The brash night-sounds of nature surround their tent. Curled in his sleeping bag, Michael lets the vastness of the desert enfold him like a hug. He’s awake, though he feigns sleep when he hears Max roll over beside him.
Isobel doesn’t go camping with them anymore.
“Dude,” Max repeats, a little louder. “Hey, Michael!”
“Oh my god,” he groans. “What do you want, Max?”
“There’s shooting stars out there.” Max points through the mesh and unzips the flap.
“Yep.” Michael has been watching them, too, though he won’t admit to it. Holding his own private communion with the night sky, which mostly involves staring at those distant pinpricks of light and praying something up there will come down and save him.
“They’re everywhere, it’s crazy,” Max is saying. “I wonder what makes them do that.”
For an alien, Max possesses very little knowledge of the greater galactic system and its astronomical phenomena.
“They’re not stars, they’re pieces of rock hitting the atmosphere,” Michael says, because astronomy is one of his pet subjects and he can’t help himself. “Space rocks. Meteors.”
“Oh. So they’re close,” Max says, sounding startled.
“Closer than stars. ’Bout fifty miles up. Big ones can make it through and land on earth, those’re called meteorites.”
“I think you mean meteoroids,” Max says.
“Meteorites,” Michael repeats with awful patience, because, unlike Max, he actually knows a lot about this stuff.
“Oh yeah, we had the test on that,” Max says, not quite acknowledging that Michael is right. “What’s the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite?”
“No fuckin’ clue,” Michael says. He couldn’t give less of a shit about mineral deposits in subterranean caves.
“Oh. Me neither,” Max admits. “Guess it doesn’t matter.”
Max doesn’t say anything for a while, and Michael hopes he’s gone back to sleep. He watches another streak of light cut across the sky.
“You ever think about dying?” Max says suddenly.
“Like when me and Isobel were in Yosemite last week”—the Evans clan had recently gone on holiday—“we were hiking up a waterfall, and this kid slipped on the trail ahead of us. What if he’d just gone over the edge, bouncing off rocks and stuff, and ended up at the bottom a torn-up bloody pile of bones—”
“Don’t be dumb,” Michael says. “Isobel told me there were guard-rails all the way up the—”
“Well. Even a guard-rail away from death is still pretty close to dying,” Max insists. “Or maybe a meteoroid—ite— falls out of the sky and—”
“Yeah, pardon my Latin, but that’s totally retarded, Max.”
“Don’t say ‘retarded,’” Max admonishes. “It’s insulting to—”
“The only person I’m insulting is you, bro,” Michael says, closing his eyes and flinging an arm over his face. His ribs are aching. Some older kids at the group home jumped him a few nights ago. He gave pretty good and landed some nice ones, but it was three versus one and he’s learnt better than to use his powers just for the sake of winning a fight. So now he has a giant bruise wrapped around his rib cage that looks exactly like Australia, down to the archipelago of smaller bruises for Tasmania and New Zealand.
“Whatever, that’s not even the point,” Max says.
Michael sighs. “What is the point?”
“Like…” He can hear Max rustling around in his sleeping bag. “Do you ever think about it?”
“Jesus fucking Christ, Max.”
“You’re actually lying awake ’cause you’re scared you’re gonna die? Seriously?” Michael wonders what book Max has gotten into this time, to get him obsessing over death like some amateur fucking philosopher.
“Dude shut up,” Max grumbles.
“I didn’t know you were so deep.”
Michael laughs. A sharp pain lances through his ribcage.
“I can be deep if I wanna be,” Max defends himself. “Junior high felt so long, and it was only three years. High school is gonna be even longer. And it’s like, the longer you’re alive the more likely it is that something will kill you.”
Two meteors cross in the sky.
“Wow,” Max says. “Did you see that?”
Michael doesn’t answer. He’s thinking about the time his foster parents in Albuquerque got so fucked up they forgot the glowing cigarette left on the table before they drove off, and how Michael almost burnt to death in his bedroom before he managed to move the fire with his mind and dart out just as the ceiling collapsed.
“Everybody thinks about dying,” he says at last. “Everybody dies, right?”
“It’s just, like, if I died—”
“I have so much shit to do still.”
“Like what?” Michael scoffs. “Pass a math test?”
“Screw you. Like, drive a car, shoot a gun, get a girlfriend—grow up, be a man.”
That sets Michael off again. “Be a man?” he snickers. “Have your balls even dropped yet?”
“Do you even have a dick?” Max retorts.
Michael groans. “Pathetic.”
“Did I tell you I think Maddie almost tried to blow me at Sophie’s birthday?”
Michael rolls his eyes in the dark. “Only about a million times, yeah.”
“Well. She seemed like she was really—like she was totally gonna—”
“—like she was totally gonna do it, but you only had two minutes left in the closet, I know,” Michael finishes for him. Puberty makes Max insufferable sometimes; does he really think Michael wants to hear this shit? Michael enjoyed their camping trips a lot more when Isobel was with them—not that he blames her for swearing off after what happened to her. He still sneaks out to the desert on his own at least once a month; he was surprised when Max wanted to join him, but he certainly wasn’t gonna turn down the company and the chance to get a little acetone buzz and test their powers where nobody was around to see.
“I could die, at any moment—”
“—with an unsucked dick. How tragic.” His eyes are gonna roll right out of his skull at this rate. Max really doesn’t have a clue, he thinks. Last week, while Max and Isobel were climbing waterfalls and sleeping in air-conditioned cabins, Michael woke up to find another kid from the group home, a guy a little older than him, sitting on his bed. The guy held a finger to his lips and then he whispered Dare me.
What? Michael said groggily.
—Dare me to suck you off.
—Could all be dead tomorrow. UFO might crash through the ceiling. Kill us all.
Dude, that’s gay—
—Not if you dare me.
I’m not, like, gonna do it back.
—Whatever. Go on, dare me. Dare me. Dare me.
Michael hadn’t said anything. He lasted about sixty seconds. Then the kid went away, and, in the morning, he thought he might have hallucinated the whole thing but deep down he knew he hadn’t. He was relieved when the kid got fostered out a few days later, because, Jesus, what the fuck.
He can never tell Max about it.
After Sanders has gone home for the evening, Michael and Max post up behind the auto shop with a 40-oz High Life. Max is near to bursting with some kind of news but Michael doesn’t like to encourage him, so they just pass the bottle back and forth in silence until Max bubbles over.
“I—got some… action,” Max announces, the words coming out all jerky.
“Action?” Michael smirks.
“What happened on Tuesday?” Michael decides to throw him a bone. Sixteen is proving to be a momentous year for Max. He’s got his license, got a car—he and Isobel had each gotten one—and now he’s apparently got some, too. Good for him, honestly. When it comes to women, Max oscillates between baseball-team machismo and the kind of medieval chivalry that probably went out of style even before people stopped jousting. His approach to dating is perplexing, to say the least.
“Vanessa Stoneman. She um. She jerked me off under the bleachers.” Max being Max, what he intends as a boast comes out all bashful.
“How was it?” Michael asks.
“Pretty… bomb,” Max says.
Michael snorts. “How was it for her?”
“You know. She like…did her thing.” Max turns red.
“I mean, like, when you got her back,” Michael elaborates. “You did, didn’t you?”
“How’d you do it?” Michael wants to know. Max and Isobel have an irritating tendency to treat him like a younger brother, but he isn’t. He really, really isn’t.
“Uh. I did it by doing it.”
And this kid wants to write novels? Jesus. “Well, how?” Michael presses. “C’mon, use your grown-up words.”
“I’m not a kid,” Max says, starting to sound aggravated. He flips his baseball cap around so the brim is shielding his face. “Stop treating me like some kind of novice, okay?”
“Ooh, novice, nice one,” Michael says, because Max makes it just too easy sometimes. “I’m trying to figure out my bro’s style, is all.”
“Come on.” He passes the 40 over.
“Okay, okay.” Max takes a swallow. “I just, like, did it to her. You know?”
Michael raises his eyebrows.
“Like, okay. I, um, I just… penetrated her. With my, uh… finger.”
“That’s it?” Michael says. “You just…?”
“No uh…?” He waggles his eyebrows.
“You know…” Michael gestures expressively. Max frowns. Michael gestures even more expressively.
Max looks deeply confused.
“I’m just saying, if all you did was…” Michael gestures again. “Then the chances of her doing her thing are, uh… less good, bro.” He won’t laugh, he tells himself. He won’t, he won’t laugh, even though Max’s face is moving through an incredible series of expressions as he tries to parse through all Michael’s ellipses and hand motions.
“You know what, bro?” Max says at last. “You don’t know shit about my game. You gotta… have game to know game, Michael.”
“Oh, you don’t need to worry about my game,” he says smugly. He tugs down the collar of his t-shirt to reveal a hickey on his chest. “Tell me I didn’t seriously earn that.”
“That’s nasty,” Max says, sounding thirteen again.
“That’s only one,” Michael informs him. “Look—” He lifts up his shirt to show Max the hickeys decorating his torso like hyena spots.
“Jesus!” Max yelps, clearly revolted. He yanks Michael’s shirt back down. “Bro, you look like a hemophiliac. Whoever she is, she’s got a mouth.”
“Dude, you don’t even know.” Michael leaves it at that. He’s happy to flaunt the evidence, but for the most part he keeps his partners’ identities confidential. He likes fooling around with Rosa Ortecho in secret, the way they get high and latch onto each other like drunken vampires. Max continues to nurse his ever-unrequited crush on Liz, so it seems like a good idea to keep his clandestine sexual escapades with Liz’s older sister, well, clandestine. Max thinks Rosa is a bad influence.
Michael rubs the hickey just below his collarbone. Weird as it sounds, he likes the way they feel on his body. He likes the way they look, too; bruises so different from the ones he is accustomed to. Hickeys mean he made Rosa or whoever feel something nice, they are little love badges. They make his skin really soft and sort of tender and he can get lost in the feel of them because they just feel so fucking great. When he takes off his shirt and sees himself in the mirror he thinks they’re beautiful, even though he knows they’re just busted capillaries. That’s what his blood looks like. Kind of like his skin is stained glass and he’s just looking through it.
He’s fucking weird, he doesn’t need anyone to tell him that.
Least of all Max.
So he changes the subject. “There’s supposed to be a major meteor shower tonight,” he says. “Wanna sleep out and watch?”
Max laughs. “I keep waiting for you to grow out of that star stuff. It’s like you think you can get up there if you just stare at the sky hard enough. But sure,” he agrees, generously. “I’ll stay out and watch meteorites with you.”
“Meteoroids,” Michael corrects. “They’re only meteorites if they survive the passage through the atmosphere and impact the Earth’s surface.”
“Like us,” Max says.
“Like us,” Michael agrees.
“Can you, like, let me out?” Michael asks.
“No, Michael,” Max says. He strokes his new badge self-consciously. “I can’t let you out. Not till morning. That’s the law.”
“The law.” Michael flops down on the bench. Max has a stick up his ass bigger than the Florida panhandle. “You’re such an embarrassment, dude, I can’t believe we’re related.”
“Good thing we’re not actually related, then.”
“We could be, who knows how the alien family tree—”
“Michael!” Max indicates the cameras.
“I switched them off,” Michael says calmly.
“If you’re sober enough to exercise your powers,” Max demands, “how come you’re drunk enough to make a scene?”
“The more I drink, the more powerful I become.” He tries to roll on his side but topples off the bench instead. “Ouch.”
“Serves you right.” Max regards him self-righteously and Michael resists the urge to bonk him on the head with his own baton.
“I could just let myself out, you know,” he says. “Float the key over. Melt the bars if I’m feeling extra feisty.”
“Were you feeling extra feisty at the Wild Pony tonight?” Max snaps.
“I was imparting some wisdom to Racist Hank.” The cement floor feels pretty nice, actually. Cool against his cheek. Racist Hank landed a couple heavy ones before Michael took him out. That’s how he wins his fights, typically: absorb a few hits, let his opponent get cocky, then fucking smash the fucker when he least expects. He never minds bringing home a split lip, a black eye, a bruise or two; they make for good souvenirs. “Whyn’t you arrest Hank?” he complains. “You shoulda heard the shit coming out of his mouth tonight, Max, it was honestly my moral duty—”
“Do yourself a favor and leave the law enforcement to the professionals,” Max advises, sounding so pious that Michael’s temper—capricious and unruly at the best of times—flares up.
“Oh yeah, ’cause you good ol’ boys really uphold the law, don’t you?” he snarls, slamming his fist against the floor. “Shooting black teenagers and rounding up immigrants ’stead of the real bad guys? Why don’t you do something about them, Max, the racist fucking cowards who smack around their wives and kids—? Put them away, then maybe I’ll tell you how swell the force is, how goddamn proud you’ve done us, you sanctimonious cunt.”
The power blows, plunging them into darkness.
“Oh, nicely done,” Michael sighs.
They sit there a moment, everything pitch-black and silent except for Max’s heavy breathing.
“Where’s the back-up generator?” Michael asks.
“You gonna puke?”
“Come over here, I’m passing you a bottle of acetone through the bars.” He can hear Max fumbling his way toward the cell, then their hands connect and Max manages to snag the bottle. Michael listens to him chug the whole thing in a few desperate gulps. Whatever. It isn’t like the stuff is hard to come by. Michael slumps to the floor again. His buzz has dissipated along with his temper, and without the buffer of alcohol he’s starting to feel his bruises.
“Racist Hank beats his girlfriend, you know,” Michael says dully. “She just had a baby. Apparently after you have a baby you bruise easier than normal. She was wearing all kinds of colors at the Pony tonight, Max. Fuckin’ Crayola rainbow. Mauve. Tangerine. Taupe. Vermillion. Does that sound pretty to you?”
“No.” Max’s voice sounds leaden. “I’ll look into it.”
“You do that, Deputy.”
“I became a cop to help people,” Max says.
“So help. Rev your engine and piss against the wall, Max.”
Michael shifts restlessly on the ground, staring into the blackness. He and Max don’t have much to talk about these days. Max upholds the law and Michael breaks it; Max hews to the straight and narrow and Michael careens down his road of excess, palace of wisdom nowhere in sight. Burning up like one of his stupid meteors. Don’t Stop Me Now. He doesn’t blame anyone, not anymore. His mistakes are his own.
“Remember that summer after junior year, when we drove to San Diego and camped out on the beach?” Max asks suddenly.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The ocean. I remember lying there on the sand and thinking how, at night, the ocean becomes like this reminder that everything ends. You know? Like, no matter what, there’s gonna be nothing left of anything. No matter what anyone does with their life, everything, everything in the world is just gonna end up this great dark wash—kinda like the ocean at night. You ever feel that shit?”
Michael does: he feels that shit every time he stares up at the night sky, now that he knows nobody and nothing is coming to save him. His family will never alight from the stars and take him on board their beautiful ship and show him the universe as he longs to see it. That’s kids’ stuff. And he hasn’t been a kid for a long time.
“Wow,” he says. “That’s deep, Max.”
“No, I mean it,” he says. “That’s some fridge-magnet poetry, right there.”
“A meteoroid is a piece of space debris. The visible path of a meteoroid that enters Earth’s atmosphere is called a meteor; colloquially, that’s a shooting star. Or falling star. If a meteoroid reaches the ground and survives impact, then it’s called a meteorite. It’s not that complicated. Why couldn’t you ever remember the difference? Stalactites form on the ceilings of caves while stalagmites come up from the ground…” Michael swallows painfully. “A solar system consists of a star, like the sun, and the objects affected by its gravity—planets, moons, asteroids… A galaxy is a gravitationally-bound system of stars, stardust, and dark matter. The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our solar system, plus 200 billion other stars. Solar systems orbit around their galaxies just like planets orbit around their suns. The universe is… everything. All the solar systems, all the galaxies. Everything we know is contained within the universe, but the universe is constantly expanding—”
A hand settles on his shoulder and squeezes gently. “You’ve been here for hours,” Alex says. “So I’ve come to bring you home.”
Alex lowers himself with a little grunt, sitting beside him on the cave floor. “What were you talking about?”
“I was explaining the cosmos to his dumb ass.” Michael indicates the great pearlescent pod. Max is just visible inside, floating weightless, peaceful. “Of the three of us, he was always the most human. Not like…” He trails off.
“Not like…?” Alex prompts after he’s been silent too long.
“Not like me, you know, feet planted firmly in the stars.”
Alex puts a hand on his thigh, as if to ground him. Michael wants to tell him not to worry; he isn’t going anywhere Alex can’t follow. But the words get stuck in his throat because he is feeling so much all of a sudden. How profoundly he loves Alex and how deeply he grieves the brother who wasn’t much of a brother at all the past ten years, the distance between them dilating, multiplying, up until that moment in this very cave when he—
“Do something for me?” he says huskily, resting his hand on top of Alex’s.
“Of course. Anything.” Alex rotates his palm so they’re holding hands. “What do you need, Michael?”
“Could you, like…” He hesitates. “…bruise me?”
“Bruise you?” Alex repeats.
“Like, with your mouth.”
“Like a hickey?”
“Yeah. Like a hickey.”
“If I give you a hickey,” Alex says, “will you come home with me?”
Michael thinks Alex will go for his neck, so he sweeps his hair back and tilts his head invitingly to the side. But Alex raises their joined hands and latches onto the underside of his wrist instead.
“Whoa!” Michael jumps. “That feels so weird—”
“Mmmhmmm.” Alex keeps sucking and Michael squirms.
“I wanted to give you a good one,” Alex explains when he lets go.
Michael looks at the small raspberry-colored bruise on his wrist. He rubs his fingers over it. “Sick,” he says. “Here, Alex, feel.”
Alex prods the bruise tentatively. “Does it hurt?”
“A little. In a nice way. D’you think I’m weird?”
Alex shakes his head. “I get it, I think.”
“Do another?” Michael wheedles. Testing his luck.
“You did promise,” Alex reminds him.
“Home. I know.” He sighs.
“Tell me where, this time.”
Grinning, Michael lifts up his shirt and points. He shivers happily when Alex’s lips and tongue make contact with his skin. Alex sucks for a long time, and Michael slides both hands into Alex’s hair, keeping him there, close against his body. When Alex finishes, he nestles his head into Michael’s neck, and they breathe like that until Michael’s curiosity gets the better of him and he pulls away. He looks down. Alex has left a sizable plum-colored badge over his heart, just above his nipple, and it’s really fucking beautiful.
“I love you, y’know?” Michael cradles Alex’s face in his hands and kisses him. “I love you so much I feel like we fucking invented love, all by ourselves.” He kisses Alex deeper, harder, until their lips are bruised and swollen and he is ten seconds away from ripping Alex’s clothes off and just taking him right here on the ground in front of Max.
He wants to. It makes his blood sing, the thought of spreading Alex open and fucking him in the opaline glow of the pod, or—better yet—asking Alex to fuck him under the unseeing eyes of the brother who never knew, never understood, never tried. I’m bisexual, Max. It’s not that complicated. Head thrown back, spine curving, cock jutting, muscles rippling. All his beautiful bruises on display.
Alex is too beloved for these gladiatorial games, the stupid bloodsports he and Max have played at for the past decade. Michael loves him more than he grudges Max. It’s as easy as that.
And so Michael pulls back, still cupping Alex’s cheek like something precious. And it is. Everything. All of him. Precious. The most precious thing in the ever-expanding universe.
“Home,” he says firmly.
“I love you too, by the way,” Alex says.
Michael glances over his shoulder as they leave the cave. He half-expects to see Max staring back at him.
I’ll find a way. I will.
Hold on, brother.
He lets Alex take him home.