That week seemed to be made of something fragile. I was worried when I'd leave that Bruno would be gone when I got home, but each time he was waiting for me. The cat and mouse game with Codey continued, and it was getting ridiculous. I really wished he'd just go away. My headphones were dying, and I was in no position to ask about a new set, so I was paying close attention to my bank account and checking online to see who had good experiences with local vets. Bruno would need one at some point, maybe already did – I had no idea, considering how he'd been treated.
Wednesday the girl from the previous week with the list showed up at my counter. I didn't recognize her until she she asked me what sort of music I liked, glancing at her list and then back up at me.
Don't ask me why, because I don't know, but I engaged her. “Why do you want to know?”
“I think music is a real indicator of who a person is,” she said with a trace of smugness.
“Oh yeah? Well, I like most music. I just turn it on and let the randomness take me.”
She looked momentarily confused. I wiped the counter and looked past her to a woman who'd just gotten in line. “May I help you?”
There was some confusion as the girl got out of the way and the woman placed her order. I spent a minute putting the lady's order together, wondering why this girl was taking a second stab at asking me questions. If I remembered right she wasn't interested in me, but with recent events crowding my brain I had no real memory of the specifics of her questions. Darrion had dealt with her, and he wasn't there tonight.
I handed the lady her drink, and little miss reporter moved right back to the front of the counter.
“So...who are you again?” I asked.
She raised an eyebrow. “You haven't done your own research?”
“I lack motivation,” I deadpanned.
The corners of her mouth turned up. “I'm Lina, the nosy cousin. I take casual comments and follow them to...their inevitable conclusion.”
I chuckled. “So...your cousin made some offhand comment that may have been about me, and you're here to, what, make sure I fit into your family tree?”
She tilted her head from side to side. “This town is weird. In some ways it's very equitable,” she said, and I raised an eyebrow. “It is,” she insisted. “The school had that football player that got beat up a long time ago, and the district changed everything to avoid lawsuits. So now the district is really supportive of so many different kinds of kids – I mean, like it should be. But.”
I waited a moment then prompted her despite myself. “But?”
“Well. People are still douches. There are problems everywhere, but some people won't call things out, because they don't want to get people upset or something. It's the whole political thing.”
I stared at her.
“It's like, if you like something or someone, you're not supposed to criticize it. Like, I love my family, even though my dad's intrusive and my mom really needs a deep breath, and that's not even starting on my siblings – but I still love them. You know?”
I nodded. “Sure. I think, when it comes to family, most people feel like they can criticize, but not outsiders.”
“Yeah. I get that, but if you shift it to the population of our town – like there are plenty of things I like about our town, plenty of people. But there are plenty of attitudes and ideas that just won't die – like the way people make things up; how if you let someone go to the bathroom that they identify with, that you'll have to provide kitty litter boxes for furries.” She paused. “I mean, I don't think I've met a furry, but I think if I were one I wouldn't want to crap in a kitty litter box. I mean...seems kind of personal. And gross.”
Just to fuck with her I asked, “So you have something against furries?”
She lifted her chin up. “So besides music,” she said, and glanced down at her list. “You run for the school, but what about your free time? Movies? TV? Gamer? Secretly help maintain Wikipedia?”
I chuckled and shook my head. “I think if your cousin wants to know more, he should have the balls to ask me himself.”
“He's not chicken, like I said before – he's just unreasonable.”
I started cleaning the counters to get ready to close – the coffee counter closed earlier than the convenience side of the store. We made up two thermos containers for people who stopped really late, and the store staff could refill those, but custom coffee ended earlier. Not enough traffic.
“What do you mean by unreasonable?”
“It's all in his head. I told my boyfriend I just don't see it.”
“See what?” I asked in amusement.
“I need a man that's taller than me. You're what, five five?”
I straightened my back and looked at her. “Five seven.”
“And the fact you sound all pissy means it's an issue.”
“It's just stupid. It's like saying I don't date people with blond hair,” I said, pointing at her obviously blond hair. “Because it's meaningless. Someone wants someone taller, if they think that's a thing, then fine – they don't ask me out, and I won't care.”
“But you do care!”
“No,” I said with a chuckle, “I won't. Look, there will be guys who are into me, and there are guys I'm not into.”
“Like what?” she asked eagerly.
I laughed out loud, the first time in a couple of days. “Nah, honey. He wants to know, he can just come ask.”
She tilted her head. “Spunky. Napoleon complex?”
“Not everything is about height,” I said with a chuckle.
She grinned. “Maybe not. Okay, I guess I'll see you at some point!”
“Uh huh.” I cleaned up, took the garbage out and tossed Corey's latest note from my windshield into the backseat.
Monday was a particularly frustrating day. I got up, got cleaned up, and got Bruno his breakfast, and he did his thing outside. He was catching on pretty quickly, and I was relieved about that. Even though I'd been told not to have him in the house, he was with me in my room when I was home, and on the enclosed back porch when I was gone. What worried me was winter was coming, and I wasn't going to settle for the back porch – no matter what my family’s faults, we weren't like that asshole that had moved out and was going to kill Bruno.
So I got to school and was in the library for my second block doing research for my first essay of the year when I noticed a group across the room from me that would have changed my trajectory at school, had I been a joiner type. Sterling Bennett was seated with Sean Kirkwood, Philip Ashmore, Jake Thayer, Derek Pellegrini – who I'd run with for a while – Dylan Whalen, Grayson Anderson and Nate Kennedy.
Talk about joiners.
Nate was a big enough deal I'd heard major league scouts were sniffing around him; he was the local baseball god. But there were guys playing football or soccer, runners, and members of the GSA and whatever other sportsball teams there were. I think my mom would have liked that; she'd have called it well rounded. I'd just never been comfortable with the whole large-group joining thing. I did idly wonder how I might be different if I were part of their orbit rather than on my own.
They'd probably be fine to hang with. They'd probably welcome me and let me do my own thing. Participate where I want and back off if I don't. The question was, did I really want that? You want people to push you a little, right? But then I'd never reacted that well to people that pushed me, and who knew how they'd react, really? Maybe they wouldn't like me. Probably. Might want me to join things.
They might have been nice to have just for some gay friends, I guess. Couldn't be much worse than Marc and Kendra. I've heard gays can be really bitchy, though. Maybe they would have judged me for Marc or Victor. I'm still not sure how I feel about Victor. I liked the sex, but I also...maybe Victor had a point about there being more. Ian seemed to think so, now. Was it a maturity thing? Hard to think of Ian as mature.
I was kind of surprised when Derek sat down beside me. “Noah, is your RUN app working? Mine's fucked up, and Phil's phone is dead.”
“Let me look,” I said after a moment's confusion. The RUN app was a generic thing developed by the school's STEM club that allowed scheduling and communication for the cross country team. There was a version for each sport; ours was called RUN. I pulled it up and slid the phone over to him.
“Phil says we have a meet tomorrow, but I was sure it was Thursday, and I have to fix my work schedule,” he explained. Looking up he smiled. “We're restoring a Victorian – my family, I mean – and I have to work around that, too.”
“Sounds like a ton of work,” I replied.
“Yeah, it is. I've always wanted to live in one, though, so it's something I enjoy. Oh yeah, here's the schedule,” he said, looking at my screen. “He's right – tomorrow. I thought he might be screwing with me, and the app stopped working on my phone. Thanks, Noah,” he said, handing me my phone.
“Yup, no problem.” He rejoined his group, and I sat back, wondering what may have been. That was stopped suddenly by what was. It started as some noise in the hall, some music and some laughter. I turned, as did many others, when the sound grew louder at the library door. The librarian put her hand on her hips, but made no move to stop the three boys holding a large piece of folded cardboard with glitter writing on it. In front of them was Codey, grinning and approaching me.
Oh, no. Please, God, no.
They unfolded the sign, and it read what I'd feared – HoCo?
“Noah,” Corey began, and I was suddenly both white-hot angry and really tired.
“No,” I snapped, standing quickly. “I'm not sure where you get off. You have asked, and I've said no. I've told you repeatedly, no. You keep coming back like some middle school moron who thinks no means yes and you just have to keep asking until I magically change my mind.”
“Noah,” Corey said, suddenly seeming to sense he may have gone too far.
“No!” I said, my pitch going higher. “No, I don't want to date someone who disrespects me every time I turn around by not listening to me. I don't want big public confessions at parties or in libraries. Asking someone out isn't a reason for a stage or fucking glitter. I'm not interested. I said no to dating like thirty times, and now you want to embarrass me in front of everyone and ask me to homecoming? No. Stop doing this to me – no!”
“Noah, calm down!” he hissed.
“Calm down? Did you just...fuck you! Leave me the hell alone, Corey!”
“Fuck, Noah! I came out for you!” he said, sounding a bit miserable.
“And good for you,” I said. “It's scary. It sucks we have to do that, but it also doesn't mean you pick someone off the boyfriend shelf as your prize. I'm not your prize. Stop being a fucking pest and leave me alone!” I grabbed up my stuff and made a pretty undignified exit from the library, but I really didn't care. I was just so...fucking tired of it all. Who ever came up with the idea of bugging someone into liking you? Did that ever actually work? Maybe it got you a pity date, but maybe it got you stood up, too. I don't know. I was right, right? To say no? I tried to do the right thing.
Why do I feel like crap, then?
I took a stroll out the back door and into the parking lot. I debated just leaving school, but I had practice that afternoon, and I had a reasonable idea Corey'd finally gotten the message. I took a deep breath and was surprised to see my own exhalation. The temperature was dropping, which meant I'd have to talk about bringing Bruno inside full time soon. He had blankets and stuff for now, but....
I turned, knowing it wasn't Corey but all set to have to deal with him. My mind was so screwed up. As my brain had thought, not Corey – Derek. Weird. “Yeah?” I asked and rubbed my face.
“You okay, dude? That was kind of...dramatic.”
I frowned. “Well, I'm not sure how many times-”
He held his hands up. “Whoa! I mean, a lot of drama for someone who usually doesn't have much! Don't kill me!”
I crossed my arms across my chest. “He's been asking me out for a month, and no matter how many times I say no, he ignores me. He acts like it's some game. He shows up where I work, he leaves notes on my windshield – it's fucking stalking, not sexy.”
“Yeah. Sort of got that. Listen...I owe you an apology. He was trying to find out where you were to do this, and I confirmed you were in the library – but I didn't know about the whole history. I thought it was just a regular HoCo invite. I'm really sorry for bringing him right to you.”
I sighed. “If it wasn't there, it would have been somewhere else. Maybe the lunch room.”
He leaned against my car. “I've never heard of someone chasing someone so hard. I mean, I have a friend that carried the torch for a while, but that's not really the same thing.”
I glanced at him, kind of glad to take my mind off Corey. “What happened?”
“Long story, but they have one of those relationships that seems like it was inevitable, now.”
Inevitable. It shouldn't, maybe, but it almost sounds comforting.
“Anyway. Sorry for my part. See you at the meet tomorrow,” he said and headed back inside.
Well. That was different. The bell rang and I headed back inside, ready to face the rest of my day. At least I was until I got home after a short practice that was little more than a meeting to get some papers signed for some kind of a fundraiser or something. I walked to the back of the house to let Bruno out, but he wasn't on the back porch. I started calling for him, getting more worried by the second. I went inside and dropped my stuff, calling out just in case he was inside. No one was home – and that was odd. Sometimes my dad was late, but my mom worked from home, and my sister made noise wherever she was, so you'd know if she was home.
I went to the back porch. The door was locked from the inside, just as I'd left it this morning. There weren't any scratches or anything broken to look like Bruno'd freaked out and tried to go through the wall or something. I didn't find anything out of place in the house, which told me that Bruno had left with someone. My mother's car was missing.
I looked up local animal shelters first and called to see if a woman matching my mother's description had brought in a small dog, but they were all closed. What if she'd dropped him at a shelter? What if he spent the whole night scared and thinking I'd forgotten about him? If my mother thought we'd had problems before....
I tried to stay calm. When I heard a car in the driveway, I didn't run to see who it was. When I heard his little claws skittering through the front room I knelt down and may have had something in my eye when the little hairball jumped up and down, bouncing in front of me.
“Well, he does pretty well in the car,” my mother said, entering the room.
“Did he?” I asked, trying to get a handle on my nerves.
“Noah? Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yeah, are you all right?” my sister mimicked.
“Crappy day is all.” I looked back to Bruno, still capering. “And where did you go, huh? Did you have a car ride?”
“I spoke with Jeanette Stallings, who you probably don't know,” my mother said as she pulled some things from the fridge. “She raises show dogs. I asked her for a vet recommendation, and she said that Dr. Crag over at the one off Bountiful Boulevard was the best, but it took a week to get in to see him.”
I stood and stared at her. “You...took Bruno to the vet?”
“Yes, and the doctor was excellent – answered all my questions and brought Bruno up to date on his shots and gave him a clean bill of health,” she said, putting stuff to warm in the oven and starting some vegetables on the stove.
She turned and looked at me for what felt like a full minute. “You and I...we're different people, Noah. I was raised that if your children are busy, they aren't in trouble – and I believe that. I stand by it. My kids have had hobbies and have been in clubs to interact with other people, to make friends and to explore interests. My children have never been brought home at two in the morning by the police. Now,” she waved a hand, “that obviously is no guarantee, and a parent can only do so much.”
“I hate joining. I'm not comfortable with it,” I said.
She nodded. “I know. I thought maybe you'd grow out of that shyness, but maybe it's just who you are. You never know with people, because you can't look inside their heads. You do the best you can. As far as Bruno goes...yes, Dad and I made a choice a long time ago not to bring any pets into the house. We had reasons – good reasons. Reasons I'd stand by today if the subject came up. But,” she said, looking down at Bruno, who was sitting on my foot looking up at me. “He wasn't a choice, like visiting a breeder for a puppy.” She looked up at me. “You made a choice to help him – we all tried, but no one helped him more than you did. Then you...stood up for him. Gave a voice to someone who had none.”
I shifted slightly, unsure what to say.
She blinked and wiped at her eyes. “So I think that if we all chose to help him, then it's time to follow through. He's your dog. He'll need exercise every day and-”
I hugged her. Tension I was holding at the thought of what might have happened, how little I'd trusted her to do the right thing – and why? I had admitted to myself she wasn't a villain, but why? Was I just being stupidly dramatic? We stood in the kitchen for a moment, not speaking, just hugging. It was good.
“So. He was good in the car?” I asked, looking around for him, but he was gone.
“Yes. He did very well. We should go to the store and get a proper leash and collar for him – they used this simple cord with a slip-knot on it at the vet.”
Our conversation ended abruptly with my sister's scream. “Bruno! No! My Barbie!”
I hunched my way through Tuesday. It felt like people's eyes were on me after yesterday, and there were at least a few comments and more than one call of 'Leave me alone – I said no' in the hallways. I honestly don't know why people think it's so cute when someone gets turned down but keeps coming back at the person until they wear them down. I've seen it in videos, movies – I even found a few of those dumb videos where someone says the day one, two crap like Corey was. If someone says no, why do people not respect that?
I did feel a little guilty that Corey'd been motivated to come out for me, but really, wasn't it supposed to be about him? He could live as he chose now; it didn’t mean that whoever he wanted would just fall in line. Nice idea – maybe if it came with a clue about who you really wanted. Seriously – Corey knew nothing about me. We'd never said more than three words before he started all this shit.
After school I boarded the bus for our away meet. I sat down by myself and popped my headphones in, and they picked that very moment to finally die.
“Argh!” I groaned, smacking my head against the seat back.
“Problem?” Derek asked from across the aisle.
“Damn headphones died,” I said with a sigh. “I should have bought a new pair but...oh well. Guess I will now.”
The folding doors closed, and the bus lurched forward to the edge of the parking lot. I was looking out the window when I felt the weight of someone sitting down next to me. I'd have been happy if Derek were going to share his headphones because he was sorry – even though he really shouldn't be – about yesterday and his tiny role in it, but it was the tall blond guy whose name had failed to come back to me.
“Um. Want to listen?” he asked, holding out a headphone.
“God, yes,” I said turning toward him and accepting the headphone. “Thank you.”
“I'm kind of obsessing over Stranger Things right now, and I'm having a Kate Bush moment so...hope you don't mind,” he said.
“I like music,” I replied with a smile I hoped was reassuring. He tapped his screen, and we spent the ride out listening to stuff I wasn't all that familiar with, but that was all right. If I had my normal rotation of stuff I'd have maybe one song by this artist and not really get deep into their work, but this was kind of cool, because I got to hear stuff I might never otherwise. Like, who listens to a whole album? You don't. You listen to whatever tracks they drop, but usually not more than a few. But this was old enough that they made like ten songs or so to release all at once.
“This is cool,” I said.
He grinned. “Running Up That Hill is what suckered me in, but I like how she plays with her voice. It's like another instrument.”
I opened my eyes a bit. “Yeah. I never thought of it that way, but you're right.”
Perhaps forty minutes later we arrived and filed off the bus. After stretches and a pep talk, we were all set to running the course. I spent most of it thinking about the music, thinking about how a line from a song could be turned into a single image, of what I could draw. I was thinking about how Mr. Tall and Blond had made me think of the voice as a new instrument as opposed to just....a voice. I thought about the music, most of which was new to me, trying to grab individual lines and thinking of comic panels – like I could draw someone literally 'running up that hill', and it would have to be a tall blond guy, because he'd introduced me to the idea.
My mind was bubbling with ideas, which was fun all by itself but also frustrating, because I'd forget at least half of them before I got home to my tablet. By the time the meet was over I was sweating and tired, but also a little cold. Some of the runners were steaming in the cool evening as we piled back onto the buses. Man, sense of smell was definitely intact.
“How'd you finish?” Tall and Blond asked me, dropping into the seat beside me.
“Um, you know, I don't know?”
He smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Really? You ran all that way and don't know where you finished?”
“Eh.” I paused and looked at him. “I'm not a joiner. My parents make me join a sport or club, so I picked two that let me be mostly by myself – to run.”
His face dropped a bit. “Oh. Should I sit somewhere else?”
“Oh, no! No, all good,” I said quickly, smiling. “So how long have you been listening to Kate Bush?”
His cheeks reddened, and he shifted on his seat. He started to talk about his mom having been a fan when she was a kid and how she'd gotten all excited when Running Up That Hill had become popular again, but as he did I realized he hadn't put his jacket or windpants on after running like I had. I got cold fairly quickly after running in this weather, but he must be one of those people whose body heat keeps going, because he still had on the thin tank top and the tiny running shorts favored by some of the team. Although a fair amount of them wore compression shorts beneath them – which seemed kind of to defeat the purpose – but not this guy.
His neck, the curve of his collar bone, the shape of his nose all seemed familiar, but like before it was tantalizingly just out of reach.
“Hey, weird question, but...do I know you?” I asked.
He blushed a little more and smiled. “Well, you did tell my aunt I was her grandson.”
I paused, thinking. “I did? When?”
He chuckled. “We were in your store, and she was being weird about a receipt for gas. I came in looking for her, because my cousin was having a baby shower and we were late – not like I was in a hurry, but my mom was blowing up my phone.” He paused and smiled. “Anyway, you were behind the counter.”
My jaw dropped a bit. “That was you? Oh man, I remember her! She was sure someone had taken her gas receipt, and that was her personal information!”
He laughed. “Yeah, that's her. She's a little weird normally, but you add in a little stress, and it's like she disconnects from reality.”
I chuckled and looked over at him. “Well, that's not it, though. I keep thinking I know you, but then...my mind just has this blank space.”
He looked away just a bit, licking his lips. “Walker Kay. We've been on Cross Country and Track together for a few years.”
I frowned a little. “Really? I can be a little oblivious, I guess, but I don't remember seeing you.”
“Yeah. Uh, this past summer I grew five inches and put on about fifty pounds. Little glow up,” he said, smiling and chuckling nervously.
“You grew five inches?” I asked, my jaw dropping. “So you were my height before?”
“Nope,” he said with a shake of his head. “I'm six two now, so I had you by...three inches already?”
I paused and tried to do some math, then stopped completely. “Wait. How do you know how tall I am?”
The bus jerked to a stop in our parking lot, and the air brakes let out their squealing hiss.
“Pretty sure your height isn't a national secret, although you could be five eight by now,” he said, standing and looping his bag over his shoulder.
“Yeah, depends on which convenience store I'm leaving,” I said, standing and looking at him with curiosity.
He grinned and looked down for a moment before meeting my gaze. “I'm not a chicken.”
I looked at him for a second. “Wait. Was that your cousin that was asking me questions?”
He held a hand up. “I totally did not ask her to do that.”
The line started moving, and I slipped in behind him as we made our way between the seats. “So wait, was she...I mean...?”
He descended the two large steps, and I followed him out onto the pavement He turned, dropping his bag and pulling his coat and windpants out. “My cousin is a little bit of a pain,” he said as he pulled the pants up and then shook out the jacket. “She's nosy and means well, but she also gets into other people's business like it's her job – and I think one day she hopes someone will actually pay her for being a nosy ass.”
My cheeks got very warm. “Um. I'm not sure what to say,” I replied and then chuckled a little. “This is kind of cool, though.”
He smiled widely as he zipped up his jacket. “Yeah. You are.”
I studied his face for a moment, smiling. “That was bold. You're kind of cool too, though.”
He glanced away and then back. “My ride is here. I'll DM you?”
I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Do that.”
“Going to regret it,” he said with a grin, and then he was crossing the lot with those long strides. I watched him climb into a car and leave the lot before heading towards my own car. I was filled with a weird energy, and I wanted to talk to someone about it – but who? Marc or Kendra? Didn't think so. I suppose I could text Victor, except what was I going to say?
“Hey, Noah. You okay?”
I turned to see Derek just a few cars away with a little smile on his face.
“Yeah. Uh.” I tossed my bag in the car and took a few steps toward him. “Do you, uh, know Walker Kay?”
Derek looked toward the exiting line of cars and back. “The tall, blond kid?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling my cheeks get warm again.
“No, not really. I mean, I know who he is – he grew a lot over the summer, huh? He was kind of tall before, but now he's basketball tall. I think Logan was thinking about trying to get him to play basketball,” Derek said.
“Oh?” I replied stupidly. I suddenly wondered exactly what I was supposed to say to Derek. I think Walker has a crush on me? I might like Walker?
“Looks like you guys hit it off. Better than Corey did, anyway,” he said.
I grunted and nodded slowly. “Yeah. Maybe so. Night,” I said and climbed into my car, not hearing Derek's reply. I was more concerned with the thoughts I'd had and not said – did Walker have a crush on me? Did I – could I – have one on him? I didn't know him, how could I? I knew so little of him that I didn't even know his damn name until today or...or...anything else! It was possible, though, he had a crush on me. His cousin trying to find things out about me probably meant he'd brought me up at some point. Right?
I liked that idea.
I jumped as someone tapped on my window. I rolled it down, looking at Derek with confusion.
He grinned. “Um, car okay? You're kind of just sitting there, and I didn't want to leave if you were broken down or something.”
“My...car?” I glanced around, glancing at the mirrors and saw the parking lot was nearly empty. I turned the key. The engine started, and I glanced back at Derek. “Uh, yeah. Just thinking, I guess. Um, night.”
“Night,” he said with a laugh and a smile.
Once home I got cleaned up and ate some leftovers before checking to see what I'd need to turn in at school tomorrow. Bruno growled and pulled at the end of a chew toy my dad had gotten him while I was glancing though my assignments. Later I lay in bed and scrolled through the school Instagram until I found one with Walker – and yeah, he did look familiar. Last year he'd been kind of a twig, I guess, but he'd filled out. I followed the link to his own account and went through his pictures, grinning at some and staring at others. Then my finger slipped.
I mean, it didn't, because I was used to liking images that interested me, but I hadn't meant to tip my hand like that. Almost as if he'd been waiting he DMed me, asking why I liked that picture. Like that specific one. I said something about the light, but then we started talking and it was...easy. We talked music, and I got out of bed and started to sketch on my tablet the idea I'd had before of the runner going up the hill, blond, with long legs, while we talked and talked.