High school was over. Despite everything bad which had ever happened to Caleb Nield inside those walls, what he wanted most was to live through it all again. He wasn't ready to say goodbye, not to the school nor the town, and most of all to Ethan. Caleb's parents often spoke of their high school days with nostalgic romanticism, and he'd expected to feel that way eventually but not just two days after graduation. Nevertheless, Caleb had an instant longing for those days, a need to relive some of his brighter moments.
One glance at Ethan reminded him of just how surreal this all was. There was nothing Caleb enjoyed more than walking with the short golden-haired youth whose medium-length locks curled slightly around his ears. The wistful look in Ethan's eyes was new, though normally those hazel eyes were filled with some level of thoughtfulness, as if the weight of the world weighed on his shoulders. He smiled as he noticed Caleb's glance, a smile which radiated gentle warmth, though it didn't always reach his eyes and, truth be told, often hadn't of late.
Caleb looked away when Ethan glanced at him. Longing for the pleasant memories of times spent together was one thing, Caleb knew, but the way he felt gazing into Ethan's eyes was another matter. He'd loved Ethan for years, and now that he would be leaving he didn't want to risk Ethan finding out. It wasn't that he didn't trust Ethan, but he didn't want to jeopardize the friendship they already had, now more than ever. Caleb couldn't help his attraction, but if he could prevent Ethan from ever finding out about it... it was better that way.
Ethan wouldn't be leaving town anytime soon. He still had another year of high school to go, and he'd spend the bulk of it alone. That fact bothered Caleb more than anything else, knowing that Ethan wouldn't have his support network anymore. Ethan wasn't particularly outgoing, bravery had never been his strong suit, and making friends wasn't easy for him. Caleb's leaving would leave him entirely alone in a place where he was never fully understood or accepted. Caleb was worried about him.
A rumble of thunder drew his eyes to the western horizon. Dark clouds streamed over the mountains, and soon they would be overhead, gracing the town with a powerful summer storm. Caleb loved the rain, but as his skin took note of the air pressure change he couldn't help but see these clouds with a sense of foreboding. The weather seemed to know the way he was feeling, and gave him a storm to match the one in his thoughts.
Ethan bumped shoulders against Caleb, purposefully knocking him away. Caleb glanced back Ethan's way and saw the warm smile had taken on an impish quality. Unable to suppress a similar smile from forming on his face, Caleb shoulder-rushed Ethan back, causing him to stumble into the bushes next to the sidewalk. Ethan laughed, and the rare sound made Caleb's heart flutter. He looked away again, brushing his dark-brown hair away from his face nervously and coughing to give himself a reason to be red-faced.
He kicked at a small pebble resting on the cement, sending it careening down the sidewalk until it bounced into the road and rolled across the asphalt. A car drove by, hitting the pebble as it rolled, sending it flying even further away. It was such a small thing, but somewhere in his mind he realized he'd never kick that pebble again. Some things were irreversible.
"So . . ." Ethan said awkwardly, "you're going to college in the Fall, right?"
It wasn't really a question. They'd had this conversation several times already. Caleb had to move on with his life if he wanted to escape the small-town sinkhole threatening to swallow his future. The last thing he wanted was to get stuck here, unable to live his dreams. Unable to find love. He was the only gay boy in town as far as he knew. Of course, the town barely had several thousand people, and the number of boys he knew his age weren't many, either.
But still, he answered the question as if it was the first time. "Yeah. I can't stay here."
"Just the community college over in Rocksburg?" Ethan asked in a flat tone. It was, again, common knowledge between them, but they had to talk about something, and neither was ready to address the emotions hanging heavily between them.
Another rumble of thunder answered before Caleb could. "Yeah, but . . ." Caleb started, hating this conversation. It was time, time to stop beating around the bush. They needed to talk, they needed to... yet he couldn't do it now, no matter how much he wanted to. He settled on vagueness and avoided the issue in a cowardly way. "It's too far to drive every day, so I'm going to look for an apartment over there."
Ethan wasn't brave enough to broach the subject yet, either, and he said weakly, "I remember you telling me that."
They walked in silence. Caleb's hair raised and his skin pebbled against the sudden chill from the anticipated storm. Caleb found another pebble and kicked it hard. This one stayed on the sidewalk where Ethan kicked it again once they reached it. They batted it back and forth for several seconds until this one, too, was lost to the asphalt.
"Yet you asked," Caleb said quietly. Ethan glanced his way, and Caleb realized he'd voiced the thought he'd intended to keep silent. Then it was the moment, or at least it was if Ethan wanted to talk about it. Caleb put the conversation in Ethan's charge. "Something on your mind, Ethan?"
"Maybe," Ethan said, shrugging. The way his skinny shoulders moved in his T-shirt had the same effect on Caleb it always did. Seeing Ethan so uncertain made Caleb want to hug him, to massage the tension out of those shoulders, to kiss his cheek and tell him everything was going to be all right. He'd never been able to do any of those things, but he'd always wanted to. He wanted his lips to have the power to make that warm smile touch Ethan's eyes.
Ethan continued, looking at the ground and toeing a crack in the sidewalk. The wistfulness had returned, the impish grin had faded, and his face seemed tight, like it was straining to contain his emotions. "I don't know. It'll just be weird. Not having you around, I mean." He shrugged again then shivered against the coming storm, and Caleb almost groaned in frustration. If only he could comfort Ethan how he wanted to.
But he couldn't. They were friends, best friends even, but Ethan was from a conservative family who didn't believe in showing affection through touch. He and Caleb had never hugged, rarely even wrestled, though that was as much Caleb's doing as it was Ethan's. Caleb hadn't wanted to risk his body betraying him by getting aroused while they tousled.
With physical comfort out of the question, Caleb tried verbal comfort. "Liz isn't leaving. And it's not like I'll never be around. I plan on being back most weekends."
"Caleb, you're my best friend," Ethan said, giving Caleb a level look. There was definite pain in Ethan's eyes, though his tone was apathetic as he sighed and added, "It'll be... an adjustment."
"We can game at night, if you want," Caleb offered, trying to be enthusiastic. "We'll pick up something online to play together. Maybe a shitty MMO or something?"
Ethan didn't laugh, though the smile did come back. "Yeah," he said with no joy. "I'd like that."
Caleb tried to continue the building enthusiasm into his next sentence. "And, we have the whole summer together. We'll make it a good one."
For whatever reason, the enthusiasm didn't take, and Ethan's shoulders slumped at Caleb's declaration. He stopped walking, and Caleb stopped a few feet ahead, turning to stare at Ethan. Ethan looked up, his eyes filled with an emotion Caleb rarely saw there. Rage. "It just sucks," Ethan spat. Lightning flashed behind them, but neither of them looked toward the light as a loud crack of thunder erupted over head. Ethan met Caleb's eyes for an instant, then looked to the side, unable to maintain the gaze. His right hand crossed over his body and gripped the crook of his elbow, rubbing at the skin there with his thumb. It was a tick he had when he was trying to contain his emotions, and Caleb recognized it instantly. The urge to embrace Ethan had never been stronger than now. "I can't shake the feeling that every word you say is a goodbye," Ethan said after a moment, his eyes starting to mist over.
"Okay, Ethan . . ." Caleb said gently, reaching out involuntarily to place his hand on Ethan's shoulder. Ethan stiffened at the touch and Caleb let go, but this only seemed to intensify the pain in Ethan's eyes. Caleb felt his own eyes start to water in response. "Something is definitely getting at you, and you're holding back. Please, just tell me?"
Ethan held Caleb's gaze for a few seconds, his mouth working wordlessly. Finally, a single sound escaped his lips, "I . . ." he said, maintaining eye contact, trying to communicate something without speaking, but Caleb couldn't quite read it. A car drove past, moving fast enough to stir the air around them and make Ethan's hair flutter. The movement distracted Ethan, and he adjusted his hair with his hand, then he looked down at the sidewalk between them. "I can't. Not here."
"Come over tonight?"
"Sure," Ethan said after a minute, sniffling. "Just you and me?" he asked, looking up at last. The question sounded more like a request than an inquiry to Caleb.
"Liz will be there for a little bit," Caleb said. "She asked me to help her with a spell. She'll be gone by six, though. "
"More witchcraft, huh?" Ethan said, chuckling. The sound removed the tension from the moment, and it was almost as if they'd never strayed into the territory of the heavy conversation they'd been avoiding. "Cool. My parents would never approve."
"Well yeah," Caleb said, grinning, "you're talking about small-town conservatives who think Jesus is the answer to the weird weather patterns caused by the global warming they don't believe in."
Ethan laughed heartily at that, and Caleb breathed a sigh of relief. "How long have you been holding that one?" Ethan asked.
"Only a few days," Caleb replied. "I knew you'd complain about your parents soon. Also, the storm brought it to mind."
"Yeah. I don't know how I'm going to survive them without you."
"You're strong. You'll be fine, I promise."
"Speaking of my parents," Ethan said, pulling out his phone to check the time, then glancing nervously at the sky. "I promised I'd clean my room today, so I'll probably just head over around the time Liz is leaving so I don't intrude on the spell. If I leave now, I can probably get it done in time and avoid the storm."
"Cool," Caleb said. "I'm sure we'll be pretty much done by five-thirty, but it's possible I won't be able to answer the door if we're still at it. Just come in and head up to my room."
Ethan nodded, saying, "Sounds good." He turned and walked away, leaving Caleb standing alone on the sidewalk. He watched his friend retreat, unable to keep himself from watching Ethan move. Caleb wished he could follow him, or that Ethan would stay, but he couldn't. They were going in different directions now, and it simply couldn't be prevented.
Caleb started walking the other direction as a light sprinkling of rain began to fall. He soon found another pebble to kick.
The next few hours passed in relative boredom, though Caleb's thoughts kept him occupied. The soothing sound of the falling rain served as a meditative cadence as he thought over his conversation with Ethan. Ethan wanted to talk about something serious, and he'd be coming over to talk about it, whatever 'it' was.
Caleb could relate and was starting to realize he had little reason not to do the same, to make his secret known. He lay back on his bed, repeatedly tossing a baseball up in the air and catching it, letting his mind wander to the possibilities ahead of him. It wasn't that he didn't trust Ethan-no, he trusted Ethan more than he trusted anyone-he just didn't want to jeopardize ruining the friendship over some silly crush.
Crush. Yeah, that's what it was, just a crush. He didn't love his best friend, certainly not! No, it was just... Caleb sighed as he caught the ball and held it, rolling it through his fingers. It was love, he knew it, he knew it in the depths of his soul, and it was time to come clean about it all. If it ended up ruining his friendship with Ethan, at least they wouldn't have to see each other after the summer was over. It would hurt, but at least the truth would finally be out in the open.
A knock at the front door downstairs drew Caleb from his preoccupation, and he hopped off his bed to answer it. Glancing at the clock to see it was a quarter to five, he realized it must be Liz, stopping by for the spell she wanted to perform before going to work. Elizabeth Zagorsky was always punctual, often showing up early. The perfect attendance helped balance the scales somewhat, since she also had a habit of not doing her work. Her personal appointments were no different, and she'd said she'd arrive at five. The difference in the case of her magic was that she cared about her spell work and went to great lengths to perform her incantations with expertise and precision. In such a case, punctuality wasn't just a habit, but a requirement.
Caleb opened the door and smiled at the short girl standing on the porch, a canvas bag in one petite hand and her cell phone in the other, standing close to the door in the shelter of the porch to avoid the rain. She was muttering to herself, but the mutterings had a certain rhythm to them as if she were chanting. She didn't appear to notice the door had opened, and Caleb took a moment to study her in his amusement. If he weren't gay he'd be completely into Liz, especially since her style meshed well with his worldview.
She had long, dyed-black hair, with a single streak of red down one side and a narrow streak of purple next to that. Both of her ears were pierced multiple times, with a series of eccentrically different studs and hoops riding all the way up her lobes. She wore dark eye shadow and special designer contacts that made her eyes appear yellow and cat-like. It wasn't the specifics of her style that Caleb enjoyed, but Liz was her own person, a fact reflected in everything she wore and everything she did. They'd been friends since kindergarten, and even then, she'd never been afraid to be herself. Caleb loved her for her uniqueness and couldn't imagine life without her.
"Hey, Liz," Caleb said at last.
"Caleb," Liz said without looking up from her phone. She stepped over the threshold and into the house. Caleb closed the door after her as she added, "Glad you're here."
Caleb laughed. "Where else would I be?"
"Well," Liz said distractedly, "you could be anywhere else, and I wouldn't be glad. I need you here."
"As weird as ever, I see," Caleb said.
This got Liz to glance up at last. "You're terrible," she said before slipping her phone into her pocket. There wasn't any anger behind the statement; she meant it as a simple, undebatable fact.
And Caleb saw no reason to argue. He shrugged and said, "I try. How was the storm?"
"Wet." Liz smirked and moved toward the stairs that would take her up to Caleb's bedroom. Knowing he was right behind her, she asked, "Your parents aren't home, right?"
"Have you ever even met my parents?" Caleb asked. This earned him a hard look from Liz and he added, "Okay, so yeah, of course you have, but come on... they're never home."
"Hey, I just have to be sure," Liz said rolling her eyes. "I know they're a little more open-minded than Ethan's parents, but that doesn't mean that I want them around when I'm channeling the dark arts."
"No worries," Caleb replied. "We're clear, I promise."
Liz nodded and took the stairs two at a time. Caleb followed right behind until they entered his room and Liz kicked a pile of clothes off to the side, clearing a spot for her to sit on his floor. "All right," she said. "Let's get this started then."
After moving another pile of clothes, Caleb sat down across from the area Liz had cleared. She opened the canvas bag and pulled out a rolled-up mat, then set it on the floor directly in front of Caleb. He recognized it for what it was, her spiritual meditation mat, complete with a painted circle and a pentagram lined with Norse runes circling the edge. Liz sat down on the mat and pulled several more items from the bag while Caleb watched, always amazed by the way Liz moved when she was focused. She had a certain undeniable grace to her in everything she did, making her almost cat-like.
"What do I have to do?" Caleb asked when he felt silence had stretched on for too long.
"Mostly just remain focused," Liz said absently, pulling a small leather pouch and a quartz crystal from her bag. She set the crystal on the mat at the point of the pentagram facing Caleb, but the pouch she kept in her left hand; she looked up to meet his inquisitive eyes at last and said, "I just need a tiny bit of your energy."
"Okay. And that means?"
Liz gave him a little half-smile and said, "All right, so here's the deal. I'm trying to do a prosperity spell, sort of a 'get rich quick' type of thing. I need more than just my power to pull it off, and it's not like we're drowning in covens in this town. I'm pretty certain I'm still the only real witch around."
"What about Jackie and Tavish?" Caleb asked. He knew Liz occasionally traded spell knowledge with the two girls, who were rumored to be the only lesbian couple the town had ever seen. They were a year older than he and Liz, and he'd rarely seen them since they graduated, but he knew Liz kept in contact.
Despite this, Liz seemed more amused than anything else by the notion of working with the two girls, and she chuckled dryly, her feline eyes dancing. "It's not that they aren't sweet girls, but they're at the tail end of the post-Buffy lesbian Wicca fad. They care a lot more about sex and a lot less about magic, while I'm the opposite."
"What you're saying is you're not willing to trade a little sex for a little prosperity?" Caleb joked, smirking.
Liz rolled her eyes. "No. I'm saying they don't have much power, because they're in it for alternative reasons. You, on the other hand, just want to help me out because you're a kind friend, and that gives you power of a sort. At least your intentions are pure. I can totally use that."
"So, I'm like your substitute coven?" Caleb clarified. "Don't you want more people then? I mean, if all you need are people who are willing to help . . ."
Liz shook her head and explained, "Ethan's the only other one I'd trust, and before I could ask him he complained about having to go home and clean his room. Plus, there can be side effects, and the last thing I want to do is give magical side effects to the kid with Christian parents."
Side effects. That wasn't something Caleb wanted to hear, but he had already promised to help, and he wasn't going to back out, and certainly not from a promise he made to Liz. But he still had an urge to be extra helpful, and so he suggested, "Couldn't we do it later? Wait for Ethan, maybe? I'm sure he wouldn't care about the side effects."
But Liz was already answering as the words left Caleb's mouth. "Nope. I've got work tonight and I can't really do it after. I need this done as soon as possible."
This gave Caleb pause. "You're in trouble, aren't you?"
Liz wasn't prepared for that question, but she recovered quickly, and, to Caleb's surprise, answered honestly. "I gotta pay off my weed dealer. What can I say? If I don't, well . . ." She shrugged. "No more magic for me if I'm in a coma."
"Shit. Okay, then let's do this thing," Caleb said, clapping his hands together loudly then moving them to his knees. Even if he didn't fully approve of Liz's life choices, he didn't want to see her get hurt, either. With much greater urgency, he asked, "What do you need?"
"Just watch and wait. At the end, I'll have to kiss you. You okay with that?" Liz asked cautiously, knowing he'd be a little uncomfortable with this revelation.
But Caleb was fine with this, because he knew it didn't mean anything other than the sharing of energy. If Liz had any interest in jumping his bones, she would've told him a long time ago. Plus, she was the only one who knew about his sexuality, a point he made clear as he shrugged and said, "Sure. I mean, you're not my first choice. That'd be . . ." He thought about Ethan and his sad eyes from earlier, suddenly feeling a wave of emotion. Choking back his words, he looked away, not wanting Liz to see his eyes watering.
Liz reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently. "Yeah. I know. You poor guy," she said quietly, stroking his hand with her thumb. "Maybe someday?"
Caleb shrugged noncommittally. "Yeah. Maybe. Maybe when he gets a chance to leave. Maybe when . . ." He shrugged again, this time involuntarily. Thinking about Ethan returning his feelings was one thing. Voicing those thoughts was quite another.
Liz, ever one to try to be the unlikely voice of reason, said, "You don't even know if he's gay."
"No, I don't," Caleb said in almost a whisper, "but I want to believe he is."
"You'll meet some nice guy at college," Liz offered.
Caleb pulled his hand away. "You're not really helping."
"Sorry," Liz said, pulling back. "Let's just do the spell. Then maybe I can help you with some spell of discernment? Never thought of doing that, huh . . ."
Caleb looked up, his eyes filled with hope. "You mean, you'll be able to tell me if he is?"
"Maybe," Liz said. "I'll have to work something out."
Caleb nodded. "Okay. In that case, let's get to work."
After one more shared look of determination, Liz closed her eyes and started to chant. The language wasn't English, though Liz spoke only smatterings of a few other tongues, and those not very well. Caleb realized that this was likely the set of words she'd been reading from her phone earlier, practicing her pronunciation in her own head, and he was sure it had paid off. She didn't stumble over the words at all, and they came out sharp and clear, ringing with power.
He focused on the sound, the rhythmic quality of the language, letting it lead him into a focused trance. The patter of the rain on the roof and windows offered a natural drumbeat for the words to dance along to and it drew him even deeper into the moment. A part of him knew Liz was doing other things, though he kept his gaze locked on her concerted expression. She held the pouch in her hands, rubbing it between her fingers in time to her chant. Every so often she'd reach down and touch the large quartz crystal. Whenever she did, Caleb felt a tingle travel through him, connecting him to the energies surging through the room.
A flash of lightning brightened the room further for an instant, and as if in response the crystal began radiating a soft, white light. Caleb could sense it more than see it, knowing it was illuminating the space between them. Wherever the light touched his skin, it filled him with a gentle warmth, though it also made his skin crawl. He started to lose focus, started to get jittery, but this was when Liz's chanting reached a crescendo.
Liz leaned forward, her hand reaching for Caleb's chest. When her fingertips brushed the bit of skin above his shirt collar, he shuddered at the wave of energy that washed over him. The feeling of magic was almost orgasmic, touching his soul in places where his deepest fantasies had only been able to scratch the surface. As his mind reeled from the pleasure, Liz leaned even further, bringing her face within an inch of his, the expulsion of air from her chants tantalizing Caleb's lips with the promise of the kiss to come. As the final syllable of the chant left Liz's tongue in a shout of magical ecstasy, she closed the last bit of distance between them, bringing their lips together in a conclusion of blissful release.
A loud clap of thunder sounded over the house. Somewhere between the shout of the final word and the storm's answer the front door to the house opened and closed below them, unheard by their ears. The final waves of orgasmic energy left them as they moaned between their kisses, masking the sound of footfalls on the steps leading up to Caleb's room. They were so lost in the throes of the magic that they didn't even end the kiss when the door opened, and Ethan stood paralyzed in the doorway, his hand frozen on the knob as his eyes locked on Caleb and Liz's connected flesh.
Ethan gasped, and Caleb was certain the whole world had stopped moving in that moment, and his heart had decided to do the same out of respect. Even the sound of the storm seemed subdued, as if the weather had taken notice of this irreversible instant in time. Caleb paused, looking at Ethan in stunned silence as the last traces of his magical high faded leaving him unable to move.
Ethan was the first to find the ability to move, though his eyes remained frozen on Caleb's face. Sad, stricken eyes, eyes which bore to the depths of Caleb's soul and cut even deeper than the magic had. But there was no ecstasy here, no bliss, merely the utter despair of a broken heart.
"Hey, um... uh... sorry, for... f-for i-int-terrupt-ting... I-I'll just . . ." Ethan stuttered, and then he was gone, running down the stairs at twice the speed he'd ascended them, slamming the front door as he left the house. The sound of his mother's borrowed car started outside, his tires splashing along the wet road as he drove away before Caleb fully regained his senses.
But the sound of Ethan driving away slowly brought Caleb back to reality. Whatever high had been there before was now completely gone, faded in the crushing realization that he might have just blown his relationship with his best friend to pieces. "Ethan!" he shouted, staggering to his feet. "Shit!" He said as he keeled over, knees weak from the use of so much energy. He caught himself against his bed and caught his breath, trying to stand again.
"Caleb . . ." Liz said, shaking her head as she tried to clear her senses.
Caleb punched his mattress as hard as he could. His whole body was shaking. "Fuck!"
"Caleb, I think . . ." Liz said, rising slowly. She stumbled a step, but managed to stay standing. "I think we have our answer."
"To what?" Caleb asked, unable to grasp the importance of anything other than what had just happened. The look in Ethan's eyes stayed with him, pulled on his soul, urging him to run after him as fast as he could.
"If Ethan's gay," Liz said plainly. "I think it's pretty clear we just broke his heart."
"I need to . . ." Caleb shook his head, not in denial of her words, but denial of the crashing reality. "I need to go after him." He straightened and took a determined step toward the door. "I need to explain."
Liz caught his arm gently. "Don't you think you should give him space? Some time?" She reasoned.
"Maybe, but . . ." He was shaking his head as soon as he said the words. The pit in his stomach deepened, becoming a chasm as deep as Tartarus.
"I'm just. I'm worried . . ." Caleb said, turning his horrified expression on Liz, "his eyes . . ."
"I thought it was just me," Liz said, all feigned reason and logic fading from her face. She was just as horrified as he was. "I'll give you a ride."
Caleb and Liz sped down the streets as quickly as they could in the rain, but by the time they'd managed to leave the house and be clearheaded enough to drive, Ethan already had at least five minutes on them, and they had no idea where he was headed.
The first place they looked was Ethan's house, arriving just in time to see Ethan's mother standing on the front porch, shielding her head from the downpour and looking more upset than ever. Caleb opened the car door before the vehicle came to a full stop and hit the ground running. He sprinted to the porch and breathlessly addressed Ethan's mother. "Mrs. Pallet."
"Caleb!" she replied, her face stricken with worry. "Ethan just rushed out of here and he was terribly upset. Do you know what's wrong?"
Caleb shared a look with Liz who was standing half out of her car, her hand held over her eyes to more easily see through the storm, ready to either drive again or stay. "He just left?" Caleb asked.
"Yes," Mrs. Pallet confirmed. "Just a minute ago."
"Shit," Caleb said under his breath, looking away from her. He stepped out into the storm, running his hands through his wet hair in frustration. His panting started to become hyperventilation as his mind raced to all the possible things Ethan might do in his current state of mind.
He snapped out of his mental malaise when Mrs. Pallet grabbed his arm and scolded him. "Language, Caleb!"
Caleb didn't bother to apologize. "Mrs. Pallet, how long was he here? Can I see his room? I'm a bit . . ." He took a calming breath and said, "I'm worried about him."
This made Mrs. Pallet forget entirely about scolding him. "Why?"
"He's . . ." he started, but then felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He pulled it out and saw Ethan had just sent him a message.
As Caleb opened the message to read it, Mrs. Pallet asked with some urgency, "What's going on? Caleb?"
Each word of the text message made Caleb's heart beat faster, and he took several staggering steps toward the car as Mrs. Pallet watched in a mixture of confusion and worry.
I'm sorry. It's too much. I can't live like this anymore. I love you. Please don't try and stop me.
"Liz," Caleb said, handing the phone to her as he reached the car. "We need to go. Now!"
Liz read the message quickly. "Oh, my god!" She cried, then slipped behind the steering wheel again.
Caleb paused briefly to look back at the porch. "Mrs. Pallet, call 911 and have them meet us at the park, behind the utility shed."
"Why? What's going on?"
"Ethan's going to kill himself," Caleb said firmly. "I suggest you get there, too, as soon as you're done calling."
Mrs. Pallet asked another question, but Caleb didn't hear it as he'd already shut the door. Liz pulled out of the driveway, and Caleb was happy to see that Mrs. Pallet had left the porch, hopefully to call 911 as he'd told her to. As soon as they could no longer see the house, Caleb's focus shifted fully to the matter at hand, entirely forgetting Ethan's mother.
"You really think he's going to ki . . ." Liz started, then amended her intended sentence. She knew, just as Caleb did, that Ethan was definitely capable of killing himself, especially considering the emotions she'd seen in his eyes. Instead she asked, "You think he's there?"
"Where else?" Caleb asked. "No, I know he's there. No thinking. He'd want to be somewhere that means something to him, and . . ."
"And no other place means more to him than our spot," Liz reasoned.
The three of them had always been outcasts, though not the kind who get picked on every day. Bullies were common enough, but they usually targeted others. Caleb had a reputation for having once studied martial arts, everyone knew Liz was a witch, and Ethan had always been under their protection, despite being the kid with the strict Christian parents. They were never picked on, but also never included, except with each other.
And they'd been together since seventh grade when Ethan moved into town, met Caleb in class, then sat with Liz and Caleb at lunch. They became inseparable, drawn together more by their shared outcast status than anything else, generating a common desire to be apart from everyone.
That was how they'd found the spot behind the utility shed at the park, a place where a several trees and shrubs had been planted to shield access and visibility from the street, but surrounding a small space in the shade of those same trees. It was the perfect spot for three people who wanted to pretend the rest of the world didn't exist. They'd all loved it, but Ethan loved it best. He always had.
Liz pulled in the nearby lot, and once again Caleb was out the door before the car had stopped, racing across the soaked grass. Deciding it would take too long to find a parking spot, Liz left the car in the middle of the lane and turned on her emergency flashers before sprinting after Caleb.
Caleb vaulted over the shrubs, not bothering to circle around to the break, landing heavily next to Ethan and immediately started to analyze the situation. Ethan's back was up against a tree, his arms limp at his sides in the swiftly dampening grass. Blood flowed steadily from the deep furrows Ethan had carved into his forearms. A familiar, long, bloody knife lay discarded in the grass; it was the knife Caleb had given Ethan as a present a couple of years earlier. Ethan already appeared to be delirious, his head lolling from side to side against the tree, and didn't even realize Caleb had arrived.
"Ethan!" Caleb shouted as he knelt next to his best friend. His jeans were immediately soaked from a mixture of rain and blood, a fate his hands soon shared as he reached for Ethan's arms to check the extent of the wounds.
"Caleb, don't . . ." Ethan mumbled, "It's too late."
The rain let up for a moment then, and a bit of sunlight trickled through the clouds. It fueled Caleb's hope and he sprang into action. "No! We can stop the bleeding!" Caleb shouted. He lifted his T-shirt over his head and tore it off as quickly as he could, his bloody fingers painting the flesh of his stomach, chest, and shoulder blades in the process. Once the shirt was in his hands, he took Ethan's knife and cut a slit in the fabric, then ripped a long train of cloth from the shirt. He repeated the process as Liz came around the corner, parting through the break in the shrubs. "Fuck! Liz, apply pressure on that wrist, I'll take this one."
Caleb wrapped the torn cloth around Ethan's wrist, then clamped down hard with his hands, trying to get as much pressure as he could on the wound. It seemed impossible to cover the entire length of the wound with his hands, so he shifted upward in the grass, straddling Ethan's arm with his legs, keeping Ethan's forearm pinned between his shins.
After Liz was done wrapping Ethan's other arm, she discovered the same problem on her side, but instead of clamping the wound with her legs, she placed her forearm against Ethan's and leaned into it, applying her body weight against the wound. Ethan groaned at the sudden pressure, but then his delirium made him forget about it as he turned to Caleb, eyes opening very slightly as he said, "Caleb... I love you."
Caleb met those eyes, noticed for the first time the tears which stained Ethan's cheeks. "I love you, too," he said urgently. "I love you, Ethan."
Ethan shook his head in denial. "No, Liz . . ." he coughed. "You love Liz . . ."
"It was just part of the spell, dammit!" Caleb shouted. He could hear sirens in the distance and uttered a prayer to the aether that the emergency responders would make it in time. Following instinct, he sealed the prayer with a pleading kiss against Ethan's lips, begging Ethan to hold on until the paramedics arrived. "Dammit, Ethan! I've always loved you!"
"You, you love me?" Ethan asked, seeming lucid for but a moment before drifting off again.
Caleb kissed him again, more urgently this time. "Yes, Yes, dammit," he said, crying now. "Always have, always will. Don't you dare die on me!"
"I... I took . . ." Ethan said deliriously. He looked down at his arms, and laughed hysterically. "I'm d-dying . . ."
"Just hold on," Liz urged as the sirens grew closer. There was shouting in the parking lot. "The paramedics are coming."
"It's too... too much," Ethan said, laughing harder. Caleb stoked Ethan's cheek, hoping it would keep him awake, and realized just how cold and clammy Ethan's skin was. "I... I took... my mother . . ." and then Ethan drifted off completely, his head slumping to the side as he faded from consciousness.
"Ethan," Caleb said, patting Ethan's face gently. He kissed Ethan again but there was no reaction. "Ethan!"
The mirror taunted Caleb with his shirtless body, seeming to accent the stains of red on his skin. He knew he should clean them off, but he didn't have the motivation. It was Ethan's blood, his life force, and washing it off would make it seem like he was washing away the memory of what had happened. Tragic as it was, he wasn't prepared for that. The rain had let up as they'd waited for the paramedics to arrive at the park, and nature itself seemed to want him to bear the signs of the tragedy, at least for the time being.
An old man entered the hospital restroom and gave him a strange look. A small part of Caleb wanted to laugh, knowing he must look like a total mess, but he couldn't even manage a smile, nor even a twitch. He glanced down at his lower half, the part the mirror didn't reflect. His jeans were stained red, completely covered in the drying blood of his best friend. He realized he didn't need the blood on his skin to remind him of what had happened. There was plenty of evidence to go around.
He took a small handful of paper towels and began scrubbing away at his skin, removing the dry, crusty blood. It came away easily in the warm water, and he was soon done, ready to go back out to the waiting room and face everyone else. With one last look at his reflection, staring at eyes that were in danger of slipping into utter apathy, he finally walked back out of the restroom.
Liz was waiting for him, just finishing a phone call when he stepped up to greet her. She gave him a pain-filled glance, looking down at his pants and then back up to his face. Without saying anything, she stepped up and wrapped him in a hug. It was the first time he'd touched someone since Ethan, and the contact felt distant, even though there was only the thin layer of Liz's blouse between them. Blood coated her blouse, too, and the dry yet sticky cloth felt familiar.
When they pulled apart, Caleb could tell Liz wanted to talk, but he didn't want to talk about Ethan. Not yet. Not until there was word about Ethan's condition. "Hey, um... how's your... how's work?" He asked awkwardly.
"They told me not to worry about it," Liz said. "It's not... not like I'd be worried about that, anyway."
"Yeah . . ." Caleb said, walking around her and looking at the people in the waiting room. Most of them were foreign to him, since they were in the ER at Rocksburg General, almost thirty miles away from home, but one of them was incredibly familiar. Mrs. Pallet paced near the window, every so often glancing out into the evening sky. Caleb knew she didn't notice the sky, or the window, or even that she was in a hospital waiting room. She was elsewhere, in an operating room down the hall, waiting for the revelation that everything was going to be okay.
"How's Ethan's mom?" Caleb asked, despite his revelation. "She... I don't know what to say to her."
"We spoke, briefly. She wanted to know what had happened, so I gave her the details. I tried to keep it less... graphic," Liz replied. "How are you?"
Caleb shook his head and walked away, but Liz followed right after him. "I don't want to talk about it yet. I just want him to recover. That's it, okay?"
"Yeah, I understand," Liz said. "I'm not very good with silence... you know me."
Caleb nodded. "Yeah, I get it, maybe we could-" he turned as he saw Ethan's doctor coming their way. "Mrs. Pallet!" Caleb said, catching Ethan's mother's attention. She looked confused at first, then recognized Caleb and nodded before starting toward where the doctor waited for them.
To Caleb's surprise, Mrs. Pallet took his hand in hers and squeezed it for support. Mr. Pallet hadn't made it yet, Caleb realized, and he was the closest thing to family she had here. He squeezed her hand back and nodded resolutely, then turned to face the doctor.
"How is he, can we see him?" Mrs. Pallet asked.
"We did absolutely everything we could, ma'am. He... he didn't make it," the doctor said quietly. The words rang hollowly on Caleb's ears, and he was certain he'd misheard the statement. It wasn't until the doctor kept speaking that Caleb started to realize the doctor was being serious. "Your son died a few moments ago. He started seizing in the ambulance, and we didn't know why. We tried to rush the blood test to see if he'd taken anything, but we couldn't do it quick enough. He died before we had the answer."
Neither Mrs. Pallet or Caleb heard most of the words, and they shared a look of complete denial. She spoke first. "My son is dead? You're telling me my son is dead?"
Caleb was getting angrier by the moment, wondering why the doctor would confuse two different patients at a time like this. Ethan couldn't have died, not now. Fate couldn't be that cruel. "What?" He asked, shaking his head. He let go of Mrs. Pallet's hand and took a step toward the doctor. "No, we're talking about Ethan Pallet. How is Ethan? Can we see him?"
"Son, I'm sorry," the doctor continued patiently, "your friend-"
"No!" Caleb shouted, his hands clenching into fists. "That's not possible. We made it in time! We stopped the bleeding-"
"Ethan!" Mrs. Pallet wailed, collapsing to the floor. Liz tried to catch her but failed, and ended up awkwardly groping at her shoulders. Mrs. Pallet didn't notice, and continued to cry, tears of anger and despair streaming down her cheeks. "No! No, this can't be happening! No!"
Caleb looked from her and back to the doctor, his face contorted in fury. He wanted to punch the lying bastard in the face as hard as he could, to drive the truth out of him with his fist until he learned where Ethan was so he could go to him. "It's not true. It's not!" He shouted. He took another step forward, but Liz caught his wrist and held him fast.
"Caleb, stop," she said. He turned to her, to see her red eyes and running eyeshadow. He saw the blood on her blouse, the blood on her pants, the terror on her face. He wanted to deny it all, he wanted to fight, but his control was slipping.
"Liz, tell this doctor-" he tried in one last ditch effort to fight back reality.
"Caleb . . ." Liz pleaded. "He's gone. He's gone . . ." And then she collapsed into him and pulled him down with her. He fell to his knees as her arms wrapped around him, but he wasn't able to hug her back, not yet.
"No, Liz," he said, his arms hanging limp as his fists slowly came open. "No! I can't... I can't, not when I just... not now!"
"Ethan!" Mrs. Pallet wailed, "I need to see my son, I need to see my son!"
"I'm sorry," the doctor said, reaching out to place a consoling hand on her shoulder. "We'll let you see him shortly. Hopefully we'll have some answers for you."
"Answers?" Caleb heard Liz ask.
"I don't think the blood loss killed him, but I'm not sure yet. I think he took something," the doctor explained.
But Caleb no longer listened to the doctor. Reality had finally found its home within his soul, and one by one his senses were failing him. He wrapped his arms around Liz as sight faded, and he latched onto the fleeting images of the boy he loved. The last sense to fail him was touch, as the ghost of their first and last kisses danced across his lips like a haunting memory. "Ethan . . ." he mumbled, caressing the memory of him with his tongue one last time, "my sweet Ethan . . ."
Voices sounded from below Caleb. His parents were talking about him, talking about what to do with him, most likely. He'd barely left his room in the last five days, and he saw little reason to do so anytime in the future. He saw no reason to get dressed, no reason to eat, no reason to sleep. Some of those happened anyway, but not usually until his natural instincts forced him to.
The front door opened and a new voice joined the chorus beneath him. Liz spoke more loudly than his parents had, and he could hear her clearly. "Where's Caleb? How is he not ready?"
Listening more intently now, Caleb managed to make out his mother's words in response. "He hasn't moved yet. I don't know what to do."
"Well, he's not going to miss today. I don't care if he speaks or not, but he's definitely coming," Liz said forcefully. "Can I go up there?"
"You might not like what you see," Caleb's father said.
Liz was already on the stairs at that point, but she stopped to call back, "It seems that's been happening a lot recently."
Caleb's parents didn't say anything else to her, and so Liz continued her ascent. For a brief moment, Caleb considered putting some clothes on before Liz entered his room, but he just didn't have the energy. He just didn't care. If she saw him naked, it just meant he wasn't hiding anything from her.
Liz didn't bother knocking, entering the room forcefully like a powerful gust of wind blowing the door open. She paused when she saw him lying atop his covers, naked, staring at the ceiling. Caleb glanced at her briefly, seeing the mess of emotions in her brown eyes. Brown eyes. She'd taken her contacts out, and was wearing all black, though the black eyeshadow was missing. Liz wasn't wearing any makeup at all.
"You look like you're going to a funeral," Caleb observed before returning his gaze to the ceiling.
The door closed softly behind Liz and she took several steps forward. She hesitated, then changed her route to go to Caleb's desk, rescuing his desk chair from a pile of laundry. It was likely one of the same piles they'd moved out of the way before performing Liz's prosperity spell, though Caleb wasn't certain.
Liz placed the chair next to Caleb's bed and sat down. Her black skirt, the first skirt Caleb had ever seen her wear, was pushed back slightly as she seated herself, revealing some of her thighs. If the situation were different, and if Caleb was attracted to women, he might've found the sudden revelation of flesh tantalizing. Apathy only allowed him to recognize the potential for such things, however, and he found he had no ability to comment.
"You look like you're going swimming," Liz replied, "And you haven't found your swimming suit yet." She forced a smile and added, "Speaking of suits, shouldn't you be wearing one? Possibly something in black."
"So you can go to the funeral, obviously," Liz said. "We owe it to Ethan."
"Are you fucking kidding me?" Caleb said, bolting upright so fast it caught Liz by surprise. She rocked backward in the chair and it almost toppled over, but she barely managed to catch herself. "We owe Ethan a funeral!? We owe him another fucking chance at life! We owe him our love, our loyalty... we owe him the fucking truth, and when did we ever give it to him? We could've stopped this."
Liz stood slowly, her face contorting further with rage at each word. Her eyes flashed with lightning, her body trembled like storm clouds rumbling with thunder. And then she reached back with her hand and slapped Caleb as hard as he could, sending him flying back against the bed. He clutched at his cheek, staring at her with surprise as his newfound anger paused to consider this new stimulus.
He growled angrily, wanting to challenge her further and he started forward again only to be slammed backward by some unseen force. Liz raised her hand and the force intensified, pressing him back against his headboard and holding him there with telekinetic energy.
"Listen, you little prick," she roared. "You want to blame me? Fine. You want to blame yourself? Fine. But it's not your fault, and it's not mine, either. At the end, Ethan chose to kill himself instead of asking us what was going on. A simple question from him would've cleared the whole damn thing up, so you think a little truth could've solved this? So could a little patience, a little trust, a little . . ." The force holding Caleb still faltered and then faded entirely and Liz collapsed back into the chair, sobbing. "You think I don't... I don't feel bad about our hand in this? You think I... you think I want to move on, to forget my guilt? Our guilt? I don't know if we could've stopped it, I don't know anything. Fuck, Caleb... it might've been inevitable. It might've been preventable. Either way, it happened, and we have to go to the funeral, we have to . . ."
Caleb pulled his legs up into his chest and hugged them close to his body. He wasn't ready to cry, even seeing Liz that way, though she did pull on his emotions in ways he hadn't allowed himself to do yet. While he couldn't yet cry, he was scared. The future had some measure of certainty before, even if it hadn't been much. Now, it seemed like there'd never be certainty again, never a sure path to follow, because before there'd always been the hope Ethan would be there waiting for him. He'd never felt so alone, and yet, for some reason, all he wanted was to be alone.
"Funerals are for the living," he said quietly, not sure he believed it, though he believed his next statement with all his heart. "I'm not alive anymore, so what does it matter?"
Liz came out of her sobs at the innocent tone of that tragic question. She stared at Caleb until he stared back at her, their gazes locking and maintaining for the first time since Ethan's death. They communicated volumes through their eyes; all the emotion, the pain, the loss... it all came through, and they knew the other was feeling just as awful.
And, ever one to bring clarity to an obscure situation, Liz spoke first, a quiet, pleading answer to Caleb's question. "It matters because you love Ethan, and we need to say goodbye, Caleb. It matters because Ethan loved his family, and they need our support. It matters because... because you're alive, even if you can't feel it right now."
"Why . . ." Caleb started, but he couldn't think of a new question to ask. He was sick of fighting with Liz, his one remaining friend, no matter how he felt. "Okay, I'll get ready."
"Shower too, please," Liz said.
Caleb sniffed, and realized he smelled a bit like a swamp. He looked at Liz and smirked. "I guess I do need one."
Liz sighed and said, "I don't want to give you the wrong idea, but do you need any help? I don't really want to come back in here later and have to wrestle you into a suit if staying would mean I didn't have to."
"No... I'll be fine." Caleb replied. "Liz... I don't think it'll ever get better, but... thank you."
Liz choked back a sob, then, breathing deeply, she said, "I don't know if it will or not, to be honest. They say it does... but what do they know? All I know is that I love you, Caleb. I never had any siblings, but with you around I never needed them. I hope you feel the same way."
"Yeah . . ." Caleb said, forcing a smile, the first smile to cross his face since Ethan's death. "I guess it's nice to have a sister to slap you when you're being stupid."
"Or a brother to show you when you're trying to move on too quickly," Liz replied. She rose to her feet and walked to the door, pausing with her hand resting on the knob. "I'll be downstairs, but there's one more thing."
"Ethan loved you, too. Don't forget."