Ben should’ve gotten a basket.
It’s getting harder and harder to juggle the candy bars, bottles of water, cans of soda, and the phone against his ear as he talks to Caleb.
“I need Twizzlers,” Caleb says to him.
“Sure.” Ben pulls them off the rack and tucks them beneath his chin.
He’s in a gas station buying snacks for their monthly movie night. Once a month Anna, Abe, Caleb, and Ben get together and go out to see a movie. This month its Ben’s pick which also means Ben has to buy the snacks for them so Anna can sneak them in her bag. It’s a double edged sword.
“Pick me up a 5-Hour Energy too.”
“It’s your treat. You can’t say no.”
“I can when they make you all jittery and weird.”
“But I’m so tired.”
“Then you need to sleep.”
“I’m going to fall asleep during the movie.”
“As long as you’re sleeping I don’t care where it is. It’ll be nice. Peaceful. You’ll be asleep and Anna and Abe…”
“Ugh. If they spend the whole movie with their tongues halfway down each other’s throats…”
“I don’t think it’ll be the whole time. I say fifteen minutes depending on how mad Anna is at Abe about something stupid that he did.”
“He’s always doing something stupid.”
“I know,” Ben picks up and puts down a 5 Hour Energy. “Do you want anything else?”
“I’m getting worried about you.”
“Because you look terrible.”
“You know what I mean. Why aren’t you sleeping?”
There’s a beat before Caleb answers. “I have a lot going on.”
“So do the rest of us but we get enough sleep. I think.”
“We can’t all be perfect and get eight hours a night like you, Ben.”
“I’m not asking you to be perfect; I’m asking you to go to bed at a reasonable hour. What are you worried about? You have good grades.”
“And how do you think I get them? I appreciate you being concerned-.”
“I am concerned,” Ben cuts him off. “This is concerning. It isn’t healthy. Did you eat today?”
“I ate lunch with you at school.”
“Did you have anything after that?”
“Yes, my parents provide for me. I’m okay, Ben.”
“I don’t get why you won’t tell me what’s going on with you. What’s bothering you?”
“It’s nothing you need to know about.”
Ben’s a little hurt by that. They’ve been telling each other everything since they were kids. There are no secrets.
Ben stops in front of the coolers in the back. “They only have the giant cans.”
“Those aren’t going to fit in Anna’s bag.”
“She just needs a bigger bag.”
“You tell her that.”
“She needs a backpack.”
Ben laughs enough that it dislodges the can of Coke he’s holding. It hits the floor but thankfully doesn’t explode.
“I think I have one of those giant ones you bring hiking.”
“And so subtle.”
“No one will question that.”
“She’ll sneak right in, no problem.”
“She could always have Abe bring it in.”
“He’d love to. Minimal risks are the risks he lives for.”
“I don’t think I should be buying this for you,” He grabs a can out of the cooler anyways and tucks it against his side.
“Just the one and I’ll quit.”
“Now I sound like an enabler.”
“I’m not doing it. You’re quitting right now,” He keeps the can and moves to the front of the store to get in line.
“I’ll see you in a little bit. You can tell me how awful I am to my face.”
“Fine, love you, bye.”
The phone beeps a few times telling him the line has been cut. Then Ben flails; the Twizzlers fall to the ground, the same can of Coke rolls under a display, and his phone slips and hits the ground. He’s next in line and has to scramble to get himself back together. He fishes out the soda and tucks a couple of packages of candy beneath his arm so he has a hand free to check his phone. He’s expecting a text from Caleb laughing it off. Something like, ‘you were on my case so much about getting enough sleep I thought you were my mom’ or whatever but Ben’s looking at his lock screen and nothing else.
This is okay.
This isn’t anything.
This was a mistake.
He moves forward in line and dumps everything onto the counter. The soda starts to roll and the clerk has to catch it. Ben makes a mental note to make sure Abe gets that can and then is back to thinking about Caleb.
He didn’t mean it.
At least not like that.
Caleb says stupid shit all the time.
He says stupid shit that he knows will make Ben flustered all the time. That’s probably what this is. He’s making him sweat a little until Ben picks him up and he’ll slide into the front seat and point and laugh at the blush on Ben’s face and the panic in his eyes and Caleb will reach over and ruffle his hair and it’ll be normal again.
The clerk is halfway through ringing up the food.
Maybe he meant to say it.
Maybe he did but he didn’t mean it like that.
He meant it as a friend, as a brother, maybe he was talking to his mom before and that’s how he always ends his conversations with her and Ben knows Caleb is a little stressed out with mid-terms coming up and his wrestling match over the weekend and whatever else he’s deemed not important enough for Ben to know about and maybe it just slipped out.
Maybe he said it like Ben says it to some distant great aunt twice removed when his mom makes him talk to her on the phone around Christmastime even though he has no idea what her last name is now or what she looks like. Ben always says the same things,“Around six feet, I guess. No, no girlfriend yet. No boyfriend either. Yes, I know that’s okay now. I know you’re okay with that, thanks for that I guess. Schools fine. I’m not sure where I’m applying yet. Merry Christmas, love you, bye,” and then he shoves the phone back at his mom, gives her a dirty look, and walks away.
One time Ben called Mr. Washington dad because he had called him Benjamin and the only one that does that is Mr. Tallmadge. Ben had turned bright red and the class laughed (that Simcoe kid the loudest and when Ben picked up Caleb the next morning he was favoring right hand and Simcoe had a swollen lip and he snapped at anyone that questioned him) and Ben couldn’t make eye contact with his teacher for the next week. Maybe it’s like that. The words just fell out of his mouth and now Caleb’s embarrassed.
“Hey kid,” The clerk is talking to him looking concerned and annoyed. “You okay?”
“Ummm.” No, he thinks. My best friend just hung up on me after saying love you, bye, and I don’t know what to do because love you is different from I love you and they’re both different from I’m in love with you and none of that matters because there’s a chance that he didn’t mean it how I wanted him to mean it and oh- oh god I want him to mean it. I mean, obviously, how could I not? Look at him. Do you want to look at him because every other picture on my phone is of him. It’s so obvious and if he’s joking then he’s never going to mean it and if that’s the truth then I’m going to college in Alaska because I can’t look at him knowing that this is something he’d joke about. Even if he wasn’t joking maybe he just means it as a friend and that’s….I don’t know. I don’t know what that is. If he means it as a friend or a brother or the way my mom says it when she lets the cat out, she always says ‘be a good boy, love you,’ and it’s weird and we all make fun or her but dammit, she really loves that cat. Is it like that? I mean, what even is that?
The woman behind Ben huffs.
“It comes to 13.79.”
“13.79?” He bought a lot more than he meant to. He was distracted. “Okay.” He digs into his pocket and pulls out a ten and a handful of change that’s nowhere near the .79 cents.
“13.79,” The clerk repeats.
“That’s a ten.”
“Oh.” He pulls out a twenty and pushes it and the ten towards the clerk then pulls the twenty back and pushes the change forward. He makes an unintelligent noise because he can’t understand numbers at the moment.
“Stop.” The clerk hands him the ten and the change.
The woman behind him clucks her tongue and Ben wants to turn on her, pull himself up to his six foot (he guesses) height and ask her what the hell is so important? Why do you think your time is any more important than mine? You don’t know what’s going on in my life. My best friend just said love you and I don’t know how he meant it. Was it an accident, a joke, was it said like how my mom says it to the cat, you know she loves the cat….
Instead he takes the plastic back from the clerk and his change. He pockets the bills and drops all the coins into the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny jar and runs out.
He leaves his receipt.
He needs to pick up Caleb in four minutes and he’s seven minute away which means he’ll be five minutes late to pick up Abe and Anna and Anna will definitely have something to say about that. He flings the bag in the back seat and starts to Caleb’s house managing to hit every red light on the way there.
Caleb’s sitting on the curb when Ben pulls up.
When he gets in neither of them say anything for a long time before Ben says “hey” and hates himself for it.
Caleb doesn’t say anything and both their phones light up with a text, Caleb’s in his hand and Ben’s in the cup holder.
“Anna wants to know where we are,” Caleb mumbles and Ben thinks, yeah, me too. I want to know where the hell we are. What we are. What you want us to be. “Told her we’re on our way.”
There’s another long stretch of silence, too long, before Ben says “okay” and feels like unbuckling his seat belt, opening his door, and rolling out onto the pavement.
Anna and Abe are standing at the end of the driveway. Abe opens the door for her but she pushes him to get in first.
“Finally,” She says as she buckles up. “Good thing this movie starts at 7:25 instead of 7.”
“You lied to me?” Abe says utterly aghast, hand on his chest and everything.
“I knew one of you would be ready on time. At least Ben remembered the snacks.” She looks pointedly at Abe.
“It was one time.”
“We spent more on food than we did on the tickets.”
“Sorry,” He leans forward between the seats. “What’s wrong with you two?”
“What do you mean?” Ben finds his voice first.
“You guys are really quiet tonight. Usually we can’t shut you up, the radios not even on.”
“I got a lot on my mind,” Caleb says.
“That’s a first.”
Ben taps the brakes and Abe jolts forward.
“Put your seat belt on,” Ben tells him watching in the rear view.
Abe rolls his eyes but does it. “Are you worried about Sackett’s test on Friday? I am. I have no idea what’s going on in that class. Ever.”
“It’s not that difficult,” Anna says.
“Easy for you to say.”
“It is easy when you actually do the work. Thank you for the gummy bears, Ben.”
Ben opens his mouth to say something but nothing comes out.
“But this,” She holds up the can of Monster. Ben gives her a pained look in the mirror and Caleb is looking at him for the first time. “This will not fit in my bag. Honestly Benjamin, what were you thinking?”
“Don’t call him Benjamin. He might call you dad,” Abe kicks the back of Ben’s seat and Caleb wheels around and hits him across the shins. “Ow,” Abe says as he folds his legs back.
“The rest looks good,” She holds the can against Caleb’s shoulder. “I’m not taking this.”
Caleb drops it into the cup holder and stares out the window.
Inside the theater Anna and Abe unknowingly situate themselves between Ben and Caleb until Caleb finishes paying before either of them and come to stand near Ben. It’s awkward and awful) and when Caleb turns to him, opens his mouth, and Ben spits out, “I’m going to get some popcorn.”
He sees Caleb close his mouth as he spins away and hears Anna says “popcorn, why are you getting popcorn when I have a…” and trails off when she remembers where she is.
“Go get a seat. I’ll find you,” Ben calls over his shoulder and makes sure not to look at Caleb because he ran away from him. He physically ran away from his best friend who clearly had something important to say to him. He’s acting weird. He’s making the situation worse. He’s making Caleb feel like there’s something wrong with what Caleb said to him and there’s not. It’s wonderful and everything Ben has wanted. Caleb was the brave one and Ben ran away.
He takes his expensive medium sized popcorn with extra butter and goes to find his friends feeling like he doesn’t deserve Caleb.
Anna and Abe are sitting next to each other so Ben has to sit next to Caleb. He holds the popcorn closer to Caleb in case he wants some. It’s an olive branch that he doesn’t expect him to take.
Anna is already eating her gummy bears and tosses a Snickers at Ben and M&Ms at Caleb. Abe coughs to cover the sound of him popping up the can of soda. It doesn’t explode because nothing is going the way Ben would like it to go tonight.
It takes twenty minutes after the lights dim for Anna and Abe to start making out. Ben is so focused on the popcorn and the movie and not focusing on Caleb sitting right there that he doesn’t notice. It takes Caleb sighing and leaning away from them (and into Ben) for him to see it.
He rolls his eyes and eats another handful of popcorn.
The movie is good. There’s a lot of action and it’s easy to ignore everything that’s going on to the right of him and then there’s a fairly graphic sex scene and all he can feel is the long line of heat from Caleb leaning against him. He feels Caleb shift, slightly, but he doesn’t move away until the movie is over, the lights come on, and Anna and Abe break apart.
“That was a good pick, Ben,” Abe says when they back to the car.
“How would you know?” Caleb asks. “You spent most of it attached to Anna’s face.
Anna raises an eyebrow and reapplies her chapstick.
“That’s what made it good.”
“That’s disgusting.” Ben says and Caleb says “I’m going to throw up” and Ben laughs. He has to. He can’t help it. He thinks he sees Caleb start to smile.
Ben waits until Anna is in the house before he leaves (because it’s dark and he’s a gentleman) but leaves Abe before he makes it to his front door (because whatever).
The ride to Caleb’s is silent, Ben’s too afraid to turn on the radio.
He wants to take a shower and go to bed and forget about the homework he still has to do.
He can’t imagine what Caleb must feel but it must be pretty terrible because he’s unbuckling his seat belt before the car has come to a stop. The door opens and the interior light comes on so Ben can see the can of Monster in the cup holder.
“Caleb, wait.” The car isn’t in park so it lurches forward. Caleb’s hanging half way out and gives him a bewildered look. He grabs the can. “Here.”
Caleb takes the can, slams the door, and leaves.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Ben says to the empty car.
His parents are still up when he gets home. They ask him how the movie was and he rattles off a quick and tense “Fine,” before he’s up the stairs and locking himself in his room. He tries to do his homework but after twenty minutes of reading the same paragraph over and over again he gives up. He and Caleb usually get to school early anyways. He’ll go to the library and finish it up then.
When he pulls into Caleb’s driveway in the morning he’s not waiting outside for him.
“Great,” He says as he gets out of the car.
Caleb’s mother answers the door and honestly looks surprised to see him.
“Oh, Ben, I didn’t expect to see you. Caleb doesn’t feel well. He’s staying home today. He didn’t tell you?”
“No, I….maybe he forgot. You know, he was acting funny last night,” He snaps his mouth shut because that might have been the wrong thing to say. What if she goes to Caleb and tells him what he said? “Not funny, really, just not himself. Different. No. I don’t….he was acting fine. It was fine. He wasn’t acting strange. Nothing he did was strange or wrong.”
Mrs. Brewster narrows her eyes at him. “Are you feeling alright?”
“I’m fine. I don’t know. I’m fine. We’re both fine. It’s all fine. Oh my god.”
“We ate a lot of candy last night. That must have been what did it. Can you tell him I hope he feels better? I can bring back any work that he missed. I’ll see you later. I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’ll see you. Sorry.”
He’s blushing bright red by the time he gets into his car because he just sprinted away from a second member of the Brewster family.
“Brewster had better things to do today?” Mr. Sackett asks as he nods towards Caleb’s empty seat in front of Ben and hands him a test.
“He didn’t feel well.”
“That’s awfully convenient.”
“I can bring him the homework.”
“That’s nice of you. Hope he’ll be here for my test tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Ben says softly. “Me too.”
Caleb’s parents are both still at work when Ben gets to his house. He knocks on the door but Caleb doesn’t answer.
Ben eyes the tree that’s just outside Caleb’s window. He has shimmied his way up there countless times in his life, usually when they were younger and Caleb was grounded but Ben just had to see him and thinks about climbing it now.
Instead he leaves the pile of books and assignments on the front steps.
Caleb’s waiting for him in front of his house the next morning.
It’s obvious he’s tense and uncomfortable; there are wrinkles in his clothes and bags under his eyes and he’s holding so much tension in his shoulders that it physically hurts Ben.
They both take a deep breath before Caleb gets in the car.
“Do you feel better?” Ben asks, so quietly he’s not sure Caleb has even heard him.
“I guess. Thanks for bringing me the homework.”
It’s so awkward and Ben prides himself on being a safe driver but he goes ten over the speed limit the whole way to school just to get them out of the confines of the car.
“Shit,” Caleb says under his breath as they’re walking into the building.
“What is it?”
“I forgot to do the math homework.” He pinches the bridge of his nose.
“You can copy mine,” Ben offers. “I mean, just this one time.” He knocks his shoulder into Caleb’s and wills him to smile. It doesn’t work but Caleb does look up at him and nod.
“It’s no problem. Library?”
Caleb copies the answers, gratefully and apologetically, and Ben tells him it’s really no big deal even though he wants to tell him that really, he’d give him the world if he asked for it and it doesn’t even matter that they’re only 17 and the world seems so small, they’d make it work.
Caleb slides the paper over to Ben who neatly files it back in the proper folder and then stands so he’s looking down at Ben. So he’s ready to run.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the way that I said it and if it made you uncomfortable but I don’t think I’m sorry that I said it. I think it’s fair that you should know that. I get if you want me to leave you alone for a little while. Or forever. It’s okay, Ben. You didn’t ask for this so….” The warning bell rings and he sighs and rubs the back of his head with his hand. “I’ll find my own way to school tomorrow, if you want. I’ll see ya.”
He hoists his backpack further up his shoulder then turns around.
Ben slams his book shut and shoves it in his bag.
“Can I walk you to class? If that’s okay?”
Caleb smiles, small and grateful. “That’s fine.”
Ben scrambles to his feet then struggles to get everything in his bag, get it zipped, and get it to his shoulder but once they’re out of the library and Ben has put himself back together he reaches for Caleb’s hand.
It starts with just the tips of his fingers brushing against the back of Caleb’s hand, watching Caleb’s face carefully. He bites his lip but doesn’t pull away so Ben takes it as a sign and gets bolder.
He laces their fingers together so they’re palm to palm and gives his hand a good squeeze. The smile that cracks over Caleb’s face is beautiful and Ben kicks himself for not doing this sooner.
“Yeah?” Caleb asks and Ben nods.
He doesn’t need to say anything for Caleb to understand.
(Ben pushes him against the railing in the stairwell and kisses him until the second bell rings, just to make sure.)