by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by safelybeds
He would say the worst part of it was the cliché of it all, but really, the worst part of it was getting his nose shoved into his locker on a daily basis. The cliché thing was just a delightful garnish, a little sprig of parsley on his afternoon pain in the ass.
“Don’t dunk on us, now!” said Steve Williams as he dribbled the back of Dante’s head into his locker. Dante kept his face against the cold metal after he pulled away, just to minimize the damage of any possible second strike. But no, Steve and the rest of his team were just laughing now, and Dante lifted his head up to watch them walk away. The basketball team just loved his ass.
Earlier in the year Dante’s dad had struck a deal with him: he’d pitch in to the cause of Dante getting a laptop of his own if Dante just tried something athletic. Anything at all, he’d said. Girls’ softball, whatever, as long as it got out from in front of screens for a while. He just had to show a little effort, was that so much to ask? So Dante had given it a go at basketball tryouts; he figured from his experiences with Wii Sports that he had pretty good hand-eye coordination, and his experiences with the neighborhood dogs when he was twelve gave him the idea that he could move pretty fast if he was being threatened, so it was worth a shot. Also, the basketball team had … well, it didn’t matter what bonus features the basketball team had, because the whole thing had been an award-winning debacle, seriously, he was lucky there were no YouTube videos of him getting knocked down again and again and missing every shot. He got, in a word, served. His dad had chipped in less than promised for the laptop, and the basketball team had never forgotten his complete lack of game.
“Sorry,” came a quiet voice from near Dante’s shoulder, and then the source of it was jogging up to catch up with the rest of the team. Dante put his head back on his locker for a few seconds, let out a long breath, then started spinning the lock to open it.
That was pretty much the only kind of talking Max did with him these days, a few little words as long as no one else was looking. They’d been best friends growing up, a little oddball pair against the world–the skinny black kid in glasses and the little butterball chub with asthma, spending hours in Max’s basement playing Super Mario Brothers and reading comic books. But then Max’s parents got divorced in fifth grade and Max moved away to live with his dad in Oregon, and that was that. But then it was sophomore year and suddenly Max was back, living with his mom again, and apparently the fine Pacific Northwestern air had done him good, because he was definitely not fat anymore, and had exercised the asthma away, just like in that 90s movie with Chuck Norris. He’d gotten on the basketball team right away, slipped right in with the most popular kids, and, for all that Dante could tell, had forgotten who Dante even was. It wasn’t really surprising, he had to figure; Max had come out of his tubby little cocoon as a superstar, but Dante was still scrawny, still obsessed with Spider-Man, and had only in the past year nagged his mom into letting him have glasses that didn’t have lenses thick enough to fry sidewalk insects with.
So Max didn’t talk to him, not until junior year, not until that day he’d gotten owned on the basketball court. Afterwards, when Dante’d been changing back into his street clothes in the otherwise empty locker room, face still burning from the shame of it and ass still aching from eating it on the court so many times, he heard that quiet voice. “Hey, don’t let them get you down,” Max had said from where he was lurking at the edge of the lockers. “We both know you’ve got better things going for you than this.” Dante’d wanted to say something–he didn’t know what, but there had to have been something–but then there’d been the noise of other guys coming in to the locker room and Max was gone.
So now he was just a little voice now and then, an asterisk leading to the footnote of “Okay, not everyone, sort of, I guess” on the sentence “the basketball team is full of dicks.” But that was it. They weren’t even friends on Facebook, and Dante was friends with some fictional characters on Facebook.
Dante shuffled books between his locker and his backpack, closed the door again, then stopped to wipe the smudges on his glasses he’d gotten from being shoved around off on the bottom of his shirt.
Two days later, when he was walking across the parking lot from one building of the school to another after his Academic Decathlon study session (it wasn’t a sport, sure, but at least had ‘decathlon’ in the name, so that was something, right? he’d told his dad), Dante found himself faced with four very tall guys blocking his way back into the building. They were talking with each other, laughing, and not paying attention to him at all. He started to turn on the ball of his foot to find a less confrontational way back in to his locker, but then he could feel Steve Williams’ eyes lock on the back of his head from his six foot four vantage point.
“Oh, hey, look who it is!” he said, and Dante could hear the others start to laugh, that ominous ‘heh heh heh’ that you never wanted to hear from a seventeen-year-old boy. “It’s Daaaaaanteeeee!”
Dante held his hands up and turned back around. “Yes, it’s me, I get it, I suck. I shame myself and my family every time I cross you guys’ path. Can we just skip it? I just wanna get my stuff and go home.”
Steve looked to his team and back to Dante, and then broke into a broad grin. “Well, maybe if you ask nicely.”
Dante put his hands down and closed his eyes so they wouldn’t see him rolling them and go for his throat. “Can you please not give me a hard time just this once?” Arguably, they were already giving him a hard time, but things could always, always get worse.
Steve pondered this theatrically for a while, and then his grin just got bigger. “Nope, don’t think so.” He started marching forward with his boys with him, long legs closing the space between them before Dante could really start to run. The four of them got his arms and legs, and before Dante could start to worry about just how bad this was going to get, they had him up in the air, carrying him across the lot.
“Come on, we do not need to do this!” He tried to struggle, but their big stupid basketball hands were strong. He saw that they were taking him towards the dumpster. “Oh, no, this is not necessary!” He tried to kick and squirm, but then he was up and over the edge, into the dumpster with his face in a garbage bag and a plastic bottle that should have been recycled poking him in the junk. He heard their laughter receding into the distance and rolled over on his back to yell at the darkening sky, “Could you at least be more creative?!” He put his hands up to his face, pushing his glasses–which were beyond smudged now–up on to his forehead.
He stayed like that for a while, breathing through his mouth with the bases of his palms pressed to his eyes. He could get out easily enough, probably, but he didn’t really want anyone around to see him do it; best to give the basketball assholes time to flee the premises before he tried to salvage any dignity. He was just about to make the effort to get out when he heard a knock on the side of the dumpster. “You okay in there?”
He took his hands off his eyes and blinked the lingering stars away. Great. “Max?”
Max rapped on the dumpster again. “Come on, I’ll help you out.”
Dante considered requesting that he just be left there to die, but he sighed and sat up instead. “Okay, but no laughing.” He pulled his head up over the edge to see Max looking in at him, brows drawn together in sympathy and a hand extended. He took Max’s hand and scrabbled out of the dumpster, landing a little unsteadily on his feet. “Have I got anything on me?”
Max made a gesture with his finger in the air to indicate Dante should turn around, and he plucked what looked to be a slightly sticky convenience store receipt off of his back. “You’re good, but you could probably use some laundry time.” Dante brushed his hands over his head to make sure he didn’t have anything stuck in his hair and finished the turn back around to face Max, who was still giving him puppy eyes. “I’m really sorry those guys are such dicks.”
Dante took his glasses off to wipe the smudges off on his shirt. The first pass wasn’t sufficient, so he had to huff breath on them and try again. “I’m going to take it up with the ACLU. I’m sure they’ve got a whole chapter for hate crimes against nerds.” He put his glasses back on, bringing Max into clear focus again. “But… uh, thanks.” He felt as though cartoon stink lines had to be radiating off him and all he wanted to do was go home, but here was Max, making eye contact with him and everything. Sharing an awkward silence with him and everything.
“So, um… how have you been?” Max said, putting his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels. He’d done the same thing when they were kids, but now it looked disaffectedly cool instead of just awkward.
Dante looked pointedly at the dumpster. “Oh, I’m doing just great.”
Max laughed a little. Now he looked awkward, brushing a hand over hair that wasn’t in his face at all. “I mean other than that. Like… in general?”
“Oh, uh… you know, not bad. Things are pretty good, I guess.” Something about this conversation was giving Dante a strange feeling, like an itchy sweater on his skin, too hot and prickly.
“Yeah, me too, pretty much…” Max looked away, into the distance, frowning a little. Dante figured he was about to make an excuse to end this conversation so they could go back to their separate non-intersecting circles, but then Max looked back at him with sharp eyes and said, “Look, you want to go up to the roof and smoke up?”
“What?” Dante said, and then when the words settled in and he said it again, this time higher pitched. “What?”
Max held up both hands, suddenly wide-eyed and apologetic. “No, no, it’s cool, we don’t have to, I didn’t know you didn’t do that, nevermind.”
“No!” Dante said, quick to bring his voice back down. “I mean, I’m cool, I just didn’t know that you were…” He was completely lying; he’d smoked up exactly once before in his life, in his friend Nathan’s attic during summer vacation, and he’d spent the whole time so paranoid that his mom was going to find out that he hadn’t even been able to focus on the episode of Tim and Eric, which was probably for the best in the end.
Max shrugged. “You know, just a little.” He looked up to the roof. Dante didn’t even know how you’d get on the roof. “I just figured we could, like… catch up.”
“Yeah?” Dante’s voice got a little high again, and he cleared his throat as quietly as possible. “…yeah, sure, why not?” He was going to go home smelling like pot and garbage, that would go over great, sure, and they’d probably get caught and suspended from school, and then he wouldn’t have to worry about anything else because his parents would murder him. Nothing but the inevitability of death, that was the only endgame here.
“Cool, follow me,” Max said, and lead the way across the lot towards the loading dock. Dante followed him without hesitating.
There was a ladder at the corner of the building, tucked on the back end of the loading dock. Dante had never noticed it before, but then again, Dante usually wasn’t thinking about ways to get up on the roof. Max went scurrying up the rungs quickly, leaving Dante to follow him a little more carefully. He wasn’t scared of heights, but he was very respectful of possibilities of gravity. When he pulled himself up to the top, Max was already scoping out the place, scanning to make sure they had it to themselves.
“Do you, uh, come up here often?” Dante asked, scuffing his sneaker through some of the dirt on the roof.
“Yeah, sometimes. It’s so easy to get up here you’d think more people would, but it’s not very popular.” He crouched down on an edge, partially hidden by some air conditioning ductwork but still overlooking the back parking lot, and pulled incriminating items out of his back pocket.
“I guess because it’s… really easy to get caught up here.” Dante came over to sit next to him. Max just looked at him and smiled.
“I’ve never gotten caught. It’s amazing how much people just don’t even look up.” He gestured out over the parking lot while holding a lighter. “Hidden in plain sight, right?”
“Right, right,” Dante said, looking at the joint in Max’s other hand. He got nervous taking a bottle of Advil to school, and here was this guy waving around a Schedule I drug in open daylight. When they’d been kids, Max was afraid of bees, dogs, Draculas, tidal waves, all kinds of things. They’d spent time plotting out proper defense tactics for most eventualities. Dante wondered if Max had one for right now.
“Don’t be nervous,” Max said, laughing a little. “If anything bad happens, I’ll deal with it.” He lit the joint and took a long drag.
“You’ve got a plan?” Dante asked. Max broke into a smile, bright and sunny. The rest of his outside had changed, but at least that still looked the same.
“I’ve always got a plan, man,” he said, and let out a cloud of smoke in a laugh. He passed the joint over to Dante, who tried not to look at it like it was a lit bomb.
“If it’s to jump off the roof, I’m going to be disappointed.” He was holding it wrong, he was so holding it wrong, but Max wasn’t openly laughing at him or anything, so he brought it to his lips and took a hit. The smoke tasted like organic shampoo and he managed to hold it in his lungs for two seconds before exploding in coughing. Now Max was laughing.
“Hey, take it easy,” he said, patting Dante on the back a little, rubbing between his shoulder blades as he coughed to turn his throat inside out.
“I’m cool!” Dante said, with no air at all. “I’m cool!” He stared at the glowing end of the joint and thought my nemesis before he brought the thing back up to take another hit, slower this time, not as deep. His eyes were watering as he held it in, and he still coughed a little when he let his breath out, but it was at least a slightly better performance. Max was just smiling now, sleepy-eyed as he held his hand out for the joint.
“Is this your first time, or what?” He took another hit, his face getting all appropriately squinty like people in movies got when they smoked up. God only knew what Dante looked like.
“No!” he said, blinking hard as he felt it hitting him already, that itchy sweater feeling expanding out all over his body but not in a way that bothered him. “I mean, not really. Shut up!” Max laughed out his hit again and Dante started smiling without meaning to, his face a little rubbery.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not here to judge.” He tapped off a little ash and passed it back to Dante. “I just wanted to… you know, talk to you.”
Dante held it in longer this time, feeling his head get disconnected from the rest of his body as he held his breath. “About what?” he asked after what was probably too long of a pause.
“I don’t know.” Max leaned back against the ventilation duct, curling up his legs in front of him to face Dante. He had nice sneakers, Dante noticed suddenly. They looked brand new, no wear on them or anything. When Max spoke again he was a little startled. “I just thought it’d be… good to talk to you again.”
“Yeah? That’s cool.” Dante’s own sneakers were looking seriously shabby, the laces all frayed out at the ends and a lot of the tread on the soles worn down. He’d probably have to get new ones soon, but man, these were just so comfortable, why couldn’t you just have one pair of shoes to last forever? He took a breath, clean air on his stinging lungs, and blinked once, which took a few minutes. He looked over to Max. “So, how come you’re not fat anymore?”
Max’s eyebrows went up, and his eyes got a little less dreamy before he started laughing, nearly tipping over onto the roof. He rubbed his hands over his eyes and straightened himself back up. “It just kind of happened, you know? Puberty, I guess, and my dad’s vegan so we had a lot of super healthy food at home, and then I started doing the basketball thing, and Dante, do not feel bad about the basketball thing.” He had reached out and put his hand on Dante’s shoulder, this point of focus that was hot through Dante’s shirt. “Sports are not greater or lesser than any other extracurricular activity and you shouldn’t let your self-esteem be affected!”
He was so sincere, eyes all big and wide now and looking much bluer for starting to get a little bloodshot, that it was Dante’s turn to start laughing, a loud one that turned into a snort. “Man, I don’t care!” He put his hand on top of Max’s and sort of forgot about it there. “I just wish those guys weren’t dicks.”
Max pulled his hand out from under Dante’s, leaving him holding on to his own shoulder. He took another hit off the joint and looked very seriously out over the parking lot. “Those guys just don’t know. You’ve got so much else going for you.”
Dante looked at him for a while, watching him breathe, feeling his own heart going a little too fast where his hand rested against his body. “How do you know?” Max stared at him through the orange air and Dante twitched in a little shrug. “I mean… we haven’t really talked in like five years.”
“Well, I looked in the yearbook, I saw you’re in like all of the smart-guy clubs and classes and stuff, and…” He shook his head and rubbed a hand over his head again, probably getting ash in his hair. “It’s just you. Right?”
“Right, I guess.” He took the joint back from Max, but didn’t take a hit. “I figured you were too cool for me or something, man.”
“No, no way, I’m not cool, I smoke up on the roof alone, that’s not cool at all.”
Dante laughed again. “Whatever! That’s completely cool! Textbook cool, that’s…” He broke off as he noticed something down below. “Oh, shit, someone’s down there.”
Max looked down into the parking lot. It was most of the way to dark now, and there were two people in the back parking lot below them. “Don’t worry about it, just stay cool.”
It was Officer Garten, the school’s cop. This was not a situation one stayed cool in. “No, no no no, this is a problem.” He waved the joint around, looking for a place to hide it. “What do I do with this thing?!”
Max looked vaguely irritated as he took it from him, pinched out the cherry, and flicked it off paper football style into the bushes. “There, problem solved. Do you feel better?” He squinted down at the parking lot. “They don’t even see us, just chill out and we’ll come down when they’re gone.” He was whispering, now, though, so there had to be some danger.
Dante’s heart and paranoia were kicked into overdrive now, and he was having trouble not jumping off the roof to hide in the branches of a nearby tree. He was no longer the fun kind of high. “What are they even doing down there? Who is that? Do you think they know? Can they smell it from down there?”
Max rolled his eyes and gestured down. “They’re like, a billion feet away, don’t worry about it.” He held up a hand to block the last fading rays of sunlight out of his eyes. “Huh, that’s my dealer, though. Shit, hope he doesn’t get busted, that’ll suck.” It looked like the two of them were having some kind of heated discussion down there, lots of gesturing.
“They wouldn’t kick us out of school for just being up here, right? And they can’t prove we were doing anything up here? Shit, do I have ash on me? Do you have any gum?” Max started to pat through his pockets. Down in the back parking lot, Max’s dealer made a handoff of a bag of something to Officer Garten, and that seemed a little unusual, sure.
“I got mints.” He handed over a roll of Certs to Dante, who took one and popped it in his mouth, rolling it over his gums to remove any dangerous odors. Officer Garten opened the bag, took some of the contents out in his fingers, and then tasted it. He threw the bag on the ground and shoved Max’s dealer back a few feet.
“Do you think I’m fucking stupid?” came Officer Garten’s voice up to them, and even Max looked awake at that. Max’s dealer got in his face back, yelling what sounded mostly like obscenities. Officer Garten shoved him back again, and when the dealer came back at him, Dante was surprised by how much it didn’t happen in slow motion, not at all. Officer Garten pulled out his gun, put it in the dealer’s face, and pulled the trigger, the blast echoing out over the parking lot. Dante choked on his mint.
Max slammed him on the back as he gasped for air, sending the mint flying out to shatter on the concrete below, and then the two of them scrambled to hide behind the ventilation duct. “Shit, shit, shit, shit,” Max was saying, to match Dante’s “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” as he tangled his hand up in the side of Max’s shirt, holding on to him.
“He just shot him! He just killed him!” Dante whispered, high and tight, pulling on Max’s shirt. “He just shot and killed him and we saw it and now we’re going to die!”
Max was shaking his head. “No, no, maybe it was a cop thing, maybe it was a normal cop thing, Jason was a criminal anyway, maybe that was just a totally normal thing to happen.”
“That was not a normal thing! High school cops do not shoot people in the head for no reason. That was a deal gone bad.” Dante had never had a thing for crime shows or anything like that, but he still knew to call them like he saw them.
Max put his hand over his eyes for a second and took a quick sharp breath. “Okay. We have to call the cops.”
“We can’t call the cops!” Dante’s voice was getting ever higher and more hysterical, but he really could not care at the moment. “He is the cops. This probably goes all the way up to the top!” Max put his entire hand over Dante’s face and knocked his head back into the air conditioning duct.
“Calm down,” he said, and his voice wasn’t high pitched at all. “That’s ridiculous. We’ll call 911 and it’ll be anonymous anyway, don’t worry about it.” He reached into his jeans pocket, and then swore. “Fuck, Mrs. Cooper confiscated my phone today. You gotta call.”
“Shit, shit shit, why’s it gotta be me?” Dante was patting through his pockets, though, and found nothing. “Shit! Where is my phone?” He checked all his pockets again, just in case somehow it had fallen up. “Shit, it must have fallen in the dumpster!” The basketball team was now possibly responsible for the lives of three promising young men, and he would try his best to request that he be avenged against them in his obituary. “We can’t go back down there, he’s probably at the bottom of the ladder just waiting for us.” Max put a hand on his shoulder and shook him.
“Okay, it’s cool. We’ll cross over the roof; there’s another ladder near the front of the building. We can get down there and find a payphone.”
Dante threw his hands in the air. “Payphone?! What do you think this is, 1998?” Max grabbed him by both shoulders, leaned in to him, and just looked at him, level and clear, eyes sharp. For all his cool head, adrenaline had to have knocked out his high, too. Dante took what felt like his first breath in twenty minutes. “Okay, no, I know what we can do. I have a… friend who lives near here, we can go to his house and use the phone, and that’ll get us away from the scene of the fucking crime.”
Max smiled a little. “Yeah? Yeah, good idea.” He squeezed his shoulders a little. “Always gotta have a plan, right? There’s always a plan.”
“Always a plan.” Dante risked a peek around the edge of the duct. “I don’t see him. Let’s go.”
Max was already on his feet, and Dante scrambled to get up with him. “We can do this,” he said, and started across the rooftop, crouching low.
“We are going to die,” Dante said, and followed him.
The school was surrounded by some suburbs, ranch houses interspersed with some trees, and Eddie’s house was not far. Dante insisted that they not take any of the main roads, instead weaving their way through people’s back yards and generally trespassing all over the place. This only became a problem once, when their way was blocked by a fence.
“We’ll go around,” Max said, but Dante shook his head and started sizing the fence up.
“No way, that’ll take us out into the open.” He was pretty sure Max rolled his eyes at that, but whatever, better safe than murdered. “We’ll go over.”
Max shrugged and took a leap, easily swinging himself over the top of the fence. Dante rubbed his hands on his jeans for a little bit before trying to follow, without quite as much success. He pulled himself halfway over and got stuck. “Agh, shit!” He wriggled his way over the fence, his stomach scraping on the wood underneath it. Max reached a hand up to help him, but by then Dante was flipping over to fall on the ground flat on his ass. “…I’m good,” he said, and got up back onto his feet.
“There’s a door on this side,” Max said, pointing to the gate in the other side of the fence.
“Awesome. Cool. Great,” Dante said, and they made their way across some stranger’s backyard.
Eddie’s house wasn’t far after that, although they did have to cross an actual street to get to his front door. There were lights on in the house, and Dante rang the bell only a little desperately. Eddie opened the door a half a minute later.
“Dante?” he said, looking highly suspicious. They hadn’t seen each other in… a while.
“Hey, hi, can we come in? It’s an emergency.” He looked over his shoulder. A car was turning at the intersection down the street. “A serious real emergency.”
“Okay, sure, come in, come in,” Eddie said, opening the door further and stepping back to let Dante and Max in. Dante closed the door after him and locked it. “What’s going on?”
“We… shit, we saw someone get shot.” Saying it made it real all over again, and Dante felt his knees get a little watery. Eddie came in close and took his hand between both of his.
“Oh my god… where? Who?” Dante was dimly aware of Max standing awkwardly in front of the door, staring at the back of his head.
“It was a kid at school.” He grabbed on to Eddie’s hands with his other hand without thinking. It just seemed so comforting. “The school’s cop did it.”
“Oh my god, are you okay?” Eddie pulled a hand out of Dante’s hold to put it on his face, curling against the side of his neck. It was cool against where his pulse was still racing, and felt very nice until Dante heard Max shifting next to him. He blinked hard a few times and took a step back.
“I’m fine. I need to use your phone to call the cops.”
Eddie gestured in to the living room. “It’s right in there, go for it.”
“Thanks.” Dante started to go into the living room, but then stopped. “Oh, um, Eddie Chiang, this is Max Edwards. He is also a murder witness.”
Max put out his hand and Eddie shook it. “Nice to meet you,” he said. That settled, Dante went for the phone and dialed 911.
“What is the nature of your emergency?” came the steady voice over the line.
“I just saw someone get shot.” He was surprised how it seemed to be getting easier to say it. “Harpeth High School, in the back parking lot. It looked like a drug deal or something.” He took a breath. “And I saw who did it, it was Officer Jim Garten, the school cop.”
“What is your name, sir?” the operator asked.
“Anonymous!” Dante yelped and hung up the phone. He probably could have handled that a little cooler, but he had at least reported the crime. He’d done the right thing. Things would be okay now. He went back to Max and Eddie.
“Everything okay?” Max asked.
“It’s good. Everything’s okay.” Dante laughed a little, shaking out a little of his nerves. “I mean, other people probably heard the gunshot anyway and called the cops, right? Everything’s okay now.” He spread out his fingers in front of him, then curled them up again and looked at Eddie. “Is it okay if we hang out here for a little bit, though? Just, uh, in case?”
“Yeah, sure, until my parents get home, you can…” He stopped and looked suddenly distressed, his eyes focused somewhere around Dante’s middle. “Um, you’re bleeding.”
“What!?” Dante looked down, and sure enough, there was a dark patch spreading out on his shirt. “Holy shit, what?” He pulled up his shirt to see a long scratch on the side of his stomach, just deep enough to make a mess.
“The fence,” Max supplied, and then when Eddie looked confused, said, “We climbed over a fence.”
“Why?” Eddie said. Max just shrugged. Eddie shook his head. “Well, it doesn’t look too bad. Go clean it off in the kitchen, and I’ll look for our first aid kit.” He put a hand on Dante’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze before he went off deeper into the house. Dante went into the kitchen, and Max followed.
Dante was wetting a paper towel to wipe the blood off when Max asked, “So, how do you know this guy? He doesn’t go to our school.”
“Yeah, he goes to the magnet school downtown. We, uh, met taking some classes for college credit at the community college this summer.” It stung when he wiped the cut. “German class.”
Dante leveled him with a look, and then did a good combo of rolling his eyes and shrugging at the same time. “I don’t know, I thought it would look unique on college applications, okay?”
“Well, schnell, okay, whatever.” Max pushed his hands back through his hair and leaned up against the refrigerator, pushing some of the magnets out of place. Dante held the paper towel to his stomach to stop the rest of the bleeding. “So is he your boyfriend or something?”
“What!?” Dante pushed down too hard on the cut and hissed in breath as it stung.
“I don’t know, you guys were just really…” He held his hands up in the air to wiggle his fingers, in a delicate sign language Dante was able to interpret as meaning ‘totally gaybones with each other.’
“No, he’s not…” Dante looked up at Max and sighed. He was looking at him, just looking at him, that way he’d won all their arguments when they were kids and sweet talked both their parents into special treatment. “I mean, not really, it was just kind of a summer thing?”
Max put his hands into his pockets and rocked on his feet. “Oh. Okay. That’s cool.”
“It’s not a thing or–” Dante broke off when Eddie came back into the room, holding a large package of Band-Aids.
“First aid!” he said, smiling. “Come on, I’ll patch you up.” Dante brought the paper towel away from his wound and put it on the kitchen counter, which was gross, he realized, but Eddie’s parents were the type who kept their garbage can hidden away somewhere private. The bleeding had stopped, anyway. He held up his shirt while Eddie pulled out one of those big-ass bandages and opened it up. Dante was aware, Dante was so aware of Max watching this, him exposing his tender vulnerable stomach to the guy he spent all summer fooling around with while he treated his stupid wounds. Maybe he should have just spent the night in the dumpster. Eddie finished putting the bandage on. “Okay, you’re all good now.”
“Thanks.” Dante pulled his shirt back down and wondered what his mom was going to think about her baby getting his clothes bloodstained. “So, uh, when do your parents usually get home?”
“Usually around seven, seven-thirty,” Eddie said. “I’ve got to finish my homework before they get home, but if you guys want to watch TV or something…”
Sure, that wouldn’t be weird or awkward. “Yeah, cool, we can–” There was a knock at the front door. “Are you expecting anyone?”
“Well, I wasn’t expecting you guys, and you showed up,” Eddie said.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Dante said, shaking his head. He could just sense Officer Garten behind that door, ready to turn this into a serial thing. He held out a hand, fingers spread out, to Eddie. “Eddie, don’t answer the door. Just go do homework or whatever, okay? Max and I are going to go out the back door and go… somewhere else.”
“We are?” Max said, and Dante grabbed his arm and tried his hand at looking at him. Max sighed. “Okay, you’ve got a plan, sure, we’ll go.”
“I’m sorry I got you involved in this,” Dante said to Eddie, who just looked confused. Why didn’t anyone else respect the gravity of this situation?
“Um, it’s okay,” he said. He gave him a little smile. “Text me sometime, okay?”
“Right, sure, cool,” he said, and tightened his hold around Max’s arm. “Let’s go.”
They went out the back door trying to make as little noise as possible, practically tiptoeing to make sure the planks of the deck didn’t squeak. Dante peeked around the edge of the house and made a little squeaking noise when he saw a cop car parked out front. He bit into his knuckle to keep from making any more noise. “We have to go now,” he whispered to Max, and started pushing him away from the house.
“What, what is it? Did you see who it was?”
“Trouble.” He scanned around the backyard, figuring out their escape route. He spotted something in Eddie’s neighbors’ yard and started to smile. Maybe things were looking up. “We’ll get away faster if we’re not on foot. Let’s take those bikes.”
Max followed the line of his finger to where he was pointing, put his hands on his hips, and just dropped his head, shaking it slowly. “Dante… okay, first thing, we are not stealing bikes. And second thing, those are little kid bikes. That one has streamers.”
Dante stared down his own pointing finger, then brought his hand up to cover his face, trying to suffocate himself for just a few seconds. “I may be panicking a little, okay, man?”
Max came up behind him and put both hands on his shoulders, giving him something between a squeeze and a shake. “It’s okay. I’ve got it under control. We’ll cut through yards and stuff and go to my house, okay? It’s not too far.”
Dante hadn’t known that his mom hadn’t moved in all those years and had the same house that they’d played at when they were kids. It wasn’t far at all. “Man with the plan,” he said, and Max laughed a little and gave his shoulders a good squeeze.
“That’s me,” he said, and they headed off to zig-zag through strangers’ yards.
On the way to Max’s house a car came driving slowly down the road they were trailing along. Dante grabbed Max by his shirt and pulled him to hide behind an azaela bush until it passed. Dante was watching the road, but Max was watching him.
“So, you like guys?” he asked as the headlights of the car lit up the street in front of them. Dante closed his eyes and could only see the light dimly through his eyelids.
“Yeah,” he said, and realized he still had a handful of Max’s shirt. He let go.
“I didn’t know.”
“It wasn’t exactly a thing the last time we hung out regularly,” Dante said, but it was only partially true. They’d been playing a lot of Soul Caliber 3 before Max moved away, and Kilik had started seeming extra interesting for some reason or another.
“Does anyone else at school know?”
Dante rolled his eyes. “Oh, yeah, black gay nerd, clear a space at the cool kids’ table.” He could see out of the corner of his eye that Max was smiling.
“Hey, being gay is cool these days,” he said. “Think of all those shows on Bravo!” Dante put his hand on Max’s face and shoved him back so he fell on his ass, but he was laughing. Maybe Dante was smiling a little too. The car finally turned down at the end of the street.
“Okay, come on, let’s go,” he said, and gave Max a hand to get off the ground.
The lights were off at Max’s house when they got there. Dante was surprised by how not different it looked; he thought it was supposed to work out that all the places you hung out at as a kid looked smaller or something. Max pulled out his keys and unlocked the front door.
Dante looked around when he got inside. Max’s mom had redecorated a little bit, but it was still familiar, down to the smell of cinnamon potpourri she kept on a table in the foyer. “No one’s home?” he asked as Max locked the door behind him.
“Mom’s doing a thing with my aunt tonight,” he said, reaching for the lightswitch. “She’ll be home late.”
Dante slapped his hand down before he could flick the switch. “No! Leave the lights off. That way no one will know we’re here.”
Max sighed and pushed a hand back through his hair. “So we’re just supposed to sit here in the dark until you decide it’s ‘safe’ again?”
Dante looked around the darkened house, down the hall to a familiar door. “The basement still there?”
“Nope, filled it up with cement.” Max tugged on the shoulder of Dante’s shirt to guide him as he went through the dark to the basement door.
By instinct Dante skipped the fifth step on the stairs; it always creaked, and they learned to step over it when they were up too late and sneaking back downstairs to play more video games. Max got to the bottom of the stairs first and flicked on the lights. The basement was changed somewhat from the old school days; it was more the lair of a mom, with abandoned crafts projects and rolls of unused Christmas wrapping paper, than the magical home of comic books and action figures and video games it had been. Still, the old couch was there, dusty and full of holes, but with a slightly newer TV in front of it.
“Yeah, yeah. This is going to work.” Dante walked over to stand on his toes and peer out the one tiny window; it looked out into the back yard, invisible from the street. “We can bunker down here for a while.” He bit his lip. “Maybe you should call your mom and warn her.”
“What, that you’re here?” Max asked with a raised eyebrow. “I think she’ll be happy to see you again.”
No one respected the gravity of this situation. “No, about the murderer.”
Max put a hand over his face and sighed deeply, then came in close to grab Dante’s face inbetween both hands, squishing in his cheeks. “Dante, you need to chill out. He didn’t see us in the first place, and even if–and this is a really distant if!–he did, he wouldn’t have followed us this far.”
“But there was a cop car at Eddie’s!” Dante said, through squashed lips. Max shook his head between his hands, like he was rattling a piggybank to get out the last quarter.
“It was probably the cops from when you called 911. They can trace numbers and stuff, you know.” Max sighed and rubbed his hand over Dante’s hair fondly. “You are freaked out and the weed made you paranoid.”
Dante stuck his lower lip out a little as he assessed his physical and mental condition. Yeah, now that Max mentioned it, he was still kind of high, tingly and blurred at the edges. Max was resting his hands on his shoulders now. “If you thought I was just being paranoid, why’d you go along with it?”
Max let his hands drop and put them into his pockets. He shrugged. “I don’t know. It seemed like a good excuse to hang out with you.”
Dante closed his eyes and took a slow breath, trying to loosen the hold fear and panic had on the base of his brain, with a little success. “You always were a weird-ass kid,” he said, and thumped down to sit on the couch, sending some whirls of dust in the air. “If you wanted to hang you just had to ask. Or, like, talk to me ever.”
Max sat down next to him, both of them staring at the dark screen of the switched-off TV. “…I’m really sorry about that. I just didn’t know how to… start. ”
“And hanging with me would affect your cred, I get it.” Dante didn’t mean to be pouting, but once that lip started sticking out, it got hard to pull back.
“No!” Max said, and then he frowned. “Well, okay, yes.” Dante snorted, but Max continued. “But I don’t really care anymore. I mean, those guys… they’re dicks, that’s established truth. But you… you stayed true to yourself all this time.”
Dante looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “And you didn’t?”
“I’m just the fat kid trying to make sure no one notices he’s faking it.” Dante met Max’s eyes from his sidelong gaze, and they were just so stupid and sincere. He kept a stiff lip, though.
“You going to stop ignoring me in the hallway?” he asked.
“Yes! I promise.” Max held a hand over his heart. “I will openly acknowledge your existence and everything. In front of people, even!”
Dante watched him for just a little longer, considering. Max had always been a kid of his word, back in the day. Dante held out his fist for a bump. “Alright. We cool.”
Max broke into a huge smile and did not leave Dante hanging, bump-wise. “Awesome! It’ll be just like old times, only cooler, just you watch.”
Dante laughed a little and shook his head. “Yeah, my Spider-Man jammies don’t fit anymore, so we’re already a point ahead.” Max grabbed him around the shoulders and pulled him over for something between a bro-hug and a noogie, damn his superior arm-strength. Somewhere into Max’s armpit, he said, “So what do we do now?”
Max let him go suddenly, and for a second it looked like he was uncomfortable, a quick flush spreading on his cheeks. It was gone before Dante could really start to worry about it, and Max was grinning again. “Well, since we’re ostensibly on the run from the law, we might as well make the best of it, right?” He reached into his pocket and produced another damn joint.
“Damn, how much of a prison sentence do you have in your pockets?” Dante asked as Max twirled the end of the joint in his fingertips.
“This is the end of it.” Max said, and then sighed sadly. “Especially since my dealer is dead now.”
Dante put his head in his hands and pushed his fingertips into his brow. “Did that seriously happen?”
Max pulled his lighter out of his pocket and flicked it to make sure it sparked. “We’ll find out tomorrow, I figure.” He waved the joint under Dante’s nose, trying to entice him with that damp hippie smell. “So, you want to do this or what?”
“I’m probably going to get paranoid and freak out, you do realize that.” Dante said, and Max patted him lightly on the knee.
“I can always talk you down off the ledge, dude.” He lit up the joint and dragged on it, making the end flare. “And we’re in our fortress of solitude, remember?” His voice was taut as he held in the smoke. “I’m pretty sure all the spells we cast on the door to keep out mummies are still valid.” He slowly let out curls of smoke from his lips and was smiling when he handed over the joint to Dante.
Dante took it and stared at it. He was pretty sure the earlier events of today were a pretty strong argument against him ever doing drugs again, a very just say no situation, but he and Max had always been each others’ best worst peer pressure sources. “The spells were for warlocks.” He pointed up to where they had carved made-up Egyptian hieroglyphics on one of the ceiling crossbeams. “That was for mummies.” He took a hit off the joint and didn’t cough at all; he was on the road to ruin.
Max put a hand on his back and rubbed him between the shoulders a little. “See, this is why I missed you.” He got up off the couch before Dante could respond, going for a stack of DVDs near the TV. “Come on, you haven’t seen Star Wars until you’ve seen it stoned.”
Dante coughed on a laugh, billowing smoke. “I have seen Star Wars. There is nothing new to be revealed to me about Star Wars.”
Max grinned and wiggled his fingers at Dante after he put in the DVD. “Prepare to be amazed,” he said, and sat back down on the couch, right next to Dante.
“You are a terrible influence,” Dante said, and passed back the joint.
“You mean awesome,” Max said.
“Terriblawesome,” Dante said, and the word caught him up in a giggle loop before the title crawl could even get started on the screen.
Somewhere before anyone got to the Death Star they had to raid the kitchen for snacks–in the dark, because Dante was still paranoid–and somewhere after they put in Empire, Dante’s eyes started to droop, his body heavy from all the pot and the adrenaline letdown. When he opened them again Luke was already on Dagobah and his head was on Max’s shoulder. The more interesting change in situation was how Max’s arm was now around his shoulders, tucked around him like it was date night.
“Shit, I fell asleep,” Dante said, sitting up some. Max kept his arm where it was, his hand curled around the top of Dante’s bicep. He squeezed it a little, even.
“Don’t worry about it. It means you’ve calmed down.” Max looked at him solidly. “You have calmed down, right?”
He did feel less like doom was going to begin raining down from the skies at any moment. Things still felt a little unreal, though, a fact not helped by Max’s arm around him. “Yeah, I’m cool now. Like, 80% reduction in freak-out.”
Max started smiling, but caught it in a bitten lip. “Okay, let’s see what this does for the percentage.” He started to lean in, and all Dante could think was ‘there is no possible way this is actually happening’ before Max was kissing him. He was obviously having some kind of crazed weed dream, which was probably something that actually existed. Max pulled back from him and bit his lip again, looking at him with expectant eyes. “Well?”
“Wait, what?” Dante said and lifted his hand to touch his mouth, which was the dumbest thing he could do in this situation.
Max’s eyes were big. “Was it bad?”
“No, it was…” It had actually been really nice, he realized, now that his brain had stopped bluescreening. Max had learned a lot more things than just basketball and recreational drug use since the last time they hung out regularly. “Uh, it was good.”
Max started grinning and leaning in again. “Cool, so let’s make out.”
“Okay,” Dante said immediately, then put a hand up between them when Max started to lean in. “Wait, hold up, what I want to know is since when?”
“Since when what?” Max asked.
“Since when have you gone for dudes?” Dante didn’t mean to look a gift horse too hard in its admittedly attractive and well-shaped mouth, not that Max was a horse, wait, this metaphor was getting away from him–the situation was surreal, and deserved some questioning.
“Oh, I don’t, really.”
“But you want to make out with me.”
Max smiled at him, bright and sunny. “Well, I like you. You’re awesome.” Max still had his arm around his shoulder; he was tracing little designs on Dante’s arm through his shirt. It tickled.
“So… I told you I was gay and you decided to get opportunistic?”
Max pursed his lips a little and looked thoughtful. “Yeah, that’s pretty much accurate.” His hand moved back to brush the back of Dante’s neck, and that was a different kind of ticklish. “You like guys, I like you, we had an exciting experience together, it seems like a good way to close up the evening.”
Dante had to admit, he put together a pretty logical argument. “Yeah, okay.” There was the strong possibility of it all being a dream, but he still had to cover some eventualities. “Just don’t get weird later, okay?”
“I’m never weird,” Max said, smiling as he leaned in again.
“You’re very weird,” Dante started to say, but then Max was kissing him. It was better this time, now that Dante was taking on an active role. Max could kiss–not that Dante had a lot of previous experience to compare it to, but you didn’t have be professor science or something to know a good kiss when it was happening to your mouth. His mouth was soft and tasted like the soda they’d bumbled around in the dark upstairs to get and smoky somewhere under that. Max put a hand on Dante’s face and kissed him like people did in movies. God damn was this the best marijuana and adrenaline-induced hallucination he’d ever had.
Dante never knew what to do with his hands or his legs or his body in general when making out with someone on a couch. The whole situation seemed awkward and like it would be better suited to being done on a bed, but thinking that made him surge forward, grabbing Max’s shoulder and biting his own tongue. Max laughed at him, laughed into his mouth, it was weird how that felt good, and moved his hand down to Dante’s waist, pulling him in a little closer. He was laughing again when he broke away from the kiss to mouth at Dante’s jaw. “Never thought we’d be doing this down here,” he said into Dante’s neck.
Dante laughed, too, breathless as Max’s teeth brushed his skin. “No, I cannot say I ever thought this would be a thing.”
Max made a pouty little sound as he kissed over towards Dante’s ear and did something with lips and teeth that made Dante whimper. Okay, so he’d apparently become a makeout king in the years they were apart, that was cool. “You didn’t have a crush on me? Secret crush?” Dante could hear him smiling.
“You were… pretty chubby, dude.” Dante said, and Max snorted, biting at his earlobe enough to hurt, but only for a second before he started sucking on it instead.
“I was adorable,” Max breathed it right into Dante’s ear, and he had goosebumps rising–he had a lot of things rising, to be accurate.
“I don’t want to think about you as a little kid just right now, okay?” His voice was getting a little high again, and got higher when Max slid a hand under his shirt and started pushing him backwards. Max drew back to look at him, his eyes gone all bedroom and his smile lazy and pleased. Yeah, thinking of fat little kid Max was not a problem at the moment.
“Okay,” Max said, and pushed Dante back to lie down on the couch with both hands, and then he was stretching out on top of him. This was a solution for the awkwardness of couch makeouts, certainly.
Dante had about two seconds to worry about whether or not he needed to try to hide his erection before Max was practically rubbing against it as he settled his weight down on top of him. He was hard, too, and that made things better, or weirder, or both, and while Dante was distracted trying to figure out the exact ratio of weird to good, his hands escaped control of his brain and grabbed Max’s ass, full-on squeeze. Max moved with it, rubbing against Dante for real this time, and then he was moaning into Dante’s neck.
He lifted his head up and smiled down at Dante. “Hello,” he said, and rolled his hips more pointedly.
“Hi,” Dante squeaked, and Max kissed him possibly just for the purpose of laughing in his mouth again.
“Today was fun,” Max came up to murmur against his cheek as he kept grinding against him. He was making the chafing worth it. “We should do this more often.”
“Totally,” Dante said, because ignoring the murder, and the running, and the bleeding, and the freaking out, it had been a pretty good day. Max was kissing him again, moaning into his mouth every time he moved, and especially every time Dante squeezed his ass. He had a surprisingly good ass, Dante was just now beginning to deeply appreciate. And Max was really appreciating his appreciation. He was breathing hard in his ear, making dirty sounds right into it, and riding on him hard enough to make the couch creak. “Let’s do this lots,” he said, and dropped his head to suck on Max’s neck.
That was like hitting a button, a very sexy button, because Max got loud, jerking hard on top of him. Dante went with it, grabbing at his ass and sucking on his neck probably hard enough to leave a mark–and wasn’t that just a crazy thought–and then Max grabbed at his shoulders, gasped in his ear, and went still and limp on top of him.
“Dude. Did you just come?” Dante’s lower half was angry about how things had stopped moving around on top of it, which took some higher functions away from his upper half.
Max laughed at him, breathless and happy. “Yeah, what did you think that was?”
“Just making sure,” Dante said. He Max fifteen seconds to catch his breath and then gave his butt another squeeze. “So, um, interest of fairness and all…?”
Max kissed him wetly on the cheek, smiling like he’d never been happier. “Yeah, don’t worry about it, I got you.” He sat up to put some space between them and then, oh, miracle of miracles, reached down with his hand to rub Dante’s hard-on through his jeans. Life was worth living after all. Choirs of angels were singing because Max was going for a button when Dante heard a doorbell ring. Max sat up.
“No. No, you don’t.” He grabbed Max’s hips with both hands. “We are not friends anymore if you go get the door.”
Max kissed him again and swung off him, standing up. Friendship over, so quickly after it had been rekindled. “Don’t freak out, I’ll see who it is, tell them to go away, and be right back down.”
“You are a monster and I don’t like you at all,” Dante said, and Max leaned over to kiss him one last time before he went sprinting up the stairs.
Dante stayed staring at the heiroglyphs on the ceiling as he took deep breaths. He could taste Max’s skin still, the faint taste of sweat. Max had just gotten off in a way that was arguably thanks to him. When it came down to it, he didn’t mind hitting his life’s weirdest day when he was only seventeen. He adjusted himself in his pants and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Max finally opened the basement door again, but didn’t come down. “Dante, you need to come up here. It’s the police. They want to talk to us.”
And that was how Dante ended up riding in a police car while trying to hide a boner.
After a lot of questioning, a lot of statements, a few testimonies before a jury, and one incidence of Dante’s mom hugging him and crying while calling him her poor sweet baby, Officer Garten ended up behind bars. A lot of evidence came to light during the investigation, plenty of witnesses to speak for Officer Garten’s shady dealings, ballistics data to match his gun with the bullet in the dealer’s face, and the helpful eyewitness testimonies of the two kids who were just up on the roof that day for no reason whatsoever. Officer Garten, however, claimed to have never seen those two kids before in his life, and also strangely didn’t say anything about spending the night of the murder hunting them through the suburbs, because it turned out that was a stupid idea and it had never happened.
It had the weird benefit of making Dante more famous in school. People wanted to talk to him, get the dirty details, especially Josh Martin from history class who was really interested in hearing things about how far the brains splattered, which was not exactly information Dante had readily available. And as for Max… well, things had been kind of busy, and they hadn’t had much of a chance to… hang out. Maybe things were a little weird now. It was hard to say, because Dante didn’t even see him anymore.
Dante was closing up his locker when a hand came from behind him, fitted against the back of his skull, and gently guided it forward to barely touch the locker door. This was not an average bullying! Dante turned around to find Max smiling at him, looking a little sheepish. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Dante said, rubbing at his nose a little. “Good to see you.”
“Yeah, you too. Sorry I haven’t been around, things have been nuts.” He had his hands in his pockets and was rocking back on his heels.
“No, it’s cool, I understand.” That whole night seemed like a surreal dream now, something that existed only in court documents and hazy half-stoned memories. It had been kind of dumb to think what was going on there would continue.
“No, I mean… I said we’d hang. So… you want to hang?”
“It’s… kind of between classes, we’d have to do like a speed-hang.”
Max laughed and shook his head. “No, I mean, tonight. My place.” His smile curved up a little at the side. “I owe you one.”
“You… oh. Oh..” Then again, life was weird every day. “Yeah, sure, we can do that.”
“Cool, cool.” A large group of kids came down from the end of the hall, and Max looked down at them a little nervously. Dante bit the inside of his lip. He guessed basement hookups were one thing, but public acknowledgement was another. The kids got closer. “Oh, one more thing?”
Max came forward and grabbed Dante’s face in both hands, kissing him hard just as the hallway was the most full of people. Dante dropped his backpack and couldn’t even hear their reactions, he could just feel Max’s smile, feel that little laugh in his mouth as he pulled away.
“You… did not just make my life easier, you know that?”
“Sure I did,” Max said, still holding him close and smiling. “Don’t you know I’ve got this whole thing planned out?”
“Always got a plan,” Dante said, suddenly smiling harder than he had in a long time. “You’ll have to fill me in later.”
“Oh, I will.”
This time, Max kissed him so long that Mrs. Cooper had to come out into the hallway and yell at them to break it up. Maybe life was permanently weird now, but that wasn’t such a bad thing, after all.