The McDonalds in Luther was always packed with annoying brats whose parents let them run free on the jungle gym. It was too bright and too loud and too damn crowded for Theo Jackson. Twenty minutes and he already felt a headache creeping up on him. He wasn’t some kind of introvert or anything–he loved people–he just didn’t love these people.
New York City had been different. He’d been a normal kid; an invisible boy swimming in a pool of millions. They hadn’t judged him or thought him odd because he happened to be slightly different. New Yorkers embraced individuality. Hell, they practically required it, and Theo loved them for it.
Not like in Luther.
Theo’s cheeseburger got cold as he waited. The single sad slice of unnaturally yellow cheese grew dark and hard as the minutes passed. He did his best to keep his eyes on his French fries, but a large man in a stained, sleeveless t-shirt kept glaring at him from under the brim of a camouflage baseball cap while pretending to listen to the girl he shared his table with. Theo tried to think if he knew the guy, but couldn’t recall. He was another face in a long line of people who seemed to hate him solely for living.
“I would have gone with the nuggets, but I suppose a cheeseburger is a good choice too.” Charlie Hudson slid into the booth across from Theo and kidnapped a fry, sacrificing it to the teenage god of hunger. “Cold. How long you been here?”
The man at the other table looked even more disgusted, a feat Theo thought impossible. One fag at a table is wrong, two is an abomination. The guy probably expected he and Charlie to drop trou and start humping right on top of the plastic tables for everyone to see. Wouldn’t that be a show?
“Half hour,” Theo said. He gave up on the asshole at the other table and took his first good look at Charlie. God, he loved looking at him. Theo had envied Charlie’s blond hair since the first time he’d seen him walking the JD halls. Not at all like his own stupid red. Over the years, Theo had endured at least as many soulless ginger jokes as he had gay jokes. With Charlie though, it was about more than his looks. Truth be told, Charlie was average looking. Average nose, average lips, average height, average, average, average. It frequently seemed that Charlie was trying to turn sideways and slip through life without being seen. Theo had seen him though. Had seen through him. And to Theo, Charlie was anything but average.
Life would have been easier if he’d never met Charlie. Hell, he might not have come back from New York at all. His Aunt Julia had offered and his dad had left the decision up to him. Lord knows Theo had loved the city enough. And for the first time in his short life, he hadn’t felt like a walking circus freak on display for the normals.
It was just that life wasn’t life if it didn’t include Charlie Hudson.
“Why do we always have to meet here?” Theo asked. “It’s two busses and I have to lie to my mom about where I’m going.”
“You know why,” Charlie said. His jaw clenched briefly. “Sorry. I hate it too.”
“If you’d let me tell Minnie about us, she could drive and–”
“No,” Charlie said. The word was a sledgehammer. “I’m gonna go get something; I’m freaking starving. Jed and Will got into a fight and Coach made us run bleachers until Robby fucking puked.”
Theo played with his cold fries again, still smarting from the smack of Charlie’s no. “That why you’re late?”
Charlie nodded as he got up. “Coach would boot them both if they weren’t about the best players JD’s seen since the ’82 Lions.”
Even Theo knew about the ’82s. They were the first and last team in JD history to go undefeated and win a state championship. Mathias Dwyer, the quarterback of the ’82s had been on track to go pro until he got involved in a drunk driving accident. Three dead because he got smashed and ran a red light. People tended to gloss over the bad parts and only remember Mathias for his gifted throwing arm. And no one remembered the family he killed at all.
“They’re assholes, Charlie,” Theo said. “We’d all be happier if Coach kicked them off the team. Maybe then you’d get to play.”
Charlie chuckled and merged into the line to order food. He was a different person in Luther. Not constantly looking over his shoulder or acting dodgy if they happened to run into each other in public. Here, he looked for Theo, look at Theo, like he was an actual human being instead of a piece of furniture. Blackpool sucked the life out of Charlie. Outside of town, he was reborn.
“You should give the boys a chance,” Charlie said when he returned to the table with his tray. There were two Quarter Pounders and a large fry on it. That much food would have made Theo ill, but Charlie ate like he was at war. “Jed ain’t all bad. Not once you get to know him.”
Theo leaned back in the unyielding plastic seat and crossed his arms over his chest. “He pissed on my books, Charlie.” While Charlie chewed and swallowed his bite, Theo let that sink in. “Two weeks. We’ve been in school two weeks and Jed’s already thrown a football at my face, locked me in a janitor’s closet, and pissed on my books. How can you defend that asshole?” Theo lowered his voice when he realized people were looking.
Charlie toyed with the box his burger came in, worrying the paper edge and doing everything in his power to not look at Theo. “I didn’t know it was your stuff. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known.”
“So pissing on my books is wrong but everyone else’s are fair game?”
“It was a joke.” Charlie glanced up through his lashes, looking for forgiveness on Theo’s face, but finding none.
“Not a funny one.”
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said.
Theo held his anger in a stranglehold. It wasn’t just that they’d broken into his locker, stolen all his things, and pissed on them behind the auditorium. It was the Polaroid picture they’d taped to the back of his locker. Torturing him wasn’t enough; Jed had to taunt him too. And telling Principal Barrymore hadn’t done any good. Jed Wolfe and anyone connected to him were untouchable. At least until football ended.
“You don’t get it,” Theo said. “I should have stayed in New York.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Maybe I do.”
Charlie put down his second burger and reached under the table, looking at him with puppy dog eyes. Theo glanced around for the guy in the camo hat, but he and his companion were gone, replaced by an elderly man daintily eating a McNugget nibble-by-nibble. Theo tried to resist, but he felt the tug of Charlie’s reassuringly rough hand. Those hands made him feel safe when nothing else could. Theo slipped his arm under the table and linked his soft fingers through Charlie’s, lingering in the silence. Charlie squeezed his hand once and let go as a mother carrying an infant and a towering tray of fatty treats scrambled by, shadowed by the rest of her rambunctious brood. They occupied a nearby table, and Theo’s headache, which had subsided, began to rally.
“I hate you, Charlie Hudson.”
“No you don’t.”
“No,” Theo said. “I don’t.” He sighed and ate Charlie’s discarded pickle slice, enjoying the other boy’s grimace. “Pickles are the best part of the burger.”
“Says everyone with taste buds that haven’t been scoured to nubs by years of your mom’s cooking.”
Charlie thought about that for a moment and agreed. “The night before last,” Charlie said. “Or was it the night before the night before last? Hell, I don’t know. Anyway, she forgot she’d already taken her pills and took them again. Threw together this concoction of black beans and green beans and spaghetti sauce mixed with bread crumbs. She called it Tangy Turkey Leftover Surprise.”
Theo laughed in spite of himself. No matter how bad his day got, Charlie had the power to heal him.
“The surprise was that there wasn’t no turkey in it.” Charlie popped the last bite of his second burger into his mouth and washed it down with Coke. “What’s new with you?”
There was so much to tell that Theo tripped over his words as he regaled Charlie with dramatic tales of his classes and how Minnie had decided she didn’t want to be goth anymore and was experimenting with being an artist, and how Miguel Romero had fallen asleep in English and farted so loudly that the entire class had heard him. Ms. Wood was so shaken she forgot what she was teaching and gave them the rest of the hour to study.
“And you’ll never be able to guess what my mom did.” Sometimes Theo talked so quickly that he worried Charlie couldn’t keep up. There was little he could do to prevent it, aside from pot and some other prescription pills he occasionally procured through less-than-legal methods. His thoughts were rollercoaster cars careening through the days, always in imminent danger of flying off the tracks.
“Nothing your mom does surprises me.” Charlie looked full and happy and relaxed. It was late in the afternoon but tomorrow was Sunday and Theo didn’t have to be home until ten. They had all evening, and the laziness of summer still clung to them, sapping their moments of urgency.
Theo snorted. “She tried to set me up on a date with Charlotte Marbury.”
“I stand surprised,” Charlie said, flashing a wry smile. “Should I be jealous?”
“I don’t know. Charlotte’s pretty foxy.” Charlie kicked Theo under the table and Theo grinned ear-to-ear. “Mom asked me to help Charlotte out with her Algebra. I honestly didn’t think anything of it; it’s not the first time she’s whored me out for my awe-inspiring math skills.”
“Oh baby, factor my polynomial.”
Theo barked out a laugh so loud that the kids at the nearby table pointed at him and giggled. Speechless, Theo shook his head and kept on with his story. “I should’ve known something was up when Mom lit candles on the dining room table, but the real kicker was Charlotte showing up in this puffy pink monstrosity. It looked like she was being slowly digested by Jigglypuff.”
“Pokémon? No?” Theo shrugged. “She was a giant pink marshmallow. With glitter. So much glitter.”
Charlie looked like the silence was physically painful, and Theo took some small pleasure from torturing him. “Well, what happened?” Charlie asked.
Theo ate one of his cold, slimy fries, chewing casually, trying to build an illusion of nonchalance. “I took her out for dinner and dancing and then had many minutes of boring heterosexual relations with her, obviously.”
“Fine,” Theo said. “I faked a stomach attack and hid out in the bathroom until she left.”
Since he was young, Theo had been afflicted with frequent digestive problems that a doctor had diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Often a nuisance, a well-time stomach attack had saved him from having to suffer through many of the indignities inflicted upon him by his well-meaning but clueless mother.
Charlie rolled his eyes but kept his mouth firmly shut. Theo knew Charlie’s opinion of his mother, and Charlie knew that his opinion wasn’t necessarily welcome.
It wasn’t that Theo didn’t agree with Charlie–Mrs. Jackson had deployed every weapon in her arsenal to get her son to see the error of his sinful lifestyle, creating a gulf between them that Theo feared was too wide to bridge–it was simply that until Charlie could be honest about his own life, Theo didn’t feel that he had the right to sit in judgment of anyone else’s.
It was an argument they’d mutually agreed not to have.
“I get your mom wanting to set you up,” Charlie said. “But Charlotte Marbury? Really? You could do better.”
“That’s what I said.”
Theo was itching to move. Teachers had been calling him hyperactive since he was little but the itch was more than that. It was a pull from a place beyond his reach; a need to run or jump or walk around that would keep building inside of him until he exploded. But Charlie looked so exhausted. His eyes were heavy and he rested his arms on the table like it was the only thing holding them up. Coach had been working them hard and the strain was showing.
“How’s that play going?” Charlie asked.
The one thing Minnie had been right about was that taking Theatre had armed Theo’s enemies with yet another weapon to wield against him. Theo was the only boy in Mrs. Pine’s class. She, of course, was delighted that she wouldn’t have to coerce the female students to play all the male parts, or stage yet another production of Little Women, but Theo had begun to rethink his decision.
“Good, I guess,” Theo said, but wasn’t convincing.
“I think I’m going to drop it.”
“All you been talking about since you got back from New York was being in a play.” Charlie’s face was fierce and wild. It was his football face, the one he wore during practices. Charlie was the backup quarterback and not at all good at the sport, but he still played with a frightening determination. “You’re not quitting.”
“Fine,” Theo said. “Forget it, all right?”
Charlie clenched his fists, struggling with whether to push the issue or not. One of the things Theo both loved and hated about Charlie was that he always encouraged people to stand up for their convictions, yet never stood up for his own.
“Can you at least tell me what play you’re doing?”
“Hamlet,” Theo said. “But a modern version. I think. Mrs. Pine is more scattered than I am.”
“You gonna be Hamlet?”
Theo shrugged. “I guess.”
“Save me a ticket.”
Silence grew up between Theo and Charlie, filling the spaces, expanding until there was no more room left for words. It was a dense fog that rolled through and pushed them apart. They might have never found each other again in that moment except that Charlie’s face lit brightly; a beacon toward which Theo could navigate. Charlie stood up, smiling and said, “Come on. I found you a new word.” Without waiting for Theo to respond, he headed for the door, leaving his tray of garbage on the table.
With a an explosion of movement that felt so damn good, Theo slid out of the booth and jogged after Charlie, catching up to him on the sidewalk. Luther was only bigger than Blackpool in that it had a movie theater and a Super Wal-Mart. Other than that, it was eerily similar. Same gray sidewalks, same grim folk walking down them. If Theo closed his eyes, he couldn’t hardly tell the difference.
“Where are going?” Theo asked, but Charlie just kept grinning, refusing to divulge the location of Theo’s new word. Theo was obsessed with foreign words. It had begun during his required 8th grade Spanish class. He’d heard a word–duende–and had fallen in love with the power of other languages to express feelings he couldn’t find the right English words for. Since that time he’d been collecting words, writing them down in a memo book he kept stashed under his pillow.
They took two right turns and walked eight blocks before Charlie finally stopped in front of a pawn shop. The window danced with neon lights advertising check cashing services and cheap guns. Charlie stood proudly in front of the shop and waved grandly at the display.
“Toska,” Charlie said.
“Toska.” Charlie searched Theo’s face for some sign of understanding and then said, “It’s Russian. It means some kind of deep longing or something.”
Theo was confused but he tried to hide it because he didn’t want Charlie to think he didn’t appreciate his new word. “You long to go into a pawn shop?”
“No,” Charlie said, laughing. “The guitar.” He pointed again and Theo saw what Charlie was looking at.
Maybe it was the grime and dust in the window, but the sad guitar leaned haphazardly against a child’s blue wardrobe did not look like an instrument worthy longing. Theo turned to ask Charlie if the word actually meant what he thought it meant when he stopped short, cut off by the expression on Charlie’s face. In all the months that Theo and Charlie had been together, Charlie had never showed any kind of interest in material possessions. It was one of the things Theo liked about him. While other kids spent their cash on the newest phones or over-priced clothes, Charlie was content to wear his older brother’s hand-me-downs not carry a cell phone at all. The guitar in the pawnshop window was different. The body was worn, and some of the bits Theo couldn’t name looked as though they’d seen better days, but Charlie stared at the instrument like his entire world would burn to ash if he didn’t hold it. Longing was the only word to describe Charlie’s expression, and even that was woefully insufficient. Charlie was right. He’d found toska.
“I didn’t know you played.”
Charlie shook his head; he was bashful, embarrassed almost. “I don’t.”
“I did,” Charlie said. “But not since I was little.”
Theo didn’t dig further. Charlie had always been reluctant to talk about his childhood and the boys shared an understanding where it was concerned. But Charlie looked so sad and the urge to kiss him was so strong that Theo could barely fight it.
“Thank you for my new word.” He punched Charlie on the arm to lighten the mood, letting his balled fist linger briefly on his warm skin.
Charlie checked his ever-present watch. It was digital with a plastic band that would have looked more at home on a young boy’s wrist than a young man’s. Once, Theo had suggested buying a new one, but Charlie had shot him down and they’d never spoken of it again.
“You know,” Theo said. “I found toska too.”
“Oh yeah?” Charlie led them away from the pawnshop. The movie theater was only a couple of streets over.
“In New York.”
Charlie stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. A woman ran into him and scowled as she passed. “What was in that big city that you felt an unspeakable longing for, Theodore Jackson?”
“It’s not what was there,” Theo said. “It’s what wasn’t.”
They called it Cinema Roulette. It didn’t matter what movie was playing or when, the boys pointed blindly to a title on the marquis and bought tickets to that. Sometimes the employee in the ticket booth played along, sometimes not. Sometimes they ended up sitting through another vomit-inducing Katherine Heigl rom-com, sometimes not. It didn’t really matter; they rarely spent much time watching the movie anyway.
The back row of the Luther Cinema 14 belonged to Theo and Charlie. Until the lights went out, they kept a buffer seat between them, but once darkness descended and people’s attentions turned toward the screen, the buffer evaporated. All the space between Theo and Charlie disappeared. They were careful not be obvious, but it was one of the few places they could hold hands, touch, or look at each other without shame or fear. Even if a nosy Nellie caught them kissing, the shadows hid their features well enough to protect their secrets.
That day, Charlie had pointed at a time travel flick that Theo had been dying to see, and Theo suspected a little bit of cheating. Not that he minded. Loaded down with heavily buttered popcorn, some Nerds, and an obscenely large Cherry Coke, they took their regular seats and waited for the movie to begin.
As the lights dimmed and Charlie slid over one seat, a group of stragglers wandered in, laughing and talking loudly despite the signs on the walls politely demanding silence. Theo rolled his eyes and ignored them as the previews began.
This was what mattered. Not plays or football or even Jed Wolfe and his increasingly sadistic pranks. Being with Charlie. Theo slid his hand through the dark until it rested in Charlie’s. They latched their fingers together and didn’t let go for the entire movie, not even when Theo had an itch on his chin so annoying that he could have gladly taken a hatchet to it. It was just that Theo was afraid to let go. Right now, right this minute, Charlie belonged to him. But when they returned to Blackpool, Theo lived in fear that it would all come to an end.
“I’m sorry I left,” Theo whispered into Charlie’s ear.
“I get it.” He squeezed Theo’s clammy hand harder and smiled. It was such a simple thing, that smile, but Theo held onto it, draped himself in it, and the world was right.
Theo waited until a violent chase scene came to it’s fiery conclusion to say, “I really like you.”
Charlie was clearly invested in the movie but he turned to face Theo anyway. “I like you too.”
Theo leaned his head on Charlie’s shoulder and watched time unravel.
“We’re going miss the last bus back to Blackpool if we don’t hurry,” Theo said, running through the night. The setting of the sun had brought some relief from the heat, one of the signs that summer was finally releasing its chokehold on the world. Up north it was already getting chilly, but little of that had filtered down south.
Charlie walked at his regular pace, which annoyed Theo to no end. The only place Charlie ever had any sense of immediacy was on the football field. He seemed content to stroll through the rest of his life like it wasn’t a big deal. He’d get there when he got there. Usually, Theo could handle it, but not when it meant potentially missing his only ride home.
“We’ve got time,” Charlie said. He grunted and trotted to catch up with Theo, who had slowed down a little to let him.
“Your watch is slow.”
“My watch ain’t slow,” Charlie said. “You’re just too fast.”
“I like running.”
Charlie winked. “Don’t run too fast. I might not be able to keep up.”
Theo was about to ask whether that was meant literally or if there was some sort of subtext, when a white car stopped beside them, chugging like a freight train. He knew Seth Hudson’s car before Charlie’s brother rolled down the window, and swore under his breath.
“Seth,” Charlie said. He looked down at his sneakers, the barrier between he and Theo springing up in an instant.
“I thought that was you in the theater.” Seth and Charlie shared a passing resemblance. Separately, you’d never guess they were related. It wasn’t until you put the Hudson brothers side-by-side that the little similarities began to surface. The crooked smile and the one dimple. Seth had brown hair like Mrs. Hudson, and Theo had always wondered if Charlie’s blond was a gift from his father.
Theo didn’t like the tone of Seth’s voice. It was accusatory and he could practically feel Charlie shrinking.
“Maybe not,” Charlie said without conviction.
“Get in the car.”
Theo looked down the road at the people hanging around the bus stop. “We can still catch the bus,” Theo said. “If we run.”
Seth leaned to the other door and jerked the handle. “Get in the car.”
Charlie bit at his thumb nail as he looked from Seth to Theo. Theo wished he had a word to describe the conflict playing out in Charlie’s eyes. “Theo…”
“Now,” Seth said.
This was a battle that Theo was going to lose. Instead of forcing Charlie to choose, Theo sighed and walked around to the open door. “Come on,” he said to Charlie. “The bus smells like old lady anyway.”
Charlie breathed out in relief and both boys climbed into the car.
Seth drove with one hand on the wheel and the other dangling a cigarette out the window. Sometimes he barely looked at the road, and all Theo could do was buckle in and hold on for dear life.
“What were you thinking?” Seth asked. He looked at his brother sitting in the seat beside him and then in the rearview mirror at Theo.
“We were in Luther.”
Seth flicked the butt onto the empty road, but left his window down. “Damn it, Charlie. I was there with Wyatt and some of his buddies. You know what would happen if Wyatt Wolfe found out my brother is a fag?”
“Don’t call him that.”
Seth reached back and smacked Theo on the side of the head. “You should know better. I expect my brother to be a dumbass, but you’re supposed to be smarter than that.”
Theo rubbed his ear. Seth had barely hit him, but the class ring he wore had clipped the tip of the cartilage, and it stung. He glared at Seth, wishing he could say all the things that were filling his mouth, but he swallowed them back down and crossed his arms over his chest.
Charlie looked out the window and never at his brother. “We were careful.”
“Not careful enough.”
“How was I supposed to know you and Wyatt were gonna be in Luther? Shit, you ain’t even supposed to be hanging out with him.”
Sometimes, it seemed like Seth was trying to kill them all when he drove. Theo had been in the car a dozen times and had never seen him use a turn signal. Not once. And he treated yellow lights like dares.
“That’s none of your concern,” Seth said, and that was the end of that.
Wyatt Wolfe was dangerous. In high school, everyone thought he was going to be the next great American football player, but he’d gotten arrested for selling weed sophomore year and been kicked off the team. These days he ran the biggest drug operation in Blackpool. Weed, meth, pills. Wyatt Wolfe had his hand in everything And the people near him always tended to end up on the wrong side of trouble. Wyatt didn’t have a single friend from high school who hadn’t done time. Even Seth had done six months for Wyatt when he was nineteen. But that was a couple of years ago.
“I’m sorry.” Charlie snuck his right hand back beside the seat until he found Theo’s leg. The angle was awkward, but he brushed Theo’s skin in a lame attempt to comfort him.
Seth frowned at both boys again. “You have to be careful.” His tone was more concerned than angry now. For all his faults, Theo knew that Seth was only looking out for his baby brother.
“We wouldn’t have to always watch our backs,” Theo said carefully, slowly, choosing each word with precision. “If we just went public.”
Charlie let go of Theo’s leg, and Seth laughed until he realized that the suggestion hadn’t been a joke.
“Never gonna happen,” Seth said.
Theo ignored him. “Think about it, Charlie. If people know we’re together, we won’t have to sneak around anymore. You’re popular and people like you, so maybe it’ll make them think twice.”
“No,” Seth said. His voice was a wall of concrete and steel.
“He’s gay,” Theo said. “Your brother’s gay. Fucking get over it, Seth.”
Seth looked up in the rearview mirror and was about to say something when Charlie cut him off.
“I don’t care about being gay.”
“You’re not doing it,” Seth said, but it was like he wasn’t even in the car anymore.
Theo unbuckled the seatbelt and leaned close to Charlie. “Then what?”
Charlie kept looking out the window as the dark world beyond the glass blurred by. Sometimes, he tried to sift out individual shapes that he could recognize, but they were gone before he could. “People don’t pick on you ’cause your gay,” he said softly. “They pick on you ’cause you’re different. And I don’t want to be different.”
Theo leaned back in his seat and didn’t say a word for the rest of the drive.
The Jackson house on Carron Lane was modest, but compared to Charlie’s house, it was a mansion. It was before curfew but Theo’s mom was still waiting in the living room, pretending to watch TV while her husband slept in his chair with a book on his round stomach that he’d been trying to read for almost five years. Theo stood awkwardly in the driveway with Charlie, while Seth idled near the road, rolling through radio stations to find a decent song.
“About earlier,” Theo said. “I didn’t mean to push it.”
Charlie bowed his head while he linked his first finger through Theo’s. It was like the first time they’d been together. Hesitant but sweet. Scary but amazing. “I’m not like you,” he said. “Being gay ain’t nothing. But I don’t have aunts in New York or parents willing to ship me off to college. If I’m ever gonna get out of Blackpool, I have to keep my head down and be so small that no one notices me. I gotta be a ghost. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” he said. “But then why risk being with me at all?”
Charlie put his hand on the back of Theo’s neck and kissed him softly on the lips. These were the kisses that made everything worth it. The sneaking, the lying, the lectures from Seth. Their lips barely touched, but the whole fucking world spun a little faster in that second.
Maybe it was enough for right now. Enough to push back the doubt and anger and fear that Theo harbored in his soul. Enough to let Charlie’s hand go as he pulled away and walked back to Seth’s car. Enough to watch the Hudson brothers peel out into the night in a terrifying display of daredevil driving. Enough to trudge into his house and defend himself from his mother’s passive aggressive assault.
Enough to fall asleep.
Enough to dream.
But maybe tomorrow would be different. What was enough now would leave him wanting at dawn. Wanting for one more touch, one more kiss, one more second of time. Maybe it would never be enough.
Because there was life with Charlie Hudson and there was toska.