King of Snowflakes – Chapter 1

King of Snowflakes – Chapter 1 2017-09-29T19:37:04+00:00

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Chapter 1—Skyler

Skyler rested his forehead against the cold steel of his locker, closed his eyes for a moment, and then tried again. Left all the way around, then to fourteen. Right all the way around, then to twenty-four. No, wait… shit. His combination lock was not normally a problem, but today he just couldn’t think straight. He shrugged his backpack back up onto his shoulder, and his recently pierced nipples rubbed on the inside of his stiff button-up shirt. Just one more reminder of Christmas break that made the perma-lump in his throat swell up again.

As the hallway filled in around him, Skyler could hear the guys all laughing and shouting as they grabbed each other. Was it the team that made it ok for them to touch each other all the time? Nah, it’s not just that. There were plenty of guys that acted like that that weren’t on a team. Maybe it’s just that they feel so comfortable with each other. There were always gay jokes flying between them, but the playful ass-slapping and groping were in complete contrast to the bubble of space they kept around anyone who actually called themselves gay.

“Hey, Skyler!” The teasing sound of that voice set his teeth into clampdown mode, and his palms started to sweat. “How’s your BOYfriend?” There was some chuckling as the school’s soccer team moved in around him. It was lunch hour, so they probably weren’t going anywhere. God, not today. Left all the way around to fourteen, right all the way around to twenty-eight.

“What’s the matter? Don’t you like me anymore?” Ryan was leaning against the next locker over and grinning at him. Skyler glanced at him. Ryan’s shoulder-length hair hung in curving locks around his face and seemed to be full of natural sunny highlights despite the fact that it had been raining in North Vancouver for three months straight. Nice dye job, asshole. Sure he was good-looking, but his grin was pure wickedness. Christmas had more than fulfilled any attraction to that sort of guy. The sparkle in his eyes just lit a spark of rage in Skyler’s stomach.

“Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m into YOU.” The guys around them oohed loudly and Ryan clutched his chest.

“Oh baby, I’m crushed! Don’t I measure up to your older guy?” The guys laughed and finally the damn lock gave way and slid open.

For some stupid reason the words “We broke up” were out of his mouth before he could stop them. Heat burned up his neck and into his cheeks.

“Now’s your chance, Ryan!” somebody shouted, shoving Ryan from behind. They collided hard, but he grabbed the back of Skyler’s head before it hit the lockers behind him, and the resulting crush of bodies and Skyler’s armful of books was oddly intimate. He watched as Ryan’s white headphone fell out of his ear and hung over his shoulder between them. Ryan’s face had gone from cheeky to surprised to something different now, but Skyler’s rage spark was up to full blaze now, and he didn’t care to try to decipher it. If this were Jeremy, he’d be kissing me by now. He put his free hand on Ryan’s wide chest and shoved.

“As if I would ever date you,” said Skyler. How long will it be before a guy holds me like that again?

“Why not?” said Ryan as Skyler rammed books into his locker with one hand, digging for his lunch bag with the other.

He slammed the locker shut and locked it and then turned and made a show of looking Ryan up and down. A lot of the guys were staring at him now. “Well, you’re good-looking enough until you open your mouth. I don’t date people who go out of their way to bug the shit out of someone just because they’re different. Who enjoy harassing people to make themselves feel bigger. Who think that being on a fucking team makes them better than everyone else. You think I like being gay at this fucking school? Well fuck you for making it harder than it already is!”

Skyler was stomping away to the oohs of the team behind him when Ryan caught up to him. “Hey, wait up.” Skyler ignored him, and someone called “Drama Queen” after them. Skyler fingered the air and didn’t deign to turn around, but Ryan shouted back. “Shut UP, Evan. Seriously!” They were halfway to the next wing of the school before Ryan grabbed Skyler’s arm and stopped him.

“What?” Skyler was still shaking but the anger was starting to turn into something more dangerous, something that might involve bursting into tears, and that was something he could NOT afford to do.

“Hey, I mean, uh, I didn’t mean to…. I just thought we were messing around, you know?”

“YOU were messing around. With ME.”

“You’re right. I’m a total dick. I’m really sorry. I just didn’t think, okay? I’m not like that. I mean, I don’t mean to be like that.”

“What, like you don’t have a choice?

“It’s just my sense of humor. It gets me into trouble.”

“It’s just your lack of empathy for other human beings! That’s what gets you into trouble.”

“You’re right. Seriously. I had no idea.”

“No, you don’t. You have no idea how much it sucks to be avoided like the plague most of the time and then ganged up on the rest of the time. I’m not asking to be one of the guys, I know I’m not like you, but fuck, 100% ignoring would be better.” He swallowed hard. The throat lump was making it hard to talk.

“It would?”

“Yes! No! I don’t know!” And suddenly the lump was too big and tears started leaking out of the corners of his eyes. Ryan grabbed his arm and pulled him into the empty chemistry classroom, shutting the door behind them.

“Just sit down for a minute.” Ryan put his hand on Skyler’s shoulder and pressed him down onto a stool. “Look, I’m an ass, okay? I know it.” He squeezed Skyler’s shoulder and that oh-so-rare human contact was just too much. The tears started popping out faster, and there wasn’t anything he could do but clamp his jaw down on the sounds that were trying to claw their way up his throat. It was like the throat lump was hatching and the thing inside was going to get loud.

Ryan slid his hand around to his other shoulder in a one-armed hug. “Hey, do you wanna punch me? Seriously, you can. I know I’ve got it coming.”

Skyler had been staring hard at the ceiling, but couldn’t help but look up into Ryan’s eyes. He looked serious and kind of lost and flushed, and suddenly a laugh huffed up out of Skyler’s mouth. “What!” said Skyler.

“Well not in the face or anything, but if I know it’s coming, I figure I can take your best shot in the gut.”

“No! Are you crazy? No, I don’t want to hit you, for godsake.”

“You don’t?”

“No. Does that EVER help?”

“Well….”

“Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.” Skyler rubbed his face with his hands.

“Yeah, I know. I’m not that smart sometimes.”

Skyler looked at him again. There was something there in his eyes. Maybe it had been there before too. Something naked and… vulnerable.

“Look, I broke up with my asshole boyfriend over the break, okay, so I just can’t take shit right now. I’m sorry I freaked out.”

“You’re sorry? You were all avenging angel on my ass! It was awesome! I mean, it would have been awesome if it had been someone else’s skin you were waxing. Since it was mine, it was kinda terrifying.”

Skyler laughed again and Ryan’s smile was less wicked this time but no less bright.

“Hey, why don’t you come hang out after school? We can play some vids or something.”

“I don’t need your pity, Ryan. Thanks but no thanks.” Skyler stood up.

“Don’t be a snob.” Ryan finally let his hand slide off Skyler’s back.

“I’m not a snob!”

“So you’re not too good to hang out with boring straight knuckleheads?”

“Of course not! My best friend is straight.” Lisa was probably wondering where he was by now.

“Well, then what? I’m not smart enough or… or arty enough or something?” Ryan’s face was strange. It looked like he was trying hard to be snarky and funny, but there was that thing in his eyes, that thing that wondered what people thought of him and wasn’t sure he’d like to find out.

“Ryan, I just freaked out. I’m not a stray cat. You don’t have to take me home. I’m fine.”

“Good, then I’ll drive you to my house after school.” Ryan turned and walked toward the door.

“I have homework!”

“Okay. I’ll do mine and you do yours. You can use my laptop if you want.” Ryan put his hand on the doorknob and turned back. “I’ll drive you home whenever. And it’s not pity.”

“Yeah, right.”

“My friends can be jerks, okay? Maybe I wanna hang out with someone nice now and then.” He smiled and it was shy and uncertain and then he opened the door and was gone.

Lisa hardly believed him when he told her the story over lunch and insisted on racing over to his locker after the last bell to witness it for herself. Ryan showed up fast, too, and the two of them stared at each other amidst the afterschool crush of bodies.

“Hey, Lisa.”

“Ryan.”

“Permission to have Skyler over?”

“That depends on whether you’re planning on being an asshat.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Well alright, then, but I’m warning you, Ryan. You upset him one more time and I will make you sorry you were ever born.” She poked her finger into his broad chest. Lisa was about a foot shorter than Ryan, but her eyes were cold and her flat mouth left no doubt that she was entirely serious.

“God, can you guys make this day any weirder?” Skyler locked his locker and walked past them. He couldn’t tell if the guys around them were listening in or just caught up in their own banter and not paying any attention at all. Did Ryan talk to them and tell them to leave me alone? How mortifying. Lisa caught up and stopped him.

“Call me later, okay?” She gave him her huge pleading eyes that he could never refuse, and he rolled his eyes and nodded. She smiled and kissed lip gloss onto his cheek. “Later!” she said, pointing at him and mock-scowling to threaten him with retribution if he forgot.

“Bye.” He kept walking toward the doors, and then Ryan was pushing past him and holding the door wide. It was raining and cold outside.

“My car is right over there.”

Skyler sighed. His mom wouldn’t be home for dinner. She was going straight from teaching to rehearsal, and their silent basement suite didn’t really hold that much appeal. Am I really that hard up for human interaction? He looked at Ryan’s uncertain smile.

Yup. I guess I am.

Ryan walked like he had all the confidence in the world, striding along with one hand in his jeans pocket, but he kept looking over at Skyler. Waiting for him to bolt, probably. Ryan’s car was an older Jetta. “It was my mom’s but it’s a diesel so it never dies.” He plugged in his iPhone into a jack and fiddled with the tiny speakers balanced on the dash.

A song came on as he was backing out of the parking lot. Ryan said, “Do you know this song?” Skyler shook his head. “It’s called ‘Headphones’. Kinda my theme song right now. I love it.” It had a fun sound to it, and Ryan bobbed his head to the beat and smiled. Now that Skyler thought about it, Ryan did wear his headphones all the time. He was always bobbing and dancing around as he walked down the hallways. They had a few classes together this year, and Skyler had known him for ages, but they’d never hung out before. The song grooved along, kind of funny, very up and happy. It made sense that Ryan had picked it. He was always joking around.

They hardly spoke on the ride there, but Skyler was relieved to have his incredibly heavy bag at his feet instead of on his back for the mile-long walk home.

Ryan’s house was huge and the front yard landscaped, and Skyler felt his shoulders creep a little higher as they pulled up. Of course this is what Ryan’s house looks like. Why in the hell did I agree to this?

“It backs onto the canyon,” said Ryan as he unlocked the door. “I hope you like dogs.” A big shaggy dog wrestled out of the doorway, wagging its whole back end and whimpering with excitement. “This is Jesse.” Skyler held out a hand. Jesse licked it and seemed to grin up at him. Skyler couldn’t help the big smile that came over his face. Jesse had this straggly beard and the softest ears, and she was somehow super strong and super hilarious at the same time. He’d always wanted a dog, but their landlord would never allow it. They’d settled for a cat and Siegfried was great, but it was apples and oranges.

“What kind of dog?”

“We say she’s part German Wirehaired Pointer, part mutt, but we don’t really know ’cuz she’s a rescue dog. She likes you. Normally she’s way more freaked out by new people. Come on in.”

Ryan gave him a tour of the amazing, intimidating house and then offered him a beer.

“Homework,” he answered, crossing his arms.

“Then beer?” Ryan’s mischievous grin was back.

“Your parents don’t mind?”

“Are you kidding? My dad’s in the beer industry. There’s always beer around.”

“No wonder you have so many friends.”

Ryan laughed but the smile seemed to leave him after that. Skyler spread out his stuff on the kitchen table, and Ryan slowly followed suit. It wasn’t long before he was sighing over his math textbook and Skyler was leaning over, trying to explain it.

It was almost five when Ryan groaned. “Enough. My brain hurts!”

“Alright, fine.” It’d been nice, actually, having someone to work with other than Lisa. Skyler got up and stretched, feeling the rub of his shirt against his sore nipples again. One of them was still infected, thanks to Asshole.

“What?” Ryan was holding out a glass of beer to him, one hip leaning on the kitchen counter.

“Thanks. Just thinking about an asshole.” Skyler looked up in time to see Ryan’s eyes crinkle as he tried not to smile.

“You don’t say.”

Skyler blushed. “My ex, okay? Not his asshole.” He took a quick sip, trying to hide his face. He hadn’t wanted to admit that he didn’t really like beer, but this one was like none he’d tried before, dark and rich but without any bitter aftertaste. It went down easily.

Ryan sipped his beer and sucked the foam from his top lip. “So what happened?” His face was serious now.

“You don’t want to hear about that.” He took a long drink of the beer. God it was cold.

“Try me, Mr. Snobby.” Ryan moved around the kitchen putting out corn chips and salsa. Skyler ate a few and drank some more beer.

“He cheated on me.”

“What? That fucking prick!”

Skyler’s eyes shot up as Ryan slammed the salsa down on the counter. Is he serious? Ryan did look genuinely pissed.

“Well, it was my own fault, I guess. He didn’t seem to think it was a big deal.”

“That little shitbag! How did you find out?”

Skyler shrugged. “He had marks on him. He tried to say they were from me, but I knew I…. Anyway, it shouldn’t have been a big surprise. It was just my own stupidity.”

“Skyler, you are the smartest guy I know and that asshole covered you in hickeys all fall.”

Skyler blushed; god that had been embarrassing. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he remembers that. The soccer team guys that had their lockers next to his had found it hilarious. You could only wear a scarf for so long before someone grabbed it off you. “What has that got to do with anything?”

“If the guy is going to claim you like that when you’re still in high school, he’d better treat you right and not make you feel stupid when he doesn’t.”

Skyler’s mouth fell open for a moment. None of Lisa’s outrage or his mom’s care had cut to it like this did. It helped. It really helped to have someone big and athletic and… yeah, male, say it like that. He felt tears pulling at the back of his eyes and looked away. The rest of the beer somehow slid down his throat.

“I should go.” He stood up and felt the rush of the beer along his arms and down his legs. Man, I’m a lightweight.

“You can stay for dinner if you want. My mom will love you. Anyone that helps me with math is like a saint around here.”

Skyler shook his head and packed up his bag. “No thanks, I should get home.” But when Ryan dropped him off and revved away in a cloud of stinky smoke, he turned the key in the lock and wondered why he’d come home.

The next day, it was like Ryan had decided they were friends now and that was the end of it. He grabbed Skyler in a headlock and rubbed his knuckles on Skyler’s scalp during lunch hour and then teased him about his haircut, which was long in the front and short in the back and apparently he was too princess-y about styling it. Lisa’s mouth hung open. Nobody, nobody, gave Skyler noogies in the hallway. It just didn’t happen.

Skyler recovered enough to snark about how so-not-gay Ryan’s shoulder-length hair was, and Ryan laughed and it was like some kind of spell had been broken. It was like if Ryan said it was okay to like Skyler, then it was okay. Within a week, guys were brushing shoulders with him at the lockers and not flinching away like he was dirty. Ryan dragged him over every day Skyler wasn’t working and Lisa was busy, and finally Skyler relented and stayed for dinner one night. Ryan’s parents and sister were really nice, and during dessert Ryan invited him to go to his family’s cabin up at Big White with them.

“Come on, it’ll be fun! We have a hot tub. You know how to ski, right?”

“Barely.” Skyler’s mom had insisted that he join the school ski club in grade eleven even when he knew they couldn’t afford it.

“I’ll teach you. Don’t worry, I’m a really good teacher. And you’ll only miss three days of school. Come on, you need some serious cheering up, dude. When was the last time you took a holiday?” The summer had been all about busting his ass at the restaurant to save for college this fall, and Skyler doubted that Ryan would count the weekends helping out at shows with his mom’s theatre friends.

Somehow he’d found himself loading bags and a cooler into Ryan’s car four days later, getting driven to Ryan’s, and then reloading everything into the back of Ryan’s dad’s monster Ford Expedition SUV. His shifts at the restaurant hadn’t been that hard to trade, and he’d done a stack of homework with Ryan so they wouldn’t fall behind. Ryan’s job at the local mountain was pretty casual, and he’d agreed to the homework to get Skyler to come.

“You brought a cooler? Dude, I told you we have lots of beer,” said Ryan.

“No, I wanted to cook dinner at least once. You know, something nice.”

“You realize my mom is going to disown me and adopt you. Thanks a lot. Here, give me the clothes bag. We need to make sure you have enough stuff.” Ryan took it and him up to his room.

“Okay, show me your gear. The Coke is closed so we’re going be delayed. Let’s get you sorted out so I know what to bring for you.”

“The highway is closed?”

“Yeah, Coquihalla’s got avalanche warnings. But don’t worry, it’ll open up soon for sure. The good news is it’s dumping up there!” Skyler frowned. The Coquihalla was famous for crazy-assed eighteen-wheeler wrecks and whiteout blizzards. He’d never been up there in the winter.

Ryan shook his head at Skyler’s sweat pant/rain pant combo and pulled out some old too-small snow pants that looked really expensive and told him to try them on. Skyler was a little shorter, but also much smaller boned and leaner. “No, wait, not on top of jeans. Here, try this as an underlayer.” He looked on without any hesitation as Skyler shucked down to his Calvin Klein form-fitting boxers (one gift from Jeremy that he HAD kept) and slid into the clothes. Then Ryan grabbed the waistbands, stretching them out and adjusting the elastic.

“Man, you need to eat more.”

“I haven’t been hungry much lately.”

Ryan gave him a look but said nothing. Before he was finished, he’d packed an entirely new bag with the clothes he was either lending or giving to Skyler.

“What?” Ryan said, digging a knee into the bag and reefing on the zipper.

“You just kitted me out from head to toe. I feel bad.”

“What? Whatever! I invited you. The least I can do is make sure you don’t die of frostbite! Hey, can you check the website again?”

The highway was open, and there was a mad dash for the car and a rechecking of lists and then a rushing back in for sunglasses and then they were off. Ryan’s fourteen-year-old sister sat behind the passenger seat with headphones on and a portable DVD player with a mountain of gear packed next to her. Ryan and Skyler were in the third row of seats at the back. Skyler wasn’t sure how that had gotten decided, but he was so relieved to not have to make conversation with the whole family that he relaxed back into the comfortable seat and watched North Vancouver slide by. He loved the window seat.

“Do you have an iPod? Or music on your phone?” asked Ryan.

“No. My cell phone’s from 7-Eleven.” He’d pulled his SIM card out of Jeremy’s old iPhone and left it on the bed the day they broke up, and man was his regular crap phone hard to go back to. “That’s okay, though. Go ahead.”

“Here.” Ryan handed him an earbud and ignored him when he tried to turn it down. Ryan shifted around, laid his head back against the seat, and closed his eyes. Ryan was in the center seat with a pile of gear bags next to him and his long leg splayed out, resting heavily against Skyler’s thigh. Try as he might, Skyler couldn’t get that thigh to relax, and it kept twitching away until Ryan opened his eyes and said, “What?”

“Nothing.”

“What?”

Skyler glanced over at Ryan’s sister Erika and then up front to where their parents were talking. He couldn’t hear what they were saying. With the sound of the road, it was pretty private back here. “It’s just…. You know guys are always acting like I have the plague, like if they bump into me I’m going to turn them to the dark side or something. But you’re not, like, shy of me and the guys treat me a little different now. So, uh, thanks.”

“Hey, my dad always says, ‘a man can live without sex but not without snuggles.’”

Skyler laughed. Ryan’s dad was a huge bear of a man. “Your dad did NOT say that,” he said in a low voice.

“Whatever, man. He says it all the time.”

“I don’t think he was too, uh, impressed with your choice of invitees.” Skyler had insisted Ryan tell his parents about the gayness before he would agree to come.

“Oh, he’s fine. Don’t worry, he doesn’t hate gay people or anything.”

“What did he say when you told him?” Skyler’s eyes flicked to the front, decidingthere was no way Ryan’s parents could hear them.

“I think he assumed you were gay the minute he saw your earrings, but I told him anyway. He’s a friendly guy. Seriously. Don’t worry.” Ryan’s mom had, as predicted, loved Skyler almost on sight. She’d even admired his vintage rhinestone studs. He wasn’t sure how the nipple piercings were going to go over, though. Maybe I should just not go in the hot tub? Or wear a shirt?

There was a bit of snow on the ground when they stopped for lunch at the White Spot in Hope. Ryan’s dad insisted on paying, but Skyler passed on getting the combo anyway. Ryan slid his yam fries over. “I can’t eat all of these, man. Help me out.” The chipotle mayo was damn good and he’d eaten more of them than he felt was polite before he could help it. Ryan’s leg was splayed out against his again under the table, and amidst the family banter, he felt this sudden rush of joy at having a friend. Someone who wasn’t careful and guarded all the time. God, it was a relief.

As they stood up to leave, Ryan’s dad muttered, “God, I’m not looking forward to all the rigs who’ve been sitting around all morning waiting for the road to open.” Sure enough, the highway was full of eighteen-wheelers. As they climbed higher into the mountains, it started snowing heavily. The windshield wipers were having a hard time keeping up, and whenever they passed a rig, the spray from its huge tires speckled the windows with mud.

“It’s like mushroom soup,” said Skyler. Ryan laughed and stretched, laying his arms out on the backs of the seats. They listened to music for a while, and gradually the SUV started to rumble and jiggle, despite the car’s normally smooth ride. Skyler sat up and tried to see out the front.

“It’s just lumps of ice stuck on the road. The plows can’t get it all. There’s still two lanes, though, and one is not all iced up. As we get higher, it’ll probably go down to one lane.”

“What do you mean? You come up here a lot, right?”

“Yeah, we rent it out mostly, but we come up a bunch of times a year. It’s two lanes in both directions all the way, but see how that lane is getting really caked with ice? The plows can’t keep up. When it gets bad, they end up only plowing down the middle.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, are you okay?” Ryan’s hand slid off the back of the seat and pressed into his shoulder.

“Sure.” Right then Ryan’s dad swore as a rig pulled out in front of him, coming awfully close to the rig in the next lane.

“Hey, man. Don’t worry, okay? You’re like a cat in a car. You look like you’re going to climb under the seat.” Skyler tried to laugh but it came out really fake.

“Hey.” Ryan put a finger on Skyler’s chin and turned him away from the window. “What do you want to talk about?” He kneaded up and down Skyler’s bicep and then pulled him in against his shoulder. Suddenly the friendliness of the touching felt too good. It went from comfortable to intense in a heartbeat, and Skyler’s whole body went from stressed to taut. He could feel the denseness of Ryan’s muscled body and the firm grip of being held close like that made it hard to breathe. Why couldn’t Jeremy ever hold me like this?

“Tell me about your boyfriend,” said Ryan, and Skyler shivered. Ryan put his other hand on Skyler’s thigh and rubbed it up and down. “It’s good to talk about it, and besides, it’ll distract you.” Skyler wasn’t sure what he needed distracting from more—the road or Ryan’s hands.

“My mom thought it would help for me to meet some other gay guys.” He tried to look out the window away from Ryan’s up-close and suddenly amazing eyes. They looked brown, but when Skyler got this close, he could see they had other colors as well. Ryan turned his chin again.

“Uh-uh. Look at me. Okay, so, gay guys. How did she swing that?”

Skyler glanced up front. Ryan’s dad’s eyes seemed glued on the road ahead, thank god. Skyler looked down at his hands, rubbing his sweaty palms together. What would happen if Ryan clued in and saw the effect he was having on Skyler? “She let me get a fake ID. Me and Lisa went to Celebrities.”

“I’ve never been there. How was it?”

It was a pretty well-known gay club, and it was nice that Ryan didn’t just assume it was evil and the reason he was messed up or something. In fact, it was a haven. “It was amazing. To see all these guys dancing together, it changed….” Skyler risked a glance up into those eyes again. It was strange how serious Ryan looked right now when a couple weeks ago, Skyler would have sworn there wasn’t a serious bone in the guy’s body. He looked serious, and older. God, sometimes Ryan really reminded him of Jeremy and right now that turnoff was a good thing.

“Changed what?”

“I don’t know, just seeing all these guys so totally ‘out’ was like, inspiring and liberating and, I don’t know, hot, I guess.” Skyler blushed, but Ryan was nodding.

“I can see that. It’s like, empowering. That they can be themselves.” He shrugged. “Strength is hot.”

“Yeah.” It was nice that Ryan got it, but Skyler suddenly felt that sinking gym-class feeling: not strong enough, coordinated enough, beefy enough. Who was he kidding that a guy like Ryan, who was like the Leaning Tower of Muscle, would ever be interested in a willowy art boy? Even if he did like guys, which would be news to the string of girlfriends Ryan had had.

“What?”

“Nothing. So anyway, Jeremy was there. My ex. I met him there, or I guess he picked me up. I mean it wasn’t that hard. I was so desperate I probably would have left with anyone that was brave enough to kiss me on the dance floor.”

Ryan shifted beside him, turning his intent eyes away. “Sorry,” said Skyler. “TMI?” No shit that’s too much information. God, why can’t I shut up sometimes?

“No, no, that doesn’t bother me.” Ryan glanced back at Skyler, and his smile was tight. “I just hate to hear you talk like it was your fault. I mean, God, you were seventeen in your first gay bar! Had you even had a boyfriend before that?”

“Not really. I mean no one that would call me that to their friends or their parents or anything.”

“Huh, lame.” Skyler couldn’t tell if Ryan meant the guys were lame or if it was lame that he was seventeen and so obviously a virgin for Jeremy. God, it is obvious, isn’t it? Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a secret anymore. Or that part anyway.

“So he picked me up, I saw stars for about five hours, and then I got the bus home.”

“He didn’t even drive you?”

Skyler laughed. “You don’t care that I gave my virginity to a stranger. You care that he didn’t take me home?”

“Damn straight.”

“Well, Jeremy didn’t have a car, if that makes you feel any better.”

“Not really, but go on. So then what?”

“Well, I gave him my phone number, and he called me a few days later to see if we could go out again on the weekend. And then I saw him most weekends after that. He’d take me to parties or bars or clubs.”

“What was the best thing? You know, that kept you coming back?”

“I guess that he was so unashamed. He’d push me up against the bus shelter and kiss me in front of the world. He didn’t give a damn if people thought it was gross.”

“You guys weren’t gross.”

“How do you know? He never came to the school.”

“I saw you downtown together one time. He was all wrapped around you and licking your cheekbones.”

Skyler laughed. “And that’s not gross?”

Ryan shrugged and Skyler felt it all along his body. “I just meant you were both young and hot and into each other. It might be, I dunno, inappropriate or something, but it’s not gross.” Ryan squirmed. “I mean it’s not like he was some old creep and you were like ‘get off me’ or something.”

Dear god, Ryan just said I was hot. Holy shit. Heat rose from his knees to his face in a wave, and he wondered if Ryan could feel the fever radiating off him. He also said that Jeremy was hot. Get a grip. It’s just an observation. God say something! Anything.

“Yeah, Jeremy was pretty good-looking.”

“You miss him.”

“Yes and no.” Skyler was back on firmer ground here. He’d given this a lot of thought, and Lisa had helped a ton too. “I miss how he made me feel in the summer, but not how I felt in the fall. I don’t miss being around someone I can’t trust. Look, he’s not a terrible person, he’s just… he just wanted to play.”

“And you didn’t.”

“God, I was trying to figure out how to commute to college from his place. Pathetic.”

“That’s not pathetic!”

“It’s pathetic that I didn’t… no, that I wouldn’t see him for what he was. He liked to party. He liked to mess around. I just ignored all the signs and believed I was still ‘it’ for him.”

“You mean he flirted with other guys in front of you?”

God. Understatement of the year. Skyler hesitated. Was there any way to explain that?

“Look, Skyler, I know how it is to get cheated on. My last girlfriend cheated on me for weeks before I found out.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Thanks. Anyway, I get it, okay? You feel like the biggest sucker and the worst loser and you wonder if all your friends knew and didn’t tell you and if they really are your friends or what.”

Skyler blinked. Wow, that does pretty much sum it up.

Ryan kept going. “But I’ve been that friend too, and that’s a whole other kinda shitty. You wanna spill it, but it’s… complicated.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like you said, some people don’t want to see the truth. It’s too painful. So they won’t believe you and then they’ll hate you, and even when they find out that you were right, they still kind of hate you for seeing the shit go down. They should trust you more, but they trust you less for some damn reason.”

“You were the guy that said something?”

“Yeah. It didn’t go well. But my point is, people don’t know what to do. They might be sick about it and mad as hell that they’re being made a part of hurting you, but they just don’t know what to do. Or they wonder if maybe you know and don’t mind, or if maybe they didn’t see what they think they saw and saying something would be just stirring the shit pot…. It’s tricky.”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For… understanding. For telling me stuff. For distracting me right before we all die in a car accident.”

Ryan laughed and grabbed his head in some kind of weird wrestling hug, rubbing his fingertips hard over Skyler’s scalp. “Don’t mention it. And we are NOT going to die. YOU are going to die skiing, remember?” And then Ryan’s arms were off him entirely and digging in a bag. “Want a granola bar? They’re sweet and salty.” He threw one at Skyler. “But seriously, don’t worry about the skiing either. I’ll watch out for ya.”

Skyler bit into the soft bar and chewed. It was full of chocolate and no doubt preservatives and probably a zillion calories and was something his mom would never buy. It tasted fantastic. His brain did one of those jumps, and he could see how Ryan was like that too: something that looked like junk food on the outside, but was actually soft and rich and surprisingly filling.