I woke Sunday morning to the sound of rain. I've always liked the sound of falling rain, of the random fat drops that collect and hit the ground out of rhythm with a loud splash or splat. The wind will move through the branches of a tree, and all of a sudden there are hundreds of droplets that splatter against a wall or window. I'd like to be in a house with a metal roof just once during a storm, to hear the rain tapping above. I think it would sound nice – maybe it would get old if you were trying to sleep or something, I don't know.
The rain was calming, and it set my mind to wandering. My brother, Ian, had had a very different experience at school than I did. In some ways he might have made things easier for me, because everyone knew my brother, or if they had older siblings they maybe knew of him. It probably kept some people from messing with me, because he was a fairly big guy and was with the in crowd of other jockstraps.
Ian was a whore. I spent a lot of late nights listening to him talk about how he'd gotten with one girl or another, and it was interesting despite me not being interested in girls. I think that may be why I ended up fucking around with Marc all summer – I was hooking up and meeting some of those mileposts Ian had laid out before me.
There were out guys in my school – couples even. I'm sure there were guys who were flexible enough I could have seduced them – not that I'm this ideal guy who could get any guy I wanted. I think it was more that I was...non-threatening. I was five-seven with a runner's build, unlike Ian, who'd been over six foot the last time I'd seen him and, as my uncle once said, was built like a brick shit house. Never really sounded like a compliment to me.
I thought about the out guys I knew of. Only one was single. Phil Ashmore used to be pals with Griffin Douglas, and both were runners. Phil only started in the last few years. He didn't really make friends on the team, which wasn't unexpected. He wasn't the most outgoing guy and had a reputation, and people on the team generally had their cliques. Phil had dated a guy on the football team – I'd heard that, not really seen it, since I didn't pay a ton of attention. It hadn't lasted. There wasn't anything to draw me to Phil. In a certain sense I guess he was like Corey – nothing wrong with them, just not catching my eye.
That turned my thoughts toward myself, and I wondered if I was making a mistake with Corey. It was nice to have someone pay attention to you, but it was also nice to have your wishes respected – like when you said no. Corey was big in the way Ian had been, but I didn't feel unsafe around him. Maybe a little crowded, but that was it.
Circling back to Phil, I knew he'd gotten a crowd of new friends – many of them in the GSA. I'd never felt the need to join. I'd never felt comfortable with the idea of a group, and given the way I was forced to join other things, I'd kept my distance from any joining I didn't have to do. I wondered if that had been the best choice – making a decision to keep separate to spite my parents. Totally unrelated and yet weirdly similar, I wondered if doing what Ian had, on a smaller scale, was the right thing as well.
I'd slept with two guys. Both of them had been summer flings, in the end. But I got a year's worth of fooling around done in those hot summer months. Ian had moved from person to person, and I'd had just the two. He'd fooled around year round, while I was just a summer thing. The one real similarity, I guessed, was that we didn't develop any deeper emotions. Well, I had thought I had with Marc, but that was just bullshit in the end. Victor...I could have seen something working out with him. He was going to college in the fall – should have started already, actually. But he wasn't local, and I was just in high school – so what did I have to offer to him besides sex? I liked sex, no real shock there. I wasn't a hugger or cuddler, not by nature, but sex brought all of my inner desires for intimacy out in one tangled mess. What does that mean?
My door burst open, and my sister hurtled through. I had just enough time to cover my stomach before she landed on my bed with a phlegmy holler.
“Oh no,” I groaned. “Get out! Get off me and get out!”
“Uh uh. Mom said-”
“GET OUT!” I yelled.
She coughed at me and and tried to lick my face, and I rolled, pushing her off me, and she crashed to the floor.
“Ow! Moooom!” she whined.
“Serves you right. Now get out!” I snapped.
“What's going on?” my mother asked, appearing in the doorway.
“I came in to breathe on him like you said,” Sandy said, getting up and slapping at me. “He pushed me off the bed.”
My mother put a hand on her hip. “Better it goes through everyone at once. You know that, Noah.”
“No,” I grumbled. “It's disgusting, and I hate you making me sick just because she is. Just because that walking germ factory gets a cold doesn't mean you have to share it with me.”
“Noah,” my mother said in a tone of warning.
“No!” I snapped. “It's my body, and I don't want to get sick! It's bullshit!”
“Noah said shit, Mom!”
“Noah! You know my rules pretty well on this!”
I stared at her. “And I don't care.”
My sister jumped on me. I threw her off while she was coughing at me and my mother was yelling at us to stop. Eventually I got them out of my room and pulled some clothes on. After hitting the bathroom I made up something for Bruno and went out back. He was waiting for me, wagging and looking in my direction.
“Morning, buddy,” I said as I set his bowl down inside his little doghouse. The rain was down to just a drizzle, but the sky was overcast enough that you knew it wasn't done yet. He ate, tail wagging, and I watched him with a little smile. I heard the door on our porch slap shut and wasn't too surprised when my father joined me. Bruno knocked over his empty dish to come greet my father, who bent down and rubbed Bruno's ears before Bruno turned and presented his rear for scratching.
Dogs. At least you know what they want.
“So. You and your mom.”
“It's bullshit, Dad,” I said, cutting him off. “I'm not eight and dealing with this crap like sharing chicken pox. Every damn time someone gets sick she tries to make everyone sick. I don't have time for sick.”
He straightened. “You know our philosophy – your immune system needs the workout, and getting the antibodies now will make winter easier for you. Besides, it's not like it's just you.”
I looked at him. “I don't care that it's not just me. I don't want to be sick. I do everything that's asked of me – from chores to grades to joining the stupid sports you guys force on me. I don't want to be forced to be sick – and what the hell do you think Sandy's going to do? Mom tells her to come cough on me – Sandy's just going to run around coughing on everyone because her mom thinks it's okay!”
“That's valid,” my dad said and sighed. “And yes, you're not a little kid anymore. We still think it's best for you, but the time we make all those choices is coming to an end. Maybe it's time to let this one pass.”
I shrugged in my sweatshirt, wrapping my arms around myself. “She's still pissed at me for being the DD the other night.”
“That was more about you sneaking out, being where you weren't supposed to be,” he chided gently. “You think you're grown up, and in some very tangible ways you are. However you're still subject to boundaries – and that's one of ours. You don't have to like it, you can hate it as a matter of fact, but it's still there.”
I sighed. “Didn't you ever drink or get stoned or something as a kid?”
He made a noise, sort of an agreeing hum. “It's almost a rite of passage to do dumb things. It's how we learn, in part. However, it's still the role of the parent to limit those boundaries to the places that let you learn without being hurt to the point of damaging your life. To wit,” he said with a little smile, “we don't condone you getting drunk or stoned, and provide consequences if you choose to do so. And I think you need to be reminded, any mistakes I made are not license for you to repeat them.”
I shook my head. “You take all the fun out of it.” He just laughed at me.
By six o'clock I felt like I had a hair in the back of my throat I couldn't move. I woke at midnight with my throat sore, and by morning I had a headache and congestion to boot.
“Noah? Noah! Why is your door locked?” my mother demanded the next morning.
“This is your fault!” I groaned. “I'm not letting you in.”
“Stop being stubborn! I have medicine and juice for you.”
“No,” I said and covered my head.
I heard my handle jiggle and the door opened. She placed the glass and something else on the nightstand. “I'll see you tonight.”
“The hell you will,” I grumbled.
She let out a sigh, and my door closed. I took the meds and the juice, waited for them to leave for work, and went to make Bruno's breakfast. By the time he was done my butt was wet, as the ground was damp from the day before. I awkwardly petted him and went back inside.
“Noah?” Sandy called out from her room. “I'm hungry.”
“Eat your snot,” I grumbled and went to shower. Hot water always feels good when I have a headache or stuffed sinuses. I coughed and spit some phlegm – fucking post-nasal drip bullshit. The problem with me is I never just get the sniffles. No. I get a full on man cold. I don't know why, but these things always fuck me up.
After I dressed I went and made french toast, since it's easy, and left some for my scourge of a sister before I tried to sleep. Trying to sleep with your nose plugged is hard enough; impossible when each breath dries out the back of your sore throat and makes you cough. Eventually I gave up and sat up with my tablet and doodled. I drew a dog in his house, a car that vaguely resembled mine with a flat tire. I drew an average kid sitting in bed, sick. I drew a group of runners, one leading them because of his long legs.
Thursday was pretty much a lost day between getting reminders from every teacher to look at my laptop for the work I missed and to ask if I had questions. I had practice after, but thankfully no work that night.
I ended up running near Phil Ashmore and wondered why he'd kept up with running with his friend having graduated. It didn't seem likely that he'd discovered a passion for running, but you know...it could happen. I can think of dumber things to have happened. In the end I guess I just wasn't that curious. I also didn't really know Phil, so I was ready to let it go when we were all coming to our stopping point. Coach clapped Phil lightly on the shoulder and made a comment about how he had hoped he'd come back, given Griffin had moved on to college.
Phil was breathing hard and just smiled and nodded to coach. Well. That was kind of like a sign, right? I'd been kind of curious, and now someone had asked the question. I figured – what the hell, I'll ask him.
“Hey, Phil,” I said, trying not to sound like I was recovering from a cold.
“Hey, Noah. You coming down with something?” he asked, making the sign of the cross with his fingers and leaning back.
“Getting over it, actually,” I said with a little grimace. “Mom still treats every cold like it's for sharing and gets us all sick at the same time.”
“That's...the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Sorry,” he said with a little smile. “I really don't mean to be a dick, but man...that's up there with the all-time dumb things.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said with a sigh. “Speaking of dumb things...why are you running if you don't have to?”
“What?” he asked, chuckling.
“You were running to hang out with Griffin, right? You guys were tight? So...why are you forcing yourself to run now?”
He tilted his head and grinned a bit shyly. “Well. Have to keep in shape for my boyfriend.”
I paused. “Oh. Good reason.”
He tilted his head. “Problem?”
I mirrored his head tilt. “No. Why?”
“I said ‘boyfriend,’ and your tone changed.”
I frowned. “Did it? Wasn't trying to. I didn't know you were dating. I mean, I thought you were single, so I was surprised that the gossip of you – anyone – dating hadn't gotten to me yet.”
“Oh,” he said, dragging it out and nodding. “Got it. I know exactly what you mean. Corey's 'Gram is all about you and the countdown.”
He smirked a little. “Yeah, you know. Counting how many days until you give up and date him.”
I stared some more. “Are you fucking serious?”
“Yeah,” he said with a grin. “Dude has a serious boner for you.”
I shook my head and glanced around. My throat felt itchy, and I coughed, then felt double disgusting, because phlegm bubbled at the back of my throat, and I hawked it out. “Fucking gross,” I muttered.
“Well, you have fun with that,” Phil said and walked away.
I wanted to spit again, but this time on Corey. I headed for my car and was aggravated to find a get well card under my windshield wiper. I spiked a fever that night but felt okay in the morning. I was giving my mother the silent treatment. My brother had been out of the house a lot growing up – he breathed sports. If he didn't get along with my mother it was mostly from making him do his homework versus going to practice. He brought home his fair share of diseases from his teams, and my mother always made us all get infected.
My sister had been mommy's little girl but was starting to separate herself from Mom's identity. She still copied my mom in wanting her way and trying to parent other people, but they still got along most of the time. When it came to which sibling had the most friction with Mom, it was me, and it wasn't even close. I'd always hated her 'sick parties', her need for control and her smothering idea of parenting – on full display in her attempts to let us have no privacy at all and to always think she knew what we were thinking or about to do.
She ran about fifty-fifty in that department – enough to make you nervous, but sure she wasn't omnipotent.
I spent my free periods Friday catching up the little stuff I'd missed and generally tried to avoid people. Corey handed me a note in the library, and I threw it at him without opening it. He was filming me, and he whispered a number with a grin as I flipped him off. How dense can you be? After school I sullenly rode the team bus to our first meet. I hated the rule that you had to ride the bus and could only get a ride from a parent on the way back if they signed for you. I'm nearly eighteen and I have my own car – stop treating me like a kindergartner.
I popped in my headphones, scrolled though the music channels until I found something relaxing, and just stared out the window all the way there. I stayed in the middle of the pack for the meet and stared out the window on the way home as well. I wish I could say I was inventing dialogue for my web comic, the one that only existed in my head, or had entertaining daydreams. Instead I was simmering about my mother getting me sick, my stupid sister's complicity, my dad agreeing enough to put up with it, and Corey's doomed and stupid crusade to date me.
I didn't think what he was doing was cute or romantic. It was embarrassing and irritating. Corey and my mom – now there's a pair for you. I was pulled from that by a text from Ian. I opened the text and was mildly surprised at his message.
JOCKSTRAP: Hey. Party Saturday night. Come help setup, free partying. You can meet college dudes.
Hell, yes, I wanted to do that.
ME: What did you tell mom you forgot and want me to deliver?
I tapped my foot as I waited.
JOCKSTRAP: Grab some of my dress shirts and pants – tell her I have some presentations where I have to dress professionally.
Going to see Ian would be a nice break, but I'd have to make sure I got back to feed Bruno or he'd go hungry. When I finally got home I took a shower and wandered into the kitchen to make a plate. My mother walked into the kitchen, and I decided to test the waters, though she spoke first.
“How was your meet?”
“Normal,” I said. “Lots of people running. Ian texted, asked me to bring him some nice clothes. Did he tell you?”
“Yes, he has some presentations at school,” she said and glanced at me. “Seems odd to be so formal in class.”
I didn't look at her, just shrugged. “Some teachers like to mimic potential situations, I guess.”
She let out a low noise – I wasn't sure exactly what it meant. “Well. I'll pick him out a few things,” she said with a little sigh.
I texted Darrion as soon as my mom had left the room and asked him to take my Saturday shift so I could go to a college party. He said only if I brought home salacious details. Who says salacious?
Saturday I was up early to feed Bruno and spend some extra time with him. I would playfully push his face, running my hand down the side of his snout and he'd wag and whine, opening his mouth to nibble as I came at him again. I kept asking him who the good boy was, and he kept wagging and making happy sounds.
In some ways – maybe even most ways – dogs are superior to humans. Bruno is pretty straightforward – food and love. Giving a dog love isn't like losing something, because they give that love right back to you. Dogs will sleep with you, sharing their warmth and protecting you as you protect them. Dogs are the ultimate example of the golden rule. I glanced over at the house that belonged to Bruno's “owner”.
It needed paint, the shingles were kind of weathered, and the pickup truck outside looked tired. I don't understand people who neglect or hurt animals. I understand the whole circle of life thing, but it doesn't mean you have to be cruel or cause pain and fear.
In the late morning my mom loaded Ian's clothes in my car, hanging them to keep them as nice as possible. She annoyed me with her nagging to drive the speed limit, to check my mirrors and to keep both hands on the wheel. Dad slipped me a hundred bucks for gas and food, and I was off. I stopped to fill up, set my phone to randomly stream any music and headed down the road.
Ian's college was a little over an hour away. He liked to say it was far enough away to keep him from being under Mom's thumb and close enough to not be much of a pain to come home. I chilled to sounds from the last fifty years – Dua Lipa to Sly and the Family Stone, I liked it all. I love driving with the windows down and good music on – as long as it's on the highway. Stoplights can kiss my ass.
When I got close I called Ian, who gave me the address for his fraternity. I raised an eyebrow at that, because I hadn't known he'd joined one, which I guessed meant he was living off campus – and I was pretty sure the parents didn't know either. I had just assumed he was going to a party or helping host one somewhere. I've seen some frat boy porn, and I was certainly curious.
The address was a large home, well maintained and not looking at all like it would be featured in a Porn Hub video. The front door was open, and I called out for Ian.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Broooo,” he said and gave me a one armed hug. “Come here, check this out.” He walked me through the place – and it was a bro-hole. An electronic dartboard like you'd find in a bar – full upright model with bill acceptor. There were led light strips running around the ceiling and where the walls formed corners. We went through a dining room with a disco ball over the table, through a functional enough kitchen and out the back door into a nice-sized backyard with a wooden fence. There was a volleyball pit, two large grills, lights being strung on wires and two half-circle bars side by side to serve the party.
“Good space, huh?” Ian said in a happy tone.
“Who's this?” a girl asked Ian. He clapped my shoulder.
“Chloe, this is my little bro, Noah.”
She smiled and raised an eyebrow. “You're related to Ian? My condolences.”
“Thanks. I've been in mourning for years,” I said with a nod.
The corners of her mouth pulled up in a smile. “I like this one.”
“No collecting the set,” Ian said in a tone of warning.
“Kind of gross, but I'd consider it,” she said, sticking her tongue out.
“He likes dick; you have no shot,” Ian said with a laugh.
“Aww,” she said with a laugh. “Well, it was a gross idea anyway. I mean, I can't believe I slept with you – talk about gross!”
“Please. You wish I were still available!”
“After Nich has had her way with you? Please. There's not enough left over to please yourself!” she laughed raucously.
Ian planted his hand on my shoulder. “I can't wait for you to meet her, Noah. She's...fucking special, bro.”
I widened my eyes. “Holy shit. You're...dating?”
“Ian Seaford. Dating. Monogamous relationship. Not bed hopping. Leaving his-”
“My God,” Chloe said. “How much of a whore was your brother really?”
I tilted my head as I looked at her. “Biblical. If the whore of Babylon had a male half – it was Ian.”
She leaned toward me and raised an eyebrow at Ian. “Skank.”
He shrugged. “You knew that already.”
“Yeah. I made my appointment at the clinic before we hooked up. I was prepared.”
Ian put on a fake hurt expression, and I chuckled at their easy banter. “Ian. Seriously? Did you want me to come out here before the parents catch wind? You know Mom is already on the hunt with suspicion about this whole special clothes for class thing, right?”
“What? No! No, no, no,” he said. “I want you to meet her, yes. I'm definitely not ready for the parents, and you're my most normal family member. I mean...can you imagine Mom?”
I snorted. “She's going to run a background check on her.”
“Right? See, Chloe? Look what I spared you by breaking up!”
“Oh, fuck you. Like I'd ever date you? I just needed a little dick.” She smiled evilly and looked at me. “And that's exactly what I got.”
I burst out laughing while Ian protested. Shortly we were setting up some coolers and putting ice in them, moving ladders for people stringing lights and generally helping out. In the early evening people were showing up and things were sizzling on the grills; music was playing, but not at a level to disturb the neighbors. Ian had let me know that fraternities were supposed to be part of their neighborhoods, not like the stuff you'd see about frat parties in movies.
I told him those weren't the kinds of frat movies I'd hoped for.
I drifted through the crowd, sipping a ginger ale and checking out the guys. Most of them were busy trying to chat up some girl, unless they were cooking or playing bartender. Ian had explained as host many of his frat brothers would be around to help keep things from going overboard and make sure nobody got taken advantage of. One devastating incident could see the end of their fraternity, not to mention whoever got victimized.
Around seven-thirty Ian wandered up to me with a big grin. “Bro! Been looking for you. I want you to meet Nichelle.”
She was pretty, which I'd expected. What I hadn't expected was that she was as tall as Ian – maybe a hair taller. She had light brown skin that could have been Latin, but her curly hair made me think mixed race.
“Hi! Really cool to meet you,” I said. “My brother says you're dating – blink twice if you need to be rescued, okay? Twice,” I said, slowly blinking my eyes.
She laughed, and Ian pushed my shoulder. “It's really nice to meet you, too,” she said. “Ian's been kind of secretive about his family – in fact, I said I didn't think he actually had one, so he said he'd invite you as proof.”
I smiled. “I knew you were lying when you said you missed me.”
“That's a lie,” he said, pointing at me. “I never said I missed you.”
We chatted for a little bit, moving aside for others that were passing by or to avoid being spilled on. I could see why he liked her – she seemed smart, she could carry on a conversation, and she was pretty without seeming to try too hard – she had a little makeup, and she was casually but tastefully dressed. If she knew she was meeting me, which seemed to be the case, she'd tried to impress me a little – which was kind of a first. Made me feel grown up, until I gave Ian a wet willy for something he'd said.
I turned with a smile on my face that quickly morphed into confusion. “Victor?”