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453 Chestnut Avenue was the typical suburban house, really.


Two floors not including the finished basement, tiled floors, marker scrawl over the cream colored walls by an exploratory four-year-old Leo, a backyard with a swing set and sandbox, the pride and joy of my mother from the day she bought it to the day she died.


It was the house I had learned to walk in and the house I had learned to talk in and I had engraved every single square inch of my soul into the corners of the house which maybe was the reason I never wanted to go back again.


453 Chestnut Avenue, where my second grade self laid in bed and stared up at the ceiling and wished for a mother again.


453 Chestnut Avenue, where my twelfth grade self laid in bed and stared up at the ceiling and wondered how he was so pathetic that he lost his best friend.


453 Chestnut Avenue, home.


And, so it went.


.


“Are you sure?” Jun asks me for maybe the tenth time as we stand in front of the door. Granted, we’ve been outside the red chipped paint door for a solid five minutes and I still haven't unlocked it yet.


“Yeah, let me just—” I start, and open the envelope with the key inside it. The metal is cold on my palm like the air around us and I guess it's true that tragedies only happen in the winter.


I wonder when it had started feeling like a tragedy.


“Want me to do it?” Jun asks. He's being so nice that it feels almost unnatural but still makes my heart ache in my chest. I shake my head now and slide the key into the lock.


“Nah, I got it,” I say and turn the key, unlocking the door. Jun takes it out of the lock, fingers brushing over mine, and I close my hand over the doorknob, turning it to the right and pushing the door open.


I don't know what I expected. Maybe I wanted to see white walls and asbestos and smell the smell of antiseptic that the dead leave behind, but it's the same as always, tiled floor and marker scrawl.


“Home sweet home,” Jun says quietly. I nod and step through the threshold. Home.


It's all the same, really, the 453 Chestnut Avenue of today is the same as the one from ten years ago, down to the coffee stain on the center table and the colored magnets on the fridge. There's a to-do list from six months ago still scribbled on the dry erase board in the kitchen.


The couch is still as worn as it used to be and I run a hand over the armrest.


“This is weird,” is the first thing I tell Jun since entering the house. He laughs quietly from behind me. We’d already wandered around the first floor and were idling in front of the staircase that led upstairs.


“After you,” he says, motioning up the stairs, so I go up first.


My bedroom door is directly right from the top of the staircase and I pause on the last step for a second, before Jun nudges me from behind.


“Want me to do it?” he offers again and I shake my head, walking up to the door and pulling it open in one motion.


Just weeks before she died, my mom had put up a bulletin board in my room and pinned it with pictures of us. I’d thought about it nights later, because maybe she’d put it up because she knew she was going to die.


It's the first thing I see in the room.


For a second, I'm struck with a painful loneliness, pressing down on my chest with cold hands until I feel like I can't breathe, looking at the pictures on the bulletin board but Jun’s hand brushes against my lower back as he walks by, grounding me.


“Oh, look,” Jun says and unpins a picture from the board. I walk closer to peer over his shoulder at it; it's from the zoo trip and my mother is kneeling to match our heights and Jun and I are smiling so wide that our eyes are curved into crescents. “Remember this?”


“Couldn't forget if I tried,” I reply, and the words come out choked. Everything seems a little blurred around the edges, so I sit at the end of the bed, the same one that I had spent so many lonely nights in, still covered in the same blue and white checked sheets.


“You okay?” Jun asks and drags the wooden chair from my desk to sit across from me, so close that our knees bump.


“Yeah,” I nod. “I'm just a little—” I cut myself off and wave my hand in the air as an explanation, staring pointedly at the floor.


“You're clearly not,” Jun points out and, for a second, I want to ask him why he suddenly cares so much about me and of course I'm not okay, I have no more family left.


Oh. That's what it is. My aunt’s dead, my mom’s dead, I never knew my father, and anyone else that shares my blood probably doesn't know that I exist.


I’m alone.


And, there it is, a tear falls from my jaw to the denim of my jeans. When was the last time I cried? I can't remember.


Jun’s hand reaches over to grab mine. “Leo.”


“I feel so alone,” I whisper. When was the last time I talked about my feelings without a drink in my hand? The thought of alcohol makes me crave it. “I need a drink.”


“You don't,” Jun tells me. I wonder when Jun had decided that it was his job to get me sober.


“I do,” I insist. “I'm fucking broken and I'm fucking alone and I hate thinking about it.”


Jun’s thumb runs over my knuckles and his skin is soft and his voice is kind and I’m still crying. His hand leaves mine to tip my chin up to look at him and he brushes away the tears on my face with the corner of his sleeve.


“I miss my mom,” I say miserably. “It's been almost twenty years and I still miss her.”


“I know. But you're not alone. You have me,” Jun replies, and it's so cliché that I almost laugh.


“That's cheesy as fuck,” I tell him.


He shrugs, bringing his hands back to his lap. “It's true.”


It's always hurt to love Jun, but, for a second, for a minute, I feel like he might love me too.


He puts the photo in my palm before standing up, and then he bends slightly to push the hair from my forehead and brush his lips against my skin. “There,” he says. “All better?”


“You're so—” I splutter and he laughs, running his hand through my hair before pulling me to my feet.


“Come on. I'll buy lunch,” he says and I smile as he drags me out of the room and down the stairs to the door.


“You're being nice and it's weird,” I comment, fishing the keys out of my pocket with my free hand.


“I'm always this kind,” he replies and pulls me out the door, closing it behind him so I can lock it.


“Alright, then,” I say, deadpan, and he nudges me in retaliation, squeezing my hand tight.


His touch seems so natural (so caring) that I almost forget that we’re just friends. Almost.


.


Jun’s house had been a tiny little apartment, cozy and bright and the pride and joy of his grandparents, but, even from a young age, I knew that Jun hated it.


Jun hated the fact that he lived in five hundred square feet and he hated the fact that his parents’ income flowed in from halfway across the world.


He hated the fact that his shoes had holes in them and he hated the fact that his grandparents barely spoke English and that they never came to back-to-school night.


That's probably why he loved my mother so much. He spent more time at my house than he ever did at his own tiny little apartment, even when my mother wasn't around anymore.


Jun hated how he lived. So, he got out. That's something that I never had the guts to do.


And, so it went.


.


The middle of December is chillier than normal this year, and it only serves to crush my mood further down into my stomach.


I get the call a week after my mother’s death anniversary, so I'm still in a slump when the phone rings.


“Hello? Is this Leo?” the voice says and the notable accent strikes a chord of recognition in my head.


“Yes? Who is this?” I ask warily and the girl on the other end giggles.


“Estelle, Jun’s friend. I met you at the exposition, if you recall.”


I remember. She had terrified me. “Yeah, of course,” I reply. “It's nice to hear from you. Why’d you call?”


“Oh, yes!” she says like she’d forgotten the reason until that moment. “I showed some of the pictures I had of your artwork to a friend of mine and she wants to commission a piece from you.”


If I’ve been in a slump for the past week, no one can tell now because it leaves in an instant. “Really? She does?”


“Her name is Valerie. I'm sure she's met Jun before as well, so you can ask him about her if you’d like,” Estelle confirms. “She’d like to meet with you next week, if you're up it.”


“Yes, of course,” I agree immediately. It’s almost perfect timing; I'm in more of a pinch than I usually am, considering funds from a painting I’d rented to a company last week are running out. Plus, commissions are always more challenging—and more fun.


“Excellent,” she replies and gives me a time and a place before saying her goodbyes. As soon as she hangs up, I text Amara several exclamation points and call Jun.


He picks up after two rings and the “hello” doesn't sound too exhausted, so I launch into a tirade immediately. It takes a few minutes for me to explain everything, and Jun sighs a little when I finally finish.


“Well, considering you've been AWOL for the past week, I'm glad that you're excited about this,” he tells me and I grin, despite myself.


“I’m glad, too,” I reply, unnecessarily.


Jun hums an agreement. “Valerie, huh? Yeah, I know her. She's a bit of a nut, but honestly, most people in the art industry are. She can be a little bit…moody, I guess, so watch out for that,” Jun advises.


“I think you'll do fine,” he continues. “Plus, now you get an opportunity to wear that suit I got you.”


I laugh. “Thanks for that, by the way,” I say, as my phone buzzes with an incoming text. “I gotta go, Jun, see you later,” I finish and he bids me farewell before hanging up.


Amara’s text message reply is an assortment of excited emojis that I can barely decipher, so I text her the same thing as I told Jun. Her reply, again, is emojis and exclamation points—she must be either too busy or too tired to respond properly—so I leave her on read.


I get up off from the couch (resist the urge to move to the wine cooler) and head to my bedroom. The suit is in the closet, still neatly pressed and hung up.


I only put it on for the first time, though, a week later, when the hour for the appointment gets nearer and anxiety is curling in my chest. I suppose that, if my self esteem weren't so low, it might actually look good on me.


My car makes its usual dying noise—a cross between asthmatic breathing and a lion’s roar—when I get into it and turn the engine on. Still, it manages to putter its way through the streets and across the bridge and into the city. The address is a small art studio on the corner of a street, so I swindle my way out of paying for parking before I walk over to the door. Estelle had told me later that she would be there later in the night, so I could talk to Valerie alone for a while.


I twist the knob and open the door. The inside is a lot warmer than the chilly air outside, so I hurry in and shut the door as quickly as possible.


“You’re early,” a voice says, and I spin around. The woman who must be Valerie is tall and skinny pretty, if I were into that.


My heart sinks very very low into my chest. I, inconveniently, only remember the important things after it’s too late to back out.


.


I, inconveniently, only remember this after it was too late to back out, but there had been a school year that Jun had left, flew overseas to stay with his parents for that one school year, and in that year, there had been a girl.


I had never been the type to stand up for myself, so I was an easy easy target for bullies, and in this case, a girl who was two years older than me with vicious sharp nails and an attitude to match.


She didn't hate me, not really. It was more like she liked me enough to the point that it was cruel.


Maybe I should have been honored by the nearly psychopathic way she cornered me almost every day after school. Maybe I should have given in. She was skinny pretty, if I was into that.


It was sixth grade, I think, and maybe the reason that I've never had an actual relationship is because of the memories of the girl who dug her nails into my arm and told me I was useless if I didn't kiss her.


It was sixth grade, which gave me plenty of time to forget, and when Jun came back the next year, taller, prettier, more confident, the girl disappeared. Jun was like my shield, taller, prettier, more confident than I would ever be, so the girl disappeared.


I, inconveniently, only remember the important things (nails in skin, words like daggers, manipulation) after it was too late to back out, but if I’d dug through all the years of repression before I agreed to meeting her, I’d probably have found that the girl’s name was Valerie.


And, so it went.


.


She looks different from how she did then, with darker and curlier hair and a braces-less mouth, but her nails are still sharp enough to make up for it.


“It's nice to see you,” she says, sugary sweet. I swallow the lump in my throat and clench my fist, shoving down the urge to run. It's too late now.


I walk forward and stick out my hand, which she shakes tightly. “It's been a while,” I reply.


In response, she purses her lips and cocks her head to the left. “What do you mean?” she asks and I pause, confused, until realization hits.


Maybe, just maybe, she doesn't remember. Relief floods my veins before I can stop it, and the forced smile on my face comes easier.


“Never mind,” I say, almost too quickly. “I'm glad we could meet.”


She smiles, and it reminds me of back then, but I shove the thought away as it comes. She doesn't remember.


“Of course,” she replies, and steps back to turn to the wall, where artwork is plastered on the bulletin boards. “I wouldn't pass up on natural talent like hours.”


“Thanks,” I say. I almost can't believe my own ears. She really doesn't remember. “I really appreciate that.”


She hums to acknowledge my words, and then comes back, moving closer again. Despite the fact that I'm safe, every muscle in my body is still screaming to run to the door. But I can make it.


I think.


“So, what were you looking for in a painting?” I ask her, and try to choke down the sickly dread that is suddenly spreading through me.


Then our eyes meet.


“Oh, honey, you know I wasn’t looking for a painting,” she coos and even though she’s still far away from touching me, I freeze in place.


Something ugly bubbles up in me, feeling much like what sixth grade Leo felt almost everyday after school. “You’re a fucking psychopath,” I state, trying to keep my voice even, but even I feel it crack on the last syllable.


Valerie laughs and strides over. “Sure,” she says. “But I always get what I want.” She grabs my wrist and I jerk my hand back weakly.


“I thought—” I start, but my words fail me. All of the relief I’d felt earlier disappears, leaving behind only acid and the taste of betrayal.


“Well,” Valerie starts. “As much fun as that was, I’d like to get down to business.” She punctuates her statement by tugging me harshly. “What were you looking for in a painting?” she mocks in a whisper, and the malice behind it slams into my chest, knocking the air out of me.


“Please,” I beg. “Just leave me alone. What did I ever do to you?” Her grip is so tight that it turns my skin pale.


“It’s what you didn’t do that’s the problem,” she replies, following it with a laugh. Like it's funny. Like it's all just a joke, a game, to her. It feels like a cold hook is digging into my chest.


“I don’t like girls and I definitely don’t like you,” I reply instinctively and then suddenly wish I’d kept my mouth shut. I can feel the bruises forming around my wrist already.


She snorts. “Well, that's not a surprise. You were always hanging around Jun like a lost puppy.”


“Jun doesn't know you're fucking crazy,” I say. I wish this impulsive confidence would bury itself into my heart. “Jun doesn't know what you did to me.”


“And he doesn't need to, if you just shut up and take it,” Valerie replies viciously, shaking my arm for effect. She's stepping forward, backing me up into the wall adjacent to the door. I wish I could find the courage to run. “He doesn't need to know that his precious little play toy doesn't belong to him anymore.”


“I'm not his play toy. And I'm not yours either,” I reply. My throat goes painfully dry as my back hits the wall and she leans closer, smirking.


“You're so obviously in love with him,” she says and, even though I've known, the truth of it hits me like a sledgehammer. I am in love with Jun. I love him.


“And what's your fucking problem with it?” I spit back. “Why does it matter to you?”


“Oh, sweetheart,” she whispers and I never want to hear her say that again. “The two of us may have history but Jun and I are actually friends. He throws away people as soon as they're of no use anymore.”


It doesn't feel like that. I feel loved when I'm curled up against Jun, when he smiles at me, when I'm with him.


“He loves the feeling of manipulation. He didn't miss you, he missed the thrill.”


It isn't like that.


But it's the creature in my head, the one that whispers at midnight hours, that convinces me. If Jun really cared, he would stay the night. If he really cared, he would tell me he loves me. If he really cared, he wouldn't pretend that our high school kiss never existed.


The truth of it hits me like a sledgehammer. He doesn't love me back. “That's not true,” I reply, but it's lacking the conviction.


“Believe what you want to believe,” she says casually, and shrugs. “You won't get anywhere with him. But not me. I won't break your heart.”


At this, though, I almost scoff. Jun may not love me, but I'll never give anything to her.


“It's been over ten years, Valerie,” I say, desperation edging in my voice. “Why do you still bother?”


“It's been over ten years, Leo,” she mocks in a sing song tone. “Why are you still so scared of me?”


Then she steps forward, pressing in, bringing her other hand to grip forcefully around my chin and tilt my head up to kiss me. It's painful, her teeth against my lips, and I twist away, but her nails digging into my wrist hold me in place.


Enough. Jun may not love me back, but I'll never give anything to her. I shove back, knocking my body into hers so that she's forced to step back, and rip my head and wrist away from her hands.


“Just leave me alone,” I beg, and her face is only shifting from shocked to angry when I stumble out of the door and around the corner.


My legs are jelly but I somehow get to my car, throwing myself into the driver’s seat and locking the door. My hand is trembling, I realize, and I take a shaky breath. I lean my head against the top of the steering wheel.


It's a bad decision, to pick up my phone and call the first person that I think to call, but my life is made up of bad decisions, anyway.


“Leo? What's up?” Jun’s voice sounds light and I hate how it calms me down in a second.


“Hey,” I start, knowing that Jun can probably tell something is wrong from my voice, which sounds strangled even to my own ears. “Can I come over?”


“What's wrong?” he asks and I shake my head, even though he can't see it. When I don't respond, he clears his throat. “I'll text you my address.”


“Great,” I say, voice clipped, and end the call mid Jun’s protests. Seconds later, my phone chimes with a message and I plug the address into the map, starting my car. It isn't far, taking me out of the shady part of the city and into the downtown. I find myself in front of a fancy looking apartment building and pull into the tiny parking lot.


I don't remember when I turned the radio on, but turning the music off makes me float back to reality. I want to crawl out of my own skin. I hate the sickly feeling spreading through me, I need numbness, I need a drug, I need a drink.


I get out and slam the door as hard as I can.


The apartment building has a front desk—I curse Jun for being well off—and, for once, I'm glad I'm not drunk so my senses come to me when I walk up to the man at the counter.


“Hi, I'm here to see Jun.” The man eyes me with the suspicious look that seems to preside on every doorman’s face. “My name is Leo. He knows me. You can ask.”


“Okay,” he says warily. There's a black corded telephone on the desk that he picks up and punches in a few numbers. “There's someone here for you. A Leo?”


“It's urgent,” I add quickly.


“He says it's urgent,” the doorman repeats and after a few seconds, he mutters a yes and puts the phone down with a click. “Alright, you can go up. The room’s on the sixth floor, the number is thirty-six.”


I nod and nearly stumble to the elevator. The ride up is agonizing; I shut my eyes to keep myself from looking at my reflection in the mirrors. When it finally dings at the top, I find door number thirty six (one of only a few on the floor) and knock quickly on the door.


It flies open immediately. Jun looks a little flustered but beautiful, beautiful as ever, and then I curse myself for thinking it. “Leo?”


“Jun,” I reply and shove through the door. “Where do you keep your alcohol?” Fuck Jun’s perfect face, all I really need is a goddamn drink. His apartment is nice and spacious with large curtain covered windows and I have absolutely no clue where he keeps his alcohol.


“Wait, what the fuck? What's wrong?” Jun asks and steps back to block my path. All of a sudden, I feel like laughing. Maybe I really am going crazy.


“Nothing, everything,” I reply as casually as possible. “I just want a drink.”


“No, you don't, sit down,” he says and grabs my forearm right above the wrist before dragging me to a couch.


“Don't touch me,” I hiss, ripping my arm away, but he's already seen the ringlet of bruises around my wrist.


“What's that?” he asks, concern coloring his voice, and I tuck my hand into the pocket of my dress pants. I suddenly realize how dressed down Jun is compared to me, his toned arms showing through his t-shirt and his legs swimming in too large sweatpants. It makes me feel awkward, so I sit down on the couch and curl into myself.


Jun sighs and turns to disappear through a doorway into what looks like the kitchen. After a minute, he comes back, a beer bottle in his hand, which he thumps onto the table in front of me. “Here. Talk.”


“I'm sorry,” I say. Apologizing is still my greatest skill. I undo the cap of the beer and take a sip. It's weirdly unappetizing now, so I put it back down.


“It doesn't matter,” Jun says. “Just, please tell me what happened.”


I take a deep breath. “The year you were gone from school, there was this girl who harassed me.” I've never talked about this with anyone before. “She came back.”


Jun’s eyebrows scrunch together. “Val?” he asks and I have that same weird urge to laugh.


“She's not just moody,” I tell him. “She's insane.”


“Wait, are those bruises?” Jun asks and sits next to me, taking my arm before I can protest. The marks are clearly visible and I wish I didn't bruise so easily. “What happened?” I'm not sure why Jun is panicking. “Oh, god, did she—”


“Not really,” I say and shrug. “But, I didn't really stop it either, did I?”


“No, that's not—” Jun starts, and then shakes his head. “Leo, I’m so sorry. I didn't know.”


“It's not your fault,” I whisper. “I'm susceptible.” I feel the numbness settle over me; it's easy to talk now, because I can't feel anything.


“Don't say that,” Jun says. He looks in pain and kind of like he's going to throw up.


I shrug again. “I'm fucked up and the only people who care about me are people like Valerie, who are coincidentally just as fucked up.” A part of me knows that I'm only saying it to hurt Jun, and it works. Jun’s face crumples and he pulls his hand away from my wrist.


“That's not true,” he protests, a little weakly. “I care about you.”


“Do you?” I ask. Suddenly, I want Jun to feel bad, for leaving me, for all of the pain he’s put me through, yet I'm not sure when this became less about Valerie and more about him.


Maybe it never really was about Valerie in the first place.


Still, the hopeless look on Jun’s face doesn't give me any satisfaction.  “I swear,” he says. “I'll prove it, however you want me to.”


“However I want you to?” I repeat, a little mockingly, and Jun flinches, but holds his ground.


“However you want me to.”


I frown. “That's just it, Jun. I only want what you want to give me,” I say. Jun still looks miserable. “And if you don't want to give me anything, I don't want it at all.”


“I do, you just need to tell me what.”


“If you can't figure it out, you’re less observant than I thought,” I shoot back, and I know I'm being insufferable, but a part of me thinks he deserves it.


Jun almost splutters. “How am I supposed to answer that?”


I let out a huff. “This conversation is going absolutely fucking nowhere.”


Jun scrunches his eyebrows together and crosses his arms, looking me dead in the eyes. “Fine, then. Here’s what I want to know if you’re going to be a dick about it. Why don’t you think I care about you?”


“I can’t believe you’re the one getting mad,” I retort.


“Answer the goddamn question,” he demands.


“I don’t know, Jun,” I snap. “You ditch me halfway through high school, disappear for years, come back like nothing ever happened, and you expect me to just accept it?”


“I—” Jun tries to protest, but I'm already on a roll.


“Oh, and not to mention, the reason you stopped being friends with me was because of a kiss and now we’re hooking up on the regular and we still haven’t even talked about it,” I spit out.


“It’s not too late,” Jun says and I shrug. I'm tired, I realize, so tired of this.


“Maybe it is,” I reply.


Jun takes my fingers again, runs his thumb over my knuckles. “I thought not talking about it would make things normal again,” he whispers, and I hate it when he looks vulnerable. He looks calmer now, for some reason, and my confusion is only mounting. “I want to make things right.”


“Do you?” I ask, desperation rising. “What if you’re just here to fuck around with me and when you get too tired, you’ll leave? What if you don’t care about me? I’m not you, Jun. I can’t just pick up and move on and forget.”


“I would never get tired of you,” Jun replies, still quieter than he's been all night. It makes me angry; I feel like the months I've spent holding this back are spilling out into the air.


“You’re so fucking confusing,” I tell him. “You’ve dropped it all before, who’s to say you won’t do it again?”


“I’m not a kid anymore, Leo,” he seems to plead. It's almost uncomfortable to see Jun (tall, pretty, confident Jun) with those sorrowful eyes, but it's been too long for me to hold back.


“Jun, do you like me?” I ask. It's more blunt that I've ever been, but I need to know. It's been too long. “I swear, if you don't, I'll leave right now, but sometimes you say things and I can't help but wonder.” Jun can probably hear my heart beating in my chest.


Jun pauses. Opens his mouth. Closes it. Grips my fingers even tighter (I’d forgotten that my hand was in his). When he finally speaks, it's in that same calm tone. “I'm considering it.”


I freeze. “What?”


“I mean, I’m not sure. I’ve never really been good at this love thing,” Jun says. He's looking at our hands now, not meeting my eyes. I feel like I'm about to die. “I’m sorry,” he finishes.


“What the hell are you sorry for?” I choke out. Jun likes me, Jun likes me, Jun likes me too. My brain isn't doing much to help me calm my nerves. Jun shrugs as a response to my question, still not looking at me.


“I like you too,” I say, and it's so easy now. The words lift off my shoulders like butterflies.


“Why?” is Jun’s first question and, this time, I actually do laugh.


“God, I don't know either,” I answer, truthfully. Jun looks up at me and I take my other hand and fold it on top of our connected ones. “Stop looking miserable,” I tell him. He scowls and I smile.


“Since when?” he asks. “How long have you liked me?”


Forever. “A while.” I say. He gets the idea, and he looks even more guilty about it. “What about you?”


“Um,” he begins, and his nervousness is kind of endearing, especially when I feel like my world has finally tilted onto the right axis. “When I kissed you in the amusement park?”


“Oh,” is all I can say. It's late, but it makes no difference. Jun likes me.


“I'm sorry,” Jun repeats.


“It's okay,” I reply. “We’re here now, right?”


.


The sun was setting slow in the sky that night, just like every other night, but the cool air was jubilant. High school graduation was like that. Four years of hell coming to fruition with a gown and a hat.


Jun graduated valedictorian. I was too busy staring at him to pay attention to his speech.


My aunt didn't skip out on this, though I'm sure it was mostly out of respect for my mother. I suppose the day would have been be happier with her there, but that's not something that I could wish for, so I smiled and hugged my aunt as she congratulated me. I suppose it's one of the only times in my life that I've ever loved her.


I milled around for a bit, finding Amara but letting her say goodbye to her other friends, before disappearing behind the bleachers for a break. It was surprising to find Jun there, next to the brick wall. I swallowed my panic into my stomach and leaned against the wall next to him, staring straight ahead.


“Congrats, Jun,” I started. He wasn't looking at me either.


“Thanks,” he said. “You too.”


I snorted. “You're the valedictorian.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jun shrug.


“You graduated high school. That's achievement enough,” he pointed out. I smiled.


“I guess so,” I replied. There was a minute of silence before he stood up, dusting off his gown and moving to walk away.


He paused in front of me, turning to look at me. “Good luck with everything,” he said.


I swallowed my panic and looked back. “Yeah. Same to you.”


“Now,” he announced with a bit of flourish. “I have a plane to catch.”


It made me laugh. “You do that.”


Jun smiled and, even though it hurt a little bit, it sent my heart racing. “I'll see you soon, yeah?” he said. It didn't make sense. We were never gonna meet again.


“Yeah,” I replied. The air in front of me was charged and he reached out to squeeze one of my shoulders, but before I had a chance to react, he was gone.


He was gone.


And, so it went.


.


The night after my confession, Jun shows up at my house with precisely four things: a huge bag of salted caramel popcorn, a box of chocolate chip cookies, a bouquet of flowers, and a joint.


“Smoke at your own house,” I tell him after I open the door. He smiles weirdly in return, scrunching his eyes shut. I try to not find it cute.


I’d slept over at his house, but woken up to an empty bed and a post-it note saying that Jun had to leave for work and that there was breakfast in the fridge. He’d left me a voicemail too, ending it with a “I’ll see you tonight”, which is why I hadn't been able to relax since then.


“The flowers are for you,” Jun says. The bouquet is adorned with purple hyacinths and another flower I probably would have known the name of eight years ago, but I’m now too lazy to care.


“Thanks,” I reply, relieving him of the burden and letting him into my apartment. “What for?” I ask him as he dumps the rest of the goods on my dining table while I search for a vase.


“It's a thank you,” he explains. “And an apology.”


“For what?” I respond from the kitchen, finding a chipped ceramic vase under one of the cabinets and filling it with water.


I can tell Jun’s rolling his eyes. “You know what,” he replies and I hear the telltale click of a lighter. I set the flowers in the vase and keep them on the counter. I open the window behind my kitchen sink.


“The cookies are for you, too,” he continues, as I walk back to the couch. He's lying on it with the joint between his fingers and there's a memory. “I baked them myself, so they might be terrible, but at least I tried.”


“You don't have anything to be sorry for,” I say. He just shrugs awkwardly.


“There's a movie I want to watch on Channel 34, so I brought popcorn.” He's avoiding it and I know it and I don't want to let him but he sits up and hands me the joint so he can open the bag of popcorn in his lap.


“Don't guilt date me,” I say, and take a hit. Jun makes a weird noise under his breath.


“I'm not,” he replies, but doesn't elaborate. I sink onto the couch next to him as he grabs the remote to flip channels. When it lands on 34, Jun tucks his knees into his chest and stares intently at the screen. We finish off the joint together, and start on the popcorn, as someone is killed on screen.


“Why’d you come here if you don't want to talk to me?” I ask through a mouthful, inching closer to Jun. Neither of us are as high as we’d thought we’d be. He sighs.


“I'm not guilt dating you,” he says. At least he's being honest now. “I really like you, it's just...I’m not always the best person. I don't want you to be the victim of that.”


I shrug. “Everyone has flaws. I'm not really a great guy, either. Doesn't mean that we can't make it work.”


Jun shakes his head. “That's not what I mean,” he says and then lifts his head to look at me. “I've been in a lot of fucked up relationships and I don't want to mess this one up too.”


“I haven't had a drink all day,” I respond. Jun looks at me in confusion. “And I'm not going to have one tomorrow either. Or the day after. Or ever.”


“You probably shouldn't stop all at once,” Jun drawls. “You'll get withdrawal.”


I roll my eyes. “You know what I mean. I'll get rid of my bad habit, be a better person.” It's surprisingly easy to say, even though I know how hard it will be, considering that the insides of my skin are already itching for alcohol. “We’ll do it together.”


Jun smiles a tiny bit, and that's all I was really hoping for. “I guess we can.”


Someone else gets killed on screen. I click the TV off and rise to my knees on the couch to lean over Jun. “I guess we can,” I repeat and kiss him.


“Let's go on a date,” he says, when I pull away. “You, me, that Italian place two blocks down from my apartment.”


“Okay,” I reply.


“Okay,” he repeats, and tilts his head up to kiss me. Under my lips, he laughs, clear, warm, and bright.


.


I'm not sure how, but from the second my phone lights up with a call from Amara one afternoon, I know I'm not going to like what I hear.


“So,” Amara starts, voice a bit muffled over the phone. “I’ve been talking to Jun.”


There it is. “How do you even have his number?” I ask, even though I know the answer I’ll get.


Amara laughs. “I’m a journalist, Leo. I have ways.” There it is.


I sigh, exasperated. “Why did you call?”


Suddenly, her voice goes serious over the phone. It's a little sad, too, and for some reason, I'm only just realizing how well I can read her. “You know,” she says. “I’m not really angry that you lied to me. I just wish you’d trust me more.”


My throat goes dry. “What?”


“Jun told me about how you were gonna try to sober up, except I didn't even know that you hadn't in the first place.”


Oh shit. Amara had always been blunt about things. “I'm sorry,” I say, instinctively, but even I know it's not enough.  


“We could have gotten you help sooner,” Amara replies, and I can hear hurt filtering through her words, but the statement irks me.


“I don't need help, I'm not an invalid,” I try not to snap.


There's a deep sigh from the other line. “You're an alcoholic, Leo.”


“I said I was going to get better!” I protest.


“You know it's not that easy,” Amara shoots back, and she's right, but I fucking hate the implication that I'm not strong enough.


“Thanks for everything, Amara,” I start, “but I can do this on my own.”


I’m expecting disappointment. I'm expecting her to sigh and say something about how I never listen to her and I'm only hurting myself and then hang up.


I'm not expecting her to snap.


“I can't believe it's been ten fucking years and I still haven't been able to work your self destructive tendencies out of you,” she hisses, words sounding bitter in my ears. “It's not a bad thing to ask for help, and I don't fucking care what you think, I'm not going to let you go through this alone.”


“I might not always be available but I'm still your best friend,” she says, almost pleading, “so let me at least try to act like one.”


I open my mouth to respond, but nothing comes out. Amara’s sharp, but she's always had a knack for saying the right things at the right time. Maybe that's why I took the job at the ice cream shop all those years ago.


A minute of silence passes before she speaks again. “You still there?”


“Yeah,” I respond.


She takes a shaky breath. “I have a contact for a therapist in the area. And I know the church on Birch Drive holds AA meetings every Saturday night. I think it might help.”


“Okay,” I reply.


“Jun really loves you, you know. I can tell, ” she says, voice going soft and quiet. I nod, although she can't see it. “And I know you love him. So try for him, alright?”


Something in my chest feels lighter. “Thanks, Amara.”


“No problem,” she replies. “What are best friends for?”


.



I wake up to blinding light pouring in through the windows. I distinctly remember asking Jun to close them before he got into bed, so I curse under my breath and curl into the body next to me, hiding my face from the light.


“You absolute dick,” I tell the body.


“Morning, sunshine,” Jun replies, because of course he’s already wide awake, and he moves to press an awkwardly angled kiss to my cheek.


“Morning,” I greet, unfurling from him to pull the blankets closer to me. “Can you go back to living in your own house?”


“It’s nicer with you,” Jun says, scooping up one of my hands, and really, how can I argue with that?


He graciously lets me huddle in the sheets for twenty more minutes, all the while drawing patterns onto the palm of my hand, until he suddenly lets go and rolls off the bed. “It’s time to go, Leo.”


“It’s seven in the morning,” I complain, just for the sake of it, because I'm already dragging myself out of the covers.


“The festival’s three hours away and I want to find a good picnic spot,” Jun explains, petulance in his voice, before retreating to the bathroom and leaving me to make breakfast. Idly, I wonder if Jun even left some of his own clothes in my closet. I wouldn't put it past him.


Since a few weeks ago, Jun’s had this fixation on going to see the cherry blossoms for our three month anniversary ever since he'd found out peak bloom fell on the same day. Jun’s best camera is already packed up in the boot of my car so I'm not exactly sure if it's for the anniversary or for his job, but either way, I'm down for a road trip.


Still, I'm tired, so breakfast is cereal. Jun just has to deal with it.


While Jun’s taking his own sweet time in the shower, I make lunch. I've been cooking more since Jun pseudo-moved in, so it doesn't take long to finish and pack the food into a picnic basket. I'm not exactly sure why Jun is so adamant on the picnic part, considering that there's plenty to eat in the area, but I do have to agree that it adds to the romanticism of it all. Maybe that's Jun’s goal after all.


“Don't forget a blanket. Preferably checkered red and white,” Jun suggests, walking into the kitchen with soaking wet hair, water running in rivulets down his neck.


Making a face, I grab a towel from one of the drawers, before flinging it at him. “I don't think anyone has a red and white checkered blanket.”


“Eh, it's only ideal.” Jun brushes it off, drying his hair. “Any blanket will do.”


“There's probably one on the couch or something,” I say and pour cereal into a bowl for him, setting a carton of milk next to it. “I'll go get ready.”


“Aren't you going to eat?” Jun asks, already shoveling cereal into his mouth.


“Not hungry,” I reply, and Jun scrunches his eyebrows together. “Really, I’ll be fine,” I assure him, but even still, after I'm finished showering and we've packed the blanket and shoved everything into the boot of the car, Jun’s balancing a second bowl of cereal with a free hand.


“I'll drive,” he says when I move to get behind the wheel. “You eat. You're too skinny,” he chides, and I roll my eyes before complying.


“You're annoying,” I shoot back, but sit in the passengers set and spoon cereal into my mouth as Jun drives out of town and onto the freeway.


Jun turns the radio to the classical station that he likes and hums quietly along to the violins. The drive is quiet, but comfortable, and the ever present weight in my chest feels remarkably light.


The streets of the city are crowded and it takes us a while to find a parking spot, but we manage to find one along the side of the road, near a grassy open area where other people are milling around.


“They’re pretty,” I say as I pull the picnic basket out of the boot and Jun grabs his camera. Pale pink flowers dot the skyline and the day isn’t as chilly as I expected, cold sunshine rather than wind.


“Not as pretty as you,” he drawls and then winks, before spinning around to find a spot on the grass.


“You're so gross,” I call after him, following close behind


“I just want to show you how much I like you,” he replies and sets his camera case on the grass to use his free hands to wrap around my waist. I drop the picnic basket.


“You don't have to make up for anything, you know,” I say. Our noses are inches apart and we probably shouldn't kiss so openly in public.


He pouts. “I know,” he replies, and kisses me anyway.


Later, when we’re lying on the blanket after eating lunch, he tells me he loves me. It’s so easy to say it back.


.


“I hate you,” is the first thing that comes out of my mouth when I open the front door of my apartment that night. “I'm gonna kick you out of my house.”


Jun is lying across my couch, playing a dumb game on his phone. “You wouldn't,” he drawls. “How was the meeting?”


I shrug. Estelle, after apologizing profusely for what had happened, had offered me another commission, and, needless to say, it had gone eons better.


“It was fine,” I reply, and grab the plate of dinner Jun had left for me on the table, bringing it to the couch and putting it on the center table.


I can tell that Jun wants me to say more, but he doesn't voice it. “Sit down,” he says, sitting up himself to give me space. “I need to talk to you about something.”


I raise an eyebrow. “What is it?”


He steals a spoon of rice off of my plate before answering. “I got an offer to fly to the Serengeti for a few months to take wildlife photos.”


Oh.


“Oh,” I reply. “That sounds fun.” Then, I realize my words sound dry so I shake my head and try again, with more enthusiasm. “You should do it. It's a good opportunity.”


Jun shakes his head. “Even if I wanted to, I can't.”


“Don't give this up for me,” I tell him, trying to suppress the relief that spreads through me at the statement.


“It's not that,” Jun says. “Actually, I got into grad school in the city.”


Now, that's news. “What? Jun, congrats, why didn't you tell me earlier?” I ask.


Jun shrugs, and looks down at his hands. “I’m starting in the fall. I’m only going to be taking a few classes and commuting from home but….the problem is my apartment.”


“Right,” I reply, deadpan. “The manor.”


Jun rolls his eyes. “Rent’s expensive as hell and I can't manage college and that at the same time. I'm planning to sell it.”


I snort. “You barely even live there anymore.”


“Exactly,” he says and then: “Let's move in together.”


It’s not totally surprising to hear him say. I've been thinking about it myself. “I want to,” I reply, “but I can barely fit my own stuff in here, much less yours.”


“Don't you have your old house?” Jun suggests, quickly, making it obvious that it's been on his mind for a while. “I didn't wanna bring it up, because I know it hasn't even been a year since we started dating, and, of course, if you're not comfortable with it, I won't push it but—”


“That's not it,” I deny, cutting off his rambling. “I'm just apprehensive. About the permanence.”


Jun finally looks up from his lap and takes one of my hands. “I get that. But, listen, Leo. I may not know a lot about love but I know that I want to be with you for a long time. Whether we move in together or not, I'm never letting you go.”


I bite my lip to hold back my smile. “That house has a lot of memories for me,” I say.


“I know,” he replies.


I squeeze Jun’s hand in my own. “I’d be willing to make more.”


And, so it goes.


.


It’s a lonely night, Jun staying late at the studio doing touch ups while I drink tea on the coffee table and sketch in a notepad, when I realize that I am happy.


It floods in all at once. I'm happy. I don't need a drink to get through the day. I'm good at my job and I have a boyfriend who loves me and I am happy. It's an odd feeling, happiness, probably because I've been wallowing in misery for so long that I forgot what being content feels like.


I reach for my phone on the other side of the table and hit my speed dial; nowadays, I can always trust Jun to pick up within seconds.


“Leo? You alright?” he asks and I smile. I don't usually call him when he's at work, but this, this is special.


“Jun, I had a revelation,” I announce and he hums in acknowledgment.


“Do tell,” he replies, and I'm glad to.


“I'm really happy right now,” I tell him triumphantly and he laughs.


“How? I'm not with you,” he jokes and I smile.


“You're here in my heart,” I reply. Somewhere, I realize the conversation is disgustingly cheesy, but, somehow, I really don't care.


“That's the only place I want to be,” he says sweetly and, suddenly, I ache with want. It's familiar, so familiar, but different.


“Hey, Jun,” I start.


“Yeah?” he asks.


I hadn't realized how much I miss him. “When can you be home?”


There's a noise from the other line, like Jun had dropped something, and then a rustle of movement.


“I'm on my way,” he replies, voice strong and sure, and with that, everything seems to fall into place.


starsupernova: (Default)
 

The bass is pounding in my ears when I realize the true extent of my unhappiness.


I'm usually not this kind of guy, but tonight, something tells me that I can’t stay in the stifling summer heat of my apartment, so I find myself in the stifling summer heat of a dance club.


It's funny that I'm thinking of unhappiness now, considering it's been nearly twenty years since the start of my slow decline, but regardless, I let the thought roll in my head, smooth and calm. I'm empty, hollow; the thought clatters like a marble across porcelain.


I’m at the same seat at the same bar that I've been at all night and I'm not sure what number shot I'm on, but I don’t feel as nearly as drunk as I want to be.


So, I might be somewhat of an alcoholic. I try not to think about it.


Just as the bartender slides me another drink, someone stumbles past me and lets out a little yelp as he trips over a dislodged floorboard. He catches onto my arm and, as he straightens himself, mutters an apology under his breath.


I freeze. As quiet as it was, as long as it's been, I'm not drunk enough to forget that voice.


We lock eyes when he looks up at me and ten years of memories weigh down on my chest, a feeling that I haven't felt since high school floods through my veins, and—


“Hi,” he greets. Even the single word manages to send shivers down my spine. “Fancy seeing you here.”


Look at that is my first thought, because his once dark hair is a light pink, falling in soft curls around his ears, and it suits him, just like everything does.


“What?” I choke out in response. I'm dizzy, and I'm not sure whether because of it's the alcohol or the fact that he's back. I hadn't realized how much I miss him.


He smiles. “I'm home,” he says, and with that, everything seems to fall out of place.


.


My most vivid memory of that day was that it was raining. I've woken up from nightmares time and time again, with the all too familiar wet grass and spring air aroma choking up my throat, and I've fallen asleep to it calming me.


That day, during the spring before the summer before the fall that would mark my first year of school, my mother had taken me to the grocery store and I had escaped from her clutches to run across the street and into the parking lot of an apartment complex.


I didn't know what I was expecting, but I found a boy in the grass, ankle deep in rain-soaked mud. It looked fun, so I joined him, like I would for the rest of my life.


“I’m Jun,” he introduced, and held out his hand. I shook it, like an adult would, and then reached down to flick mud up in his face. He scrunched up his nose for a second before breaking into a devious grin.


“We’re going to be best friends,” I replied, if only to stop the barrage of dirt that was likely incoming.


“Okay,” he said, and a fresh blob of mud hit my face.


When my mother finally found me, she led Jun back to his apartment, where his grandparents opened the door.


“I'll see you?” Jun almost asked and I looked up at my mother, who smiled in the way that she always did, kind and gentle and approving.


It rained the day after, and my mother drove me to the apartment complex so Jun and I could pelt each other with mud from opposite sides of the parking lot.


We were still best friends.


And, so it went.


.


The back alley behind the club is disgusting, to say the least, and the dumpsters have never been my ideal place to reconnect with old best friends slash first crushes, but it's the only place quiet enough to talk.


“It's been quite a while,” Jun says. He pushes sweaty hair out of his forehead and smiles at me and it's too much all at once; all I want to do is run.


In comparison to his caramel tone, my voice is dry and my breath is shallow. “It has,” I reply.


Jun snorts. “Didn't really peg you for the club type. Or the dancing type.” It’s hard to focus when he looks like a model, in skinny jeans and a sleeveless top, but I manage to find words.


“People change,” I respond, a little bitterly, but all Jun does is laugh.


“I guess they do,” he says, a little cryptically, before shrugging. “Anyways, I have to get back, but we should hang out sometime.”


No, we shouldn't, I think, but my mouth says yes, anyway. He hands me his cellphone and I put in my number, willing my fingers not to shake. When he takes it back, his skin brushes against mine, and I try not to flinch.


“I'll see you?” he almost asks and I think back to that afternoon in the rain.


“Yeah,” I reply and he smiles, raising his hand in a mock salute before disappearing through the same door from which we’d come out. It takes me two whole minutes to work up the nerve to leave.


He texts me days later, when I'm starting to wonder why I’d even bothered to give him my number in the first place.


Hey, this is Jun, it starts. I have a question. Are you still afraid of heights? And, really, he would remember that, out of everything.


I wait as long as I can (three hours) before replying.


I’m still afraid of everything.


.


The night I first began to realize my feelings for Jun was a cold one, dead winter and theatre rehearsal extended to 6:30 to make up for a snow day that we’d had a week prior.


I wasn’t an actor—stage fright was middle school Leo’s worst nemesis—but Jun was, so I joined stage crew out of obligation as a best friend.


I was fiddling with the soundboard in the booth and peering through the dusty glass to the opposite side of the theatre, where Jun and one of the lead girls were rehearsing a scene on stage.


The director, coincidentally also my math teacher, guided them around until they were standing nose to nose, and even though I’d read the script cover to cover, I was still surprised when their lips connected.


The girl’s blush could practically be seen from here but Jun looked as calm as ever, and my fingers faltered on the volume switch.


Was that his first kiss? Why don't I know whether he's kissed before? Why couldn't that be me?


Jealously became a familiar feeling from then on.


“I'm not going to act next year,” Jun told me casually on the drive home that night.


“What?” I asked. “Why not? You're so good at it.”


Jun had shrugged, in the way he always did when he wanted to avoid conversation. “It's not fun, anymore.”


He'd said that before, too. I just wondered why he gave up when he was talented, while I struggled to be good at something in the first place.


He’d implied that he only let go of theatre because of disinterest, but, by the time I was dropped off at my house that night, I had already begun to suspect that Jun just didn't like kissing, girls or otherwise.


And, so it went.


.


“Jun’s back?” is the first question I hear when Amara’s front door swings open in front of me that night.


“Not now,” I groan, because, yes, I may have frantically texted her about it as soon as I got home after seeing him, but that doesn't mean I want to talk about it.


“Yes, now,” she shoots back, shutting the door as I step into her house. “I've been dying for some good gossip.”


“You're a journalist. Isn't your job gossip?” I reply. I toe off my shoes and flinch as she drags me by the arm to her living room and makes me sit.


“Don't demote me to some tabloid columnist,” she snaps. “News journalism is a professional field.”


“Okay, okay, I got it,” I reply, rubbing my arm to relieve the pain. “Would you stop being harsh for a second?”


She scoffs, choosing not to answer. Instead, she stomps over to the kitchen to pour wine into a crystal glass.


“None for me?” I whine, and she narrows her eyes at me.


“I thought you were sobering up?” she almost asks, way more concerned than she has any right to be.


Right. I’d forgot that she'd thought that. I make a show of rolling my eyes.


“It was a joke. I'm cutting back, I swear,” I say, and draw a cross over my heart as a promise.


It's a filthy lie, but Amara doesn't need to know that. She already knows too much about me.


Amara had gone to high school with me and him, but I'd only met her when the Jun and Leo, best friend duo had already ceased to exist.


“So, Jun. How’re you taking it?” she asks, cutting straight to the point like she does so well. I shrug.


“I'm okay,” I reply, and it's kind of true. If an outside source was involved, they probably would have said something about repression, but Amara knows me and I know myself, and I'm handling it pretty okay.


“He didn't say anything about it?” she continues, and that stings a little.


“I didn't expect him to,” I reply, taking a sip of the wine. It's really not true, because what I really didn't expect was to ever see him again, but, considering the bad luck I am continuously blessed with, this is the best that I could have gotten.


“So, you're just gonna play along?” Amara asks. She likes to pretend that she isn't judging everything that I'm telling her, so I let her.


“I mean, if he's acting like it never happened, that's just easier for me,” I say.


It's a filthy lie, and when I leave her house that night, I crave a drink more than ever.


.


As ugly and cliché as it is, a kiss changed my life.


And, as ugly and cliche as it was, it might have been the worst mistake I ever made.


It was in the art room after school, our usual perch during sophomore year of high school, and Jun had been complaining about something, as usual.


He’d never been a “hands to himself” type so, in the middle of his wild gesturing, he accidentally brushed his fingers across my still-wet painting on the desk, staining them violet and blue.


And, this. This I remember clearly. He’d done nothing special, but I found myself thinking that he was the most beautiful person I had ever seen.


So, in the middle of his fervent apology, I took his painted hands in mine and kissed him, just like that.


I realized that I'd fucked up the second our lips touched.


“I'm sorry,” I had said, after jerking back, and Jun just stared at our connected hands for a few seconds, before ripping them apart.


I could hear the tremble in his voice and it made me want to cry. “I'm not—I’m sorry,” he repeated after me.


Sometimes I wonder why we were both apologizing.


Still, only later, after Jun had pulled away from me and dashed out of the room, only when I was scrubbing acrylic off of my fingers and trying to forget it had ever happened, did I remember that Jun didn't like kissing, me or otherwise.


And, so it went.

.


I still haven't seen him for a second time when he calls me past midnight. I pace a few times around the room to calm the little butterfly that does a barrel roll in my stomach, before accepting the call on the third ring.


“Hey,” he says, and his voice is a little breathless when he speaks. “I need a favor.”


I want to ask him why he thinks he can casually walk back into my life and just assume that we’re best friends again. “Okay,” I reply.


One of the few things I still know about Jun: he's a photographer, and a popular one, at that. From what he's told me over infrequent text messages in the month he's been back, I figure that, for the past few years, he'd been working around the globe, in different cities and countries.


(One of the few things I still know about myself: I'm a painter. I hate that I only kept painting to immortalize Jun in my work.)


“Can you come to that park off of the interstate?” he asks, and I'm getting dressed before he finishes speaking.


(I catch the bottle before it falls to the floor.)


“Yeah, sure,” I agree. I try to convince myself that it's only because I'm bored, but it's always been hard to say no to Jun, even if what he's asking isn't particularly good for me.


“Thanks,” he says, and hangs up before I even have a chance to ask why.


It's not a short drive to the aforementioned park, but I’m willing to make it simply out of curiosity.


It's technically against the rules to be here this late, but Jun and I had been before. I know the right way to get in and the right place to be so that the two guards wouldn’t have a shot at finding us.


Jun is a few feet away from the park bench, scribbling something down in a notebook with a camera hanging from his neck. He's wearing the same thin-rimmed, round glasses that he wore in high school and his pale skin catches stray bits of light from the streetlamp. He’d dyed his hair back to midnight black and that familiar feeling of breathlessness chokes me.


When he looks up, tucking a pen into his pocket, he smiles softly and waves me over.


“What do you want?” I ask, tucking my hands into my pockets, and his smile widens.


“I need a model,” he tells me almost gleefully and of course, I understand.


“What do you mean?” I ask anyway.


“I need you,” Jun replies. I’d always marveled at how he could say such cliché sweet things without cringing (and without meaning them).


“I haven't brushed my hair and I got out of bed twenty minutes ago, I'm sure you can find something better,” I shoot back but his words are still echoing in my skull.


Jun just rolls his eyes and drops his notebook on the grass to come over to me, standing up on his toes to run his fingers through my curls to tame them. He straightens out my shirt, his fingers on my collarbone, and smooths it out, hands running down my chest, tugging on the ends.


This is the same boy who didn't even want to hold your hands in high school, the working part of my brain says.


“There we go,” Jun announces. He pushes me by my shoulders to the park bench—oh god, when will he stop touching me—and makes me sit. I lean to tuck my jeans into the work boots I had shoved onto my feet.


Jun steps away for a second, looking me over, and then moves closer to pull my loose shirt a half an inch off my shoulder, fix my hair again, and move my knees further apart.


When will he stop touching me?


“Stay like that,” he commands and pulls away from me, bringing the camera up to his face when he's near the tree on the other corner of the small grassy area.


I try to pretend that he's not taking pictures of me, and I try to pretend that I don't know why I'm here, why I'm doing this for someone I haven't seen or talked to in years, for someone who is so beautiful that I might die.


“Tilt your head back,” he calls and I comply, easily, to this and the rest of the instructions he gives me.


I'm not sure how long it's been he comes back over, to pull his glasses off and hand them to me.


“These only look good on you,” I say impulsively. He gives me a cryptic smile and makes me put them on anyway, before going through the satchel on his back to find a black knee length coat.


I put the coat on. It fits a little small, but well enough. The glasses are fake, of course, and I kind of smile. Jun takes a picture.


It must be three in the morning when Jun puts the camera down.


“I'm really not pretty enough for that thing,” I tell him, handing back the coat and the glasses before motioning to the camera, stretching out my neck with my hand.


“Would you do this again?” he asks, instead of replying.


Well, it was a reply in its own way, but I try not to think of the implications behind it.


“Sure,” I say, because I can't say no to Jun, not really. I’m turning to walk back to my car when Jun catches me by the wrist.


“Thanks, Leo,” he says, voiced with sincerity. It hurts a little bit so I just shrug and tug my wrist out of his grip.


“Get some sleep,” I tell him. He just smiles wryly.


(Another thing I still know about Jun: insomnia.)


The wooden fence creaks as I hop over it to get to my car, which I'd parked a few blocks away. The moon disappears behind the clouds.


.


Jun and I were invited to our first real party halfway through our freshman year of high school. High school parties had been like a myth when we were kids, and there was no way that we weren't about to figure out what it was like first hand.


It was harder for Jun to escape his grandparents’ control, but my aunt had gotten tired of taking care of me by my fourteenth birthday, so I accepted the invitation with ease. And, there we were.


Don't get me wrong, though. I’m usually not the one to assign blame to other people for my own problems.


Usually.


But, see, if my aunt had given a fuck about what I was doing on a regular basis, I probably wouldn’t have ended up an alcoholic.


Anyways, there we were, Jun and I poking through the mini fridge in my garage for something to eat, and there it was, an unopened six pack of beer in the bottom rack.


Our idiotic ninth grade selves really thought it would be a good idea, so we downed two of the bottles and threw the other four in our backpack to take with us.


It was about a ten minute walk to the house, which was bursting with music and people. The fruit punch at the door was good, unlike most party fruit punch, made of strawberries, sprite, and lemonade, and spiked with vodka. So I kept going back to it. The buzz was nice, especially when it led to dizzy stumbling darkness.


Needless to say, I didn't remember much of that party, or any of the others to come.


That night, Jun helped me home and helped me sneak into my room through my window. I took a shower and threw my clothes into the washing machine and sprayed around an air freshener.


My aunt didn't notice a thing when she woke up in the morning (or maybe she just didn't care).


See, if Jun had stopped me that first night instead of disappearing into a locked room and reemerging at midnight with kiss-swollen lips like some kind of fucking Cinderella, I probably wouldn't have ended up an alcoholic.


I was invited somewhere else two weeks later and sneaked more six packs out of the mini fridge in my garage. I ended up taking them into my room on weekends when my aunt would spend her off days with her boyfriend. I ended up loving that buzz more than anything by the time I hit sixteen.


Sometimes the guilt would overtake me, usually during a hangover, because that isn't what she would have wanted from me. My mother had hopes and dreams for her son, but, with her, they disappeared from sight.


See, if my mother hadn't died, I probably wouldn't have ended up an alcoholic.


And, so it went.


.


In a surprising turn of events, I'm not drinking.


Of course, I'm not alone either, because Amara’s back, and I find myself in her clutches once again.


“So?” Amara’s leaning onto her hand, elbow propped onto the table. I've come to learn that that's probably her most used word.


“I had an epiphany,” I reply. It’s something I've been meaning to confront—a word that is one of my least used—for a while.


“Oh?” Amara asks, cocking an eyebrow.


I swallow, breathe in. “I'm in love with Jun.”


Amara snorts. “That's your epiphany? I could have told you that years ago.”


Somehow, I felt as if it would be more of a revelation, but Amara isn't even phased. “Not like a crush,” I clarify. “Like an ‘I would die for him’ kind of love.”


“Like I said,” Amara replies, smiling. “I know.”


“I hate you,” I state. “I hate myself. I hate Jun, holy shit. I fucking model for him now. I hate it.”


She bursts into laughter. “You model for him? You? A model?” I make an affronted noise and she shakes her head. “At least he thinks you’re fucking pretty.”


I groan. “I doubt it. I've never seen him express attraction to someone in his whole life.”


Amara shrugs. “It has been almost ten years, so stop digging yourself into a hole,” she says. “I'm not emotionally ready to deal with you if you start crying over him.”


I drop my head into my hands. “I want to like. Paint his stupid fucking gorgeous face.”


“Wow, that's gay,” Amara replies helpfully.


I roll my eyes. “Fuck off.”


.


Jun picked up the camera a month after he dropped theatre. He was like that: good at things on the first try, perfect on the second.


He spent his afternoons taking pictures of the girls performing in our school plays and the daisies out in the rocks behind the soccer field.


I spent my afternoons in the art room with paint-stained fingers, getting color on Jun’s pitch black snapbacks.


Still, before photography and theatre and the number of other things Jun had excelled at as a child, he was a painter and so was I.


I always loved the art books that my mother gave me for my birthday, and I especially loved when she'd sit down with me and tell me stories of her mother (long gone, before I was even a concept).


You're so much like her, mijo, my mother would tell me, but that was before she was long gone, too.


So I kept painting, for my grandmother and my mother and Jun, because most days, their faces starred in the empty spaces of my sketchbooks.


Jun stopped painting, citing disinterest like he always did, when he found the piano, but I wasn't like that, I wasn't so perfect.


So, I stayed in the art room after school when he drifted off to the choir rooms.


I stayed in the art room while he vanished to the choir rooms and the stage and the daisies out in the rocks behind the soccer field.


I stayed in the small art room while I kissed him.


I stayed while he vanished.


And, so it went.


.


I'm usually not the one to blame other people for my own problems, and, true to my word, this one is absolutely completely my fault.


I'm pretty fucking broke.


I spend my time working odd jobs and waiting for art shows where I can sell some of my work and I spend my money on paint, canvases, and expensive wine.


But I'm still pretty fucking broke, which is why I'm baffled when Jun invites me to his upper-class photography convention’s exhibition.


“It's for photography and art,” he says when I point it out, so I gather my wits, put on a rented tuxedo, take a cheap taxi into the city where the event’s being held. The day before, I'd come to the venue to drop off the works that I'd wrapped in brown paper, but the grandiosity of it all still takes my breath away.


Jun meets me outside in an immaculate suit, matching his dark hair, and gives me his arm. It’s an odd gesture, for friends, but I smooth my curls back and loop my arm through his. His smile feels private, intimate even, and I rip my eyes away from it.


The first thing that catches my eye in the ballroom is the four foot tall painting on the stage. It's painted in shades of grey, and the sensuality of the two figures, twisted together, fingers and mouths gripping into skin, washes over me.


Suddenly, I'm even more aware of Jun’s presence.


Jun doesn't seem to notice how tense I become, and immediately pulls me over to the champagne, with which I comply easily. The paintings and blown up photographs around me are like things I have never seen; I reach out to touch one but Jun’s hand comes to rest on the inside of my arm and he pulls me away.


“There's yours,” he tells me, pointing, and I see my two pieces on a table with a pile of business cards that I had created in the last moment. They're not nearly as good as anything else in the room, but the fact that they're there sends a shiver of something up my spine.


There's a girl with long blond hair peering at my pieces. Expensive rings adorn her fingers and the red on her long fingernails match her four inch heels. Jun just smiles at me and nudges me over to her. My brain screams at me to run, but she's already turning around.


“Jun!” she exclaims and dear god, they know each other. “I haven't seen you in ages!” She steps over and kisses Jun on the cheek, leaving behind a faint stain of pink lipstick. I'm almost instinctively moving my hand to wipe it off of him when the girl notices me. “Oh, who's this?”


I startle and jerk my hand away from his cheek. “I'm Leo, Jun’s friend,” I introduce myself.


“The Leo who painted these?” she asks, waving her hands towards the canvases. There's a thick some-kind-of-European accent to her words.


“That would be him,” Jun says, grinning.


“Uh, yeah,” I finish lamely. She stands an inch or two above me in the red heels.


“You're talented,” she compliments. “Not as good as I am, though,” she finishes and points to the stage. “That's mine.”


Oh, that one. “It's incredible,” I say.


“Thanks,” she replies, smiling crookedly. “I'm Estelle. Me and Jun met a few years ago in Germany.” So, that's the accent. “What about you?”


“Um—” I start, but Jun cuts me off.


“We knew each other in high school,” he offers, like it isn't more than that.


“That's cute,” Estelle says and I'm still trying to figure out whether she's being patronizing or not, when she twirls around and takes a business card off of the desk with my paintings. “I’ll see you around?” she asks.


I smile and shrug. “Probably not.”


“Yeah, okay,” she replies and laughs before floating over to someone else.


Jun nudges me. “Estelle’s one of the best in the business. You should be glad that she noticed you.”


“I don't really fit in here,” I tell him mournfully, and exchange my empty champagne glass for a second full one when a waiter passes by. “By the way, don't let me take anymore after this,” I instruct, and down the glass in one go.


He raises an eyebrow. “Still got that problem?”


“Yeah,” I reply. “I guess I finally grew into it.”


.


One of my most vivid memories of my mother was when she was my group’s chaperone on our first grade school trip to the local zoo.


It was me, and Jun, and two other girls who adored my mother, probably because she ran the after-school care program and brought in homemade brownies every week.


My mom was, undoubtedly, a PTA mom.


She had bought ice cream for the four of us during lunch break, using money that we’d brought from home, and we ate them cheerily on our way to the tiger enclosure.


Jun was most excited to see them, while I, being a scaredy cat, was much much more wary.


The first mistake I made that day, out of many, was noticing the open gate of the enclosure.


The second was pointing it out to Jun.


“I want to go closer,” he’d told me, and I figured that had meant right up to the glass because I'd made him stand with me farther away when my mother and the two girls went to take a look.


Instead, he ambled over to the gate. He really never was one to back out of a challenge. Where were the zookeepers, anyway?


The third mistake I made that day was being a scaredy cat. I should have gone there—closer to the cage—to stop him myself but instead I called out, high pitched and panicked, to my mother.


Jun was already in the cage by the time my mother heard me.


(Of course, the tiger never ended up getting near him, or else I wouldn't be telling this story at all.)


After zookeepers finally arrived and my mother gave them a piece of her mind and Jun safely cried his tears of shock into my shoulder, my mother crouched down to eye level with me.


“One day, you're going to kill me with all of the stress you cause me, mijo,” she said, seriously, and I buried my face into her chest, holding back my terrified shudders.


When she died months later from a stroke, and acute stress was listed as one of the catalysts, I believed her.


I cried tears of shock into Jun’s shoulder at the funeral while he held a bouquet of lilies in his tiny second grade hands and stared blankly into the engraved headstone in front of us.


And, so it went.


.


I'm still afraid of everything, and Jun knows it better than anyone. It’s a perfectly normal early autumn day when he drives up to my apartment, so I should have expected that something shady was in the works. Nothing with Jun is ever normal.


“I need your help,” he tells me, and I figure it's a modelling thing again, and I really do need a break from my paintbrush.


My first mistake is falling asleep on the car ride to wherever we’re going.


My second is not hijacking the car and driving off when Jun gently shakes me awake and I realize where we are.


“Are you fucking kidding me,” I state.


“Nope,” he says. “I'm making you get over your fear.”


“The first time I went on a rollercoaster, I threw up and then cried for fifteen minutes. You were literally right there.”


“Oh, yeah, that was fucking hilarious,” Jun replies.


I make a disgusted face. “I threw up on your shoes.”


“Don't worry, I'm over it,” Jun says, smiling gummily and patting me on the shoulder.


I sigh. “I'm not going on any rides.”


“Suit yourself,” he replies and gets out of the car. As usual, I follow.


By the time he buys tickets for the both of us (as if I'm going to pay if I'm being forced), Jun is bouncing on his heels with anticipation. I remember our kindergarten school trip to Storybook Land, when he’d dragged me onto the Bubbles the Dragon coaster—the most intense in the whole park—and he’d just laughed through every second of it while I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed while gripping his fingers blue.


He hadn’t been laughing when I threw up on his shoes afterwards but apparently he’s over that.


“Let’s get food,” he chirps when we finally push through the turnstiles.


“Do you really want to relive that experience?” I ask him, and he pouts.


“Fine, be that way,” he says, and I sigh, and follow him to the cotton candy stand. He buys a pink one for himself and a blue one for me, and I vaguely begin to feel bad for the fact that he’s paying for everything.


Still, although we’d only ever met up at my house, I'm pretty sure he lives in some luxury apartment in the city. He can afford this shit.


“Do the colors even taste different?” Jun ponders, taking off a piece of his with his fingers and popping it into his mouth. “Here, try it,” he says and presses another piece against my lips until I open my mouth. I let it melt against my tongue before trying the blue one.


“There’s a slight difference,” I tell him. “But they’re virtually the same.”


“Huh,” he says shortly, before shoving more of the sugar into his mouth.


“You’re not actually going to make me ride anything, right?” I add casually, because an eating Jun is a somewhat compliant Jun, but his eyes just sharpen.


“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” he warns.


My third mistake is letting him take me on the spinning teacups, and then the looping Batman ride, and then, there we were, in line for the tallest ride in the park.


My fourth is never learning how to say no to him.


“You’ll be fine, the ride’s less than a minute,” Jun assures me, and I think my knees are going to fall out from underneath me.


“I'm scared,” I whine and he just touches my forearm gently as we inch forward. “Why are these lines so long? I think I'm going to puke again.”


“Not on my shoes this time,” he whispers into my ear. I smile weakly.


After an agonizing half an hour, six minutes of which involved a pep talk in which Jun cursed me out mercilessly, we finally reach the gates to the ride.


“Don't look up,” he advises, so I do. My stomach lurches in response.


“I can't do this,” I tell him.


“Too late now,” he shoots back. It's true. We’re already strapped in. I let out a healthy stream of cuss words that makes an older woman in the seat in front of us scoff.


The ride rumbles to a start and my breathing comes ragged all of a sudden. “Hold my hand,” I mumble.


“What?” he asks.


“Hold my fucking hand, bitch,” I hiss and grab his fingers in a vice grip, and let my eyes squeeze shut as the coaster shoots up, up, up, and my lips are trembling and maybe I'm going to die, that would at least be better than the drop down.


“Hey, open your eyes,” Jun nudges me when I feel the coaster stop for a split second, so I do (I never say no to him) and we’re four hundred feet in the air. I can see everything, the sun glinting off metal and tiny people and I want to capture this moment forever in a painting.


“Holy fuck,” I say and that's all I have time to, because the seat tips down, and we’re falling. I close my eyes.


There's not much I remember, really, except my heart in my throat and my mouth going dry and adrenaline burning up in my veins and my hand clasped in Jun’s like my life depended on it.


“You did it,” he tells me after he tugs me off and I think my knees are still weak but somehow the happiness and pride in his voice strike a clear chord. We walk—or rather, he leads me—away from the ride and his hand burns into the skin of my palm.


When he lets go of my hand and puts his hands on my shoulders, I suddenly feel focused, grounded, by his touch.


“That was…” I start and he smiles, soft and reserved, and for me. “Awesome,” I finish and when he's wearing that smile, I really want to fucking kiss him. but I can’t, I can’t, I can’t


His hands go to my cheeks and he's stepping in, leaning in, and his lips touch mine, and there's only one time I’ve ever had a kiss that felt like this. He makes me feel alive, not like the fucked up adult version of the fucked up kid that saw his mother die in front of his eyes.


And just like that, it's gone, everything's gone, and I feel like I'm floating again.


“Jun,” I say, and reach for his wrist, but his face is panicked and he jerks away. “Jun. Jun, do you remember?” I suddenly need him to remember the first time we kissed, because that's all I can think of and we've never talked about it in the six months he's been home.


“I'm sorry,” he says. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can’t.”


And he runs. I don’t follow. He runs and, for once in my life, I don't go after him and that must be the biggest fucking mistake of them all.


I go on the ride two more times, my eyes shut tight and fingers gripping the armrests.


The taxi home costs too much money. When I empty my bag for cash, I find an unopened bag of cotton candy that Jun had bought for both of us to share after the ride.


I don’t have the heart to throw it away.


.


Post-Jun Leo was a lot of things.


Depressed was undoubtedly one of them, but more poignant was the way I just went quiet. It was like Jun sharpened the world around me, and with his departure, nothing felt quite the same.


With his departure, I entered college.


By that point in my life, I'd already grown tired of the freedom that most cherished when leaving home; I had been on my own since my mother died and had learned that freedom was overrated.


Well, if I think about it, quiet was an overstatement. Art students didn’t do quiet. Art students did ecstasy and painted for eight hours straight, drank coffee mixed in with a healthy amount of Redbull and painted for forty eight hours straight, got drunk and had sex on the weekends with their friends from the drama department, got high in alleys with English majors, and I am only somewhat ashamed to having been a part of all of those.


Not to stereotype, because I'm sure that many art students are model citizens, but I went to school in the city. We didn’t do model.


I never had a boyfriend in college, and if I did, I didn't count it because they were either vague or manipulative and I didn’t really do feelings. There was always Jun floating in the back of my mind, Jun who was already famous around the world while I was telling my “best friends” that no, I'm not being the designated driver the next time we go out because I want to get fucking smashed too.


So, I suppose, college wasn’t really a quiet affair. Numb is more accurate, forcing myself through class after class and drowning stress in alcohol and trying to pull anything I had out of my brain the night before final projects were due.


I guess that’s why most of them were based off of Jun, anyway. Some of them had been my best works. I hate how I only kept painting to immortalize Jun in them. I could say he was my muse, but that would imply something sweet or loving, when thinking of him only left bitterness on my tongue and an urge to make art.


I guess I owe the fact that I graduated almost at the top of my class to him, but not that it mattered anyway.


I made art and passed classes and it seemed fine until the day after graduation and I belatedly realized that I was still just as fucked up as I'd always been.


And, so it went.


.


It only takes three days before I miss him again. Jun is kind of like a drug in the way that I really can’t stay away, but that’s apparently how love is.


It gets to the point that I shut off my phone for a few hours to resist calling him, so I'm surprised when a notification for two missed calls pops up on my phone when I click it back on.


I stare at Jun’s contact until my eyes burn before I call him back.


“What?” I ask him as indifferently as possible, but I can still feel the phantom of his lips against mine.


“Can I come over?” he asks; I can hear the shake in his voice.


“Sure,” I say, but it comes out like a whisper. I clear my throat and reply louder. “Yeah.”


“Okay,” he says quietly, and ends the call, and I'm left wondering why I love him at all.


I clean the house. I take out my sketchbook. The doorbell rings.


Jun looks exhausted, like he hasn't slept since I'd last seen him, so I take his bag out of his hands and guide him to the couch before he even has a chance to talk.


“Sleep,” I tell him.


“Not tired,” he hums but he lies down anyway, leaving space for me to sit down. I grab my sketchbook and take the seat, letting him rest his bare feet in my lap.


“Well, you look it.”


“I’ve been working,” he says vaguely, and I sneak a glance at the bag where his camera is tucked away.


“Can I see?”


“Nope.”


I groan, and he laughs. “You don't let me see your paintings,” he replies.


Fair point,” I concede.


“Hey, hand me my bag,” he says, and I do. I'm not sure what I expected him to pull out, but it probably wasn't an already rolled joint in a plastic bag. “Do you mind?” he asks, fishing a lighter out of his pocket.


“Uh,” I mumble. “No?”


He grins at me and puts the joint to his lips before lighting. I watch him take the hit and open his mouth slightly to filter the smoke out. I'm suddenly glad I left a window open.


I go back to my sketchbook but my head is fuzzy and the charcoal pencil between my fingers only seems to be able to form the profile of Jun’s face. I sneak a glance at him and decide that he's not looking at my sketches anyway.


I shade his face with light gray smoke on my paper.


“You want?” he asks me after a few quiet minutes, and I look. His eyes are hooded with exhaustion but they still seem to be shining. I shrug.


“Sure,” I tell him. He smiles, before pausing to bite the corner of his lip.


Fuck. I want to kiss him. “C’mere,” he mumbles. He pulls one more time, inhales, and lets go of the smoke.


Reaches up to tug me down by the collar, meeting me halfway there. Kisses me like he's done it a thousand times in his life. Pulls away with a smirk.


How was Jun thinking about kissing when I was thinking about kissing? My brain’s practically short circuited, but Jun hands me the joint, so I pull my attention away from his lips.


It takes ten minutes of passing the joint back and forth to realize I'm high.


I go into the kitchen to grab something to eat when Jun laughs suddenly. I abandon my task to peek back into the living room, where Jun is flipping through the sketchbook that I had left on the floor.


“It's me,” he says, grinning, and holds up the sketches I had just made. “It’s me.”


I'm too tired to feel embarrassed. “Yeah, man. It's you, alright.”


He taps the couch. “Come back,” he urges.


“You gonna kiss me again?” I reply, half joking and half with this weight in my chest that feels like it's been there for years.


“Probably,” he says. He sounds a little nervous, and my mouth goes dry.


“Oh.” I cross the room in record time.


“You sure you want it?” he asks me. For some reason, I get the feeling he's not just talking about kissing.


“Yeah,” I reply. “Of course.”


The high makes everything feel more real than it is. the slide of Jun’s lips against mine and his hands gripping my waist overwhelm me with sensation. I think I could get used to it.


The thing about sex is that you learn more about a person than if you had known them for a hundred years. I learn that that was definitely not the first time that Jun had given someone a blowjob before.


.


I met Amara the summer after junior year.


Post-Jun Leo frequented the ice cream shop where she worked nearly every day, and if I actually liked girls in the first place, it probably would have made a pretty good love story.


“You go to my high school, right?” she’d asked, sliding into the seat across from me, even though I was pretty sure that she was still on her shift. To be honest, I’d never seen her before that day, so I just shrugged and went back to my ice cream.


“Wow, a talkative one, aren't you?” she drawled and then suddenly brightened and snapped her fingers. “Leo. That's your name. You won that statewide art contest.”


That made me look up. “How do you know that? I don't even know you?”


She smirked. “I work for the school newspaper, dude. I know most things.” I scoffed in response and she rolled her eyes. “Amara, by the way. And what I wanted to ask is why you come in here every day looking all depressed. You're killing the summer vibe.”


“And you’re killing my vibe, so I’d appreciate it if you didn't,” I shot back.


“So, you do talk. Interesting,” she mused. “Anyways, what I actually wanted to ask is that if you're interested, we kind of need more employees here.”


“Nah, no thanks,” I replied immediately. “I'm not interested.”


“I'm not interested in you, either, honey,” she snapped back. “I'm just trying to do my job.”


She had spunk. I guess that's why I ended up agreeing to her offer, and ended up her friend.


It might have been the best mistake of my life.


And, so it went.


.


I, as usual, am not exactly sure how I got myself into this situation.


“Stop fidgeting,” Jun hisses.


“You're literally stabbing my eye out,” I complain even though Jun is brushing the eyeshadow across my lid as lightly as possible. “I agreed to model for you, not for you to doll me up.”


“It's my concept,” Jun replies, and I open the eye that he's not working on to look in the mirror, which is set onto the wall opposite from a bed. We’re at a set that Jun had rented from one of his colleagues, and I'm regretting my life more and more with every second that passes.


“Close,” Jun says to my eye, and I comply as he begins working on that one. He finishes the eyeshadow, curls my eyelashes, puts on mascara and eyeliner with a practiced hand.


I open my eyes.


He tilts my face up to dust highlighter across my cheeks and grips my chin to paint lipstick on my lips. I involuntarily jerk away and he groans.


“Sit still,” he commands and I roll my eyes. He smirks and finishes my lips. “There. Pretty.”


I can feel my cheeks heating up. “Alright, whatever. Let’s just do this.”


Later, when the shoot is over, Jun kisses me until lipstick is stained all over our faces and necks. I've never looked too closely at his skin before, but now I notice the mole on the tip of his right ear and the tiny scar on his hipbone.


The thing about sex is that you learn more about a person than if you had known them for a hundred years. I learn that, despite how good Jun is at makeup, the imperfections on his skin are still the things I love most about him.


.


I met Amara the summer after junior year, and I wasn't sure what it was about her that made me want to tell her everything, but I did.


I guess that, since I had lost Jun, I needed someone else to confide in or else I probably would have gone insane that summer.


It came after one afternoon, when Jun had walked into the ice cream shop with his camera, and I’d refused to come out of the back, leaving Amara to serve him.


“What was that all about?” Amara asked, when she came into the back after he left, and I just groaned and started making an order for someone else.


“You ever just lose friends and you don't even know why but you know you're not going to confront them about it ever?” I said in means of explanation.


“Wow.” Amara stopped in the middle of her task of wiping down equipment. “That's some serious repression you've got in there, Leo.”


“You're telling me,” I replied. Amara was a good friend, and a good listener, but she just didn't get it.


Amara had the kind of life I wanted: two whole perfect suburban parents who let her go out on the weekends but still enforced curfew and good grades.


Amara became a drinker when she grew up, but never an alcoholic.


And, so it went.


.


The text message, making my phone chime at precisely midnight, is from Jun. It’s just a simple happy birthday and a smiley face, but it still does something to my heart anyway.


The call is, inevitably, from Amara.


“Happy twenty-sixth, bitch,” she says, warmly, when I accept the call.


“Thanks,” I reply. “One year closer to my death, amirite?”


“Stop being edgy and depressed for just one day of your life, Leo. Go to sleep so we can hang out tonight.”


I sigh wistfully. “Can’t. Jun’s coming over for dinner or something.”


“Perfect,” Amara replies, and the grin is evident in her voice. “I’ll be there.”


Oh fuck, I think. “Oh fuck,” I say. Amara meeting Jun would be a bad idea. I still don’t think Jun realizes that I have friends (however few) other than him sometimes.


“Come on, let me at least meet the love of your life after all of your ramblings.”


Love of my life. God, maybe he is. I groan. “Don't embarrass me.”


“I'm sure he could embarrass you way more than I ever could but okay.”


“Fuck off,” I tell her, even though she's probably right.


“Good night, Leo,” she chirps happily and hangs up right after.  


Later, when the clock makes a whole turn and a half turn, my doorbell rings. “How do you feel?” Amara asks, as soon as I open the door.


I still feel twenty-five. Hell, I still fucking feel twenty-four. I feel every age but the one I am right now.


“Like I’m a year closer to death,” I reply.


She rolls her eyes, and, on cue, the doorbell rings. Something seizes up in my throat as Amara grins and floats her way to the door.


“Leo?” Jun asks, and I can imagine his face, small frown and scrunched eyebrows.


“I'm Amara, Leo’s friend. you must be Jun,” Amara says. She sounds delighted. When they leave, I'm breaking out the liquor.


“She went to our high school,” I add, walking past Amara to move the food I'd been cooking to the table.


“Nice to meet you,” Jun says, politely, and shakes Amara’s hand. She moves out of the way to let him in. “I got you a present, Leo,” Jun tells me and I give him a look.


“You didn't have to,” I protest. He only shrugs in response and puts the box on the couch, before rolling up his sleeves and moving to the table.


Dinner goes smoothly enough, but it doesn’t seem like Amara and Jun click in any way throughout the night, so it’s almost a blessing when Jun says that he has to leave for work.


“I’m not really sure if I like him or not,” Amara announces.


“Me too,” I reply.


She gives me a look. “Anyways, give me time to get used to him. I'm not about to be hating the kid that you're in love with.”


“Don't worry,” I retort. “You're never meeting him again.”


Amara pouts. “Is that really the right way to treat your best friend?” I stick my tongue out at her. “What did he even get you?” she asks and I shrug. Amara huffs and walks over to the couch to open it herself. I hate best friends.


She tears off the silver wrapping paper and inside is a fancy looking box, which she pops open to reveal a set of folded clothing. “It's a tux, I think. How rich is this guy?”


“Don't ask me,” I reply as she pulls out an envelope from between the fabric. She raises an eyebrow at it before shrugging and handing it to me.


I rip open the envelope and a few pictures printed on photo paper fall out. I catch them before they hit the ground.


Most of the pictures are scenery (a park, a ballroom, a ferris wheel) but there's few of me, too. I look out of place in the beauty of Jun’s photos.


.


If it were up to my mother, I probably wouldn't have had to live with my aunt after she died. My mom had always had her suspicions about her sister—which I assumed from the fact that we’d never visited her once when my mom was still alive.


But, the fact of the matter was that most of my relatives were across the border and my aunt lived a mere thirty minutes away.


My mother also hadn't left a will.


So, social services had decided that my aunt was a good option for me. She worked an online job with a decent income, so she moved down south to my house and took residence in my home.


Maybe I should have been grateful. I wasn't in the foster system. I got to stay in the same school, got to keep my old friends, got to live in my old town. It was all going to be okay.


It was all going to be okay, but my aunt got tired. She was alone and didn't know shit about raising an elementary school kid and she got tired.


In retrospect, I shouldn't blame her.


I would get tired of me, too.


And, so it went.


.


The hospital calls me on a chilly night, and I guess it's true that tragedies only happen in the winter.


“Hello,” I greet, politely, even though nervousness is building up in my spine. “Who is it?”


“Is this Leo? Nephew of Frida Márquez?” a female voice asks, and my chest tightens.


“Yeah, what about it?” I reply, even though I know.


“I'm sorry to have to tell you this,” the lady starts, “but your aunt has passed away. You're going to have to come to the hospital immediately.”


A stone drops in my stomach. “Okay,” I reply quietly,


“I offer my condolences,” she says. I just make a noise of affirmation and hang up the phone.


When it's all over, I have more bills to pay. I have to plan a funeral. I read the will (one that my mother didn't have). Surprisingly, I get the house. I thought she’d forgotten about me altogether.


She didn't own much, so the transfer isn't hard. I still have to plan a funeral.


(It's a small one, because I don't know any of my other relatives, so it's just me and the casket, me and the woman I never loved, me.)


I get the house. I guess it was cowardly in the way that my apartment was only about twenty minutes away from the house that I had grown up in, but I’d never been back there after college. Now, though, if I wanted to, I could move back.


I don’t think I want to.


Amara and Jun call for the next few days. I text Amara the details, but it's difficult to pick up the phone and explain this to Jun. I try to remember that I hated my aunt, that she's one of the reasons that I ended up like I am, but instead I feel guilty. I hadn't ever visited her in the hospital either.


When my buzzing phone gets unbearable (and my yearning for Jun’s voice breaks through my skin), I finally answer.


“Leo, holy fuck, I've been calling you for days. I would have swung by if I wasn't so damn busy, what happened?” Jun says all in one go when I click the call button.


I don't know what to say. I don't know what to say. I don't know what to—


“Hey, Jun,” I start. I know what I want to say and I know it's going to come out wrong but I say it anyway. “Do you want to come back home with me?”


“Sure,” Jun replies, even though he has no idea what I’m talking about. “Of course.”


starsupernova: (Default)
 

prologue:


i come out to my twin brother three weeks after i come to terms with the fact that i’m gay.


he pauses in his game only momentarily, to ask if i’m sure.


i say yes, i kissed a girl at summer camp and it was the best feeling of my life.


he asks me if i think that the girl who sits behind me in algebra class is attractive. i say yes, she's the one i kissed at summer camp.


he crinkles his nose in jealousy and asks me if i’d play video games with him. i say yes.


an hour into the game, he asks me if i’m dating her.


i say no. she’s straight, and she realized after she kissed me.


he turns back to the video game. so do i.


chapter one:


it starts on the first day of school, in our tenth grade english class. we’re somehow discussing the grand canyon and lindsey cheng comments on how it's amazing that something so beautiful could exist deep in the earth.


that's when roja, the new girl, speaks from across the room. "i've always thought things that go up are cooler than things that go down," she says confidently.


it’s a really stupid statement, i realize in retrospect, but i’ll learn that everything that comes out of roja’s mouth sounds smart.


i look at my brother, whom i expect to be wearing an amused smirk. instead, he's looking at her like she'd hung the stars.


when i realize that he's probably in love with her, i decide to be her friend.


for information purposes, of course. not because she's the most beautiful girl i’ve ever  seen.


chapter two:


roja wakes up next to me on the first day of senior year. it's a nod to our friendship, but it’s mostly because roja had promised to walk with us to school.


after i find motivation to roll out of bed, i make my way to my brother’s room and knock loudly on his door to wake him.


when he doesn't respond, i open the door and flick his lights on.


he won’t yell, and never does, probably because he's grateful that i have roja over all the time.


i haven't told him that i’m in love with her yet.


he's good enough of a person that he’d back off, but i’m good enough friends with roja to know that i don't have a chance.


chapter three:


in my sophomore year, they alter the schedule so that every student in the school has a communal lunch, and roja and i eat every day on the gym floor.


most of the time, i catch my brother on the other side of the room staring. i text one of his friends and tell him to punch my brother when it gets too weird.


one day, i catch lindsey cheng hovering nearby, and wave her over to us.


“hey, roja, can i talk to you?” she asks.


i follow roja to lindsey and lindsey doesn't seem to care.


“i really like you,” she tells roja. “do you want to go out on a date?”


i admire lindsey. she’s smart and pretty and courageous.


“sorry,” roja replies, looking genuinely sorry. “i’m straight.”


“oh,” she nods, plastered smile on her face. i look right at her.


“congrats on not crying,” i mutter to her when roja leaves. she laughs.


lindsey and i date behind our parents’ backs for two months until we realize that we’re both too hung up on roja to be anything more than friends.


in junior year, lindsey falls in love with a boy. she doesn't have to hide that relationship from her parents.


chapter four:


in senior year, life shows me how miserable it can be. i don't have any classes with roja. my brother has four.


we sit together on the gym floor at communal lunch. my brother and his friends join us.


the punch is still delivered on cue.


my brother’s friend is named saathvi and he's in all my classes this year.


i’m almost looking forward to class, until our english teacher picks me to read my poem to the class.


it's about love—of course it is—so i keep my head down and hiss out the words just loud enough so that it’s audible.


saathvi asks me who it was about, and i flip him off when the teacher turns away.


it takes a solid week before he guesses roja. i try to pretend that the look he's giving me is of encouragement instead of pity.


chapter five:


my brother and i get honor roll in the first quarter of senior year. my mom treats us and roja to chinese food even though roja gets on the honor roll every quarter.


saathvi joins us. he's always on the honor roll, too.


my mom makes us talk about college. i don't talk about the fact that i’m thinking of doing rotc. no one knows that yet.


saathvi wants to become a pilot. it suits him, in a way.


this week, roja wants to be a wildlife conservationist. last week, she’d said she wants to be a touring fortune teller.


roja is the most indecisive person i know. she can barely choose between subway and taco bell, even though everyone knows taco bell is fifty million times better.


my brother wants to be a doctor. my mother is proud. medical school is expensive.


when it gets to my turn, i shrug, smile, and swallow my rice.


the conversation moves along.


chapter six:


“mom?”


“yeah?”


i stop. “i love you.”


“i know.”


chapter seven:


“mom, can i tell you something?”


“i would hope so.”


“i know what i want to do in college.”


my mom stirs the pasta on the stove. “yeah?”


“rotc,” i say, and brace for impact. “listen, i know what you're going to say—”


“yeah, you do.” she’s angry, like she never is.  


“i really want to. i owe something to him.”


“you don't owe shit to him,” my mom hisses. the pasta bubbles. “you could die like he did.”


“i’d rather die than end up burying you under thousands of dollars of loans.”


“this is what this is about?” my mother remembers to turn off the stove. i take my cup of coffee out of the microwave.


“he wants to be a doctor. you can't pay tuition for both of us at the same time. i’ll get the scholarship, be back from service when he finishes school, and then i’ll, i don't know, help out at the bakery near the school or something? i’ll figure it out.”


“you're smarter than that. you can do things,” my mother insists. i knew she would; my mom loves me too much to see how stupid i am.


“i don't want to be a burden.”


“you're not,” she says, sadly, and i hug her.


“i am.”


she hugs me tighter. “even when he went to war when i didn't want him to, i loved your dad. i missed him every day.”


“you’ll miss me too, right?” i ask quietly.


“every day.”


it's the closest i’ll get to an okay.


we separate and my mom goes back to the pasta on the stove. i walk up the stairs to my room.


“what was that about?” my brother asks.


“i’m going to join the army,” i reply.


“oh,” he says, and nothing more. we’ll talk another time.


i open my laptop. i’ll have to give the application to my mom to look over.


on the kitchen counter, my cup of coffee goes cold.


chapter eight:


it's march. i’ve passed my midterms. no honor roll.


roja and saathvi know that i’m going into rotc. apparently, i’d look badass in a uniform.


my brother won't stop talking about prom.


i consider telling him that i want to take roja to prom too, but i can't get the words out.


i haven’t thought about roja like that in a while, and i don’t have plans to, but it doesn't make it any better when i walk into his room and he's making a poster to ask her out.


“it's april,” i tell him.


he looks up at me. “i’m in love with her.”


i shrug. “me too.”


a pause. “what?”


i flinch. “sorry that i never told you. she's straight, anyway. go for it.”


he colors in the p for prom bright pink. “make it aquamarine blue,” i tell him. “that's her favorite.”


he colors the r. it’s purple. “i’m kind of over it anyway.”


his eyes are fixed on the poster.


i take quiet steps out of the room. when i look back, he's coloring in the o with aquamarine blue.


chapter nine:


it’s april. my to-do list consists of passing high school, finding a job, and getting roja to fall for my brother.


they're surprisingly easy tasks.


my senior year classes are light, and i’m scoring a few a’s, mostly b’s, with a little bit of studying.


check.


the bakery near the school loses its cashier. i grab the spot. i’ll spend up until mid-august surrounded by sweets, even if i’m not allowed in the kitchen.


check.


when i invite roja over after work, my brother miraculously walks into the kitchen shirtless.


roja can't take her eyes off of him. i can't take my eyes off of roja.


“your brother’s kind of hot, you know?” roja tells me, when he leaves. i frown.


“gross,” i say, because it’s weird to hear that.


later, she glances at my brother’s room before heading out the door.


i walk up the stairs and congratulate him. he blushes.


the next day, i see roja following my brother with her eyes.


“do you like him or something?” i ask impulsively, because i really want to check that last item off my list.


“well,” she starts and then leans in. “you know when you see someone in a situation that compromises their innocence and then everything’s different?”


i think of all the times that roja’s changed in front of me. “no,” i say.


“really?” she asks.


“yep,” i reply.


“okay,” she says.


“okay,” i say back, and because i’m an idiot, “if he asked you to prom, would you say yes?”


“you're weird,” roja tells me.


“would you?” i press.


“you're weird,” she repeats. “but i probably would.”


i smile.


check.


chapter ten:


my brother asks her. she says yes. i tell my brother to kneel at my feet, and he must really love her, because he does it.


he doesn't even use the poster, though, which makes me mad. at lunch, i tell saathvi to punch him. he complies.  


in study hall, saathvi keeps looking over his book at me. i flick him on the ear. “what do you want?”


he smiles. i should have let him keep reading. “how do you feel?” he asks.


i play dumb. “how do i feel?”


“about roja and your brother.”


“don't really care,” i lie quickly.


“really?”


i don't like lying. “no, i care a lot.”


saathvi's a good kid. he smiles. i should have let him keep reading.


“i’m kind of over it, though. i care less than i would have at the beginning of the year.”


“that’s good.”


“i still love her, just more as a friend.”


“mhm.”


“i think it's kind of nice that i don't have to worry so much about her not liking me back.”


“okay.”


“saathvi’s a dumbass.”


saathvi looks up, offended. “i’m listening.” i laugh in response.


“okay,” i say and he scowls, even though i didn’t do anything.


“you’re awful,” he complains. i smile and look up at the clock. there’s twenty minutes left in the day.


“hey,” saathvi says. “wanna go to prom with me?”


“i’m a lesbian,” i reply.


he rolls his eyes. “i know,” he replies. “as friends.”


“you just want to date me,” i tell him, shrugging, and he laughs.


there's twenty days left in the school year.


“come to the bakery after school,” i not-really ask. “i’ll sneak out day-olds for you. they're still really good.”


“cool,” he says and then again, “cool.”


chapter eleven:


my dress is aquamarine blue. so is saathvi’s tie.


roja and my brother had gone with scarlet red. i’d checked with her first and she’d thought it was cute that i remembered her exact favorite color. i call it being the best friend ever.


my mother zips up the back of my dress while my brother struggles alone with his tuxedo in the other room.


“can i tell you something?”


“the last time you asked me that, you told me you wanted to go to war.”


“the last time your son asked you that, he told you that he was dating roja.”


my mom laughs. “i know that you're not secretly dating someone.”


“i have before,” i confess.


“i know,” she replies, brushing out the few tangles in my hair. “sophomore year. two months. i’d never seen you ‘study in the library’ so much.”


“okay, yeah, i was shit at excuses then.”


roja loves my mom. she thinks she's cool.


i think she's cool too.


“do you care who it was?” i ask.


my mom shrugs. “as long as he was a good kid, it doesn't really matter.”


my mom’s the type that knows everything. it had made me completely forget that i’d never actually come out to her. i almost start laughing.


“hey, you know i don't actually like saathvi, right?”


“you're going to prom with him,” my mom says.


“yeah, but, as friends. i don't really like him in that way.”


“that's fine,” she says, starting to braid my hair. “you don't have to go with someone you like.”


“no, it's like—” i can't seem to get the words out. “i don't like guys like that. i’m,

like, a lesbian.”


i hold my breath.


my mom doesn't say anything until she finishes my braid. “my best friend in college was gay. his family disowned him.”


i try not to think of what would happen if my mother disowned me.


“i dated lindsey cheng. the girl who helped me with math in middle school.”


“oh, she's a nice girl. very intelligent,” my mom says, smiling a little.


“and i was in love with roja for a while.”


“in love?” she asks me.


i think about it. “maybe not love. something like that, though.” i pause. “are you going to disown me?”


she laughs. “i’m a little surprised but no. i’m fine with it.” she hugs me from behind. “don't hide from me, please.”


“yeah, okay,” i agree and her hands leave my hair.


i go to the bathroom to wing my eyeliner.


chapter twelve:


my brother drives us to the venue. the hand that isn’t on the steering wheel is in roja’s hand.


saathvi and i share a look.


when we reach the venue, i make a beeline for the food. roja drags my brother into the dance floor while saathvi follows me to the snacks.


he inhales three cookies in two minutes. “nice,” i say. he grins.


later, roja takes a break from dancing to walk over to us. my brother follows her, tired but elated.


he’d never stopped staring at her like she’d hung the stars.


saathvi makes a disgusted face and i laugh. when i finish my cookie, he drags me onto the dance floor.


chapter thirteen:


graduation is a short affair.


roja is valedictorian. she gives a speech about how we are stars and stars are the most beautiful things in the world because things that light up are cooler than things that dim down. i think i’m more like a meteorite.


at the end of it all, i throw my hat up in the air with the rest of my class. roja kisses my brother right there on the field, and i don't care at all.


my mom kisses me on the forehead and tells me she loves me.


i’ll miss that when i’m away.


epilogue:


they wait to get married until i’m back from my last tour in afghanistan.


my scarlet red dress covers up the bullet wound on my thigh.


roja refuses to give up aquamarine blue this time. she looks beautiful at the reception.


saathvi has a girlfriend. i tell him that i’m going to steal her from him.


he doesn't end up being a pilot. instead, he writes for the newspaper.


roja becomes a chemist.


my brother is a doctor. my mother was proud. she passed away two years ago. medical school (and cancer treatment) is still expensive.


i tell my brother that i got shot three weeks after i come to terms with the fact that it happened.


he tells me that i’m brave, but all i am is a meteorite, breaking through the atmosphere and hurtling down to earth with nothing to stop me.


the bakery across the high school is down a cashier. i take the spot.


this time, i’m allowed to go into the kitchen on my breaks. i make cookies and rope saathvi, roja, and my brother into tasting them.


saathvi makes a stupid best man speech. i love it. when he's done, he punches my brother in the shoulder and locks eyes with me. i didn't even have to text him.


i drink about four glasses of champagne before my speech. lindsey cheng grins at me when she hands me the microphone.


i mostly talk about my mother.


i talk about roja.


i talk about my brother a bit, too.


i talk about how we had a little bottle of bubbles that my comrade’s daughter sent to him, and we used to blow bubbles in our spare time because things that go up are better than things that go down.


i talk about how good they are for each other, and they should thank me for getting them together.


my brother really must love roja, because he actually does.


last, i read the love poem that i wrote in twelfth grade english class.


the end.


starsupernova: (Default)
 

“Greed is a nasty thing,” an old man had told Damian once, when he was still a kid living in a brick alleyway, alone in a dangerous city. He had no one to help him, besides this crusty old man who had the audacity to tell him that greed is wicked. Greed is what kept Damian alive from ages eight to twenty eight. Greed is what gave him the fight for that one extra piece of bread that would save him when he was on the brink of death in that alleyway.

Greed is why he learned to pick locks and crack safes, and it’s the reason why he’s wanted in four nations for thefts, bank robberies, and at least 53 cases of attempted murder. Not that he minds, of course, because he loves it. He loves the thrill of the chase and, most importantly, the reward at the end. The reward keeps him alive, he tells himself. He needs more.

Damian’s most favorite type of reward currently glimmers in a glass case, gilded in rubies and sapphires and emeralds. The crown is guarded by the best security in the entire world, but he’s going to get it. He won’t be able to live without it, and he knows that for sure.

“You’re going to get it, aren’t you?” Robin asks him, twirling her hair nervously. Robin is always nervous, too nervous for the wife of a criminal, yet here she is.

“Of course I am, babe,” Damian drawls, grabbing his coat off of the rack and giving Robin a kiss on the cheek. “When have I ever failed you?”

“Never,” Robin responds firmly. “Now, go get that damn crown. You deserve something good after all your years of hard work.”

Damian’s eye twitches, but he regains the mischievous smile quick enough. If the old man were here, he would say that none of what Damian has done was hard work, that it was cheating. Even though he owes his life to that old man, the words exchanged between them regarding Damian’s choices in life were never the kindest.
There’s a tattoo on Damian’s lower back that has the one word that they argued about the most: greed. It’s not like Damian thinks that greed is good; it’s just a necessary evil. He’d be dead without that never ending urge to have it all, and he knows that for sure.

Strolling out the door like a man on a mission, he pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and lights one, taking a long drag from it. The smoke clouds around him for a second as he exhales, but it vanishes with a swipe of his hand. His phone rings, a high pitched trill like a chorus of birds, and he picks it up with his other hand, answering the call.

“Having a pleasant day, Will?” he greets shortly and the other man over the phone sighs dramatically. Will was always one for theatrics, in Damian’s opinion.

“I won’t be if you get me and your wife and everyone else you care about arrested tonight,” Will responds and Damian smiles around his cigarette.

“Don’t worry, you two are the only people I care about,” Damian says and Will scoffs.

“How sweet,” Will says sarcastically and Damian shrugs to himself. “I’ll see you later, alright? Don’t get started without me,” Will finishes.

“Of course not,” Damian says. “Goodbye, William.”

“Don’t call me that,” Will hisses and Damian hangs up, tucking the phone back into his coat pocket and heading for the elevators, stubbing the cigarette on an ashtray on the way out.

Clicking the down button and watching it glow yellow, he considers picking up a Starbucks latte on the way to the museum.
After all, it’s going to be a long night.

starsupernova: (Default)
 

You wonder who lives in the opposite clock tower. It’s a lingering thought until you hear two sharp knocks on the hatch under you, and any thoughts of any clock towers (except yours) fly out of your head.

“A loaf of bread, four apples, a block of cheese, and some stale pastries,” comes Vincent’s smooth and lilting voice as you unlock the hatch. “A veritable feast, if I do say so myself.” He hums under his breath, climbing up the ladder.

You don’t respond, you rarely do, so you look between the monotonous ticking of the  hour and minute hands and through the dusty translucent glass to the opposite clock tower. Who lives there? Were they like you and Vincent, or something bigger?

“Aurelia,” Vincent says once, quietly, and you are brought to the present again. “Aurelia, it’s been a year. He’s not coming back,” he tells you, moving to put his hand on your shoulder. “You have to let it go.”

“You love me,” you say to him shortly, and he sighs, running his hands through his cropped hair. It’s less of a statement than a question so Vincent answers.

“If I gave you false hope, then I wouldn’t be very worthy of loving you,” he replies and sits down on one of the many crates littering the room, pulling out a blood red apple out of his bag and wiping it on a cloth. “Francis is gone, Aurelia. He didn’t deserve it, but he’s gone.”

The ten o’clock train and the whooshing air sounds in the back of your mind from the sprawling city below.

“Cheese?” Vincent offers, but you shake your head and move closer to the window. A girl, who looks like an ant in her black dress, is standing in a group and laughing with people who look about your age, and you envy their innocence.

An empty tube of superglue tips off of the windowsill and you leave it on the floor.

“What’s the other clock tower like?” you ask Vincent, who shrugs and smiles in response.

“Identical,” he tells you and you frown.

“Then, why do you go there so often?” you ask but he just keeps smiling and stands up gracefully, dusting off his pants. The oil streaked buildings glow in the late morning light.

“I have to go do something. See you later, okay?” he says and then touches your shoulder lightly. “I love you.”

You watch him, down the ladder, down the street, his miniscule form making its way to the other clock tower.

The cuff around your ankle bites into your skin and you follow the chair to where it is bolted securely into the wall.

Vincent’s voice is still echoing around the room, but you pull the bobby pin out of your hair and bend it open, kneeling down to examine the lock of the cuff.

I love you, Vincent had said and you think, does he?

 
starsupernova: (Default)
 

Name: Invisible.


Age: Older than she wishes she was.


Gender: Female.


Appearance: Skinny, far too skinny, like those tiny branches hanging off longer ones, that you just can’t resist reaching up to and plucking off the tree. Eyes like a graveyard, pink yellow blush on her cheeks, crooked nose. Hair like coconut fiber, dark brown and rough.


Strengths: Getting close enough to death without actually being there. Eating four pieces of lettuce for dinner every night. Forgetting to shower every morning.


Weaknesses: Her job as a waitress, with too many annoying inquisitive people, wondering about the wedding ring on her finger. Summoning enough energy to pick herself up after a fall. Making friends who don’t want to dance and drink until the early morning hours every Saturday.


x


Name: Disappeared.


Age: Younger than he wishes he was.


Gender: Male.


Appearance: Tall, gangly, long legs, like a spider crawling across a mattress. Eyes like a storm, crackling lightning and booming thunder, yearning to leave. Eternally bruised cheekbones and hair like he’s about to dress in all camouflage and take a plane to Afghanistan the next day.


Strengths: Stretching his longs legs out in the backseat of his (dead) grandfather’s car where he sleeps, especially when it gets too hard in the house. Suffering through knives in the form of words and punches in the form of baseball bats.


Weaknesses: Making his parents happy. Making his sisters happy. Making his brother, best friend, his cousin: happy. Leaving, even though every fragment of bone in him is screaming at him to run away.


x


Name: Stressed.


Age: Seventeen years young.


Gender: Female.


Appearance: Purple dark circles under her eyes, fingernails like cracked jagged stones on a reef, striped shirts and polka-dotted shorts, frizzy hair, rarely brushed, dull clips pinned behind her ears.


Strengths: Overeating, oversleeping, over studying, overwhelming. Disappointing, disagreeing, disobeying. Replaying, rewinding, reevaluating.


Weaknesses: Homework.


x


Name: Unknown.


Age: Ambiguous.


Gender: Inconclusive.


Appearance: The dark red curtains brushing against the window of the abandoned house at the end of the cul de sac, the oil spill choking that poor little sea creature you’d seen on the news two mornings ago, the eerie whirring of the washing machine at an ungodly hour of day.


Strengths: Hiding behind the mystery and the magic. Refusing to show that heart shaped face to the world.


Weaknesses: Nothing at all.



starsupernova: (Default)

I am clutching my father’s hand like I do so well, because, God help me, I am not going into that classroom if it is the last thing I do. I’m not crying, because that would be out of place and embarrassing and my greatest talent is staying quiet, but I am silently protesting, tugging on my father’s arm in place of wailing. I never talk much, and school is definitely not an exception.

I don’t want my parents to leave me here in this cold dark school, even though the windows let in plenty of sunshine and fall leaves glow crimson and marigold on the grass outside, and even though the posters on the wall are colored butterscotch, aquamarine, and emerald, and other multisyllabic words I can spell at the age of five.

I will undoubtedly be tired and bored for hours on end in this cold dark school, not to mention that friendship isn’t my forte. My backpack (which is violet, probably) hangs off of one of my shoulders, and I care more about leaving this place than the fact that my pencil case is threatening to fall out of the open pocket, and spill out onto the brown and blue speckled carpet.

My dad finally prys me off of him. Damn it, I think, but don’t say out loud, because I shouldn’t really be knowing words like that yet. Soon, my dearest father has delivered me straight into the hands of the devil. My teacher smiles but I am sure that there is something sinister behind it.

I take millimeter steps to my desk, which is bordered at the top by a name tag spelling Srishti, the wrong way, of course. I’m positive that I can spell better than my kindergarten teacher. I will prove this fact, weeks later, after I am mistakenly sent to ESL due to my selective muteness, and after I successfully obtain several fancy mechanical pencils for doing well in the program, despite the fact that I speak English fluently.

I keep glancing towards the door when I sit down at the desk, which is grouped in a table with three others. The girl directly next to me is small and quiet, although she will eventually grow up to be a loudmouth, who is nearly a foot taller than me and proficient in walking in heels. Her name tag spells her name, the correct way, of course. We don’t talk but we share a look, which is enough for now.

Later in the day, when the sun shines even brighter through the windows, we are allowed to choose drinks from the cafeteria, which will be brought to our classroom during snack time. I pick apple juice.
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It ends with soil under my painted fingernails, sun sparks around me.

They’re landing in Darcy’s fur, soft like thick rain clouds.

It thunders in a clear sky, Darcy’s eyes are the sun sparks that lie in my palm.

A swallow hums a tune.

Darcy barks, taking off in the singing bird’s direction.

The faded leather leash whispers in the grass, forgotten.

Soon, though, she lets me rest my aching legs and heart.

She looks up at me, her eyes as old as she is.

“Don’t worry, Darcy,” I tell her. “You’re going home.”

The sun sparks skip across my palm.

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starsupernova

August 2017

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