Theo’s backpack dug into his shoulders as he hurried to keep up with Charlie and Seth. The trail was so overgrown that it was hardly walkable, and Theo couldn’t help wondering if Seth had any clue where he was going. Not that he would have admitted if he didn’t. He and Charlie were alike in that respect.
Charlie glanced over his shoulder at Theo and grinned, pushing a branch out of his way and letting it snap back into place. Camping had been his idea. A way they could be together without having to sneak around. An entire weekend to be alone, if Seth did as promised and gave them some privacy. If they hadn’t needed his car to get up to Hag Peak, they wouldn’t have brought him at all.
“How much farther?” Theo asked.
“When we get there, you’ll know.” Seth swiped at the mosquitos that swarmed around his face and arms.
Charlie waited for Theo to catch up. He threw his arm around Theo’s shoulders and said, “About another half hour or so.” He glanced ahead and made sure Seth wasn’t looking before he snuck a kiss from Theo. The trail wasn’t wide enough for them to walk side-by-side, and Charlie wasn’t that kind of person anyway.
Though Charlie hadn’t said so, Theo knew that this camping trip was about more than sneaking off to get some time alone. They hadn’t talked about the lunch room incident, but they hadn’t been able to escape it either. Even the teachers seemed to stare at him, and Theo couldn’t help wondering which ones had seen him naked. Every time he pulled a picture off of Facebook, another one popped up. Trying to erase something from the internet is like trying to turn off all the stars in the sky.
“You never did tell me what you told your mom,” Charlie said. He’d barely broken a sweat. Not that Theo wasn’t in shape, but he was a runner, not a hiker. He was used to long, flat roads, and out here it was one opportunity after another to break his ankle.
“Nothing,” Theo said. “I told my dad I was going camping. He didn’t ask with who, and I left it up to him to tell my mom.”
Charlie whistled. “Nice. But aren’t you going to be in for a hiding when you get back?”
Theo shrugged. “Probably.”
“Guess we’d better make it worth it then.”
“Gross!” Seth called from up ahead, but that just made Theo smile even bigger.
It was after dark by the time they finished setting up camp. Charlie and Theo’s tent was barely big enough for the both of them, and Seth’s tent was even smaller, though he’d set his closer to the tree line. The campsite was little more than a clearing in the middle of nowhere. And nowhere was exactly where Theo wanted to be. He looked up at the darkening sky and imagined he could see each and every star as it came into view, shining just for him.
“You know,” Charlie said. “Half those stars are already dead.”
Charlie nodded. “Yep. Their light takes so long to reach the earth that they’ve lived their lives and died before their light gets here.”
“They must be really bright then,” Theo said.
“Well, sure. No ordinary light could keep shining after death. It takes something special to do that.” Charlie slipped his arm around Theo’s waist and let Theo rest his head on his shoulder.
Theo closed his eyes and tried to set everything in his memory. The feeling of Charlie’s fingertips on his hip, the sound of Charlie’s breath in his ear, the cricket chirps and the smell of sap. Even the way the woods tasted like the verge of autumn. Theo recorded it all in his mind so that he could write it down in his journal when he returned home.
“I bet there are some people that are like stars,” Charlie said. “They’re so brilliant that they keep on shining in the lives of the people they leave behind.”
“Such the poet, Charlie Hudson.”
Charlie squeezed Theo a little tighter–not too tightly, just enough. “Shut it, Jackson, or I’ll take you down to the river and toss you in.”
Theo chuckled but said nothing else. He could practically feel Charlie blushing. When he’d first met Charlie, he’d written him off as another jock, insensitive and emotionally stunted. But Theo had uncovered a side Charlie kept hidden. Theo had to be careful not to push too far or he would retreat back behind his macho-bullshit facade.
“By the way,” Charlie said. “I got you another word.”
“Oh yeah?” Theo didn’t move for fear of leaving this moment behind. Everything was perfect right now. It was easy to imagine that he and Charlie were the only people in the world. That outside this sanctuary of trees and stars was nothing. No parents, no Jed Wolfe, no pictures.
“L’appel du vide,” Charlie said, though the words sounded like he’d beaten them with a hammer. “It means something like–”
“Come on!” Seth shouted from the woods. “No gay shit while I’m around.”
Charlie let the rest of his sentence slip away as he released Theo. Seth blundered into their little world and reminded Theo that they were not, in fact, alone.
“You weren’t around,” Theo said, hoping that he’d left enough of the aggravation in his voice for Seth and Charlie to hear. This was pretty much the most private place they could be. Seth had told them there were better camping spots further east, but this was the most secluded. If Charlie couldn’t be himself out here then what was the point in coming?
Seth dumped an armful of wood into the ring of rocks they’d laid out earlier and crouched down to arrange them. “Don’t worry, Casanova, there’ll be plenty of time for you to mack on my baby brother. But right now, we’ve got some drinking to do.”
The whiskey tasted like it had been strained through one of Theo’s used running socks, and he nearly choked on the first swig. It got easier after that. Too easy. And before Theo knew it, his arms and legs tingled, and he was laughing, though he could no longer remember why.
“So then Wyatt, totally bombed out of his mind, walks up to her mother and says, ‘I hear you’re looking for a stud. I’ve got the std, all I need is you.’ And then he kisses her right in front of the whole church!” Seth barely got through the end of his story before he cracked up laughing so hard that he had to gasp for each breath.
Theo swayed from side to side, staring at Seth with his mouth open like a mailbox. “He did not say that.”
“True story,” Seth said. He chugged a beer and looked to Charlie for help.
“That ain’t exactly how Jed told me it went down,” Charlie said. His eyes were bloodshot and heavy. Theo couldn’t tell if he was exceptionally drunk or jus tired. The Lions were undefeated so far this season and Coach Rubidoux had been running them more like a military unit than a football team. “For starters, it wasn’t her mom, it was her grandma.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “Jed wasn’t even there.”
“It was his uncle’s wedding, of course he was there.”
“No,” Seth said. “Y’all had an away game that weekend.”
Charlie grabbed another beer. “Whatever.” He popped the top and chuckled as foam spit from the top and splattered all over Theo’s arm.
Theo had never been camping before. Not like this. He’d been fishing with his father and had once stayed at a campsite, but it’d had a cabin with bunk beds and a grill ringed with picnic tables. Nothing so spartan as this. It was perfect for forgetting his troubles.
“Theo?” Charlie nudged his shoulder and pointed at Seth.
Seth rolled his eyes again. Either he hadn’t drank as much as the other boys or he was better at holding it. Theo didn’t know and didn’t care. “What about New York?”
“What about it?” Theo asked.
“What was it like?”
Theo looked at the Hudson brothers sitting around the small fire. They were so alike right now, but so different too. The way rocks on the beach all look the same until you pick one up and really take notice of the craters and different speckles of coloring that set them apart. Charlie worked so hard to make everyone believe he loved Blackpool and was one of them, that it might only be a matter of time before it became true.
But Seth was different. There was hunger in his eyes. A desire to know about life outside their claustrophobic bubble. Which was odd because Seth had it good. He had a job working on cars at Renegade Auto, he helped out Wyatt Wolfe occasionally, and people liked him. Seth was Seth, and that was pretty okay.
Charlie had every reason to want to leave and didn’t care about the world outside Blackpool. Seth had no reason to leave and cared enough for the both of them.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Theo said. He stole Charlie’s beer and took a long, gulp, imagining the place on the lukewarm metal can where Charlie’s lips had touched. He wished he’d brought his weed with him, but Minnie had his stash and she was still giving him the silent treatment for ditching her. “New York City is the way it feels in my head all the time. Like this giant clusterfuck of energy and life and people always running from here to there without stopping. No one ever just stops to look. And it’s loud. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I thought all that noise would drive me crazy.”
Charlie and Seth were both listening. Theo had their full attention. Seth was soaking in the words while Charlie was soaking in Theo.
“After a while, though, it got to be normal. If I spent too much time in the apartment I’d start to miss the noise. Every day was another adventure. Like this one night, I was hanging out with these guys. They dragged me to a show, though I’m not even sure you could call it a show.”
At some point, Theo didn’t know when, the beer he’d stolen from Charlie had become his beer, and Charlie had cracked open another. Theo was on the edge of being too drunk, staring into the abyss he’d fall into if he kept slugging back drinks. But his throat was dry and he was too happy to care.
“What was it?” Charlie asked.
“It was this abandoned hotel that had been redone to look like something out of the 1920s. Normally we wouldn’t have been let in on account of we were underage, but one of the guys had a brother in the cast. They made us wear these crazy white masks, and we wandered around, following the actors and actresses from room-to-room. Half the time I didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on. There was this one part where these two women and a guy started having an orgy with this other guy who was wearing a goat’s head. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.” Theo took another sip of his beer. “If my mom knew I’d seen something like that, she’d have called Father O’Shea out of retirement to perform an exorcism on me.”
Charlie laughed but Seth kept quiet. He wasn’t looking at Theo, but right above the flicker of their fire. His stare was so intense that Theo imagined Seth was trying to crawl into Theo’s recollection and live there forever.
“Sounds awesome,” Charlie said.
“It was. The shit I got up to in New York. Sometimes I wonder if any of it was real.”
The boys fell into silence for a moment. Theo didn’t know what else to say. He had a thousand stories from his summer in New York and he could have spent the whole night telling them.
It was Seth who broke the spell. “Why’d you come back?” he asked.
Theo expected Seth to roll his eyes or make some kind of joke, but he didn’t. He said, “But why?” When he didn’t immediately get an answer he said, “I mean, I love my baby bro and all, and I’m happy that you two got each other, but there’s got to be a million guys in New York. You could’ve gotten over my brother. No offense, Charlie.”
Charlie shrugged. Theo sensed that he was listening more closely than he had been before.
“You’re right,” Theo said. The words came out too easily, and he suspected it was the booze loosening his tongue. “There are a million guys in New York. But there’s only one Charlie Hudson, and he’s here.”
Seth lobbed his empty beer can into the fire, sending embers floating into the air like fireflies. “You’re an idiot.”
“And you’re a douche.”
“Seth–” Charlie began, but was cut off by his brother.
“No,” Seth said. “I’m serious. I heard about what Jed and the boys did to you. They’d do the same thing to Charlie if they knew. You’re not safe here, Theo. And so long as you and my brother keep on with this thing, he ain’t safe either.”
“Seth, enough!” Charlie growled over the words, glaring at Seth across the fire.
The brothers were locked in a battle fought in silences. Neither moved or spoke or did anything that Theo could see other than stare angrily at the other, but finally, Seth broke away and said, “Blackpool is poison. And it’s gonna kill you if you’re not careful.” He got up and stalked off into the woods, mumbling about having to take a piss. Theo didn’t know whether Seth had been talking to him or Charlie or both of them, but the warning stuck to him like tar. Some days he wasn’t sure whether Seth actually liked him or if he only tolerated him for Charlie’s sake, but one thing was for sure: Seth loved Charlie more than life, and he’d do anything to protect him.
Theo didn’t move until the sounds of Seth crashing through the brush faded away, leaving only the crackling of the fire and the sound of Charlie watching him. When he finally did move, he stood up and tossed more logs onto the fire. He got lightheaded from standing too quickly and wobbled. Charlie started to help him, but Theo waved him off. He grabbed a beer for each of them and sat back down.
“Thanks,” Charlie said, but he didn’t open it. “I wasn’t with them.”
“Jed. When they…” He had a mouthful of rocks that spilled out when he tried to finish the sentence. Theo could have helped but didn’t. He wanted to hear it from Charlie. He needed to hear it. Until the moment Charlie had brought it up, Theo had been content to ignore it, but now that it was there, exposed the way Theo had been exposed, he needed to know everything.
“I wasn’t there when they did that to you.”
“Where were you?” Theo asked.
Charlie nodded. “He’s been helping me out with some stuff.”
The conversation was sobering Theo up. He still felt drunk, but he was forcing his mind to reach through the fog. “What kind of stuff?”
“Personal stuff,” Charlie said, sounding irritated. “That ain’t the point.”
“Then what is?”
Charlie set his unopened beer down in the dirt and scooted across the log, closer to Theo. Theo had always been scared of the distance that existed between he and Charlie when they were apart, but now he was scared of how close they were. This was different. There was an apologetic look in Charlie’s eyes that didn’t make sense.
“I didn’t think they were really going to do it,” Charlie said quietly, almost as though he were speaking only to himself. He snaked his hand across the last of the distance and laid it over Theo’s.
Theo stood up so fast that he nearly fell. “You knew?”
Charlie wouldn’t look at him. “I thought they were joking around,” he said. “You know how the boys are. It was supposed to be funny.”
“Half the school has seen me naked, Charlie! There are pictures of my dick on Facebook! How is that funny?”
“It isn’t,” Charlie said. “I know it isn’t, but I didn’t think they were going to do it.” Charlie growled and raked his hand through his hair. “It was after practice and Rob started going on about how they should streak through lunch for a prank ’cause his dad did it when he was in high school or some bullshit like that. And then Jed went on about how it was a stupid idea and then I said it’d only be funny if we stripped Rob and locked him in the cafeteria so he couldn’t get out.”
Theo thought he might puke. His thoughts were snarled; a wreck. “You didn’t just know about it,” he said. “You came up with the idea yourself.” Theo was through shouting now. Whatever sobriety he thought he’d achieved was gone. His world was like a rollercoaster. He barely had time to catch his breath before the next drop stole it again.
Charlie was broken. Helpless. He sat on the log at Theo’s feet, looking up at him, begging for understanding because he knew he didn’t deserve forgiveness. The words he was looking for eluded him and he let the silence take their place for too long.
“When Jed started talking about doing that to you, I told him not to,” Charlie said. He clung to each word like it was a piece of driftwood in an unfriendly sea. “I told him that Coach would kick his ass off the team if he got caught. We’re good this year. We got a real chance at State. I figured not even Jed would be dumb enough to risk messing that up.”
“Clearly, you were wrong.”
Charlie hung his head. “It won’t be the last time.” He kicked the stone ring with the toe of his sneaker. “Seth was right about you staying in New York. I bet shit like this wouldn’t happen there.”
Theo’s anger began to drain away. He didn’t know whether it was because he finally knew for certain that Charlie hadn’t been one of the hands that had grabbed him and thrown him in the cafeteria naked or because Charlie just looked so fucking pathetic. But he sank back down to the log beside Charlie and let the distance between them close completely.
“It probably wouldn’t,” Theo said. “But I wouldn’t get to do this either.” He kissed Charlie softly on the lips, slipping his arms around Charlie’s waist and drawing him closer. Charlie kissed like music–his breathing and heartbeat and lips were a symphony.
When they pulled from the kiss, Charlie said, “If it makes you feel any better, I haven’t seen those naked pictures of you on Facebook.”
Theo laughed and ran the back of his fingers along the edge of Charlie’s jaw. “Then maybe it’s time you saw the real thing.” He took Charlie’s hand and led him into the tent.
Theo lay on his back next to Charlie, his heavy-lidded eyes barely open. “I love you, Charlie Hudson.”
“I love you too.”
They slept until dawn.
Theo swung out over the water and let go of the rope, flying. At least that’s what it felt like as he hung suspended in the air for less than a second before crashing through the surface of the cool water and bobbing back up for a gulp of air. Charlie dove in after him and greeted him with a wet kiss that seemed to go on for days.
“I don’t want this to end,” Charlie said as he and Theo dried themselves in the sun. Charlie’s shoulders were kissed with red and Theo kept his shirt on, though his nose had found some new freckles. Neither had thought to bring sunscreen.
“It doesn’t have to,” Theo said, though he wished right away that he hadn’t. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand where Charlie was coming from, he just hated to see that look in his eyes when he listed all the reasons why going public with their relationship was a bad idea. “Sorry,” he said before Charlie could speak.
Charlie took Theo’s pruny hand and held it to his chest. Charlie’s skin felt tacky from the water but Theo could count every heartbeat and, though he knew it was impossible, feel every molecule in Charlie’s body spinning faster. “I wish I could make things better for you.”
“I get why you want to keep us a secret,” Theo said. “What I don’t understand is why you hang out with assholes.”
“They’re my friends.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “But they’re still my friends.”
Theo pulled his hand from Charlie and struggled to prop himself up on his elbows. “Only because you’re on the football team.”
“If they knew about us, they wouldn’t be your friends anymore.” Theo looked for some sort of understanding on Charlie’s face, but saw none. He grew frustrated. “Real friends like you for who you are. And they don’t torture people for being different.”
Charlie cocked his head to the side. “Maybe if you weren’t so different, you’d have more friends of your own, instead of just that freak Minnie.”
“God,” Theo said. “You’re just as bad as them.” He scrambled to his feet and took off toward camp.
Charlie swore under his breath and ran after him. He caught up to Theo and yanked his arm so hard it felt like he’d pulled it out of the socket. “I’m sorry.”
“Let go.” Theo’s voice was ice.
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said again, but he let go of Theo.
Theo crossed his arms over his chest, suddenly feeling cold despite the heat. His skin puckered into gooseflesh. “You don’t understand.”
“Then explain it.” There was so much sincerity in Charlie’s face. It was all he could do not to wrap his arms around Theo and make it all go away. But he couldn’t. So he stood there awkwardly, waiting for Theo to say something.
“I wanted to kill myself,” Theo said. He looked up to make sure Charlie had heard him and then hurried through the rest. “Those people you call friends? They hate me, Charlie. They hate me so much that I can’t help feeling like maybe they’re right to hate me.”
Theo cut him off. Didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Not yet. “I mean, people worship them, and they hate me, so maybe that’s just the way it is. Maybe I’m not worth anything. That’s what I kept thinking when I got home that day. That maybe my life isn’t worth anything.”
“It’s worth something to me,” Charlie said.
“But you’re friends with them too,” Theo said. “Fuck, Charlie. Your friends kidnapped me, stripped me naked, tossed me in the cafeteria, and then bragged about it on Facebook. And you’re still friends with them.”
“It was a joke, Theo.”
Theo struggled out of his damp t-shirt, yanking it over his head. He turned so that Charlie could see the angry cuts on his upper arms. The scars of old wounds covered over by the crusty scabs of new. Theo’s arms were a battlefield.
“Do these look like a joke?”
“What the fuck?” Charlie asked. “Did Jed do that?” But realization dawned on his face and he said, “You did that to yourself.”
The rage subsided and Theo felt shame. He was exposed now. It had been dark in the tent and Charlie hadn’t been able to see the cuts, but now he could and Theo wished he could go back in time, return to the river, and never surface for air.
Charlie took a small step toward Theo, unable to keep his eyes off the cuts. “Do they hurt?”
“More than you’ll ever know.”
They stood in the woods, surrounded by silence for too long. Charlie couldn’t think straight. It was like Theo had taken a torch to everything he’d ever known, everything he’d ever believed.
“I didn’t know,” Charlie said, quietly. “I should’ve known.”
Theo pulled his shirt back on and leaned against a tree. “Forget it.”
“No way. I’m gonna kill him.”
“Who?” asked Theo. He was drained. Tired. His voice dragged across the ground.
“Jed,” Charlie said. “I’m going to rip out his fucking throat.” Charlie’s face was devastated, and Theo felt bad for it. He’d wanted Charlie to know how he felt but he hadn’t wanted to cause him so much pain. Theo felt like he was tearing down Charlie’s life, one brick at a time.
Theo grabbed Charlie’s wrist. “Calm down.”
Charlie pulled his wrist away. “Don’t tell me to calm down. You can’t just show me something like that and expect me to do nothing.”
“Actually,” Theo said. “I have something else in mind. Something that doesn’t involve killing.”
Charlie fumed and then gave Theo a curious look. “Well? What is it?”
Theo hooked his fingers into Charlie’s and pulled him toward camp. “I’ll tell you everything, but I’m going to need your brother’s help.”
Seth whistled low and leaned back, taking in everything Theo had just told him. His movements were slowed by one-too-many-beers, but he was sober enough to follow along.
“You think you can pull something like that off?” Seth asked. He looked at Charlie, who was holding Theo’s hand, grinning like he’d won the lottery.
Theo nodded. “You just have to make sure you’re nowhere near the Barn when it goes down.”
Charlie radiated pride. “Guess the Lions aren’t going to State after all.”
Seth cracked open a new beer. “Football’s gonna be the least of your problems if anyone finds out you were involved.”
“It’s all worked out,” Theo said.
“You don’t get it,” Seth said. “Jed ain’t who you got to worry about. If Wyatt finds out you planned this, he’ll kill you. I mean it. He’ll cut your throat, Theo.” He gulped his beer. “I’m not sure I want Charlie involved.”
Charlie squeezed Theo’s hand tighter. “It’s not your choice, Seth. If Theo’s in, I’m in.”
Seth looked hard at the two boys. “I told you to keep under the radar, Charlie. This boy is gonna get you killed.”
“It’s my choice,” Charlie said. His voice was pregnant with defiance. He was a new man.
Seth sighed as if recognizing he couldn’t talk his brother out of what they were going to do. “Well, if that’s the way it’s gonna be, let’s make sure we do it right.”
Theo grinned like sunrise. “First, I need Jed’s email address.”