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The forest behind Missa High School is the most isolated place in Wayne. Even in the summer when all the teen freaks are having their good fun, the woods are left clean. Decent. Empty. Boring. The redwoods stand wearily, and glare down at me as if my footsteps are waking them up. Go away, they tell me. Walk anywhere but here, Damian, because we’re sleeping.
The trees don’t create. They aren’t useful. They’re stupid. They spend all their time doing just enough to survive. How will they ever help anyone? All they want to do is sit in place, in the background. Wasting air.
The sun is only beginning to scale the peaches and cream colored horizon as the trail ends and the upbeat colors of hallway four’s rear come into view. I sidle out of the forest and smoothly move into position, resting against the bright blue of Missa, arms and legs crossed, looking cool. Thinking cool.
Al should be here in something like two minutes and fifteen seconds, at seven fifty four. On nights that he goes to Rayella Marnam’s, we agreed we’d meet outside H4 to exchange the exciting basics until third period, where Mr. Drock didn’t care if you passed notes.
Visits to Rayella’s aren’t really a regular thing. Back in middle school, things had been pretty serious between them. Until, of course, during the graduation dance when she brought him behind the band room stairs and unbuttoned her blouse for him. He kind of sprinted like a super dorky roadrunner prude to the gym, grabbed my arm, and took me to the men’s room where he forced me to wait with him until the party ended. Yeah, that kind of slowed things down for them.
They started seeing each other less and less, and it progressed into this dismal routine where only on really sh--ty days will Al call her and walk over for some “stress relief”. Sometimes he’ll come home in the early morning, but usually he’ll hang around town until school.
One minute left. I check my watch again; it’s new and hasn’t quite dulled from rubbing against my stiff leather belt or raw rubbed backpack straps. I can see my reflection clearly in it. The pointy chin, the dark circles, the grayish tan skin, the unruly curls of hair, the overbite. The indignant expression, the totally uncool prescription glasses. The side of my lip that sticks up when I scowl. I rub the watch on my belt and check again.
Okay. So this isn’t cool. The b--tard ditched. I mean, he’s pretty particular when it comes to things like timeslots, usually. But it’s not like I care or anything. If he wants to be late for school and leave his best friend hanging, that’s his deal. Whatever. I don’t care. Nope.
Ding, Ding, Dong, Dong. That’s the warning bell, and also the indication for me to kick his a-s when he does show up.
I scuffle the side of the school, turning my back on the lonely trail; there’s no sign of the tall blondie huffing around the corner and yelling apologies. Some leaves fly into the air from under my heels, as if the trees are sighing in relief. Finally, time slip into the background again.
The halls are orange and blue. The seniors (and the rest of the juniors…and some sophmores…and maybe a few freshmen) saunter above me, the red blood cells of our student body. The principal stands by the fork to hallway 1 and quietly watches the pumping blood flow that is MHS like a king.
I dip my back and try to make myself as obscure as I can. Without vertically blessed and fairly built Alden Lawliet bending over to chat with me, it makes me feel a little naked, as if a guy could sock me in the face at any second and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. I close my eyes and follow the same as usual path to period one. He better be in there.
I open my eyes to see the door to the biology lab swinging closed from the first few going in; three girls I’d never dare even breathing next to, holding their mocha cappuccinos and adjusting their Juicy sweats. No Al.
This is weird. Wrong. Kind of really not good.
Al couldn’t be gone. Al wouldn’t run away. Not without taking me with him.
It was something like four months ago. Summer, right before the school year started. I spent most of my time coding and recoding some crappy RPGs while Al was out training for swim team. On weekends and late afternoons we would meet and drink a couple Faygos. I think we may be the only people in all of Wayne, California (or possibly the United States) into Faygo, but they always had it in stock at the CVS downtown. We would talk about normal things. Shallow, friend things. It was the same as ever year.
Then for three days in mid August, Al disappeared. Mom tried calling the Lawliets, but the line would cut each time, after the first ring. Al’s phone always went to voicemail. We were just about ready to confront his parents in person when he appeared dirty and misty eyed at our front door in the twilight.
He asked to stay for a few days, said that things had gotten rough at his house. He wouldn’t be clear about anything that might’ve occurred. “I dunno what’d happen if I go back,” he admitted. “Maybe I’d go crazy. Or I’d leave town, or something. I just have to get away for a little.”
I took him upstairs by the arm and gave him a fresh towel for a shower. I replied, trying to sound comforting, but ending up a little roguish. “You’re not going anywhere again like that. Not without me, at least.”
We both paused. Then, he doubled over from laughter. “Oh my prince!” His hand flew to his forehead, palm up. “I’ll never leave your handsome side for a second! Let’s run away together and live happily ever after!!”
He got a shoe in the face for that.
We moved the extra air mattress from bro’s room to mine and gave Al his new home. He has stayed around for the few weeks since then, sometimes with Rayella, or maybe other friends, but mostly with us.
You might call us brothers if you just met us, or never really talked to us. Calling us that would be total
bulls--t, though. We’re closer than brothers. We get each other enough to be able to tell each other “Dave’s having a party, want to go?” or “Tacos for lunch today!” using hand gestures and crappy morse code. We’re best friends.
So sitting in first period without my lab partner is killing me. It feels like half my brain is missing. I am half of Damian Reed. I need to know he didn’t leave for good.
School went by about sixty times slower without Al. I have a plan, though. When the final bell chimes at about-f--king-time o’clock, I’m already leaning against the wall beside the library door, looking straight ahead in order to seem normal, and, of course, cool. I wait until a certain someone appears from down the right fork of hallway 1 and files into the library, and follow as nonchalantly as possible. I pull the headphones off my ears and take in the stuffy site. It smells like mothballs in here.
Okay, so school libraries are sometimes like nit-picky dungeons with dorks shining their torture weapons or something. You know, in the movies, when everyone is wearing thick glasses and shushes at the same time when so much as a pin drops.
That’s all total BS.
Our library is the place. Open before and after school. Computers to mess with. Tables to chat across and stick gum under. Shelves to lean on. Textbooks to finish last minute homework with. The bookshelves are colorful and distant, as if they’re only a Monet painting placed daintily behind the tables.
Rayella is just sitting down near the far side of the room with her girlfriends. Her skirt has a tiny tear in it at her waist so her purple panties are just visible under the boring green. Her shirt is white and starchy and buttoned to just above her cleavage. Her curls are the type of black that gleams bluish in the sunlight, but falls around her cheeks like Medusa’s snakes, and they bounce in my face whenever she talks to me.
I’ve hated Rayella since I can remember. I’ll just have to tough it out.
I walk with purpose for the first time today to the empty table behind Marnam, chuck my backpack onto the carpet, and swing into the seat. I put on my usual cool I-don’t-give-a-s--t face smile and tap her shoulder. “ ’Scuse me, Ray Ray!!”
“Don’t call me that!” Her friends giggle and eye me as she twists towards me like a gummy worm with pursed lips and pink cheeks. Her coils of hair hiss at me.
“Whatever you say, Ellie Belly. I have a bone to pick with you. Metaphorically, of course.”
Her lackies continue to giggle as she grips the edge of her chair and leans closer to me. “Damian, I swear to god if you don’t shut your trap or go away, I will personally make sure you never get the chance to ‘pick a bone’ with any girl in this school, metaphorically or otherwise.”
“Ooooh, buuurn. As if I need your help with my relationships. Which conveniently segues to the reason I’m ruining my own day by staying in a room with you for more than two seconds.” I shrug my shoulders and lean against the desk behind me. “How’s Al?”
“I’m not talking to you about him.”
“C’mon, man, this is pretty serious. Please prove to me that you can take off your bi--h-mask for, like, thirty seconds.”
“Go away, Damian.”
“God, you’re stubborn. Listen Rayella. I don’t know what the hell Al did yesterday, or what freaky alien voodoo you performed on him that may lead to the zombie apocalypse or something, but long story short, he’s been missing today and you were the last to see him.”
“Damian…let it go. I doubt he’s gone for good.” She turns back to continue chatting.
I get up, turn, and kneel in front of Rayella while leaning against her desk. Her friends shriek with laughter. No is not an acceptable answer. “Doubt is not good enough for me! Al doesn’t just do stuff like this, Ray. You know something. Tell me, and I’ll leave you alone.”
Her cheeks burn a furious crimson. “Dame, he’s a person, okay? Sometimes he needs to have some time to himself. That’s just how people are. You saw him less than twenty-four hours ago, so he’s not missing or anything.”
I feel myself choking up through my frustration. I grab my bag and stand up, digging my nails into the palms of my fists. “You’re even stupider than you look. I don’t care if he’s ‘missing’ not. I need to know what might have happened last night, and I need to help him, or who knows what he’ll do! Help him, Ray, please!!”
I didn’t realize my voice had gotten louder until I notice a table of lacrosse players snickering at my melodrama. I collect myself and wait for an answer, glaring back at the meatheads.
To my somewhat surprise, Rayella stands up and leads me to the empty table. She speaks in a hushed voice so her giddy gossipy girlies won’t hear the precious loot she’s in on.
“Okay, listen Damian, you have to promise to not freak out over what I say, and swear you will never tell Al I told you this.”
“Whatever, whatever, just spill the bones already!”
“The phrase is ‘spill the beans’, dumb--s. I don’t know why Al bothers with a numbnuts like you as a friend, but fine. He got to my place at, like, I don’t know, seven? We did the same thing we usually did—”
“What the f--k does that mean? Do you, like, have a Scrabble tournament or something?”
“Ugh, idiot, so we were making out a little, and it was getting, like, serious. And then he, like, freaks out and starts bawling, it was so bizarre.”
“Geez. I didn’t think something like that could set the guy off.”
“Well, he was just sobbing, and I was sitting there kind of disturbed, and he gets up and collects his stuff! He says to me ‘Sorry Rayella, I don’t think I can do this kind of this anymore.’ And he leaves. A--hole.”
I sit back and squeeze my eyes shut again. None of this is making any sense. I mean, who starts to cry while making it to third base? That’s a total low. I’ll have to remember to make fun of him about that. But on the other side of things, the whole “I can’t do this anymore” thing is unnerving in the cheesiest way possible. Who says stuff like that? That vague type of thing can only mean two thing: Al’s become the living embodiment of a soap opera, or he’s turned into a murderer from a sh--ty horror movie.
Either way, I’m getting a little scared.
“So, why was this so hard for you to inform me about?”
“Well….listen, Damian. I know how you feel about Al. I know how you two act. I just don’t want you to do anything rash. I mean, I’m worried about him too, but he’s almost an adult, okay? And you are, too, so stop acting like a little kid who lost their mommy in the mall.”
“Well.” I hesitate in order to think of a cool, aloof retort, but give up and instead stand to leave. “Fine then. My first instinct when my friend goes missing isn’t to sit on my a-s like you, but I guess that’s just me. And I’m not acting like a child. I’m just…I don’t know. Last time this happened, he promised me he would never run away again.”
I turn around and call over my shoulder “Well, later.” This isn’t exactly the type of clue I was looking for. Not like this is a Sherlock Holmes mystery, or even close. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s easy. Al’s gone, and there was nothing I should or can do. I have to wait.
Our house always smells like stew and laundry. It’s kind of an organic thing; nobody sprays perfume or uses an air freshener or actually puts their dirty socks in a hamper. The dim lights make it always feel like nighttime and the dark walls would give any claustrophobe a heart attack.
I think it’s the coziest place in the world.
The main corridor stretches through the building and opens to the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and various closets with embarrassing toys and baby pictures stuffed inside. The staircase runs parallel to the corridor and starts facing the front door, so it’s easy for me to get to my room without anyone noticing. Not that anyone cares.
My mom’s name is Anne Elyse, and she kind of gave up on being a strict, iron fisted alpha-female ever since she found condoms in the jeans I lent my bro a year and a half ago. She knows we’re getting older, so her flower shop became her baby boy and we began to care for ourselves. Still, somehow, every night, my sheets are straight and folded on the foot of my bed as if I’m six, and dinner’s sizzling on the table. I know she misses us.
My bro is a bit different than her. His name is Martin, but if word got out about that he’d find a way to get each of the blabbers to experience social adversity to the highest degree. All I’ve ever seen him called is “dude,” “bro,” or “maaaan.” His hair is ironically swooped to the side and his shades eulogize the seventies fashion no one cares about anymore. He doesn’t talk much.
At least three times a week, my bro will bring a girl home. No one says anything, but we’re listening for the tipsy girlish giggles to ring through the screen door. He’ll then set her in, tell her to get “comfortable,” and peak into my room. He’ll tell me “Little dude, turn the music off,” or “Little dude, mute your Xbox.”
After that, I’ll plug my ears. Or call Al and get the hell out of the house.
Today, I hardly get through the front entrance in one piece. I bump my way up the stairs feverishly. My head is ducked and my back is arched and my eyes are squeezed shut and my fists burrowed in my jacket and it’s all I can to do not cry. And I can’t cry in front of anyone, anyone, especially my bro. It’s like, if I let my nerves get the better of me, it means I’ve lost everything, I’ll be so totally uncool, and I can’t accept that option, ever. I’ll take a few side bruises and some mild scoliosis any day.
Maybe I am acting like a little kid. But I’m too frustrated to give a s--t.
I throw my weight against my room door to open it and hurl my bag onto the neatly folded sheets of my bed, wrinkling the sickly ironed perfection. I don’t realize I’ve sat down on my butt until it hits the ground with a thunk, my center of gravity completely diminishing. I stuff my face in my hands.
And I begin to laugh. I guess I’m not a little kid. I’m more like an adolescent girl. I mean, what’s next, Damian, writing TeenInk song lyrics about how Al left you without someone to hold you through the dark of midnight? Get a f--king grip. You’re a guy, and your friend’s just doing guy stuff. Guys. Men. Yeah.
Yeah, okay. Right.
There’s a rap on the door, and my bro peeks in before I can give him an answer.
Wow. I must look like a total dweeb on the floor like this. I pick myself up, sniffle, and call myself an idiot.
Bro rests in his usual spot, leaning against the wooden door railing and staring at the computer monitor on my desk. He’s a few heads taller than me, and that bothers me a little, but the only person that actually knows that is Al. Al….I’m letting my thoughts wander back to him again. Focus, Damian.
“I’m going out tonight, man. When’s Al getting back from wherever?”
There he is again. Can’t a guy catch a break? “Um…I dunno. He’s kind of, um, gone. Like, he hasn’t shown up since last night, and Rayella was a total b--ch when I tried to get something out of her. She kept telling me to let it go. I mean, seriously dude, am I supposed to just sit around when my friend’s, like, gone? This is totally stupid. I want to find him, but I don’t have any leads. Should I be so worried? Is that normal? Am I the crazy one here?”
Whoops. I turn around to see what his reaction is to my outburst. I must have sounded like a total dork, because Bro is staring at me as if I confessed my undying love for him and asked him to ravish me. Well, he’d be showing about as much emotion. Cryptic a--hole.
He rubs his eyes under his shades and shoots me that comical “what the hell” look it’s so easy to give your sibling. “Man, I need to find you a girlfriend, and mad soon. You’re more needy than any girl I’ve ever dated.”
“I’m not needy!”
“You’re totally needy. Anyway, I’m going, and I’ll try to find you a girl sometime this week. Later.”
And he walks out, like the total d--chebag of a brother he is. God, why does no one agree with me? Is it that ridiculous for me to want to go and look for Al? Am I being needy?
No, I’m not. I’m not thinking about myself here. I’m worried for him, right? That’s the difference between a good bro and a clingy desperate pathetic idiot, right? Right?
F--k it. I’m not going to let Al keep me in the dark about something. I can’t let him sit and “revitalize” (Jesus, when did my Al become a yoga instructor?) and try to calm himself down. He’ll go crazy. He needs to talk to someone.
I’m going to find him.
It’s cold outside, but completely clear. I walk resolutely down the broad, vacant streets, trying to think of where I would be if I were Al and trying to be alone. Really, the answer comes to me much easier than I expected. It barely takes twenty minutes.
I decide to tag down a side road and stop at the candy shop and grab Al’s favorite: Snickers bars and a pack of Twizzlers. And a Faygo. I am going to find him. There’s no question. He’ll be there, and I’ll find him, and I’ll beat the s--t out of him for leaving me alone and not telling me why. Then I’ll make sure he’s happy and never leaves again.
That much is a promise.
I know I’ve reached the deeper forest when the leaves begin to cover the path and crunch under my ancient Converse One-Stars. The wind slips between the tree branches and whips my bare arms. Wow, it takes me this long to realize I forgot a jacket? What new level of dumb--s have I reached? Whatever, never mind, I’m losing focus again. Oh my god, what the hell was that thing up there? Was that a bird or a jetliner? Holy s--t, this forest is totally haunted at night. Like, some kind of vampire forest. That would make for a great crappy horror movie. And why are there no stars out, there’s not a cloud in—
“Oh my god what the fu…OH MY GOD DAMIAN?? Are you okay? Oh my god what the hell is going on—”
Well, isn’t it just my luck. The one minute I take my mind off him all day, Mister Nice Blonde Athletic Stupid Butt-face shows up. “I’m fine, I’m fine, get off me before I file you for sexual harassment you idiot!!”
I get up as Al lets go of my bruised arm. My side is pretty battered too, but it’s not like I would say anything, that’d be uncool. Anyway, I’m too embarrassed from tripping over the person I was looking for and too angry and excited that he’s finally found to give a damn.
“Al. What. The. F--k?! You think you can just waltz out of my life for a day and not tell me anything? Where the hell were you? Why didn’t you call me? And what are you doing in the woods?? As if you could be more predictable! Next time you want to be alone, maybe you could try not to be such a complete ignoramus and pick the first spot I’d think you’d be! I mean, I had to talk to Rayella today because of you, Al. Rayella. You know how I feel about her! I don’t think you get how alone you left me. I don’t have anyone else in this town, can’t you see that?! Why couldn’t you have just texted me that you wanted to be alone, if you did so badly? Why did you have to be so completely f--king UNCOOL about everything?”
I can’t breathe. My throat twitches, begging me to start crying outright. Tears are breaking through the dam of my charisma. My glasses are getting misty, and I can’t see now, either. I fall to my knees and clench my fists as hard as I can and just when I’m about to punch my stupid best friend, all the tension rushes out. I open my hands, revealing the smushed bag of Fun-Sized Snickers and the twelve pack of Twizzles. I sniffle and throw them at Al.
“Damian.” He’s sitting there, staring at me as if he’s my shrink and I’ve just admitted I still wet the bed. Quizzical. Emotionally begrudging. Then, all of a sudden, he relaxes too, and his eyes get the usual Al twinkle back. He catches the candy without even thinking. He totally missed me.
“Calm down, Damian. I know, I know.” I say to myself. I regain my composure. Straight expression, dry eyes. I push my glasses back up my nose. “So I guess you should tell me this overdramatic plague you’ve been beseeched with or something.”
Al smiles wearily at me, his eyebrows rising a bit. His hair is in the same chlorine bleached blonde and windswept style. He has the same cargo jacket and striped sweatshirt and comic book hero t-shirt he always wears. His eyes are the same green. He’s such a dork.
“Dude. I’m sorry for, like, freaking out. I just…I’ve been kind of keeping something from you for a while. I haven’t told anyone, and last night I realized that I had to tell someone, but I didn’t know how you’d react, so I panicked, and kind of disappeared, and…”
“What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t you tell me if something happened to you?”
“This time’s a little different.” He leans forward, and the moonlight coats his face with a silvery luminescence that could characterize a ghost. Or a vampire. His words are slow and poignant. “Last August, my parents weren’t fighting or anything. I didn’t run away from my place. The truth is, they booted me out. And the whole thing with Rayella…that’s all so…artificial. I don’t know what I’m doing whenever I’m around her. I don’t like her. I don’t like that I’m telling you this right now, and I don’t know how you’ll react, but I guess you deserve to know. Damian. I…I think I’m gay, dude.”
There’s silence. All the crickets forget to chirp, and all the hawks hold their breath. Neither of us know exactly how we’re supposed to react. But it only takes me a second before I lose it.
The laughter hits me like the most unforgiving bullet, tearing through my bruised side and throttling my vocal cords. It’s the second time in the last two minutes I think I’m about to die of asphyxiation. This was too much. Too stupid.
I crawl over to his side and grab a Twizzler, sticking it in my mouth like it’s a piece of wheat and I’m a lone ranger cowboy. Then I slap my best friend upside the head. “Okay, come on, that is seriously the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Ever. It’s as if you expect me to, like, run out of the forest screaming or something. It’s not like you’re some kind of mythical creature…or…or monster or something. Dude, you’re my bro, alright? I’m not gonna give you up now that you, like, like guys or whatever.”
“Being a monster would be so cool, though. I’d rather be coming to terms with something like that.” Al bumped my shoulder. “Funny though, I still get more girls than you.”
“Shut up! And speaking of, how’s Little Missie I-wuv-Al-Lawliet going to react to the news?”
“As if. I don’t know…I think she’s known for a while now, and just doesn’t want to admit it. I guess I just didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling with her. I’ve been pretty confused.”
We both sit quietly for a little while, chewing the sugary goodness and taking occasional sips of the Faygo. The peace and candy combination is so totally sweet.
“You know,” Al says, “sometimes I imagine myself as one of the trees out here. Like, I think I’m a redwood or something, and that I spend my whole life standing here, kind of watching everything, but never being a part of it. Never really being with anyone else. Alone.”
I look over at the guy, who’s completely serious about this, and I feel like laughing again. How much more pathetic can we get?
“You know, I was thinking the same thing. But there’s something I realized after a while.” I smile at him, the same mischievous grin I made when we agreed to run away together if we ever have to. “The redwoods aren’t alone. They have one another. I think that might be enough to get them through the day.” I stand up and help him onto his feet. “Or at least, it’ll keep one alive for long enough so that he can get his a-s kicked for making his friend act like a sappy drama queen.”
Al laughs and slaps my back, a little harder than I expect. I barely wince though. It’s cool.
We are cool.