Loser. Outcast. Freak. At seventeen, the names no longer hurt Vince Sanford. He's different from others at his school and always has been -- the pep rallies, school dances, name-brand clothes and football games and fifth quarter parties, none of that interests him anymore.
There was a time when he did fit in, when his best friend had been Eric Somers, the most popular boy in school. They lived around the block from each other and were inseparable. It was never a question of was Eric eating over or was Vince staying the night -- they were one soul in two bodies, sharing two homes, two lives.
But something happened between them the summer before high school that tore their friendship apart, leaving Vince with an anger, a hatred, that he can't control. Now Eric wants back in his life again but Vince is afraid to give him a second chance.
A trash bag is tossed out into the alley, one of those black twenty gallon ones used for lawn work. Someone raked their yard today, Mr. Somers then. Another bag appears, and a third, and Vince is just thinking he might be able to slink away into the darkness without being seen when the gate opens wider and Eric himself steps out.
Somewhere inside of him, Vince hears the echo of childlike laughter bubbling up from the past, ghostlike and haunting, breaking easily through his defenses. In his pockets, his hands begin to sweat and he balls them into helpless fists, his nails digging into his skin. He'll have crescent moon-shaped indentions in his palms later, he squeezes them so tight. Eric, with blonde wavy hair cut short in the back and left to curl on top. Eric, with his damn letterman's jacket across broad shoulders, snapped at his narrow waist against the cold night air. Eric, with startling blue eyes that remind Vince of gel icing used to write names on birthday cakes. Those curls now fall in front of those eyes, and those shoulders clench as he stoops to pick up two of the bags. He glances around, his gaze flickering over the shadows where Vince stands, then turns his attention back to the trash. He lifts two bags, tosses them into the nearest can one at a time, and bends down for the last one. "Hey, Vince."
How ...? He's not sure. The glow of his cigarette, maybe, or some premonition, or maybe he can see in the dark like a cat, who the hell knows? Eric sees him, him. He remembers his name. Without taking his hands from his pockets or the cigarette from his mouth, Vince mutters, "Eric, hey."
The final bag sails effortlessly into the trash can. By all rights, Eric should head inside now, but he doesn't. Instead, he closes the gate gently, careful not to let it latch shut. Then, turning towards Vince, he jams his hands into his pockets and looks across the alley.
At him. "Hey," he says again.
This could go on all night. I was just leaving, Vince thinks, but when he opens his mouth to say the words, Eric glances down the alley both ways like it's a busy intersection in the middle of town before trotting over to the shadows where he stands. Vince catches a faint whiff of Obsession cologne that's gone when the wind picks up. Even under cover of darkness, he doesn't look at Eric directly. He can't. Instead he looks at some spot on Eric's chest where shiny pins glint in the starlight. He should step away but a fence is behind him, there's a mulberry bush to his right, Eric to his left standing so close -- there's no place else to go. The alley, but that would look like defeat. He's supposed to be nonchalant, isn't he? Apathetic, unimpressed. That's the picture he tries to paint of himself, aloof in his classes, in school. It keeps the taunts from stinging too much. It takes away the pain.
Eric nods at him and asks, "You have another one of those?" Vince tries to scowl as he plucks the second cigarette from behind his ear. He doesn't quite make it. "Thanks, man," Eric sighs. Their fingers touch when he takes the offered smoke. Vince watches him stick it between lips that are too red for a boy, they always were. "You have a light?"
Vince's hand curls around the lighter in his pocket. He wonders what his fingers would feel like in that hair. If he pulls them from his pocket he doesn't know whether or not he'll be able to control himself, he'll want to touch those blonde curls. Here in the shadows they're still golden, as if the light that tints them isn't a reflection of the moon or the stars but something glowing from within, a nimbus like the halos of light that surround the heads of saints in Catholic paintings. Maybe if he lifts the hair from Eric's brow, fists his hands in those curls and tugs as hard as he can, maybe he can find the source of that light. He wants to know where it comes from, why it fills this boy, why it makes him perfect and always has.
Before he can hand over the lighter, though, Eric bends close to him, like he wants a quick kiss. "Hold still a minute," he mumbles, his breath cinnamony on Vince's cheek. Carefully he presses the tip of his cigarette to the lit end of Vince's, one hand cupped around the smokes to keep out the breeze. Vince stares at the blonde eyelashes just inches from his face. He imagines how soft they would be, feathering on his skin. When Eric draws in a deep breath to light his cigarette, Vince hopes that he doesn't smell bad. Musty perhaps, because his coat's been hanging in the closet, and smoky from the cigarette, but please don't let him smell it on me, he prays. Lust and fear and a childish anticipation, a hope that bloomed the moment Eric said his name. He wants to pluck those damn eyelashes, one by one, just to see those eyes fill with tears.
Eric laughs, a magical sound. This close Vince thinks it's deafening. "This is like when we were little," he says, straightening up. His cigarette is lit now and above the ember tip, his eyes sparkle like water in the night. Incredibly, he's still looking at Vince. "Remember? When Mom used to say I couldn't go past the hitching post and you'd meet me halfway." He nods at a decorative post that marks the edge of Coach Thomas's yard. It's a wooden pole about waist high with a cast-iron horse's head on top of it, a ring of iron through its teeth like a bridle. Years ago they considered that post the halfway mark between their houses. Mrs. Somers used it as a boundary -- when she was angry or upset, Eric was confined to his side. He would call Vince and hiss into the phone, "Showdown at high noon, pardner," like they were cowboys and rode horses they could tie in the alley. "You know," Eric says, nudging him with an elbow before Vince can move away, "back when we were kids?"
He hopes his voice is emotionless when he replies, "We aren't kids anymore, Eric." He doesn't have to add that they aren't friends, either.