The sleepover starts out fun.
It's been awhile since they've seen Jeff; he hasn't come back since Christmas break, and it's already summer. Richard is nice enough to let the boys order pizza, but makes them put down a plastic tablecover on the living room floor. Then Jeff pulls out the new nintendo his mom bought, and they take turns playing in between eating and catching Jeff up on the Stoneybrook news.
Byron isn’t very good at Mario. Jeff tries to help him; he puts his hand over Byron’s to keep him from flailing every time he makes Mario jump, says softly, “Just press the buttons, don’t move around,” and Byron is so distracted that he drops Mario off a cliff. It's okay, though, because Jeff hands his controller over to Jordan, and he tells Byron about life in California while Adam and Jordan play.
Richard comes down around midnight and says that it’s time for them to go to sleep. They roll out their sleeping bags and start pulling on pajamas, and Richard goes back up the stairs, satisfied. But they have no plans to go to bed. After the lights upstairs have gone out, the four of them riffle through the videos in the Not For Kids cupboard. Byron wants to watch Titanic, but the others want to see A Nightmare on Elm Street, and so Byron pretends because he doesn’t want to look like a girl.
They have to keep the volume turned down low so they won’t wake up grown-ups or baby-sitters, and all the lights are off. Before the movie even starts, Byron knows, a feeling deep in the pit of his stomach, that he does not want to be watching it. But he’d never hear the end of it if he asked the guys to pick a different movie, and besides, Jeff is there. So he doesn’t say anything.
Byron shuts his eyes when he starts to get scared, but it’s over soon enough and he starts to think that maybe he can get through this okay. He just closes his eyes and breathes deliberately, in through his nose and out through his mouth, just like when his brothers drag him on a scary ride at a carnival. He remembers what his mom always says: just breathe, it’ll be over soon.
He glances over at Jeff, sees Jeff giving him an odd look, and quickly turns back to the screen.
The movie isn’t terrible, Byron realizes. Not great, and he’d much rather be watching Titanic, but he can always shut his eyes if it gets too gory. The back of the box says the movie is 92 minutes long, just an hour and a half, and Byron figures he can handle anything for an hour and a half.
The sex takes him by surprise, and Jordan says, “Cool,” while Adam starts to giggle. Jeff doesn’t say anything. Byron looks over at him. Their eyes meet, and all of a sudden, Byron can feel the tips of his ears start to burn, so he looks away. But he can’t bring himself to look back up at the screen, and he sure can’t look at Jeff, so he stares at his hands until the noises stop.
The music shifts, the atmosphere is different, and Byron can feel it building. His chest hurts, and he just wants to get up and run out of the room because he knows that he doesn’t want to see whatever comes next. But Jeff is there, and as scared as he is of what’s coming, he’s more scared of Jeff knowing what a baby he really is. So he stays, and at the first spray of red, screws his eyes shut as tight as he can.
Adam exclaims, “Gross!” which Byron hopes covers up his audible intake of breath. He curls his fingers into his palms. He wants to bring his hands up and plaster them over his ears. But Jeff is sitting next to him; he can feel Jeff looking at him, and he doesn’t want to look like a little kid, but he can’t bring himself to open his eyes, either, so he prays that the darkness will hide the fact that he can’t even look at the screen. And it goes on and on, and he thinks, how long does it take for a person to die, anyway? He can keep his eyes shut tight, but he can’t close his ears, and every sick thud and scream and scrape makes his stomach turn over and his head hurt and he hates this movie and why couldn’t they watch something else and why can’t he be like Adam and Jordan and Jeff and think it’s cool, not terrifying…
It ends, after an eternity, but Byron doesn’t open his eyes until he hears voices change and is sure that the scene is finished and there isn’t going to be any blood. He wants to ask if it’s over, but he keeps his mouth shut for the same reason that he stays in the room. Instead, he squints untrustingly at the TV, his heart pounding heavy in his chest.
He can’t contain his gasp-whimper when Glen is killed, before he bites his lip and squeezes his eyes shut. He hopes that the other boys don’t notice, that the blood and gore and Adam’s low, “Awesome,” distracts them all from his dilemma. He certainly isn’t going to open his eyes and make sure. Jeff shifts closer and their arms brush, and Byron is struck with the very unmanly desire to put his head on Jeff’s shoulder.
The rest of the movie passes in a blur, and Byron keeps his eyes shut through most of it. The feeling of relief is almost euphoric, until blind panic sweeps over him when Jeff presses the power button and the TV goes black, throwing the room into darkness. Adam and Jordan babble excitedly as they get into their sleeping bags, and Jeff contributes a little, mostly agreeing with their appreciation. Byron doesn’t say anything.
Of course, Jordan notices. “What’d you think, Byron?” he asks.
Byron shrugs, then realizing they can’t see, belatedly answers, “It was fine.”
But something must have given him away, because Adam asks, “Oh, did the movie scare you? Was widdle Byron scarred by the big, bad, evil Freddy Krueger? Maybe we should have brought Barney over.” He hears his brothers give each other a high five.
“Shut up,” he mumbles.
The boys line up their bags across the living room floor. Byron is on the outside, near Jeff’s back door, and it isn’t until he crawls in the bag that he realizes how much that sucks. Normally he doesn’t mind being on the outside, but all he wants right now is to be pressed in the middle of the group, with Jeff on one side and his brothers on the other.
It takes awhile for them to fall asleep. Jeff, Jordan, and Adam talk about the movie, and the sequels, and horror movies in general, and then about nothing, really, just talk. Byron tries to concentrate, tries to think of something to contribute, but he can’t. His mind is full of blood and screams and scraping knife-nails.
But eventually, they all fall silent, and the room is filled with soft, quiet breathing. Byron is wide awake. He doesn’t know how they could possibly be sleeping, not thirty minutes after a movie like that, but they are. He feels very alone.
The streetlamps shine in through the living room window, and that’s almost worse than total darkness, because there are shadows all over, indiscriminate shapes that all look like an evil man with knives for fingers out of the corner of Byron’s eye. He shuts his eyes, but that doesn't help at all; he feels like there’s someone standing right over top him, ready to slice him and drag him across the top of Jeff’s ceiling, and his eyes pop open and no one is there.
There’s a scratch across the wall, and Byron knows that it’s just a tree outside, but his heart is beating so loudly that he’s afraid it will wake up the rest of the house. He tells himself it’s just a movie, he knows that it isn’t real, but the scraping gets louder and the shadows are moving, and Byron is up and running into the bathroom without really thinking about it.
He flips on the light and heaves a sigh of relief. The bathroom is small and the light chases the dark out of every corner. There’s nothing hidden in the bathroom. He goes to sit on the tub, then shudders when he thinks about how safe a bathtub really is, and sits on the toilet seat instead.
Byron knows that the movie isn’t real, but he also knows that he will never, ever be able to sleep again. He wonders how long it will take before he starts to go crazy.
There’s a knock on the bathroom door, and Byron bites his lip to keep from shrieking. “Byron?” Jeff calls, his voice soft.
“Um…” he wonders what he can say to Jeff to make him go away. Which is wrong, because ordinarily he tries to figure out what to say to make Jeff stay around longer, but he doesn’t want Jeff to know what a freak he is.
But Jeff doesn’t wait for an answer. He pushes the door open and sticks his head in. When he sees Byron sitting on the closed toilet, he smiles a little, and comes all the way in, shutting the door behind him.
“You okay?” Jeff asks. He sits on the edge of the bathtub, and his leg slides across Byron’s. Neither of them moves away.
“I’m fine,” Bryon says. “I’m not very tired.”
Jeff doesn’t say anything for a moment, then he wrinkles his nose, and asks, “Did the movie scare you?”
“No,” Byron says firmly.
Jeff winces and looks intently at Byron; Byron looks away. “It scared me, the first time I saw it,” Jeff confides.
“Really?” Byron asks. “Wait, the first time?”
“Yeah, I watched it with my dad last Halloween.”
And you wanted to watch it again? Byron wants to shout incredulously, but all he says is, “Oh.”
“I couldn’t go to sleep, and I made Dad turn on every light in the house.” He gives Byron a small, fond smile. “Man, was Carol pissed.
“Hmmm,” Byron says, because he can’t really picture Jeff being afraid. He’s half sure that Jeff is just making up a story so that he’ll feel better.
“So Dad came and sat on my bed and told me how all the special effects were done. Like, when Tina was being dragged across the ceiling…”
“Yeah,” Byron interrupts, and shuts his eyes. But he can still see her in his head; it doesn’t matter whether his eyes are open or not. He kind of wants to throw up, but he’s sitting on the toilet, and besides, Jeff is there.
He feels a hand on his thigh, and he opens his eyes to see Jeff leaning towards him. “It’s all fake,” he starts.
“I know that,” Byron says sharply. He isn’t stupid, he isn’t a baby.
Jeff bites his lip. “Yeah, of course you do.” He doesn’t say anything for a minute, and Byron feels something. He doesn’t know what to call it, he just knows that his chest is starting to hurt again, but he isn’t afraid. Jeff drops his head, and a curl of hair falls across his face. Byron’s fingers itch with wanting to tuck it back, so he balls his hands into fists, tight enough that his nails dig into his palms.
“So, you know the room was upside down?”
“The room, with Tina. It was upside down. They bolted all the furniture and the camera to the ceiling. They tied Rod down, too. Then they rotated the room, so the actress just rolled around on the floor.”
Byron doesn’t know what to say to that.
“They used the same room with Glen, when he dies. It was upside down, that’s why the blood goes so high. Well, and it was just red water; real blood doesn’t look like that at all. They only got one shot at the scene, because they didn’t have the money to do it twice. Anyway, it wasn’t supposed to go like that, but they kept it. It looks cool anyway. I think they used like 500 gallons of fake blood for that.”
“Oh,” Byron says when Jeff pauses.
“That’s kinda cool, huh?” he nudges Byron.
“Yeah, cool,” Byron echoes.
“So, you feel better?”
Byron thinks about it, and is mildly surprised when he realizes that, yeah, he does feel better. He’s pretty sure that he’ll never want to watch that movie ever again, and he knows that he’s going to have nightmares for awhile, but he doesn’t feel like he did earlier, either. He thinks it has more to do with Jeff sitting with him, touching him, than with what Jeff said, though.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Good,” and Jeff heaves a sigh of relief. “Because I’m tired.” He stands up.
“You didn’t have to sit in here with me. I’m fine,” Byron says, feeling a little guilty.
Jeff just rolls his eyes. “Like I could sleep with you hiding in the bathroom, dummy.”
His chest hurts again, but he feels a stupid grin spreading over his face. Jeff grins back at him. “C’mon,” he says, and Byron follows him out of the bathroom and back to the living room.
Adam and Jordan are breathing loudly, sound asleep. Wordlessly, he and Jeff crawl into their sleeping bags. Byron pulls the bag up to his armpits, keeping his arms free. He doesn’t like the feeling of being trapped inside. His arm brushes Jeff’s.
He tries to ignore the scraping tree, and closes his eyes so he can’t look at the shadows. He tells himself that it’s just a movie, that there’s nothing to worry about, that Jeff is right there and nothing is going to hurt him.
Jeff shifts closer and turns on his side, facing him. Byron looks at him. Jeff’s eyes are closed, and Byron watches as his chest rises and falls with each breath. He concentrates on that, Jeff’s breathing, and the soothing sound starts to make him sleepy, which he wasn’t sure would ever happen again.
Then there’s a howl outside and Byron’s eyes pop open. He feels cold all over, and he darts a glance at Jeff, whose eyes are still closed. He wonders if he could get to the bathroom without disturbing Jeff, because sitting in the bathroom until daylight is starting to seem like a really good idea. But he doesn’t bother Jeff again, so he decides to wait until he’s sure his friend is asleep.
It’s just a movie, he silently repeats over and over. It’s just a stupid movie. He wonders if enough time has passed…
Jeff shifts closer to him, until his head is practically on Byron’s shoulder. “Don’t be scared, By,” he whispers, his eyes still closed, and Byron shudders when he feels Jeff’s breath against the skin of his neck. He hears Jeff shuffling around, and then warm fingers are pressed into his palm. He closes his hand around Jeff’s.
“G’night,” Jeff mumbles.
“Good night,” Byron responds, when he can talk again