Before the beginning of each Fall semester, the students at West Park Middle School had to come in for a half-day to prepare for the upcoming year, their parents in tow. The idea was to get all of the new students accustomed to the building and pointed in the directions of their classrooms so that they wouldn't be hopelessly lost on the first day. Or rather, so they couldn't screw around in the halls and be late for all their classes, then blame it on being hopelessly lost because it was the first day. The sixth graders complained, of course, but most of them recognized it as being something worth their time. For the seventh and eighth graders, though, it was just another day amputated from their summers by the school's cruel silver scalpel, and the general consensus was that it was unnecessary surgery.
For Cam, this year's orientation was even more frustrating than usual. He had never exactly been a fan of sitting in a crowded auditorium with his mom listening to the principal, vice-principal, and a bunch of other staff members whose titles he couldn't remember give speeches about respect and dress codes, but this year he had to sit through it all knowing that it was cutting into his last few days with Nathan. It was, simply put, enraging. Once he got his schedule and supply lists, his mom would drag him to every retailer in town to hit as many back-to-school sales as possible. In short, a completely wasted day.
They had arranged orientations based on grade level and alphabetical order, so none of the others were there with Cam. Nathan would have been. While they wouldn't have been able to do anything that might raise suspicion, at least they could have sat through it together, secure in the knowledge that they would be together for...for what? Forever?
Yeah, forever. Why not? If he was going to play the "could have been" game, he might as well come out on top. Yeah, they could stay together all through high school, then maybe rent out a small apartment somewhere while they went to one of the nearby colleges. Nothing extravagant, hell, just a small room with a mattress on the floor would be fine with him. As long as Nathan was there...
But he wouldn't be. He would be leaving the day after next, moving a good six hours away. A long distance for someone with a car and an impossible distance for him. Sure, there was still email and instant messaging, but how was he supposed to survive on that after all this? Nathan's perfect, whispery voice replaced by 12-point Times New Roman? His voice had already started cracking at times. Nothing huge, but it was pretty clear that by the next time they saw each other, he would sound completely different. For that matter, he would look different, too; the black dye would be gone from his hair, reverting him to how he looked before Cam had met him.
He would look different, he would sound different, he would most likely fall in with a new group of friends, taking up different in-jokes and rituals, the kind that you can never understand unless you're there to see them. Cam knew that he would be doing the same thing back here in Gordon. How could they possibly stay so close with so much distance between them?
Would it even be fair to try? Chicago was a big city; there were bound to be plenty of guys for Nathan to meet, and as absolutely perfect as he was, there was no doubt in Cam's mind that he'd be able to find someone new. Someone physically there that he could hold on to, someone who he could fall asleep with in his arms the way they had spent so many nights in the past few weeks.
That did it. He couldn't sit here anymore, lost and alone in the crowd of kids and parents. He whispered something about finding a restroom to his mom and squeezed out through the aisle of folding chairs. It didn't feel like he was moving, it felt more like the auditorium was melting away from him. The rows of occupied chairs seemed to slip past him, giving him the same sense of motion that he would get from looking parallel to the tracks while a train glided by.
There was a restroom right next to the auditorium, but everyone at the assembly would go there first. He crossed through the halls and even went to the second floor before settling on one of the white brick openings in the wall with a sign that once clearly indicated that it was a men's room, but was now so scratched up that it involved a lot of guess work.
He shambled inside and made his way to one of the stalls, slamming and locking the door behind him. He didn't sit down; feeling a little crazy or not, they'd have to pay him to sit on one of the toilets in this school. Instead, he leaned against the now latched door, sucking in a few deep breaths. Just a couple minutes to pull himself together, that's all he needed.
Some writing on the side of the stall caught his eye. This stall, like most of the others in the school, was a collection of unofficial student artwork and poetry. Such classic drawings as "Ridiculously Large Penis" and "Slightly Less Ridiculously Large Penis" decorated the lumpy beige paint that coated the walls. Apparently, a lot of guys not only carry markers with them when they go to relieve themselves, but these talented young artists had nothing on their minds save for the male genitalia. Given the location, not many other models were readily available, but still, the visitors of this art gallery were well familiar with the variations of that particular work and wouldn't have minded a change.
It was the writing rather than the drawings that caught Cam's attention. In between various insults toward ethnic groups and school administrators was one that read, simply enough, "GT (heart) RA 4ever". He wondered where GT and RA were now. Together? Broken up? Two states apart because one of them had to move away?
How did GT and RA feel about people reading their declaration of eternal love while they made use of the facilities in which it was written? Not exactly the greatest symbolism in the world. He made a note to himself that no matter how sappy he was feeling, he'd never resort to men's room romanticism.
'Not even if I had a marker with me. Wait, do I?' His hands brushed his pockets quickly. 'Nope, empty. Well then. Like I said, never going to sink that low. I hope.'
They didn't throw some elaborate going away party on Thursday. None of them wanted it, Nathan included. Every one of them could feel it - the best summer of their lives was about to end, and their group was about to be split. Throughout the summer they had felt cemented together, their solidarity symbolized with the leaf pins that they were still wearing. Now, though, one of them was going to be ripped out of town. Even though Nathan was the only one leaving, pulling his pillar would leave a major gap in their structure's support; a constant nagging knowledge that yes, they could be split up, and easily.
"So, got your class schedules?" Andrew asked, his eyes nervously flicking in Nathan's direction for a split-second.
"Um...yeah, but..." Cam started.
"Aw, come on." Nathan groaned. "Don't do that. You don't have to avoid the subject just because I'm here. Besides, I want to know what kind of classes you've got, too."
Cam nodded, pulling his schedule from his pocket and unfolding it. The others followed suit.
They compared classes, teachers, times. They had the most fun with Jerry's schedule, though - since Andrew and Jill had both been there for sixth grade, they recognized most of his teachers, and were able to do some rather less-than-polite impressions.
"Hey, look at that." Andrew pointed to Cam's schedule. "Cam's got the new guy everybody's talking about. Captain Ball-buster, the ex-prison guard or ex-CIA or ex-con, depending on which of the rumors you want to believe."
"You know what that means, right?" Jill said. "You're going to have to tell us all the horror stories about how he...I don't know, hangs kids from the side of the building for talking out of turn."
"Now that's one thing I have to insist on keeping up with. If there're any horror stories, you guys have got to email them to me." Nathan said.
"Right, as if Cam's going to go for any length of time without emailing you." Jerry started pantomiming typing on a keyboard. "'Dear Clint, it's been almost twenty minutes since I last got the chance to write. Sorry, but Mr. Ball-buster wouldn't let me leave the room during his lecture about the thirty-seven proper ways to skin a cat. Anyway, I'll write again the next time classes change.'"
"Sounds about right." Cam admitted, his upper lip unsheathing his teeth into a classic over-bitten half-grin.
A short silence punctuated their conversation, as they seemed to all look around at one another at once.
"Hey, anybody bring a deck?" Nathan asked, scraping together a pile of small rocks.
Jill and Jerry each produced a pack of cards. Jerry stuffed his back into his pocket.
"Mine's missing half the face cards. I, uh, saw this thing on TV about card throwers that were so good at it that they can, like, slit your throat from across the street with a card...so, you know..." He trailed off.
"Any good at it?" Andrew asked.
"If I was, I'd know where my face cards are."
"I'm sure the pros lose their cards, too. Hell, for all I know, you could've left them in somebody's throat." Andrew switched to a serious expression. "Don't worry about it, Jer. One day, if you stick to it, you'll be slittin' throats like nobody's business. And nobody can tell me that I never say anything motivational."
Jill looked like she was about to say something, but just rolled her eyes and smiled before opening her deck and dealing. A train roared across the tracks, sending a cloud of dust and leaves floating past them, and they started to play. It was the kind of loose, light game that they were used to, the kind in which everyone attempts to cheat in increasingly creative ways and in general pay closer attention to each other than to the rules.
Nathan could swear that it had only been a few minutes, but he was already watching the light on the back end of the nine p.m. train shrinking into the distance. Had he stepped into some kind of time-warp or something? No way had it been four hours. Impossible. He glanced down at his watch.
Everyone was getting ready to head home. This was it, they had run out of time. They said some things, and he probably replied to them, but he wasn't paying attention at all. Out of time. It just seemed so final, so painfully real now that it was here. The End. Capitol "T", capitol "E", period.
Cam took his hand, and Nathan practically collapsed into him. He had been holding this in the whole time, not wanting their last few days to be nothing but grim lamentations about what they were losing. He knew that Cam had been doing the same, could tell immediately by the way he seemed to fall into the embrace the same way he had. It hurt. It had to hurt. It just wouldn't be the same otherwise. For the first time since hearing the news, they both let wave after wave of painfully nauseating emotion pour over them together.
The others were gone by now, but it wouldn't have made a difference. They could have been in the center of a packed auditorium for all it mattered to them. There were no thoughts about the big picture, no logical back-of-the-mind voices reminding them that somewhere there were people who had it a lot worse. Nothing but the two of them, standing and holding each other in the clearing by the tracks. The place where they first met.
It was completely dark before they started to take notice of the time. Had to be at least ten, maybe later. Neither of them bothered to check their watches.
"Let's stay here. Screw curfew." Nathan whispered. What was it about being in the dark that made you want to whisper?
"Okay." Cam shrank to the ground, Nathan following. They leaned back. No stars in the sky. A typical overcast Ohio night. The sky didn't seem to have any sense of cinematic showmanship.
They were both at a loss for words. "I'm going to miss you" and "I love you" were on their minds, but both sentiments were so strongly implied that saying either one out loud would almost cheapen it. Instead, they just pulled each other close and didn't move. Going inside to sleep suddenly seemed vastly overrated compared to what they had out there.
"Ow." Cam muttered, slapping his leg.
"Oh for fuck's sake - ANTS!" He jumped to his feet, slapping at his legs.
"Damn it! Every time!" Nathan jumped up as well, noticing a few of them on his own legs. There were only a handful on each of them, and brushing them off wasn't too difficult, but the idea of being indoors had suddenly gained some credibility.
"Well, should've seen that coming. Maybe we should go back to my place."
Nathan nodded, spinning around and letting his hands finish one last lap around his legs. "Wherever. Just as long as it's with you, and preferably without ants."
They stepped in through Cam's front door just in time to see the clock's minute hand click over to eleven-thirty. No, that wasn't it, there was something else worth noticing, too. Oh, of course! The two adults sitting in the living room, practically glaring in their direction.
"Well?" Cam's father asked. Fair enough.
Nathan took a step back as Cam took a step forward, their feet hitting the floor almost in unison.
"I...I'm sorry, I lost track of time." Cam said. He really didn't have a better excuse.
"Two problems with that." Cam's mom replied. "One - when it got too dark to see two feet in front of you and all the streetlights came on, it should have given you some indication that you was, in fact, night time. Two - you're wearing a watch. Both of you are."
"I'm really sorry, I just...I didn't notice."
"And what had you so busy that you didn't notice the sun setting?" Cam's dad again. Nathan winced. This was like a tag-team match.
"I...nothing. Just, you know...stuff."
Cam's mom stood up now, and crossed over to where they were standing. She knelt down in front of Cam and told him to look at her.
"Your eyes are red." She turned sharply. "Jay, his eyes are red. I'm going to ask you one last time." She leaned in close to Cam. "What have you been doing?"
Cam's dad joined her by the door, where Cam and Nathan were on the verge of shaking.
"Son." He used that tone that parents seemed to all learn from some kind of handbook or three-week mail-in course or something. The one that said about three paragraphs in one word.
"I was...I..." He glanced back at Nathan, uncertainly.
Nathan could tell immediately what was wrong. Cam had promised not to tell his parents about them until he was ready. Well, what did it matter now?
"He was crying." Nathan stepped forward, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Cam now.
The parents seemed to deflate just a bit. Nathan shook now, knowing what was going to come next.
"Why were you crying, Cam?" His mom asked. Her voice had lost most of the edge it had had earlier, replaced more with concern.
"Because Nathan's moving away tomorrow. I told you that before, remember?" Cam answered, the words catching in his throat just a bit. Somehow saying them gave them more life, more power. "Because..."
"Because he's moving and I won't be able to see him any more and I...love him." Cam's voice broke as he said it. Nathan felt his eyes flood, not needing to look to know that Cam's were doing the same.
The next few minutes blurred together, with a lot of soft words and heavy sighs. Nathan could barely take it in - all he caught was that Cam's parents seemed desperately relieved about something and that they didn't seem to have any immediate problem with him being in a relationship with Cam.
"Since around nine." Cam's mom was talking into the phone now. "Yes, would have called earlier, like I said...Okay. Sure, sure, it's no problem."
She slid the phone back into place on the receiver and walked back to where Cam and Nathan were still standing with somewhat blank expressions.
"I just covered for you." She said to Nathan. "I never cover for anyone. Feel incredibly lucky. Story is, you came straight here, and tried to call, but our phone wasn't working. It turned out we needed a new battery. You two were especially tired, and already asleep by the time we managed to find and install one. Now go to sleep, before you make an even bigger liar out of me. We'll talk in the morning. And I do mean morning, as in, before we go to work, so when I say 'go to sleep', I mean it."
Nathan hesitated for a few seconds before Cam finally grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him upstairs. This was like getting a pardon from the Governor - you didn't hang around in the electric chair, you got the hell out before he had a chance to change his mind.
As soon as they were behind Cam's closed door, they stripped down to their shorts and slid into bed. Nathan rolled in close, throwing an arm around Cam. He had been rightfully out of it for the past few minutes, but he knew exactly where he was now. He was in the one place where it was physically impossible for him to feel down. Cam slid closer to him and kissed him softly on the lips.
To Nathan, the experience reminded him of going to the dentist. He was riding the peaceful, tingly combination of nitrous and novocaine, not quite able to block out the painful stabs of the drill, but able to reduce it to something almost negligible when he forced himself to focus elsewhere.
"Cam." He slid one hand up Cam's torso, making him shudder. "I don't care how far apart we are tomorrow; we're together now. Even if it takes me years to get back here, I'm never going to forget this."
"Me neither." Cam said. "You know I'm going to end up replaying this in my head over and over every night from now on, right?"
"In that case," Nathan whispered back, sliding his hand lower, "We'd better make sure we do everything right."