waves back until the bus pulls out of the parking lot.
“She’s...not my girlfriend,” he tells Andrew weakly. “Wait, was she waving at you because she thinks you’re me?”
“Oh, will you look at the time?” Andrew makes a show of looking at the non-existent watch on his wrist. “You should get on the bus that’s heading to the airport now if you don’t want to be left behind.”
“Your southern accent is atrocious,” Aaron informs him, hitching the strap of his bag higher over his shoulder. He knocks his knuckles against Andrew’s and taps two fingers to his temple in a lackadaisical salute, something that Andrew does regularly.
“Good luck,” he says, almost a whisper.
It feels more like he’s saying it to himself than to Andrew.
He’s at the baggage claim area when it dawns on him that David Wymack might not like him.
He urgently sends Andrew a text and gets a reply which says dont be ridiculous. Huffing in frustration, he puts away his phone and trudges out to the arrival hall. It’s a totally valid concern, and Andrew is acting like it isn’t. Not helpful at all.
He doesn’t have time to fret any further because he spots a sturdy, tawny-skinned man standing with his arms folded across his chest a few feet away from him, mouth pressed into an unfriendly line and eyes hard as steel.
“Andrew,” Coach Wymack greets once he’s close enough, ruffling the beanie until it sits lopsided over Aaron’s head. “Took you long enough.” He hauls Aaron’s duffel bag over his shoulder and leads them to the garage.
“You hungry?” he asks once they’re in the car.
“I - yeah.”
Aaron’s mouth feels a little parched, but at least his body is working on autopilot; his brain is having a harder time to digest all this - Andrew’s dad in the driver’s seat with his elbow hanging out the window, the blowzy looking Land Rover that smells faintly of cigarette smoke and littered with candy wrappers, the dewy, rejuvenating taste of the late summer air in Oakland.
“Good,” Coach is saying from beside him, “I made some enchiladas. Before you make any smart-ass comments about my cooking, just know that I looked up the recipe beforehand. So no judging until you taste it, got it?”
“Fair enough,” Aaron mumbles, taking stock of Andrew’s dad. There is something very imposing about his appearance - the unkempt dark hair, the unsmiling face, the serious tilt of his eyebrows - but there is also something very… homely about him. His relaxed limbs, his faded t-shirt, his prudent eyes. He gripes unflattering comments under his breath about some of the other incompetent drivers, sipping from a stainless steel tumbler with the words The World’s Okayest Dad on the side. Aaron feels like he’s known him all his life, from the anecdotes that Andrew has shared with him.
Aaron, absorbed in his staring and wondering, doesn’t realize that Coach is talking to him until they stop at a red light.
“Something on my face, kid?”
Coach turns towards him, arm draped over the steering wheel. “You’ve been burning a hole into the side of my face since we left the airport. Care to enlighten the class?”
He really does sound like Andrew, Aaron thinks, something like delight and exhilaration brewing in his guts.
“It’s nothing,” Aaron drawls in what he hopes is a perfect imitation of Andrew’s indifferent speech pattern, slumping against his seat.
“Oh, really?” The light turns green and the Land Rover trundles down a hilly road. “No wisecracks about my shoddy shaving job or objectionable outfit choice?”
The sarcasm in his voice implies that Andrew has habitually made these remarks in the past, and Aaron barely suppresses a snort.
“You seem to be aware of your poor life choices, and yet you still go ahead with them. Nothing I say will change your mind, so why bother?”
Coach lets out a short, gruff chuckle. “I’ve missed you, you gremlin.”
Aaron doesn’t smother his smile this time, tilting his face towards the rolled down window, the sunlight warm on his skin.
They park in the driveway of a two-storey house, the light green paint chipped in some places. Coach unlocks the front door and, on his way to the kitchen, leaves Aaron’s bag at the foot of the stairs. Aaron enters the house with an inexplicable feeling of trepidation, like his cover would somehow be blown as soon as he steps across the threshold.
Nothing happens. Aaron closes and locks the door behind him, taking in his surroundings. Recalling the floor plan that Andrew laid out for him a week ago, he trails his fingers across the wallpaper as he wanders to the kitchen. Coach has dumped his keys on the counter, right beside the microwave; Andrew warned him that coach often forgets where he places his keys and always requires Andrew’s assistance in locating them.
Coach is plating their lunch - the aforementioned enchiladas - when a voice disrupts the peaceful silence and makes them both jump.
“Did you make that, Coach?”
Heart hammering against his ribcage, Aaron swivels around towards the source: at the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, a kid about his age is grinning from ear to ear, auburn hair unruly and blue eyes gleaming with mischief.
“Nathaniel, I swear to fuck,” Coach grouses, hands planted on his hips. “How many times have I told you to ring the bell instead of breaking into my house?”
“Really, Coach, your security system is way too easy to bypass. It’s like you’re not even trying to stop me from intruding.” The kid - Nathaniel - goes to the fridge and extracts a pouch of Capri Sun. “I know you love it when I’m here, but I didn’t think that you’d be so upfront about it.”
Coach pinches the bridge of his nose. “Kid, I thought you and your uncle won’t be coming back until next week.”
“Well -” Nathaniel fidgets with his straw, glancing at the floor, then at Aaron - “we came back early. And I thought it would be a nice surprise to drop by your place today.”
“It’s a surprise alright. Almost gave me a heart attack.” Coach drops two plates of enchiladas on the kitchen island. “Here. Go eat and catch up or whatever. And for the love of all things holy, don’t start any fires.”
“No promises,” Nathaniel quips, scurrying away with his food. Once again, Aaron’s body moves on autopilot, following Nathaniel out to the back porch, where they set their plates down on a wrought iron table. Meanwhile, Aaron’s mind is furiously sifting through the information that’s been fed to him by Andrew for the past few weeks; did he miss anything about a British-sounding boy named Nathaniel? Did Andrew conveniently forget to mention him? Are they neighbors? Friends? Classmates? Who the hell is this kid?
“Hey,” Nathaniel says, sitting across Aaron on one of the spindly iron chairs.
Okay, just calm down and continue the act. Andrew is aloof with everyone, so that’s what Aaron will do: be aloof.
“Hey,” Aaron returns.
Nathaniel is quiet, gaze sweeping around the dreary backyard, then back to Aaron again.
“So, how was camp?”
“It was fine.”
Nathaniel’s eyebrows knit together, like he’s displeased. He begins eating his lunch, so Aaron does too. He has a mouth full of meat and beans and cheese when Nathaniel asks, “Are you still mad at me?”
As Aaron finishes chewing and swallowing, Nathaniel continues, “I know you were mad that I didn’t tell you that I was going to spend the summer in England, but I already apologized, didn’t I? And, to get even, you went away for camp and didn’t tell me. So how long are you going to stay mad for?”
Nathaniel looks genuinely angry. Well, as angry as a - ten? eleven? - year old can look, anyway.
Freaking Andrew. Why didn’t he say anything about this kid? From what Aaron can deduce, based on very limited information, he and Nathaniel seem to be pretty close, since Andrew was upset that his friend was leaving him for the summer. And Aaron thought he was childish and crabby.
“I am not mad at you,” Aaron decides to say, erring on the side of caution.
Nathaniel opens his mouth, but doesn’t say anything for a while. “Well - okay, then.” His eyebrows are still furrowed, but he looks a little appeased now, less indignant. Aaron thinks he’s safe for now.
“Okay,” Nathaniel says, “so, tell me about camp. Did you do anything interesting?”
Aaron wipes some sauce off his mouth with the back of his hand. It’s going to be a long week.
That night, after feeding Pepper - the goldfish that Coach got Andrew for his eleventh birthday - Aaron sequesters himself to his room and dials Andrew’s number.
“Why didn’t you tell me about Nathaniel?” he hisses as soon as the line connects.
Andrew’s silence feels long and empty, stretched out across the distance between them.
“I didn’t think I needed to.”
“Well, you thought wrong!”
“He is back,” Andrew says, more or less a question.
“He is. Says that he spent the summer in England and came back here earlier than planned.”
“I see.” Another extended silence. “Hmm. This might be a problem.”
“Why? What do you mean? He didn’t suspect anything, so you can thank me for not ruining our little act.”
Andrew hums again; he doesn’t sound like he’s inclined to agree. “Just be careful.”
“He’s just a kid anyway. He won’t find out,” Aaron asserts. He doesn’t know if he’s trying to convince Andrew or himself. “And Coach is - he’s really great, I guess.”
“Oh? A little star-struck, are we?”
Aaron throws himself onto the bed, burying his face into a pillow. “He’s sort of cool.”
That afternoon, after giving cryptic answers to Nathaniel’s probing questions about camp, they decided to play card games to pass the time. Coach had poked his head outside to check on them, and he had demonstrated a few neat tricks.
He has no qualms about using swear words in front of them, but he did lightly cuff Aaron on the head when he dropped the f-bomb after Nathaniel won another round of Old Maid. Coach ruffles Aaron’s head quite often, a gesture of affection that Aaron has never really experienced before. Abby usually cups his cheeks or hugs him tightly or - most embarrassingly - kisses him on the forehead.
“How’s Abby?” he asks, a little meekly, afraid that it’ll be obvious that he misses her.
“Excited to have me - you - back, judging from her bone-crushing embrace when she picked me up. She also let me order anything I wanted for dinner. And she told me she likes my hair style, so stick that in your sock drawer, Aaron.”
“Fine, fine, you have a fantastic hair style and the rest of us plebes don't. Where are you now?”
“In the hallway. She is in the room, already asleep.”
“When are you going to ask her about - about Coach?”
“Tomorrow, perhaps. Maybe after our flight.”
“I might ask Coach tomorrow, too.”
They don’t exactly have a plan for this whole thing; they just want to see how each of their life is, and - when the time is right - mention to their parents that they may or may not have a twin who was separated from them at birth. They don’t really know what will ensue when they eventually spill the truth. They just hope that they can continue to be in each other’s life after being deprived of it for so long.
“She is… kind,” Andrew says. “Gentle.”
It takes Aaron a few seconds to realize that Andrew’s talking about Abby, and when he does, a wave of pride wells up in his chest.
“Yeah,” he agrees, “she’s the best.”
“No need to be smug about it,” Andrew says.
They bicker for a few more minutes before hanging up. As he stares up at the ceiling, phone face down next to his pillow, a breeze gliding in through the open window, Aaron wonders how much trouble they’ll get into when Abby and Coach find out what they’ve done.
Even if he gets grounded until he’s sixteen, he thinks it’d be worth it.
Before going down for breakfast, Aaron sends Katelyn an email. He started composing it last night before he fell asleep, but he couldn’t send it until now because he kept recomposing it over and over again.
Coach is already awake; Andrew said that he’s usually up early, taking a walk around the neighborhood and going over some paperwork before he eats breakfast.
“Andrew,” he says as he pours freshly brewed coffee into an orange mug, “you’re up early today. Got anything planned with Nathaniel?”
Aaron shakes his head and pops two slices of bread into the toaster. Over his shoulder, he surreptitiously glances at Coach, who’s sipping his coffee and reading the newspaper with his eyebrows drawn together. It seems that the frown is a permanent fixture on his face.
Aaron bites the inside of his cheek. Licks his lips. Unhinges his jaw, and finally opens his mouth to softly say, “Dad?”
Coach lowers the newspaper and lifts an eyebrow at him. “Yeah?”
Aaron releases a slow exhale. “Dad,” he says again, liking how the word feels on his tongue, “have you had girlfriends in the past?”
Coffee sloshes over his hand when Coach sets his mug on the counter. He growls a quiet shit, reaching for a paper towel.
“Why -” he sucks in a stuttering breath and rubs his forehead with a finger - “why the sudden interest, kid?”
“No reason in particular,” Aaron says, carefully eyeing Coach’s reaction.
“Coming from you, that usually means ‘I’m plotting something’.” Coach folds the newspaper and sighs. “I had one in college, and another when I started working.”
“That is quite the statistics.”
“Shut up,” Coach grumbles. “It’s not like you know anything about romance. You’re not even thirteen yet.”
Oh, this is pretty fun. Aaron crosses his arms and rests his hip against the counter. “But we’re not talking about me right now, are we? Tell me about these girlfriends of yours.”
Coach shoots him a wary glare. “You were never one for romance, Andrew. Why the change of heart? Is there something going on with you that I should know about?”
Damn. Why do adults like to turn things around and change subjects like this? Besides, does Coach even know that Andrew possibly likes boys? Aaron really can’t let his guard down; he needs to tread lightly through this conversation.
“Is it a crime to want to know more about your love life, Coach? Are you hiding something? Something so scandalous that you can’t share it with a child?”
Coach massages his forehead some more, muttering something about nosy gremlins and how it's too fucking early to be dealing with this.
“The girl I dated in college was from Ireland. I thought we ended things on a good note, but I haven’t heard from her in years.” Coach strokes his beard, a wistful expression on his face. “The other one… we met through a mutual friend.”
Andrew did warn Aaron that Coach can be a little cagey sometimes, and that he’s not the best at giving motivational or comforting speeches. The upside to this, he’d been told, is that Coach never lies.
“What are their names?”
“Like hell I’m going to tell you. You’re planning to look them up on Facebook or something, right?”
Aaron flicks his wrist in a dismissive gesture, something that he’s seen Andrew do countless of times. “Nobody my age uses Facebook anymore, Coach. Tell me more about your second girlfriend.”
Coach looks at him witheringly. “Just eat your toast, Andrew.”
Aaron hopes that Andrew is having more success prying the truth out of Abby. He also hopes that he has a strategy on how to tell her that he isn’t actually Aaron without completely freaking her out.
Aaron jolts so hard he falls off his bed.
Nathaniel appears above him, an eyebrow quirked. “Did I surprise you? I haven’t been able to do that since the first time I met you.”
Aaron pushes himself up on his elbows, pulse still accelerating from the shock. How is it that Nathaniel manages to sneak around without making a single sound?
“What are you doing here?”
Nathaniel stares at him like he’s some weird mythical creature.
“To do what we usually do. Practice German. Read books. Play games. Torment Coach.”
Right. Right, Andrew and Nathaniel are friends; Nathaniel lives right across the street with his uncle, and he evidently hangs out with Andrew quite a lot.
They load up a racing game on the television downstairs while Coach heads out to work. Summer training for the football team is in full swing apparently, and he tells Aaron that there’s some food in the fridge for him to heat up for lunch.
“You know,” Nathaniel says after they play one round, “there’s something different about you.”
Aaron almost drops the console. Adjusting his grip, he resolutely stares at the television screen.
“What does that even mean?”
“It means what it means.” Nathaniel shifts on the couch so he’s facing Aaron, legs folded underneath him. “You seem different, and act different too.”
“You are imagining it.”
“I’m not,” Nathaniel argues. “Your eyes look a little different, and yesterday, when Uncle Stu invited you over for tea, you didn’t eat the cake that he made.”
“I ate a slice,” Aaron corrects.
“That’s basically nothing compared to the amount you usually eat.” Nathaniel huffs, eyes sharp. “And that’s not all. Your face too -”
Nathaniel’s fingers on his cheek has him flinching in surprise. The room falls silent, the atmosphere tense.
“Andrew,” Nathaniel says, cutting in its quietness, in its firmness, “what is going on?”
Aaron stares at his armbands - Andrew’s armbands - and wonders, for the first time, if he has bitten off more than he could chew.
“Nothing is going on. We just - haven’t seen each other in a while. That might be why you feel that I am different.”
Nathaniel balls his hands into fists, fingers bunched around the hem of his t-shirt. “Why are you lying to me? Do you think I’m stupid and won’t notice?”
Ah, damn. Aaron really underestimated this kid, didn’t he? Andrew, too, should have prepared him a whole curriculum on how to deal with scrappy eleven-year-old boys who can sniff out your secret in less than twenty-four hours.
Closing his eyes, Aaron expels a sigh. He hopes Andrew won’t kill him for this.
“I’m different because I’m not Andrew. I’m Aaron, and I’m his twin.”
What Aaron didn’t expect was undiluted support and belief in response to his little confession.
A hush had fallen over the room, and - after what felt like years - Nathaniel had surged forward and smushed Aaron’s cheeks between his palms, his gaze intense.
Then he had straightened his spine, released Aaron’s face, and nodded in satisfaction.
“That makes sense.”
Where in the absolute hell did this child come from?
He had still been reeling from Nathaniel’s easy acceptance when Nathaniel fluidly jumped to his feet and announced, “I’ll help you.”
Aaron hadn’t managed more than an intelligent, “Huh?”
Nathaniel had shrugged. “Not for free, of course. I expect a suitable form of payment from both you and Andrew, but we’ll discuss the details later. Now, tell me all about this exchange of yours.”
The rest of the morning finds Aaron explaining to Nathaniel what he and Andrew had in mind, an event that abruptly and rudely gives him the distinct feeling that all this is very, very poorly thought out.
Nathaniel listens to it all attentively and points out that it does sound very impulsive, but he also says that it’s his brand of fun, so let’s get to it!
Aaron can sort of see why he gets along so well with Andrew, but it does make him seriously consider if he is actually from a different planet.
Over text, Aaron asks Andrew is nathaniel an alien?
that might explain everything is what Andrew replies with.
“How confident are you that you can set Coach up with your mum?” Nathaniel asks him over lunch.
Aaron stops himself from cringing, but it must have seeped through anyway, because Nathaniel says, “Not so confident, huh?” He swings his legs from where they’re hanging off the barstool, lightly kicking the kitchen island. “Can you text Andrew and tell him that he sucks for keeping this a secret from me?”
“Tell him yourself.”
“Not all of us are lucky enough to have a phone before we reach puberty, Aaron.”
Aaron clicks his tongue but dutifully types out the message. He saves it as a draft, because he still needs to mention the little tiny bit about how their cover is blown.
“But what a small world, huh? Who would have ever thought that you would be reunited with your twin brother at summer camp and that your adoptive parents used to know each other? Talk about a wild coincidence.”
“You talk a lot,” Aaron complains.
“Only when I want to,” Nathaniel counters loftily. “What did Coach put in this meatloaf, anyway? It tastes a little odd.”
“Heck if I know.”
Nathaniel laughs, a bright, startling sound. “I don’t know how I didn’t see it earlier, with you using the word ‘heck’ instead of an actual swear word.”
Aaron harrumphs. “Andrew uses the f-word way too liberally.”
His phone vibrates with an incoming text. “Speak of the devil,” he says, and Nathaniel peers over his shoulder to look at the screen.
What he reads has him blanching and dropping his phone on the counter, jaw hanging open.
“What is it?” Nathaniel inquires, picking the phone up to scan the text. “Oh.”
“This has got to be a joke,” Aaron breathes out, still gobsmacked by what Andrew just relayed to him. “There’s no way - I don’t believe it. Abby wouldn’t - she would never -”
Nathaniel arches an eyebrow. “She would never go on a date with a colleague? You really don’t know how adults work, do you?”
“Ugh, shut up.” Aaron snatches his phone back and calls Andrew, putting it on loud speaker.
“We are screwed,” Andrew says evenly in lieu of a greeting.
“She has a date?” Aaron doesn’t exactly screech the question out, but it’s a nigh thing.
“We have established that.”
“Who is it with? Robert from accounting? Greg from human resources? Please tell me it isn’t Greg from marketing.”
“It doesn’t matter who it is with. What matters is that she has a date later this evening, and it is up to us to prevent the relationship from evolving any further.”
“I guess it is, but I still haven’t even found out if Coach and Abby used to date. He’s being so evasive and stuff.” Aaron sighs, scrubbing his face. “I’m just - what if we go through all this only to find that they don’t even like each other? Would they still let us be - be friends?”
Andrew doesn’t say anything, the line descending into silence. Beside Aaron, Nathaniel looks neutral, something reminiscent of Andrew’s demeanor and very contrary to how expressive he usually is.
“They would,” Andrew replies. “Even if they wouldn’t, we would still find a way to make it work.”
Relief washes over Aaron like a tide. He believes in Andrew, and he believes in them, but hearing the words carries its own magic and gravity, he thinks.
“Okay. So she’s going to go on a date tonight. What’s next for us?”
“You have to bring dad here,” Andrew declares.
“What do I even tell him, though?”
“You’re smart - you will figure it out.”
“And I’ll help you out,” Nathaniel chimes in.
“Oh,” Andrew says, a little too flatly. If Aaron didn’t know better, it’s almost like Andrew is caught off guard and is grappling to regain his balance. “Nathaniel.”
“Yes, Nathaniel. Just so we’re clear, you owe me for this.”
“Of course,” Andrew says, voice dipping into something uncharacteristically soft. Then he clears his throat. “I have to go. I have to take Aaron’s mutt out on a walk.”
“Hey,” Aaron reprimands, “you better be treating Poppo right.”
“I would if she would stop barking at me.”
Aaron sniffs haughtily. “It’s because she can smell all that bad vibe you emit.”
“At least I am not a nerd like you. Goodbye.”
“Asshole,” Aaron mutters, pocketing his phone and smiling despite himself.
Nathaniel looks contemplative, twirling his fork around his fingers. “Pepper the fish and Poppo the dog. You two really are twins.”
When he’s at home, Coach only smokes outside on the porch, when neither Aaron nor Nathaniel is around. That night, when he goes out after dinner, Aaron follows, hands shoved into his pockets and armbands abandoned on his dresser.
An unlit cigarette clamped between his lips, Coach looks appraisingly at Aaron.
“Something I can help you with?”
“Um, sort of.” Aaron scratches the back of his neck and glances around the sparse backyard, twilight painting splashes of orange and violet over everything. He takes in a deep breath, clenching his fists.
“Dad,” Aaron says, a frantic serration to his squeaky voice.
The frown on Coach’s face morphs into one of concern. “What’s the matter, Andrew? You alright?”
“You’re not alright? What’s wrong? You sick?”
“I’m not Andrew,” Aaron whispers.
“Say that again?”
“I’m not Andrew,” Aaron repeats, louder. In one breath, he blurts out, “I’m Aaron, his twin. At least, we’re pretty sure we’re twins? We met during camp, and we decided to switch places and now I need you to bring me back to my mom and switch us back.”
The cigarette slips out of Coach’s slackened mouth. He recovers quickly enough, massaging his temple and squeezing his eyes shut. His lips flatten into a terse line when he opens his eyes and asks, “Is this a prank that you and Nathaniel concocted?”
“I wish it was,” Aaron says, morose.
Coach lets out a thousand years’ worth of a sigh. “Aaron, was it?” At Aaron’s nod, he continues, “If you’re here, then where’s Andrew?”
“With my mom.”
“Yes, you’ve said that. But where exactly is he?”
Aaron winces. “South Carolina.”
“I know, I know. But the good news is that you...know who my mom is? I mean, Andrew says you do? He’s seen a picture of her in your office. Allegedly.”
Resigned, Coach looks up at the darkening sky. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”
“Her name is Abigail. Winfield.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“She adopted me a while ago. Really, this is nothing short of a miracle, don’t you think?” Aaron forces a laugh, strained and dry.
“It’s a miracle that I don’t have hypertension.” Exasperatedly, Coach rubs his forehead again like he’s trying to ward off a migraine. “What were you two even thinking?”
The side of Aaron that’s prickly and contemptuous rears its head to defend himself and Andrew. “That we wanted to learn more about each other after being separated at birth.”
“People normally text or call each other.”
“We’re twelve,” Aaron retorts, for lack of a better response, but he makes up for it by packing in as much attitude as he can into his voice. “We don't know any better.”
Coach sighs again. “Fucking kids,” he grouches. “Why do I even do this to myself?”
“Because you’re very charitable. A man among men,” Nathaniel says solemnly. Coach and Aaron leap a foot off the ground at his sudden appearance.
“Will you quit that?” Aaron snaps.
On the plane to Charleston, Aaron notices that Coach is anxious. With such a robust, unflappable personality, Aaron almost didn’t think it was possible. Maybe Nathaniel was right; he really doesn’t know how adults work.
He had asked Aaron for a lollipop earlier, but then caught himself and said, “Right. You’re not Andrew. You probably don’t carry a bunch of shit with you in a pair of armbands.”
Right now, he’s grinding his teeth together and glaring at the tray table as if it has personally offended him. Aaron then glances down at the hands that are clutching the arms of the seat like they’re trying to throttle the life out of the things.
Pausing the movie he’s watching, Aaron removes his headphones. “Are you nervous, Coach?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Want me to get you something to drink?”
Coach shakes his head, the lines on his face as taut as his muscles.
“Your mom,” he starts. He coughs, swallows, starts again. “Your mom. How is she?”
“Well,” Aaron drawls, not hiding his accent and turning sideways in his seat, “you would’ve known the answer to that yourself if you had kept in touch.”
“How am I surrounded by a bunch of rude brats all the time?”
“Why did you guys break up? Did Abby dump you for swearing all the time?”
“It probably didn’t help,” Coach says, voice glum.
“Now you’re just being a Debby Downer.” Aaron digs his wallet out of his pocket and takes out the photo he’d wedged between one dollar bills. He straightens the creases out and holds it up for Coach to see. “You guys look happy in this, so I don’t think she hates you or anything.”
Carefully, Coach takes the photo, eyes riveted on his and Abby’s smiling faces. In the picture, they have their arms around each other’s waist, laughing at something off to the side. Sunlight is spilled over the hair cascading down Abby’s back, her eyes scrunched up in joy.
“When did you steal this?” he asks distractedly. There’s a crinkle between his brows, but his eyes are filled with fondness.
“After you went to sleep last night. Andrew told me where to find it.”
Coach scoffs. “And I was so sure I hid it in a place you - Andrew - would never find.”
“Bottom left drawer of your office desk? It can hardly be called a hiding place.”
Coach doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. The sound of the engines thrums around them. A few rows ahead, a baby wails. In the next aisle, a man snores.
“I guess we broke up because we thought it would be best for us,” Coach murmurs. Then he clears his throat and tucks the photo into his pocket, face rearranging itself into a grim frown once more. “Buckle your seatbelt, kid. We’re going to land soon.”
They still have an hour before they arrive in Charleston, but Aaron straps himself in anyway. The journey ahead of them is not going to be a bumpless one.
Andrew has managed to get Abby to agree to dinner at a fancy French place downtown, and that’s where they plan on springing Coach onto her. Nathaniel had reserved a place for them using his uncle’s name and credit card, and Aaron feels a little sorry for Stuart for being saddled with such a devious little nephew. Not that he himself is any better.
Coach had confronted Aaron about the extravagant restaurant choice, but any sense of ire had wilted when he had realized that he is going to be seeing Abby soon. He’s dressed in something that’s not an old t-shirt and a pair of jean shorts - which is a good start, but the nervous set of his mouth somehow makes him look even more intimidating than he usually does.
He drops Aaron off at the curb and rounds the block to find a parking spot for their rental. Aaron is about to enter the restaurant when two familiar figures approach from across the street, and he swiftly ducks behind a mailbox to avoid being spotted. Andrew had updated him about half an hour ago on the situation: Abby still doesn’t know that Andrew isn’t Aaron. He really doesn’t want her to find out right before she is reunited with a man she may or may not resent.
He texts Andrew a few seconds after he and Abby disappear into the restaurant, and Andrew comes out to meet him not long after. Abby seems to have wrangled him into one of Aaron’s ‘Sunday outfits’, which is just a collection of geeky, dapper clothes that he has to wear when they visit Abby’s conservative mother in Myrtle Beach.
“Am I glad to see you,” Aaron exhales. They bump their fists together and are about to discuss their plan for the evening when Coach interjects them with a, “Shit, there really are two of you.”
They turn towards Coach, suit rumpled and tie askew even though they haven't even gone into the restaurant yet.
“How did they not mention any of this when I signed the adoption papers?”
“Oh, Coach,” Andrew says, “you should have really known better.”
Coach pulls Andrew into a side hug, mercilessly ruffling his hair until it's a wayward mess.
“You little gremlin,” he grumbles, not without affection.
Andrew closes his eyes for a moment, nuzzling against Coach’s jacket. Then he pries Coach’s arm off him and says, “This is what you decided to wear to meet your ex-girlfriend? It's like you are not even trying to win her back.”
“That's because I'm not,” Coach says, matter-of-fact.
“Why?” Aaron crosses his arms, churlish. “Is my mother not good enough for you?”
“Yeah, Coach.” Andrew copies Aaron's posture and tone. “Is Abigail not up to your standards?”
Coach heaves a sigh. “You know that's not why. God, dealing with two of you instead of one is going to give me hypertension for sure.”
“Aaron, what are you doing out here? I thought you were going to the bathroom?”
All three of them go stiff. Abby, too, freezes when she sees them.
“Aaron.” Her wide, perplexed eyes flick from Aaron to Andrew. “Aaron?” Then her eyes narrow, cautious. “David?”
“Abby,” Coach acknowledges, voice hoarse.
They fall silent, Aaron and Andrew deliberately staring at the ground and the mailbox respectively, Coach apprehensively staring at Abby, and Abby dumbfoundedly staring at all of them. Then, almost hysterically, she demands, “Can somebody tell me what the heck is going on?”
Abby’s progression from confused to angry to downright upset is scary to witness. It’s probably because she’s usually so level-headed; it’s rather alarming to see her order some alcohol to go along with her dinner, but Aaron thinks that she deserves that much. There are other worse ways to cope with - all this.
“You and I are going to have a few words when we get home,” she tells Aaron, “but for now, let’s enjoy some food that I have trouble pronouncing, shall we?”
Aaron turns to Andrew for help but is neatly ignored. He takes a sullen sip of his grape juice and kicks Andrew’s shin from under the table, and receives a stomp to the foot in return.
“Boys,” Abby warns, tone curt.
Properly chastised, Aaron stares down at his plate. Words have scarcely left Coach’s mouth throughout the evening, but his eyes keep darting towards Abby.
Aaron really hadn’t considered how Coach and Abby probably don’t feel comfortable talking about their relationship and hashing out the past when they’re accompanied by their sons. At least the food is good.
When it’s time to leave, Abby asks to speak privately with Andrew while Aaron and Coach wait outside. From the glass window, Aaron sees Abby wrapping her arms around Andrew in a hug. After a moment, Andrew returns it with a tentative curl of his fingers at the back of her dress.
“Aaron,” Coach says.
Aaron turns his attention to Coach, who is looking at the blinking street lamp at the end of the lane, his face as stern as it always is.
“You know, since I’m Andrew’s father, and you’re Andrew’s brother, that would - that would make you my son, too.”
Coach crosses and uncrosses his arms, jams his hands into his pockets, roughly clears his throat.
Oh, Aaron thinks. “Oh,” he says out loud. Oh.
The smile that overtakes his face is beyond his control, the feeling bubbling in him akin to the giddiness he felt the first time Abby told him she loves him.
“I just wanted to be sure we’re clear on that,” Coach says grumpily. “I don’t want to deal with any misunderstandings or anything troublesome like that.”
“Sure,” Aaron says through his smile, “whatever you say, dad.”
Abby exits the restaurant with Andrew in tow. She pulls her cardigan over her chest, shoulders squared as she regards Coach.
“David,” she says, holding her hand out, “it was nice seeing you.”
Coach stares at her before he slowly clasps her hand. “Yeah, it was nice seeing you, too.”
“We should -” she waves her free hand around - “catch up sometime?”
“That would be good. Yeah, that’d be great.”
“Right.” Abby pulls her hand away, but doesn’t tear her eyes away from Coach’s. Aaron shares a glance with Andrew; it’s really no wonder why their parents are single.
“Right,” Abby repeats. “We’ll be going, then. Good night.” She nods at Andrew, smiling warmly. “Good night, Andrew.”
Andrew gives her a lazy salute and bumps his fist against Aaron’s, and they part ways.
In the car, as Abby drives through the familiar route heading home, Aaron cracks his knuckles and marshalls his courage.
“Sorry,” he apologizes, “for making you angry.”
Abby sighs, eyes on the road. “I’m not angry. I was worried. Worried about you being in a place you’re not familiar with, about you keeping this big thing about you a secret.” Another sigh. “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t mean to make you so uncomfortable.”
Neither of them say anything for a while.
“So,” Aaron ventures, “about Coach.”
Abby’s grip on the steering wheel goes rigid and slack all at once. “What about him?”
“Will we be seeing more of him?”
“Well, he’s a part of Andrew’s life, and Andrew is a part of our life now, so yes, I guess we’ll be seeing more of him.”
Aaron holds back from making an aggrieved noise. “Let me rephrase that. Will you be seeing more of him? As in, will you be going on a date with him or something? Or maybe just meeting up to talk about - stuff?”
“Aaron,” Abby says, patient as always but sounding more tired than usual, “there really isn’t anything to talk about. He and I used to date - that’s all there is to it. It’s different now - we’re different now. We have our own lives, and there’s no point in revisiting the past.”
Aaron knows he should drop it, but he can’t help but ask, “But do you still like him?”
The car skids to a smooth stop in front of their house. Abby turns off the engine and folds her hands on her lap.
“I’ll always like him,” she says, voice delicate within the metallic walls of her Chevrolet.
Then why didn’t you guys try to make it work? Aaron wants to demand, but he thinks he’s given Abby enough shit to deal with in one night. But he really doesn’t understand how adults work, and it’s really beginning to annoy him.
“Maybe the French place was overkill,” Nathaniel finally concedes, the line crackling with his defeated sigh.
Andrew grunts. Aaron says, “No shit, Sherlock.”
“Well, you two weren’t coming up with any ideas at the time, so I don’t want to hear anything negative about it coming out of your stupid mouth, Aaron.”
Aaron opens his mouth to give a scathing response, but the quelling look Andrew sends him has him grouchily shutting up.
“How is it looking right now?” Nathaniel asks.
Aaron and Andrew peek over the hedge, watching Abby and Coach meander through the rose garden. They had somehow managed to rope their parents into meeting up today as a way to say goodbye before Andrew and Coach fly back to Oakland tomorrow. Coach had bought Abby an ice cream cone before they went into the park, and she had bought him a fruit smoothie. They eventually stop to sit on one of the park benches, still in conversation.
Aaron thinks he and Andrew are a pair of geniuses for setting this up.
They’re supposed to be at the arcade, but they’ve decided that spying on their parents is unequivocally a much, much better alternative. Someone has to make sure they get their shit together.
“Promising,” Andrew answers.
“Oh,” Aaron says, “she just touched his arm.”
Nathaniel whistles, impressed. “I’m glad things seem to be working out,” he says. Then, after a brief pause: “Do you know what would be funny? If we found out that Coach actually has a secret son somewhere.”