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and miles to go before I sleep

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“Meeks? Meeks, open up.”

     On most nights, the knock would be met before a whisper was necessary, with Meeks tucking flashlights & supplies into his coat, the quick sleep he’d gotten still fresh behind his glasses. At worst, it would go unheard, & four different people would sneak through the door to pile up on him; it would always be Pitts first, his warm weight tucking around him as the others flopped without caution, shaking the bed & those in it until Meeks promised to go with them, if only to shut them up. This time, though, he hadn’t been sleeping. He tried to keep himself from shaking too much as he turned the knob, already dreading whatever news was coming to greet him. There is only so much a person can take in a year. Less than, he corrected himself, holding his breath as he opened the door.

      “You’re not ready yet?” Meeks let the breath out as he saw Pitts standing there, more out of confusion than concern. He noticed Pitts was in a state of half-dress. He wore a thinning white tee-shirt, the fabric awkwardly spread across his features, along with pants that were clearly too short; the socks he had worn all day stretched towards the hems of his pants legs, & Meeks realized he still had his shoes on.

     “Uh, are you?” Meeks asked with a chuckle, not quite sure what was going on. He took another look at Pitts. He was holding their coats over a lump; what looked like a flashlight was poking out of a hood. “Ready for…”

     “For the meeting.” Pitts finished Meeks’ sentence the same way he always had, though there was nothing of his normal tone: no mocking, no pleading, no exasperation. He said the three words as if he was reciting a fact, something known & obvious. “At the cave.”

     “Pittsie,” Meeks sighed. Before the boy could protest, Meeks grabbed him by the wrist & pulled him into the room, checking to make sure there was nobody in the hallway & that he hadn’t been followed. Meeks closed the door behind them, settling on the bed. “There is no meeting.”

     “Of course there is,” Pitts insisted. Meeks tried not to notice how matter-of-fact this was sounding; There was nothing insulting or malicious in his tone, it just didn’t sound—or feel—like Pitts. “Did you forget?”

     “No,” Meeks said with a sigh. He rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly very interested in looking anywhere but at Pitts. “I didn’t think we were meeting anymore. We…we can’t meet anymore.”

     “What are you talking about?” Pitts seemed sincerely confused. Meeks let out another breath. He recognized a bit of exasperation slipping into Pitts’ words. Good, he thought. Not so robotic now.

     “The Dead Poets Society,” Meeks replied, trying to keep his voice even. “You know we can’t meet anymore, Pittsie.”

     “We have to. I can’t sleep, & it’s already after midnight. We’re late.” The exasperation in Pitts’ voice was there, though it was still only slight. Meeks tried to figure out if Pitts had slept at all recently, but he wouldn’t stay in place long enough. “We’re pledges,” Pitts continued. “We promised.

     “I know,” Meeks tried, “but it’s already too late. You know that. Knox is at home, & Todd is probably sleeping. And Cameron— “

     “They don’t have to come,” Pitts muttered, turning to the window. Meeks tried to swallow, feeling his mouth go dry. He wondered how many steps Pitts had taken before he had stopped to knock on Meeks’ door. The boy seemed to have been moving non-stop since that morning, walking absently; even while sitting, his feet were moving, a quiet rhythm that only Meeks could recognize from one of the songs they’d gotten to play over their radio. Meeks had to stop himself from asking if Pitts had been to anyone else’s room that night, how many other people he’d tried to wander off with.

     “Pitts,” Meeks whispered. “Why don’t you sit down for a while? We can talk here.”

     “No,” Pitts mumbled. Meeks noticed that his shoulders were moving; his feet were still tapping, even as he stood at the window. Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat. “Let’s just go,” he whispered over his shoulder. “We still have time. Two people, we can move faster. We don’t even have to go to the cave. Let’s just walk for a while.”

     “It’s too dangerous to go out now,” Meeks tried, keeping his voice soft. “You know that. We can go the next time we have a free period, during the day, okay? Maybe we can get an escort to take us to— “

     “Meeks.” Pitts’ shoulders moved again, seeming to almost slump for a minute. “It has to be now. I can’t sleep. I can’t. We have to.”

     “You don’t have to sleep yet.” Meeks’ voice was barely above a whisper; he could feel the air growing thick between them, surrounding him on all sides, & was afraid to provoke a storm. “Just sit with me.”

     “We have to.” Pitts’ voice morphed into equal parts pleading & matter-of-fact ease.

     “No,” Meeks felt his voice rising. “It isn’t possible.”

     “Do not,” Pitts warned from across the room. “Nothing is impossible. You know that. Keating knew that. Neil & Charlie knew it. We just have to— “

     “What, get ourselves kicked out? We have to be realistic here, Pitts.”

     “And why is that?” Pitts’ voice was raised now; Meeks realized too late that his own voice had risen, & started a silent countdown to getting in trouble for breaking curfew. “Why do you have to be realistic & practical all the time? Didn’t the meetings, or Keating’s classes, mean anything to you? God!”

     “Of course they did! How could you say something like that?” Meeks could feel the air pushing against him. He tried to focus on Pitts, still moving, a sharp pillar against the humming air. “I’m just as much a Dead Poet as you are.”

     “I know.” Pitts’ voice shifted, more apologetic than matter-of-fact. “So, come on. We’ll go find the book. We’ll go get it, we’ll go to the cave, we’ll--”

     “No,” Meeks protested. “I can’t get expelled. I can’t let you get expelled.”

     “So you’re just giving up?” Meeks had to lean forward to hear; Pitts’ voice had become intensely, troublingly quieter. “You’re letting them win?”

     “It’s over, Pittsie! done!” Meeks felt himself falter, his voice heavy & raw. He swallowed, wincing at the fire that licked at the sheer numbness of the rest of his body. “Done,” he repeated again, his voice softer; after a beat, he looked up at the boy across from him.

     “But it doesn’t have to be! It—god!” Pitts whirled himself around, finally facing Meeks. All at once, Meeks felt the air clouding around him. He felt his body deflating, choking on what filled the room. It was thick, hazy…something he couldn’t name, in any of the languages he had studied. Pitts’ face was nothing like he was expecting: pale, with the slightest tinges of red along his hairline & chin. His jaw was set. His bottom lip tucked slightly into his teeth, as if this was the only thing keeping his body from falling apart. He seemed to be vibrating. Meeks wasn’t sure if it was the boy in front of him, the air, or his own body betraying him. “We can still–”

     “We can’t,” Meeks half-whispered, his voice slithering out of him. He absently wondered if Pitts could even hear it, if it had even made it past his lips & through the thickening cloud that threatened to swallow them both. “You know we can’t. Nolan–”

     “To hell with Nolan,” Pitts muttered under his breath. Meeks felt his own shoulders relax as Pitts sat next to him. The bed settled, sagging slightly under the weight of the two boys. Meeks shifted slightly, trying to put some space between them; the bed, as if in silent protest, groaned.

     After a few seconds of fighting against the mattress, Meeks finally spoke. “Well.” He tried to clear his throat, licking his lips & adjusting his glasses again. “It’s been decided for us, Pittsie. The school knows about us now, so we have to keep our heads down. We’ll finish out the year, graduate, go our own separate ways…” Meeks felt his voice falter again, growing too heavy to make it into the room; the words slipped over his lips & fell, unceremoniously, into his lap.

     “How the fuck can you say that?!” Meeks flinched, bracing himself for impact. He wondered how well Pitts could throw a punch. He expected the boy to hit him, right then & there. Or to shoot up off of the bed, shocked by the static in the air, & disappear from his life forever. He ran through fifteen different scenarios before he felt the bed finally shift. Holding his breath, Meeks slowly opened one eye, then the other. Pitts was across the room again, gripping the windowsill. Meeks wondered how the boy could remain so still before he noticed the way his shoulders were shaking, almost imperceptible unless you paid close enough attention, or spent enough time around Pitts to notice these things. “You act like none of this matters! Like we’re just something to be shrugged off!”

     “I just meant,” Meeks started, forcing his voice up & out to settle somewhere between Pitts’ shoulders. “It wouldn’t be right anyway. not without Ch--Nuwanda.” He swallowed again, keeping his eyes focused on the folds of Pitts’ shirt, stretched over the angles of his shoulder blades. “Not without Neil.” Meeks closed his eyes again, forcing back his own fears: of crying in front of Pitts. Of being crushed by the weight of the air in the room. Of sinking into the empty heat left behind when Pitts shot off the bed, of how lost he felt the instant Pitts’ weight shifted away from him, of what it meant that he knew exactly how many steps it would take to close the distance between himself & Pitts. Of how safe he felt with Pitts next to him. “And Cameron won’t talk to us. Todd’s completely shut down. Knox…” Meeks tried to clear his throat, get past whatever was making it close up. “I keep losing everyone. I can’t do it anymore. It’s too goddamn hard.”

     “Steven.”

     Meeks opened his eyes but didn’t look up. There were very few times during their friendship that Meeks could remember hearing Pitts call him by his first name: when they were first introduced, & during the first few weeks of classes. Whenever parents were around, keeping up formalities & pleasantries. One or two times during an argument, when yelling “Meeks!” & “Pitts!” seemed far too ridiculous for the subject matter. This time, however, the voice was gentle: not mocking, or angry, or formal, or pleading. Meeks couldn’t put the right word to it. It felt almost like a caress, but he shook the word out of his mind, tucking it away behind an entire semester of Latin vocabulary & conjugations.

     “Steven,” Pitts said again, his voice closer. Meeks swallowed. The air was too thick, too heavy, too electric. He licked his lips, tried to clear his throat, wondered if his glasses were fogging up or if his body had betrayed him & he finally was crying now.

     He felt the warmth on his thigh first. Pitts had placed a hand there, gentle, a familiar weight. Meeks blinked, finally lifting his head up. He let his gaze rest on Pitts’ hand for a few more seconds before it slowly shifted to Pitts’ face. Pitts was crouching on the floor, finally shorter than Meeks; if it was a different moment, a different place & time, Meeks would’ve laughed at this or even made a note to remember this exact moment, for this exact reason. They were closer to eye level, though the bed allowed extra height to Meeks that even Pitts, all legs, didn’t match in his crouch. Meeks took in Pitts’ face, studying it: not as pale, the red moving to dust his cheeks; a wide-eyed gaze, glassy & lit up; jaw relaxed; lips no longer sucked between teeth, but parted just slightly. His gaze moved just slightly as he kept studying, taking note of the way Pitts’ Adam’s apple moved with each swallow; how many times Pitts licked his lips, & how his tongue moved so precisely, quickly but gently; the angles of neck meeting shoulders disappearing under the thinning collar of his shirt; & finally, back down to the hand that still rested on his thigh, the long fingers staying impossibly still despite the heat they radiated throughout Meeks’ body. Meeks lost count after twenty before he felt himself flush slightly, looking back up at Pitts.

     He had been prepared to shoot back a “Gerard” at Pitts, teasing & sarcastic, but the moment was too heavy, & he was too tired, & he couldn’t tell if the way Pitts looked at him was a figment of his imagination. He wanted to say that nobody could replace Neil or Charlie, that he was no captain. He wanted to say “it’s not fair”. He wanted to list all of the reasons why the Dead Poets Society couldn’t meet again, & every reason why it should. He wanted to scream, letting it tear through him until he finally shattered. He wanted to ask Pitts why he was looking at him that way. He wanted to tell Pitts to leave. He wanted to tell Pitts that he couldn’t leave, that he was afraid, that it would be too easy to let everything swallow him up. He wanted to ask about the Latin homework, or the trig homework, anything that wasn’t scary because he already knew the answers.

     “Pitts,” he said instead.

     Before he could say anything else, the air shifted again. Meeks settled a hand on top of Pitts’ where it sat on his thigh, small & cold against the warm fingers. He watched Pitts finally blink, the boy’s gaze moving down & back up again, before he shifted on the bed, his knees pressing against Pitts’ chest.

     Pitts smiled, & Meeks felt the static building up again, lifting the hair along his arms. A beacon, Meeks thought. Pitts shifted, sliding forward between Meeks’ now-parting knees. His hand slid up to Meeks’ hip, his other hand resting at the back of the boy’s neck, as he pulled him forward. “Yeah?” Meeks licked his lips, remembering when Charlie had shown up with Tina & Gloria. Tina had taken one look at Pitts’ face, cautiously eager, & compared him to a puppy; Gloria had agreed. It was only now that Meeks fully understood what they meant.

     Meeks pressed his glasses back up, adjusting them one more time before allowing a hand to rest on Pitts’ shoulders. Pitts looked up at him, nose scrunched just slightly; Meeks wondered if Pitts was analyzing the moment. Meeks smiled. “Yawp.”

     The word had barely fallen into the space between them before Meeks felt the gentle, urgent pull against his neck. Pitts’ lips were impossibly soft, something smooth among the sharp angles; Meeks pressed into them, wondering which of them was trembling (could it be both of them?), his hands steady on Pitts’ shoulders. Their mouths moved together in a quiet, easy rhythm. A small part of Meeks’ brain wondered if this was an extension of their dynamic: of nods, glances across the room, quiet jokes. Pitts’ tongue gently traced the outline of Meeks’ mouth until he parted his lips, his own tongue rising in greeting.

     Pitts pulled away after more seconds than Meeks had been able to count. He took a breath, which sounded more like a gasp, before laughing. Meeks’ laugh mixed with his own. They doubled forward, foreheads pressed together.

     “You call that a yawp?” Pitts gasped out, his voice raised an octave.

     “Yawp!” Meeks wheezed. The tears which he had choked back earlier were trailing down his cheeks now, mixing with the ones he caught dripping from Pitts’ chin.

     In the morning, they would have to face reality again. They would be two boys, not quite risen above their names, bogged down by the curriculum preparing them for college & nothing else. Two faces wearing the same uniforms, going to the same classes, exchanging the same pleasantries. In that moment, though, Meeks felt safe. Not quite god-like, but more than.

     He thought of the English room. Class would be empty without Neil & Charlie, a ship lost at sea without its captain. Pitts’ breathing slowed; he was starting to fall asleep. Meeks smiled, carefully taking off his glasses; he was prepared to stay where he was until morning.

     “5,000 steps,” Meeks whispered. “That seems far enough for one night.”

     Meeks doubted that he could be much of a captain. Nobody could replace Mr. Keating, or Charlie (Nuwanda, a voice in the back of his mind corrected him), or Neil. Todd, Knox, Pitts, & even Cameron were irreplaceable.

     But I can read a map, Meeks thought. All he needed was a compass.

     Or, he thought, as his eyes focused on the sharpness of Pitts through the blur of the room around them, a lighthouse.