Nathan woke up early, got dressed, and stuffed his backpack with whatever supplies he still had lying around from the previous school year. It was the first time in three months that he had been awake to see six in the morning. He opened the door to his room and stepped out to find his dad, pacing around the living room. It was dark - the only light came in flashes from the muted television, casting shadows in Morse code along the walls.
"I'm sorry about this." His father said as soon as he noticed that he was standing there.
Nathan looked up, not liking the sound of that. That wasn't the way you started a first day of school pep-talk; that was the way you started conversations about drawing the death card or having your house burnt down. And that serious expression on his dad's face wasn't too encouraging, either. Maybe he was just nervous, since he and his dad hadn't really spoken all that much since they moved back. Between his dad's guilt about his past and his own uncertainly about the future, they each were afraid of starting a conversation for fear that it would turn to an uncomfortable subject.
"I thought I could do this. I really did. If I had any doubts, I would've never..." He trailed off with a twist of his hand in the air. Cam had mentioned that Nathan himself had a habit of trailing off like that. He wondered if it was something you could inherit.
"What is it?" Nathan asked.
"I can't stay here. I mean, I'll try if you really need me to, but I don't think..."
"What?" Nathan's stomach executed a back flip and stuck the landing perfectly. Tens across the board.
"I tried. I tried as hard as I could, you have to believe me. I wanted to stay here in the city for you, try to get things back to normal, but..." He took a breath. "I just can't. I'm scared, son. I don't like to admit that, but I am. I know that if things got really bad, if I had ten minutes where I just lost control...I know exactly where to go and who to talk to."
"I...I'm not sure what you mean."
It was dark in their living room, the only light coming in flashes from the muted television.
"I'm better now, but I'm not perfect. If something happens and I slip up...I could be back on it again in minutes. It's so easy to find that stuff here. And that scares me." Nathan noticed that he was crushing one of his stress balls between his fingers. "I know that this is where you grew up, and I didn't want to take you away from that, but I'm not sure if I can stay here. I lost my job last week. I've been looking everywhere. No matter where I look, it's like this whole city has it in for me. I just...you don't need to hear this. The point is, I'm really sorry, but we may need to move."
"You've been staying here for me?"
"I've...I've been putting up with it for you." Nathan said. "I didn't want to come back here, but I didn't want to say anything, because I thought you did."
His father's face fell.
"What, really? You don't want to live here?"
"I wanted to live with you, but to be honest, I really don't like this city."
"Oh, god." He laughed in that half-exhausted way that only adults seem to be able to pull off. "This is probably why they always say that communication is important. Anyway, I suppose there's no need for you to go to school today after all. If things work out, we'll be gone by tomorrow, and the first day is nothing but getting papers for me to sign, right?"
"We're going tomorrow? Where?"
"Like I said, if things work out." He said. "I've got to make a few calls, maybe sweet-talk your aunt to let us crash on her couch for a day or two. I've got most of it covered already, though. I wanted to have it all set up, just in case."
"We're going back to Gordon?"
His dad raised his palms in front of him in a standard "take it easy" gesture. "Just for a few days, until we decide where to go for good."
"You know what you just said about communication and stuff?"
"Well, I guess I should tell you, then, that I really like it in Gordon. I mean, if you wanted to move there for good, that'd be fine with me."
"Really? But the whole time we were there, you looked so...down. And the way you were always going off by yourself into the woods, barely talking to me at all, I thought that you wanted to get out of there."
"No! That was..." He paused and took a breath. "That was because I didn't want to leave. I...I'm not sure how to say this, because it still sounds weird to me. Dad, I had a boyfriend in Gordon. I love him. I think. When you showed up and said that we were leaving, it just...I wasn't sure what to think. I mean, I wanted more than anything to stay there with him forever, but after you were gone for so long I didn't want to say anything that might disappoint you."
"You've never disappointed me. I'm the one who let you down. If only I..." He paused, and about three different looks played across his face simultaneously. "You know what? Forget it. Forget all that stuff for now. I want to hear about this boyfriend of yours."
"It's not too, like, weird for you? To hear about stuff like that?"
"I told you already, I'm fine with that. After the stupid stuff I've pulled, I'd have to be the biggest jackass in the world to try to judge you for something like that. Besides, I've got to make sure this guy's good enough for you."
So Nathan told the story as best he could, talking about how he and Cam had met, how they had first come to love each other. He left out anything physical, of course - this was his dad he was talking to - but covered pretty much everything that had happened, all the way up to that last phone call and his doubts about whether or not they were still together. When he finished, he was blushing fantastically and his eyes were flooded. He wasn't crying, but every now and then a quick tremor of emotion would ripple through his frame, causing him to shudder.
"You ended it like that?" His dad asked. "Oh, man. And the phone's been out, too. Look, I've still got to make a lot of calls to arrange everything for tomorrow, but as soon as I'm done, feel free to burn as many of my minutes as you want."
"You mean, I should call him tonight?"
"Well, yeah, you want to make sure everything's alright when we move back there, don't you?"
"Well, yeah. You want to, right?"
"Well, I think I owe you one."
"I've been trying to find something I could do to make it up to you since I came back." His dad interrupted. "Please, just let me do this."
"But what if you can't find a job or anything?"
"I'll take care of it. Your mom always said that I could hornswoggle my way into - and then out of - anything." He smiled then, and Nathan thought that for the first time since they had come back to Chicago, he looked the way he remembered him looking from before. Nathan smiled back with a breath of amusement. "What? Hornswoggle? Her word, but I think it fits."
Nathan tossed his bag into his room and, with all the effort it takes for a thirteen year old to show emotion to a parent, hugged his father.
"You're seriously the best dad ever."
Adam Hensley, not knowing whether to contradict or thank his son, stayed quiet and hugged him back.
"What's this about?" Jill asked, pointing to the stack of books stretching from Jerry's waist to his chin.
"All my teachers use the books. All of them." He said, groaning and leaning against a wall. "Can you believe that? What are we even paying them for? They could just give us a stack of books and say 'Hey, read these,' and it'd save so much-"
"We can talk education reform later," Jill interrupted, "Don't you know where your locker is?"
"Well, yeah, I know where it is, but..."
"I thought so. Somebody stole your locker, huh?"
"How'd you guess?"
"Only two types of people carry everything they own like that: the perfect kids who can't risk being late for a class, and the ones that get their lockers stolen."
"Guess I can't pull off perfect, then?"
"Your shirt's inside-out."
"Only because they said it was inappropriate."
Jill rolled her hand toward him in a silent "I rest my case" motion.
"Alright, yeah, it was stolen. They guy tried to act like he was just going to share it, but then he gave me the wrong combination and kept the real one."
"Well, we've got to get it back."
"Not really. I can carry my stuff. It's not that bad."
"Yeah." Jill said with a dismissive snort. "Alright, so you're a tough guy who can carry a giant stack of books. Even so, we don't know what that guy's doing with your locker. He could be dealing for all you know, and when the drug dogs find a ten pound bag of whatever's in there, you're going to get blamed."
"Do they really have drug dogs here?"
"Only once or twice a year, but it's still enough to screw you over. That's why we're going to your locker back. Today."
The one minute bell rang.
"After school." Jill finished.
Jerry sighed, nodded, and shoved off from the wall, trying his hardest to look cool while struggling under seven text books, notebooks, binders, folders, and assorted supplies. It wasn't working.
Cam was in the cafeteria, passing the time after lunch by mindlessly punching numbers into his calculator to finish his math homework, when Andrew strode over and dropped something onto the table in front of him. It looked like a school ID hanging from a string, but it was blank except for a large letter "W". When he looked up, Cam noticed that Andrew was wearing one around his neck.
"I signed us up for some office work. We're hanging flyers. I get out of class, and you get out of..." He glanced down at Cam's paper, "Fractions."
Cam shrugged, slipped the pass over his head, and headed out with Andrew.
"Where are the flyers?"
"I hung them on the way here." He motioned to the rather short corridor leading from the office to the cafeteria. There were about fifteen neon-yellow flyers stuck to the left wall. "Not like it matters. No matter how much they advertise, no one ever signs up for Pre-Chemistry Club. The science nerds think it's beneath them, and everyone else...well, you know."
"So, what are we supposed to do?"
"Walk aimlessly for a while, loiter, totally abuse the trust they placed in me when they gave me these passes with no real gain."
"It seems so obvious."
They rounded a corner into a deserted hallway.
"So what's the word on the Clint situation?"
"Still nothing. Every time I try to call him, I get some 'no longer in service' message. And no replies to the emails, either. It sucks. Hall convinced me that all I had to do was call him, and then everything would work out one way or the other, and now I can't call him."
"Think he's dodging your calls again?"
"I don't know. I don't think his dad would let him cancel their phone service just to avoid calls from me. And chances are, if their phones aren't working, maybe their internet service isn't working, either."
"So, maintaining radio silence. Think it's time for the last resort?"
"You mean writing a letter by hand and mailing it physically?"
"I was thinking dramatic suicide at the gates of the phone company, but that's actually a much better idea. Any idea about what you're going to say?"
"I don't know."
"Do you still like him?"
"I don't know. I mean, I really think I do, but...it's tough to know for sure, when I don't know if he still likes me or not. When he was here, if I had any doubts at all, I could just walk over and see him, and then I'd know. Like, he'd see me, and he'd kind of half-blush. Not all over, just right under his eyes. And then his eyes would go all big and glassy and his lips would kind of twitch, like he wanted to smile but he was trying to play it cool." Cam was looking a little glassy-eyed, himself.
"Dude, look." He spun Cam toward the nearest trophy case to face his reflection. "He's having that much of an effect on you, and he's not within five hundred miles of here. And you say you don't know if you still like him?"
"You just described more than I would ever want to know about what he looks like just before you start making out, down to the smallest detail, and you don't know?"
"I don't know!"
"Nah. You know. You're just too much of a moron to know that you know."
"Ask Jerry. He'll explain the details of moron-theory to you some time. For now, though, period's almost over. I'll take that pass back for you." Cam handed him the work pass and started in the direction of his next class just as the bell rang.
"Maybe we should wait." Jerry said. "Get Andrew and Cam with us. Andrew's tall enough to be intimidating, and Cam's...well, he'd be one more person."
"We're not starting a gang war. It's just one asshole guarding one locker. All we have to do is show him who's boss, change the lock, and walk away." Jill said, walking forcefully. She twirled her own combination lock on her finger.
"Jill, my locker's the other way."
"I know. We're going the long way, so that he's there before us. Give us the element of surprise. We don't want to be there waiting for him."
They arrived just as the locker-thief, who Jill noted as being one of those jerks that wears sunglasses in the hallway, was fastening the lock.
"Hey." She called.
"This locker belongs to a friend of mine. You're going to give it back to him." She spoke with iron in her voice.
"Or," He replied, "I could keep it, and you could fuck off."
She grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him back against the lockers. He shoved her back, knocking her out into the hall next to Jerry. People in the hall turned to see what was going on.
"I'm not above hitting girls. Fair warning."
"I'm not above hitting you. Fair warning." She collected herself and moved to slam him against the lockers again, but this time he caught her wrist. She saw his free hand begin to tense up just as she noticed a familiar figure walk into the area out of the corner of her eye.
"Mike!" She called out, getting the attention of ol' What's-his-name himself. He stopped and gave her a funny look. "You're in trouble now!" She yelled loudly, making sure everyone could hear her. "Mike's here, and he doesn't like guys who pick on girls and little kids!"
Mike froze. That was Andrew What's-his-name's girl, the one that he had been using to manipulate his rival. And now, she had just manipulated him into a position where he had to intervene. If he backed off now, everyone would think that he was running from a fight. If he got involved, it would make him look like a defender of girls and kids in danger, instantly giving him some points with everyone in the hall (most importantly, the girls). She had just turned him into her own personal bodyguard, and he had no way of refusing.
"Wow, that was good." He muttered to her as he passed her and grabbed the locker-thief’s wrist. He, in turn, let go of Jill's wrist. Mike leaned in close and whispered something to him. He turned white and started to walk away, trying to maintain some kind of dignity by snorting and muttering something under his breath.
"Wait." Jill grabbed his shoulder. "Open that lock, first."
The locker-thief operated the combination lock as quickly as he possibly could, then made his way out of there. Mike called out something about "not coming near these two again", but Jill was busy switching her own lock for the one on Jerry's locker.
"That's just until tomorrow. Buy your own lock tonight."
Jerry nodded, though he was still watching Mike, who was now shambling off in the other direction, shaking his head.
"Who was that guy?"
"Andrew's archenemy. Mike Something-or-other."
"Oh. Remind me to make some enemies like that some time."
The crowd dispersed, most of them talking about what had just happened. By the next day, the story was bound to be overblown to the point insanity, but Jill and Jerry had been marked as being under Mike's protection in the minds of everyone who had witnessed it.
"Nathan?" Cam had to grip the phone tightly to keep from dropping it.
"Hang on, let me get to my room. Okay, clear to talk now."
"Cam, I'm really sorry. Our phones have been out, and-"
"Yeah, I figured. So..." He was losing his nerve. He had to be sure. Closure.
"I told my dad about you."
"Really?" Cam's chest tightened.
"Yeah. And then he told me to call you."
"Oh." So he wasn't calling out of his own free will. His dad had told him to stop stringing Cam along and break it off for good. That must be it.
"So that I could be sure that everything was straightened out for when I came back."
Cam stared into the receiver.
"Y-you're coming back?"
"Moving back. Dad hates Chicago as much as I do."
"Tomorrow! I just-" A sharp beep interrupted him mid-sentence.
"Nathan?" No answer. No signal. No closure. Cam said something along the lines of "ugh" and hung up.
Two states away, Nathan groaned loudly and looked around for the cord used to charge the phone's drained battery.
Cam seriously considered faking sick to get out of school the next day. He didn't doubt his acting skills in that area, but the idea of sitting around the house watching daytime TV while the hours stretched out forever, waiting until Nathan showed up...well, it seemed a little less appealing than doing the same thing at school, where he would at least have something to turn his attention toward.
After what felt like two years, first period ended, and he decided that he probably should have stayed home that day.
The rest of the day crept by at that same pace.
His mind had wandered in and out of conscious thought the entire day. One minute he was staring at a page of his history text, the next minute he was standing in the lunch line, the next he was being called on to answer questions he had never heard. He remembered running into Jerry at one point, who started gushing about how his cousin was coming back and how some guy had saved he and Jill from some dude with sunglasses who had left a stash of stolen graphing calculators and CD players in his locker, but Cam couldn't concentrate well enough to pick up the details of either story.
He hung back in Mr. Hall's class, the last class of the day, not wanting to get pulled into the group and have to talk to them on the walk home. Somehow, he had forgotten that when you hang around a teacher's classroom after the bell rings, the teacher will most likely try to talk to you. Even more so if you've stayed after class to speak to that teacher on previous occasions.
"You feeling alright, Cam?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know if you feel all right?"
Cam shook his head.
"Is this about that hypothetical problem we talked about before?"
"Hypothetically, did she break it off?" Mr. Hall raised his palms quickly. "Don't answer that if you don't want to. Sorry, I'm new at acting professional."
Cam shook his head. "Worse. She's moving back, and I still don't know for sure. But I'm going to know for sure today. Probably as soon as I go home."
"Well, you can hide out here for a bit, but eventually, you're going to have to go home."
"Yeah, no doubt about that." Cam chuckled nervously. "I guess I'll go now. I'll let you know how it turns out."
"Not unless you want to."
"Right. Professional. But I know you'll be in suspense until tomorrow."
"A very professional form of suspense."
"About my hypothetical problems."
Cam swung his bag across his shoulder and headed out.
He saw his house go by, but he kept walking. He blamed his feet for that. He finally came to a stop in a clearing in the woods, next to a set of railroad tracks. He let his backpack slide from his shoulder and hit the ground. This was where he had first seen Nathan. Where he had first touched him, first held his hand and told him that he loved him. This was where he and Nathan had told their friends about their relationship, scared to death that they'd be rejected. This was where Nathan had told him that he had to leave.
This was where Nathan was standing, holding a set of clubs.
Their eyes locked. Nathan tossed his clubs off to the side, the spots just below his eyes turning just a slightly brighter shade, his lips contorting into a poorly-fought grin, and then Cam knew. He knew, and the only thought to rise to the stormy surface of his brain was "How could I have possibly doubted?"
It was like a quick-burning fuse had been sparked the second they had seen each other, and the flame had just hit the black powder. Arms around each other, foreheads touching, they started whispering to each other. Long, convoluted messages with little or no meaning but peppered with words like love and forever, tongues straining to keep forcing out words just to keep that feeling of interaction, finally silenced by their lips meeting in a soft but lasting collision.
On the other side of the clearing, behind a tight group of trees, Jill turned to Andrew, slipping her hand into his.
"Told you they'd be alright."
"Never doubted it, really. Hey, watch this." Andrew motioned to the clearing, where Cam and Nathan were now lying on the grass, still tangled together. "Moron Theory in action."
"Simple, really." Jerry whispered down from the branches of one of the trees. "Guys in love are morons. Making me the smartest guy in the group."
"Yeah, Andrew told me about Moron Theory, but how is this-"
Quite suddenly, the two figures in the clearing sprung to their feet and began jumping and beating their hands against their legs.
"Ants again. Morons." Jerry laughed, dropping down from the tree. "Let's go."
Now thoroughly debugged, Cam and Nathan fell against each other again, breathing heavily.
"You know," Nathan said, "After all the times that's happened, I think my brain may have somehow associated ants with sex."
"So, what, you're going to start getting all excited whenever you see an ant?"
"Maybe I should buy an ant farm." Cam said.
"I'm thinking we should wait until at least high school before we become creepy insect-fetish guys."
"Yeah, you're probably right." He absentmindedly played with the small, gold buckeye leaf pinned to Nathan's shirt.
"Hey, you want to come meet my dad?"
"Sure, but I already met him, remember?"
"Yeah, but this time I get to introduce you as my boyfriend."
As they got back onto the main road, Cam reluctantly withdrew his hand from Nathan's.
"You don't have to let go."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah." He replied with only a moment's hesitation. "When I left, I kept thinking about how much time I wasted being scared when I could have been holding your hand. I love you, Cam."
"I love you, Nathan."
Cam returned his hand and they twined their fingers together for the rest of the walk home.