He drove with one hand on the wheel, sunglasses flashing with each turn of his head. It was over ninety degrees outside, and his half-broken down '86 Cadillac didn't have air conditioning, so he had all the windows down ("Four-Fifty A.C. - Four windows at fifty miles per hour.") and the stereo cranked up so he could still hear it over the roar of the wind resistance. He knew that he wouldn't be nearly as hot if he would just take off his black leather bomber jacket, but he couldn't help it - he was finally out of there, damn it, and he was going to look as cool as possible. Besides, he still felt strange about having his forearms exposed.
He checked the map once again, taking his eyes off of the road and steering with his knees - a bad habit he had picked up a long time ago. He knew exactly how stupid it was, but that was the kind of habit you couldn't break until something made you break it. God knows he was familiar enough with those kinds of habits. There it was, highlighted in red - the road to Gordon, OH. With luck, he'd be there by five, and without using the turnpike, too. He had always prided himself on avoiding the turnpike. Pay just for the privilege of burning his gas on their roads? No thanks. The interstate was good enough for him.
Laughing, he tossed the map into the passenger seat. Nothing had really caught him as being funny, he was just in a good mood. The first one of those he had had in a while. Well, the first naturally produced one, that is. He rested one hand against the open window frame, grinning widely and even taking the time to wave to the occasional other driver.
"Oh yeah! Love this song." He cranked the volume knob on his stereo to near ridiculous levels, then noticed the nearby drivers giving him dirty looks. He kept the volume high, but turned the bass down as low as he could get it, which seemed to make them happy. "Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time...it's easy!"
Cam was the last to show up at Andrew's house, holding a bag full of sweatshirts and a winter coat. Nathan, Jerry, and Jill were already there, holding simular bags. Andrew, who had been sitting on his front steps, jumped to his feet when Cam arrived.
"Going to tell us what we're doing now?" Jill asked.
"Yep. And remember - this is either the most brilliant idea I have ever had, or...well, it could be the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. Well, probably not as bad as the Holocost, really, or that woman who tried to return her murder weapon to Wal-Mart, but-"
"Just tell us already. What's this brilliant and/or stupid idea, and how does it involve sweatshirts?"
"All right, gather around, ladies and gentlemen, and listen. Today is, quite possibly, the hottest day of the year. As you may or may not know, I've been waiting all Summer for it, and I figure this is as close as we'll get. What is it, ninety-six out here?"
"I heard ninety-eight." Jerry said.
"Right. Well, the specifics don't matter." Andrew grinned, his plan finally coming to fruition. "Here's the deal. I've been out of my house all day. That is to say, I woke up, saw how hot it was, got all my sweatshirts and winter coats out, and came out here. But not before calling you guys and turning on the heater."
"I...I think I see where this is going." Jill interjected.
"Right, but listen closely. You all brought a dollar, right?" They nodded. "Here's the deal. We all throw a dollar into the pot. We go inside, where it's ridiculously hot, and we start putting on sweatshirts and coats. Last man - or woman - standing wins the money. Get it?"
"So...we're going to sit around in your living room and steam ourselves to death?" Cam asked, more to clarify than to disagree with the idea.
"Yep. You can quit at any time, strip off, get some cold water and go outside where there's at least a breeze, but then you're not allowed back in until the contest is over. You in?"
"Why not? I could use five bucks." Cam replied. The others voiced simular opinions.
"All right. If this works out, I hope to make it an annual event. Twenty or more people would make it a pretty high-stakes game." He opened up his door, and the heat was nearly visible. It lashed out at them on the steps, nearly taking the breath from more than one. "No turning back now. As soon as we're in, the Hot Guy Contest begins."
"That's what you're calling it?" Jill asked.
"Sure. Aw jeez, you're not going to make me be all politically correct about it and change it to Hot Person Contest, are you? That just doesn't have the same ring to it."
"No, it's not that, it's just...you might send the wrong message with a name like that."
Andrew shrugged and led them inside. He picked up a sweatshirt from the pile he had amassed in the middle of the living room and pulled it on over his t-shirt. The others did the same, drawing from their own bags.
"Round one. Round two comes in...fifteen minutes. So, what should we do while we wait for it?" He asked.
"Got cards?" Jerry asked.
"Oh yeah." He pulled a deck and a container of poker chips from a shelf.
They played for a while, the game taking their minds off of the fact that they were sweating like crazy. By round four, the cards were getting too slippery to hold.
"Ugh. Smells like a men's locker room in here." Jill commented.
"What do you know about men's locker rooms?" Andrew asked.
"I had a class next to the locker room last year. I've walked past the door enough times to know the smell, and this is it. Hope you've got some air freshener or something, or your parents will think you were having some kind of...well, some kind of Hot Guy Contest in here."
"Don't worry, I've been planning this for a while. Speaking of which...round five?"
They were barely able to get the fifth layer of sweatshirts on. It was getting to the point where it was hard to move their arms.
"You know, no one's dropped out yet. Maybe we should up the level of competition a bit." Nathan suggested.
"Since when are you the competitive type, Clint?" Andrew asked.
"Hey, when there's money involved..."
"Good point. Don't fear, good sir, for I've got us covered. I planned for drawn-out stuff like this. Time to break out the big guns." He stood up, spinning his arms a bit to catch his ballance in the top-heavy torture suit he had on, and moved into the kitchen. When he came back out, he was holding a tray with five coffee mugs in one hand, and in the other, a full pot of hot water. He distributed the mugs and placed the pot in the middle of the table they were currently seated around. "We'll go shot-for-shot with hot water. I'd use coffee, but that takes too long to make."
He filled his own mug with water and passed the pot to Jill, who was sitting next to him. She repeated the action and passed it to Cam, who in turn passed it to Nathan and then to Jerry.
"All right guys, drink it all at once. And no blowing on it, either." He lifted the cup to his lips and threw his head back, trying to down it as quick as possible so he didn't have to taste it. Hot, unflavored water was absolutely horrible, especially when you drank a lot of it. He grinned when he saw that Jerry and Cam were sipping theirs slowly. They wouldn't stand a chance if they kept that up.
They did this until the pot was empty. Cam was currently thanking the God of masochistic heat-related contests (who never gets much attention as it is) that that particular event was done with. He looked over at Nathan, who gave him a sympathetic look and a pat on the back.
Jerry, on the other hand, wasn't doing as well. He stood up, practically swooning from a combination of the heat, the added weight of five sweat-soaked sweatshirts, and the water.
"Ugh...I think I'm out." He took in a deep breath of the hot, sticky air. "Yeah, definitely out." He slapped his dollar on the table, ripped off his shirts, and stumbled outside to collapse on the grass.
"One down, three to go." Andrew said, standing. "All right, next round. Winter coats."
"This...is such a horrible idea." Cam said, not wanting to stand just yet, but pulling himself up and over to his bag.
"Definitely a horrible idea." Jill agreed. "But it'll make a great story afterwards."
"Hey, I've got an idea." Nathan said, struggling to zip up his coat around the added size of the sweatshirts, but failing. "Got any peppers, Andrew?"
Andrew's eyes lit up. "I like the way you think."
Jill and Cam groaned in unison as he walked to the kitchen and returned with a glass jar of peppers. These weren't the ridiculously hot kind, but they were enough to make you want to knock back a glass of milk after eating one. He popped open the jar and distributed one to each remaining contestants.
"Are we allowed to drink anything after this?" Cam asked, hopefully.
"Just hot water." Andrew and Nathan both replied.
"Ugh. I'm out, then." There was no way he was going to go any further. The water was already making his stomach flop around, and a pepper would probably shoot the delicate ballance he was trying to maintain all to hell. He pulled a dollar from his wallet and dropped it on top of Jerry's before ripping off his extra shirts and practically falling through the door.
"You know," Jill said, watching Cam and Jerry through the window, "This seemed a lot less stupid when five people were doing it instead of three. Maybe it has something to do with peer pressure or mob rule or something."
"Are you saying you're out?" Andrew asked.
"...No." She attempted to stare him down, gripping the pepper between two fingers and locking eyes with him. "I want to win this thing, just so that you have to admit that a girl won your Hot Guy Contest."
"We'll see. Peppers on three. Ready? One. Two. Three." He tossed it into his mouth, ground it once with his back teeth, and swallowed it, not letting any of the seeds or juice hit his tongue.
Nathan did the same, but it looked like Jill was taking a bit longer to chew hers.
"That's a mistake." Andrew muttered. Nathan nodded to him.
"Oh...damn." That was all she got out before ripping a dollar from her pocket, throwing it at the table, and running to pour a glass of milk, which she took outside with her, leaving a trail of sweatshirts behind.
"All right, cowboy. You and me. For the title of hottest guy in Gordon. Last round. Hats and gloves."
Nathan nodded, pulling on a pair of gloves and a wool hat. Andrew did the same, making it look suspiciously like winter inside his house. Outside, the others had gathered at the window, watching it go down.
"You know the worst part of this?" Cam asked.
"We'll never be able to get these shirts to smell halfway decent again."
"Very true." Jill replied. "Hey, look. They're about to do something."
Back inside, Nathan and Andrew were facing each other, arms stretched skyward.
"Three. Two. One. Now!"
At Andrew's signal, they both began doing jumping jacks. Rather, almost doing jumping jacks. The real thing was quite impossible, since neither of them could completely bend their arms. Still, it was getting the job done. Sweat was practically pouring down their faces, even more powerfully than before.
"Who do you think is gonna win?" Jerry asked.
"Can't tell." Jill replied, before taking another deep gulp of milk. She was still feeling the effects of that pepper...and the hot water, for that matter. "Based on what I'm feeling, it looks like this'll end as soon as one of them throws up."
"Actually, the rules don't say you can't puke." Cam pointed out. "So long as the sick one stays in there, they're still in the game."
"You...almost...done?" Andrew huffed.
"Not...by...a...long...shot." Nathan replied.
"I'll...keep...this...up...all...SONUVA-" His eyes widened and he fell forward, taking Andrew down with him into the pile of shirts on the ground.
"You notice how they look like a pile of Goodwill donations?" Jill asked.
"I knew they looked familiar." Jerry said. "Just couldn't place it."
Andrew, currently being crushed under Nathan, wasn't too comfortable. Not only was he ridiculously hot, but being underneath another ridiculously hot guy wasn't making things any better. Not to mention that he was rather uncomfortable with the fact that he just thought of Clint as a ridiculously hot guy.
"But only in the temperature sense, damn it." He mumbled.
"I said get the hell off before I have a heat stroke."
"I don't know...seems to me like I've got the upper hand. I'll get up when you surrender."
"Aw, come on. Hot Guy Contest isn't a contact sport."
"I don't remember hearing that rule."
"All right, Clint. You want to play it that way, we will." Andrew started squirming, trying to get out from Nathan's strategic hold. If his mobility hadn't been impaired by the large number of layers of clothing, he probably could have broken the hold easily, but this took him a few minutes. Not quite willing to stand up and let the contest go on as it had been, he flipped himself on top of Nathan and pinned him down with both arms. Now it was his turn to try to squirm his way out.
"Dude, I'm starting to get jealous." Cam said.
"Know what you mean." Jill mumbled.
"Huh?" Cam spun around to face her.
He shrugged and turned back to the window. The struggle inside had turned into a full-on shirt-hindered wrestling match. Because of their position in the pile of shirts, it was hard to tell who was winning. It just looked like a pile of clothes rolling around on the floor. Finally, they could see someone's head pop up on top.
"I...give..." Andrew breathed, pinned to the floor.
"I said I give up! Just let me up already."
Nathan stood, wobbled a bit from dizziness and top-heaviness, and fell backwards. Still, he didn't land on Andrew this time, so he was able to make his way to the table and slap his dollar on to the stack before peeling off his extra layers and swaggering outside.
"Whoa. Beaten at your own game, Andrew?" Jill asked.
"A little worse than just beaten. That was an example of straight-up ass-kickery."
Nathan had found his way outside now, sans sweatshirts. He fell to his knees at the first strong breeze and spread his arms, feeling the cool wind racing across his skin (which was currently alternating between pale and bright red).
"Oh man, that was the worst idea ever." He said.
"You up for doing it again next year?" Andrew asked, sucking in the significantly cooler outside air.
"You kidding? I won, didn't I? Now I've got a title to defend."
"Cool, cool. Right now, though, I've got to get to work on getting the house back to a somewhat reasonable condition before the parents get home, so I'll see you guys later. You guys want to grab your stuff first?"
They did so, picking up the carpet of discarded clothing and managing to sort it out. After the time it took to sort everything out inside the still ridiculously hot house, they were all in agreement that for now they would all head home, crank up the air conditioning, and pass out.
The first thing they noticed was the car in their driveway. Neither of them recognized it, but as they walked by, Nathan's eye caught on the jacket that was slung over the passenger seat. His breath caught in his throat for a second, but he forced his lungs to sort themselves out. Jerry didn't seem to notice. That didn't matter - he'd know soon enough.
He stopped for a second, staring at the door. He decided that he should probably get everything worked out in his head before he went in. Keep everything cool, maintain. Now, exactly how should he feel, and how did that compare to how he did feel?
Jerry pulled the door open and stepped inside. A wave of muffled conversation and white noise splashed past him and hit Nathan dead-on. No, he thought, I'm not ready yet. Give me a few more minutes. I don't know how I'm supposed to react. Don't know what I'm supposed to say.
Unfortunately for him, time has a habit of not slowing down, even when you really hope that it would. Jerry, still oblivious, stepped inside and let the door hang for a few seconds before the spring-loaded hinges snapped it shut again, cutting Nathan's connection to that world of wallpaper and carpet.
He stood there for what felt like forever, his eyes cast down to his feet, his thoughts so intense that he didn't hear the door open. It was only when he heard his name called that he looked up to see him standing there, wearing jeans and a white "Hard Rock Cafe" t-shirt, his blond hair blowing in the wind. His father.
No matter how prepared he thought he had been, the sight sent him rocketing back to mental oblivion. It took him a few minutes to try to work the tears out of his voice, but it still cracked when he whispered, "Where did you go?"
"Let's go inside. This...might take a while." They went inside. Nathan's dad, Tim Hensley, asked if they could talk somewhere private, so they went to Nathan's room. Julie Hensley, Nathan's aunt and Tim's sister, was keeping Jerry busy downstairs.
"All right. I suppose you'll need to hear this from the beginning, as much as I hate to tell it." Tim said, both of them sitting down on the edge of Nathan's bed. "It started just before your mother died."
Nathan flinched at this. He was used to the concept of his mother being dead, hell, he had been well used to it even while she was still alive. The therapist from the hospital had done that for him. To him. Whichever it was, he wasn't too happy with it. It made him feel like she was already gone, when she was still holding out. He hated that therapist for making him feel that way. The point was, he was well used to the concept, but still wasn't quite used to hearing it.
"Sorry. I've spent the past few months getting...well, not getting over it, but getting used to it. I guess once I got used to the idea, I just kind of subconsciously assumed that you would be, too." Tim continued. "Anyway, the time while she was still alive, but in that hospital...you know how different I started acting. I started not showing up until late at night, getting to work late, forgetting to do things. I'm sure you noticed."
Nathan nodded. Oh, he had definitely noticed.
"Well, I had been hanging around in bars. All the time. Every night, getting pounded out of my mind. Thank god someone always took my keys, or I may have killed somebody."
'Killed somebody'. Not 'killed myself'. Nathan picked up on that right away, but didn't say anything.
"Anyway, I was in terrible shape. I knew I had to shape up, that I couldn't keep going like that, but then...that's when she died." He took a deep breath and cleared his throat before continuing. "That made me even more depressed. And angry. Extremely angry. I stopped being the mopey, head-on-the-bar drunk and started being the raging, chair-throwing, stranger-punching kind of drunk. Of course, the bar owners didn't like that very much, and pretty soon I was blacklisted at every place in town. It still wasn't enough to get me to stop, though. I started buying from liqueur stores, then practically drowning myself in the back alleys."
Nathan's eyes widened at this. Getting drunk in the alleys of Chicago at night? Everyone knew that was dangerous.
"So that's when I started meeting the wrong kind of people. You know, the kind that hang out in the back alleys after midnight. They saw me, saw what I was. They saw my nice clothes, my suits from the office, so they knew I had money, but most of all, they saw how hopelessly messed up I was. It wasn't hard to get me hooked on something. Especially not something as strong as this." He bit his lip. Hard. He was obviously straining to get this out. "Do you know what heroin is, Nathan?"
His mouth went dry. Of course he knew what heroin was. Well, not technically, really, but he knew the reputation well enough. A needle-drug. The worst kind of drug there was. His mind flashed back to the halls of his old school, some of the other guys rolling up their sleeves and tapping the insides of their elbows, laughing. All he could do was nod.
"Well...they introduced me to it. I can't explain it to you, but it was horrible. It had me so tightly...I just couldn't think about anything else. I started not going to work at all, just leaching out of my bank account, out of your mother's life insurance. That last day...that's when I hit rock bottom. That's what they call it, 'hitting rock bottom'. I woke up somewhere. It was the worst feeling in the world, waking up somewhere and not knowing how you got there or how long it's been. I thought of you. I thought about what it would do to you if I had blacked out like that at home. If you found my lying on the bathroom floor with a needle in my arm."
Nathan shuddered, the image strong in his mind. Stupid vivid imagination.
"I got up, found the closest pay phone, and called the police. Told them what I'd done. Told them that I wanted to stop, and that I had to do it right then or else I'd lose my nerve and go do it again." He said. "I got down there and talked to them for a while. We worked it all out, that I'd go to rehab for as long as it took. I called Aunt Julie and worked it out with her, so that she would take care if you while I was gone."
"But...they never told me...all they said was that you had to go. They never told me." Nathan was sitting rigidly, barely able to move. Everything was hitting him, and hard.
"That was my fault. I made them agree not to tell you what I had done. God, Nathan, I was so ashamed. I let you down. I couldn't face you, not until I was clean again. Not until I could tell you that I was better, that I'd never let you down like that again." His voice was scratchy, gravely.
"You...you're better now, then?"
"Yes. God, yes. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done, but I knew I had to do it. I made the police swear to me that they wouldn't let me see you again until I was clean. I don't think they would have anyway, but I made them say it. I didn't want you to see me like that ever again, but I knew that I couldn't live without seeing you, so...I guess that helped me. Every time I felt like I couldn't do it - and believe me, that was most of the time - I just told myself 'I have to do this so I can see my son again'."
Nathan was crying now. Not big, dramatic sobs or giant streams of tears that divided his face, but just small streams from the corners of his eyes, making him blink a little more than usual.
"That's the whole story, I guess. I know I can't ask you to forgive me for what I did. All I can ask is that you please try to understand."
"I understand." He whispered. His heart was pounding. "I know what it's like to be ashamed of what you are."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean..." His mind was racing. Should I say it? Should I just say it now, get all the self-disclosure out of the way for both sides? Yeah. Do it now. Do it, quick, before you lose your guts, damn it. Say it!
But what if he doesn't...what if he can't handle it? What if it pushes him back to drinking or drugs because he can't deal with it? What if I tell him and he goes crazy and...
"Nothing. I mean, I forgive you."
"I know that ever since the funeral, you didn't want anyone to-"
Nathan turned and hugged him.
"Oh, I'm so glad you're over that." His dad said, hugging back. When they pulled apart, he looked at his son. "You know, with your hair dyed like that, you look just like your mom."
This made him jump. No, he didn't know that. Was that why he had done it? He didn't think so, but it could have been one of those unconscious decisions...
"We always used to say that the only things you inherited from me were your hair and your attitude. But with your hair dark-"
"I'm letting it come back in. Not dying it again, I mean."
"You don't have to do that for my sake."
"I know, but I'm still going to."
"God, I missed you so much."
They stayed up late talking, finally getting to sleep after one. Tim crashed on the couch, while Nathan slept in his room. It was without a doubt one of the most emotionally draining days of his life. When he got up that morning, he was expecting things to still be a bit hectic, but on the downswing from the previous day, at least.
That expectation, however, jumped the tracks, flipped over, and skidded across the metal surface leaving a trail of sparks and corpses. Figurative corpses, that is. After all, expectations don't have tracks.
He stepped easily into the kitchen, where his Dad and Aunt Julie were already knocking back a few cups of hot water and caffeine. He stayed quiet for a while, letting them talk between themselves. After all, he never was much of a morning person, and his mouth seemed to work a few seconds faster than his brain for a few minutes after waking.
"So, have you decided when the two of you are going back?"
It took a few seconds for his Aunt's words to punctuate the early-morning haze and hit the awake part of his brain. He quietly excused himself and went back upstairs.
Of course. This was temporary. He knew that. Had known it, at least. He had definitely known it well enough to not make any attempts to make the room he was now sitting in feel like anything more than a guest room. So why the hell did he root himself so deeply into the place? How could he have let himself get so...so invested in other people? He had to go back to Chicago now. Back home with his Dad, back to normal life. Back to being a nobody.
Back to living without Cam.
No, no, he had to do something. But what could he do? A minor has to go wherever the parents tell him to go, and that's that.