“I’m the best kisser. Duh.” John B. declared as they sat around their stolen fire at Rixon’s one night in the summer before eighth grade. Once some older kids had left, they had come over and claimed it, feeling big with their stolen sodas and candy. JJ had even stolen a beer from his dad that they all split and they were feeling invincible.
“Nuh-uh. You ain’t kissed enough to be the best, John B. Kie’s gotta be the best kisser cause she’s a girl.” JJ shot back right away. He was using his new pocket knife to cut his name into a piece of driftwood and was trying to distract himself from the conversation, feeling the disgustingly familiar sense of tingling all over his body at the topic.
Ever since they had all turned thirteen, they had started talking more and more about kissing and all of that. And not just in health class. Everywhere JJ went, he felt like someone was talking about who they wanted to mack on or who they had macked on and when they could all mack on each other at the next ‘party’ at someone's house or the beach or wherever. And he hated it.
He hated it so much that almost every time the conversation came up, he disappeared, climbing on shit and jumping off of shit just to get away from it, returning a solid thirty minutes later to be safe that it was over. And so far, none of his friends had noticed. But this time, he hadn’t been able to get up and climb anything, stranded on the cove with them and feeling lazy.
Kie was turned to him now, looking at him with disgust and he realized he had said something sexist. “I’m the best kisser cause I’m a girl ? How about, I’m the best kisser cause I know what I’m doing! It doesn’t matter if I’m a boy or a girl! Or who I even kiss! And you don’t even know if I’m a good kisser!”
JJ shrugged, avoiding her eyes, focusing on perfecting the top of the second J in his name.
“I’ve kissed the most girls, so I’m the best.” John B. said again.
“Quality over quantity.” Pope said, smirking as John B. and Kie looked at him with gaping mouths. Even JJ looked up at that, eyebrows raised. He didn’t know that even Pope was kissing people.
“Who.” John B. demanded right away. JJ found himself wanting to know too before realizing that it didn’t matter who it was; he was sure that none of his friends and no other kids on the island had been through what he had been through and they were all doing normal stuff that he couldn't do.
“I’m a gentleman. I don’t kiss and tell.” Pope said, crossing his arms and fighting off John B. when he tried to shake it out of him.
“It’s fake if you don’t tell.” John B. said.
“Leave him alone, bro. Who cares about macking on people anyway?” JJ said, hoping to change the subject. “Shut up.”
“Who cares about macking on people? What else should we care about?” John B. asked him.
“Surfing. Candy. Nailing tricks on my skateboard. I’m focused on getting my cousin to sell me some weed so we can chill this summer.”
“He’s not going to, JJ. He told you he wouldn’t sell to you until you were in high school. Keep dreaming.” Kie reminded him, but John B. was looking at him weird.
“Who have you macked on? You've never even told us and you would definitely tell if you did.” John B. asked him, still staring at him. JJ looked up before looking away with an quick angry shrug. Sometimes John B. was the best friend he’d ever had and sometimes he was a clueless asshole. Today looked like the second option.
“Yeah, that is true.” Kie agreed, looking at him weirdly too. “I know lots of girls who want to with you. Do you not like it or something? Have you never done it before?”
JJ felt his face start to burn and he stood up, his mind racing with images and memories of things he didn’t want it to race with. If he was honest, he didn’t want anyone doing anything with him, too haunted by the monster. And he couldn’t see that changing anytime soon.
“I do like it. I just don’t like talking about it all day long cause it ain’t a big deal. It ain’t something new to me. Leave me alone.” JJ said, grabbing his backpack. “I’m gonna go home. My dad was gonna take me night fishing at like three in the morning so I gotta go get some sleep before it.”
“Nice going, John B. Kie.” He heard Pope say as he turned away. “Hey, JJ. Wait!”
He didn’t turn around, blinking back tears and feeling embarrassed and messed up.
“Who cares if he doesn’t? Maybe he doesn’t like-” He heard Pope say before he walked far enough away that he couldn’t hear the end of his sentence. He heard John B. and Kie yelling for him through the darkness, but he swerved into the woods and headed towards his house, not caring if they tried to find him.
It wasn’t that JJ didn’t think about macking on people, like his friends did and everyone at school. It wasn’t even that he didn’t see and know people he would happily mack on. It was about how when John B. and Kie and Pope were talking about kissing, all he could think about was the monster. Every. Single. Time.
And he didn’t know what to do about that. He didn’t know how to get him out of his brain and locked back in the special room he kept him in. And he didn’t know how to be normal and do what everyone else was doing when this was happening to him.
He got home after a few minutes, staring at his house from the dark driveway, judging how sober his dad was by the way the car was parked and what lights were on and how loud it was. He deemed it safe, but not safe enough to go through the front door, so he walked around to his window and shoved it open, climbing in and grabbing his beat up notebook and a pen, crouching on the floor to scribble some pictures, his mind racing.
He heard his dad bumbling around and he focused on covering the page with ink as he drew the ocean during a storm, his mind finally drifting somewhere else as he moved the pen back and forth. His friends didn’t know he drew things and he had nothing to show anyone, but when he couldn’t stop thinking about the monster, drawing was the one thing that took his mind somewhere else.
He was so wrapped up in it that he jumped at the knock on his window, his stomach sinking when he saw Kie’s face peeking through, looking nervous. He rushed over and opened it, sticking his head out.
“What the hell? Go home, Kie. My dad’s drunk as shit. You can't come in.” He lied, just wanting her to get away before she saw anything embarrassing. She never came to his house and he didn’t want her seeing how he lived compared to her. He saw her mansion and her fancy bedroom and her big tv and waterfront porch and he wanted nothing more than to have her look the other way.
“I came for Pope cause he wanted to come but he had his curfew and I don’t care about mine.” She said, making like she was going to climb in. JJ stuck his head out more to block her. “Let me in.”
“No, Kie. I’ll see you guys tomorrow. My dad’s crazy, like I said.”
“I don’t hear anything. Besides, we’ll be quiet and then I’ll leave.” She pushed, coming towards him again. She pushed him back and he stepped backwards, giving in.
She crawled through, falling to the ground before getting up, looking around. He felt self conscious, kicking the notebook closed with his foot before sitting on his bed. It was the only place to sit, his chair under his door like it always was and she sat next to him before scooting over.
“I thought you’d be messy like John B.” She said after a second.
“I’m like a little French maid, Kie. I love to clean.” JJ joked. “Can you just say it and leave though? My dad-”
“I don’t even hear your dad.” Kie said, looking towards the door. He saw her notice the chair and she looked like she didn’t get it before looking back at him. “I wanted to say sorry for what we said at Rixon’s. It doesn’t matter who you’ve kissed or if you mack on people. Seriously. Guys talk about it way too much anyway. John B’s kind of become a pig, but don’t tell him I said that.”
JJ’s heart started racing again at the topic, before he smirked a little bit. “Yeah, he is. He’s not a gentleman like me, huh?”
Kie rolled her eyes and smiled a little. “I wouldn’t go that far. All of y’all are nasty.”
“Hey, you just said my room’s neat. I’m not that nasty. At least I don’t have moldy bowls of cereal under my bed.” JJ pointed out.
“Gross.” Kie said before she paused again. She fiddled with his comforter and he looked at her hand as she twisted a loose string. “Don’t get mad, but can I ask you something? Just between us, I can spit swear and everything.”
“I macked on Marissa.” JJ blurted out, hoping that would stop her from asking what she was going to ask. The images were coming up again from years ago and he wanted to stop talking about it, hoping that would shut her up.
“Huh? Marissa? When? Wait, that’s not true. She told me last weekend that she’s never kissed anyone yet!” Kie looked confused before she made a face. “Wait a second. Don’t tell her I said that. Shit. She’d kill me if she knew I had just told you of all people that!”
JJ freaked out at the fact that he had picked the one girl that Kie had proof hadn’t macked on anyone, but he tried to play it off. “Shit. I meant that other girl. The one you hang out with sometimes who has the braids.”
“No you didn’t.” Kie said before they went quiet. JJ fumbled with what to say and Kie kept playing with the string before she said something quietly that made JJ’s heart stop again. “It’s okay if you haven’t. I won’t tell Pope or John B. And it’s okay if you like boys or something. It’s normal. I don’t even know what I really like yet. But don’t tell anyone. I could even practice with you, if you wanted. Just one time. And just as friends! Don’t get any ideas.”
JJ processed her words for approximately half a second before he got angry at the suggestion. If there was anything he had hated more in his life, it was his time with the monster and being forced to do everything that he had been forced to do and what had been done to him. To him, having Kie suggest that he liked boys made him feel like he had liked what had happened to him and that he wanted to do the same things with a boy and it pissed him off.
“I don’t like boys! Get out! Leave, Kie!” He said loudly, before he got nervous his dad could hear.
“What? I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to piss you off. I was just saying. If you do, it’s okay.” Kie said, giving him a weird look.
“Leave!” JJ said, stomping over to the window and pushing it up. “Just leave me alone! I mack on girls all the fucking time! I don’t need you to call me gay or whatever and I don’t need you to offer me some kind of pathetic pity macking session!”
“I wasn’t!” Kie said angrily. JJ felt better seeing her get mad. He could handle mad. Sometimes he was the specialist in it. “I was trying to be a good friend!”
“Yeah? Well, just go! I didn’t ask you to come over here and call me names and shit! I came here to sleep before I go fishing!” JJ said loudly. “Get out!”
Kie was blinking back angry tears and she got up and went over to the window, swinging one leg over before she reached out and pushed him a little. He stumbled back, glaring at her.
“Screw you, JJ. All I did was try to listen to you and help you and you’re being an asshole! You gotta apologize to me next time you see me!” She said before she climbed out and ran into the darkness before he could process what had happened.
He kicked his bed and threw a pile of laundry around his room angrily before sitting back down on the floor, grabbing his notebook again, scribbling faster and harder on his picture of the ocean until his fingers were covered in ink and the page had rips in it.
Now he only had two friends to his name instead of three and everyone was going to think he was weird because he was sure everyone was going to start noticing he didn’t mack on anyone like they did.
And he didn’t know what to do about it other than get angry. Super angry. And anxious.
The next day, JJ was still angry. Angry at himself for yelling at Kie when she had been trying to help. Angry at Kie for talking about something he never wanted to talk about and not getting it. And angry at Pope and John B. for always wanting to talk about macking on people.
He decided to go to the beach, not seeking his friends out on purpose, but figuring if he went where they would be, he could angrily get closer until they had apologized enough that he could hang with them instead of being alone at his house with his dad.
It was when he was on the porch, bent over his boots and tugging them on his feet that he decided to ask him for help. And that was his second stupid mistake in two days. He should have known there was a reason he never asked his dad for help.
“Is it normal to-” JJ started before stopping when his dad whipped his head around to look at him. He shut up and turned to go back inside.
“What?” His dad said in a flat voice. It wasn’t friendly and it wasn’t mean and JJ paused.
“Nothing.” JJ said, shaking his head. “See ya.”
“JJ. What?” His dad said to him. “If you’re gonna do some shit that’s gonna have my phone ringing, you better tell me now cause I’ll be pissed if that happens. I’m not dealing with that today. I’ve got my own illegal shit to do, I don’t wanna hear about your dumb juvenile shit.”
“No, I’m not gonna get in trouble, Dad, I swear. I’m just going surfing.” He said. “Bye.”
“Don’t walk out that door. Spit it out. Is it normal to what?” His dad said, looking like he thought it was funny. “Shit, I guess it’s that time, huh? Puberty and shit.”
JJ felt like he was about seven years old, his face turning red a little bit as he thought about the awkward health class talks they had and what happened to his body sometimes. He made a face, thinking about how to say what he needed to to his dad, wishing he hadn’t been stupid enough to try talking to him.
He twisted his hands together before trying to say it.
“It’s just that my friends want to kiss girls and stuff. They talk about it all the time.” He started and his dad laughed at him and he stopped talking.
“Yeah, you’re thirteen. Kiss a girl if they like you and they want that. It’s normal.” His dad said to him.
JJ bit his lip, wondering how he could tell his dad that he didn’t want anyone to kiss him because the monster had ruined everything for him.
“What? Don’t tell me you like boys. Your Uncle Billy would never shut up about that.” His dad said.
“No! I like girls!” JJ said. It was true. He liked them and he noticed them and he thought about kissing them and other stuff, but it’s just that when he thought about it or got really close to them, it made his skin crawl and it sent him back to the motel room with the monster.
“Okay...then why are you acting weird as shit?” His dad pushed. “It ain’t that serious yet. Wait till you’ve got a girl for real and you’re doing real shit with them. Then you can act weird.”
JJ couldn’t imagine doing that and he couldn’t imagine thinking about getting with someone and having them touch him and being expected to touch them. He never wanted to do that again.
“It’s just...the stuff that happened. At Mom’s.” He said and his dad lost his smile. “It gets in the way.”
His dad was silent, just staring at him and JJ wanted the floor to swallow him up whole and take him away from the porch. He heard the bugs screaming from the trees and the birds chirping and his dad breathing and that was it.
Finally his dad looked away and picked up a wrench. He didn’t do anything with the wrench, but he pretended he was going to. JJ saw how tight he was holding it and got even more nervous.
“I thought you forgot about that shit, like I told you.” He said.
JJ pulled at his t-shirt and tugged at his hat and flipped it and fiddled with his ball in his pocket, trying to think of an answer.
“JJ. Fucking answer me.”
“I tried.” He said to him. “But it’s a lot of stuff to forget.”
His dad turned and stared at him some more and he decided that he needed to get away.
“I’m gonna go surf.” He said. “Bye.”
His dad let him go as far as getting his backpack from inside and going to the bottom of the porch steps before he stopped him again.
“Be back here at six. I want you to come help me with this job tonight. It’s an overnight.” His dad said and he said nothing else so JJ got on his bike and rode away, trying not to think about it.
He didn’t go back there at six and his dad didn’t try to find him. Which is how he ended up on the pullout later that night, being cornered by John B.
“I’m gonna get the squirty cheese to put on this!” John B. said, springing up and heading towards the kitchen. JJ squinted over at him, in a food coma. It was just the two of them, Big John away for the weekend and JJ was happy to just be chilling out with no mentions of any stupid parties with macking involved and no mentions of the other day. John B. was good about that stuff. He never brought shit up from the past.
Almost never. Apparently tonight was different.
“Get me pizza.” JJ said lazily from the sofa. He barely caught a piece as it went flying at his face from across the room, catching it and shoving it in his mouth in between handfuls of M&M’s.
“This is the life.” John B. said as he laid back down and used his toes to turn the volume up on the remote. His busted old phone Big John had given him buzzed and he looked at it and JJ’s heart sunk, knowing it would be a text for some kind of dumb party. They were at the age where they were all always trying to find places to gather and start to sneak their parents’ alcohol or get it from siblings and JJ had loved it up until the other night when they had all started to notice what was wrong with him.
He didn’t look over as John B. made a happy noise and typed back, sitting up. He closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep until John B. shoved him.
“Everyone’s going over to the hidden part of the beach down by Kie’s. The high schoolers left some extra booze cause Jayden talked his brother into it. Let’s go!” He said to him.
JJ didn’t want to go to the beach and watch everyone flirt with each other and mack on each other and all of that. Not after his fight with Kie and knowing Pope and John B. would be paying attention to what he did now. All he wanted to do was keep laying on the pullout, watching some dumb zombie movie and eating candy until he felt like he was going to throw up.
“I ain’t going. I wanna watch this. This is the best part. Move your stinky-ass feet.” JJ said, kicking out towards John B. and gluing his eyes to the tv.
“What? Stop messing around, dude. Come on! You know Pope won’t be able to come and Kie might not cause of their curfews. I need you!” John B. said, pushing him.
“Go by yourself. We can do that shit anytime. This is way better.” JJ said.
“I’m not going by myself.” John B. said, sounding annoyed. JJ didn’t look over, jaw clenched. “Why are you being so weird? Is it cause of the stuff from the other night? About how you don’t mack on girls yet and stuff?”
JJ felt his anger flare up again and he sat up and pushed John B. as hard as he could, not caring when he almost fell off the pullout and looked hurt.
“Fuck off! I do mack on girls! I just don’t need to every night! There’s other stuff to do that’s way cooler!” He said, laying back down, arms crossed, breathing hard.
He knew deep down that if he told John B. why he was feeling this way and what was going on, that he would understand or try to understand as much as he could. He knew he would apologize and feel bad and stay with him. But he was so embarrassed and confused about how it could be so many years later and still be thinking about this and letting it mess with him that he didn’t say anything. He just let John B. think he was being an asshole right back at him for no reason.
“Screw you, JJ.” John B. said after a second, getting up. “I will go by myself. You’re welcome for letting you stay here, by the way.”
“Yeah? Well, maybe I’ll leave.” JJ shot back, wanting him to leave already.
“Whatever.” John B. said as he got his shirt from the chair and pulled it on, buttoning his buttons strategically to look cool, like JJ knew he did.
He glared to the side as John B. ripped the screen door open, letting it bang shut. He immediately felt relief before feeling guilt and anger all at once, even stronger than before.
He didn’t need any stupid parties, but he did wish he could go a day without thinking about the monster. And he didn’t know what to do to get rid of the thoughts and it scared him. Especially since his dad had been no help and he was the only one who even knew.
Two hours later, the screen door slammed shut, jolting JJ awake, the half eaten slice of pizza sliding onto the pullout next to him when he jumped. He sat up in fear, unsure of where he was and what was happening before relaxing when he saw the tv flashing and Pope standing near him, staring down at him.
“What day is it?” He asked, confused. He rubbed his eyes before remembering his fight with John B. and the stupid party and realizing why Pope was there. He saw that he had a backpack and he smiled a little.
“You actually got out on probation?” He joked, taking a bite of the pizza to calm down.
“Yeah, really funny. My parents aren’t that strict, you know. They’re letting me sleep over here, but I stopped at the party first and John B. filled me in on your fight so I came here.” Pope said, putting his backpack down and sitting on the chair near the pullout. He had to move dirty clothes and sneakers and an old apple core and JJ watched, glaring at the reminder of John B.
“It wasn’t a fight. I just wanna stay here and do exciting stuff and he wants to go do the same boring shit that we did last week.” JJ said. “It’s a zombie slasher movie, Pope. Who misses that to have someone’s dad’s beer and blush near some girl?”
Pope looked at him weirdly and shrugged. “You used to like going.”
“I do like going but not every night.” JJ answered truthfully. He could go once every few weeks and have enough fun drinking a little and showing off and telling stories to everyone, doing crazy stunts for attention. But as it shifted to the macking and his brain was filled more and more with the monster, he wanted it less and less. “It’s not a crime to eat and watch shit.”
“No one said it was. I guess I just wanted to check and make sure you were okay and stuff.” Pope said.
“I’m fine. I just want all of you to leave me alone and let me do what I want, okay?” JJ said angrily, throwing an M&M up to catch in his mouth.
“Kie’s sorry.” Pope said after staring at him. JJ could tell he was nervous but he didn’t care, too angry at the reminder of Kie’s conversation and John B.
“Yeah, well she should be. Accusing me of being something I’m not. She and John B. can fuck off.” JJ said.
Pope’s eyebrows raised up and JJ knew he was surprised at how angry he was and his language but he didn’t care. He was mad and he felt like no one cared about him or about why he was being a jerk.
“She wasn’t trying to accuse you, JJ. What she said she told you isn’t a bad thing. She just wanted to make you feel comfortable if you were.” Pope said after a second.
“Yeah? Well, guess what, Pope? I don’t like guys. I hate guys! And if a guy ever touches me, I’ll punch him in the throat and shoot him dead.” JJ said, crossing his arms tighter and slumping down lower.
“Chill.” Pope said. “Look, it’s cool with me if you don’t wanna go to a party ever again. I’m gonna hang out with you no matter what. Besides, this way I’ll have more time to do my homework.”
JJ gave him a totally offended look at the idea of homework in the summer and Pope held his hands up.
“What? I want to get ahead. Eighth grade’s gonna be no joke.” He said before looking nervous. “Are we cool? Or are you mad at me too?”
“I was never mad at you.” JJ said. “And I do mack on girls. All the time. Not even just at parties. At school, under the bleachers, at my house if my dad ain’t home, at the beach. Everywhere. So I win. I’m the best kisser. Macker. Whatever.”
“Okay.” Pope said right away. “I believe you.”
JJ looked at him sideways, judging if he was teasing him or serious. He looked serious and he relaxed. “Yeah. So tell John B. to suck on that fact.”
“I’m not telling John B. to suck on anything.” Pope said, shaking his head. “Pass the candy.”
JJ passed him the bag of M&M’s, feeling better. Even if he didn’t say it, having Pope there with him instead of at the party made him feel less weird and alone in a strange way. Not that he was going to avoid all the parties this summer, but just this once it felt good.
“Don’t tell anyone but Kie offered to mack on me cause she thought I never had.” JJ revealed ten minutes later, tv flashing across their faces.
Pope sat up at that, eyes bugging out.
“Kie? Kiara? She offered to mack on you and you- apparently braindead JJ - said no? Did your cousin give you the weed a year early? How could you say no to that? You've gotta be high! We’ve all been crushing on her for like-” Pope started, looking freaked.
“Relax, Pope. No Pogue on Pogue Macking. I respect the rules. That she set up, by the way! Besides, I bet I could change my mind.” He bragged, acting more confident than he felt. The thought of kissing Kie was quickly replaced by his traitor brain with a memory from the monster and he lost his smile. “Who cares.”
Pope made some more disbelieving noises before sitting back again.
“Only you. I don’t get you sometimes, JJ.” He said.
JJ thought that made sense considering he didn’t get himself.
And he didn’t think he ever would.