I felt like a zombie the next day. I wasn't up early enough to steal some coffee from mom's pot, so I had to ask Teo to swing through a drive-thu. I sipped the hot, sugary liquid and mentally urged it to do its thing.
“Did you pull an all-nighter again?” Alessia asked me, looking concerned.
“Global test,” I replied.
She frowned harder. “You destroy in global.”
I sighed and sipped my coffee.
I had decided on a long-sleeved tee that morning. There was a small bruise where the belt had landed on my arm the night before. I bruise easily, I guess. I saw Monique and Talia at the front of the room, but I just ducked my head and took out my global notes. When Monique did come to my desk I apologized, but told her I was cramming for a test and couldn't talk.
Of course, I wasn't studying. I was looking over the odd thing I couldn't recall as I ran through a mental list of questions, but now that I was confronted with Monique I realized she was interested in me. Although I'd readily told Braxton my sexuality, it was only because it had come up; it wasn't common knowledge. I kept to myself quite a bit at school because my mother made things weird. Want me to come to your birthday party? Beware that my mother may show up to watch me, to be sure I don't sneak off to a closet and get some girl pregnant.
I asked who my father was a few times, but my mother would just get angry. She'd rant in a way that didn't make sense to me. 'He made his choices and pays to ease his guilt,' was one of her favorite lines. My mother was paranoid that I was going to leave some other girl high and dry like my father apparently did to her. It didn't help that she was later diagnosed with agoraphobia and was essentially a prisoner in the house, which also meant I could no longer attend uncomfortable birthday parties with her hovering. I suppose that means I could run away – but to where and to what? I'd tried being rebellious and staying away from home to avoid her wrath, but that only increased how angry and unhinged she could be. Teo's dad had gone over to talk to her a few times because she'd bruised me up enough for Alessia and Teo to notice.
Of all people, theirs was the only home I could more or less freely go to. The Petrakises' house was a refuge of sorts – somewhere I could be a little closer to an average kid versus being under my mother's thumb. From homeroom I went to Mr. Rockland's class, and he gave me that same, sing-songy greeting with a little grin to match.
“Morning, Mr. Rockland,” I said and yawned.
“Oh ho! Someone was up late! Were you reading? Something besides those dreary chestnuts you do reports about, hmm?” he asked.
I stopped. “I thought my reports were good.”
“Of course they are,” he agreed. “But don't you think it's time to grow beyond A Tale of Two Cities and other assorted mail-order classics?”
People were filtering in and I closed the distance, standing beside his podium. “My mom....”
“Mmmhmm.” He nodded. “How angry would she be if I were to assign you a book?”
“Uh. I don't know for sure. I mean...I've never had to take it home for before. I mean an assigned book.”
He gave me a pensive look. “I value my books. I expect it back, but if it gets...savaged...It's a paperback, so don't sweat it too much.” He handed me a worn paperback book titled The Thief of Always.
I licked my lips and glanced at him. “When is my paper due for this?”
His eyes glittered, perhaps that I was interested in the book. “I'll give you two – no three – weeks.” He smiled. “Make it a good one, Mr. Chambers.”
I was barely able to restrain myself from reading the book immediately. Even so, it was probably better that I didn't. I was overtired and wouldn't have retained much. Second period I finally got that global test put to bed, but I was sweating the answers as my head swam from truncated sleep. Alessia was making faces at me which was irritating, but also helping to keep me awake.
After the class I approached Mrs. Vasquez, screwing up my courage to ask once more for something she'd not been pleased to deal with the first time.
She gave me a little smile. “Hi, Drew. What's going on?”
I sighed. “I know the answer, but I have to ask again. Is there any way I can get a heads up about when tests will be scheduled?”
She shook her head. “We're covered this – and your mother has pushed. But each class works at its own speed, so some classes don't even take the test on the same day. I have to be flexible for my students and I can't lock myself into a schedule for one student.”
I deflated. “I understand. It's just that my mom...I understand.” I let out a small sigh.
“Drew,” she said with some concern. “I feel like I have to ask – why is this such an issue?”
I coughed lightly. “My mom wants me to be able to study the night before, so she wants me to make sure my work schedule doesn't interfere with my studying.”
“That's admirable, but you're very intelligent. You could do this class with your eyes closed,” she said with a smile that was meant to reassure me.
“It's not about me being smart,” I said quietly. “It's not about me being dumb. It's about my mom forcing me to quit my job if she imagines it's interfering.”
Realization of my situation, maybe even more than what I was just saying, flashed across her face.
“Well, I can try to let you know approximately when we have a major test.” She paused. “Is everything all right at home, Drew?”
I nodded. “I've got it under control.”
She looked at me with concern, and I had to look away. “If you're sure.”
“I'm sure. Thanks, Mrs. Vasquez.” I got out of there, sped by my embarrassment.
At lunch plans were being finalized for a movie that night, and Brax leaned over to speak in my ear.
“So...what kind of movie should I pick?”
I smiled tiredly at him. “No way, Brax. Everyone will judge you by your movie choice, and I can't wait to see what you decide.”
He grinned. “Bruh. You suck.” He chuckled and I nodded in agreement. After school I met Alessia and Teo at his car. They brought me by Flubberbuster Burger to get my check – and cash it right there. My mother took my check and claimed it was going into the bank. She said I'd only blow the money anyway. The only cash I got was when they divided up the tips at the end of the week.
“I wonder what kind of movie Brax will pick,” Alessia mused.
“Something sappy to appeal to his girlfriend,” Teo said firmly.
“I bet it's something with explosions and guns,” she countered. Turning in her seat she asked, “What do you think, Drew?”
I considered for a moment. Brax wanted to make a good impression every time. I'm not sure that was just with Alessia, and I don't know if he's nice to me only because of his girlfriend, but my gut said he was a decent sort. “I think he's going to pick a sentimental favorite,” I told her.
“See? A cry movie,” Teo said in a satisfied tone.
“I don't mean that,” I said. “I mean a favorite movie of his. Something that means something to him.”
Alessia looked at me for a moment. “Are you falling for Brax? I'll fight you both if I have to.” She comically looked between Teo and myself.
I chuckled. “He's nice looking, but very straight. No crush, here.”
“Me either. Too sporty.”
“Says the captain of the soccer team,” his sister said skeptically.
“That's different,” he retorted. “In my sport we're not supposed to try and tackle the other guy. Those morons are getting brain damage every time they act like they're rams or something – seriously. Have you seen them bash heads together when they get excited? Better get kids out of him before he gets his nuts punctured or something,” he said seriously.
Alessia dropped her chin to her chest. “Really? You're gross.”
“You're gross,” Teo mimicked.
“Drew, help me out. He's talking about my boyfriends balls being crushed. Gross?” she asked me.
“I don't want to talk about Brax's balls,” I said with a snort.
She looked back at Teo. “You're gross.”
Once I was home, my mother took my pay and the pay stub to be sure I wasn't keeping anything for myself. I said nothing as she took my money, even though irritation flickered in my chest like a dying flame. I went to my room and thought about reading my new book. I went so far as to take it out, but started to yawn. Glancing at the clock I decided I'd just rest my eyes for a minute. I usually woke up more tired than before if I napped, so that was out. Tucking my book under my pillow I decided on just a quick....
“Drew.” The voice was soft, and fingertips brushed across my forehead. I stirred and felt as if my mind were slowly surfacing through an oily slick. I opened my eyes to find Teo looking down at me, and then smiling gently. “You really need to quit these all-nighters, Drew.”
“Teo?” I sat up slowly and an enormous yawn stretched my mouth to its limit. “What time...?”
“Seven-thirty. Did you eat? Come have a plate before Brax gets there. Don't want to miss the movie, do you?”
“Blech.” I made a smacking sound and pushed myself out of bed. “Let me just use the bathroom. Try to wake up,” I mumbled.
“You always did suck at taking naps, Drew,” Teo said and snickered.
“Ugh. Shut up.”
I stumbled to the bathroom, feeling like my limbs were made of lead. I pulled off my shirt and splashed my face with water before grabbing the bar of soap. Once my face was clean, I felt a little more awake. I went back to my room and tossed the shirt in my hamper before digging out a replacement. I ran my fingers through my hair and turned to look at Teo, who was sitting on my bed.
“What did your dad make for dinner?” I asked.
“Meatloaf ala Petrakis.”
I frowned. “What does that mean?”
“That only Mr. Petrakis knows what's in the meatloaf,” he said with a snicker.
“Ugh. Okay, let's go.” He threw a companionable arm around my shoulders and squeezed me for a second, forcing another little yawn out of me. Then we were off down the stairs and cutting from my back yard to his back door. Entering through the kitchen I was greeted by the sounds and smells of their home. My home was sterile compared to theirs. The scent of cooked food lingered in the air. The TV was playing in the front room. The house was warm, inviting you to relax.
The longest there had been a scent in my house was when my mother put fish in the microwave.
“There he is!” Mr. Petrakis said with a smile, grinning at me. “How are you, Andrew?”
“I'm good, Mr. Petrakis. How are you?”
“Well, I'll tell you,” he said, resting his butt against the counter and leaning toward me. “My wife went to a wine and paint class. It's costing me fifty dollars for her to drink cheap wine and try to paint a man naked. I told her, we can do that here for a lot less! Am I right?” He reached out and punched my arm lightly as he laughed.
“Dad! You're gross!” Alessia said, emerging from the direction of the front room. She was dressed in the kind of revealing shorts girls seem to wear and guys don't. Her tee shirt was snug, but not scandalously so. Her hair was done up behind her head in a messy bun. She smiled at me. “We saved you a plate.”
“Petrakis Meatloaf Surprise!”
“Guess what? The meatloaf has no meat,” Alessia told me as she grabbed a plate from the microwave.
“Surprise!” Mr. Petrakis said, clapping his hands together.
I picked out a fork from the silverware drawer and sat down as Alessia put the plate before me. Then they all hovered around me, staring. I looked back at them.
“You guys are creeping me out.”
“I want to know what you think!” Mr. Petrakis said.
“I want to know if you like it,” Alessia said.
“Tell me if it tastes like meat to you,” Teo said, dropping into a seat beside me and pulling his phone out. He held it up with the camera lens facing me. “Reaction shot as Drew eats the no-meat meatloaf!”
“Really?” I said, rolling my eyes and laughing at him a little. I forked a piece and popped it in my mouth. It tasted like meatloaf. Maybe it had a little zing to it regular meatloaf didn't have, but that could just be a spice.
“So?” they all said, staggering it as if it were an echo rather than three people. I then did something I could never do in my home. I opened my mouth and showed Teo the ground up food in my mouth.
“Dude!” he groaned while also laughing and trying to hold his phone still.
“Ugh, gross! You think that’s funny? Boys are gross!” Alessia exclaimed. “Jesus, where's my boyfriend? I need to keep him away from you guys!”
I grinned and swallowed before looking at Mr. Petrakis. “It's very good. Thank you for sharing with me.”
He smiled and mussed my hair before going back to whatever he'd been doing. I ate two helpings, just finishing when Brax arrived. He was soundly greeted, and when he saw me eating meatloaf he laughed.
“Drew, you work at a burger joint. Don't you get enough hamburger?”
“Oh! Someone needs to try the Petrakis Meatloaf Surprise!”
“Dad! Brax doesn't need meatloaf!”
“Yes he does!” Teo chimed in.
“Just a little piece!” Mr. Petrakis insisted.
Brax sat down beside me with a bemused expression and a slight blush. “Good cooking?”
I grinned at him. “It's a surprise.”
“Bruh, you going to do me like that?” he asked, chuckling. He ate the slice before him in good grace and approved. They all told him it wasn't actually meat and he was pleasantly surprised and approving.
We moved to the living room and Alessia pulled Brax into an overlarge chair with her, where they cuddled.
“Oh, you think you got the market cornered on cuddles? C'mere, Drew,” Teo said and yanked me down onto the love seat with him.
“Urk!” I grunted as I flopped down on the cushion, Teo's arm around my neck. I tapped his arm. “This isn't cuddling, it's strangling.”
He laughed and let me go. As it happens Brax actually brought a DVD with him. I mean, no shit. Do they make those anymore?
“So, it's a football movie,” Brax said.
“I'm still in the running,” Teo said, leaning forward eagerly. “Go on.”
“What? In the running for what?”
“We tried to guess what kind of movie you'd pick,” I told him. “Go on.”
“Bruh,” he said, shaking his head. Obviously he now realized why I wouldn't advise him. “What did y'all pick, huh?” He glanced around the room.
“Guns, explosions. Wait,” Alessia said, growing excited. “Does the football stadium explode?”
“No!” Brax replied, laughing. He looked at Teo. “How about you?”
“Feelings flick because you're watching with your girl.”
“Damn right, she's my girl,” Brax said and swaggered for a second before laughing. “Some feelings., Yeah, a few feelings. Not a chick flick, though. How about you, my sneaky bruh?”
I grinned crookedly. “I said you'd pick out a movie that was personally important or meaningful to you.”
He stared at me for a second. His gaze flickered toward the kitchen, then he lowered his voice and pointed at me with the corner of the movie case. “Fuck you, bruh. Get out of my head.”
“Seriously? A football movie is personally meaningful to you? Gross!” Alessia complained and then stood to hug him. “You will cuddle me throughout this farce, right?”
“Damn right,” he said with a grin.
So we watched 'Remember the Titans'. Well, they watched. What I saw of it was really good, but before I knew it I was waking up and my head was bouncing. Bouncing off a soft surface. Like shaking, not bouncing like a basketball. I blinked and looked around. Oh. I fell asleep and somehow ended up using Teo as a pillow. And he was chuckling. Apparently I was amusing him.
“Drew, dude, no more all-night study sessions! You get good grades!” Teo teased.
“Sorry,” I mumbled and brushed the back of my hand across my mouth. “I was enjoying that movie, too.” I stretched and fell over a bit, and Teo pulled me down and rubbed my hair. “You still need a nap, little boy? Can you walk or should I carry you to your room?”
“Jerk,” I said and snorted. Sitting up I slowly gained my feet, but wobbled a little.
“That picture is gold,” Alessia said with a giggle. I raised an eyebrow at her and she turned her phone toward me. It showed me asleep on Teo's chest, nestled into the thick sweatshirt he was wearing. He'd used a filter that put a dog's nose, tongue and ears on my face and captioned it 'puppies are so cute when they sleep. Aww!'
I looked at Teo and he cracked up.
“You're an asshole,” I told him, smiling as I stretched and they all continued to laugh at me.
“So everyone is coming tomorrow, right?” Brax asked, looking at Teo and me while he held Alessia in a loose, one-handed grip.
“Yeah. I'll get Drew in the morning,” Alessia said.
“Wait, what?” I asked.
“My game is tomorrow. You're supposed to come cheer me on, bro,” Brax said to me.
“We'll get him there,” Teo assured Brax.
He was right. For whatever reason, my mother never fought anything in terms of my going anywhere with Alessia or Teo. It was bizarre. I really wasn't allowed anywhere else, not even school events – unless I was going with Alessia or Teo. I never asked her why, just in case it made her rethink that. Alessia walked with Brax, kind of glued to his side as she walked him out. I headed for the back door, and Teo joined me on the back porch.
“Hey, Drew,” he said, pulling on the hem of my shirt. I turned to face him.
He reached down and took my hand, which sent a wave of confusion through me, before pushing my shirtsleeve back a little to reveal my bruise.
“You shifted a little when you got comfortable.” He stared at my face. “Is everything okay?”
I pulled my arm back. I didn't jerk it back, just reclaimed it. “It wasn't anything.”
“I'm okay,” I told him.
He put his hands on my shoulders and I looked up at him. “Drew...you know I'm here for you. Right?”
“I know,” I said, my voice dropping.
His eyes tracked back and forth, and I wasn't sure what on my face was so interesting. His right hand slipped up from my shoulder to my neck, then his fingertips were just behind my jaw. It was a surreal moment. As I looked at him looking at me, I had the sense that he was on a ledge. He was teetering between one decision and another, but I wasn't sure what the choices were. Then I had the stupidest idea.
Was he thinking of kissing me?
He leaned back and looked in my eyes. “I'm here for you. Are you sure you're okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice a whisper.
His thumb stroked my cheek and he nodded slowly. “See you in the morning, then.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, though even I could hear how dazed I sounded. He gave me a tight smile, and turned to go back inside. I wandered across the lawn to my own home, barely registering kicking off my shoes and climbing the stairs to my room. I tossed my shirt aside and slipped my jeans off. I peeled my socks off and climbed on top of my blankets. I lay on my back and looked up at my ceiling as my mind swirled.
What the hell? Teo had never done that before. Had he actually been thinking of kissing me? Alessia had never done that. She'd pecked me on the cheek once or twice after I'd done or said something she'd found sweet, but that was it. I had a long history with them to draw on, too. There was a pond across the road from our houses – the very one they used to justify the Lily Pond Estates name. Four winters ago it had been so cold the pond had frozen and Alessia and I were daring each other to walk on it, to go farther out from the shore. It was a kids’ game of dare, and we didn't have any real fear of the ice breaking.
But it did break. Teo had grabbed me by the hair and pulled me out of the cold water. I have spent countless days and nights at their home. Alessia and I baked together for class bake sales, we played video games together – and Teo would join us. He was also big into card games, board games and sports games. Anything that could at any point be termed a game, he liked. Pokemon, Magic, DnD, soccer, baseball – Teo liked it.
In all that time, he'd never kissed me. He'd hugged me on rare occasions, messed my hair up more times than I could count, but never kissed me. Why had I felt like he'd been on the verge of changing that? Was it too many romantic scenes from books or movies? Was I just growing desperate and seeing something that wasn't there?
And me? I'd never kissed anyone. Did I want that to be Teo? Did I have a thing for him, now? Is this all my subconscious at work, telling me that he's good looking and gay and I could do worse? Did this mean...but Teo dates older guys. Warmth flooded through me as I thought about Teo, and the possibility of his interest in me. What about me? Did I return that interest? I rolled that over in my head. We had a few guys at school who were pretty good looking. I'd fantasized about more than one, and I wasn’t ashamed to admit that. I'd even thought about Teo once in a while, but I'd always thought of him as being as distant as other pretty guys like Cole Thomas.
Had all that just changed? I lay awake all night dreaming that I had been awake and wondering what would have happened if he'd kissed me, or if I really had been awake – and still dreaming about what if.