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Gives off very enemies to lovers (though both agreed they arent enemies or actual lovers)with about 2-3 twist thrown in. It will make you shout, but cry? Not really but it happens. 100% recommend for people interested in enemies to lovers, mobsters x not, or twist you can see coming but still surprise.
27 March 2021 (14:12)
Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Copyright Page Thank you for buying this Feiwel and Friends ebook. To receive special offers, bonus content, and info on new releases and other great reads, sign up for our newsletters. Or visit us online at us.macmillan.com/newslettersignup For email updates on the author, click here. The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. To Helen PART ONE CHAPTER ONE I never wanted to be a criminal. I don’t want this, I don’t want to be here. The current here is the back seat of a burner car, in this case a shitty black Ford. My brother, Luke, is beside me, staring at his phone, smiling. His mind is clearly elsewhere. My father is driving, and beside him is my uncle Tony. Outside, the Atlantic coastline streaks by, in all its neon glory. Golden lights, glittering buildings, million-dollar sports cars. It’s like Florida forgot it’s a swamp for a second. Hordes of well-dressed people are out partying, but we speed past them. I cross my arms. Everyone else in the car wants this life. They want power and glory, to drive fast cars and wear expensive suits and hook up with pretty girls. They want to kill, too. For power. For family. Or maybe they don’t want to. But they’re at least okay with it. I’m not interested. In any of it. Outside the window on Luke’s side, the ocean stretches out, reflecting the Technicolor city lights, the neon blazing against the dark sky. This town truly is designed to be seen past sunset. During the day, it looks gaudy, like a bad theme park. At night, though, it turns into something kind of magical. It’s a playground for adults, where you can get pretty much anything you want … as long as you’re hot o; r rich enough. We stop at a red light. A group of guys in tank tops and designer jeans crosses the street. We’re in Donovan territory now, so those boys belong to them, even if they don’t know it. “It’s time,” says Dad, looking up at us through the rearview mirror. “Masks on.” Shit. I didn’t bring a mask. Luke remembered his—of course he did—and pulls it on. It’s a black ski mask, leaving only his eyes and mouth exposed. Dad and Tony put theirs on, too. I can’t help but think this is them in their natural state of being. Miller criminals. One of two plagues on the city. There’s us, and the Donovans, and we’re both as bad as each other. At least that’s what the cops say. “Hey, Dad,” I say. “What?” “There’s a small chance I forgot my mask.” His silence is intense alongside the classical music he plays in the car. Beethoven, maybe? I don’t know, and I don’t know why he does it. Maybe he wants to add a little class to our grim task. Like classical music somehow makes us sophisticated, better than other criminals. I wipe my sweaty palms on my slacks. I don’t even need to look at him to know how disappointed he must be. I’m already such a failure in so many ways. I’m no Luke, for starters. On top of that I’m too soft, too careless, too lacking in family devotion … He has no idea I left my mask on purpose. I’m a good actor. I can sell it. He has no idea who I really am. “You what?” “Are you sure it’s not in your bag?” asks Luke. “Come on, we’ve been planning this for weeks.” I make a show of going through my backpack. I see books, a school sweater, and my tablet. But no mask. “I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s not here. I must’ve left it at home or something.” “I told you,” says Tony. “He’s not ready.” “He is,” says Dad. “He’s just distracted. Probably chasing some girl. That’s it, right, champ?” I shrug. “See?” says Dad. “Don’t get me started on the dumb shit you did when you were seventeen. Donna was the only thing you ever thought about.” Tony chuckles. “She sure was.” Dad looks at me through the rearview mirror. His murderous expression tells me everything I need to know. I get it. I’ve let him down, yet again. He lightened the mood to save face in front of Tony, but I’m nowhere near off the hook. I swear I’ve tried to be good at this stuff. I’m just not as in this as they are. The Millers hate the Donovans with everything they have. Me? I’d never admit this to the others, but I’ve never really hated them. I know I should, because of what they did to my family. We used to be the closest of allies. The Millers controlled our territory unopposed since the twenties, making millions off the illegal alcohol trade. And right by our side were the Donovans. Things were good, fortunes were made, and little blood was spilled. But then the fifties came around, and the patriarch of the Donovan family wanted to get involved in narcotics. Our patriarch, my great-great-grandfather, said no, not wanting to pump poison into the area, or risk destabilizing their relationship with law enforcement. The Donovans betrayed my family, broke off, and built their own empire off narcotics. Now they control nearly half the city. So, yeah. Donovans and Millers aren’t friends at the best of times. Last year, it got even more personal, though. They murdered my grandfather. They shot him as he was leaving a supermarket of all places. Right in the street. He died on the curb, with bullet holes in his back. It was the spark I think both families had been waiting a long time for, and once long-simmering tensions finally erupted, the city went to war. When it’s done, only one family will rule. “You can stay in the car,” says Dad. “It’s too late to go back. We do this tonight.” “All right,” I say. “If you think that’s best.” “No, Matt, I don’t think that’s best. I wish you’d remembered your damn mask.” “It was a mistake, okay?” “Just … don’t do it again. I’ve got enough on my plate right now, I shouldn’t have to manage you, too.” I can’t help but think, Isn’t that your job? Seeing as you’re, you know, my dad. Dad pulls over, stopping down the street from the restaurant that’s a favorite meeting place for the Donovans. Sofia’s. It’s 11:00 p.m., so it’s closed. At least that’s a good thing. My family won’t be burning anyone alive tonight. This is about taking something away from the other side. Making a statement. It’s the way things are done. “You sure this is a good idea?” asks Luke. He’s gone pale. “We could try again tomorrow.” “No, we do this tonight,” says Dad. “They won’t see him, the windows are blacked out.” “Are you sure about that?” asks Tony. “I just said I am.” “There are probably security cameras up and down the street. Lie low, Matt. Just in case.” Dad grips the steering wheel tight. I undo my seat belt and slide down the seat. The three of them climb out of the car and go around to the back. I hear the trunk open. They reappear a few moments later, each one of them holding a Molotov cocktail. These aren’t the ones used in street warfare, though, these are the best of the best: thick bottles filled with powerful incendiary chemicals. Dad holds up a lighter, and soon, the ends of each one burn bright. And there they are, my family. Doing what they’re supposed to. I know there’s the stuff to make a fourth Molotov in the trunk, but obviously that’s not happening tonight. I’m glad I “forgot” my mask. Dad being mad at me sucks, sure, but I don’t want any real part of what’s about to go down. Even though I’m here. Despite my best efforts to distance myself from this, I’m still an accessory. All at once, the three of them hurl their Molotovs toward the restaurant’s large front window. Luke misses and hits the wall. There’s a huge fireball, smoke and sparks. Dad’s and Tony’s aim is true, and their bottles go crashing through the glass. The three of them stand there for a moment, watching, as the fire spreads inside. It happens so fast, and soon, the whole place is alight. Torrents of black smoke stream out the windows. The trio calmly walks back to the car and climbs in. I pull my seat belt on as Dad plants his foot on the gas. As we speed away, I watch the restaurant burn through the rearview mirror. The scariest part is knowing the night isn’t over. * * * A cheer breaks out as soon as we step inside the bar. I slink to the back of the crowded room and stand in the darkness. Tony goes up to my aunt first and kisses her on the cheek. Dad goes up to Grandma and starts talking to her in a low voice. She glances at me, and my blood goes cold. I really hope they aren’t talking about me and about what I did. Or, more accurately, about what I failed to do. Once we were sure we weren’t being followed, Dad drove us out of the city, to a meeting spot on a quiet stretch of road. An associate met us there, waiting inside Dad’s black bulletproof Mercedes. We swapped vehicles, then the four of us drove straight here. It’s a bar called Jimmy’s, and it’s a hangout for the city’s Miller-affiliated criminals. It’s sort of a home base for us. I pull down on the cuff of my sleeve. Dad’s been meaning to take me shopping for a new suit, but he hasn’t found the time yet. He’s been too busy with war stuff. Luke makes his way over to me. His suit fits him well, sitting snugly against his broad chest. He’s been working out even more than normal lately, and he’s freaking jacked now. Dad’s so proud. With his new body, and his hair slicked back, my brother looks way older than nineteen. His face is thin, with high cheekbones and a strong jawline, and his eyes radiate an intensity that always seems kind of desperate. It’s like whatever it is he wants, he wants it really bad, and he’s willing to do anything to get it. He reminds me of a jackal sometimes. Starving. Unpredictable. Deadly if needed. Honestly, he looks right at home here. He’d be a golden boy, if my family were into that sort of thing. My life would be a lot easier if Luke wasn’t so good at the family business. “What was that?” asks Luke. “What was what?” “Your mask.” I shrug. “You know me, airheaded as usual.” He rolls his eyes. “Come on. I know you left it on purpose.” How does he know? “I…” But then he smiles. “I’m just messing with you.” His grin is toothy. Doesn’t feel right. Like he’s doing it for show. He swats my shoulder. “For real, though, don’t be so stupid next time, ’kay? I can’t be the smart one and the good-looking one.” I give him the middle finger. He’s both, and he knows it. He’s right, there is going to be a next time. And I can’t use this same trick again. One way or another, I’m going to end up as a soldier in this war. Now that I’m seventeen, I’m considered ready to fight. To put my life on the line. I’m expected to kill. As far as I know, Luke hasn’t killed anyone yet. But he’s ready for it. He’s told me he’s looking forward to putting “one of those Donovan bastards in the ground.” I believe him. “I’m gonna get a drink,” says Luke, walking backward. “Want anything?” “I’m good, thanks.” “Suit yourself.” He spins and walks away, wading through the crowd. The bar is dimly lit, filled with men in dark suits and women in dark dresses, talking and drinking in low voices. A bunch of them are my family, uncles and aunties and cousins, along with members of families we’re allied to. I’d say about half are blood relatives. Dad has two younger brothers, and they all got married young and got to work filling out the family. I push that thought away and scan the room. There are red latticed windows at the back, above the booths, and there are candles in red glass holders on each of the tables. All this combined gives the whole place a somewhat eerie glow. Despite my best efforts to be invisible, Dad’s youngest brother, Vince, spots me and makes his way over. He stops and sizes me up. He’s a sort of big dude, the kind of guy who was fit in his twenties but has since let it slide. He’s double the size of my dad, who’s thin, like me. Uncle Vince is our family’s best torturer. It’s said he’s managed to crack even the hardest criminals in the city with his switchblade. Left in a room alone with him, anyone would give up their darkest secrets. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t Little Matty,” he says, grinning. “What are you doing hiding back here?” “Nothing,” I say. “And don’t call me little.” He chuckles. “That’s fair, I guess you’re not so short anymore. When’d that happen?” Adults are borderline obsessed with pointing out my growth spurts to me. It’s like they think I don’t already know I’m finally getting taller. I never know how I’m supposed to answer questions about my body, even though I get asked about it so much. It’s like they’ve never realized most guys get taller and stronger. Or maybe they’re just weirded out that the nickname Little Matty doesn’t fit so well anymore. Lord save me if my voice cracks around them. I’ll never hear the end of it. Vince keeps staring at me. I hate it. I wonder if he’s thinking about my weight. People love talking about that, too. Apparently I’m too skinny, and it’s something people take pearl-clutching levels of offense to. Especially because Luke is so big now. “It’s a good thing you’re here, with your dad. Hanging around here will teach you a lot, trust me.” I force myself not to raise an eyebrow. “If you say so.” “You look thin. You been eating enough?” Blank. Stare. “Like a horse.” “Good. You should come by my gym and start lifting. Tall is good, but strong is better; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Unless you’re okay with the rumors.” “What rumors?” “That you’re, you know…” Oh. Those rumors. “I’m not gay,” I say. “Not that I care what anyone thinks.” “Good, good, didn’t think you were, but you know how the family talks. So, you got a girlfriend yet? Handsome lad like you must be fightin’ ’em off, eh?” “Not really.” I clap him on the shoulder. “Listen, sorry, man, really need to hit the bathroom. Talk later?” He grins. “She must be a pretty one if she’s making you blush like that. Be careful, girls like that will only break ya heart.” “Here’s hoping I get so lucky.” He laughs and then finally lets me slide past. On my way to the bathroom, I walk past Barbie Barker, who runs a bunch of secret brothels, only for the wealthiest local citizens. She’s in her fifties, and her light brown hair is cut into a wavy bob. She’s dressed in a black suit, with sparkly material on the lapels. Her booth is nearly full, as she’s surrounded by a group of pretty young women, along with a few pretty young men. I’m guessing they work for her, which means … you know. They’re on offer tonight. They’re all stunning. Luke goes up to Barbie, stands up straight, and starts talking to her. She lowers her glasses and smiles at him. In that second, he looks like a pretty boy for sale, blending into the crowd, not a Miller man. I wonder if that’s what he wants: to not be one of the power players by birth, if only for a second. I accidentally make eye contact with one of her male companions. He looks me up and down. Shit. I step inside the bathroom, and walk into one of the dark wooden stalls. I lock the door behind me, then sit down on the closed toilet seat. I feel light-headed and sick to my stomach. I can’t hide in here for long, so I need to make every second of peace count. I pinch one nostril closed, breathe in deep, then let go and exhale. It helps a little, but not enough. I can’t get the sight of the burning restaurant, along with Dad’s look of disdain through the rearview, out of my head. And then there’s the fact that my family has been talking about me. It’s a pretty killer trio. I wait for as long as I can, and then I step outside. And find I’m not alone in the bathroom. Washing his hands is a guy I haven’t seen before. He’s wearing a dark blue shirt tucked into gray slacks and nice black shoes. His dusty brown hair is short, cut in military fashion. The top two buttons of his shirt are undone, showing off some pale skin. He has the kind of body you notice. I ignore him and start washing up. “Rough night?” he asks. “Huh?” “You look like you’ve been through it,” he says, turning to face me. He’s drying his hands with a paper towel. I notice his posture, too; it’s weirdly great. Dead straight. I shrug and turn off the tap. “I’m Jason, by the way,” he says. He looks young, maybe around my age. It’s not super uncommon for the sons and daughters of mob players to show up here: They like to get us indoctrinated early. So much illegal stuff happens here; underage drinking is the least of their concerns. “Matt,” I say. “I’d shake your hand, but you know…” I raise my wet hands. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, and he smiles. “Hey, this might be a long shot, but are you up for sneaking out of here?” His smile makes my heart beat faster. This boy, whoever he is, has a great freaking smile. It feels almost dangerous. He should warn a guy before smiling at him like that. “What?” I say. He steps closer, and his shoes click on the tiles. “Look, I can tell you’d rather be somewhere else right now. And conveniently, that’s what I want, too. I know a diner down the road. If you’re game?” I eye him warily. Who suggests something like that? Who is this guy? But he’s right. I would rather be somewhere else right now. And fine, I’ll admit it. He’s absurdly hot. “Sure,” I say. “Let’s do it.” CHAPTER TWO Jason and I are walking down a quiet alley. It feels a little like this stretch of the city belongs to us. I’m not sure if anyone else would want it, though. It smells like trash, and the walls are covered in graffiti. I look up. The moon’s out, and I can hear the ocean. I feel a little unsafe, but weirdly I kind of like that. At the end of the alleyway, across a road, is a diner, called Sunshine Diner. Its signage is blue neon. I look across, at the tall hot guy keeping pace beside me. It doesn’t feel real, that I’m doing this. “What?” he asks. “Huh?” “You just looked at me weird. What’s up?” We pass by a blue dumpster. “Nothing, dude,” I say. He raises both eyebrows. “Okay,” I say. “I’m just sort of pinching myself that I’m doing this. I should be back at the bar.” “Why?” “My dad, I guess. You know how it is.” He must, if he was at the bar. He stops walking, and I do as well. He turns to face me. Beside me is a metal chain-link gate, leading into a small yard. It’s overgrown. Above me, there are thick black power cables, connecting power poles that run down the alley. I feel a little pressed in. “Let’s make a deal,” he says. “How about we don’t talk about our families? We can just be us, not our last names. How does that sound?” I wasn’t expecting that. It sounds amazing. But I’m Matt Miller. All anyone really cares about is my family. I don’t recognize Jason, but I hardly pay attention when I’m forced to be at the bar. I’m guessing he’s the son of one of the families we’re allied with. Or maybe he’s one of Barbie Barker’s rent boys. He’s hot enough for it. Wait, what if he is one of her rent boys? I decide it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t afford it anyway. I hope he isn’t, though. For a lot of reasons. “Sure,” I say. “Why not?” He grins. “Sweet.” We start walking again. “So you like this place?” I ask, pointing at the diner. It doesn’t look like much. It puts the suss in suspect. Also, it’s right next to a gas station, which for some reason feels really damning to me. Like it’s going to be especially cheap and fast, even for a diner. “I do.” We reach the front door, and Jason opens it for me. A bell chimes. The place is massive, with pink booths and faded wooden paneling. At the back is a mural, sky blue, with a slightly wonky palm tree painted on it. It’s a whole lot of why? Jason leads me to a booth in the back and sits down. I sit opposite him. This place smells like coffee and sugar. The local hit-music station is playing on the radio. The menu in front of me is freaking huge. I flip it over and see there are just as many options on the other side. There’s something available called the “sunrise special” that includes both eggs and pineapple. I almost gag at the thought. The bell above the door chimes again, and two cops walk in. They sit down at the counter. The server smiles like she knows them and pours them each a mug of coffee. Okay, so this isn’t the kind of place I’m supposed to be in. Why am I here? What am I doing? “Do you do this a lot?” I ask. “Do what?” “Ask random guys you meet in bathrooms to diners?” He laughs. “You’re the first.” “So why me?” We’re interrupted by the server. The menu is so huge I haven’t even decided what I want. “What can I get you boys?” “Um,” I say, as I desperately scan the menu. “I…” “Two double cheeseburgers, and two chocolate thick shakes, and a large waffle fries,” says Jason, then he looks at me. “You happy with that?” “Um, yeah.” The server walks away. “You looked freaked, so I ordered for you,” he says. “Hope that’s cool.” Weirdly, I don’t find it annoying. “Thanks.” So, I’m here. With this strange, attractive boy. Because really, oh my God. This boy. He’s bananas hot. He’s got this sort of military vibe about him, with his strong jawline and short haircut, and well-built body. Also, his eyes are fascinating. At a distance, they look light brown, but up close, they’re almost green. Plus, he’s clean-shaven, and his skin is blemish-free. He’s a perfect, all-American boy. He probably even gets along with his dad. Anyway. I can totally see him as one of those West Point guys whose whole life is about perfection and military service. Maybe that’s why he’s so buff. But we met in a criminal bar, so I know if he is a soldier, he’s not a lawful one. I wonder if he’s killed any Donovans. I hope not. He’s way too pretty to be a killer. “So, man,” he says. He stretches out, putting one arm on the back of the booth. “What’s your deal?” “What do you mean?” “Like, what do you like? What are your hobbies?” Why would he ask me to do this? What does he want from me? “Listen,” I say. “Before you ask about my hobbies, I’m going to need a better idea of what’s going on here.” He tilts his head to the side, and his lips twitch up a little. Oh great, I’m amusing him. “We’re getting food,” he says. “Yeah, but … why?” “Why what?” “Why’d you ask me to come here?” “Because I thought you’d say yes.” I feel my eyebrows narrow. It was an impulse. “That’s not an answer.” “Sure it is,” he says. He leans forward and rests his hands on the table. “You’re here, aren’t you? Don’t overthink it. Let’s just have a good time, get to know each other a little. So … your hobbies. What do you like?” I guess he has a point. I do tend to overthink things a lot, and it’s never worked out so great for me. “Um.” I rack my brain. “I like movies.” He nods. “Oh yeah, what kinds?” “Any, really. I like superhero ones, but I’m kind of sick of them being the only ones out there.” “Aw, man, I love superhero movies! I see them day one, every time.” Shit, that’s cool. “I didn’t say they were bad; I like them as much as the next guy. I just … I wish there was other stuff, too. Like, the only things with big budgets these days are those. I miss movies like Alien and Terminator or whatever.” “So big-budget, but new?” “Exactly!” “That’s fair, I miss those, too. Or the thought of them. All right, you like movies, what else?” I shrug. “I dunno, I like normal stuff. How about you?” “Movies, TV. I read a bit, play baseball on Fridays. Oh, and I like games a lot.” “Oh, wait, me too,” I say. “On the gaming, not the baseball, obviously.” I gesture at my thin arms. “Really?” he says. He looks at my body for a second. “What games do you like?” The server returns and places the food down in front of us. It looks great. I squirt out some ketchup and try one of the waffle fries. Way good. I lift the burger and take a bite, and oh, damn. It’s amazing. “I like fantasy RPGs the best,” I say, still chewing. And, oh my God, this burger is officially too good for this place. His eyes light up. “Dude, me too! Fantasy RPGs take over my life whenever I get one. This might be embarrassing to admit, but I put four hundred hours into the Skyrim remaster.” It’s kind of alarming how cool I find that. I’m not sure everyone would think it’s cool, but I seriously think it’s amazing. “That’s not embarrassing at all. What class do you play as?” “I have two characters. One is a rogue; the other is a wizard. How about you?” “I swear I’m not copying you, but I always play as one of those two.” “Yeah, because they’re the best. Who wants to be a knight?” “Not me, that’s for sure.” I feel a little fluttering in my stomach. I’m sitting across from a hot guy who plays video games. Eating a great burger. This so isn’t how I was expecting the night to go. And I wouldn’t change a single thing. * * * The bell chimes as the door to the diner closes behind us, and I get a waft of gasoline from the gas station. Glorious. Jason stretches, cracking his back into place. I find myself kind of marveling at the way his muscles move under his shirt. Seriously, damn, boy. “So where to?” he asks. “Huh?” “Where do you wanna go now?” I frown. “Back to Jimmy’s?” This was fun, but I feel a creeping dread about it. If Dad noticed I was missing, I don’t know what I’d tell him. I can’t say the truth, which is that I met a random guy in the bathroom and decided to leave with him because I thought he was gorgeous. There are the rumors about me. I don’t know what Jason’s deal is, and what he likes, but I feel hanging out one-on-one with a boy like him might add some fuel to that particular fire. I don’t feel bad about being gay, I don’t even really care about it. It’s just what I am; boys have always done it for me. I like deep voices and short haircuts and big arms. I especially like how boys look when they take off their shirts. I just don’t want anyone to know yet. I suspect they’ll make a big deal out of it, which I don’t want. It’s none of their business. Me liking guys is my thing. It’s not like anyone’s trying super hard to date me, so for now, it doesn’t even matter. “You don’t want to hit the beach or something?” he asks. “The water’s nice this time of night.” “I can’t,” I say. “Dad will freak.” He nods. “Fair.” “Won’t your parents? Who are they, by the way?” “We had a deal. No family talk tonight. Just us, being our own men, remember?” “Oh, right.” I get kind of a kick out of him calling me a man. Still. I want to poke further about who this boy is, but a deal is a deal. We walk in silence, until we reach the back door of the bar. “That was fun,” says Jason. “I get told I’m hard to read a lot, so I figured I’d just say it. I had fun.” I nod. “I had fun, too.” He tucks his hands into his pockets. “Maybe we could do it again sometime, then? Would you like that?” I would. Very much. I’m not ready for this to be over. But maybe this should be a one-time thing. A welcome one, but I have a feeling hanging around Jason is a bad idea for me. Am I being presumptuous? I don’t think this is a gay thing. It’s probably just a friend thing. Or maybe not? “Well, maybe next time you see me in the bathroom, you could ask,” I say. So now I know flirting isn’t a gift of mine. Great. He laughs. “I’ll keep an eye out. Well, I’m off. Later.” “You’re not coming back in?” “Nah, I’m going to head home.” “Okay, well, nice meeting you or whatever.” “It was nice meeting you, too, Matt. Or whatever.” Our eye contact lasts a little too long, and then he spins and walks away. I push open the door of the bar. I laugh, at the ridiculousness of this whole thing. I start coming up with a lie I can use if anyone asks where I went. What can I say? I wanted some air? I go in and see Luke. He’s talking to a family friend of ours, Cassidy, giving her all his attention. She’s in a short black dress and heels with red bottoms. Her hand is on his chest, sliding through the gap in the material of his shirt. Dad is nowhere to be seen, which means he’s probably upstairs. That’s where the serious business is done. Huh. I don’t think anyone even noticed I left. That means I got away with it. CHAPTER THREE I’m laying out by our pool, lounging on a deck chair. I haven’t stopped thinking about what happened last night. I met Jason … whateverhislastnameis. And I know it might be stupid, because we just went to a crappy diner to get a surprisingly un-crappy burger. And shakes. And waffle fries. But it felt kind of special to me, like we just sort of … clicked. I don’t know. I’ve tried to find him online, but so far, nobody I’m friends with knows anyone named Jason. Which makes me think maybe he doesn’t use social media much. He gave the impression he was a sort of busy guy, so maybe he’s got too much going on to keep up a social media presence. Which feels like nonsense, even to me. Hot guys like him love social media. Where else would they post thirst traps? Why even work out if you’re not going to post shirtless photos? I just need to look harder. I sit up and unlock my phone. I load my cousin Ethan’s Facebook and search his friends for anyone called Jason. He has one, and my heart kind of soars, but then when I click through, I see it’s not him. Unless he looks really different in person. I … The gate to the pool opens, and Luke steps inside. He’s holding a towel and is wearing black trunks. He throws the towel onto the deck chair beside me and then pulls his shirt off over his head. He fixes his hair, adjusts his trunks, then thumps down. He puts his arms behind his head, stretching out. He’s so defined; it’s so unfair. I know he works out almost every day and tracks his calories and macros, so I’d probably look more like him if I paid more attention to it. Still, it feels so damn unfair that he has a sculpted torso, complete with a defined six-pack, and I don’t. It’s just rude. We look so alike in every other way. We both have black hair, and both got Dad’s brown eyes and thick eyebrows. But being buff makes all his features click together in a way mine don’t. I try not to be hard on myself, but he was right about what he said last night. He is the good-looking one. He pumps out some sunscreen from the tube I have beside me, and slaps it down onto his chest. “Where’d you go?” he asks. “Huh?” “Last night, you disappeared for a while. Where’d you go?” I don’t have a lie planned. I truly thought I’d gotten away with it. I should’ve expected Luke to notice, though. “Oh, nowhere exciting. I was craving fries, so I went to the diner down the road.” “By yourself?” I shrug. “You’re a weird dude, anyone ever tell you that?” “You did, just now.” He laughs. “Where was my invite? I’m bulking, you know I need all the calories I can get.” He slaps his hard stomach. I have no idea how the whole muscle thing works, that he can eat burgers and stuff and still look like him. It seems to go against everything I’ve been taught at school about being healthy. “You were busy.” “Doing what?” I chew my nail. “You were with Cass, remember?” “Oh yeah. I almost forgot. So many girls, so little time, you know?” Obviously, I don’t. “Did you two hook up?” I ask as I put my hands behind my head, so I’m mirroring him. In front of me is my pool, then a small stretch of perfectly kept lawn. Dad makes us cut it on alternating Saturdays. If I forget, Luke reminds me. It looks really short, so I guess he’s already done it this morning. “Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you,” he says. I roll my eyes. “How ’bout you?” he asks. “Are you asking if I hooked up with Cass?” “No. Did you meet any girls?” “What do you think? Nobody even noticed I was there.” “God, stop being so pathetic. I’m telling you, just find a girl who gives you a happy feeling down there, then give ’em the old Miller smolder. They’ll become obsessed with you, for the night, anyway. Trust me.” My brother, folks. I love him. But he’s such a douchebag. “Noted,” I say. I don’t know why I said that, because I already know it’s not really possible for a girl to give me any sort of feeling down there. Trust me, I’ve tried. I watched all sorts of videos on the internet, hoping they’d inspire some sort of reaction in me. Like I’d see one girl, the right girl, and everything would click into place. But my attention is always, always, drawn to the guys. I’m just built that way. I’m done with this conversation, so I turn the volume of my music up, roll over, and face the opposite direction. * * * It’s Monday, and I’m at school, wishing I had the powers of the Invisible Woman from the Fantastic Four. Naturally. The main hallway is bustling, filled with people grabbing stuff from their lockers or heading to class. Guys high-five. Girls whisper things to one another. A teacher yells at a boy who is running somewhere, threatening him with detention if he doesn’t slow down. I’m thinking about Jason again. I’m still confused. I’m starting to think he’s, like, a ghost or something. Or a figment of my imagination, created out of extreme loneliness. I created a cute gamer guy because he’s, like, my dream friend. Who has no social media? I know it’s hard to find someone if you don’t know their last name. But still, how can he not be friends with anyone I know? It’s probably for the best, though. I’m officially thinking about him too much. Having access to his social media would just push things over the edge. It’s sure to be really cute, filled with selfies of him gaming and stuff. And maybe hot. He probably posts thirst traps, and I very much want to see those. I pull my phone from my pocket, put my earbuds in, and hit play on my current playlist. The top song is “Straight to My Head” by You Me at Six, which is this song I’ve become weirdly obsessed with lately. It’s pretty much the only song I listen to. I turn the volume up way too high to be safe, but whatever. It lifts my mood almost instantly. God, I love this song. Up ahead, making their way down the hall toward me, is a group of football jocks. Even though it’s hot out, the whole group is wearing matching black-and-white varsity jackets, most unzipped with the sleeves pushed up. Damn, there are so many nice arms in that group. Any one of them could push me around and I’d be sort of a-okay with it. Like, if they put me in a headlock … They reach me, and one, Zach Lunsford, makes a show of not moving for me. I duck out of the way at the last second. “Watch it,” he says, growling. “Sorry.” I reach my locker, spin in my combination, and realize something. He’s the first student I’ve talked to all day. * * * Another hour of searching, and I still haven’t found Jason. I do this a lot. I have this weirdly obsessive brain. Whenever something catches my fancy, I latch on to it. I do it with movies and gaming, too. When I like something, I like it hard. I dive deep into theory threads on Reddit and watch analysis videos on YouTube, just generally obsess, until I find something else that draws my focus. This is the first time I’ve felt this way about another person. I’m aware I’m being ridiculous. I’m lying on my bed, staring at my phone, thinking about a boy. I search my room for a distraction. Like, a game I can play, or a movie I can watch to get my mind off this. Beside my desk, which holds my space-gray MacBook Pro, is my bookshelf. It’s mostly epic fantasy and YA books, but front and center is my record of Sam’s Town. I don’t own a record player, but Luke got it for me because he knows how much I love that album. On the dark gray wall above it are a few Polaroids from my real-photography-is-better phase, ugh, and custom art of Spider-Man, Harley Quinn, and Captain Marvel I bought on Etsy. See, I love superhero movies. Why’d I tell Jason I don’t like them that much? I’m so weird. The rest of the space is covered in movie posters. They’re all acceptable favorites, like Mulholland Drive, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Jaws. For obvious reasons I haven’t put up a Love, Simon poster, even though I love that movie so damn hard. I’ve watched it maybe ten times. Nothing distracts me, so I lift my phone and open Grindr. Grindr always terrifies me, seeing as I’m so not ready to be out, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it, too. I’ve never met anyone on there, but talking to guys is still so exciting. I had to lie about my age to make my account, but that’s never really bothered me. The out gay guys at school constantly talk about their app conquests, so, like, I know everyone does it. I use a shirtless mirror selfie, with my head cropped out. So I don’t think anyone would be able to figure out it’s me. I scroll the wall of guys, and see there’s another shirtless and headless profile five miles away. His profile name is just “J.” I sit up in bed. He has only one photo, the shirtless one. He has pale skin, a six-pack, and nice biceps and a smooth chest. I picture him wearing Jason’s clothes. Could it be him? I open his profile, and message him. Hey man, what’s up? There’s a knock on my door. I jump so much I nearly drop my phone. I close Grindr, and then cover my crotch with my blanket. Just the thought of Jason being on Grindr was enough to make me hard. Or maybe it was just the shirtless guy. Yeah, I’ll go with that. “Matt?” “Yeah?” The door opens. It’s Dad. “What are you up to?” he asks. “Nothing.” He crosses my room, and opens my window. Okay, Dad, message received. He then grabs a few dishes I have festering on my desk. It’s maybe passive-aggressive, sure, but he’s cleaning up after me. I’m not going to complain. “Have you eaten?” he asks. “I had a pizza pocket.” “And?” I glance at the half-empty bottle of Coke Zero Sugar I have on my bedside table. A pizza pocket and no-calorie Coke. Dinner of champions. “How about you have something not made of chemicals?” “Everything is made of chemicals.” He sighs. “Just have a piece of fruit, that’s all I ask. Something that’s seen sunlight at least once.” “Okay, fine.” I get out of bed and grab the remaining dishes from my desk. Dad and I walk through our house. Our place is massive, admittedly too big for the three of us. Or, four, if you count Eddie, our dog. Which I totally do. He’s dozing on his spot in the living room right now. He’s a German shepherd, and Luke’s his favorite. He likes me well enough, but even though he’s technically the family dog, he’s always sort of felt like Luke’s more than he has mine or Dad’s. Luke even named him, after Eddie Brock, aka Venom, his favorite character. I wonder if it’d feel more homey if Mom were still alive, but I guess I’ll never know. She died in a car accident when I was three. It was totally random; she was driving to visit her mom, who lives in Tampa. A drunk driver swerved into her lane, and that was it. I don’t think Dad’s ever gotten over it. I’m pretty sure she was the love of his life. As far as I know, he hasn’t even dated since. I miss her, even though I never really knew her. Her name was Diane. I get told a lot I have her smile, which always makes my heart ache. I feel like she’d get me more than Dad does. But then again, she married him, knowing what he does. So maybe not. Dad loads the dishwasher as I grab an apple from the fridge. Eddie perks up, growls, then lies back down. I guess someone walked past our place. “Hey,” I say as I toss the apple up and down. “Are we going to go to the bar anytime soon?” His eyebrows lift up. “You want to go to Jimmy’s?” I get why he’s so shocked. I know getting me to do anything family related is normally like pulling teeth. Getting me to do anything is like pulling teeth. “Not really. I’m just, like, curious.” He puts a dishwashing tablet into the slot in the machine and then closes the door. “I have a meeting there on Saturday. I was going to go by myself. I know Luke has plans, and I didn’t think you’d want to.” Wow. Okay. This is kind of perfect. I can go to the bar without Luke. “Can I come?” I ask. “I’m kind of sick of spending all weekend in the house, I’d rather do something.” Dad eyes me warily. But then I guess he decides he doesn’t care, and he smiles. “Sure, Matt. You’re more than welcome to come.” CHAPTER FOUR For the first time ever, I’m excited about going to the bar. I even put way more effort into my appearance than normal. I’m wearing my favorite formal clothes, which are dark gray pants and a nice white shirt that actually fits me. I ironed them, and Dad didn’t even need to tell me to. I’ve tucked the shirt in, and left the top button undone. I’ve put pomade in my hair and pressed it down, so it looks a little more deliberate than the shaggy mess it usually is. Right now, I’m in the passenger seat of Dad’s car. We reach the bar, and he pulls into the parking lot. Outside, there are a bunch of parked cars and motorbikes, but the street looks mostly empty. It pretty much always does after sundown in this part of town. The skyline is deep purple. I’d take a photo for my Instagram, if Dad wasn’t right here. He pulls on the hand brake, then turns to face me. “Are you wearing cologne?” he asks. I am, in fact. I snuck into his room and stole some of his. I picked Bleu de Chanel. I didn’t think he’d notice. “Yeah, I hope that’s cool?” “It’s fine. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you might’ve put on too much.” Did I? Oh God, I did. I feel totally sick. The whole point of doing this is so I’ll smell good. For Jason. And everyone on earth hates people who wear too much cologne or perfume. One of my aunts always wears too much, and it makes me dread being near her. It’s like being thwacked in the face with a bouquet of flowers over and over. “Next time, just use two sprays, one on each wrist, then hold them to your neck for a few seconds,” says Dad, showing me how it’s done. “That’s all you need.” “Noted.” I used literally four times that. “But I do like the enthusiasm,” he says. “You wearing cologne, coming along. It’s a good look for you.” I smile weakly. “Thanks.” We get out of the car and go down the street. Around us are low white buildings. A few thin, sad-looking palm trees are dotted around the place, along with power lines, and overflowing dumpsters. We’re far enough away from the city that there’s no flowing traffic, so the whole place is really still. The exterior of Jimmy’s is nothing special, to be honest. It’s just a big off-white rectangle, with the name of the bar in red and green neon on the front. The alley runs down its left, and there’s a red pop-out awning above the door. Underneath it is a bouncer, a big guy wearing all black. He has a tattoo of a scorpion snaking up his neck. He recognizes Dad, so he waves us through. Inside, I peer around. My cousin Ethan is playing pool with Vince. They both nod at Dad and ignore me. Cassidy is standing by the jukebox. I can’t see him. Phew. I mean, I do want to see him. Just not yet. Not until I’ve washed the cologne off and Dad’s gone upstairs. “Are you okay to entertain yourself for a few hours?” asks Dad, who is looking at his watch. It’s an heirloom Rolex, one handed down to him from his father. If anything happens to Dad, Luke’ll get it, for sure. “Yeah, ’course. Have a good night.” “You too.” He turns to walk up the stairs. “And, um,” I say, calling him back. “I might, like, Uber home. So if I’m gone, like, don’t stress.” “That’s fine. Just text me your plans.” “Will do.” I know he has no trouble leaving me, because I’m surrounded by family. There’s not much trouble I can get into, seeing as half the crowd here are blood relatives. My grandma is even here. She’s sitting in a booth with a few of my aunts. Maybe this plan is dumb. What will even happen if I do see Jason? I can’t leave with him again. If I do, people will talk. I go into the bathroom and half expect him to be standing there, washing his hands, like last time. But it’s empty. I wash my hands in the sink and then wet a paper towel and wipe the sides of my neck. I scrub a bit, until my skin turns slightly pink. Then I do the same on the back of my wrists. I think that should get rid of most of it. Once I’m done, I look up at my reflection. What are you doing? Why are you here? I leave the bathroom, head to the bar, and sit down on one of the stools. I spin and look around. He’s not here. Now I feel stupid. I came here for him. I hate this place, and yet I came here, on the off chance that he might show up again. What else could I do? I couldn’t find his social media, and I wasn’t just going to let it drop. My stupid brain is too curious about him. Now I need to spend the night here. By myself. Ugh. It’s times like this that make me wish I liked drinking. I don’t, though. For one, it tastes bad. And two, I hate the thought of not being in total control of myself, especially around my family. I kick my shoe against the bar. It’s made of dark wood and varnished so it’s shiny. Like always, bluesy, small-town rock is playing on the speakers. I breathe in, and the air smells like Scotch. And still faintly like Dad’s cologne. Maybe I should just leave. Call it a night, cut my losses. Maybe … I hear the front door open. I’m too nervous to look. Then a dark shape slides into the space beside me. “Hey, you,” Jason says. My heart starts thudding. “Oh, hi,” I say. He leans against the bar. “Waiting for someone?” Um. I mean, yes, I was waiting for him, but I don’t want to admit it. “Um, no, I’m not waiting for anybody. Dad’s in a meeting upstairs. I’m just killing time. You know, the usual.” I glance back at him. He’s wearing a gray shirt this time, neatly tucked into black slacks. The top two buttons are undone again, and he’s wearing the same shoes as last time. I can’t believe I noticed that, but you know. They’re great shoes. His hair is gently tussled and styled with product. I glance at Vince. He’s busy playing pool. “Too bad,” says Jason. “I was hoping you might be waiting for me.” “I don’t do that.” “Do what?” “Wait for people.” He smirks. “That’s smart. I totally came here hoping I’d see you.” He taps his knuckles on the bar. I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. It’s everything I want to hear. But it feels so dangerous. I’m not ready for anyone to know about me yet. Not even a stranger. But this boy … he’s making me feel all sorts of things. He’s turned his body to the side now, so he’s fully facing me. My stare goes down his neck, to the smooth skin visible between the halves of his shirt. It’s so captivating. I imagine brushing my fingers along it, then immediately push the thought away. “Wanna sneak out again?” he asks. Hell yes. But I feel like I shouldn’t. People might see. He leans closer. I feel like I can’t move. Like I’m rooted to the spot, all my focus on him. I can smell his cologne, which is perfect, and the mint on his breath. His lips are nicely arched and look really soft. It makes me think about kissing. He leans down and whispers in my ear: “Outside, five minutes.” He pats my chest, his hand lingering against me for a second, and then walks away. Okay, fuck. I turn, and watch as he leaves the bar. Then I scan the crowd. Nobody is even looking my way. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own conversations, their own drama. Vince sinks a ball and then grins. It looks like a close game, and Ethan’s face is set in concentration. Nobody saw him touch me. Let me process this. The boy who hasn’t left my brain in over a week wants to see me again. Outside. I crack my neck, and then the bartender notices me. I don’t want anything, but I don’t want it to seem like I was here just to get Jason’s attention. “What can I getcha?” he asks. “Er, just a Coke?” He frowns, like that’s weird, but pours me one. It costs five dollars. FIVE DOLLARS FOR A COKE. And that’s a Miller price. So stupid. I sip it slowly. It’s ice-cold, so it’s actually pretty delicious. But still, five dollars. I wait a while, just thinking. Has it been five minutes yet? I doubt it. I think he asked me to wait so people don’t think we left, like, together. I finish my Coke and put the glass down on the bar. The ice rattles. I stand and find my legs are shaking. I cross the room as quickly as I can, keeping my stare down so I don’t accidentally catch anyone’s eye, and then step outside. It’s humid out here, like an armpit. Florida can be disgusting. Jason is leaning against the wall of the alley. It’s so dark I can barely see him. “Hey,” he says as he detaches from the wall. “For a second there I didn’t think you were coming.” I shrug, managing to look everywhere but at him. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad,” he says. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you all week. I had so much fun with you.” “Oh, um, cool.” He grins at me, then starts walking down the street. I fall into step beside him. We’re going away from Sunshine Diner. I’m kind of bummed. I want more of those waffle fries in my life. “Where are we going?” I ask. “I love that you asked that,” he says. “So trusting, like a little lamb.” I scoff. “I didn’t say I’d go anywhere with you. I just want to know what the plan is. Don’t you want to go to the diner again?” He shakes his head. “Not tonight.” We reach the parking lot of the bar. I’m a little worried about how well lit it is. I feel like anyone could see me. I turn and look at the bar. The upstairs windows face the lot. He stops in front of a small silver Toyota and unlocks it with a fob. Its lights flash orange. “Um,” I say. “I don’t know about this.” “About what?” “I don’t think getting in a car with, no offense, pretty much a total stranger, is a good idea.” He tosses his keys up and down. “Why is that?” “I dunno. I just want to be smart. No offense, but for all I know you could be a murderer.” “I mean, maybe I am,” he says, and he grins. “Hey, please don’t joke. I’m actually nervous.” His face drops. “Oh, okay, sorry. Listen, I’m not going to hurt you. Look at me, I promise.” I look into his eyes, searching for any warning signs. There aren’t any. He seems honest. But something tells me that murder victims think the same thing before they’re killed. Jason looks hurt that I don’t fully trust him. I get that. I would probably be pretty offended if someone implied they thought I might be a murderer. “Seriously,” he says. “You’re going to be fine. I’m sorry I joked. I just know somewhere I think you’ll like. And to get there, we need to drive. We could go to the diner if you want, but trust me, this would be more fun. You in or you out?” I should move fast, in case Dad looks out and sees me. I get in the car. CHAPTER FIVE Luckily, Jason is a good driver. Or, he’s at least competent. He’s not, like, swerving all over the road and nearly hitting people, and he’s obeyed every road rule I’ve noticed. He stops at yellow lights, is all I’m saying. It makes me feel a little better about being here. Despite my nerves, I’m actually having a good time. This section of the city is really pretty, the perfect place for a night drive. We’re surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers and clean, pleasant streets. To my left is a portable traffic sign that reads, ENJOY THE BEACH, KEEP YOUR DRINKS INSIDE in big orange letters. And it makes me think of something. “Hey,” I say. “How old are you even?” “How old do you think I am?” “I have no idea.” He smiles. “I turned eighteen last month. You?” I nod. “Seventeen.” “Yeah? You look older.” I don’t know what to think about that. He doesn’t say it like an insult, but … “I mean that in a good way!” he says. “I don’t mean that you look old or anything. You just look … you know. Older.” “Oh, cool,” I say. “Thanks.” “No worries.” He chews his lip. “So … what music do you like?” My music tastes aren’t exactly cool. And I care about being cool right now. I can’t even remember the last time I cared about something like this. “I like alt rock,” I say. “But stuff that’s more on the pop side of things.” “Sorry, dude, that makes zero sense to me.” My cheeks are burning. The car is dark, though, so I don’t think he can tell. At least I hope he can’t tell. We’ve reached the main strip of the beach now, where the most famous hotels are. This whole street is deigned in this cool, art deco style. People are everywhere. I’m guessing most of them are tourists. “The Killers are my favorite, but I also really like You Me at Six. That sort of thing.” He grabs his phone from the slot on the dash and hands it to me. “Play something. Password is four thousand and one.” His phone is the newest model of iPhone, in a clear plastic case. It’s really clean, not a smudgy mess like mine. I have the latest model, too, I just never really clean it. I feel like I’ve been handed a holy grail. I could find out his last name with this thing. He hasn’t mentioned it, so I assumed our no-last-names thing is continuing. I just get a vibe from him that he doesn’t want to talk about his. Still, with his phone, he wouldn’t need to tell me. I could find it out all on my own. But he’s watching me warily. If I snoop, he’ll know. Maybe he’s realized that he’s made an impulsive mistake. He looks a little pale and keeps glancing my way. It might be usual they-have-my-phone anxiety, but it could also be more. And I don’t want him to distrust me. I unlock his phone and open the Spotify app. So no funny business. I search for Sam’s Town and play the title track. Then I lock his phone and put it back on the dash. Matt Miller: fully trustworthy. “What’s this?” he asks as the music starts playing. There’s an unmissable quiver in his voice. I get it, I hate it when people look at my phone, too. “‘Sam’s Town.’ It’s from my favorite album.” I feel weirdly anxious. I hope he likes it. He must. It’s a slam dunk of a song. The vocals start, and he smiles. He starts bobbing his head along to the beat. “I love this,” he says. “Me too.” Too soon, we reach our destination. Outside, I can see a stretch of sand illuminated by streetlights on the footpath. There are a few pedestrians out, but the city is still, and the beach is almost totally empty. We’ve gone past the main hub, so we’re in a much quieter section of town. We’re still in Miller territory, but only just. Jason turns off the engine. It’s so quiet. “Are we even allowed to be here?” I ask. He shrugs. “It’s the beach, why wouldn’t we be?” Nobody else is around. It makes me feel like it’s off-limits. There are areas of the beach that are busy at night, but this spot, where he picked, is dark and dead. “You look a little freaked,” he says. “No, I’m fine,” I say. “Good,” he says, and he steps out of the car. I follow him. The air smells salty here, and I can hear the ocean. I’m not really a big beach guy, but I do kind of like it right now. He goes around to the trunk and opens it. From it, he retrieves two towels. He closes the trunk with a too-strong push. “You want to go swimming?” I ask. He nods. “But like…” “What?” “Don’t sharks hunt at night?” “Oh, yeah, I guess they do.” “And that doesn’t bother you?” I ask. “Not really. I dare them to eat me.” He raises his eyebrows and then sets off toward the beach. I jog after him to catch up. Again, I think: What am I doing? “Seriously,” I say. We reach the sand, and he takes off his shoes. I bend down and start unlacing my shoes. “Is this safe?” I ask as I kick them off. “I don’t want to be stupid. It’d be just my luck to get got by a shark.” “‘Get got’?” He chuckles. “You’re funny. And you won’t; I do it all the time, and they haven’t got me yet. If they eat you, I’d almost be offended, like I’m not good enough for them, or something.” “Really?” I say, looking out at the dark water. It stretches on and on. There are a few lights, probably yachts, bobbing out on the water. But that’s it. There’s nobody else for miles. I can’t believe we’re so close to the city and yet it feels so empty. “I mean, you come here a lot?” He nods. “It’s a good place to think. It’s the one place I’ve found that’s quiet. Games, and this, those are my escapes.” I wonder what he wants to escape from. I wonder if he wants to escape his family, like I do. We reach a spot a few yards from the shore, and Jason stops and throws down the towels. “No offense,” I say. “But my bad luck is seriously a thing, so I might just stay on the shore, if that’s cool with you?” “It’s totally fine.” I sit down. Out here, it’s undeniably pretty. The moon is nearly full right now, and the waves are gently lapping against the sand. The water looks really dark, nearly black almost. Across from me, Jason starts unbuttoning his shirt. Okay. So. How do straight guys act around other guys when they take off their shirts? I feel like they’d be totally oblivious. Like how I’d be if I was around a girl in a bra. I’d notice, sure, but it wouldn’t be like … you know. Jason finishes unbuttoning his shirt and pulls it off his shoulders. His body is pale and absolutely freaking gorgeous. His chest is totally smooth, and he’s ripped enough that he has a six-pack. It’s on the leaner end of abs: I can see some definition, but he’s not super bulky. I’m not sure how I feel about noticing this, but … his body is as hot as possible for a body to be to me. If he cares about being shirtless around me, it doesn’t seem to show. The top band of his underwear is even poking out above his belted jeans, which has always been such a big turn-on for me. This feels weirdly intimate, even though I know he’s probably not feeling anything even remotely close to what I am. He plays baseball; he probably strips off around other guys all the time. Now there’s a thought. “You’re seriously not coming in?” he asks. “Nah.” He shrugs and unbuckles his belt. I sit down on the sand and then pull out my phone. I don’t have any new messages, but I remember I’d told Dad I’d tell him my plans. I start writing a message to him. Hey, I went home, just FYI. Nope, that won’t work. What if he beats me there? I give up and decide I’ll just deal with it if I get in trouble. I start to feel ill. Vince and Grandma saw me at the bar. So they must know I left. I’ll need to come up with some reason why I did, because surely they’ll ask. I’m so stupid. Jason takes off his slacks and then kicks them over to me. They land on my legs, and I have to push them away. He laughs. He’s now wearing black boxer briefs, and that’s it. He has really nice thighs, too. I guess from baseball. “Come on,” he says as he walks backward. “You won’t regret it.” “I’m good.” “Okay, I’ll be quick, then we can chat.” He turns and walks toward the water. I definitely do check out his butt. But only for a second. And then I’m on my phone, on Grindr, keeping my phone up so he can’t see it. It loads, and I see that “J” has finally responded. Good thanks cutie, how are you? I start typing out a response. Great thanks! Got more pics? He comes online. And damn. Jason obviously isn’t holding his phone now. Which means “J” isn’t him. I get a new message. Jerome here He also sends me a bunch of photos. Not sexy ones, he’s clothed in all of them. He’s really cute and has even included a photo where he’s dressed up as Klaus from The Umbrella Academy. But he’s definitely not Jason. I type out a response, because even though I don’t want to talk to him anymore, I don’t want to leave him hanging after he sent photos of himself. You’re cute dude I know he’s going to ask me for pics, which I don’t want to send, so I switch to Safari and google shark fatalities. Apparently there were sixty-seven unprovoked attacks last year. Worldwide. That’s not bad. Jason is waist-deep in the water now, facing out toward the ocean. I don’t want him to leave. I stand up and start frantically unbuttoning my shirt. I pull it off and then toss it to the ground. Then I step out of my slacks. When I’m done, I see that Jason has turned and is watching me. He was probably watching the whole time I was undressing. Cool. Cool cool cool. Guarding my crotch so it’s at least kind of hidden from his view, I jog down to the water. I step in, and, damn, it’s cold. “It’s nice once you’re in!” he calls. “It better be!” He laughs and then scoops up some water and runs it through his hair. It makes it dark and spiky. The waves are really gentle here. Cursing him, I walk into the water until I reach him. Our bodies, up to our waists, are submerged. The water laps gently against me. I adjust and find he was right. It is nice. It’s just so warm out that it’s a shock to the system. It’s not even cold. Jason watches me for a second. He’s dripping wet. “Hey, shark bait,” he says. And there we go. Spell broken. I cross my arms. “Don’t call me that.” “But that’s what you are! I bet they can already smell you and are on their way as we speak.” “Seriously, stop! I’m trying so hard not to think about it, you have no idea.” He starts humming the Jaws theme music. “Stop!” I say, and I splash him. He laughs. I laugh, too. But then it settles. And I realize that I’m here. But surely he’s not gay, too. I mean, he could be. But for some reason I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I guess because he’s so attractive, I feel that, even if he is gay, I wouldn’t be the kind of guy he’d be into. I think he just wants to be friends with me. Which I’m so down for. I don’t need to make out with him or anything to have a good time. I really like it here, doing just this. I mean, I’m not totally over the fear of sharks. It’s constantly running underneath everything. But other stuff has the focus. Like how the moon is out, and I can see a few stars. Plus, behind us, the city lights. “This is nice,” he says. “I like hanging out with you. It just feels really easy, you know? Like we don’t need to talk just for the sake of it.” “Totally.” “I think that’s a sign that we could be good friends. That we just, like, work.” “I think so, too.” He lies back so he’s looking up at the stars. I do the same. Because of pollution, I can’t see many. But it’s as good as it ever is here. I remember, once, Dad, Luke, and I went on a camping trip to Yosemite, because Dad loves it there. The stars there were next level. Anyway. I really don’t want to think about Dad right now. I feel like I’m in the middle of another magical night, doing something I never thought I’d do. And it’s all because of Jason. * * * We swim for a while and then walk back up the beach, toward the car, with towels wrapped around our waists. We collect our shoes, and then Jason goes up to the public shower and turns it on. He gestures to me, but I shake my head, so he steps under the spray. He closes his eyes and dips his head under. His hair gets pressed flat, and water runs down his chest. For someone who games so much, he’s clearly found a way to stay in great shape. Because damn. I catch myself staring, and I look away. I know this is just a friends thing, but I can’t help myself. He’s the first person I’ve ever talked to who seems to like all the same stuff that I do. Our interests line up really well. Mostly we talked about games, because it’s clearly the thing he likes most in the world. He plays big franchises like World of Warcraft, Pokémon, and Minecraft, but also likes indie games like Factorio, Don’t Starve, and Stardew Valley. Currently he’s playing the new God of War game and loving every second of it. Once he’s done, I shower, and then we both get dressed. I still feel a little salty, though. It’s, like, clinging to me. “Better?’ he asks. “Yeah, much.” “Cool. Want me to drive you home? I need to head out soon, I’ve got homework.” “Yeah, me too. And, um, is that okay?” “Yeah, sure is. I don’t make offers to do things I don’t actually want to do. I feel like that doesn’t do anyone any favors, you know?” “Totally. I’m the same.” I’m so not, though. I constantly bend over backward to try to keep people happy. We climb into his car. He starts playing the Killers through the speakers. Just when I think this night couldn’t get any more perfect. Too soon, we reach my place. To be honest, I’m not ready to stop hanging out with him. He turns off the engine, which makes the car feel really still. We’re lit by streetlights, and the neon-blue dash of his car. “Nice place,” he says, looking out at my house. I guess it does look pretty cool. It’s all one level, and I know it’s big. It’s white, with terra-cotta roofing, and is surrounded by greenery. The driveway is empty, so I guess Dad and Luke are still out. That’s good. It means nobody is going to ask me where I’ve been. “Thanks. Whereabouts do you live, by the way?” “Gladeview.” “Oh, nice.” That’s right on the edge of our territory. We control it, but only just. I don’t want to think about that, though. “Yeah.” I notice that the night is winding down, and I don’t want to chicken out. “Hey, um,” I say. “Yeah?” “Could I maybe get your number? Is that okay?” He grins. “And what exactly would you want with that?” “You know, just … I dunno.” “Shark bait wants my number. How amazing.” “I’m not shark bait! Just tell me: Are you going to give it to me or not?” For a second I think he isn’t. But then he puts out his hand. I retrieve my phone, unlock it, and swipe through to my contacts book. I hand it to him, and he starts entering his details. Then he hands it back. “I was going to ask you, if you didn’t,” he says. “Just FYI.” “Oh, really?” He smiles. “Yeah, course.” And oh man. His smile is really cute. I love how it changes the whole way he looks. Normally he looks kind of serious, because his features are so handsome. But when he smiles, he looks a little like a sweetheart. Like the kind of guy who’d earnestly go for school council, or get upset if he gets a bad grade because he doesn’t want to disappoint his teacher. Maybe that’s the sort of guy Jason really is. Maybe his macho thing is just an exterior. I know about that. Too well. “Um, cool,” I say. “That’s nice to know.” I feel like this conversation could go further, but I don’t know where to take it. “Well,” he says. “Later.” “Yeah, I’ll message you.” “Already looking forward to it.” I don’t know what to say to that, so I leave the car. I hurry up to my front door, unlock it, and then step inside. Eddie is standing by the door, whimpering and wagging his tail. I scratch between his ears, in the spot I know he likes best, then go to my room. Because Luke isn’t home, he follows me. I text Dad, telling him I got an Uber home. Then I strip down to my underwear and fall backward onto my bed. Eddie jumps up and joins me. I put my hand on his flank and give him the occasional belly scratch. And then I spend about an hour lying in bed in the dark, just thinking. It takes me that long to come to the realization. He entered his details. Maybe he included a last name? My heart racing, I check … And see that he left the last-name field totally blank. CHAPTER SIX I have Jason’s number now. And I have no idea what to text him. I feel like I made yet another mistake when it comes to him. What I should’ve done is put my number in his phone. Or I should’ve texted him something like Hey as soon as I got his number. That way I’d know there’s a chance he could message me. It’s on me. It’s been five days, and I still haven’t thought of anything. I want it to be the perfect message. I want to ask him to do something I know he’ll say yes to, basically. I’m maybe stressing more than I should, because I know how hard it is for me to make friends. I’m really scared of messing this up, like I have every other time. Right now, I’m in Dad’s Mercedes, sitting in the passenger seat. He’s driving me to get a new suit tailored, because there’s this big party coming up at the end of the month. It’s a ball for the whole Miller empire, including our allies, so I need a suit that actually fits me. It’s such a big deal that Dad has finally slotted in the time for this outing. Plus, Jason might be at the ball. So I want to look good. Because maybe I get a bit of a vibe from him. I dunno. Like, sometimes, I feel like he looks at me in a way that doesn’t feel exactly platonic. It’s too intense for that. It’s not like it matters. Even if he is gay, what I want right now is a friend. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to about that. If I have the guts to tell him, that is. As Dad drives, I look out the window. I have headphones in and am on my playlist. It’s a sort of dreary day today. It’s not raining, but I think it could start at any second. In the distance, I see a fairground. Its candy-colored lights look especially bright against the gray sky. And that’s it. That’s how I’ll ask Jason out. To a fair. But that maybe feels a little too date-y. And I don’t want to freak him out. We’re becoming friends, that’s it. If I were straight, what would I do? I probably wouldn’t ask him to a fair. Maybe I’d ask him to come over and hang out. We could play some games or something and eat pizza and stuff. That actually sounds like a dream date to me, but you know, it is also I guess what straight dudes would do to hang out. They might also watch sports, but, ew, no. For some reason asking him to come over and play games feels off, too. Dad and Luke know I don’t have any friends. They’d pay super-close attention if I had a guy over, because I haven’t done it in years. Unless they were out of the house. They do go out most Saturday nights, so most of the time I have the place to myself. It still doesn’t feel totally right, though. Can I really sneak Jason into my house just so we can hang out? I feel like it’d be a lot safer to go somewhere where we’re less likely to be seen. This is the loop I’ve been stuck in for a long time. Nothing fits perfectly. I’m still thinking about it when Dad pulls into the parking bay in front of the tailor’s. I open a message thread to Jason as I get out of the car. Hey! Was just wondering if you wanted to come over and play some games this weekend? I have Smash Bros and Mario Kart, and my brother has Mortal Kombat. I like the rushed nature of it. I think it’ll make him think I haven’t thought about it as much as I have. I hit send as Dad and I walk into the building. * * * The new suit is black, sleek, and, to be honest, badass. It’ll be delivered in two weeks. Dad was kind of pushy with the tailor, making him guarantee it’d be ready in time for the ball. I wish he’d been nicer, but whatever. As Dad pays, I sit down and check my phone. Come on … I have a new message. I unlock my phone. But what about our deal? If I meet your parents, I’ll know who you are. I feel like he must already. I’m a Miller. We’re one of the two most powerful families in the underworld. If he’s from a family allied to us, he must know who I am. I’m underworld famous. I hate even thinking this, because it feels smug, but I’m sort of a prince, given Dad is our current leader. I don’t mind you knowing who I am. Why do you care so much? That feels a little too aggressive, though, so I delete it. He obviously does care about this, and I don’t want to scare him away. This is also confirmation that our deal is continuing, at least for the time being. I change tack: Not if they’re out of the house. I usually have the place to myself on Saturday nights. My phone chimes. Okay. If they’re not there, I’m in. * * * It’s Saturday night, and Luke still hasn’t left. Dad has gone to a meeting at the bar. Apparently something big is going down, something he isn’t ready for me to know about yet. All I know about it is Dad told me to be prepared, even though I don’t really know what I should be preparing for. This is typical. He still thinks I’m too young to know everything. Most of the time, I don’t want to know. Anyway, I checked, and I know Luke is going out with his friends from college, a lot of which are his friends from high school. He’s always been popular. I get it; he’s a cool guy, but it bothers me that he’s figured out how to be likable when it’s been so damn hard for me. Jason is the first person in a long time who seems to like my company. And he’s coming over tonight. But only if Luke isn’t here. Which is why I’m so stressed that my brother hasn’t left yet. I swear he doesn’t normally take this long. It’s, like, comical how slow he’s being. He’s currently in the shower, singing “Sweet Caroline.” Loudly. And terribly. My phone buzzes in my pocket. Has he left yet? Nope. He’s in the shower now. Singing. Haha! You’re not a fan? He’s no Beyoncé. To be fair, nobody is. And that’s promising, right? The showering, not the singing. Yeah! Cool. Well, I’m ready to go. Text when your place is free, I’ll head over. This feels so risky. I know from past experience that Dad and Luke don’t normally come home until really late, and most of the time I’m asleep by then. But what if they come home early? Maybe I should just cancel. Bringing Jason into my house feels like a kind of leap I’m not sure I’m ready for. But I don’t want to cancel. I just don’t want to get caught. If I told Dad and Luke that I was having a friend over, they probably wouldn’t care. If they asked how I knew him, I could say school. If I said I met him at the bar, I know they’d ask me what family he’s from. And I don’t know the answer to that. Why is he being so weird about which family he’s from? Down the hall, I hear the shower shut off. Finally. A few seconds later, Luke walks past. I watch a BuzzFeed Unsolved video as I wait. A few moments later, Luke appears in my doorway. He’s dressed in his usual attire: a well-fitting black shirt, jeans, and his most expensive pair of dress shoes. Dad got them for him. “Hey, I’m about to head out,” he says. “Okay, have a good night!” “You too. Don’t get into too much trouble without me, okay?” “I never do.” I hear the door close. Then I wait. I hear a car pull up by our house, I’m guessing his Uber, because he’s planning on drinking. It drives away. I want to be sure, though, so I go through the house, to the front door. There are glass panels on either side of it, so I look through those, out at the driveway. The street is empty. Eddie comes up to me. He always sulks whenever Luke leaves. His ears are pressed down, and his tail is hanging limp. I scratch the top of his head, until his tail starts wagging. “You can keep a secret, can’t you, buddy?” He nuzzles against my leg. I’ll take that as a yes. So I text Jason. My heart is seriously pounding. Hey, guess what? What? He’s gone. The typing bubble appears. Sweet! I’m on my way. CHAPTER SEVEN There’s a knock on the door. Oh man. I’m so not ready for this. I’ve changed my outfit maybe ten times. So now my bed is covered in clothes, although everywhere else is clean. I even lit a sandalwood candle to try to make sure my room smells nice. The outfit I ended up settling for is a You Me at Six band shirt I got from when I saw them live, skinny black jeans, and my Vans. I think I look good. I’m not totally confident in my decision to wear a band tee, but I know from trying on almost all my clothes I’m not going to be totally confident in any of them. And I’m out of time. I scoop up all rejected choices and throw them into the closet and shut the door. Presto, instant clean room. I jog down to the foyer. Earlier, I scanned the house to make sure there are no obvious signs on display of who Luke and Dad are. I had to hide a few photos in my room, like one from Luke’s high school graduation, a few of Mom, and one with my grandparents. I triple-checked and am sure I did a good job. Eddie is jumping up and down, pressing his paws against the door, and I can see a male figure outside. I grab on to Eddie’s collar and open the door. “Hey, hey,” says Jason. Even under the harsh porch light, he looks fantastic. I’ve never seen him wear casual clothes, but they suit him really well. He’s wearing a dark red T-shirt and navy skinny jeans, along with cool Nikes that were probably really expensive. They look kind of extra. “Hey,” I say. “Thanks for coming.” “No, thanks for having me.” Eddie is going wild, like he wants to lick Jason to death. I mean, I get that. Jason crouches and starts petting Eddie. “Who’s a good boy?” Eddie sits proudly and lets Jason rub his chest. “He likes you,” I say. “He’s normally way more skittish with new people.” “Really? That’s, like, the highest compliment possible. I love dogs.” “Me too.” Jason stands. Oh man, Eddie really does like him. He’s nudging at his legs, wanting more attention. But now Jason is looking at me. What’s the proper greeting for something like this? I go for a handshake, and he ignores it, going for a hug instead. And he’s a great hugger. He’s so firm, and yet … we kind of sink into each other. It’s perfect. “Should I take my shoes off?” he asks as we break apart. “Nah, it’s fine.” “Cool.” We walk inside. “Anyway,” I say. “Um, are you hungry?” He shoves his hands into his pockets. “I am, yeah. Is that all right? I could’ve eaten before, but I thought…” “Yeah, dude, ’course. I was thinking we could order pizza or something. There’s this New York–style place down the road that does honestly the best pizza I’ve ever had.” “That sounds fucking amazing.” “Great.” I close the door behind him and lead him through the entrance foyer, into the kitchen. I walk around the kitchen island while Jason checks out the place. Eddie brings Jason his favorite toy, a chewed-up rope with a ball on the end of it. Jason tosses it, and Eddie runs off to retrieve it. “Do you want a drink?” I ask. I open the fridge and scan the options. There’s white wine, but that’s Dad’s. Luke keeps a couple of bottles of beer on the bottom shelf, because Dad isn’t super strict about him drinking. I could offer him one of those, but Jason might not like that. I get the idea he’s pretty straight-edge. Or as straight-edge as someone in our world can be. “I’m good,” he says as he throws the toy again. “Thanks, though.” I close the fridge and turn back. “No problem.” “Nice place, by the way,” he says. I imagine being him, seeing my place for the first time. In front of us is the living room, where there’s a brown couch in front of a huge TV. Outside, through a set of glass sliding doors, is the pool. Down one hall is Dad’s room. On the other side of the house is a hall that leads to my bedroom and Luke’s, plus a bathroom. The floors are stone-colored ceramic tile. They make the whole place feel kind of frosty. “Thanks. Um, what kind of pizza do you like? We should probably order, like, now, if you’re hungry.” I bring up the app on my phone. He moves around and stands beside me, so close that we’re nearly touching. I can smell his cologne now, and it’s very nice. “Pepperoni, obviously,” he says. Honestly, it’s the only acceptable answer. I’m glad he said it. “Cool. How about I get one of those and a garlic bread? We already have Cokes and stuff here.” “Sounds perfect.” I order the food, and the app tells me it’ll be delivered in twenty minutes. “I could show you the pool, if you’d like?” I ask. He nods, so I take him through the house. Eddie follows behind, with the toy in his mouth. He’s so needy. “I love your TV,” says Jason as he takes the toy from Eddie and throws it. “Where do you keep your games?” “In the drawer.” He slides it open, revealing my stack of games. “Can I?” he asks. “Sure.” He rifles through them. “All nice choices, man. You clearly have good taste.” “Thanks. But come on, I’m not done yet.” “Fine, fine, sorry I’m so curious about you.” I don’t know what to say to that. But for some reason, I blush. We go outside and go through the gate, to walk around the pool. It’s lit up by underwater lights, which makes it look sort of magical. The whole area is really nice. It gets a massive smile out of him. “This is so awesome,” he says. “I’m glad you like it. I hang out here a lot. Like, when I read or listen to a podcast, I sit there.” “I do that, too, actually. Just, at my place.” “You do?” “Yeah.” “Awesome.” Once we’ve done a lap, we go back inside. He marvels at everything, including a piece of modern art hanging on the hallway wall. I know it’s ridiculously expensive, even though it’s pretty much just a single black line on a red background. Dad bought it for himself to celebrate landing a big protection racket deal. We get a lot of our income from that. Businesses pay us to keep them safe … But if they don’t pay, they get torched. So really, we’re protecting them from ourselves. It’s totally messed up, and I hate thinking about it. “I like this,” he says. “Yeah, me too.” “What do you think it means?” “Hmm.” I put my hand on my chin, and lean back a little, like I’m an art critic. “I think it’s about the way men bottle rage, until it all finally erupts, ruining the lives of everyone around them.” “Really?” “God no, I have no idea.” He laughs, and then we go down the hall. “Oh, and the bathroom is there, if you, um, need to use it,” I say. “Noted.” “And down there’s my brother’s room. Don’t go in there, it smells like Axe.” “Really?” “Yeah. Like, all the time. And this one,” I say as I walk into my room, “is mine.” I feel really self-conscious. I’ve put a lot of work into my room. Now it feels stupid. Like, who has this many movie posters? They feel childish now. Maybe I should’ve taken them down before I invited him over. Tried to man the place up a little. “I love this,” he says. I kick at the dark carpet. “Really?” “Yeah, dude, your room is sick. Have you seen all these movies?” “Multiple times, yeah.” “That’s amazing.” He walks over to the poster I have of Creature from the Black Lagoon. He touches it. “Which one’s your favorite?” “Movie or poster?” “Either.” “Well, my favorite movie is Mulholland Drive. I don’t really have a favorite poster.” I walk him over to one of the posters by the door. My Mulholland Drive one. “What’s it about?” he asks. “It looks cool.” “It is. It’s about this actress … actually, you should probably just watch it. It’s better to just experience it blind, trust me.” That’s how I found it. I heard a lot of discussion about it being good, so I decided to finally watch it. When it ended, I knew right away that I’d just seen my favorite movie. “There’s this great song inspired by it. I could play it, if you want?” “Sure.” I pull out my phone, and sync it to my Bluetooth speaker. I find the song, and hit play. It’s a song called “Mulholland Drive” by the Gaslight Anthem. To me, it feels like how the movie feels. And I love it for that. The chorus hits. It goes: Oh that I’d just die if you ever took your love away. “Damn, nice,” he says, nodding his head along. “I like it. He sounds so desperate.” “Dude, that’s exactly why I like it!” “Nice. You have such cool taste in music; I’m so jealous.” I sit down on my desk chair, and he sits down on the edge of my bed. He kind of lounges, which I really like. It’s as if he’s already super comfortable here. “What music do you like?” I ask. “Sorry, that’s such a broad question. I’ll narrow it down: What’s your favorite band?” “I don’t really know. I feel like I haven’t come across any I like that much. I like this, though.” “That’s exciting,” I say. “That means they’re still out there, for you to find.” He smiles. “I’ve never thought about it that way. That is pretty exciting.” “In the meantime, though, what do you listen to?” I have a moment where I realize this is happening. There he is. Sitting on my bed, like he’s done this a bunch of times. I have a friend over. This is so cool. “I usually just listen to the playlists Spotify makes for me,” he says. “I’m not really a big music guy.” He shrugs. “Sorry. I know you are.” “Hey, don’t be sorry. I’m not one of those people who expects people to like everything I like. I hope I don’t seem like I am.” “No, you don’t. You seem very cool.” He smiles. God, he’s so cute. “I’m glad.” He quirks his head to the side and then pushes up off my bed and goes over to my bookshelf. He scans it. “Harry Potter, nice,” he says. “The Game of Thrones series, too.” “Yep.” He taps the top of the shelf and looks around. “I really do love your room,” he says. “It feels like, yours, you know?” I lean back against my chair. “Yours doesn’t?” “Nope.” “Why?” “Can’t say. It’s a family thing.” “Oh, right.” That kind of lingers between us. I get the idea he wants to change the subject pretty badly. For the first time since he got here, he looks uncomfortable. “Did you want to play some Smash Bros.?” I ask. “Dude, yes! I love Smash Bros.!” “Me too.” We walk back to the living room and sit down on the couch. He sits fairly close to me. Not close enough to touch, but still. I grab the remote from the coffee table and turn on the TV. I feel very aware of the space I’m taking up, and the space between us. He seems to like getting close to me. I’m not complaining, but I wish I knew why he was doing it. If he’s gay, it’d make sense. But if he’s straight and just messing with me … I’d hate it. Jason bounces up and down. I watch him. “What?” he says. “It’s really comfy.” “Okay.” I glance at the front door. I’m kind of freaking out that we could get walked in on at any second by Dad or Luke. And then I’ll have to explain why I didn’t just say I was having a friend over. And why we’re sitting so close together. I think my lying will make them think I’m keeping a secret about Jason. I don’t know if it’ll make them think I’m gay. But it might. Because, seriously, he’s so close to me right now. And I’m not stupid. Something is going on here. Right? Or maybe I just really want that to be the case. Ugh. I just wish I knew what he wants. I load the game and hand him a controller. Our hands touch. It feels deliberate. But it can’t be. If Jason is gay, there’s no way he’d be into me. He’d be into someone cool … not a guy he found freaking out in a bathroom in an ill-fitting suit. He’d be into someone, like him, who’d charge into the water, not someone who has to google shark attacks before going in. He’d like someone bold and cool. So not me. The game starts, and we both go to select the same character: Pokémon Trainer. “Are they your favorite?” he asks. “Yeah. Yours too?” “Yep. I can be Lucario, though, I love him almost as much.” It’s kind of a deep cut, when it comes to Super Smash Bros. and Pokémon. I love that. He switches to Lucario. And then we fight. * * * It takes about an hour for the nerves to completely settle. Together, Jason and I have demolished an entire pepperoni pizza and two loaves of garlic bread. We also each had a can of Coke Zero Sugar, which I found out he likes as much as I do. I’ve lost every single match. He’s way too good at this game. And I don’t even care. I feel full, and happy, and like I’ve settled into a comfortable groove with him. Like we’ve been friends for ages and we’re just hanging out. I’ve wanted something like this for so long. An actual friend. Right now, we’re selecting our characters. For the first time, I pick Link. “Oh, nice,” he says. “I love Link. I had the biggest crush on him when I was a kid.” HOLD UP. “Um,” I say. “Er, yeah, I’m not exactly straight. Surprise!” WOW. “Oh, um, cool,” I say. “That’s all you have to say?” “I mean, yeah. I think it’s cool. But, wait, how exactly do you identify?” His eyes widen a little. “Um, I’m only into guys, or anyone who presents as male. So I usually go by gay, if I have to label myself. I don’t really like doing that, though. It feels weird.” I focus on the TV. I’m shaking. I lower my controller so he doesn’t notice. “That’s awesome,” I say. “It’s not a big thing for me; I literally don’t think of you any different, by the way. But thanks for telling me.” “No problem,” he says. “I just thought you should know. I’ve been trying to bring it up this whole time, actually.” “Really? Why?” “Let’s just say … I wanted you to know.” I don’t know what to say to that. I think he’s flirting with me. So now I have a hot gay dude sitting next to me. And he’s looking at me like he’s expecting me to tell him about myself. Or maybe kiss him. I have so many questions that I can’t ask. Does he know about me? Is this why he wanted me to know? Does he want me to tell him right now? Does he even know I’ve never told anyone? A part of me wants me to come out to him. To just say fuck it and jump in. I think that’s what he wants, and his knowing would be kind of awesome. I think about doing it … but then swerve away at the last second. It’s too scary. I’m not ready. “How was coming out?” I ask. “I’ve heard it’s, like, rough for some people.” He maintains eye contact. “I won’t lie, it was scary. And it wasn’t great for a while. It was just … weird. I came out at fourteen.” “Wait, fourteen? That’s so young.” He leans back against the chair. “Eh, I’ve known pretty much my whole life, so it didn’t feel young to me. Anyway, my mom was fine, but Dad was a bit of a dick about it. I think he maybe thinks when I’m older I’ll straighten out, like this is some sort of trend I’m following.” I lean back so we’re both up against the backrest. Our arms are so close to touching. His hand is resting on the couch. He has really pretty hands, with long, dainty fingers. There’s a freckle on his wrist. I wonder what it’d be like to circle it with my fingertips. I glance up. He’s so handsome. And now I know he might be an option. Because I’m picking up a vibe that he would make out with me, if I went for it. But is that all he wants? To hook up with me? I’d actually hate that. I’d rather have a friend. I don’t want this to be a one-and-done type deal. Even if his lips are such a nice shade of pink and look sort of glossy right now. And even if I can see the curve of his muscles through his shirt. I don’t want to be just a conquest for him. I want to be more than that. Oh God, I’m so glad nobody can hear my thoughts. “That’s so stupid,” I say quietly. I think we’ve both forgotten about the game. “He should realize it doesn’t work like that.” “Yeah, it doesn’t. Trust me, I know.” “I’m sorry,” I say. “It sucks that your dad makes you feel like that.” He nods. “Thanks for being cool. You can never tell with guys. Girls are pretty much always fine with it, but with guys, it’s a total crapshoot.” “Did you just make a gambling reference? Are you sure you’re gay?” “Shut up!” He laughs and pushes me. His hand rests on my stomach for a second too long. “But, yeah, I’m very sure,” he says. “Guys just do it for me. They make me feel like I’m, like, on fire. It’s that intense.” I glance down. It feels like a barrier has been broken. That touching each other is okay now. The moment passes. The walls go back up. “Wait,” I say. “What about your baseball team?” “I told you I play baseball?” I nod. I feel a little busted. He only told me once, and I remembered. I’m not sure if that’s weird. I’m sure stuff like that will give away my sexuality. And if he knows about me, then we might make out or something. Which would be great. But risky. What if we don’t click romantically? That’d be the end of things. And I’ve never been kissed. Not even once. What if I’m not good at it? Right away, at least. “Um, yeah,” I say. “You did. Or was it basketball?” “No, you were right the first time. Good memory. But yeah, the team seems fine with it. I think they have to be; they know how much trouble they’d get into if they said anything homophobic.” He stares off into the distance, clearly remembering something. “After I came out my coach did a whole speech about how we’re a team and how our personal lives shouldn’t impact that. I normally don’t like being fussed over, but that was pretty great.” I can picture it now. Him, blushing, while his coach grills his team. “Anyway,” he says. “Now that’s out there, let’s play Smash Bros. I mean the game, by the way, in case your mind is in the gutter.” I freeze, my eyes wide. “I’m just messing with you,” he says, and he nudges my leg with his. “No need to freak.” “Sorry. I’m just getting used to it. I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” “You’re not secretly a homophobe, are you?” “No.” “Then you’ve got nothing to worry about.” “Cool.” The game finally starts. It feels like the most intense of all our fights so far. But the whole time, I’m thinking about him having a crush on Link. The fight ends, with him just winning. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to winning so far. “Nice work,” he says. “You nearly had me.” A fluttery feeling fills my stomach. Eddie barks, and then runs over to the door. I freeze. No. No no no no no. This can’t be happening. But it is. Headlights flash in through the windows at the front of the house. Someone’s home. CHAPTER EIGHT “What’s wrong?” asks Jason. My mind is racing, trying to come up with a plan to get out of this. I look at the coffee table, and see the remnants of our hangout. Two empty, but clearly used, glasses are sitting on it. I’ll need to hide one of them. And, obviously, think about something to do with the hot tall guy currently sitting beside me. “Someone’s here,” I say as I turn off the TV. I stand up and grab one of the cups. “Follow me.” “What?” “We have our deal,” I say. “Unless you want to find out who I am, you need to come with me. Please.” “Oh, shit, okay.” He stands up. He’s not moving fast enough, so I take hold of his wrist and run him through the house to my room. I look around. Under the bed won’t work, it’s too obvious. I have a window, but it has a bolted-in, bulletproof metal fly screen. Nobody is coming in or out of it. I realize I’m still hanging on to his wrist. I let go. As I do, I glance at my closet. It’s perfect. Jason crosses his arms and tilts his head up. “Really?” “I’m so sorry. It won’t be for long. I’ll think of something, just, hide.” I open the sliding door, and then push aside some of my clothes. Because Jason is so tall, it’s going to be cramped, but it’ll have to do. He frowns. But then he steps inside, bowing his head to do so. “I hope you appreciate the irony of this. I come out to you, and then you shove me right back in a closet.” He grins. I wish I could find this amusing, but I’m way too freaked to find anything funny right now. “I’m really sorry,” I whisper. “I thought they wouldn’t come home, I swear.” “It’s cool, it happens.” I wonder what that means as I slide the door shut. I take a step back and look. He’s perfectly hidden. Okay, phew. I run back down the hall and dump the cup in the sink, just in time for the door to open. There are still two controllers sitting on the couch. Maybe they won’t notice, but it definitely still looks like two people have been playing. Luke steps inside. “What’s wrong with you?” he says, coming straight up to me. “Why don’t you answer your fucking phone?” “What?” I guess I haven’t checked it in a while, I was too busy with Jason. I pull my phone out and check. The screen is full of notifications. Ten missed calls from him, along with a bunch of messages. I had it on silent, like I always do. I guess I was so distracted by Jason I never thought to check it. “I…” Then I notice Luke’s eyes are red. He closes the distance and hugs me tight. I can’t even recall the last time he did this. Is this because of Jason? Surely this isn’t how he’d be reacting if he knew about what I was doing. “What’s going on?” I ask. Luke sniffs. Wait, is he crying? I check, and he’s only just managing to keep it together. “It’s Dad,” he says. “Matt, he’s…” “What is it? Just tell me.” “He’s been shot.” No. No way. This must be a prank. A terrible, awful prank. “He’s okay,” says Luke. “Well, he’s not. He’s in surgery now. Apparently that’s a good thing, they don’t operate on people they don’t think have a chance, right? But you know Dad, he’s tough, he’s not going to…” Die. That’s the end of that sentence. Holy shit. “Everyone else is at the hospital,” says Luke. “People kept asking why you weren’t there, so I came to get you. Let’s go.” “Now?” “Yes, now. Maybe grab a sweater, it’s cold inside.” I nod and run back to my room. I close the door behind me. I feel like crying, but I can’t. Not until I’ve dealt with the Jason mess. I hardly even care about it right now, though. My dad’s been shot. It must’ve been the Donovans. It doesn’t feel real, it’s that horrible. He’s been in the hospital, fighting for his life, and I’ve been here, with Jason. I open the closet door. “What’s going on?” says Jason. “I heard shouting.” “Nothing, it’s fine. Well, it’s not. We’re about to go out. Just wait, I’ll text you when we’re out of the house. Go out the front door, lock it behind you. Okay?” “Sure, but…” I grab my black hoodie from beside him. Jason is watching me, unblinking. “Is everything okay?” he asks. “Don’t worry about it. This has nothing to do with you, I promise.” “Dude, talk to me.” “It’s a family thing, so I shouldn’t, right? That’s our deal.” His face falls. “Oh, okay. Up to you, man.” I slide the door shut again, then I go back to the living room. Luke’s already gone outside. I lock the door behind me, and go down to Luke’s car. It’s a black Ford Mustang convertible that he got for his eighteenth birthday. It’s his pride and joy, along with Eddie. I climb into the passenger seat and pull on my seat belt. Luke spins the car out onto the road and then steps on the gas. We drive in silence. The radio is playing some crappy pop song about generic true love. Barf. “Hey,” I say. “Yeah?” “You might want to slow down.” He was starting to speed. Only just, but I noticed it. “You’re right,” he says. “Sorry.” He’s clearly messed up. I am, too. But I don’t think it’s properly hit me yet. My dad is supposed to be untouchable, the strongest one out of all of us. If they can get him … I know this is his war. After Grandad died, Dad is the one who spearheaded the charge to fight the Donovans. I do know that most of us wanted some form of retaliation. Still, I get a sense sometimes that not everyone is okay with the fact that it’s turned into an all-out war. I hate thinking this, but maybe this will be a sign he needs to stop the fighting. That would honestly be such a relief. I can’t believe I’m thinking it, though. I should hate the Donovans more than I ever have. Up ahead, I can see Mercy Hospital. The parking lot is a massive tower, and the words “MERCY” are in dark blue neon on the side. Between the “M” and the “E” is a cross, which feels a little bit over-the-top to me, but whatever. Luke parks in the closest free spot, and we climb out, and start heading toward the front door. The lot is dark and still. Luke practically jogs across it, and I try to keep up. To be honest, I can’t help but feel slightly responsible for this. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. I hang out with Jason one time, and then this happens. I know there’s no direct link, and I shouldn’t feel this way. But still, I do. The hospital’s walls are cream colored, and the floors are speckled blue. The desk and furnishings are all modern and sleek, which feels promising. Luke broke his arm when he was younger, and the place he went was ancient. This place looks top-notch. It smells clean, like antiseptic spray. It’s so strong my nose starts tingling. Luke takes me down a hallway, and we reach a waiting room. Inside, most of my family has gathered. We fill almost the entire space. Everyone looks tired and drained. It’s Millers only, no allied families. Everyone glances my way. A few of them sneer at me. Luke was right. I should’ve been here right away, as I’m sure Luke was. And yet, I wasn’t. They don’t need it, but this is clearly another strike against me. Luke goes across the room and sits down. I sit beside him. And we wait. After a few hours, a doctor finally steps into the waiting room. I’ve never felt so sick. We all huddle around the doctor. Luke is closest to her. “Just tell us,” he says. “Is he okay?” “It was touch-and-go for a second there, but it’s looking good,” says the doctor. She’s in blue scrubs and holding a clipboard. “We managed to get the bullets out and stop the bleeding. He’s expected to make a full recovery. Your old man’s quite the fighter.” Relief washes over the crowd. He’s going to be okay. “We’ll keep him in an induced coma for the next few days, to give his body some time to heal. You’ll be able to sit with him during visiting hours, but for now, I advise you all to go home and get some rest. It’s been a long night, but the worst is over.” Vince goes up to her and shakes her hand. As he does, I notice he’s handed her a wad of cash. He wants her to keep this quiet. I shouldn’t be surprised. I know my family has a foothold in most major institutions in the city. If they scratch our back, we’ll scratch theirs. Not passing on this information to the police is one of the things they can do. “Hey, Matt,” says Luke. “Yeah?” “A word?” Luke takes me down a hallway to find a quiet spot. We stop beside a vending machine, and he tucks his hands into his armpits. The lights here are so bright my eyes sting. “I think someone should stay here,” he says. “In case something happens.” “Yeah, same.” I think I know where he wants me to go with this. “You go,” I say. “I’ll take first watch.” He looks totally wiped out. His hair is messy, and there are angry dark circles under his eyes. “You sure?” he asks. “Yeah. Get some rest, dude, you’re done.” “Okay, thanks. I’ll go sleep, then we’ll swap in the morning?” “Sure.” “Cool, thanks.” We go back to the waiting room. Everyone is in the process of slowly gathering their things to head home. It seems like I’m the only one staying. That suits me just fine. Luke’s company is always welcome, but the others … I’d rather be alone. I take a seat and watch as everyone leaves. A few of the guys shake my hand as they go, each one crushing my palm with their grip. I also get a few emotionless hugs from my a