It’s like a penny.
The day the letter arrives at the Haus, it’s Holster, not Justin, who sees it.
“Dude!” shouts Holster, and he tumbles up the stairs, glass askew and clutching a letter in his hand which wobbles heavily in the air as its thick weight drags it down. “Dude, your letter from Harvard just arrived!”
Justin watches Holster shake the envelope with a small smile that belies his rapid, pounding heartbeat thudding noisily against his chest. “Do I get to open it, or do I have to wait for you to rip it open yourself with all the shaking?”
“Oh, yeah.” Holster hands over the envelope sheepishly. Justin tugs at the corners, not wanting to rip any of the documents within. “What does it say?” asks Holster, brimming with excitement.
Justin pauses and allows Holster a moment to consider what he just said. Holster rubs the back of his neck ruefully and relents. “Sorry, sorry, just excited for you.”
“You don’t even know what it says yet,” says Justin. “It could be them rejecting me outright.”
It isn’t. What lies beneath the thin envelope addressed to Justin Oluransi is a letter, printed on fine, pristine paper, announcing his acceptance to the PhD program in molecular biology at Harvard University. The letter is signed by the head of the Biology department, and a small, handwritten note at the bottom reads: Your work has truly impressed us, and while we’re sure other offers await, know that the opportunities here are unparalleled and your presence here would be highly valued by our faculty.
“Yeah?” says Holster. Justin nods, and Holster’s face splits into an earth-shattering, mind-stretching grin. “That’s my boy!” he crows, and tackles Justin to the bed with all of his considerable weight and height. Justin’s head slams against a hard edge—a book, perhaps, or one of the television DVD box set collections that Holster had borrowed from the library—but Holster’s body doesn’t provide him room to care, or to breathe for that matter. His face is filled with nothing but the crevice between neck and collarbone, and his chest is filled with nothing but air.
“Holster,” he grunts, “Adam, buddy, oxygen.”
“Right,” says Holster, and he levers himself up, grin still miles wide. His glasses sit so crookedly on his face that Justin just has to lift his hand up and adjust them. “Thanks, bro,” says Holster. “Now we have to tell everyone. You can tell March, of course, and I guess you can tell everyone else too if you want but Bitty was just downstairs and he’s dying to know since he saw the letter and—
“Just tell him,” says Justin. “I don’t care which one of us does it. This doesn’t even mean I’m going here,” he adds. A lie, of course. Harvard is the best program in the country, and there’s no reason for him to say no to the opportunity. He’s already in contact with one of the professors in a developmental biology lab who had been impressed by his poster at a conference last spring. He’s going to Harvard.
“Oh my lord!” Bitty’s southern drawl carries easily through to the attic. Two sets of frantic footsteps climb the stairs, and then Justin’s two favorite blonds are rushing into the attic to envelop him a suffocating, wonderful embrace.
“You’ll be so close to Shitty!” says Holster.
“And Jack, too!” says Bitty, then blushes. “I mean, closer, and it just makes it easier for me to visit you both, and…”
“I get it, Bitty. Thanks.”
Bitty just shakes his head fondly. “You know what this calls for? A celebration pie.”
“Is a celebration pie different from a regular pie?” inquires Holster.
“A celebration pie is special in ways your taste buds can only dream of,” says Bitty sincerely. “If we want to have it ready by tonight, I’m going to need some assistance.”
“I volunteer!” shouts Holster.
“Dex should help too,” muses Bitty. “He’s turned into quite the little baker this past year.”
“Ooh, I’ll get him, and I’ll get Chowder!” says Holster. His body is vibrating alarmingly as his enthusiasm permeates every cell in his body. “I’ll get the whole Haus! We need to celebrate!”
The two of them race down the stairs, both spewing out words with all the coherency a drunk alpaca. He smiles to himself and pulls out his phone. First he texts his parents, even though they’re both at work and are unlikely to respond immediately. Then he texts March.
I was just accepted into Harvard, he says.
Her reply takes five minutes. CONGRATULATIONS!!! J , it says. Then, Boston, huh?
Cambridge, technically. It doesn’t matter. Cambridge or Boston or New York or anywhere on the East Coast is a long way away from Los Angeles, where March will be living beginning in July; and as much as he enjoys her company and loves her humor and her vivacity (and maybe even her, sometimes, though he’s never said as much aloud), they both know what this means.
We’ll celebrate, she texts him.
Bitty’s making a ‘celebration pie,’ he says. Don’t know what that means, but it probably tastes amazing.
I’ll come by later, she says. Need to submit something by three.
It’s two o’clock at the moment. His next class meets in half an hour, and he needs to review the reading one last time before he leaves.
He pulls out his carefully highlighted and annotated paper and flips through it, searching for the sections he’d marked as most important. As he flips through the pages though, something nags at his mind. It tugs at his nerves and his concentration until suddenly his phone is out and he’s looking at google maps.
Four hours and three minutes is the time listed as the distance between Cambridge, Massachusetts and New York City. Four hours isn’t bad, especially compared to the distance between L.A., but it still stretches infinitely across the expanse of his mind. He glances up at the upper bunk, his own bed, and back at the mattress beneath supporting him right now. Perhaps four feet separate the two bedframes, a fact Holster has often bemoaned over the course of two and a half years and countless head smacks. Suddenly those short four feet seem not short at all. Suddenly he wants to gather up the space like a ribbon and crinkle it together until there’s no distance at all.
He finds a penny on the way to class and pockets it. It’s his lucky day after all.
“It’s like a fire,” she said, “in the stove.”
“Congratulations, Justin,” says Mrs. Birkholtz as she pulls him into a tight hug. “To all of you, of course but…”
“But to you especially,” finishes Mr. Birkholtz. “With all Adam’s said about you over the years, we feel like you’re a part of the family.”
“He talks about you more than he talks about himself,” adds Mrs. Birkholtz.
“Bro,” says Justin, turning to Holster.
“Half the time I’m just explaining to them why Canadians are so weird,” replies Holster. “There’s a lot to cover.”
“What was that you were saying, Adam?” A large hand lands on Justin’s shoulder, signaling his father’s arrival. Mr. Oluransi is two inches shorter than Justin, which means he’s four inches shorter than Holster, yet there is no question about who is the larger man.
“Oh, it’s different with you,” says Holster casually, completely unfazed. “See, you and Mrs. Oluransi were born in Nigeria, so you haven’t been stewing in the Canadian soup for quite so long. Justin on the other hand…” he raises an eyebrow.
“Canadian soup?” repeats Justin.
“I’m not Nursey here, okay? Leave the metaphors to someone other than an econ major!”
Each of the team presents gifts to the graduating seniors, as it is a graduation party after all. The student-only send-off occurred two nights ago, before the arrival of all of the parents (the extra day was simply a buffer for the hangover to fade). The tadpoles, being the least familiar with team, begin first.
Whiskey, Tango and the rest of the tadpoles have pitched into purchase matching alternate captain Samwell Men’s Hockey jackets for each of them. Following suit, Chowder and Dex present them with identical Alexei Mashkov jerseys, which Justin suspects had very nearly been Sharks jerseys before Dex intervened. Bitty hands them each a thick, spiral bound stack of paper. The top page reads Eric Bittle’s Guide to Cooking.
“I adapted some of the recipes,” he says, blushing and looking down at the grass beneath their feet. “I know neither of you cook like me, but it’s the least I can do to make sure neither of you starve next year—oof!”
Holster doesn’t let him finish. He wraps him in a tight hug, and Justin joins him quickly. They’re face brush as they tower over Bitty, and when they pull apart, the Bitty looks, for lack of a better word, compressed. But happy.
“I’ll definitely have to drop by sometime for pie,” says Holster. “I’m sure Ransom here will do the same.”
Derek Nurse is last, though only because he wanders in just as the gift exchange is about to end. Lardo is staring impetuously at him, although the pile of free, high-quality art supplies sitting at her feet has mollified her anger somewhat.
“I figured since you and Lardo are both in New York next year, my present to each of you would be taking you both out to dinner at a restaurant of your choice. My dad can get us in pretty much anywhere.” Dex makes a derogatory noise into his fist, but he refrains from actually saying anything, which is probably the most they can ask for at this point. “As for you,” he said, pointing to Justin, “I got you this.”
The object in question is a slightly weather-beaten book with its cover wrapped in plastic. A Medicine for Melancholy, reads the title, and beneath the title is a whimsical, almost cartoonish drawing of what appear to be several enormous jars or pots, each decorated with patterns and figures.
“Ray Bradbury?” says Justin, running his thumb down the spine.
“You mentioned that Fahrenheit 451 was one of your favorite books,” said Nursey, shrugging. “And I’ve seen you reading sci-fi more than anything else, so I figured you might like it. It’s a collection of his short stories.” He gestures to the book. “Open it.”
He flips open the cover and his heart nearly drops to his feet. Inscribed in what must be fountain pen is Ray Bradbury’s name, and from the looks of the date of publication, the book must be a first edition.
“Holy shit,” he breathes. “Nursey, you shouldn’t have.”
Several people have crowded around to examine the book. Justin’s mom seems overcome, and even Holster, who’s never read a word by Ray Bradbury or really any fiction author unless absolutely necessary, seems in awe.
“Thank you, Nursey,” he says. He searches for something else to say, something not sappy and more broey, but he comes up empty. Maybe it is time for him to graduate college after all. He’s officially at a loss for a sufficiently unemotional reply.
Nursey smiles lazily, but hidden within his eyes is a gratitude which warms Justin’s soul like a coal gently stoked across the fire. Then he faces Holster, and the coal bursts into flames.
“You first,” says Holster.
Justin reaches into the bag which has been sitting next to his feet for some time. He yanks a box from beneath the pile of other presents he’s received and holds it out.
“What is this, an engagement ring?” jokes Holster, and Justin laughs nervously.
“One way to find out, buddy.”
Holster yanks the cover off, and his face crinkles in confusion. “An envelope inside of a box? What are you, my Aunt Betty? Uh, no offense,” he says, eyeing his parents.
His mom huffs in exasperation while his dad rolls his eyes. Holster tears open the envelope haphazardly and stares at the contents for a moment with a flat expression. Then his eyes go wide.
“No fucking way,” he says. “No fucking way. Bro.” He holds up two tickets.
Lardo snatches the tickets out of his hand, and even she seems legitimately impressed. “Ice-side seats to the Bruins-Falconers game this January. In Boston.”
Holster slaps him across the back and yanks him into a brief but firm hug. It’s not the most affectionate embrace they’ve exchanged (they would need to be drunker to top that record), but the meaning is clear. And Holster is clearly anxious to present his own gift.
Holster’s gift is also an envelope. It’s also a single sheet of paper, filled with strange, unfamiliar handwriting. After their years of friendship, Justin can forge Holster’s signature and style with frightening ease. While Holster’s writing often borders on illegible (much to Justin’s consternation whenever Holster used him as a flashcard reader during study sessions), the letters here are entirely unintelligible. Justin doubts some of them are even English.
“Not to sound ungrateful, but what is this?” he says, holding up the letter and squinting. “Some—most of the words—are hard to make out.”
Holster retrieves his glasses from his pocket and examines the letter carefully. “Motherfucker,” he swears as he presses his nose to the paper. “I should have had Jack write it out.”
Holster scratches his head, tangling his mop of blond hair. “I guess, this technically counts as a present from me and Jack, but Jack’s got his own thing too. This was my idea, but I definitely used him to figure it all out.”
“What is it?”
“This letter is from Tater—uh, I mean, Alexei Mashkov. Basically, he’s agreed to skate with us and Jack for an afternoon in the summer. You know, I was thinking when I visit you in Toronto before I start my job, late June, we would just book a rink and…okay.”
Justin’s already wrapping his arms around Holster. His fingers curl at the nape of Holster’s neck, and the scent of Holster’s terrible cologne, the one which permeates every inch of the attic if he forgets to spray in the bathroom, suffuses his nose. “Thank you, Adam,” he whispers.
Holster stiffens in surprise, then relaxes. “Anything for my best friend,” he says.
Several people coo, including Bitty, which is an urgent sign they need to cease lest they lose their reputation as cool. Not that the opinion of the tadpoles and frogs ought to matter, but Whiskey still sets his nerves on edge, and he’s reluctant to relinquish any perceived power he possesses.
“You both are dorks,” says Lardo, punching each of their arms.
“Ransom’s the nerd, though,” says Holster, and he smiles sleazily at both of them. “My rep remains intact.”
Lardo scoffs, but even she can’t contain the smile sprouting across her face. “If that’s what lets you sleep at night,” she says.
“Hey Lards, you actually going to see me this year? Or will you just be shacking up with Shitty whenever you’re in Boston?” asks Justin.
“You will see me when and where I decide,” she replies without hesitation. “Keep this up, and you’ll be waiting an awfully long time.”
Holster laughs, and Justin laughs with him.
“Now, Lardo, what’d you get us?” asks Holster. “You’ve got a lot to live up to.”
Lardo’s present to each of them is a scrapbook. Justin takes one look inside and slams the book shut, eyes wide in horror. Holster wears a similar expression of terror.
“What is it?” asks Mrs. Birkholtz.
“It’s personal,” says Holster. He clears his throat loudly. “Very, very personal.”
Justin agrees; though he’d only seen a small glimpse, a picture of the two of them, entirely naked and sprinting blurrily across campus in the dim wash of a street lamp, does indeed qualify as personal. He’s sure they’ve only brushed the surface of the trove of blackmail material buried within the book.
“Thank you, Lards,” says Justin tightly.
“Any time boys,” she says, winking. “You’ll thank me later.”
Shitty is mad, absolutely barking mad for loving her. But Justin supposes they already knew that.
I think the sun is a flower/ that blooms for just an hour.
Holster has yet to utter anything other than “wow” for at least thirty minutes. “Wow,” he says as they step across the threshold of Justin’s house. “Wow,” he says as Justin grabs a beer from the fridge and hands him the bottle. “Wow,” he says as they collapse on the couch, massaging their calves and stretching their hamstrings. “Wow.”
“I’m starting to think you’re the one whose parents spoke to him in a different language than English,” remarks Justin drily.
Holster continues to stare dreamily at an image only his eyes can see. “Alexei Mashkov is a god.”
“Jack wasn’t so bad either,” says Justin.
Holster shakes his head. “Jack is good. Alexei is great. Impeccable. Unscrupulous. Unassailable. Unbeatable.”
“Half those words don’t even make sense in context,” says Justin.
“Is it too late for me to be Russian?”
“Are you sure?”
“Look, you want to move to Moscow, I’m sure it can be arranged. Can you even say anything in Russian?”
“Privyet,” says Holster. “And, uh, spasiba, I think.”
“I think you’re good to go then.”
Holster turns to him with genuine hope and glee brimming in his expression. “You think?”
“Dude, you do realize that Mashkov lives in Providence? Even if you do move to Moscow, he’s not going to be there.”
Holster relents with a sigh and takes a deep swig of his beer. He furrows his brow and glares at the bottle. “What is this?” he asks.
“Why aren’t you drinking it?” He squints through his glasses suspiciously, and his overgrown bangs, still damp from the shower, wilt.
“Because I’m driving in about half an hour, and while I trust my tolerance, I’d rather not risk anything.”
Holster’s frown deepens. “Driving? Rans, where the hell are we going?”
Justin just winks. “Patience, young padawan.”
“I’m older than you!” sputters Holster. “You’re obligated to tell me things?”
Justin shoots him a sideways glance. “Tell you what, you tell me about what happened on your junior prom night, and I will tell you where we’re going.”
Holster opens his mouth, pauses, then snaps his jaw shut.
“That’s what I thought,” says Justin smugly. “You’ll see soon enough.”
The drive from Toronto leads them first through the choked city arteries, then through peaceful, children laden suburban cul-de-sacs, then finally, further north, into the unerring, solemn quiet of twisting, rutting roads embedded deep in the woods. Holster had badgered him incessantly throughout the two hours of the drive, but he’d quickly discovered what Ransom already knew. No one is immune to the immensity of a forest night.
They turn slowly down a jagged dirt road, and the jostle of the car rouses Holster from his daze. He blinks hazily in the encroaching dusk and shakes his head. An owl swoops across the path, its wings cutting a silent path through the air. Justin envies it the silence.
When he parks the car, Holster emerges slowly and places his feet on the ground one by one, grinding his heel into the earth as if to test the solidity of the dirty beneath his feet. He inhales deeply and closes his eyes. “Where are we, Rans?” he asks softly.
“My friend has a cottage on a lake. I asked him if I could use it for the night.”
Holster remains silent as they trudge down a haphazard gravel path. Justin’s duffel bag bounces between the trees which line the route and ferns still damp with an earlier rain nip at their calves, leaving behind a gentle trail of moisture. After two minutes of walking, the forest recedes before them and a broad lake fills their vision. A small house twenty feet from shore perches on a small knoll where the sand meets the sparse grass and clay-like earth.
Justin leads them into the cabin and flicks a switch off the side. The deep whirr of the generator hums throughout the cabin, and a second flick illuminates the modest interior. A narrow counter divides the small kitchen and the living room, while three doors, left ajar by previous occupants, open into the bathroom and two bedrooms.
“’Swawesome,” mutters Holster. “This place is incredible.”
“I figure, we fire up the grill outside and polish off the burgers and beer I lugged out here. What do you say?”
Holster beams at him, his broad, unabashed smile of pure delight, untainted by anything else. “Sounds perfect.”
While Bitty rarely used the grill, he still learned enough to be proficient. What he learned, he passed on to any willing student, Justin included, and so Justin lights up the grill easily and spreads the burger accompaniments elegantly across the table. Holster wanders arounds the grounds in the gleaming twilight and even dips his toes into the water for a minute. When he returns, only the last vestiges of sunlight remain.
“Dude, those were delicious!” exclaims Holster after dinner. “When did you learn to cook?”
“Bitty taught me a few things when I was trying to impress March.”
Holster whistles in appreciation. “She was one lucky girl.”
Justin shrugs. “She’ll like L.A.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” They’re seated on the small patch of grass just outside the cottage with a small floodlight above them. Justin’s halfway into his third beer, and Holster’s on his fourth. “It’s weird, isn’t it? Everything changing.”
Holster snorts. “At least you’re still in school.”
Justin huffs out a puff of air. “No hockey, though. Not like before.”
“Not too late to try out for the Falcs,” says Holster, nudging his ribs. “I’m sure Jack could get you an audition.”
“You just want more time with Mashkov, don’t you?”
Holster neither confirms nor denies. The floodlight above them flicker, flashes, and then disappears, casting the scene into total darkness. For a moment, they do nothing. Then Holster snickers. The snickers develop into fully-formed, body-shaking giggles, and eventually Justin can’t resist.
“Everything’s haunted,” he says, gasping for air. “Everywhere I go.”
“At least we can see the stars now, yeah?” says Holster.
It’s true. A million, a billion stars glitter above them, unimpeded by any light pollution more than three hours from the city. The moon, only a silver sliver of a thing, reflects in ripples across the lake. In Cambridge, in Boston, sights like these are bound to be rare, he knows.
“Yeah,” agrees Justin. “They’re pretty incredible.”
Holster’s hair shines in the faint light, surrounding his face like a halo or spotlight. He’s staring directly into the sky, glasses resting easily on his face, and the light freckles scattered across his face mirror the pattern of the sky above them. Unbidden, there’s a tug at Justin’s heart, a pull towards something on Holster’s face. The sensation begins at his fingertips, tingling and twitching with an ache towards touching him, and it ends in the tip of his tongue, combining with the beer to buzz slightly. He begins to reach out, and then stops.
Something snaps within him, and the floodwaters rush across him with such a torrent he feels a chill despite the mild summer night. The space between them has never been smaller and never been greater. He opens his mouth to speak, but finds his own tongue stills speech.
If he were to speak in that moment, he would have said he was about to kiss him.
He wants to kiss Adam Birkholtz.
He wants to touch Adam Birkholtz.
He already loves Adam Birkholtz.
“You cold, man?” asks Holster.
“You’re shivering a little,” says Holster frowning. “Aren’t you Canadians tougher than this?”
“Must be my Nigerian heritage,” jokes Justin weakly.
Holster levers himself off the ground and stands, swaying slightly in the breeze. “Woah,” he mutters. “Probably shouldn’t have had that last beer.” He looks down at the ground and holds out a hand. “Ready to go inside?” He grins broadly, no different than before, and looking at him, looking at how casually he stands and how completely at ease he is in this moment, Justin knows that Adam is not in love with him.
That night, Justin lies next to Holster on the bed. The cottage contains both a queen as well as two twins, and while they could have chosen the twins, Justin always hated ghosts.
So he lies next to Adam, touching and yet not touching, there but not there, close but not close enough. His fingers echo across Holster’s arms, and his breath fogs across his skin like he’s made of glass, the sturdiest thing in his life now the most fragile.
Tomorrow, Holster moves to New York City.
The sky darkened into midnight in a flash.
Justin moves into his apartment with a tinge of apprehension coloring his anticipation of the week to come. He opted for a studio, which at the time seemed reasonable—the only person he knows in Boston is Shitty, who’s living with one of his law school classmates—but standing in the hollow space which manages to be both small and cavernous, he longs for another human being by his side.
Well, really, he longs for Holster, but he’s still locking that thought up in an iron cage within his heart.
He attends orientation and smiles pleasantly at everyone. One of the other biology first years, Ali Nguyen, had rowed for Stanford during her time as an undergrad. Another first year, Ian McKinnon, played tennis for two years before a recurring knee injury forced him to stop. Justin clings to them first out of instinct, even if he knows he should not.
He realizes rapidly that despite the grueling training, the hellish morning practices and a nearly insatiable appetite, the greatest gift the hockey team at Samwell ever gave him was friends. Not one month into the year, not two months, but immediately, friends. Before classes and before the other freshmen settled into their lives, Ransom had Holster, and then Shitty and Jack and eventually Lardo.
Justin in Cambridge must find his own way.
He joins a local recreational hockey league, and while the members vary in age from early twenties like him to nearly forty-five, they all welcome him with open arms. He’s easily one of the best players, and the scrape of skates on ice offers a release found nowhere else in the world. Once his classes commence, he begins to befriend several other students.
He still sees Shitty once a week, even if only for a fifteen minute coffee break.
“You’re looking a bit rough, today,” remarks Shitty one morning, sipping his coffee easily. “Late night?”
Justin feels haggard. He spent nearly the entire night studying for the first exam of the year, following all of his usual routines. Despite his best efforts, his mind had wandered, unbound by his will or his desires.
“Lot of work,” says Justin simply.
“More than Samwell?” asks Shitty, raising an eyebrow.
“Just different,” says Justin. “Which is true for most things. They’re just different.”
Shitty glances around the dining wall then leans in conspiratorially, so close his mustache tickles Justin’s ear. “You’re not about to come out to me, are you?”
Justin recoils in shock. “What?”
Shitty shrugs, but he seems genuinely serious. “I’m about eighty-five percent sure I have a sixth sense for when someone is going to come out to me. It’s happened enough for there to be a reasonable sample size.”
Justin gapes at him. “I’m…I’m not…”
Shitty pats his hand gently. “I understand,” he says.
Justin isn’t sure that he does, but it hardly seems to matter.
“Lardo’s visiting next week,” adds Shitty. “You should make sure to see her.”
“Like I told her, as long as you don’t keep her to yourself the whole time.”
“Oh I wouldn’t do that,” said Shitty haughtily. “I do have to go to class every now and then. I’m sure you two can work something out within that frame, eh?”
The day before Lardo comes, Justin unpacks his final box in his studio. Hidden beneath a rather garish pillow his mom had foisted upon him not two minutes before he left lie the presents from his graduation: his Samwell alternate captain jackets; his Mashkov jersey, now even more valuable for being signed; the scrapbook from Lardo, still largely untouched and waiting for the unique combination of nostalgia and masochism required to view the contents of the binder. Nursey’s book, still wrapped in plastic, sits stalwartly at the bottom.
He flips the book open to a random page, which turns out to be the beginning of a story. A skim of the next several pages reveals it to be a rather short story.
It had been raining for seven years; thousands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands.
He glances outside, notices with wry amusement that the soft drizzle from the morning has developed into a solid downpour. Not seven years of rain, not like in the world of Ray Bradbury’s Venus, but he appreciated the similarities nonetheless.
All day yesterday they had read in class about the sun. About how like a lemon it was, and how hot. And they had written small stories or essays or poems about it: I think the sun is a flower, That blooms for just one hour. That was Margot’s poem, read in a quiet voice in the still classroom while the rain was falling outside.
He reads on, a terrible curiosity longing to know what Margot saw when she last saw the sun on earth.
It’s like a penny," she said once, eyes closed. "No it’s not!" the children cried. "It’s like a fire," she said, "in the stove."
And then the cruelty begins. The children, jealous of her memory and terrified of her difference, lock her in a closet before the teacher arrives. And then the sun emerges.
His phone vibrates. He picks it up on the second ring.
“Justin Oluransi, you had better be home right now.”
“Who else?” Her voice is petulant, and she sounds distinctly annoyed with him personally, though he’s unsure why.
“Aren’t you in New York?”
“Change of plans,” she says, as if this information ought to be obvious. “I’m outside your building right now, and my umbrella is not holding up well against the wind.”
“Oh, shit, yeah. Um, code for the building is 3369#. I’m on the fourth floor, number 407.”
She hangs up on him. A sharp rap on the door comes not two minutes later, and he opens the door to allow her inside. In one hand, she’s dragging a small suitcase. A backpack is slung over the opposite shoulder.
“Are you, uh…do you need a place to spend the night?” asks Justin. “I thought you wouldn’t be here until tomorrow, and I just assumed that you and Shitty would—
“Shitty knows I’m here, and I’m definitely spending the night with him,” she assures him. “Actually, he’s the reason I’m here early. Well, you are actually, but he told me to come.”
None of her words make any sense to him. “You’re going to have to explain.”
She rolls her eyes and shrugs off her dripping raincoat to drape it across a chair. “Do you have some coffee here? Or tea? It’s freezing outside.”
Justin busies himself with the coffee maker while Lardo surveys the room, eyes sweeping across the entire apartment and lingering on the kitchen and the small table wedged into the corner for eating. His coffee machine acts quickly, and soon he fills Lardo’s mug with piping hot caffeine. She accepts it gratefully and slurps indelicately.
“Much better,” she says.
Justin smiles faintly, then returns to the conversation from before. “Why did Shitty tell you to come?” he asks.
Lardo sighs heavily and taps the side of her mug with a carefully manicured nail. She tilts her head from side to side, clearly searching for the right words. Justin’s curiosity just grows.
“It’s going to sound stupid,” she says finally, “but Shitty said he was worried about you. He said that you seemed unhappy, or off, or something. You wouldn’t talk to him about it, so he recruited me.” She peers at him closely, and the squinting of her eyes reminds him suddenly of Holster in the mornings, before he closed his fingers around his glasses. “Is there anything to what he said?”
“No,” says Justin automatically, and he cringes immediately. He should have paused a moment there. He should have been able to convince Lardo. “No,” he repeats, as if this will further his cause.
Lardo narrows her eyes even further. “So Shitty was right.”
“No, he was not,” he says, but she’s caught the scent now, and little will deter her.
“Something is up. What is it? Classes? Friends? I promise, if it is Shitty harassing you, I will deal with him personally.”
“No, no, nothing like that,” he says. “I mean, things are a little different here is all. Things change. I need some time to adjust.”
“And that’s it? No other life-changing, life-altering revelations?”
Justin narrows his eyes. “Lardo, what did Shitty tell you? Specifically.”
She holds up her hands. “He just said, and I quote, ‘Rans has been hitting the ‘about to come out meter’ for the past couple of months.’ I told him he’s full of shit.”
“To which he said, ‘Why yes, I am Shitty.’”
“Of course,” says Lardo. She pauses, stares up at him, all five foot nothing of her body like a high-powered microscope, leaving no ridge and crevice unseen. Seeing a cell, seeing any organelle in such great detail—well, it’s half the reason he loves biology. The world contains so much hidden, untapped beauty, millions and millions of astounding visions trapped within a microcosm of a cell. It’s beautiful to behold, but he’s never considered the perspective of the cell or the sensation of being observed.
“Yes?” he says.
“But I think he may be right,” finishes Lardo. “Rans, how is Holster?”
He opens his mouth to respond, to say that Holster is enjoying his job well enough, that he likes New York although sometimes he looks into the sky and sees only concrete, and how he’s found several coworkers who share his passion for hockey and they’ve started a fantasy pool. He opens his mouth to say all of it, to say, shouldn’t Lardo know better, seeing as they live in the same city, but all that emerges is, “Fine.”
Lardo’s face softens nearly imperceptibly. “Oh, Ransom,” she says, and Justin know she knows.
But because Lardo is Lardo, she transitions the conversation into a new direction. They spend the next several hours chatting, discussing her first forays into the world of professional art, her understanding of New York City, his first weeks in lab and his hopes for the future.
Finally, her phone buzzes with a text, and she glances down, then looks back up. “Shitty’s out of class,” she says. “I’m supposed to meet him.”
Justin hugs her tightly, pressing her small body to him and is surprised to find that despite her stature, he feels secure, protected. When he releases her, she smiles broadly up at him.
“Good to see Nursey’s present has come in handy,” she remarks.
She marches over to the table where A Medicine for Melancholy lies and peers over the book. A smile flits across her face when she skims the first few lines. “I remember this story,” she says softly. “How the children locked her away and then forgot. How they only realized their mistake when the sun had disappeared, after their one hour of sunlight after seven years of rain. And they realized they would have to wait seven more.” She looks at Justin. “All Summer in a Day. That was the title.”
“It’s a good story,” he says.
“I thought so too,” she agrees, and they say their goodbyes.
The children walked slowly down the hall in the sound of cold rain. They turned through the doorway to the room in the sound of the storm and thunder, lightning on their faces, blue and terrible. They walked over to the closet door slowly and stood by it. Behind the closet door was only silence. They unlocked the door, even more slowly, and let Margot out.
“Ransom! Ransom! Here!”
Heedless of the crowd milling around in an ordered chaos, Justin sprints across the halls of South Station and slams Holster against the wall, clacking their bodies together. Holster laughs loudly as he releases his duffel bag and allows it to fall to the floor with a thud. He breathes in the smell of Holster, he clutches at the sensation of Holster’s neck beneath his hands, at the scratch of his scruff across Justin’s cheek.
“You ready for the game?” says Holster, his voice coming from somewhere around Justin’s right ear.
They pull apart, and no matter how many face time conversations or texts they exchange, the physical presence of Holster is magnetic. His fingers already itch with desire to touch Holster, his hand, his face, any inch of skin they can reach. Holster smirks at Justin, and Justin’s heart flips of his own accord.
This is easy, he reminds himself. This is easy for Holster. It only requires self-control.
“Let’s do this,” says Justin, and he thinks that maybe, just maybe, he might be able to.
They take the red line to Porter Square, the closest T stop to Justin’s apartment. When they emerge from underground, a shrill wind whips across their faces, and Justin buries his face in his scarf to ward off the numbing chill.
“It’s like ten degrees colder here,” observes Holster. “Remind me again why you didn’t pick Stanford? Oh right, because you’re Canadian and snow for you people is like sunshine for a lizard.”
“You and Jack. Both freaks of nature.”
“Like Buffalo’s so much better,” says Justin, and even Holster can’t retaliate against that.
Much to Justin’s surprise, Holster pulls a Bruins jersey from his bag when they arrive at the apartment instead of the Mashkov jersey he expected.
“Chara?” he says skeptically, peering over Holster’s shoulder.
“You know I love Tater,” says Holster. “But we’re going to be in TD garden, and I’ve never seen the Bruins before. Plus,” he says smugly, fitting the jersey over his head and poking his face through, “it makes me feel even taller.”
“You’re such an idiot,” says Justin fondly.
“Hey, I’m not the one wearing the opposition’s jersey around Boston. Even I know that could end badly.”
“I think I can handle myself,” says Justin. “I didn’t play hockey for nothing.”
TD Garden is a conglomeration of harsh noise and flashing lights and an indescribable, infectious joy which fills Justin’s heart in spaces he’s forgotten existed since leaving Samwell. Holster gazes in awe at the sight before him, his jaw slack, his eyes round as pie tins.
Someone, a large man who matches Holster in height and outmatches him in breadth, bumps into the two of them. “You tell your friend to cheer for the right team here,” says the man warningly at Holster.
“The best team will win,” replies Justin for him. “And Zimmerman’s looking pretty good, I’d say.”
“Zimmerman’s got no grit,” says the man. “I bet he wouldn’t know a blocked shot if it slapped him in the face.”
Holster muffles a laugh into his fist.
“We’ll make sure to tell him that,” says Justin, and he drags Holster away from the now highly confused man before his laughing become embarrassing.
As the game begins, he decides that the difference between ice-level seats and the rest of the arena is the sound. Not that the cheering of fans or the goal horn or the blare of the announcer’s voice is any louder, but the spray of snow as a player twists to a halt is crisper, and the slap of the puck on a stick is more visceral. He watches the play keenly, of course, but from time to time, he closes his eyes and inhales his good fortune.
“Bro, you’re not falling asleep on me, are you?”
Holster is incredulous.
“Of course not,” says Justin, flicking open his eyes. “I’m just listening to the game.”
Holster rolls his eyes. “Your main man Mashkov nearly flipped Marchand over with a hipcheck. Can you listen to that?”
“No,” admits Justin, but for the rest of the game, he still closes his eyes when Holster looks away. It’s in those moments that he feels as well as hears. He feels the rough wool of Holster’s gloves wedged in the seats between them, feels the soft rasp as their jackets brush each other, feels the thwack as Holster kicks his too large feet from side to side.
He clutches these feelings to his heart and stores them away, like a man basking in the sun before seven years of rain.
In the end, the Bruins win four to two, though Jack nets himself an assist. Holster, while disappointed for Jack, still grins gleefully after the game.
“At least Jack got a point,” he notes as they stride out of the Garden. “If he didn’t, he’d probably be unbearable tonight.”
They’re meeting Shitty and Jack for drinks at a local bar of Shitty’s choosing (he still knows the local bar scene far better than Justin ever will). The night air freezes their blood when they leave the arena, and Justin huddles closer to Holster for warmth. He longs for something more substantial than his SMH snapback to cover his head, but the bar isn’t too far, or so Shitty’s assured them.
The place Shitty has chosen reveals itself to be a hole in the wall, cash-only craft brew haven. Shitty’s already snagged a table in the back and has begun nursing a beer.
“Just saw the score,” says Shitty, “Hopefully Jack will manage to be his usual charming self nonetheless.”
“I expect nothing less,” says Holster cheerfully. “Too bad Bitty isn’t here. That’d cheer him right up.”
“Yeah, he and Lardo really wanted to come,” says Shitty, sighing. “But Samwell’s got finals right now, and Lardo was just here last week. It’s a bit of a hike to do every weekend.” He sips his beer thoughtfully. “She sees him whenever they play the Rangers, though.”
“Next time,” says Holster. “While we wait for el Capitaine to arrive, how about I grab us some drinks. Rans, you good with whatever I give you?”
“Perfect.” Holster stands up and heads towards the bar, leaving Justin and Shitty alone. Justin’s eyes follow Holster as he leaves, and this does not escape Shitty’s attention.
“Distance is hard,” he says vaguely.
Justin ignores him. Shitty continues unperturbed. “It’s harder when the other person doesn’t know.”
Justin slams his fist on the table, rattling Shitty’s beer bottle. Shitty grabs it casually and leans back against his seat. “What does it matter?”
“It matters because you’re unhappy,” Shitty says. “It matters because as long as I’ve known you and Holster, I’ve never seen you uncomfortable around him.”
Justin glares at him morosely. “It’s just the way things are,” he says. “Too late to change anything now.”
Shitty cocks his head to the side. “Too late?”
“Well, for one, Holster’s not gay or bi or anything as far as I know, and I know almost everything about him. And secondly, if something were to happen, it already would have.” His gaze wanders across the terrain of the bar, lingering on a shelf stacked high with aged liquor bottles and labeled beer mugs. “We’re four, five hours apart now and we lived four feet from each other for three years.”
“You think the window has closed?” surmises Shitty.
From the bar, Holster waves cheerfully at the two of them, and his mop of blond hair bounces from side to side. Then Holster yells and rushes towards a figure at the entrance, attracting the peeved consternation of several other patrons around. The figure,of course, is Jack, who has pulled his hood low over his face to avoid recognition.
With Jack’s arrival, Justin avoids further questioning from Shitty. Jack, never one for romantic subtleties, speaks enthusiastically about the Falconer’s chances that year, oblivious to the furtive glances Shitty keeps sending Justin’s way. For his part, Holster drinks his beer and chirps Jack and Shitty and Justin most of all, and when they all exit the bar at the end of the night, Shitty and Jack heading in one direction, Justin and Holster in the other, he slings his arm over Justin’s shoulder. They walk in tandem, a fuzz wrapped around their heads, and for a moment, if Justin closes his eyes, closes his ears to the sounds of the city, he can imagine the ground beneath them belongs to the Samwell campus. There is no Boston and New York. Just Holster’s hand as it brushes his chest, just Holster’s steady presence next to his.
Holster keeps up a steady chatter as they return home, but Justin remains subdued. They talk constantly, and whatever Holster says is likely not anything particularly groundbreaking. Tonight, he soaks in the smell and feel of Adam Birkholtz.
“You okay, buddy?” asks Holster as Justin shuts the door to his apartment, sliding the bolt shut. “You’ve been a little quiet tonight.”
“Just tired,” says Justin, and his accidental yawn supports his words. “Grad school’s more work than college, if you can believe it.”
“Oh, I can,” says Holster. “Believe me, working seventy five hours a week is no walk in the park either.” He shucks off his outer layers, stripping away his gloves, his scarf and his hat. Then he removes his jersey and undershirt in one smooth movement, leaving him bare-chested and exposed.
Justin’s fingers twitch.
“Mind if I shower quickly?” asks Holster.
Justin nods mutely. He uses the time to prepare himself for bed, brushing teeth and slipping on his preferred sleepshirt and hockey puck pajamas. When Holster emerges, damp and sluggish from the steam, he slides easily into the bed.
“Come here,” he says, patting the space next to him. “We’ll go for breakfast before I leave tomorrow. My treat.”
Justin lies parallel to Holster, their bodies centimeters apart. The distance between them feels stretched thin, like tawdry fabric straining against its own thread. When Holster’s breathing evens slowly, Justin tucks his head into the crook of Holster’s arm.
Winter slips into the crevices in his skin, but he soaks in the sun nonetheless. For an hour, just like the children of Venus, he basks in its gentle golden light. For a moment, he is not Margot, who misses her chance. For a moment, he is the world rejoicing after a long rain.
Then he falls asleep.
We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.
The day Justin finishes his final exam, officially marking the end of his first year of graduate school, he wants nothing more than to collapse into his bed and cocoon himself with his pile of accrued blankets and sweaters. Holster always described this process as an important step in the maintenance of a coral reef. Holster is in New York.
He unlocks his door clumsily, his eyes bleary with exhaustion. And then he sleeps.
He dreams vividly. He dreams of soft hands on his shoulders, a warm voice in his ear, of the smell of Bitty’s pies. Something wooden creaks and echoes around his ears, and he remembers where he must be. The attic. He is curled next to Holster in the bottom bunk, and the sensation sends delicious tingles across his skin. “Adam,” he says.
“I’m here,” says Holster, his breath ghosting across Justin’s neck. “Are you awake?”
Is he awake? The question curls loosely in his mind, spinning in undulating ribbons and glowing across the contours of his consciousness. Of course he’s awake. He smells the attic, hears the omnipresent clatter and noise of the Haus. Of course he’s awake. He’s in bed with Holster.
Then he opens his eyes and the attic fades away to the white light of reality. A dream, nothing more. Except the hands remain on his shoulders, and when he rolls over to face the present, Adam Birkholtz is smiling gently at him with an aching confidence screens and virtual conversations can never replicate.
“Adam?” he mumbles in confusion.
“Justin,” responds Holster teasingly.
Justin levers himself into a half seated position and the sheets cling to his body in strange, misshapen ways. “What—am I dreaming?” he wonders aloud.
“No, you’re not dreaming,” scoffs Holster. He skims his thumb across Justin’s bare shoulder. “I’m actually here.”
None of Justin’s confusion abates. “Shouldn’t you be in New York? At work or something?”
“Ah,” says Holster, casually rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s hard to go to work when you don’t have a job.”
Justin shoots up. “What, they fired you?”
“Oh no,” says Holster. “I quit.”
Justin shakes his head once, twice, his still exhausted mind shifting into overdrive to understand. Ostensibly, Holster’s words are intelligible, but in context, nothing sticks together. The letters and words fall apart like paper trapped by insufficient glue. “Why would you quit?”
Holster heaves a sigh. “Do you want some tea? I made some while you were sleeping.” He grins sheepishly. “I hope you don’t mind that Shitty lent me a copy of your house key.”
Just rouses himself enough to accept the cup of tea Holster hands him. They sit side by side, shoulders pressed together. Holster’s hands pick at the hem of his shorts, tugging at loose threads. Justin allows the warm tea to suffuse his innards and the slightly acrid taste to settle on his tongue before he breaks the silence. If he speaks, Holster might vanish as surely as a cloud of mist.
“Why did you quit?” he asks again, closes his eyes. When Holster remains as solid and tangible as before, he opens them again.
“To be here,” says Holster simply. “To be with you.”
“With me?” repeats Justin.
Holster nods. “With you.”
“With me how?” he asks carefully, treading across his words lightly.
Justin’s seen every iteration of Holster’s face in their four years of friendship. He recognizes the twisted, curled lip of deep concentration and the half-dimple which pokes at his cheek when he reaches the perfect crossroads of exhausted and giddy after a long day. He’s seen despair once, when the death of his grandfather coincided with a particularly brutal loss in the playoffs their freshman year. He’s seen the sloppy, sleazy smile of alcohol-induced stupidity and the fervent glare and misery the following morning. The planes of Holster’s cheeks, the small wrinkles at the corner of his eyes—all etched into Justin’s mind with impeccable clarity. He knows Holster.
He does not know the blank-faced man who says, “In whatever way you want.”
“Look, Holster, I know English was never your strong suit, but I…you’re going to need to clarify.”
“I mean,” sighs Holster, “that one way or another, I plan on staying in Boston with you. Whether as friends or roommates or…”
Holster’s eyes burn holes through the floor with their intense gaze. “I’ve spent the past months talking a lot with Shitty. Ever since the Bruins game, I sensed…something. But you wouldn’t tell me. And Shitty wouldn’t tell me at first either, but he visited Lardo last week and I paid nearly seventy-five dollars to get him whiskey drunk.” He turns to Justin. “He said you thought the window had closed, or that it had never existed in the first place.” He shakes his head ruefully. “Lardo eventually spelled it out for me, though only after I promised her to never get Shitty that drunk ever again. But she said the same thing: you thought the window had closed.”
“It had,” says Justin. “It has, I thought. When I decided on Boston and you had your job in New York, there was no way to stay together.”
“You never asked,” says Holster, the words barely a whisper. “You could have asked me to follow you,” he repeats, several decibels louder. Justin stares in confusion. “When you were accepted to Harvard, I thought maybe you would ask me to come to Boston with you.”
“You already had a job.”
“Jobs can be changed. I can work for a consulting group anywhere,” scoffs Holster. “I can live in New York or Boston or Topeka, Kansas for all I care. You’re only in one place.”
“So you quite your job to be with me.”
Holster nods simply. “Exactly.”
“And what, you want to be with me? You want—“ his voice catches lightly. “You want something more than friendship?”
Again Holster nods.
A touch of anger simmers in his heart. “All this time, you never even mentioned liking men. Even when I…when I told you about Jake from home. You never said anything.”
“I never realized. And it’s not…it’s not typical for me. Mostly just you, really. But you were already with March and then when you never asked me to stay, I—
And Justin kisses him, sucking the words from his breath. He curls his hands in Holster’s tangle of blond hair and bites at Holster’s bottom lip, gasping when Holster responds in kind. They kiss urgently, and when they don’t kiss, they laugh. Justin trails a finger across Holster’s waist, thumbing at the shirt covering the skin there.
They break apart breathless and giddy.
“You want me to stay?” asks Holster.
“Adam,” breathes Justin, his voice husky, “my whole life, I’ve never wanted anything else.”
And when Adam kisses him, his skin feels feverish and blistering beneath the heat that is his best friend and the man whose body is both familiar and not, electrifying and soothing in turn. With his golden hair and glowing body, Adam’s body is like the sweep of summer into the air after a long, long rain. His touch is fire, his kisses are the sun.
And what is that Bradbury once said?
It was a pleasure to burn.