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Neil wound his scarf around his neck, tucking his chin into it. He didn’t particularly wish to leave the sanctuary of his car, but the warm lights of the coffee shop beckoned. Neil’s fingers tapped a restless beat against the steering wheel, and then he took a deep breath, set his jaw, and opened the door.

Wind swirled in, carrying with it the rich aroma of coffee and something sweet he couldn’t name. He jogged across the street, past the sandwich board sign with its purple chalk lettering, and slipped through the door behind a couple holding hands. The cafe was packed, bodies jostling against each other for prime seats, all facing an empty chair with a microphone hovering before it.

The line to order crawled, and by the time Neil neared the register the chair was no longer empty and he could hear the strumming of strings as a guitar tuned. Something prickled under his skin, and he resolutely did not look, even as the humming of the crowd rose in a crescendo, then went quiet.

He placed his order and took his change just as the first notes of a song rang out. It was unfamiliar, as were the words that followed in a pleasantly rough voice. Taking his cup, he tucked himself behind a display of mugs, up against the window. The chill of the night seeped through the glass and into his coat, balancing out the heat of the overcrowded room.

From his spot, he could just see the singer half-hidden behind the guitar, fingers nimble on the strings. He looked like a child’s drawing of a superhero, everything straight lines: square jaw, straight nose, blocky shoulders, all taking up more space than he had any right to. The man looked as though he didn’t care about his audience, almost as though he was barely aware of them, his eyes half-closed and his face devoid of expression even as his soul escaped through his mouth and flooded the room. Neil couldn’t tear his eyes away.

One song melded into the next, and the next. They were all new to him, all raw as poetry, the lyrics and melodies sweeping him away like a riptide. Neil took a sip of his coffee only to find it had gone cold. He was dimly aware of movement in the room, people coming and going, the baristas calling out names. He was pretty sure that his butt had gone numb where the narrow window ledge dug into it, that his feet were tingling, that his temple was cold where it came to rest against the glass.

But he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

And then, the opening chords of a song he knew by heart. He stared at the musician, but the man’s eyes were closed as he sang, and there was no way he could know. So Neil let his own eyelids slide down as the music washed over him.


The hallways of the school echoed with the feet of a few hundred hungry teenagers. Abram did as he always did and let himself get swept away with the current, drifting steadily towards the outside until he was able to slip unseen through a door. He didn’t know where this particular door led, just that it was outside and golden sunshine was playing across the pavement and he thought he might die if he didn’t get to spend five minutes alone in it.

It was a neglected courtyard, with weeds between the pavers and shaggy forgotten bushes nodding along the edges. The leaves were rough-soft as he ran his fingers over them, and they made his hand smell strange but he didn’t mind. There was a cracking cement bench tucked away in the corner, and he settled onto it and pulled out his lunch.

He hated bologna, and he hated swiss cheese, and he hated rye bread, but it was what had been on sale so it was what they had bought. Abram made a face and took a bite, barely chewing it before swallowing it down to try to minimize the amount of time it spent in his mouth. Sighing, he stared at the rest. So many bites. But his stomach was aching with hunger, and he could hear his mother’s voice hissing in his ear. Calories were precious. He knew that.

He took another bite.

That was when he heard it. A guitar. It was faint; tentative; just a few notes, a few chords. It wasn’t beautiful, not yet, but Abram could feel the air vibrating with the electric potential of it all. He glanced through the glass of the door, but the hallway was empty; the other walls were solid brick, and there was no way he could hear something like this through them, was there?

Dropping the sandwich into his bag, he pressed his ear against one wall, then another. On the third, it was obvious; it was coming from above him.

He craned his neck, but he couldn’t see anything other than a white-blue sky. The hallway was empty other than a bored-looking teacher slumped in a chair, pretending to monitor the nonexistent students. Silently, Abram slipped through the door and around the corner, searching for a stairwell. He found a fire door tucked in a musty corner, the fluorescent light nearest it flickering in a valiant attempt at life. A thin thread of sunlight crept through a crack in the door. Holding his breath, he pushed through, but no alarm sounded, and he made his way up the stairs.

The door at the top was marked with numerous signs warning people away; the bright red threats were rather less effective given that the door itself was propped open with half a cinder block. And they were here, the mystery guitarist, now tripping their way through a song Abram thought he recognized from the car radio.

As stealthily as he could, he stepped out onto the roof.

There was a boy there, sitting on the low wall that edged the roof. His eyes were closed as he found his way through the song, his blond hair gleaming in the sun. He looked utterly unself-conscious, even when he fumbled over a chord and had to try it again and again before it sounded right.

Something twisted in Abram’s chest. He thought it might be envy.

His shoe scuffed on a stray pebble and the boy’s eyes flew open, his fingers making the guitar strings squeal. They stared at each other for a long moment, the strange boy bristling like a cat. Abram kind of hated himself for ruining it, but what else was new.

“The fuck you doing here?” the boy asked. Something flashed in his fingers, and Abram tensed for a second before realizing it was just a guitar pick.

“I heard you,” Abram said, waving a hand at the guitar. “Just wanted to listen.”

The boy scoffed and looked away. “I’m not—good.”

Abram found himself wanting to smile for the first time in weeks. “I don’t care.”

For a long moment, the boy seemed to find the tarpaper surface of the roof the most fascinating thing in the world, and then he shrugged and squinted up at Abram. “Whatever.”

And then Abram felt it, his mouth cracking and spreading into something he barely recognized. Not the smile that haunted him, but the other one, the true one, the one even he never saw anymore. “Okay.”

With that, the boy began to play.


The coffee shop advertised music every night, but when Neil went back it was someone else, a woman with a keyboard and a voice like a flute. He debated leaving. The shop, the town, the country, just getting in his car and driving until he had left even memories behind. But though running had always given him the illusion of safety it had never been more than that.

He couldn’t outrun his thoughts. He had tried.

So he bought his coffee, and tucked himself into his spot by the window, and watched the woman for a while. She was so different from the man the night before, laughing and joking with the audience between songs, everything about her lighter, like she was a bird, or a helium balloon, floating above the ugliness of the earth. It was beautiful and distant and Neil didn’t feel.

“The guy from last night,” Neil asked the barista who wandered past collecting cups.

“Jamie?” the man asked. “He’s good, right?”

“Yeah.” Neil swallowed the dregs of his coffee and handed his cup over when the barista held out his hand. “Is he here regularly, or…”

“Oh, yeah. Check our facebook page, there’s a whole schedule.”

Neil thanked him and pulled out his phone. He worried for a minute he would have to make an account to access it, but no; the little calendar was there, and he clicked on it and scanned the little boxes with their unfamiliar names.

Only one stood out. Jamie Ingraham. Because of course.

Neil left the cafe, got in his car, and drove.

He came back, though. Almost against his will; it felt a bit like the all roads lead to Rome thing. No matter how hard he tried, he would always end up here, in a moodily-lit coffee shop, listening for one voice. Because all his roads led to this.

Once again, the musician seemed oblivious to his audience. Not oblivious, that wasn’t the right word. Separate. Distinct. He could be singing to an empty room and he would pour everything into it anyway.

Neil felt something twisting in his chest. He thought maybe it was hatred. Except he knew what hatred tasted like, the bitterness of it that patched his mouth and left him empty, and this wasn’t that.

So he listened to the man sing, to his fingers working the strings like they were part of him. It didn’t feel like floating. This was clawing your way through mud, over rocks and shattered glass until your hands and knees were bleeding. This was finding your way out, and sitting in the grass in the sunshine and not quite knowing how you got there. This was getting torn apart and healing again.

And then those familiar chords sounded, and it was sitting on a rooftop and not being alone.


“What’s your name?”

The boy wasn’t playing; he was just sitting there, guitar on his knees, staring out over the empty courtyard. He hadn’t even looked at Abram when he asked the question.

Frankly, Abram was surprised it had taken him this long. A whole week. Five lunchtimes, five gross sandwiches, five half-hour snatches spent on a rooftop listening to a set of chords turn into a whole song. He swallowed down his bite of apple. “James. Ingraham.”

The boy looked at him then with a skeptical eyebrow. “James?”

Abram nodded, spinning the apple in his fingers. It was a shiny one, red and green, with only a small bruise that had pushed it into the discount basket, deliciously sweet and tart on his tongue.

“Not Jim?”

“Ugh.” Abram made a face. He thought he made a tolerable James, but he could never manage being a Jim.

“You don’t look like a James.”

“What do I look like, then?” Abram asked, stung. After all, he thought James suited him better than the last couple his mom had picked.

The boy’s fingers started up again on the strings, just strumming, not forming a song. “I don’t know.” There was a slight tightening at the corner of his mouth, and Abram wasn’t sure if it was humor or displeasure. “Bartholomew.”

“Your name is Bartholomew?”

The boy snorted. “No, dumbass, that’s what your name should be. Obviously.”

Abram tried to imagine what his mother would do if he suggested Bartholomew for his next name, but it was too ridiculous to even consider. A laugh bubbled out of him, and he leaned back against the chimneystack. “I don’t feel like a Bartholomew.”

“Obadiah then.” There was definitely a bit of a smile threatening at the corner of the boy’s mouth, and he strummed the strings again. “No? What about….Alfred. Hobart. No, I have it,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Crispin.”

“Crispin?” Abram flung the apple core at him; he dodged it easily, and the core bounced off the ledge and tumbled over the edge of the roof. “Oops.”

The boy played the first few bars of the song he had been learning, then pressed his hand flat against the strings, muffling the sound. “Well, I don’t hear screaming, so I’m assuming you didn’t murder anyone with that.”

“We’re like, three floors up,” Abram scoffed. “It would barely give someone a bruise.”

“If you say so.” With that, he launched into the song, playing it through start to finish, never faltering once. Abram rested his chin on his knees and watched until the last notes quivered to a stop, and the boy settled the guitar back into its case.

“What’s your name, anyway? Byron?” The boy glanced up at him with a little glimmer of amusement, and Abram fought to keep a straight face. “Cletus? Richard Long? Gammadims?”

That earned him a reaction. “What the fuck? Gammadims?”

“It’s from the Bible,” Abram explained, getting to his feet.

“You go from penis euphemisms to the Bible?”

Abram shrugged, and they headed into the stairwell together. When they reached the bottom, he peeked through to make sure the coast was clear before pushing through. Usually they would just go their separate ways, Abram to the freshman wing for Bio, and the other boy only he knew where. But this time, they paused under the flickering fluorescent light. “Andrew,” the boy said. “It’s Andrew.”


Somehow, when Neil wasn’t looking, an actual life crept up behind him and swallowed him whole.

He still didn’t really believe it. The facts were that he had a job, and an apartment with a neglected yard, and friends that he had known for more than a handful of weeks, and a cat roughly the size, color, and shape of a loaf of bread. But this life didn’t feel like fact. It felt like a deeper sort of fiction, like doubling down on a desperate lie.

Beeps wound around his legs as he fumbled his way into the apartment, making the tiny chirping sounds that had earned her her name. “I know, I know, you’re starving.” He reached down to pet her, and she arched into his hand, gazing up at him with adoring eyes. “Even if you are as wide as you are tall.”

“Meep,” she said, and led the way to the food bowl. She had a ritual. Exactly three pats, then food, nap, and then, just as Neil was getting ready for bed, the zooms. Bedtime had always been fraught with danger, but at least now it was cute.

While she was eating, complete with miniaturized growls that made her sound like a lion on helium, he fixed himself a bowl of pasta and plopped down on the couch to eat. The Facebook schedule told him ‘Jamie Ingraham’ was playing again that night. “What do you think, Beeps?” he asked her as she settled next to him for a pre-nap bath. “Should I go, or does that make me a weird stalker?”

She paused mid-lick to stare at him, her tongue sticking out just a little. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he told her, and she resumed her cleaning. “I’m not going to go. It’s weird if I go, right?”

An hour later, he was back in his spot in the cafe like a junkie seeking his last fix. This time the songs were a bit different. Still honest and raw, but there was an aftertaste of fierce longing behind each final note. Neil leaned against the window and let the music buffet him. It reminded him of the time he was caught in a sandstorm, the way his skin had stung even hours after he had finally found shelter.

He fought the urge to scrub at his face at the memory. His skin itched and crawled, and he stared through the gap between the display and the wall, seeking what he did not know. For a split second, he thought he caught a flash of shrewd eyes, fixed on his hiding spot. But when he blinked, the singer’s eyes were closed, and he did not falter a single note.


There were rules for blending in. His mother had drilled them into him half a decade ago.

Rule one: be competent at everything, but not too good at anything.

Rule two: be friendly, but don’t make friends.

Rule three: know a little bit about a lot of things, but don’t be “into” anything.

Rule four: don’t volunteer in class, but know the answer anyway.

Rule five: don’t hang out with the school rejects.

On Wednesday, it rained. Not just a drizzle either. Abram sat in his English classroom and tried not to stare too long at the rivulets running down the windows. Something was hollowing out in his chest, and he didn’t want to think about lunch spent without music, dealing with the cafeteria crowds, the noise and the idiocy. It would give him a chance to study the social structure of the school, something he should have done on the first day. If only he hadn’t stolen those rare sweet moments of sun. If only he hadn’t found a friend.

He hadn’t told his mother about Andrew and his guitar. He never would. He didn’t think he could bear it if that secret was stripped from him, if those private moments of music and sunshine were turned into something dangerous and wrong. He had spent so much time in the dark and the silence he had almost forgotten what beauty was.

When the bell rang, he followed the herd of students to the cafeteria, resolutely not looking at the rain pounding into the courtyard as he passed. The cafeteria was as all cafeterias are, humming with hundreds of voices, the scraping of chairs, the clatter of forks. Abram scanned the tables, looking for the familiar shock of golden hair.

There. In the corner by the emergency exit door. Andrew wasn’t in his customary black, and he wasn’t alone. Abram wasn’t sure why he was surprised to see a few cheerleaders among the cluster of students at his table, but at least there were some empty chairs at the end closest to the window. He picked his way around the chaos and set down his lunch bag.

Andrew’s forehead crinkled as Abram slid into a seat. He looked—disgusted, and some sort of small creature clawed at Abram’s stomach. Had he violated an unknown rule? Was he coming too close to trying to make friends? He could practically feel his mother’s fingers on his arm, but it didn’t hurt as much as the sneer on Andrew’s face.

Pretending not to notice, he scrunched up in his chair and pulled out his sandwich. Peanut butter this week. He rifled through his bag for his English homework. It was something about symbolism in The Great Gatsby, and there were a million things about it online he could crib, but under the scornful eyes of Andrew and the cheerleaders Abram opted for the book instead.

“It’s James, right?”

Abram blinked up at the name. One of the cheerleaders had shifted her chair closer, and was looking at him with a smile that made him nervous. “Yeah,” he said, after a too-long pause.

“Sweet! I’m Marissa, I can show you around if you want.”

Abram gaped at her for a second before shaking himself. “Um, that’s okay. I’m all set.” She looked crestfallen, and he tacked on a, “Thanks, though,” to try to placate her. He guessed it was nice of her. Andrew was staring at him, and there was something—

“You’re not Andrew.”

Abram hadn’t meant to blurt it out. He bit down on the inside of his cheek hard enough he tasted blood, but it was too late. Not-Andrew’s eyes narrowed, and he studied Abram with wary intensity even as the cheerleaders laughed.

“Of course he’s not Andrew! God, could you imagine?” One of the not-Marissa cheerleaders shuddered theatrically. “He’s probably off murdering kittens or something.”

The third cheerleader frowned. “Don’t be bitchy, Heather. Andrew’s not that bad.”

One of the guys, who had been focusing all of his attention on Marissa’s cleavage, snorted at that. “He’s worse.”

“Jake—”

“Where does he go, Katelyn?” Heather asked. “Like, sorry, Aaron, but your brother’s a freak.” Not-Andrew—Aaron—shrugged, unbothered. “He’s never around. He barely even shows up to class. And you heard what he did to Steph, right?” Another exaggerated shiver. Abram wanted to dump his juice in her lap.

Marissa turned her smile back on Abram. “Anyway,” she said, rolling her eyes at her friend. “Don’t worry, Aaron’s nothing like Andrew.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Abram said, polishing off the last bite of his sandwich and shoving his book back in his bag. “See you around.”

He could hear one of the guys bark out a laugh, and the girls muttering as he walked away. His mother would be furious if she knew, so he’d have to be careful that this didn’t get back to her. He just didn’t understand. How people could have it so wrong.

The halls were empty, and he roamed until he heard it. The guitar was muffled through the classroom door, but it was unmistakably Andrew, now playing that song like he had been born to it, no more fumbling, no more faltering over the chords. Abram smiled a little to himself, and was reaching up to knock when a voice joined the instrument. The words were familiar. It had been popular years ago, before he was born, and it still played on the Nineties stations on the radio that his mother would sometimes turn on. But Abram didn’t think he had ever really listened to the lyrics before.

It twisted something in his stomach, this song about fear and loss and giving up. Maybe it was just the way it sounded here, in Andrew’s voice, the ache behind it palpable as it echoed through the empty hallway. He hadn’t even known Andrew could sing.

When the last note sounded, he knocked once, half ready to bolt and half convinced that would be a betrayal he wouldn’t forgive himself for. Andrew practically ripped the door off its hinges, every inch bristling for a fight; he didn’t relax on seeing Abram, but his face did something complicated before settling back into a stoic mask.

“Hi.” Abram knew he sounded like an idiot but he didn’t know what else to say. “I met your brother.”

Something shifted in Andrew’s eyes, the thawing of a winter pond. “Evidently you survived.”

“Evidently,” Abram said, smiling a little. “His friends are dicks.”

“Don’t kid yourself. Aaron’s a dick too.”

They stared at each other, Andrew unmoving, Abram unwilling to walk away. “I didn’t know you sang. You’re—that was amazing.”

Andrew looked up at the ceiling, as if there would be answers in the water-stained tiles and fluorescent lights, and then met Abram’s eyes. “Come on.”

And he stepped aside and let Abram in.


“How’s my niece?” Jeremy asked, affable as always.

Beeps was, at the moment, sound asleep on her back with her head hanging off the couch. “Still an alien,” Neil said. He took his phone away from his ear and snapped a picture, then sent it over.

Jeremy laughed. “I do not understand how that’s comfortable.”

“Pretty sure it’s not, but like I said. Alien.”

Jeremy asked about her every time they talked, even though he hadn’t met her yet. Neil wondered if that was why this life still felt so fragmented. It felt like he was constantly rebuilding. Like when he and his mother had spent a few weeks in Edinburgh and he had learned that it was a city built on top of a smaller city, which had been built on top of a town, which had been built on top of a village. The remnants of the village could still be found, long hidden by a thousand years of progress, but there nonetheless.

So few people knew about Neil’s keystones, he could count them on one hand: Jeremy. Jean. Jeremy’s father, Agent Knox. Stuart. And Andrew. Unless Andrew had forgotten, had rebuilt himself and buried Neil—buried Abram—deep. Neil wouldn’t blame him if he had.

“What about the guy?” Jeremy asked, then yelped. “No, Jean, don’t poke me, I never agreed to that.” He sighed. “Jean thinks I shouldn’t bother you about it, that if you want us to know you’ll tell us.”

Neil found himself smiling. “Wow, it’s like Jean doesn’t know me at all.”

“Right?”

But then Jeremy waited. Nobody would guess it, watching Jeremy bounce around like a hyperactive puppy, but he had more patience than a rock. Neil let his head drop back on the couch. There was a little crack in the ceiling, spiraling out like a spiderweb. Absurdly, he wanted to fix it, to find a ladder and some of that drywall putty and make it smooth and perfect.

“I don’t know, Jer. He’s—he’s got this whole life, you know? What am I supposed to do, just go waltzing in there and disrupt everything because for a couple of months ten years ago he made my life feel like it was worth something?”

“You know how to waltz?”

“Okay, first, fuck you, I could waltz, probably.”

Jeremy laughed, but there was something behind it, and Neil was reminded of why Jeremy was what he was to him. “Yeah, Neil. That’s kind of exactly what you’re supposed to do. Don’t you owe him a chance to decide for himself?”

He could hear Jean saying something, but couldn’t make out the words. Without warning, Beeps bounced awake, used Neil’s lap as a launch pad, and took off into his bedroom, her tiny feet skittering across the parquet floor. He reflexively pressed his palm against the sting her nails had left behind. “What if he doesn’t remember?”

“He’s playing the song?”

Neil thought back to the coffee shop, and the last song of every set. “Yes, he’s playing the song.”

“He remembers.”


“What are you doing this weekend?” Andrew asked, pausing with his hand wrapped around the fretboard.

Hiding in the corner of the apartment trying not to die. “Nothing much,” Abram shrugged. “Homework. TV. The usual.”

“Sounds boring as fuck.” He went back to picking at the strings, his fingers shifting and pulling out notes one by one. It was a new song, now that the other was nearly perfect. Abram didn’t recognize this one.

“Yeah. It is.” It always was, this business of surviving. They did their best to blend in, going to school and work and the grocery store, being vaguely polite to the neighbors but never learning anybody’s name. It didn’t pay to care. Caring was dangerous. Caring was vulnerability. Abram had learned that long ago. And there was little to do on weekends. His mother would probably make him work on his Spanish, he had caught her looking at flights to Colombia a few days previously.

Andrew hummed. A few more notes, and Abram thought he could figure out the melody, but then Andrew shifted his fingers and the whole thing changed into something sad enough that he wanted to close his eyes just to feel it in his bones.

“I’m going to a concert.” Andrew wasn’t looking at Abram, but he managed to be focused nonetheless.

“What band?”

“Nobody you’ve ever heard of. You should come.”

Abram’s breath caught in his throat. Or maybe that was his stomach, leaping up in rebellion against the thought. A concert was an idiotic risk, a death trap, an impossibility.

He wanted to go. The weight of his wanting felt like it could crush him.

“I can’t,” he said, nearly spitting the words out. They tasted like lemons, or maybe more like metal, sour and sharp.

“No way you’ve got that much homework.”

A dozen different lies bubbled up. Abram swallowed them down. “My mom won’t let me.”

Andrew rolled his eyes, still picking away at the guitar. “What does she think you are, five? It’s just a concert in a public park, I promise not to besmirch your virtue.”

Abram raised his eyebrows. “I’m not sure what that means, but I appreciate the reassurance. I guess.”

“It means I won’t try to fuck you, dumbass.”

“Oh.” Abram blinked, but that didn’t help the words arrange themselves into something that made any more sense. “I didn’t know that was on the table.”

The guitar made a deliberate, dissonant sound like an aborted scream. “Is that a problem?”

“I’m not—no. Neither smirking my virtue or not smirking my virtue is a problem. Smirching. I don’t have virtue. I mean—” He could feel his face burning, and then he started to laugh at the suppressed amusement in Andrew’s face. “Anyway. She won’t let me go.”

“I can have Abby call her. My mother,” Andrew clarified. “She can persuade a rock.”

Abram suppressed a shudder at that idea. “No. That’s not a good idea.”

Andrew looked at him sharply, and there was something too knowing behind his eyes. “James.”

Abram shook his head. Every neuron in his brain was screaming at him to leave, to run, to tell his mother that they had to go that night even though he knew, he knew that she was waiting on documents and money to come through.

“James. Breathe.”

He hadn’t even realized that though his body was going through the motions of breathing, he wasn’t pulling air. By the time he sucked in a breath through clenched teeth, there were black spots starting to swim before his eyes. A hand, warm and rough with callouses, came to rest on the back of his neck, and the next breath came easier.

He couldn’t meet Andrew’s eyes. The hand retreated; Andrew put some space between them, picking his guitar up off the rooftop and settling it back on his knees. Abram tried to come up with a reassuring lie, but nothing came. Andrew would’ve seen through it anyway.

More familiar chords sounded, another famous nineties song. He played it to the end, then draped his arms over his guitar, looking out across the courtyard. “I’m adopted,” he said abruptly.

Abram glanced up at him, but Andrew had no particular expression on his face. “Aaron and I. Two years ago.”

“Okay,” Abram said, unsure how he was supposed to respond.

“We were in foster care before that. For years.” He glanced at Abram, and suddenly Abram knew where that understanding had come from. “I won’t tell, you know.”

Abram shook his head again, and Andrew didn’t push. He just flipped his guitar pick through his fingers and started to play.


The coffee shop’s music schedule was conspicuously absent of ‘Jamie Ingraham’. Neil studied it again and again, but it didn’t miraculously change.

He tried going to see some other performances, but they weren’t the same. Most of the time he found himself finishing his coffee or tea and slipping out again, into a winter night that was slowly surrendering to spring. But there were a couple that caught him in the grasp of their voice, their lyrics pulling on old familiar wounds that had long lost their sting.

“Do I email him?” he asked Jean one night, lying flat on his back and watching headlights play across his ceiling.

“You have his email?” Jean asked, disbelieving.

“It’s on his website.”

He could practically see Jean pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. “Let me get this straight.”

“Neither of us is straight, Jean.”

“A., that’s not funny—”

“It is too, ask Jeremy.”

“—and b.,” he went on, as if Neil hadn’t spoken, “I can’t quite wrap my head around this. You can’t be quite this stupid.”

“The joke wasn’t that bad.”

“Okay, maybe you are this stupid. This guy has a website. And an email address. And according to Jeremy, an Instagram.”

“Yes.”

“And yet your whole plan is to show up at the coffee shop and hope that he recognizes you. Even though you look nothing like you did.”

Neil opened his mouth and shut it again. “When you say it like that it sounds idiotic.”

Jean snorted. “If I didn’t know better, I would say you didn’t actually want this.”

If only Jean knew that Neil hid behind a bookcase filled with cups every time. He would have flown in from California just to punch him in the face. Beeps beeped from the floor, and Neil patted the bed until she jumped up next to him. She started kneading his stomach while he thought, his fingers stroking absently through her fur.

“It’s just,” Neil started. There was something swirling in his chest, and he thought he could taste bile. “I was a kid. You know? What if I’ve built it all up in my head, and really he’s just some asshole with a guitar who never actually understood, and all those moments were a whole lot of nothing that only felt like something because I was lonely and desperate and my life was a giant shitshow? What then?”

Jean was quiet. Beeps stopped her kneading, her breathing getting slow and deep where she lay tucked into the space between Neil’s arm and body. His own tiny oasis of warmth.

“That’s possible. Maybe even probable.”

“You’re very encouraging, Jean, you know that.”

“If you want encouraging, talk to Jeremy,” Jean said, and Neil could hear the smile in his voice. “You want reality, you talk to me.”

Neil sighed and rolled onto his side, sheltering Beeps with his body from some threat he couldn’t name. “Hit me with all this reality, then.”

“You probably have built this up in your head. Your life was utter shit.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. But when we met, you didn’t even know who you were. You’d been so many different people, you were like one of those...what are those lizards? With the weird eyes and they change colors?”

“Chameleons?”

“Yes! Chameleons, you were a chameleon. But the one thing you held onto was this boy. He was the one bit that you kept, no matter what colors you changed into. So maybe it was just a schoolyard crush or maybe he’s grown up to be...I don’t know, a Trump supporter or an anti-vaxxer.”

“Take that back.”

Jean laughed. “But you have made everything else real. Your name, your appearance, you’re no longer a wanted criminal. So why not figure out if maybe this is real too? And if it’s not, you can do what you did with the rest of it.”

“An FBI shootout and years of therapy?”

“Exactly. Though preferably just the therapy, I’m not sure your luck would hold through another shootout.”

Neil ran a hand over Beeps. She made a tiny chirp in her sleep and shifted closer. He could feel his eyelids getting heavier; it was past midnight, and he needed to get some sleep. “Okay.”

“What are you going to do?” Jean asked softly.

“I don’t know. Something.”


“James.”

Abram looked up from his math notebook. His mother was dressed in her office work clothes: a gray suit, tasteful jewelry, sensible flats, and a gun strapped to her thigh, hidden beneath the skirt unless you knew where to look. He also happened to know that the pins holding her hair up in its twist were sharp enough to kill. “Why do you call me that when it’s just us?”

She narrowed her eyes at him, and he realized she was wearing makeup, something she never bothered with unless one of her contacts had gotten her a good job. “It’s your name.”

He bit the inside of his lip to avoid a smart retort. She studied him, as if she could see what he was doing, but didn’t move. “I have a meeting with Bruce.”

“Okay,” he said, setting his homework down on the couch. “We’re doing that look?” Mostly they tried to look on the poor end of the spectrum, without straying into destitute; it saved them the trouble of dealing with petty thieves, and he had long discovered that the average person’s eyes skipped over the less fortunate. But sometimes, it paid to dress well. His mother had a handful of nice outfits; Abram had one.

“Not us. Me.”

“Oh.” He blinked at her; she never did these meetings without keeping him nearby. He wanted to ask, but it wasn’t worth it. Questioning her never was.

“I’ll be back before seven. Keep your phone on. Keep the blinds closed. There’s still some bread in the freezer, and you know where the extra ammo is. You have it?”

Abram rolled his eyes and slipped his hand between the couch cushions. He flashed the handgun at her before shoving it back into its hiding spot. Before he could free his hand, she had grabbed him by the ear and yanked his head to the side. “Don’t roll your eyes at me, James,” she hissed. “I’m doing this for you.”

“I know, Mom,” he said, fighting the stinging in his eyes. There was something about this particular hold that always got him.

And then she was gone, slipping through the door like a feral cat. Abram rubbed his ear absently while he found the right page in his math book. It was only ten o’clock in the morning, and he would have all his homework finished by noon. Which left seven hours of nothing to do but study Spanish and the web the spider was building in the window well.

Unless…

He pulled out his phone and turned it on. Andrew hadn’t mentioned the concert again; hadn’t given any indication that he remembered their conversation at all, really. But he had given Abram his phone number, more than a week ago. Abram hadn’t saved it, but it was burned into the folds of his brain anyway.

Hi

What time is the concert?

This is James, btw

2

I can pick you up

Abram tried to imagine Andrew coming here, to this rundown complex that rented by the week. Of him—knowing. A shudder ran over him at the thought.

I’ll meet you there

Washington Park was in the center of the city, a little over a mile from Abram’s apartment. He had gone running there from time to time, early in the mornings when it was still quiet, or sometimes in the afternoons when he thought he would suffocate in the prison of four walls and closed doors. His mother didn’t like it, but she liked him prowling the apartment like a caged lion less.

The park seemed to breathe, the ebb and flow of people falling into a rhythm, only rarely broken by a jogger or the squealing of a child as they ran across the grass. Abram kept on alert even as he inserted himself into the current of bodies, letting himself be carried along towards the little amphitheater that sat up on the hill. He had noticed it on his first run, the concrete starting to give way to the greenery that seemed to take over everything in the South.

There was a cluster of live oaks along the back edge, spreading their branches to shelter the stage. He circled the structure, scanning the gathering crowd for any familiar faces, but the only one he saw was Andrew. The rest of the crowd seemed to be an odd mix of ages, everything from an overexcited bundle of toddlers forming an extremely clumsy mosh pit at the front of the stage to some smiling senior citizens ranged along one side. He made his way down the concrete steps to Andrew’s side just as two women and three men climbed onto the stage.

“Hey,” he said, biting back a smile at the way Andrew jumped when he spoke.

Andrew scooted down to make a spot for him. Abram settled next to him, the cement warm in the lingering fall sunshine. “Why did you want me to come to see this band I’ve never heard of?”

“The singers, their sister lives in the city. They live up north now, but they come here once a year and do a free concert.” He was quiet for a moment, then shrugged. “It’s my mother. Abby. She’s their sister.”

Abram hummed in acknowledgement. He could hear more beneath the words, and thought of Andrew on a rooftop, playing like it was something to hold onto. The audience was small, maybe a couple hundred people, but anticipation rippled through the air as the musicians fiddled around with their instruments. Abram found himself leaning forward and he didn’t know why.

At first, he didn’t understand Andrew’s draw to this band. It was pleasant, the women’s voices blending together in perfect harmony, the guitar simple; music designed to be easy to listen to, easy to understand, nothing harsh or unforgiving.

And then, he started to listen to the lyrics.

The women sang on, songs about friendship fought for and lost, about love betrayed, about innocence stolen and walls raised. About understanding someone at their core and that very knowledge driving them away. The songs weren’t all serious; there was a rapidfire one about superheroes that made the audience laugh and the miniaturized moshers jump up and down with abandon, and Abram found himself laughing too though he didn’t know why.

And through it all, he was painfully conscious of Andrew at his side. It wasn’t that Andrew was doing much of anything; he barely seemed to be paying attention, his eyes more focused on the birds coming and going in the live oak branches than on the band. But Abram could feel the heat of him where their legs were nearly touching, could feel the way his body swayed minutely in time to the music and see his fingers twitching as if he were playing on invisible strings.

An hour passed, and it felt like a blink. But then the musicians were bowing and laughing, and kids were climbing on the stage to receive hugs, and Abram couldn’t tear his eyes away. He couldn’t fathom what kind of life would let someone sing so knowingly about pain, and then welcome people in so joyfully.

Andrew stood abruptly. “Come on.”

Abram followed as Andrew skirted the crowd, heading away from the stage. They passed the playground and the little field where some kids from their school were throwing a frisbee around, laughing as they repeatedly drove the disc into the ground. A grove of evergreens hid a mossy bench, and Andrew dropped down onto it.

“Your mother let you come after all.”

It was a question disguised as a statement. Abram realized Andrew was giving him an out, but he didn’t want to take it. “She’s away for the day.”

“And what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”

Guilt twisted in Abram’s chest. He could picture his mother’s reaction if she returned home to find him gone; he stomped it down and feigned a smile. “Exactly.” I hope.

There was a different sort of stillness to Andrew now, one missing the tiny betrayals of emotion that had been palpable throughout the concert. This felt—blank, and Abram hated it. “It’s not her fault,” he blurted out, and then bit his cheek until he tasted blood.

Andrew raised an eyebrow, and that tiny expression shouldn’t have felt like relief but it did. “It’s my father,” Abram whispered, even as something in his head screamed at him to stop. “She took me and left. He didn’t take it well.”

It was an understatement. It was also the truest thing Abram had ever told someone, and he thought maybe he was about to vomit. But Andrew didn’t blink. He didn’t say anything at all for a long moment, and then, “Ask me something.”

“What?”

“You just told me something true. So ask me something, and I won’t lie.”

A thousand questions bubbled up, about music, about his brother, about foster care and his mother and why he understood. But instead he shook his head. “You already told me about being in foster care. And the—the virtue thing. I owed you.”

Andrew pulled his feet up on the bench, studying Abram with his chin on his knees. “You don’t make sense, James.”

“Yeah, I know.”

He expected Andrew to push, but he didn’t. The only sounds were the wind through the trees and the distant laughter of children; even the ever-present hum of city traffic was muffled. It felt like a different world, one to which Abram could never belong, and he sat there until the sky was streaked with gold and rose, just trying to hold on to this tiny perfect moment.


Dear Andrew,

I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but I knew you for 7 weeks and 3 days in high school

Neil sighed and hit the back button, watching the words get swallowed up by white. There had to be a way to write this where he sounded marginally less pathetic.

Dear Andrew,

This is James. Only that’s not my name.

Delete, delete, delete.

This was stupid. There had to be some way to talk to him that didn’t involve sounding like a character in one of the terrible rom coms Jeremy would watch. Neil couldn’t help the twitch of the mouth as he thought back to the first time he had been fully subsumed in the Knox family. Shellshocked was too mild a word for what he had felt, sitting on a couch sharing butter-drenched popcorn while people laughed and cried and yelled out advice to the idiotic characters on the screen.

But this wasn’t a movie, and Andrew wasn’t a fiction, and neither was Neil, not anymore.

He pulled up the website for ‘Jamie Ingraham.’ The header must have been professionally taken, the lighting buttery and soft, a Midas touch turning Andrew into gold. But he wasn’t looking at the camera. He was looking out over the city, perched on a rooftop, his guitar in his lap, and every time Neil saw it his breath caught with the nostalgia of it. There were links to his songs, some on Amazon, some on YouTube, and Neil hit ‘play’ on the first one. He slumped back into the couch cushions, absently petting a sleeping Beeps, and let Andrew’s voice wash over him.

Andrew,

Once we sat on the roof and talked about what it meant to be safe. You told me to stay, and I told you I couldn’t, but that I would try to come back.

I came back. I know it’s been a long time. I hope you can understand. Even if you can’t, I hope you know that I am grateful to you. You helped me to hold on when I didn’t think I could.

Your music is amazing, by the way. I go see you every time you’re at the coffee shop, but I haven’t had the balls to go talk to you. I don’t look like what I did, and I don’t know that you’ll still be interested in my “virtue,” but I don’t care either way. I just miss you. I’ve been missing you since that day. I thought it would be enough to watch you sing, and it is, or it will be. If you don’t want more.

I’m not James anymore. You were right; I never really was. Legally I’m Neil now.

But I really liked being Jamie.


“James!”

Abram startled, slamming his locker shut with more force than strictly necessary. He cursed under his breath at the noise; he kept waiting for the other shoe to drop from sneaking out to go to the concert, for his father to show up at their apartment door or for his mother to somehow smell his lies on his breath. But she had come back from the meeting with her contact grimly satisfied, and they had a timeline now for when they would leave. Three weeks.

He wasn’t sure he could bear it this time. But he could. He would. He always had.

One of the cheerleaders that hung out with Andrew’s brother must have been the one who had called his name. She was staring at him, hugging her books to her chest and blinking repeatedly. He wondered if she was going to cry, or maybe have a seizure, except that she wore a broad smile. He waited.

She kept blinking. Was she sending a message? He knew morse code, but this didn’t seem to make sense.

“Are you okay?” he finally asked.

“Of course!” she said. “Why?”

He waved a hand in her general direction, where her eyelashes continued to flutter. “Do you have something in your eye?”

Her smile disappeared, and she pulled the books closer. “You know, yeah, I do. Better go fix that. Mascara, am I right?”

She didn’t look like she was wearing mascara, but Abram didn’t care enough to comment as she disappeared into the girls’ bathroom. For her sake, he hoped it was cleaner than the boys’; for some reason he had assumed by the time guys were in high school they knew how to aim, but apparently he was mistaken.

A slow clap sounded behind him, and he turned around to see Andrew, a hint of a smile tucked into the corners of his mouth. “Nice work.”

“What did I do?”

“Pretty sure you guaranteed she won’t be asking you to the Homecoming dance.”

“Oh.” He glanced over his shoulder at the girls’ bathroom, the door still resolutely shut. “Why would she want to do that?”

Andrew huffed a quiet laugh, reaching up to tug on the dangling strap from Abram’s backpack. “No fucking clue, Jamie. No fucking clue.”

Abram fell in behind him, still feeling the pull from Andrew’s fingers in his shoulder long after he let go. “Jamie?”

“You’re still not a James, I don’t care what your mother says.”

“But I’m a Jamie?”

Andrew stopped abruptly in front of one of the History classrooms. “For now.” The bell rang, and there was something in his eyes, something bright and unfamiliar as he held Abram’s gaze for a few seconds too long. “Better run, you’ll be late.”

Abram spent the morning doodling in the margins of his notebook, trying to force himself to listen as his various teachers droned. And then he was sitting on the rooftop under a threatening sky, listening to Andrew as he picked his way through a new song.

“What is that one?”

Andrew’s fingers stumbled for a moment. “It’s nothing.” He went back to the beginning, playing a few bars then hesitating, trying one chord, then another.

“Are you making a song?”

“Not if you keep interrupting me.”

Abram swallowed down his smile with his sandwich. It was fascinating, watching Andrew build the song bit by bit. The refrain was what he kept going back to, tweaking and adjusting it, before finally making a frustrated noise and shifting into the familiar song that he had been learning when they met.

“What’s it about?” Abram asked, once Andrew had shouldered his guitar case.

“Dunno.” Andrew’s shrug made the guitar bump up against Abram’s hip. “I haven’t found the words yet.”

“Let me know when you do.”

He didn’t know why he said it. Chances were, he’d be thousands of miles away by then. But he felt like a tiny bit of this belonged to him, like he was watching it be born and that alone gave him a stake in it.

Andrew stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Abram waited for him to push through the door into the hallway with the fluorescent light that was still on the fritz, but instead he turned, cocking his head to study Abram. They were about the same height. Somehow he hadn’t noticed that before.

“Did your mom find out?”

“Nah.” He still remembered the queasiness in his stomach as he heard her key in the lock, the way he had jolted out of his reverie and put on his bored face, feigning irritability as she made dinner. He still couldn’t believe it had worked. She had always seen through him before.

Andrew reached up as he had that morning, toying with the backpack strap. “So you’re okay, then.”

“Yeah. Thank you for inviting me. They were—it was fun.”

“Shut up,” Andrew said, releasing the strap only to twist his fingers into the neck of Abram’s sweatshirt. The weight of his hand dragged Abram closer, and he found his breath catching at their nearness, so close that he could only focus on Andrew’s face with one eye at a time.

“Andrew,” he murmured, not sure why it felt like a storm was about to break.

“Yes or no, Jamie?”

A part of him thought he should maybe ask what he was saying yes to, but most of him, the stupid bits, didn’t really care. “Yes.”

And then Andrew’s hand was cupping the back of his neck, pulling him in, and warm lips were pressed harshly against his, and he didn’t know if he was supposed to close his eyes or move his mouth or where his nose was supposed to go. Before he could try to figure it out it was over. Andrew stepped back out of his space, then through the door into the hallway without a word, and Abram found himself shivering at the chill left in his wake.


It was the end of a gray day. The sky was gray, the drizzle was gray, Neil’s mood was gray. Even when he flicked on every light in the apartment, it didn’t seem to drive out the fog.

Years ago, there was a sort of safety in gray. The world got quiet. His mother used to pick days like this to move them, the sounds of their fleeing muffled under the blanket of rain, their features a blur to prying eyes. He had always kind of loved the freedom of it, the feeling of being alone with nothing in the rear view mirror but the kaleidoscope of stoplights. But now it was a weight, or maybe a vacuum; something leaching out the color, something slowly suffocating, and he couldn’t catch his breath.

He found himself pacing around the apartment, and when that wasn’t enough he went out onto the street, walking around in the rain until his hair was soaked through and even his waterproof jacket was starting to have some doubts about his sanity. When he got back to his apartment, Beeps stared at his dripping form in wide-eyed horror for a moment before disappearing under the bed.

He didn’t blame her.

Jeremy didn’t answer his phone. Neither did Jean. Which meant either they were both still at work, or he didn’t want to know what they were doing.

He checked his email; nothing but a newsletter from the coffee shop, which he had signed up for a couple weeks ago and promptly forgotten about. He skimmed it, looking for the one name he cared about and coming up empty.

The drafts folder sat there, with its stupid little (1) next to it, mocking him as it had for days. He clicked on the folder, studied the draft, the stupid sappy email that Andrew would probably delete unread anyway. His finger hovered over the trash can before he opted to close the whole window instead.

The jingle of his car keys was like a balm. Neil took a deep breath as he buckled his seatbelt and put the car in drive. It didn’t matter where he was going, not really, not anymore.

It was late when he pulled into a vacant spot in the narrow street next to the coffee shop. His feet carried him into the crowd inside with little input from his brain. It was a woman this time, with a guitar that reminded him of Andrew’s, comforting in its bulbous bulkiness. There was no line for once, everyone already clustered around tables throughout the shop, and he ordered himself a chamomile tea then leaned against the counter to listen.

It was a strange song, something about gardens that also seemed to advocate for the murder of white supremacists. This was a theme he could get behind, he decided, burning his mouth on a too-hot sip of tea. The singer seemed amused by it herself, a little smile playing over her lips as she sang, her rainbow-dyed hair falling to brush the microphone. She finished that one and moved onto the next, her voice so hypnotic it was easy to ignore the bleakness of the songs themselves. This one had a line about a copycat killer, and he decided she had a theme to her music that defied the cross that dangled from her neck.

Neil had settled back into his body by the time he finished his tea. He set the mug down in the bin and turned to go when a flash of gold by the window caught his eye. Andrew.

For an endless minute, he couldn’t move his feet, and when he did, he stumbled into a wall of rapt audience members. They didn’t seem to notice him, and he wormed his way through with muttered excuse mes and sorrys. By the time he wormed his way through, Andrew was nowhere to be seen; there was a blonde woman sitting at the table by the window, but that was all.

“I’m hallucinating now,” he told his cat when he got back to his apartment. She opened one eye and gave a tiny mrrrp. “Seriously, I’m losing it. What do I do?”

She uncurled with a wide-mouthed yawn and sat up, revealing the laptop that she had chosen over the couch cushion to sleep on. “What, you think I should send it?”

“Beep,” said Beeps, and jumped off the couch to go scratch in her litter box.

“You’re right. I’m going to send it.”

The email hadn’t gotten any less sappy with the passage of time; it also hadn’t gotten any less true. I really liked being Jamie. He could still remember the way the nickname sounded in Andrew’s gentle drawl, the way it tasted on his lips. “I can’t believe I’m taking advice from a creature who shits in a box,” he told Beeps as she zoomed past him at full speed, and hit send.


Abram caught himself humming while he made breakfast, stopping with a furtive look over his shoulder. His mother was still in the shower, but it wouldn’t do for her to catch him, not when he never hummed, not when he couldn’t tell her where he had heard the song.

He sat down to eat, shoveling the cereal in while he finished up his homework. He had stared at it for an hour the night before but it had remained meaningless black lines on a page. All he had been able to think about was Andrew.

It turned out that kissing was one of those things that got better with practice. Abram had enjoyed proving that hypothesis over the past couple of weeks, on the rooftop, in the stairwell, in empty classrooms when the rain drove them inside. Andrew didn’t seem to mind either, judging by the way his fingers would tangle in Abram’s hair, and the way his lips would linger for a moment before pulling away.

He shook his head to clear it and tapped his eraser against the page. The problems weren’t difficult, if he was paying attention, and he managed to finish three before his mother emerged from the bathroom. She was wearing nondescript jeans and a sweater and something clenched in Abram’s chest at the sight.

“Don’t bother with that,” she said, nodding at his homework. “I called you out of school.”

“Why?”

Her mouth tightened. “We’re leaving today. Portugal. The flight leaves at four.”

“But—” He was supposed to have until Saturday. Four days. He was losing four days. And he hadn’t even told Andrew he was leaving.

“Abram.” Her voice was steel, as sharp and unforgiving as his father’s knives. He swallowed down his protest and let his pencil fall. His duffel was packed, as it always was; he would shove his empty backpack into it, leave the books behind, and they would be gone, ghosts, a figment of their neighbors’ imaginations, just as they always were.

Except this time, he would be leaving something behind. Nothing tangible; he wasn’t stupid. Something more like fingerprints. A mark, something that was him and him alone. A smudge that said he was there.

And Andrew—he wouldn’t know what happened. Abram’s chest tightened at the thought of it. He forced himself to sip his juice and finish his cereal while his mom made herself some tea, then got up, crumpling his homework in his hand and tossing it in the trash.

They spent the morning as they always did when awaiting a flight. Cleaning, organizing, reviewing their new identities. Abram’s Spanish was sub-par and his Portuguese nonexistent, his mother’s not much better. So he practiced his cockney accent and prepared himself to be Samuel Bell, recent London expat, and tried not to notice that some part of himself was cracking along an invisible fault line.

But Abram couldn’t stop sneaking glances at his phone, watching time leap past in chunks. He should be going to Biology now. Geometry. English.

“I’m going to get our papers now,” his mother announced, and Abram started and dropped his phone.

“Okay.”

She stood there in front of the door, watching him for a moment. His skin crawled under her eyes but he kept his face impassive as he flipped through a cheap Portuguese guidebook his mother had picked up from somewhere. She left without another word.

His phone read 11:42. He had eighteen minutes to get to the school before Andrew would be on the roof; it took twenty to walk there. He waited two minutes, three, before peeking out through the blinds at the empty parking space in front of their apartment. Shoving his phone in his pocket, he scribbled a note for his mom in case she came home, and ran.

Set a normal jogging pace. Relax your face. Run in place at the crosswalks until the light changes. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. He ran over the familiar mantra in his head as he passed the strip of shops and fast-food restaurants, darted across route twenty two and along the fencing of the school. It was chain-link, easy enough to climb once he was safely in the woods that lined the back of the grounds. He was up and over in a minute, and he checked the time on his phone as he power-walked past the soccer fields and in through the open gym door, bypassing security.

Andrew was waiting for him, though his fingers didn’t slow on the strings when Abram slipped through the door onto the roof. He played through the chorus of his song once, twice, before letting the guitar rest on his knees. “Who’s chasing you, Jamie?” he asked, looking over Abram’s flushed face and quickened breaths.

Abram almost choked on a laugh. “I’m—” He faltered. This was a mistake; coming here was a mistake. He should’ve just...disappeared, as they always did. Because he could see it, the recognition in Andrew’s eyes, the tightening of his face. He could see the fingerprints he had left all over him. He’d had no right. “I’m sorry.”

Andrew set the guitar down with a clang, and then he was on his feet, his hand twisted into Abram’s shirt. “What are you doing?”

Abram’s swallow made his throat ache. “Leaving. We’re leaving.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know.” The lie sliced him on the way out, and he couldn’t tell if Andrew noticed.

“What, you just get in the car and drive?”

“Sometimes.” That, at least, was true. “It’s safer than staying put.”

“You’re safe here, Jamie.” Andrew’s face was set in its stubborn lines, and Abram leaned forward, resting his forehead against Andrew’s.

“Only for a minute,” he whispered. It was always only for a minute.

“How long are you going to keep running?”

Abram shook his head and leaned back, but Andrew didn’t release him. “I don’t know,” he repeated, giving in to that unforgiving hold. “As long as we can, I guess.”

“Does that keep you safe?” Andrew asked, and there was something else behind the question, some sort of secret that Abram wished he had time to ferret out. But the lunch period was drawing to an end, and his mother would be home soon, and then this would be over; he would never be Jamie again.

“I don’t know what safe even means anymore. It keeps me alive.”

And there it was, as it had been weeks ago: that perfect understanding. He reached up, and Andrew leaned in, letting Abram’s fingers slide into his hair, and then Andrew’s mouth was against his, and Abram opened up to him, and it was a clash of lips and tongue and teeth and it was everything that was safe and everything that was dangerous, everything that he wanted and everything he couldn’t have. He longed to cling on, but he had marked Andrew enough already. “I’ll come back, Andrew. I don’t know when. But if I can, I’ll come back.”

This time, Andrew let him go.


Neil paced around his apartment, picking up random papers and the solo socks that always managed to escape from his hamper. “I don’t know, Jer. He never responded. He’s probably got some publicist reading his emails, thinking I’m an insane person.”

“You really think a guy who plays in a coffee shop in who-the-fuck-knows-where South Carolina has a publicist?” Jeremy sounded skeptical.

Neil shrugged, not that Jeremy could see it. “What do I know? Maybe he just has a bad publicist.”

Jeremy laughed. “Really bad. The worst, actually.”

Neil dropped onto his couch, wishing the cushions would swallow him up. “So do I go?”

“I swear to god, Neil, I am about to get on a plane just to kick your ass.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Jeremy sighed. “I am about to get on a plane to gently support you and then drink overpriced coffee and watch you get your man.”

“He’s not my man.”

“Not with that attitude he’s not.”

“I’m—it’s not like that. That’s not the point of all this.”

“I know,” Jeremy said. “But you will never know what kind of friendship you could have if you just sit on your couch and pine.”

Beeps tore out of the bedroom and disappeared under the chair, a sock in her mouth. Neil shook his fist in her direction, the collection of mismatched socks in his hand flopping like a shitty pom-pom. “Okay. I’m going.”

“You’re going.”

Technically I’m here, Neil told himself an hour later, sitting in his car in the alley next to the coffee shop. A citrusy aroma was leaching in through his open windows from the magnolia tree on the corner. It smelled like spring.

“Okay,” he said, cracking open the door. “Okay.”

There was no sign of Andrew when he joined the queue at the front of the cafe. The sandwich sign proclaimed Jamie Ingraham, and Neil shook his head wryly as he passed it. An empty stool sat on the little platform, the microphone standing before it, bent as if bowing in invitation. Neil shook himself. This wasn’t The Great Gastby, it wasn’t a fucking symbol.

As he placed his order, there was the scrape of chair on wood behind him. He couldn’t have even told how he heard it over the conversation around him, but then there was a rustling, and the strumming of strings, and the voices died down as if someone had abruptly unplugged them. Neil swallowed and turned around.

Andrew sat on the stool, ignoring his audience as he fiddled with the tuning of the guitar. His pick hung from his lips while he made some minute adjustment; once satisfied, he flipped the pick through his fingers and, without a word, started to play.

Neil didn’t hide this time. He wasn’t sure he could have even if he wanted to. It was the very first song he’d ever heard Andrew play, the lyrics sad and urgent, the sense of fate and loss and the grief of understanding woven through it. He had always closed with this song before, and Neil’s heart was beating into his fingertips at the change in routine as the too-familiar chorus washed over him.

Andrew barely paused at the end, despite the applause overflowing the small space. His fingers danced deftly over the strings, his voice tearing itself as he sang words he must have penned. The cafe was nearly silent, every single heart fixed on the lone man on the stool.

Neil had lost track of time by the time Andrew stopped. His cup had long gone cold, but he wrapped his hands tighter around it, searching for the forgotten promise of warmth. Andrew seemed to hesitate, and then for the first time he looked up at the crowd.

“I wrote the music for this next one a long time ago,” he said into the mic. “Then had to wait about a decade for the right lyrics. Anyway. Here’s ‘Safe.’”

Neil’s eyes closed as the first simple notes started, a melody he had heard being worked out on a rooftop a lifetime ago. Then Andrew started singing, and it was Neil. Or rather, Abram, fifteen years old again and flayed open on a rooftop. His own words, his own childhood; that understanding he had seen too easily in Andrew, now drifting through the air and settling on Abram’s shoulders, wrapping around him, holding him close.

His eyelashes were damp when the song drew to a close, and when he opened his eyes it was to see Andrew looking right at him. Neil’s mouth opened, but no words came out, there were no words for this feeling, for the lightness and the heaviness, the joy and the grief. And staring at Andrew he saw the same cacophony of feeling in the tightness around his eyes, the muscle twitching in his jaw. Neil started to raise his hand in some sort of signal, even he didn’t know what.

Andrew stood abruptly, guitar in his hand, and disappeared.

“Fuck,” Neil muttered.

He pushed off the narrow window ledge and threaded himself through the crowd, now erupting with voices and chatter and the shifting of chairs. A door in the back was closing, and he slipped through. A startled employee, pulling cups off the shelf, said, “Hey! I don’t think—” but Neil was already past him, pushing out the back door into the chill night air.

The alley was empty. Neil cursed under his breath, rubbing his face, trying to think of what to do next. He pulled out his phone and stared at it, wishing for some sort of answer to appear, but the plain lockscreen stared back at him before slowly going black.

The door behind him opened. “Yeah, I’m sorry, I just—“. Neil’s words died on his lips when he realized it wasn’t the barista he expected. Andrew stood in the doorway, guitar case slung over his shoulder, utterly unimpressed.

“Running off again, Jamie?” He let the door swing closed and settled back against the rough bricks. “Or do you prefer Neil.”

“I thought you’d left,” Neil said stupidly. Andrew raised a sardonic eyebrow, and Neil wanted to laugh, and he wanted to lean in, and he wanted to go home and put Beeps in a carrier and drive far away and never think of this again.

“Why are you here?”

“I told you I’d come back. I promised.”

Andrew snorted. “It was nothing,” he said flatly, leaning back against the wall. “You were supposed to forget.”

“What, like you did?” Neil asked, waving a hand at the bricks of the café. “Using ‘Jamie Ingraham’ as a stage name isn’t exactly making your case here.”

Andrew huffed a laugh without humor. “You’re not exactly easy to forget. Even if I was capable of it.”

“Neither are you,” Neil said softly.

Andrew didn’t respond. Neil followed his eyes, looking down the alley where the white blooms of the magnolia tree gleamed silver in the moonlight. Indistinct voices bounced off the walls, echoing ghost-like from the invisible speakers out on the strip. A car drove by, it’s brake lights flickering red, and Neil felt an absurd urge to stop in his tracks even though he hadn’t moved.

“I don’t think you know what it meant to me,” he said. “I wasn’t—real. Hadn’t been for years. I didn’t even know what that meant anymore. But for a few weeks, I was. Just for half an hour a day, maybe, but that was real, it was me. Not whatever persona I was playing, not whoever I thought would be the most harmless or blend in the most, but actually me.”

He looked at Andrew then, and Andrew was looking at him, and it was such a simple thing, seeing and being seen, that for the second time that night he found his eyes burning. “I kept thinking about it. That feeling. And you. For years I thought about it. Being with you was the only time I had ever really felt whole, and it was so much better than being safe. And once—once everything was over, and I had to figure out who I was all over again, I kept thinking, ‘At least I have a starting point. At least I have the rooftop.’ You know?”

For an endless moment, Andrew didn’t move, didn’t speak. Neil could hear the beating of his own heart in his ears. Then slowly, Andrew reached out and twisted his fingers into Neil’s hoodie and tugged. “It took me ten minutes to write the lyrics to that song. Ten years to be ready to write it, but ten minutes to write it. I think I always knew.”

~Epilogue~

Neil woke up to Beeps poking him in the lips with her paw. Groaning, he tried to shoo her away, but she just curled into a loaf and fixed him with an unsettling stare. “I’m up, you asshole,” he said.

“Meep.”

She jumped off, and he rolled over, reaching out automatically to the impression on the other side of the bed. Still warm.

Shoving off the covers, he dragged himself into a vaguely upright position and stumbled into the bathroom, only tripping over the cat twice in his quest to empty his bladder and obtain some caffeine. Out in the living room, he could hear it: the slow picking at strings, followed by quiet muttering. Something tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he filled two mugs and trailed the sounds out through the sliding glass door.

Late-summer roses were poking through the neighbor’s fence, their sunshine-yellow faces bobbing gently in the breeze that played along the grass. Andrew had commented dryly, when the buds first appeared, that the rosebush was Jeremy in flower form and now Neil couldn’t think of them as anything other than the Jeremy flowers.

It hadn’t been simple. It still wasn’t. Perhaps in a story it would have been but in reality nothing ever was, at least not in Neil’s reality. He was still trying to figure out how to stay, how to be whole, how to be real. And Andrew—Andrew had a fight of his own. How to be held on to, instead of just holding on.

He set one mug down on the iron table, the other cradled in his hands. Andrew hadn’t looked up from his instrument. His fingers danced along the strings, his mouth moving silently, head nodding along to the beat only he could hear. It never failed to fascinate Neil, this process of creation, the forging of something beautiful out of nothing at all. So he sat in his chair and watched the early morning sun steal across the grass, and for the moment, all he wanted to do was stay.