Fer shut his locker and glanced up toward the ceiling, trying to remember everything he was supposed to do that night. They were assigned a few pages in their English workbook and Roque said something in art that he couldn’t remember. He drummed his fingers against the brightly colored metal and tried to think but when he closed his eyes he could only think about one thing.
“Hey.” Fer jumped when he heard a voice behind him and opened his eyes.
“It’s just me,” Julio said, looking surprised a little amused at the same time.
“Yeah,” Fer said. “I was just--” He closed his locker door. “I was just thinking.” He realized he still had all of his books in there so he started fiddling with the lock again. Julio leaned against the locked beside him.
“Me too,” Julio said. “I was wondering if you wanted to walk home together?”
Fer finally closed his locker again. He couldn’t even remember the assignments; it wasn’t like he was going to do the work tonight anyway. He could make it up later. Julio watched him expectantly as he zipped up his coat.
“Your place isn’t really on my way...” Fer said. It was cold out. He figured he just walk home quickly and then hole up in his room for the rest of the night, lying on his bed before his mom forced him to come down for dinner.
“Yeah, well...” Julio glanced around. Fer tried to follow his gaze but all he saw were random students streaming past them, out of the front doors. “Will you walk home with me then? Fer, I don’t...I mean...I want to...”
He trailed off and sighed. Fer took a closer look at his eyes, pink tinged and slightly swollen.
“Gorka and Cabano?” Fer said in a low voice. “What will they think?”
“Fuck them,” Julio said. He covered his face with one hand and sighed. “Fuck, I’m so tired.”
“Okay,” Fer said, quickly. “Let’s go.”
Outside it was colder than it had been that morning. The sky was overcast like the sun never even had a chance to shine that day. Fer zipped his jacket all the way up to his chin but all Julio had on was a hoodie and he pulled the hood up over his eyes, sticking his hands in the front pocket. Fer watched his orange backpack bounce against his back.
“Where’s your coat?” Fer asked.
Julio twisted his backpack straps against his chest. “Doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Oh,” Fer said. They were walking slowly and all of a sudden Fer wanted to run. He knew the way to Ruben’s house like the back of his hand. They had spent plenty of afternoons in his kitchen listening to music or doing homework or eating and talking while Julio was out with his friends and Ruben’s mom was busy with her job, often away on business trips to London and other places. Once Ruben admitted that he didn’t like to be alone. Fer didn’t like it either.
Fer glanced at Julio again but he was just staring straight ahead, right into space. He wasn’t sure why Julio had invited him along at all if he wasn’t going to speak. He knew it would be weird after their talk during gym class. He’d just hoped that it wouldn’t be.
Julio grabbed Fer’s coat just as he was about to step off the curb to cross the street.
“Come this way,” Julio said. He led Fer further down the sidewalk and then into a small, suspicious looking alley.
“This is a shortcut,” Julio explained as Fer scurried past a dumpster. They were walking between two apartment buildings but they were both pretty quiet.. “I mean, well... I just can’t walk down that street anymore.”
Fer was confused until he remembered the view from Ruben’s roof, the busy street in front of his building that led directly to his home, the same street where Ruben fell after he jumped.
“This is a good place if you ever wanna buy something,” Julio said. They passed a couple of people chilling against a wall. Julio nodded at them. “You know, if you ever wanted something to get high.”
Fer nodded, swallowing uncomfortably.
“You and Ruben didn’t do that stuff,” Julio said. It wasn’t exactly a question. Fer nodded, anyway.
“Yeah, he was too smart for that,” Julio mumbled. He glanced up at Fer like he was looking at him for the first time during their walk. “You too.”
It didn’t really seem like a shortcut. By the time the got to the front steps of Julio’s building it was darker and chillier outside. Fer’s hands were freezing. He really wanted to get inside but Julio sat heavily on the steps that led up to the front door.
“You aren’t cold?” Fer asked, bouncing on his toes. There was a bus stop nearby. He could always just go home before he froze to death.
Julio shook his head then nodded and finally he shrugged. “I don’t care,” he said. “I can’t go in there.”
Fer crossed his arms and looked at Julio, surrounded by an uncomfortable silence except for the cars driving past and the other people around them, surrounded by their own conversations and problems. Julio put his face in his hands. Fer wondered how wrong it would be if he simply disappeared.
“When you say you loved my brother,” Julio started, voice muffled by his hands but Fer heard him perfectly anyway. “what did you really mean?”
Now Fer’s heart was pounding but it wasn’t entirely from fear. He’d been wanting to admit this for so long. He needed to. He didn’t have time to hide it anymore.
“I hear what Gorka says about me,” Fer said. “I’m surprised that everyone doesn’t know.”
“Just because Gorka says something doesn’t mean it’s true,” Julio said. “Fuck, I don’t listen to him most of the time. I’m just surprised. I just didn’t know you guys liked each other like that.”
“No, just me,” Fer said. “Not Ruben.”
“How do you know?” Julio finally looked at him, his eyes searching Fer’s. “Maybe he did.”
Fer shook his head. “I just know. It doesn’t matter. Some love isn’t meant to be returned.”
Julio leaned back against the stairs and took a deep breath. “I don’t know about that. I think that you should have told him. You don’t know. Maybe he loved you... like that. Maybe he just thought that nobody loved him.”
Fer took a step back, feeling almost physically punched in the chest. It took a couple of moments before he could talk. “Julio, it’s not my fault and I don’t think I should be accused. I’m going to go...”
“Wait, Fer!” Julio jumped to his feet. “Fer, Fer, I didn’t mean it like that. Don’t go. When I was talking about you, I was really talking about me. He didn’t know. I fucked up. He didn’t know that I loved him. Fer, I really fucked up. I should have told our mom or... I don’t know, taken him to the hospital. Instead I just yelled at him and then I ignored him. I left him alone. How could I do that? I didn’t tell him that I loved him. And now he fucking killed himself and... I knew! I knew it was going to happen but... I didn’t care. I didn’t care!”
“Julio!” Fer grabbed his shoulders and tried to give him a little shake. “What are you saying? It’s not your fault either.”
“He tried it before!” Julio said. “With pills. He took a bunch of pills. And I just... swept it under the rug and I-- yelled at him and told him he was stupid. What was he supposed to think, Fer? What else was supposed to happen? I knew and I just didn’t care. Now he’s dead and he’ll never know. He’ll never know about you and he won’t know about me. I always cated like he got in my way. i was so concerned with being cool and getting high and driving that stupid motorcycle. We both loved him and now he’s dead.”
Fer stared at the tears running down Julio’s face. He couldn’t speak. Ruben had tried this before? He didn’t understand.
“You knew?” Fer finally asked.
“I can’t go in there and face her,” Julio said. “My mom. Do you hear her? I’m surprised you can’t hear her crying right now. All she does is cry. How would she feel if she knew the truth? That I’m the reason her favorite son is dead.”
“No, no,” Fer said. “It’s not your fault.”
“Oh, fuck, Fer.” Julio stopped crying and wiped his face, roughly. He glanced around, then took a step back, one foot on the stairs. “You should go. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have... brought you here. Go away and you can hate me, too.”
“Hate you?” Fer said. “Who hates you?”
Julio jabbed a finger against his chest and hissed, “I hate me.”
“No, don't say that. You can’t be so hard on yourself,” Fer said. “Yes, Julio, it’s awful and we all could have done things differently and we both miss and love Ruben so much but we can’t change the past. We just can’t.”
“What can we do?”
“I guess...” Fer trailed off because he hadn’t really thought about this part. “I guess we can... we have to... learn. We have to tell people now. We have to tell people we love them now. And we can’t forget him. We can’t forget Ruben.”
“Fuck, it still hurts so bad,” Julio said with a wheezing breath. “It won’t stop.”
“Give it some time, no?” Fer put his face on Julio’s cheek and felt the dampness of his tears. “It won’t get better in a day.”
“I guess not.” Julio swallowed and then choked out a short laugh. “Fuck, man, your hands are cold.” He put his hand over Fer’s and pulled it off of his face. “They are like ice!”
“It’s cold out here,” Fer said. “Or haven’t you noticed?”
“No, not really,” Julio said. “Are you getting frostbite?” He took Fer’s other hand and rubbed them both in-between his own. “So cold. Does this help?”
“Not much,” Fer said. They both laughed. Julio didn’t stop rubbing Fer’s hands as he looked back at the front doors to his building.
“I don’t want you to freeze to death,” Julio said. “I just don’t want to go in there alone. I couldn’t face her tonight.”
“I don’t want to freeze to death, either,” Fer said. “I could come with you.”
“Stay for dinner?” Julio smiled, a small, hesitant one that almost reached his eyes. “Mom would like that.”
“So would I,” Fer said, truthfully.
Julio stopped rubbing his hands but he didn’t let him go so he was holding Fer’s hands right there on the sidewalk.
“I have a question for you,” Julio said. “About Ruben. So how did you know? I mean, if you two never...” Julio trailed off with an explanatory shrug. “How do you know that you loved him? Like that.”
Fer nodded slowly. “It’s just something that I feel. I just know it inside. How do you know you love a girl, Julio?”
Julio shook his head, still looking into Fer’s eyes. “I don’t know if I’ve ever loved a girl. I guess I’ll let you know when I find out.”
“Okay,” Fer said. “Maybe you’re waiting for the right guy, then.”
“Ah-ha!” Julio said, letting Fer’s hands go with a laugh. “No offense but I don’t think so.”
“You never know,” Fer teased.
“Oh, I know,” Julio said. “Dude, I’m straighter than a bow and arrow! But you know that I don’t have a problem with it. I’m glad you told me.”
Fer smiled. “Me too,” he said. “I needed to tell someone. So...” He gestured up the stairs. “Shall we?”
“I have to warn you,” Julio said, leading the way. He pulled out his key as he opened the door. “This old lady across the hall keeps making this awful paella. We may have to eat that tonight.”
“In that case, I may leave,” Fer said.
“Oh no, once you cross this thresh-hold, that’s it. I hope you know what you’re getting into here!” Julio yanked open the door and gave a little bow. “Let’s go.”
Fer looked at Julio and matched his grin. They walked in together and Fer didn’t look back.