If you don't like to read about male/male relationships, then this story isn't for you. Please leave if this type of material is illegal in your area, or if you are legally too young to read it. This story is a work of fiction, and strictly a product of the authors imagination. Any similarities to characters, places, or names are completely coincidental. This story and the characters in it are property of the author, and should not be reposted or published elsewhere without permission.
Chapter Three: Looking for a chance
Thanks to Jim for editing!
I must have been out of my mind. I never should have been at the Trust's house, let alone in it. And Juanita must have recently waxed the hardwood floors because she was now standing halfway down the stairs with her hands at the hips of her two-piece black suit, shaking her bemused head at me, her long, dark hair shaking with it, as I attempted to get up before the door opened any further, but slipped and landed right back on my ass.
I was caught. Terrified. Caught. In shock. I was fucking caught, and in my panic, I lifted my foot and kicked the door so hard that it snapped shut again. Juanita's jaw dropped, and I found myself looking back at her as she rushed down the stairs, yelling a whole lot of things that I'm sure meant, very, very bad. I was so preoccupied with the way she was shouting at me, that I failed to get up on a third try. I really didn't remember the floor being so slippery when I'd entered the house.
"What is going on?" It was a distinctly male voice coming from the other side of the heavy, dark door and it gave me pause, just as I made it to my knees, grunting when Juanita grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the way. She was still shouting at me. Or maybe, at someone else. All I knew, was that it was hurting both of my pierced ears and I was eternally grateful when it stopped. But that was only because the tall man--really tall man, who not only towered over me, but would likely tower over Caleb, too--with piercing green eyes--currently narrowed--and a set jaw, stepped through the door, held his long, index finger up to his full top lip, and shushed Juanita while I stared at him.
I suppose shining was the word that came to mind. Even when there was no radiant smile to show off his curvy lips and white teeth, the man still had a presence about him. His wardrobe might as well have been perfectly tailored to his body because there wasn't a sleeve out of place or a waistline too high on his baby-blue dress shirt or black dress pants. Even his tie looked like it had grown on his neck. His shoes shone, and so did his dark hair--in the same soft, subtle way that Milo's did. He looked a lot like Milo, just like in the poster at my bank. But in person, it seemed that he glared like Milo, too.
"Who are you?" he demanded, looking at me before he looked at Juanita and addressed her. "¿Quién es?"
I actually groaned, not at all happy that now there were two people blocking my way out the front door who I couldn't understand, when Juanita moved around me to join Mr. Trust as she started chattering again.
"No sé. La Senora Hill me dijo a llevarle al cuarto de Milo, pero anda como un loco! Creo que está borracho," she finished, regarding me suspiciously.
I had a feeling that whatever she was saying, wasn't exactly flattering towards me, the way that Thompson Trust was suddenly regarding me cynically.
"I'm sorry," I cut in, deciding that it was a good idea to interrupt before I got arrested again. "Mr. Trust? I'm sorry... I'm just going to leave now." I took a brave step forward, meaning to reach the door, but Mr. Trust also took a step forward, his proud posture blocking me in as his green eyes fell over mine.
"What were you doing in my son's bedroom?" he demanded, looking me over from head to toe, as if he fully expected to find something pillaged from his property on my person.
My eyes widened at the question and I pointed a shaky finger at Juanita. "She took me there!"
Juanita released an outraged gasp as one hand went to her hip. "No, no," she said firmly. I wondered if she even knew what I was talking about.
"Yes, yes," I retorted, before turning the best blue, pleading eyes I could on Mr. Trust. "Look, it was all a mistake," I insisted. "Someone else... someone else... someone else..." I groaned as I tried to remember the name of the woman who I'd originally run into, and Mr. Trust frowned at me. "Emily Hill!" I blurted, stoked that I remembered. Mr. Trust seemed unimpressed, but his shoulders did seem to relax at the mention of the name. "I was dropping something off for Milo. Painting--it's his." Mr. Trust crossed his arms, still looking rather stern so I rushed the rest my explanation. "She thought your housekeeper..."
Juanita gasped again. I was beginning to see her as a very overdramatic individual. "Housekeeper?" she repeated in her very thick accent, looking entirely insulted.
"Juanita is not a housekeeper," Mr. Trust informed me, sounding somewhat snotty.
"Okay," I responded, becoming exasperated quickly. "Your... Juanita should take it to Milo's room. But, she misunderstood and took me there instead. I was just trying to return the painting. Honest. Can I please go now?"
Rather than responding to me, Mr. Trust turned back to Juanita, and once again they involved themselves in a conversation that I didn't understand. But, I did hear the name Tommy mentioned several times. I sighed, feeling rather stuck in this situation, but straightened immediately when Mr. Trust looked at me again.
"What's your name?" he demanded.
"Bobby," I lied, for the second time in one afternoon. Unfortunately, just as I said it, the door behind Mr. Trust and Juanita opened again, and this time Milo walked through it, carrying a handful of mail, innocently flipping through it until he bothered to look up, his eyes widening as he saw me and stopped in his tracks.
"Nelson?" he practically spat out, and now I had two members of the Trust family glaring at me.
"Nelson?" Mr. Trust repeated.
"Bobby Nelson," I said quickly. "Most people just call me Nelson."
Feeling caught, and completely desperate, I looked at Milo Trust, who had raised a perfectly arched eyebrow at me, pleadingly. It was all I really could do. He definitely had no reason to, but at the moment, I could only hope that he'd take pity on me. I threw a nervous but friendly smile in his direction. "Hi, Milo, I was just here... returning that painting." For this, Milo Trust rolled his eyes at me.
"You can't be serious," Milo mumbled.
"Tommy, do you know him?" Mr. Trust asked.
"Unfortunately," Milo remarked.
"Hey--I really have to get going," I insisted, cautiously stepping between Mr. Trust and Juanita. But, as I passed Milo, I made another mistake. "That painting's on your bed," I told him, and suddenly Milo was glaring at me again, his hand suddenly latching onto my arm, just above my elbow, so tight that I thought it was going to bruise. I met his eyes, feeling a little startled, and completely taken aback by the forced smile on his face that actually appeared frightening.
"You don't have to leave," he said, faking nice. "Stay a while."
I studied him for a moment, suddenly wondering if he had a basement and intended to bury me in it as I put on a fake smile of my own.
"I really need to go," I told him.
"It'll only take a second," he countered. "I want to show you another painting."
With those words, I felt my stomach rise into my throat, wondering exactly what painting he intended to show me, but managed to keep a straight face as I bit at my top lip.
"Fine," I replied quietly, and Milo suddenly released my arm, and looked away from me altogether, to face his father.
"Will you be home for dinner?" Milo asked.
"No," Mr. Trust started. "I'm meeting Emily at..."
To my surprise, that's as far as Mr. Trust got before Milo cut him off. "See you later, then. We'll be in my room."
Milo nodded for me to follow him, and reluctantly, I did so as he passed Juanita, smiling at her as he handed her the mail. But instinctively I stopped in front of the shiny wood stairs, even if Milo didn't, when Mr. Trust called out again. "Tommy, I want to talk to you before I leave."
"I have homework, Dad," Milo responded, still not looking back.
"It's summer!" Mr. Trust responded. He looked irritated when his eyes fell on me again, and as soon as he frowned, I was quickly following Milo again, and as I caught up to him, I found myself explaining in a hushed tone, about how entirely none of this was my fault because Juanita had misunderstood Emily Hill. Not that my excuses even mattered. For all I knew, Milo wasn't even listening to me. He didn't look at me or acknowledge my presence at all as we moved down the empty hall and I came to a stop with him in front of his opened bedroom door.
"Don't come in," Milo said simply, and I frowned at him as I watched him move into his room, while I obediently stayed put--for about two seconds, before I remembered that I wasn't his dog. I still stopped one step into his room, though, looking down at the corner of a blue rug and the center of a green one beneath my feet. I suppose I was just waiting, not really sure what I was doing there. When I looked up, however, I frowned again, to see Milo moving around his room very slowly and suspiciously, looking at many of the paintings that I'd stopped to take the time to look at with only quick glances, as if he were taking inventory. He was also looking at me every few moments, as if he expected me to give something away, which is why I did everything in my power to avoid looking towards the paintings covered by the white sheet near his closet.
"Fuck," I finally cursed, more exasperated than anything at this point, and when Milo looked at me I lifted my arms. "Wanna search me?" I remarked.
He narrowed those emerald eyes of his without comment before turning towards his bed, and I watched him lift the package I'd left from the burgundy comforter. With his back to me, he tore the paper rather carelessly, dropping it on the paint-splattered rugs covering the floor before he held up the painting, inspecting it for several long moments.
Milo slowly turned around, once again meeting my eyes. "What do you want?" he asked.
"Me?" I asked, surprised. "I wanted to go home, remember? You're the one who wanted to show me something," I added, preparing myself, just in case he was brazen enough to show me the only painting in his room that was hard for me to look at. But, as much as I was terrified of him doing just that, I was also curious, wondering what his intentions were. My instincts told me that he wouldn't dare try to show it to me, not that painting. But I was also questioning why he painted it. Fantasy, and a little common sense told me that Milo Trust didn't have a girlfriend, and he'd probably never be looking for a girlfriend, and that was an interesting and severely appealing thought to have. Caution, however, told me that his intentions were much more malicious than that, and for all I knew, he could be planning to hang it out in front of the post office as a practical joke, in which case, I'd have to kill him. That paranoid thought also had me wondering if he'd shown it to anyone already, like Jame Graham. That, I was afraid, would also warrant homicide.
Milo didn't show me that painting, though. Instead, he moved forward and held out the scarecrow portrait that I'd just tried to return to him, watching me carefully as my eyes fell over the detailed image set in front of the sunrise.
"Take it," he said.
I continued to stare for a moment, but did no such thing. Instead, I lifted my eyes, facing him reasonably.
"I don't feel right about keeping it," I said honestly.
He cocked his head at me. "You bought it. It's yours."
"Your other paintings..."
"You don't hear me offering to buy your jackass friend a new window, do you?" he cut me off. "Just take the painting, and go away. Stay away this time, alright?" I just frowned, still refusing to take it. "If you don't, I'll burn it," he challenged, and I looked at him, a small amused smile curling my lip.
"No you wouldn't."
I frowned at that, his threat bothering me more than I wanted to let him know as I looked at the painting that I'd grown quite attached to. Burn it. That was just wrong. I watched Milo brush his soft, dark locks back behind his ear when I reached out and took the painting from him. Once it was in my hands, he regarded me expectantly with a pointed look that told me that I was to leave, immediately. I almost did just that, too. He certainly didn't want me there, and I'd already gotten myself into enough trouble. But, knowing that I'd be walking out of a room that had a painting of naked me in it gave me pause as my mind focused on what his intentions were. For a brief moment, I thought of simply confronting him about it. Chances were, he'd be more embarrassed about it than I was, even if he had malicious intentions. But, I realized, I didn't want to embarrass him. Despite his blunt resistance to any effort I made to fall in his good graces, I still liked him. Plus, he was the only guy in this town, besides the flamer at the bookstore, who I'd met that could actually be gay. This wasn't exactly something that I was eager to walk away from.
"How long did it take you to paint this?" I asked conversationally, looking down to inspect the painting in my hands, once again appreciating the warm colors behind the tree as much as I appreciated the image of the ugly, dark scarecrow hanging from it.
"I don't remember," Milo responded tiredly. "Do I need to walk you to the door?" He made even the idea of it sound like a chore.
I smiled at him. "That would be great. Your housekeeper kind of freaks me out."
"Juanita's not a housekeeper," he responded hotly, passing me to move out his opened door.
"Then... what is she?" I asked nosily as I followed him into the hallway. "Because, she was doing your laundry, and I'm pretty sure she waxed the floor--right in front of the door, like..."
"She does a lot around here," Milo cut me off, abruptly stopping as he rounded on me. "She's family, and she doesn't... freak people out."
"She freaked me out."
"Well, you're a fucking idiot."
Milo turned to keep walking, but stopped and spun around again, looking annoyed as hell when I touched the short sleeve of his forest-green shirt, which was as dirty and wrinkled as mine from all of the work we'd done earlier.
"Hey, can I ask you something?" I asked calmly, just like I'd ask any normal person who wasn't entirely bothered by my general existence.
"What?" Milo snapped. His eyes were narrowed and there was a frown in his brow as he lifted his hand, once again pushing his hair back, giving me a better view of his handsome, yet perturbed face.
"What is it about me that you can't stand?" I asked. "I mean, I apologized for what happened with your paintings. I offered to pay for them, and I understand how fucked up the whole thing was in the first place. Why don't you like me?"
"I don't even know you," Milo responded as he turned for the third time and headed down the empty hallway, leaving me to follow in his wake.
"So, why not get to know me?"
"Because I don't like you," he replied, matter-of-factly.
"Which, brings me back to why not?"
"Why do you even care?" he retorted, his green eyes flashing at me as he glanced over his shoulder before facing ahead, just in time to move down the stairs.
"Don't you like to know why people don't like you when... you know, they don't like you?"
"Why not?" I asked, finding him quite impossible.
"Why would I if they don't like me, anyway?" he said, stopping in front of his front door and opening it for me. I didn't quite realize how dim the lighting in his house was until the sun from outside poured over me, causing my eyes to squint in Milo's general direction. "Are you leaving yet?" he asked impatiently.
I frowned, and stepped through the door, but only halfway, just in case he planned to slam it on me once I was on the other side. I turned to face him, still cradling the painting in my hands.
"I'll probably be at Hangman Cove tomorrow afternoon," I announced, even if it was information that he didn't care to have. "Any chance you'll be there?"
"Not anymore," he said flatly, and suddenly I had to step back because apparently, he didn't need to wait to slam his door before I was on the other side of it.
I lay face down in my green swim trunks on Leanna's long, pink beach towel, propped up on my elbows as I lifted a hand full of warm, white sand and watched it drain through my fingers. The temperature had reached the low nineties today. I couldn't even see any clouds set against the blue sky, just plenty of sun reflecting off the water and beating down on my bare back, which Haily had recently applied an extra coat of sunscreen to for me, the scent of it flooding my nostrils as much as the scent of the lake and the food being sold all around it.
Hangman Cove was just as busy as it was every other Saturday, but it was the snow-cone vendor who was making a fortune. From where I was resting behind my brother, who was stretched out on a blue towel with Leanna straddling his back, braiding his shoulder-length pink hair, I could see Haily and Joe in line. They'd promised to bring me back a grape snow cone, and Leanna and Chad--who was fronting the bill--strawberry. Caleb was there, too. Somewhere in the water, I guessed. That's where most people were today because of the heat. Caleb, Joe, Haily, and I had come around noon, ready to relax over the last weekend we had to enjoy before school started, and we'd unexpectedly run into my brother, something I was happy about, since he hadn't answered his phone the night before when I wanted to talk about Milo Trust.
"Are you sure it was you you saw?" Chad asked, moving his fist to prop up his chin as he looked over at me from behind purple sunglasses. I'd told him all about what I'd done after community service the day before, including how I'd found that painting in Chad's room. It had been hard not to think about, and I was hoping that Chad would have a helpful opinion on the matter.
"I don't think you understand just how good this guy is," I replied. "His paintings are... fucking amazing. They look real. Did you see the one of the scarecrow that's in my room?" Chad shook his head. "Well, it's good. And, yeah, I'm sure it was me. Naked. I mentioned naked, right?"
"You mentioned naked," Leanna said, pulling one of Chad's braids tighter, causing him to wince.
"So what do you think?" I asked. "I mean, do you think I should worry? I don't want to think about fliers of that floating around town."
"He doesn't like you?" Chad asked, taking an interest in picking the dirt out of his thumbnail.
"Hates me," I stated, frowning. "Pretty sure of it. Like, I think if I tried to be any nicer to him, he'd take it as an insult and spit on me."
"Maybe he's still pissed about what happened when you got arrested," Chad said. "I guess this could be revenge. Have you heard anything... I mean, do you think he's shown anyone?"
"I haven't heard anything--but I only saw it yesterday."
"He could be gay," Chad suggested. "He doesn't have to like you to have a thing for you."
"Why can't he like me and have a thing for me?" I complained.
"I like this theory better," Leanna spoke up as she looked at me. Without her thick glasses, her features didn't seem as tiny, but in her one-piece black suit with a butterfly pattern on it, and her light, short hair parted into pigtails, she looked a lot younger than she was. "You said in the painting you were..."
"Yes, naked," I said.
"No, besides that," she responded, turning back to face Chad's hair as a pink blush colored her cheeks. "You know, that you were..."
"Saluting the chief," Chad finished for her.
"Saluting the chief?" Leanna repeated, rolling her eyes. "Who ever says that?" She paused and looked at me again. "My point is, he gave you a big pecker, right?"
Chad laughed. "Pecker?"
"Oh, Christ," I muttered, running my fingers through my short hair and wishing that I had a hat because my scalp was actually starting to hurt under the sun. "Yes, I was saluting the chief with my big pecker--not me, the painting. But... you get the picture, so to speak."
"Don't you think that he would have given you a small one if he wanted to embarrass you?" Leanna replied, ignoring the way that Chad was now laughing hysterically beneath her.
"I don't know," I said reasonably. "Nothing like this has ever happened to me before." I paused and looked at Leanna. "I like this theory better, too."
"So you like him?" Chad asked me. "Thompson Trust's kid?" My brother sounded a little skeptical.
"He's kind of a jerk," I admitted. "I mean, to me. Not hard to look at, though."
"So you've chosen to be completely shallow about this?" Leanna remarked.
"Mostly shallow," I admitted, cracking a small smile. "But, someone who paints like he does can't be all bad. Seriously, the next time you're over you'll have to see the one in my room. It's perfect."
"I think I'd like to see it," Leanna replied. "Remind me." She smiled as she finished off another tight braid in my brother's hair, and regarded me curiously as she got the next strand ready. "So you met Thompson Trust?" she asked.
"Uh-huh," I replied, dusting off Leanna's towel where I'd spilled some sand on it.
"I've only seen him once," she said. "I was at the park with my mom and he was across the street at the library, getting into his car. I didn't really get a good look at him. Does he look as good as he does in the posters?"
"Baby," Chad whined, looking over his shoulder at his girlfriend. "I'm right here!"
Leanna rolled her eyes and leaned forward to kiss my brother's cheek. "I know you are," she promised, right before looking at me again. "So is he?"
"At least as good," I replied, and then smiled. "But you should see Milo."
"You're both pathetic," Chad commented, before turning his attention in my direction more seriously. "I don't know, Nels. Have you tried talking to him? Like, make a fresh start. Maybe he'll come around if you really try to introduce yourself."
"Introduce yourself to who?"
The three of us looked up at the sound of Haily's voice to find her and Joe standing over us, their hands filled with assorted snow cones, already dripping, from the look of purple and red streaks of color running down Joe's tanned, toned chest and into the waistband of his red suit.
"Mr. Danner," I said smoothly. "Just in case I get him for History again this year. He doesn't really like me."
"That's because you and Caleb replaced his midterm with that stupid test you guys made up," Haily responded, whipping her head around to get her long braid behind her as she sat next to me, cross-legged and started to pass out snow cones.
Joe laughed. "I remember that. Name four alternative words for breasts."
Chad chuckled, while Leanna raised one of her thin eyebrows at me.
"That one was Caleb's," I said. "Plus, Danner never proved it was us."
"That doesn't mean he didn't figure it out," Haily insisted. "I wouldn't worry, though, Nels. He'd never let either of you guys back in one of his classes."
That was probably true. But, I had a feeling that I had a better chance of getting into one of Mr. Danner's classes than I ever had getting back into Milo Trust's house.
Leanna and Chad didn't stay past three on Saturday. They'd told my mom that they'd be over for dinner, something that I was going to skip. The last weeks of my summer had been spent on community service, and regardless of whether I'd deserved it or not, I felt like those days had been wasted. Summers were very important. They were right up there with spring break and Christmas vacation. Sure, there were parties and events and otherwise suitable occasions to get together with friends and completely forget about having a single care in the world. But summer was not meant to be wasted. I had a day and a half of it left, and while it was so hot outside that even Caleb was willing to decline the beer that a few girls offered to us, and I was almost out of sunscreen, I was determined to have fun before I went home.
I started with swimming with Joe. Usually when Joe Douglas wasn't wasted or otherwise impaired, he could come off as a very serious individual. He'd never be caught wrestling with me and Caleb in the middle of the halls at school, or hawking giant loogies with Haily. But when he got in the water, Joe could be as rambunctious as the next, and given the attraction I'd always had towards him, I never turned down a swim with Joe. There was splashing and shoving and full body contact every time he got his arms around me. The highlight of last summer was in Teresa Milldrum's swimming pool when his hand had actually slipped up my shorts. Completely accidental, of course. But, it had been memorable for me.
Only today, I didn't feel the normal thrill that I would while wrestling around with Joe in the cool, teal water that came up to our necks. But, it wasn't the first time that I'd felt a lack of interest in him over the last few weeks. Ever since we were arrested my interest had been dwindling, but I reasoned that that was because Joe was just a crush, and now I seemed to have a new one in Milo Trust. Too bad that unlike Joe, Milo Trust couldn't stand me. There was still that painting, though. That explicit painting hidden in his room had my interest piqued. Perhaps I saw it as a sign of hope. Hope that I'd meet another gay guy before I turned fifty. Hell, it was possible that it could be even longer than that. The flamer who owned the bookstore was in his forties, and as far as I was aware, he was still alone.
I guess in all honesty, I wanted what my friends could have. Last year, Haily had two boyfriends. Neither of them had lasted beyond a week, but she'd still had them. She held their hands in the halls, she'd skipped out on hanging out with us so she could go out with them. Joe had done the same thing with the last girl he was dating. That relationship had been two months long and for at least half of it he'd walked around with a dreamy look in his eyes, and couldn't even mention the girl without smiling. And Caleb--well, Caleb was different. But, he had the option of having... someone. I wanted that. I'm not saying that I needed it. I could deal with being on my own, or with simply being happy for my friends. I wanted it, though. I was seventeen, and I'd decided that it was at least time to experience something more than I knew. The prospect of Milo Trust being gay was an exciting one. I just wished that there was a way of knowing for sure.
By the time that the sky had turned crimson and orange with sunset over Hangman Cove, most of the vendors were packing up for the day, and the crowd was thinning; but for many, the day was hardly over. In fact, some people were just arriving, mostly couples looking for a private place to enjoy one another's company. My friends and I, having been there most of the day, were able to claim a coveted spot beneath the old oak holding the scarecrow, close to the water; and as Joe tried to convince us to leave to go to a party not far from where we lived, on the Hill, Caleb finally made himself comfortable with a six pack. He offered Haily a beer; but not me, because I was designated; and not Joe, either, I noticed. Ever since we'd been arrested, Caleb had refused to give Joe anything. I suppose it was Caleb's way of letting Joe know that he wasn't forgiven for betraying everyone's trust, but Caleb otherwise treated him as he always treated him.
"It's dead here, anyway," Joe insisted. "Come on, Caleb, you know you want to get out of here. There's gonna be more girls at the party."
"Don't want to," Caleb said simply before he tilted his head back and guzzled down his drink. Haily and I exchanged glances, and then regarded him curiously.
"You don't want to go?" I asked Caleb.
He frowned at me, scratching at his head of wavy hair. "Do you?"
"Oh, great," Joe mumbled. "You'll go if he wants to?"
Everyone ignored the remark.
"No," I admitted, still facing Caleb. "But you don't want to?" It wasn't like Caleb to turn down a party.
"Nah," Caleb replied, shifting so that he was cross-legged as he dipped his fingers into a yellow bag of raisins that Haily, the only one of us who'd bothered to get dressed in her brown flannel shirt and jean shorts, was holding as she sat next to me. "There'll be more people here later. Plus, we hardly ever come here when school starts. I kinda just wanna hang out."
Joe rolled his eyes. "We come here all the time when school starts," he insisted, and technically, he was right. Generally we'd stop going on the weekends and start going in the afternoons, after school. A lot of kids did, especially after dances or even sport events, Hangman Cove was the place to be before winter came.
"Whatever," Caleb responded. "I don't feel like leaving right now."
"Me neither," Haily said, and Joe regarded her as if she'd betrayed him before he looked to me.
"You're driving, Nelson."
"I want to stay, too," I responded, and his handsome face pouted as he stood above all of us.
"Just sit down and relax," Haily insisted, grabbing Joe's hand to pull him down, and once he was seated with the three of us, Haily gave him a drink and as Joe relaxed the four of us started talking about what we thought of school starting on Monday.
Haily could have done without it, she said. She was pretty much bummed that summer was over, and insisted that Caleb and I having community service was lucky compared to the way that she'd been grounded, and she was nervous about whether or not any of us would have classes together this year, or even the same lunch, since there were two different periods for it at our school. Caleb had assured her that if she got stuck in a lunch period without any of us, he'd cut class and go hang out with her. Since all of us knew that he'd actually do it, too, his offer seemed to calm Haily's nerves.
Joe was appalled over the prospect of returning to school without his `99 white Ford Mustang, all because he was likely going to lose his driver's license, and his parents refused to let him drive anywhere until then. All four of us lived on the Hill, but since Caleb was closer to Joe and Haily, he'd agreed to drive them to school every day, too. They owed him for this, since it meant no riding on the gum-stained orange school bus that on most days had a suspicious odor coming from the plastic covered seats.
As for Caleb and me, we generally had the same opinion about school starting. We didn't necessarily want summer to be over, and the fact that we'd have our noses buried in books soon enough wasn't quite appealing, but we didn't mind having to go back. We were both social people in our own ways, and I for one was looking forward to getting back to catch up with people I'd either forgotten about, or missed over the summer. Besides, my friends and I only had two years of school left before life would take us wherever it planned to take us, and personally, I planned to enjoy life now, just the way it was, for as long as it lasted.
As our conversation continued, we turned to brighter topics, like homecoming, and who everyone wanted to go with. Joe had declared that he planned to have a girlfriend by then. I told him that if he didn't, I'd be his date. I even offered to look real pretty if he promised to put out. This had gotten a good laugh, but I was only half joking. Caleb insisted that he wanted to see what the freshman stock brought in this year before he made his decision, and Haily said that she didn't know yet. But, when she'd looked at me pointedly, Joe started teasing her about wanting to go with me until I elbowed him and jokingly told Haily that we'd have to approve any guy who wanted to take her out, just to break the tension.
Caleb was right about more people showing up at Hangman later on. It wasn't the large crowd that was present during the day, but there were several groups of people there that had chosen the location to party, and as my friends and I spotted people we knew, we began to drift again.
When Hangman Cove got dark, it got dark. It was so secluded that there were no street lights or even safety lights. The scarecrow became nothing more than a phantom over the lake while the white sand which shone during the day became unseen terrain. Most people wore shoes after dark, including me, and following the trail back up to the car was a delicate task with the poison ivy thriving. But, there was the moon. It only ever seemed to shine on the water, which glistened black, looking peaceful from the cove, all the way out to the lake itself.
Unlike others around us, my friends and I hadn't bothered to bring a flashlight. I had one in the car, though. My dad made me keep it in there in case I ever needed to change a flat tire in the dark, and as Joe and Caleb went to talk to a group of girls and Haily abruptly decided to go for another swim, I decided to get the flashlight. It would at least come in handy when we left. Haily sometimes managed to wander off the trail, and I wouldn't want her starting school in a couple days with a contagious rash.
On the way to the car, I ran into Peter Forest again, surprised to find him with his girlfriend. Actually, it was who his girlfriend was that surprised me. Teresa Milldrum. Every time I ran into her and she batted her big blue eyes at me, I thought that I should at least feel something after losing my virginity to her, whether or not she was a girl. But there was nothing, not even awkwardness. Sometimes, I wondered if she even remembered the event.
Peter and Teresa told me that they'd just come from the same party that Joe had been so bent on attending. Apparently it wasn't that great, which is why they were here. Given the way that Peter was looking at Teresa, I almost wanted to ask her what color her bra was. That way, when it was hanging up next to the scarecrow tomorrow, I could point it out to Caleb.
After retrieving the flashlight from the car, I only used it to make my way across the bridge and down the trail, turning it off again when I reached the beach and started walking. Our cooler and backpacks were still beneath the old oak, but my friends were still scattered, and I figured that I'd run into someone eventually.
That someone was Caleb, sitting a ways down the cove, snuggled up to some dark-haired girl that I knew went to our school, but I couldn't remember her name. She was one of the ones who was always hanging around when Caleb was present, even though her more forward friends were the ones that received his attention. Pretty, slender, with glasses; the shy type who would blush at almost anything, and wore clothes that were a little too baggy for her body. Not Caleb's type at all. I guessed that he was currently making her week. He was leaning in close as they talked, his hand on her back. I didn't want to interrupt, and planned to pass by, but Caleb spotted me, anyway.
"Nels! Whatcha doing?" He'd turned his head to face me, and I altered my direction, taking in the goofy smile on his face above his cleft chin, and wondering if he'd had anything to drink since that six pack.
"Walking," I replied, smiling at Caleb and nodding in acknowledgment at the girl he was with.
"You remember Ronnie, right?" Caleb asked.
"Sure," I replied politely. "Hi."
She returned my greeting with a shy little wave.
"She just pulled a big fucking splinter out of my hand," Caleb announced, holding his hand up. In the dark, I could hardly tell if anything was wrong with it.
"Why'd you have a splinter in your hand?" I asked, and Caleb pointed somewhere behind me.
"I was climbing that tree."
My brow went up, but Ronnie giggled, and Caleb smiled at her, so I simply shook my head and waved at both of them. "I'm gonna go try to find Joe," I said. "I think Haily's still in the water. You wanna get out of here in about an hour? I'm getting kinda hungry."
"Yeah, sure. I'll find you," Caleb replied, his focus returning to his new friend.
People looked like shadows to me as I continued to walk, making it somewhat difficult to find Joe, but then, I'm not even sure if I was really looking for him. I stopped to talk to a few people, and once to stop and get in the water when a girl who'd probably be starting her first year of high school in a few days lost her shoe in the lake. She followed me for five minutes after I retrieved it for her, but eventually went back to her friends.
I never did find Joe, so I headed back to the tree we'd left our things under, meaning to raid Haily's raisins and possibly run into Haily. The temperature had dropped to a comfortable degree accompanied by a soft breeze, and it was even darker by then, so I used the flashlight on the way back, after nearly tripping over two people who'd made themselves comfortable on the sand.
I shone my flashlight towards our belongings as I reached the oak holding the scarecrow, expecting to find Haily there. But, as my light hit the figure sitting on the cooler I froze, staring as Milo Trust, shirtless and barefoot in his blue-jean shorts rushed to shield his eyes with his forearm.
"Um... dude," he finally said, his tone agitated, when the light didn't move. I aimed it towards the ground and he looked in my direction, but didn't see me until I shone the flashlight upwards, at my own face.
"Sorry," I said, and I heard him groan. I ignored it. "You came."
Milo was silent for a minute as I lowered the light, but still sounded irritated when he did speak. "Fuck. I'm not here because you invited me," he informed me.
"But, I didn't invite you," I replied, getting hold of myself and taking a step closer. "I just asked you if you'd be here."
"Fine. I am. Is there some reason why you're still here?"
"Yeah," I replied, laughing. "You're sitting on my cooler."
"Right," Milo responded, and even in the dark I could tell he was rolling his eyes, not believing me.
"No, seriously," I replied as I used my light while sitting down next to Haily's backpack. I opened it up and lifted out the yellow bag of raisins. "If you want a drink they're under your ass."
I set the flashlight down and the area between Milo and me was lightly illuminated, his skin appearing to glow against it, and I could make out his face better as he glared at me, his usual bright green eyes seeming dark beneath the shade of his lashes.
"Raisins?" I offered, holding up the bag when he didn't say anything. Milo blinked, and then placed a carefully set disgusted expression on his face. I smiled at him, beginning to realize why I didn't just get pissed off when it came to his attitude. The guy was completely full of shit, but cute about it. I poured a handful of raisins in my hand and deposited them in my mouth, noticing that Milo had made no move to get off of my cooler and walk away as I chewed. "So are you here for more material or something?" I asked.
"For your paintings," I explained. "You did a lot of stuff of the cove. Are you thinking about doing more?"
Milo looked away from me, towards the water. "Not really."
"Oh. That's too bad," I said. "You really are good."
"It's just a hobby," he said quietly, and I watched his pink tongue leave his mouth momentarily to run over his full bottom lip.
"A hobby you sell on a fold-out table?"
Milo shrugged, his eyes flicking towards me for a brief glance without his head actually moving with them. "Why not?"
"Do you ever think about selling more of your work?" I asked. The fact that he was talking to me was not something that escaped my attention, and I found myself wanting to keep it up. I figured I'd ask him a hundred questions if necessary. "Like, what's in your room?" I added, my mind going to one particular portrait in his bedroom.
"I don't know, maybe." He looked bored with me, but I decided that it was just for show. He didn't mean it.
I stared at him for a moment, an idea coming to me that was probably a bad one. "Hey, Milo? Do you take requests? I mean, if someone paid you to do something specific..."
"Like what?" he asked, finally turning his eyes in my direction.
"Like, anything," I replied. "I mean... we have this field behind our house, and my mom's always taking pictures of it. If my dad could give her a painting or something of it, she'd totally love it. He'd pay."
"No thanks," Milo responded quickly, but that was okay. It was true that my mom would have loved a painting of our field, maybe even the house with it, and my dad really would have gotten one for her if Milo wanted the job, but that wasn't really the question I'd meant to ask him. I was just warming myself up for the real one.
"What about something for me?" I asked.
"I don't think so," he practically laughed.
"Look, it would be a total favor," I continued, anyway. "And, I'd owe you big. Do you work with nude models?"
I did my very best to keep a straight face as Milo regarded me with interest now, looking slightly surprised.
"Not really," he replied carefully.
"But you could?"
"Like, using me?" I asked. "As the model." There. I'd done it. I'd brought up the topic of me, naked, and there had definitely been a reaction from him. It was a little one, the way he swallowed tightly, pushing back his hair with his hand as the breeze in the air momentarily became stronger, blowing it into his face. He recovered quickly enough, though.
"You want a nude portrait of yourself?" he asked, sounding both amused and skeptical. "Why?"
"Maybe I'm in love with me," I responded jokingly. Milo didn't find it funny as his green eyes once again narrowed it on me. "Okay, I said, maybe I want to give it to...." To who? Who the hell would I give a naked painting of myself to? Not that I planned on actually going through with this. I just wanted to make him think of the portrait he'd already done of me.
"To your girlfriend?" Milo asked.
"Sure. Why not. So, would you do it?" I asked.
I was offering to take my clothes off in front of him, and pay him for it. If the portrait I'd found in his room meant anything that I'd find good, then he wasn't going to say no this.
"Seriously?" I asked, frankly, a little surprised by the answer. I was suddenly frowning, expecting him to say something that sounded like I couldn't pay him enough money to force him to look at me naked. But, that's not the response I got at all.
"You don't want to give your girlfriend something like that. All it takes is one fight, and who knows what she'll do with it. Plus, one of her parents could find it. I'll let you decide which would be worse."
My first instinct was to ask Milo why he cared what my hypothetical girlfriend and her imaginary parents would do with a naked portrait of me. Instead, I pretended to think about it as I popped another handful of raisins in my mouth before returning the bag to Haily's backpack and standing up in front of Milo.
"Can you stand up for a sec?" I asked.
Milo looked suspicious, but did so and then watched as I opened the cooler's white lid and removed two soda cans. He didn't object when I handed him one, but he simply held it when he reclaimed his seat after I closed the cooler. I think what he might have objected to, was the way that I sat next to him, my elbow brushing his before he effectively moved over, looking put out and somewhat confused over my close presence. I pretended not to notice any discomfort he might have been experiencing as I approached the topic at hand from a different angle.
"So do you know from experience?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
"With the nude portrait thing. Do you know what would happen from experience?"
"I think it's just common sense," Milo said reasonably.
"So you've never done one before--painted one like that?"
Milo shifted uncomfortably in his seat, refusing to look at me and seeming altogether suspicious. I imagined that he was thinking about that one particular painting in his room, maybe thinking about where he'd left it, what way it was facing, and likely wondering how long I'd been alone in his room the day before. Maybe he thought I was on to him. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be on to. But maybe that's what I wanted him to think. Besides, the more nervous he looked, the less I thought that he'd ever intended to do anything malicious with that portrait, and the more I wondered about what the proper etiquette was for asking someone if they're gay and if they've been fantasizing about me.
When Milo finally reacted to my question, it was exactly like I thought he would. Rather than giving me a straight answer, he tilted his head back, shaking his dark hair, which always fell back around his face, no matter what he did, and made himself look entirely annoyed.
"Is there a reason why you're still here?" he asked. "I mean, did I do something that made you think I want to talk to you?"
"You're still sitting on my cooler," I pointed out.
"You haven't told me to get off."
"I don't want you to," I said honestly. "And... we're going in circles here."
"That's because you keep talking to me."
"I think it's because you won't stop pretending that you can't stand me," I retorted, and Milo turned his head to look at me, his green eyes shining at me, highlighted by the dim light from the flashlight at the closer distance. He was regarding me with interest. Definite curiosity. It occurred to me that in a strange, new sort of way, I was attempting to flirt with him. It wasn't the same as flirting with a girl. Girls were easy. They might laugh at you, and show their disinterest on occasion, but at least to flirt with them was expected. This, wasn't. It was a situation that called for caution, talking with Milo Trust. There were things that I didn't feel safe saying, but I was dropping hints. I didn't think that most guys would ask another guy to look at him naked. And then there was the way that we'd established that Milo Trust couldn't stand me, yet neither of us had bothered to walk away. I hadn't, because I was determined. Probably a little stubborn. I was interested in why he hadn't. Most guys would have walked away. Maybe even taken a swing at me to get their point across. I think Milo enjoyed the banter.
"I'm not pretending," Milo finally said.
"Do you wanna come over?" I asked. "To my place. Tomorrow, around noon? I'm going to barbeque. It'll be a small party, before school starts on Monday. Do you like apples? My dad makes these really good turnover things on a stick."
Milo raised an eyebrow at me. I couldn't tell if he wanted to laugh at my invitation, or stomp on it.
"Fucking hell, Nelson. Are you ever not harassing one of my friends?"
I frowned, grudgingly looking away from Milo's attractive features to glare at Assface. Honestly, the guy knew how to get on my nerves lately. Before, the problem had always pretty much stayed between Jame Graham and Caleb, but ever since the arrest, he'd been attempting to start trouble with me just about as much as he and Caleb got into it. Currently, I wasn't in the mood for Jame. I just wanted to keep talking to Milo. So I did, turning back to face him, I smiled. "I thought you were his only friend."
Milo rolled his eyes, ignoring me as he faced Jame. "Ready to go?" Milo asked.
Jame was still glaring at me, but responded to Milo's question. "Yeah. This place is fucking infested with assholes."
"None of them bigger than yours, right, Assface?" I remarked, before I could stop myself. Jame frowned at me, and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't take some satisfaction in that. What I didn't take satisfaction in however, was the abrupt way that Milo surprised the hell out of me, taking me completely off guard with a shove to my shoulder as he stood up.
"Dude, shut up," I heard him say. It wasn't even a hard shove. If I'd seen it coming, I probably wouldn't have gone anywhere. But, it seemed, I was already sitting on the edge of the cooler, and not particularly balanced with my head tilted back as I drank my soda. I toppled over, my drink splashing all over my face and running down my neck in the process. I coughed on it as I landed flat on my back and looked up, stunned. Jame's cluck-like laughter is what snapped me out of it, and I probably would have been angry if Milo hadn't been standing above me, looking as stunned as I did before his hand went to his mouth and his eyes became wide with suppressed laughter.
I sat up, wiping my arm over my face to rid myself of some of the sticky liquid I'd spilled, keeping my attention on Milo, rather than Jame. "I think that was uncalled for," I said rationally, and Milo dropped his hand, this time laughing. It wasn't a cruel or annoyed laughter. More like a sincerely amused chuckle, deep and soft, compared to his usually sharp voice.
"Oops," he responded, actually grinning at me before he turned around to face Jame. "Ready to go..." Milo stopped, and I couldn't see his face, but I saw Jame's when Caleb suddenly appeared behind him, shoving Assface aside. And as Caleb faced Milo, my best friend didn't look happy at all with his eyes narrowed and his jaw set.
"You did not just do that," Caleb growled, and as he moved towards Milo, kicking the flashlight aside in the process, I rushed to my feet and found myself between Milo and Caleb, so close to each that I could feel Caleb's breath on my face, while Milo's was on the back of my neck. I didn't hesitate to reach out and grab Caleb's muscled arms, fully aware of what usually happened when he started swinging them.
"Hey, it's fine!" I said quickly. "Caleb, it was nothing."
Caleb, was my best friend. But likewise, I was his, and if there was one thing that he hated more than someone trying to fuck with him, it was someone trying to fuck with me. Even if that someone hadn't meant to knock me on my ass. At least, I didn't think he meant to. I found myself glancing over my shoulder suspiciously at Milo, wondering if I should stop trying to see a nice guy under his gorgeous face if there really wasn't one. But, the thought was short-lived as I realized just how close to me he was, his face a shadow to me in the dark. I imagined that if I even leaned back I'd find myself against his smooth, toned chest, which might have been a nice place to be, in any other situation.
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Caleb demanded, as someone lifted the flashlight and shone it towards us. "I saw him..."
"You saw me fall on my ass," I cut him off.
"Yeah, ya fucking klutz," Assface remarked from behind Caleb, and I wondered why God ever saw fit to give him a mouth.
Caleb shook my hands from his arms, and admittedly, had he turned around to face Jame, I wouldn't have really been in a hurry to get between them. But to my surprise, I never even had to, because Caleb was still looking at me, appearing confused and somewhat annoyed.
"We're leaving." I turned around to face Milo when he spoke quietly. His eyes met mine for only a brief moment, and then he was passing me, his shoulder gently brushing against mine before he paused momentarily in front of Caleb so they could exchange the standard I'm-not-intimidated-by-you glare. Then, Milo was walking away, stopping to pat Jame's shoulder in a silent instruction for his ass-faced friend to follow. I watched, feeling a little confused myself as they disappeared into the dark.
"Are you okay, Nels?" It was Haily's voice coming from behind the flashlight, and I squinted in the light's direction.
"Yeah. You wanna find Joe so we can go?"
I didn't wait for her to respond. I reached down, grabbed my own backpack from the pile and walked past the oak holding the scarecrow, my feet hitting the sand as I let instincts lead me towards the trail. I'd hardly reached it before Caleb was next to me, his backpack on his back and the entire cooler in his arms. I sighed, and reached out to take one of the end handles without him having to ask me to, and together we made our way uphill, careful to stay on the rugged trail beneath our feet.
"Hey," Caleb said. "What's with you and that guy?"
I looked in his general direction somewhat nervously as I ducked under a low tree branch. "What do you mean?"
"Come on dude, you've been weird about him for weeks," Caleb informed me. "Like, what's with that? You go out of your way to be nice to him, then the other day you have us following him home after community service... and I saw him push you."
"We were just talking," I said somewhat shortly.
"Nels, what's your problem?" Caleb demanded, just as we reached the bridge, and I dropped my end of the cooler on the wooden planks beneath my feet so I could face him.
"Nothing, okay? I like his paintings, and don't think he's that bad. Is there like a rule or something that says I'm not allowed to talk to him? What? Because he's friends with Jame? He's not Jame, and it's stupid that..."
"Whoa... slow down. Fuck," Caleb responded. "No one said that. I'm just wondering, okay?"
I let out a breath, forcing myself to deflate as I ran a hand through my short hair and then nervously tugged at the stud in my right ear. I wished that I knew what was bothering me all of a sudden.
"Nothing. Nothing's going on. I was just talking to him, okay? And, I'm trying to figure out why everyone's instinct is to hit someone all the time. You can't just... do that."
"Hey," Caleb responded defensively, in a tone he rarely used with me. "I thought he was fucking with you!"
"I know," I said quickly. "I know. Look, Caleb... we can't go getting arrested again, alright? Not for something as stupid as fighting. You know if that happens again, Ray's not..."
Caleb laughed. "That's what you're worried about? Nels..."
"I'm serious, Caleb. I know Jame gets on your nerves, and you just had to spend three weeks with him, but..."
"Hey," Caleb interrupted, sounding more serious now. "I know. I'll forget he exists for a while if it makes you feel better, alright? His friend, too... that guy's not, your friend, is he?"
"Nope," I said honestly. "I don't really think so."
I wondered if I sounded disappointed about that, because Caleb gave me another strange look. He shrugged, and then lifted his end of the cooler again.
"Come on," he said, and in the dark I could see him smile. "Let's get this to the car so we can help Haily find Joe. We'll go grab something to eat. You're still hungry, right?"
I gave a slight nod, picked up my end of the cooler, and listened to Caleb as he started telling me about how horrible going back-to-school shopping with his older, pregnant sister was going to be in the morning.