Fish Are Friends

If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.

“New York City. We can go there.”




“We can get away from here and I wouldn’t have to worry about you nearly as much as I do now.”


                Zack sighs loudly, irritation obvious in his features. He pulls away from Alex and puts his hands behind his head, looking up at the sky. “You don’t need to worry about me at all. I’m completely capable of doing things on my own.”


“You can’t possibly expect for that to make me feel any better.”


                There’s an awkward silence between them. They’re lying on their backs in the middle of their high school’s football field. It’s kind of funny, Alex decides, that they can lie here so easily, not feeling threatened at all, after everything they went through here. Maybe it’s because it’s summer. Maybe it’s because they’ve graduated, and they don’t have to step through those school doors ever again. Whatever it is, Alex likes it. He likes that he can feel somewhat safe for once.


                He rolls over onto his side, finding Zack with his eyes closed and his chest moving up and down slowly as he breathes. “You know I only care so much because I love you. And I don’t want anything to ever happen to you.” Alex slides his hand into Zack’s, tangling their fingers together. “If anything ever did, and I lost you, what would I do with myself?”


                Zack’s lips form a thin line and Alex can tell he’s trying hard not to smile at him.


“You’re all I have. You’re all I’m ever going to have. I don’t need anyone else.”


“And you think the same thing doesn’t apply to me?” The younger boy finally opens his eyes and turns his head to look at Alex. “Don’t worry so much. I need you. But I feel like if we were ever separated, we’d be able to survive.”


“Don’t joke like that,” Alex mumbles, pressing his face into Zack’s shoulder. “By the time your birthday comes, we’ll have enough money to get out of here. And we won’t have to worry about the assholes that made our high school lives a living hell.”


“I hope so.”


                The way Zack says it, it makes Alex’s stomach do some weird little flip – not in a good way. Zack doesn’t sound too convinced. Almost as if he’s hiding something. But he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t hide something from Alex, would he? He and Alex…they share everything. They’ve been best friends longer than they’ve been boyfriends and he would tell Alex if something was bothering him. He would. Alex knows he would.




                It’s a few weeks later, on July 30th, when Zack actually reveals that yes, he is hiding something.


“You’ll love me no matter what, right?” he mumbles against Alex’s lips pressing up closer against him.


                They’re in Zack’s bedroom, alone in the house. Zack’s father is involved with one of the Department’s of the CIA (what he does, exactly, Alex doesn’t exactly know nor does he understand and Zack is definitely not supposed to explain it to him) and he’s often out at work pretty late and his mother goes out with her girlfriends. It works well for them, though, because they don’t like Alex. They hate him, actually. They don’t like that their son is gay and they don’t like that Alex is ‘helping’ him be gay. So they really just ignore the both of them as much as possible. And Alex’s parents are the same way. So the parental department in both of their lives is pretty freaking empty.


                In response to Zack’s question, Alex nods, smiling against his lips. “Of course I will. Why would you even ask that?”


“No reason.” Zack pushes Alex so that he’s lying flat on his back, his fingers pushing his black t-shirt up his body. He leans down when the shirt is bunched up under Alex’s arms and presses kisses all the way up his chest until he gets to his mouth. “Show me?”


“Show you?” Alex repeats as he pulls the shirt off and tosses it over the side of the bed. “Show you what?”


“That you love me. That you want me.”


                Alex turns his head, catching sight of the time on the alarm clock next to the bed. “It’s almost one. Won’t your parents be home soon?”


“I don’t care. Do I look like I care?


                The way Zack is working hastily on unbuttoning Alex’s jeans makes the older boy realize that no, he doesn’t care at all. So Alex lifts his hips and makes it easier for him to pulls his skinny jeans off and then starts to work on getting Zack undressed, because it’s not fair if he’s the only one naked.


“Didn’t I prove it to you enough last night?” Alex questions, referring to the eventful night they had at Alex’s house while his parents were at a party. “I’m pretty sure we had sex three times. Maybe four.”


“It was four plus a blowjob; get your facts straight,” Zack teases. He pulls his jeans and his boxers off in one try and kicks them off onto the floor. “And isn’t it a good thing that I want to have sex with you? You should be excited.”


“Trust me, I am,” Alex mumbles, grabbing Zack’s hand and bringing it between his legs to show him that he’s hard.


                From that point on it’s all hushed whispers of affection and careful touches and deliberate movements. It’s strange, Alex notes, because normally they’re playful and/or pretty rough during sex. But it seems like this time, Zack doesn’t want playful or rough. He just wants slow and sweet and okay, Alex is willing to give him that. But it only heightens his suspicions that something’s going on – something he’s hiding.


                And he finds it out after they’re done; after they’re both curled up under Zack’s sheets, legs tangled together. It’s quiet and peaceful and relaxing until Zack decides to open his mouth and tell Alex what he’s been hiding for the past few weeks.


“I’m moving.”


                All at once, Alex stops running his fingers along Zack’s spine, snaps his eyes open and sits up, not exactly sure if he heard that quite right. “What’d you just say?”


Zack sits up, too. He reaches out for Alex’s hand and laces their fingers together, “Alex…I’m moving. I wanted to tell you-”


“Moving where? How long have you known this?”


“I’ve known since June. I’m sorry, I really am-”


Where are you moving, Zack?”


                Zack bites his lip and tucks his legs under himself. “California. Western Los Angeles, I think-”


“California.” Alex speaks in a monotone voice and keeps his eyes trained on the bed. “That’s across the country. Are you serious right now?”


“I… Yeah. I know. But my parents told me that we have to move… Their job requires it and… And since I’m not eighteen yet I really have to go.” Zack’s lower lip trembles, signaling that he’s about to cry but Alex can’t be bothered to comfort him. “My dad will have to come back here a lot though and maybe-”


“How could you hide something like that from me? For that long? Didn’t you think for a second that maybe I’d want to know that my boyfriend is going to be hundreds of miles away from me? Didn’t you think I deserved to know that?” He stands up from the bed, finding his boxers on the floor close by and pulling them on.


“I didn’t want to upset you!”


“Well good job. Now you’ve just pissed me off.”


“Wait!” Zack exclaims as Alex starts buttoning his jeans, “You can’t just leave! We have to talk about this!”


“Talk about what?” Alex rolls his eyes and starts searching for his t-shirt that he knows he threw somewhere near the door.


“I honestly think we’ll be fine, Alex. Distance won’t affect us. Actually, I think it might make us better.”


                Alex scoffs. “Better? How would that make us ‘better’? You’re going to be in California and I’ll be here. I won’t be able to protect you from…from whatever the hell happens in California. What if something happens-?”


“Okay, your whole ‘you need me to protect you’ thing is really starting to get pretty fucking old!” Zack crosses his arms over his chest, biting his lip to keep himself from crying. “I can take care of myself! I don’t need you for every little thing!”


“You don’t need me? Okay. Fine then.” Alex grabs any shirt from the floor, not caring if it’s his or not and pulls it over his head. “I’m going home. Don’t call me. And have a fucking wonderful life in California.”


                He slams Zack’s bedroom door behind him, leaving his jacket behind. He’s too mad to even bother with it. The anger is practically taking over and he can barely think straight as he walks out the front door. He realizes that it’s nearly two in the morning and Zack’s parent’s probably heard the whole thing but whatever. They’re probably ecstatic that they’ve broken up. Now they don’t have to worry about bringing a “faggot son” to California or impressing their new neighbors.


                By the time he’s halfway home, Alex is shivering and he’s just realized that the shirt he’s wearing is one of Zack’s. It’s the black Green Day tee he bought the younger boy last year and now he really fucking regrets not checking to see if it was his or not before he left. Now he’s going to have to stuff it into the back of his closet or the bottom of one of his drawers and forget about it. Or, better yet, he can shove it under his bed. He doesn’t want to be reminded of Zack.


                The front door is locked, as he expected. His parents are probably in bed already and they won’t hear him knocking. Even if they did they wouldn’t get up to answer the door. They’d more than likely leave him out there all night. So his only option is to climb in through his window and it’s times like these that make him thankful for the fact that his room is on the first floor.


                He lifts the window, which is always unlocked, and pushes it up as far as he can before pulling himself up and getting his knee on the ledge. He’s had way too much practice with this and he’s always been rather annoyed that the amount of upper body strength he’s gained from it has never really shown. But that’s the least of his worries now. Now, he’s got to figure out how to deal with suddenly being alone. Because really, he’s completely alone.


                After managing to pull himself through the window and his feet touch the floor, he turns around and closes it tightly, making sure to lock it for once. He’s pretty sure that’s the first time he’s ever locked it since he and Zack became friends. But he doesn’t want to see Zack and he doesn’t need him trying to climb through his window at three in the morning right now. He just needs to sleep and have some space and maybe he’ll feel better about the whole thing tomorrow.




                The day after the fight, he does feel better. But not enough to actually talk to Zack. It’s three days later, on Tuesday, that he feels like maybe he could handle calling Zack up. He lays in his bed all day, undisturbed by either of his parents as he expected. His ceiling is the only thing his eyes have seen for the past few hours and to be honest, it’s getting a bit irritating. But rolling over would take too much effort and he really can’t be bothered. So he just stares and continues to figure out exactly how he’s going to talk to Zack.


                He needs to talk to him soon, definitely. He never asked Zack when exactly his parents were planning on moving and he’s hoping that it’s not today. Or tomorrow. Or anytime this week, really. Because he needs to figure out exactly what to say. He knows he shouldn’t have said what he did but that’s the way he really feels. He doesn’t like Zack being anywhere on his own. It makes him nervous. They’ve been through more than anyone should ever have to go through and it’s only because they had each other that they made it.


                It started in seventh grade, Alex guesses. He can’t exactly put an exact time on it but he’s positive it was around then. He didn’t have any friends, his parents barely paid him any attention and he was just generally a miserable pre-teen. But then Zack transferred to his school, into his grade. They clicked instantly – mainly because the kids in their grade branded them both as outcasts and they bonded. But everyone still picked on them. All the way up until their graduation day.


                Somewhere in the middle of that (sophomore year, to be specific) they started dating and naturally nobody really took to that very well. Getting pushed around in the halls and getting paper balls thrown at them in class was a common occurrence and verbal abuse was abundant as well but that was the least of their worries. More than once did the football players gang up on them outside of school, even coming close to nearly sending Zack to the hospital once when he was walking home alone. And nobody cared. Nobody batted an eye and nobody bothered to stop it. The teachers at the high school were just as ignorant as both of their parents, leaving both he and Zack to basically fend for themselves.


                Needless to say, Alex has never felt very comfortable being apart from Zack for a prolonged period of time. So, his reaction to Zack’s little secret wasn’t exactly completely uncalled for. Not to him at least. And Zack has never flipped out on him like that before. It was out of character for him.


                But it doesn’t really matter who was right or who was wrong because Zack’s leaving. He’s being forced to move and he has no say because he’s not eighteen until August 22nd. There goes all the plans they had – the apartment, the life they’d start together in New York City. Alex doesn’t want him to leave with them on bad terms so maybe he needs to just push the fight aside and swallow his pride and call the younger boy up and talk. Maybe they can work something out and they won’t have to break up.


                Finally, not being able to stand the plainness of the ceiling anymore, Alex rolls over onto his side, now facing the bedside table that’s between his bed and the wall. He stares at it, blinking more times than necessary and wondering what time it is. He’s not sure when the last time he ate something was. Maybe he should get up and do that. And then, he can call Zack and they can work it all out. Sounds like a pretty good plan to him.


                But as he moves to get up from his bed, something sitting on his table catches his eye and he freezes. It’s the small box that he’s been putting all of his money in from his job. It’s just sitting there, and for a second Alex just stares at it. And then he smiles because seriously – that money is what’s going to get Zack back to him once he turns eighteen. He’s really a complete idiot, he acknowledges as he grabs the box off the table and opens it up, revealing the large stack of bills inside. How could he have forgotten about it? He’s been saving that money for the past two years, intending for it to go towards their future apartment. But if he’s got to use the money to go bring Zack back to him then by all means, that’s fine by Alex.


                The blonde grabs his cell phone from where it’s been sitting on the floor, ignoring the fact that it’s only got one bar of battery left due to the fact that he hasn’t bothered to charge it. He clicks send on Zack’s name (the only name in his recent calls list) and waits eagerly for the younger boy to pick up so he can tell him the plan. He’s practically jumping with excitement as the phone rings, but then it goes to voicemail and his heart sinks. Zack’s still pissed. He would have picked up if he wasn’t.


                After trying to get an answer from him twice more, Alex gives up and starts pulling on his sneakers. If Zack’s not going to answer his phone then Alex is just going to go to him. If he has to wait outside his house all day then fine – he’ll do it. He’s not leaving without telling Zack his ideas. The walk to his house is a little over twenty minutes and the weather’s pretty enjoyable today so it’s not unbearable. Plus, he’s in a good mood now. He’s going to talk to Zack and fix everything and it’ll all be great.


                However, when he reaches Zack’s block, it’s more than obvious that something’s a bit off. He sprints the rest of the distance, stopping short at the beginning of Zack’s front walkway. The large two story house looms over him, and he feels like it’s mocking him. There’s no car in the driveway. The garage is completely empty (Alex checked) and with one look through the front windows, anyone can see that the rest of the house is just as empty.


“Fuck.” Alex collapses on the front steps, head in his hands. “God damnit!” He kicks at the mailbox right beside the porch with his foot. It shakes slightly before it pops open, taking Alex by surprise. There’s a white piece of paper sticking out, and Alex scrambles to get up and grab it before the wind has a chance to take it away. It crinkles in his hands and he instantly recognizes Zack’s handwriting. Although, it’s sloppier than usual. He must have been in a rush. He didn’t write very much – just enough to fill the page - and that sort of tugs on Alex’s heart in a painful way.


“I know you well enough to be sure that you’d come by the house sooner or later so I figured you’d find this. If not, well then I guess that sucks. But whatever. I’m mad at you. You’d have to be stupid to not know that. I wasn’t supposed to move until Thursday but I figured since you wanted nothing to do with me anymore, they wouldn’t mind if we left a few days early. They’re ecstatic about our breakup, by the way. Practically threw a party. But anyway, please don’t call me. I’m just going to ignore you. When I’m ready to talk, I’ll call you. – Zack.


                That was it. No ‘I love you’ or ‘I’ll miss you’. No little heart drawn next to his name like he usually does. Alex blinks back the tears as he realizes how fucked up he’s just made everything. Why did he have to open his mouth? If he had just let Zack talk without interrupting him, they would be spending their last few days together and Zack wouldn’t be miles away from him.


                He kicks the mailbox once more, just because he can, before shoving the paper into the pocket of his shorts and walking back towards his house. He needs to figure out what he’s going to do next. Because there’s no way in hell that he’s just letting Zack slip through his fingers like this. August 22nd is less than a month away now. If he drives to California, it would take him a few days. Longer than the average person, because he’s guaranteed to get lost. Plus, he’s only one person and he has nobody to switch off driving with. But he could do it. Western Los Angeles. All he has to do is somehow get the address out of Zack and then he can go. And he’ll beg for forgiveness and then he and Zack will come back and everything will be fine. Perfect, even.




                It’s on August tenth that Alex is completely ready to make the drive to California. He managed to leave Zack enough voicemails, begging him for his new address so he can at least send him a letter to respond to the one he left. Zack finally gets fed up and texts him the address with a little note at the end to ‘please, stop calling’. Alex intends to comply to that request – until he gets to California, at least.


                So now he’s standing in his living room, under the intense gaze of his parents, with his backpack sitting next to him on the floor. His mother is staring at him with narrowed eyes and a suspicious expression. His father just looks amused.


“So… you’re driving across the country,” he says, folding up his newspaper and removing his glasses. “You’re doing this just so you can go get that boy to forgive you and come back with you?”


“Um. Yeah. That’s the, uh, goal, yes.” Alex kicks at the carpet, rubbing self consciously at his arm. He’s never felt confident when talking to his parents – his father especially.


“Well, good luck with that then.”


“I was kind of….wondering if maybe you’d help me rent a car?”


                He knew it was going to be difficult to convince them to help him out. They’ve never helped him with anything at all really. So when his father just laughs and shakes his head, Alex isn’t exactly too hurt by it. But he was hoping maybe just once they’d act like they care.


“Please, Dad – you know it’s going to be nearly impossible for me to rent one on my own-”


“Maybe you should have thought about that before. And why is your faggot boyfriend even in California, anyway?”


“Well I didn’t exactly expect his parents to decide to move there, did I? Whatever. I shouldn’t have even asked.” Alex lets out the breath he was unknowingly holding and bends down to grab his bag, flinging it over his shoulder. His mother doesn’t move from her seat and his father just laughs again and goes back to reading his paper. What they do really doesn’t hurt him anymore.


                He leaves the house without a single goodbye or any kind of acknowledgement and he slams the door behind him. It feels good, sort of, to walk away from it. He knows he’s going to have to come back here after he comes back from California because there’s no way that he and Zack will be able to afford an apartment yet but still. For right now, it feels great to be free of his parent’s glares and snide comments.


                Of course, now he has to figure out how he’s going to manage to rent a car. He takes the bus downtown to the closet car rental place and okay, maybe he has no idea how to actually go about the process of what he needs to do. But he can figure it out as he goes, right? Sure. So he walks inside and waits on a short line in the lobby, his wallet in one hand and his backpack sitting comfortably on his back. He’s nervous. The way his stomach is flipping only proves that further. Everyone ahead of him on the line is older than him – mid-thirties or older, he decides. He probably looks so out of place.


                As the line moves forward, Alex’s eyes land on someone sitting in a chair not too far from him. He looks young, Alex’s age maybe, with dark hair that looks nearly as rumpled as the clothes on his back, sort of giving him a haggard look. He’s lanky and has a concentrated look on his face as his dark brown eyes scan the clipboard he’s holding on his lap. On the floor beside his chair sits two backpacks similar to the one Alex has. Alex stares at him for a few moments, watching as the boy bites on the end of a pen and scrunches his eyebrows, looking puzzled over whatever he’s reading. But when the woman at the front desk calls out ‘next’ and he realizes that she means him, Alex tears his eyes away from the boy and steps up to the counter, smiling slightly at the older woman sitting behind it.


“Um. Hi. I kind of need to rent a car-”


“Yes, that much is obvious, seeing as you’re here,” she says monotonously, practically rolling her eyes at him. “I need to see your license.”


                Alex fumbles at first but eventually manages to open his wallet and slide his license out from behind the plastic covering and hands it over. She takes it and squints as she looks at it. “You’re under 21. There’s an extra charge for you. Do you have a credit card?”


“Um. No, but-”


“Then we can’t rent you a car.”


                Alex shakes his head quickly, not ready to accept defeat just yet. “But I have the money right here-”


“I’m sorry but we don’t take cash payments. Only major credit cards.”


“No, I really need a car – I need to get to California-”


“I can’t bend the rules for you.” She shakes her head and gives him a look that clearly means that their conversation is done – unless Alex wants to get in trouble with security.


                So he sighs, taking his license back from her and shoving it back into his wallet without care. This would happen to him. Another setback for him to deal with. He puts the wallet back into his pocket as he leaves the building, his brain reeling with thoughts about what he could possibly do next. Flying there is probably out of the question – he doesn’t have the money for a two-way ticket. And Amtrak is fucking expensive too. Getting a car was his only reasonably priced option.


                Alex sighs once he’s out in the open air. He kicks at the wall lightly before leaning up against it, crushing his backpack in the process. He can’t bring himself to care though, because there’s nothing that he needs to worry about inside of it. It’s just got a few days’ worth of clothes and some money shoved in at the bottom.




                The greeting startles him, as he wasn’t exactly expecting anyone to try and talk to him. He looks up from his shoes just in time to see the dark-haired lanky boy from the lobby shut the door to the building behind him. He grins when he sees that Alex is looking at him and keeps walking, one of his backpacks hanging off his shoulder and the other dangling from his hand at his side.


“Hey, you were the one who just tried to rent a car in there, right?” He asks as he gets closer, dropping one bag at his feet as he stares at Alex. “I overheard your conversation with the lady who works there. She was a bitch to me too.”


“Well, life’s a bitch so it’s not that surprising,” Alex says passively. He’s got no idea who this kid is or what he wants. He seems a bit off, if Alex is honest.


“Well, yeah. Anyway, so I overheard that you’re going to California. And that you need a car.”


“That’s why I was at a car rental agency, yeah.”


                The boy’s smile gets bigger and he starts shifting his weight from one foot to the other, clearly excited. “Well I have a car. And I’ve been to California by car dozens of times. So if you wanted… We could go together and you wouldn’t need to worry about getting a car. I’ve wanted to take a road trip for a while now, anyway.”


                Alex just stares at him, eyebrows raised and his fingers clutched tightly around both his wallet and his cell phone. This kid isn’t normal. “Dude, I don’t know you. At all.”


                He reaches his hand out to Alex, still hopping from one foot to the other. “My name’s Jack Barakat.”


“Okay, so now I know your name, but that doesn’t mean I want to get in a car with you and drive across the country.”


“I swear I’m not, like, a rapist or anything dude,” Jack laughs a little louder than necessary and runs a hand through his dark brown hair. It’s streaked with blonde and Alex thinks it just looks stupid.


                But if Alex is being truthful with himself, he’s two seconds away from agreeing to this whole stupid plan and going with this kid to California. Because as of right now, he has no way of getting there. He can’t take a plane or a train and there’s no way he’s just going to go back to his house and give up. He needs to get to Zack in twelve days and if this is the way he has to do it then… well, fine.


“I’m pretty sure all rapists would claim not to be one,” Alex says, reaching out and taking Jack’s hand and shaking it. “I’m Alex. So where’s this car of yours?”


- & -


“Your room’s on the second floor, third door on the right.”


                Zack nods, watching his mother pull another box out of the back of the rental truck. His own boxes are still stacked in the corner, waiting for him to start pulling them off the truck and bring them into the new house. He looks back at the house, frowning at it. It’s much bigger than the one they lived in when they were in Maryland, but he shouldn’t have expected anything less. The neighborhood they’ve moved into is pretty much developed by the government, meaning that all of his neighbors have similar jobs to his fathers. Some of them are probably even in the same department as he is. Zack will never really know, though, because he’s not exactly supposed to ask.


“Don’t just stand there. Get to work.” She ruffles his hair before tucking the box under her arm and heading off towards the front door.


                Ever since they found out exactly why Zack wanted to move earlier than usual, his parents have been much friendlier compared to their usual hostile attitudes. He hates that it’s because he’s not dating Alex anymore, but at the same time he embraces it because his parents are pretty much all he’s got here in California and he’d rather them be at least civil to him. He kind of feels as though he’s traded Alex for his parents, and he does feel badly about it. But he doesn’t have the energy to beat himself up for it. He’s done enough of that over the past few days.


                The drive took them seven days. They stopped a lot and did a lot of stupid annoying tourist things in practically every state they passed through and most of the time Zack just wanted to throw himself out of the car as it was still moving. But he survived, unfortunately, and here he is. In Los Angeles. Where he knows a grand total of nobody.


                So, with that depressing thought in his mind, he hops up into the rental truck and heads over to his boxes, contemplating which one he wants to bring in first.


“There’s no way you’re lifting any of those boxes.”


                The voice comes from somewhere behind him. Zack turns, looking down and finding a boy standing right there in front of the truck. From what Zack can tell, he’s rather tall and definitely on the thin side. His brown hair falls into his eyes, which are a piercing blue color. He’s attractive, Zack will give him that. But the cigarette that fits in his hand between two fingers is a definite turn-off.


“Why wouldn’t I be able to lift them?” Zack questions curiously, stepping closer to the edge and getting a better view of the boy. “They’re not that heavy.” With a closer look, Zack can tell that he’s probably the same age as him.


The boy shrugs, bringing the cigarette to his lips and taking a drag before saying, “You’re like a twig.”


You’re one to talk, is what Zack wants to say, but he holds his tongue and goes back to his boxes, lifting the first one easily.


“I bet that one just has pillows and things in it.” The guy says, waving a hand towards Zack dismissively.  “I’m Martin, by the way. I live across the street and my aunt told me to come over and talk to you or else she would force me to get a buzz cut and shove me into the army or navy. Whichever’s dumb enough to take me first.”


“Uh… right. I’m Zack.”


“Zack. So your full name is Zachary.”




“Sucks.” Martin nods to himself and throws his cigarette down on the cement, stepping on it with the toe if his blue converse sneaker. “My name’s not much better though. How old are you?”


“Seventeen.” Zack piles a few boxes on top of each other closer to the opening of the truck so that he can grab them easier when it comes time to bring them into his house. He hops down, now coming face to face with Martin and finds that he’s a few inches taller than him, and now that he’s actually on the same level as the guy, he feels a little bit intimidated. He doesn’t have a good track record with guys who are taller than him. Actually, he doesn’t have a good track record with people in general. If Alex were with him right now, he’d definitely be going into his usual overprotective mode. And that just reminds Zack about why he’s mad all over again.


“I just turned eighteen. Going to the University of San Francisco in the fall. I’m probably going to throw myself off the Bridge first, though.”


                Zack frowns. Martin’s more than a little off, he realizes. “Um. Right. I’m not going to college… I’ll probably just look for a job or something.”


“If you’re living here, you probably don’t need to,” Martin points out. “Everyone who lives here is involved in the same type of job. You know what I mean.”


                And yeah, Zack does know what he means. They’re not really supposed to talk about it, though, due to the high secrecy of it all. But whatever. “Yeah well I’d rather be able to support myself, I guess.”


                Before he has the chance to grab a box and bring it inside, they’re joined by someone else. This time, it’s a girl and she’s smiling widely and standing extremely close to Martin, much to Martin’s obvious irritation.


“Hey!” She exclaims, waving slightly and bouncing on her feet. “I’m Sierra. Are you Zack? I heard you guys were moving in this week but I didn’t know it was today.”


“Um, yeah I am-”


                Zack’s sentence is cut off when Sierra practically throws herself at him, her arms tightening around him for a hug. “This is so exciting! You’re so cute, too! Martin, isn’t he?” She lets go and looks at Martin expectantly.


                He shrugs, “If you like skinny underage boys.”


“You do,” she points out quickly. “But anyway, this is so great! Finally someone new on this block!”


                Zack continues to just stare at her. She’s interesting – and kind of annoying, really. She has wavy brown hair with what he thinks might be feathers stuck into it. Weird. Shaking his head, he picks up a box with every intention of finally bringing it inside. “I really should start bringing these in,” he says, trying his best to sound kind of sad that he has to leave them.


“Oh we can help you!” Sierra exclaims. “It’s not like we have anything else to do-”


“Hey, I’m sorry – are they bothering you?”


                There’s a new voice now, coming from behind Martin and eventually making itself shown. It’s another guy -this one is the same height as Martin – possibly just a little bit taller – and they even have basically the same hairstyle. He walks quickly to Martin’s side, one hand wrapping tightly around his upper arm.


                Martin sighs dramatically and rolls his eyes, “Get off of me,” he groans, trying to shake the other boy’s grip.


“No,” he snaps, seemingly tightening his grip. “Sorry,” he says to Zack, “My name’s Paul. I live down the street. You can be honest – if he’s bothering you just tell me and I’ll get him to go back to his house. And Sierra, too.”


“My aunt told me to come out here, Paul,” Martin states, his fingers trying to pry Paul’s off of him. “She threatened me.”


“Nobody’s bothering me,” Zack assures Paul, clutching the box closer to him. “They were just saying hi.”


“Oh.” Paul releases his grip on Martin’s arm and Martin sighs in relief, rubbing at it and wearing a frown. Instead Paul moves his arm to slip around Martin’s waist and Zack kind of just stares at it, kind of confused. Are they…like, together?


                Sierra laughs – a sort of weird, breathy laugh that is kind of annoying and already Zack can tell that she is going to drive him crazy – and grabs a box off the truck. “Aren’t they adorable,” She states, reaching out and pinching Paul’s cheek, who bats her hand away looking irritated and embarrassed. Sierra, unfazed, then turns back to Zack. “Lead the way.”


                At first Zack is a little bit apprehensive about letting Sierra into his house but she seems so determined to help him that he really can’t say no so he just sighs, jerking his head towards the house and starting the walk up to the front door. The door is large and overly extravagant and matches the front doors of all the other houses. Actually, now that Zack takes a second to check, all the houses look relatively the same.


“So what departments are your parent’s working in?” Sierra babbles as they step inside the house. “Mine are-”


“Sierra shut up! That’s not your business!” Paul snaps, adjusting his grip on the box in his arms. Martin stands beside him without a box, snickering at the look on Sierra’s face.


“Well sorry for trying to get to know someone. God.”


“You don’t need to ask personal questions like that! You’re not even supposed to know!”


“We all find out eventually! His parents might be in the same as mine are!”


                They climb the steps, Zack ignoring the fight between Sierra and Paul for the most part. He’s starting to realize that maybe he’s better off not having any friends at all – it’s easier and less stressful that way. Although he has to admit – it’s nice having people actually being sort of nice to him for a change.


                When he gets to his assigned bedroom, the third on the right, and pushes the door open, at first he just stands there, staring into the large room. His bed is already set up in the middle, waiting for the sheets and blankets to be put on. His dresser is up against the wall where his father must have put it with the help of one of the movers. It just looks so empty and depressing and suddenly Zack just wants to sit down and cry. But he’s got three people that he doesn’t even know pushing past him and putting the boxes down on the floor so he really can’t do that right now. That’d be embarrassing.


“This is the same room I took at my house,” Paul says, standing beside his bed with his hands on his hips. “I think it’s the best one. It’s the farthest one from my dad’s room and that comes in handy…” His eyes travel to Martin who smirks and folds his arms across his chest.


“Can I um. Ask you something?” Zack says tentatively, sitting down on the mattress on his bed. Paul smiles and nods while Sierra is too focused on pulling his sheets out of the box she carried up. Martin continues to stand in the middle of the room, arms still folded across his chest, glancing around uninterestedly.


“Are you two…like, dating?” He points between Martin and Paul, waiting for an answer. He hopes he’s not overstepping a boundary of some sort by asking this but it’s not like they’re hiding it, really.


                Thankfully, Paul nods, not seeming irritated by the question at all. “Yeah. We’ve been together for like… seven months.”


“You hesitated,” Martin points out, clearly offended.


                Paul rolls his eyes, but ignores him. “You’re not like… a homophobe or anything are you?”


                Zack quickly shakes his head, eyes widening as he protests, “No! No I’m definitely not. I mean, I’m gay too I was just wondering because you were acting like a couple but I wasn’t really sure and-”


“I knew you were gay from the second I saw you,” Martin interjects.


“Oh. Well. Y-yeah.”


                Paul glares at Martin. “Don’t be rude. I think it’s time for you to take a nap. You’re cranky today.”


                With a dramatic sigh, Martin tilts his head towards the ceiling and rubs at his nose. “And you are even more irritating than Sierra today. I’m going home. I’ll call you when I wake up.”


                Martin strides from the room, and Paul quickly follows after him saying something about “two in the morning” but Zack can’t quite make it out. And that just leaves him with Sierra, who’s now trying to stretch the sheets out on his bed.


“You don’t have to do that,” he insists, going over and trying to assist her. “I can do it on my own.”


“It’s fine!” She chirps, waving him off. “I have nothing else to do today anyway. The other guys are all working or at summer school so. It’s usually just me and Paul and Martin on weekdays.”


“They seem cool, though.”


                She sighs, blowing her bangs out of her eyes and standing up straight. “They’re great, yeah. I mean, our group… There’s something a little off about all of us, I guess. I mean, if you couldn’t already tell, I tend to get excited a little too easily sometimes.” She laughs again and this time Zack doesn’t find it annoying at all. “And Martin’s not always such an asshole. I don’t think he had any drugs in his system today. So he was pretty depressing.”




“Yeah… He’s kind of a druggie. Paul tries to keep him in line but. Can’t help him all the time, can you? Although lately he’s been pretty good. The only downside is that his mood is usually pretty awful.”


                The simple way she admits to Martin being a ‘druggie’ isn’t all that surprising. From what he’s seen and heard from her so far, she’s definitely rather easygoing and carefree. Her clothes kind of say that about her, too. She’s wearing dark blue, ripped up jean shorts and a light pink tank top and she just looks very relaxed and Zack kind of appreciates that little quality about her.


“Just for future reference, if you ever feel like I’m talking too much or getting too personal or something, just tell me. I won’t take offense to it. The guys are always telling me to shut up.”


“How old are you anyway?”


“Eighteen. I graduated with Paul and Martin. They’re both going to USF in the fall like their families want… I’m probably just going to get a job and stick around here, I think. Much to my parent’s dismay.”


“College isn’t for everyone.”


“I know. That’s why I’m not going. I want to do something with music – like sing. Or something. But my parents… I mean, you probably understand when I say that they’re not exactly open to things they aren’t used to. They want me to follow in their footsteps – everyone’s parents here want that. And most of us do – most of us follow them. But I definitely won’t. Nobody in the group I hang out with wants to.”


                Zack nods, his defensive wall sort of coming down a bit. Right now he’s seeing Sierra’s sensitive side – one that she clearly doesn’t get to show very often. The way Martin and Paul treat her makes it more than obvious that she’s typically looked at as ‘one of the guys’ and maybe she doesn’t always want to be that. “I get what you mean about your parents… Mine ignored me for so long because I came out to them. But now that I’m not with my boyfriend anymore, they’re talking to me again.”


                Sierra smiles and sits down on the newly made bed. “Boyfriend? What was he like?”


                Bringing Alex up was probably a really bad idea, Zack realizes, because Sierra’s nosey. He’s going to have to watch what he says around her from now on. “Um. His name’s Alex. We’re sort of complicated right now. I don’t really wanna talk about it, to be honest.”


 “Okay. I might be annoying and loud but I can definitely figure out when to shut up.” She laughs.


                She’s clearly just grown so used to referring to herself as ‘annoying’ and ‘loud’ that she just does it by default. Because she’s never been told otherwise. So Zack smiles back at her. “You’re not that annoying.”



                It’s been three hours since Alex got into the car with Jack and its eight forty five at night. He was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t an old, unreliable car. It looked pretty new on the outside and inside was clean so Alex took that as a good sign. He doesn’t know much about cars but as long as it runs and doesn’t make any weird sounds while doing so, then it’s good to go.


                But even with the car running smoothly, Alex is still regretting his decision. Because seriously, Jack is the most obnoxiously irritating human being on the planet. He’s sure of it. It’s just his luck that he would find the one person who aggravates him to a whole new level. Jack fucking Barakat.


                Over the time span of two hours, they really haven’t gotten to know each other all that well. Jack volunteered some interesting facts about himself – that he’s nineteen years old, that his favorite color is blue, and that he really likes the band Blink182. Alex doesn’t give him anything. He keeps quiet, nodding when he feels like he should. Although his favorite band is the same as Jack’s, he says nothing. He doesn’t want to get involved with this kid.


“Okay… I don’t know, that definitely doesn’t look familiar to me,” Jack says loudly, punching Alex’s shoulder. “Does any of this look familiar to you?”


                Alex groans, rubbing at his shoulder and sitting up in his seat. He looks out the window, not being able to locate where they are. “No. It doesn’t. But seeing as we should be travelling away from Maryland, and I have never been outside the state, it probably shouldn’t.” He looks back at Jack, glaring at the older boy. He swears, if this kid’s gotten them lost already…


“Oh.” Jack doesn’t sound all that concerned. Alex has come to realize, in the short two hours spent together, that nothing really upsets him or fazes him at all. “Well maybe we should stop and get gas and then ask someone for some directions.”


“Okay, I don’t want to be rude, or anything, but I could have sworn that when you said you’ve driven to California dozens of times before, I thought that meant that you’d be able to do it again.


“No, I totally know how to get there dude, I swear!”


                For the first time, Jack actually seems worried about the situation and that causes Alex’s concern to increase and fuck, he’s seriously starting to wonder about this kid’s intelligence. So far, he hasn’t really done much to prove to Alex that he even has a high school education.


“There’s a gas station coming up,” Alex points out, reaching down and zipping open his backpack. He pulls out his wallet, counting out a few bills before shoving it back inside just as Jack puts his blinker on, signaling their right hand turn into the parking lot.“I’ll pay for the gas and you figure out if we’re going the right way.”


“Um. Okay.” Jack turns the car off after stopping in front of one of the gas pumps and unlocks the car doors. “I’ll ask the guy fueling up next to us.”


                Alex sighs, pulling the door handle and pushing it open. “Whatever.” He drags his feet to the entrance of the small convenience store, the sun shining down on him. He hates summer, he’s decided. He hates the heat and the sun and pretty much everything to do with the season. It causes him more irritation than usual.


                The bell above the door dings as he steps inside, alerting the man behind the counter to his presence. First, Alex goes over to the candy aisle, figuring that if he’s going to have to get back in the car with Jack, he’s going to need something to get him by. He grabs two packs of Skittles and a chocolate bar before heading up to the counter and placing them down.


“Hi. I need to fill my car up. It’s at pump number 4. Just forty bucks worth,” he informs the worker, watching as he types numbers in on the cash register and then does something with a switch under the counter. He assumes now Jack will be able to fill the car up.


“That’s forty eight dollars and fifteen cents.”


                Alex hands the man a fifty dollar bill, turning to look out the window. He finds Jack immediately – how could anybody miss that tall, lanky body? – and sees him talking to another man, nodding every few seconds. The man is pointing in the direction that they just came in. Well. Guess they’ve been going the wrong way.


                After taking the plastic bag with his candy and receiving his change, he thanks the man and leaves the store, preparing himself for the worst possible news from Jack. He’s not sure how bad it can get but from what’s he’s experienced so far, Jack’s probably capable of pretty much anything.


“What’s the news? Are we actually heading towards Florida and not the West Coast?” He’s joking, really, but the look that Jack is wearing now tells him all he needs to know. “Are you kidding me? We’ve been driving south this whole time?”


“Well, no, not south.” Jack laughs awkwardly, rubbing at the back of his neck and toeing the ground with his sneaker. “We’ve been driving north. But-”


“Dear Jesus Christ, just kill me now.” Alex crouches down, his head in his hands and letting the bag drop to the floor. This would happen to him. He would get stuck with some kid who can’t tell which way’s north from west and probably doesn’t even know up from down. This is great. Really perfect.


“The guy told me how to get there!” Jack exclaims, bending down to Alex’s level. “He wrote it all down for me! See,” He shoves a piece of crinkled white paper in Alex’s face. “It’s all right here. Now we’re good to go!”


“Well now that we’ve wasted nearly three hours!” Alex grabs the paper out of Jack’s hands and stands up, marching to the car and pulling the driver’s side door open. “I’m driving now. Fill the gas tank up and then we’re getting back on the road. We’re going to have to stop at a motel for the night so we can get fully rested and drive all day tomorrow. I am not having another setback like this.”


                He gets into the car and buckles his seatbelt, looking out the side mirror to keep an eye on Jack. The boy is standing there at the gas tank, watching as the number of gallons he’s pumped into the car goes up. Alex sighs. How did he get himself into this? Why didn’t he just say no and go back home?


Because Zack’s more important, says the voice in the back of his head and that’s all he really needs to reassure him that this is worth it. He’ll get to Los Angeles, he’ll make sure of it. He’s just going to have to make sure they stay on the right track. Jack can’t be in charge of directions no matter how many times he insists he knows the way.


                A few minutes later, Alex is watching Jack close the gas tank, screwing on the cap and wiping his hands on his jeans. He stares at the gas pump, looking a little bit confused. But then he’s shrugging and walking around to the other side of the car, pulling open the passenger’s door and sliding in.


“It took forty one gallons,” he says as he buckles his seatbelt.


“That’s not possible.” Alex stares at the older boy, eyes wide and starting to feel absolutely horrified. “A car doesn’t take forty one gallons. This car, for example, takes sixteen. And we only had about two left when we pulled in. So therefore, it must have taken about fourteen gallons.” He continues staring at Jack waiting for the kid to say something, maybe laugh it off but he just bites his lip and stares back with an apologetic expression. “What is wrong with you?”


                Jack’s facial expression changes from apologetic to embarrassed faster than Alex can blink. His fingers start tapping his jean-clad knees and he sucks his bottom lip into his mouth, clearly not about to say anything good.


“I’m um. I’m dyslexic. I read the number backwards, I guess…”


                Jack stares at his knees, still tapping his fingers and Alex finds his frustration boiling over and he slams his fist down on the dashboard. “Are you fucking kidding me?” He shouts, his voice much louder than he originally intended. It causes Jack to jump in his seat and he looks like he’s going to start crying any second but Alex can’t bring himself to comfort him. “What the hell is wrong with you?! You should have fucking mentioned that little detail when I agreed to drive across the country with you as my GPS system!”




“Is that why you don’t know where the hell we’re going? Because you can’t read simple fucking signs that tell you where to go without fucking up? Why would you tell me that you could get me to California? Have you ever even been to California?” The questions keep coming, one after the other and even though each one is visibly making upsetting Jack more and more, Alex doesn’t care.


“I have been to California,” He says, avoiding Alex’s gaze. “I’ve been there twice. It was stupid of me to tell you I knew how to get there. I’m sorry.”


“Whatever.” Alex sits forward again and turns the key in the ignition, starting the car up. His anger is slowly dissipating and he takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “We’re not going back to Maryland. We’re going to California. I’m getting there no matter what.”


“Okay. Like I said…the guy gave me better directions…” Jack points to the paper still in Alex’s hands. “We need to get on the highway.”


“We’re not getting on the highway tonight. I don’t like driving at night, so we’re getting a room at a motel and sleeping so we can drive all day tomorrow. I told you that. I’ll do the daytime driving. You’ll do night.”


“Do we have money for a motel?”


“Stop talking. You’re giving me a headache.”


                By the time they get to a motel and pay for a room to share, it’s ten o’clock and Alex is exhausted. Today has been so mentally draining and all he wants to do is get some real food and sleep. He throws his backpack down on one of the beds and sighs, feeling Jack standing behind him.


“Do you mind if I take this bed?” He asks, not really caring for Jack’s answer. He crawls on top of it and kicks off his shoes. He knows the bed is probably not the cleanest thing ever but he doesn’t care right now.


“That’s fine,” Is Jack’s quiet response and now Alex feels a little badly about how he reacted before.


“Look, Jack,” he sits up, meeting Jack’s eyes. “Sorry for yelling earlier. I was just frustrated. I don’t think you understand how badly I need to get to California. I can’t let stupid little things like getting lost get in the way.”


“Well maybe if you tell me why you need to get there so badly, I’d understand,” Jack mutters, picking at his fingernails. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about my dyslexia. It’s not exactly something I’m proud of. It’s been something that’s pretty much defined my life since elementary school and…I don’t know…”


                Alex swallows hard. He knows now that if this whole little road trip is going to work out the slightest bit, they’re going to need to be open with each other and actually talk and be friends. “I need to get there because my boyfriend Zack is there. He moved there a few days ago because his parent’s job relocated them. We sort of… separated on a bad note and I need him to see that I’m sorry.”


“Why can’t you just call him?”


“He won’t answer. He’s really pissed at me. We had plans – once he turned eighteen, we were going to move to New York and start our own lives. Since he’s still seventeen, he really couldn’t refuse to move. I’m hoping I can get to him by the time he turns eighteen and we can leave California together. If he’ll take me back, that is.”


“Oh.” Jack nods, still picking at his fingernails. “I’m sorry that you’re fighting with him. It must be hard for you not knowing what his reaction will be.”


                Alex nods. “But can you tell me something? I’ve been wondering… Why did you offer to come with me? Don’t you have a family, or a job or something that’s missing you while you’re gone?”


“Not really, no,” Jack admits, and Alex doesn’t miss the hint of sadness in his voice. “I was kicked out of my apartment two days ago because I couldn’t come up with rent because I lost my job. I was living out of my car because I had no place to go and I was applying for a job at that rental agency when I met you. I guess you can say that I don’t really have anything for me in Maryland.”


“What about your parents…?”


“No… I don’t talk to them much.”


“Right. Well… This will be an interesting road trip then, won’t it?” Jack smiles for the first time since they left the gas station and that sort of makes Alex feel a tiny bit better about the situation. He stands up from the bed again, reaching for his backpack. “You wanna go and find somewhere cheap to eat? I’m starving.”


“Okay… I think I might’ve seen a diner down the road…”


“Let’s go check it out then. Let’s make it fast though. I don’t want to be out too late. This part of town doesn’t look the safest from what I’ve seen.”



                While they’re sitting in a booth in the small, kind of unwelcoming diner, the time creeps slowly past eleven and Alex is starting to get a bit nervous about being out this late at night. Just on the walk over, although it was only five minutes, he could tell that people around here don’t normally go out at night. He stares at Jack who’s sitting across from him, pouring yet another sugar packet into his coffee. He tosses the empty packet into the pile beside his cup.


“This just tastes like dirty water,” he says quietly. Alex isn’t sure if he’s talking to himself or not so he doesn’t respond and instead just pokes at his overcooked French fries. He was starving when he came in but not so much anymore. He looks to his right, scanning the rather empty diner. There’s a guy sitting a few tables away from them, his eyes focused on Jack and suddenly Alex feels even worse than he did a few minutes ago.


“Jack,” he says quietly, trying to discretely keep an eye on the guy. “There’s a guy sitting over there and he’s staring at you.”


“I’m rather attractive,” Jack shrugs. He takes a sip of his coffee and scrunches up his nose. “More sugar.”


“Oh God, he’s coming over.”


“Can you pass me the Splenda? Maybe I should try a different brand.”


                Alex slouches back in his seat as the stranger comes over. He’s not very tall – shorter than both he and Jack – but he’s not skinny like they are. He’s well built and scary and Alex really wants to start crying as he watches him slip into the booth right beside Jack. Jack seems completely unfazed, which is not all that surprising to Alex, and he moves over so the man has more room.


“Hi,” the stranger says, grinning at Alex. “I’ve never seen you guys in this part of town. My name’s Bryan. Bryan Donahue”


                He reaches his hand out to Jack first, who puts his coffee cup down and eagerly shakes his hand. “I’m Jack. And that’s Alex.”


                Alex would really like to kick him right now but that would be suspicious so he refrains.


“So what are you guys doing here? It’s not exactly safe to be out right now, I’m sure you could tell.”


“We’re just staying at the motel down the street.”


“That awful motel? Are there even locks on the doors?”


“Well we don’t really have much money,” Jack babbles, pushing the coffee cup away from him. “We’re on a mission. In the morning we’re starting to head towards California.”


                Oh dear God, Alex thinks to himself, sinking further into his seat. Shut up Jack. Shut up. Don’t say anything else.


“California?” Bryan smiles again. “What’s there?”


“Alex’s boyfriend.”


                This time Alex does kick the older boy hard, and Jack cries out in pain, grabbing his knee and putting his head down on the table. “Oh my God,” He groans, closing his eyes.


                Bryan is laughing now, folding his arms in front of him and showing off quite a few tattoos that Alex can’t quite make out. But it’s not like he’s really concentrating on that, anyway. Bryan has just made some hand motion and now two other guys who were sitting quite a distance away from them across the room are getting up and coming over. Alex knows how this goes. He’s been beaten up plenty of times before and the asshole always calls in for backup before he actually gets to the beating.


                Instead of administering any kind of abuse, though, Bryan leans back and pulls out his cell phone. “There’s a party going on a few blocks from here,” He says as the two other guys stop beside the table.


                The shorter one has brown hair and is dressed in a similar fashion to Jack – skinny jeans and a thin black jacket. The one beside him has red hair and pale skin and a kind face but Alex isn’t fooled. This is all a trick. He can’t tell if they have any tattoos or not but he’s going to assume that they’re just hidden beneath their clothes.


“This is Caleb,” Bryan points to the red head who simply nods. “And that’s Kennedy.”


                Kennedy and Caleb are pretty intimidating but not nearly as bad as Bryan is. Alex keeps a wary eye on them, not trusting anything about this situation. Fucking Jack. He’s going to kill the boy once they get back to their motel room. If they get back.


“So yeah, you should come hang out at the party for a while. We could help your money situation.”


“A party?” Jack questions, sitting up and suddenly having an immense amount of interest in the conversation. “That sounds fun! Dude!” He turns to Alex, eyes wide. “We should go!”


                Jacks pure stupidity once again stuns Alex. It stuns him so much in fact that he can’t even properly respond. All he can do is gape at Jack, sort of looking like a fish out of water. How could someone be so completely idiotic? He can’t even grasp onto this.


“It’ll be worth it, I swear,” Bryan grins and Alex feels himself being pulled out of the booth by Kennedy and he knows that if he even tries to fight back he’ll lose, just like every other time.


                As he’s lead out to the parking lot of the diner, he pulls his phone out, opening up a new text message to Zack. He’s pretty sure that Zack is probably sleeping right now but he’ll see it when he wakes up in the morning. He types out the words I love you and sends it before Bryan or Kennedy or Caleb can see what he’s doing. Jack is talking animatedly with Caleb who kind of seems interested in what he’s saying, but Alex is sure it’s just a front.


“The house is literally right down this road,” Bryan explains, shoving his hands into his pockets.


“Okay. Alex and I can’t stay too long, though. We have to drive tomorrow,” Jack says, earning a smile and a nod from Kennedy.


                Alex has decided that Jack is truly stupid. Like, seriously, literally stupid. He’s not just saying it based on assumptions anymore. Jack has proven it within the past ten minutes or so. He’s naïve and stupid and really fucking frustrating.


                They walk in silence – well, Alex does, at least. Jack babbles on about nothing to Bryan who actually looks like he’s listening to what Jack has to say. How nice, Alex thinks, that he actually pretends to care even though he’s going to beat them up, or much worse, once they get to this ‘party’. Poor Jack has no idea.


                The house that they stop in front of is exactly six minutes and thirty-four seconds away from the diner and that means that it’s a total of ten or so minutes away from the motel and Alex is pretty sure that’s too far of a distance for him to try and run. He’d be caught, without a doubt. So he follows Jack inside, Kennedy and Bryan and Caleb close behind them.


                Inside is a mess. There are people everywhere as well as plastic cups and other garbage all over the floor. Alex has never been to a house party before but he assumes this is normal. Before he even has a chance to really register what’s going on, someone has grabbed onto Bryan and is trying to pull him towards the kitchen, going on about something to do with a keg stand. Everything coming out of this new guy’s mouth is foreign to Alex and he grabs onto Jack’s hand.


                But then suddenly Caleb’s eyes widen as he stares across the room, quickly grabbing onto Bryan’s shoulder. “Dude,” he says, nodding towards the other side and Bryan stops his conversation, following Caleb’s gaze. “Did you know they’d be here?”


                Alex struggles to hear Bryan’s response over the music that’s coming from the stereo not too far away but he can grasp the basics of it judging by his worried expression. He watches as Bryan leans in and whispers something to Caleb, motioning towards the stairs. Alex’s heartbeat is starting to increase. Something bad’s going to happen. He’s not sure what it is anymore, though. He’s not as positive that Bryan’s going to beat them up as he was before.


“Jack,” Alex whispers, leaning into Jack’s side, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this has ‘disaster’ written all over it.”


                Jack turns, a mystified look on his face. “What? What are you talking about?”


“Have you been living under a rock your whole life?!”


“Just because Bryan’s a little bit intimidating doesn’t automatically mean he’s a bad guy,” Jack says calmly, shaking his head at Alex. They’re still holding hands but Alex isn’t sure if Jack’s noticed yet so he just lets it be. He’d rather not run the risk of being separated from him.


He tunes back into the other conversation, just in time to hear Bryan say, “I don’t think they’ll bother us. We’re fine, Ken.”


Kennedy, Alex notices, doesn’t look too convinced but he says nothing more, shrinking back and keeping his eye across the room. Alex doesn’t bother turning to see what they’re worrying over. It’s probably something or someone that will make him even more nervous and worried and he would rather just stay blissfully unaware of any more potential danger that could come his way.


“Caleb went to go get something for you guys.”


                Bryan’s words are not comforting in the slightest, although he’s still smiling.


“Is it the money you mentioned in the diner?” Jack asks.


                Before Bryan can answer, Alex sees Caleb coming down the stairs, his hands shoved into his jeans pockets. He hops off the last step, his eyes trained on whatever he and Bryan and Kennedy are keeping an eye as he walks.


“Okay, now that Caleb’s back, I can explain this whole thing to you.”


                It’s a little weird, Alex decides, that Bryan is just going to explain what they plan on doing right there in the middle of someone’s living room. Sure, most people are too drunk to even give them a second glance and the majority of them are dancing/making out/passed out on couches, but still. Wouldn’t he want to do this where nobody will overhear?


“There’s a group of guys across the room that weren’t supposed to be here but that’s fine,” Bryan says, leaning in so Alex can hear him. “We used to be friends with them and… I’ll just say we weren’t the best group of guys around. We did some shit that I’m not really proud of and I regret it. So me and Caleb and Kenny left.”


“Oh God, please just get this over with,” Alex finally says, pulling his hand out of Jack’s. “If you’re going to make us be some sort of fucking sacrifice or something to the guys you pissed off then just do it. Dear God-”


“What are you talking about?”


                Alex blinks. “Did I not say that clearly enough? Just punch me already, or something!”


“Dude, I don’t plan on punching you.” Bryan is staring at him, eyebrows raised and head tilted slightly. He thinks Alex is crazy. “I never did… Dude, I’m trying to help you out and get back at the guys we were friends with at the same time.”


                Now Caleb steps forward, pulling out an envelope from his pocket and pressing it into Jack’s hands. “There’s a little over a thousand in there,” He says quietly. “Before we left the gang we were in, we helped steal this money. There’s no way we could get it back to the people we stole it from, but we figured the best way to fix the whole situation was to give it to someone who needs it. And when Bryan saw you guys check into the motel, he felt like you’d be the best bet. We’re just trying to do something decent for a change.”


“Oh shit,” Jack gasps, fist tightening around the envelope. “Are you serious?”


                Alex stands there, eyes glued to the white envelope in Jack’s hands. This has to be a joke. Things like this do not happen – especially not to Alex. Alex doesn’t have good luck. He doesn’t randomly land himself in situations like these. He’s the one that gets caught in thunderstorms. The one who gets beaten up on the way home from the grocery store. It’s the way his life has been pretty much since the beginning. Why should it change now?


“Totally serious. But um. Maybe you guys should start heading back to your motel…” Bryan’s hands are suddenly on Jack, pushing him toward the way they came in. “Go fast. Don’t turn around. Just go.”




Kennedy shoves Alex into Jack, saying with a sense of urgency “No, seriously – you need to go. They’ve noticed us and you need to be gone in like, ten seconds.”


It’s only then that Alex’s brain clicks everything together and is able to form fully formed thoughts that are beneficial. He grabs Jack’s arm and moves in front of him, pulling him towards the door. He hears Bryan yelling something at someone behind them but as requested of them, he doesn’t turn around. He manages to open the front door in record timing, pulling Jack outside with him.


The night is damp and hot and uncomfortable and rather typical of a summer night, but Alex ignores it and hops down the front steps, skipping a few as he goes. He knew something was going to go wrong. It may not have been exactly what he was expecting – yet, at least – but still. They’re in some pretty serious shit right now and they need to start running if they want to make it back to their motel room alive.


“Come on, Jack,” He says, releasing the older boy’s arm. He picks up his pace, his heart doing the same, and he can feel Jack right beside him and even though he pretty much blames him for everything that’s happened so far tonight, it comforts him to know that he’s there. He’s not in this alone like he thought he would be.


                There’s no noise behind them, and Alex takes that as a good sign but he doesn’t stop running or slow down. In fact, he picks up the pace a little bit more, knowing Jack will catch on too. He knows they aren’t too far now- probably only a few more minutes away. He won’t stop running until they’re standing outside their door with the key in hand.


                By the time they get to the parking lot, Jack is gasping for air, coughing and sounding as if he’s just run three miles as opposed to less than one. With a glance over his shoulder, Alex sees that the coast is clear, feeling the tightness in his chest loosen a bit. However, he suddenly hears the distinct sound of something hitting the concrete below him, shattering into pieces. He stops short, a sudden sinking feeling taking over him. He only had one thing on him that would make that noise – his cell phone. He finds it only a few feet back, the screen cracked and on hanging by one hinge.

“That’s not good,” he hears Jack mumble behind him, and Alex kind of wants to punch him. Or maybe kick him in the back of the knees so he falls down. Whichever would be more effective.


“This was the only way I had to talk to Zack.” Alex sighs, trying his best not to let emotions get the best of him. It’s just a phone. He’d much rather it be broken then something more important. Whatever that might be. “But it’s fine. Whatever. I’ll use your phone when we get closer if I need to.”


“Yeah. Yeah that sounds good,” Jack is quick to agree, pulling Alex up from the dirty ground. “But let’s get back to our room. I don’t feel safe out here…”


                Oh. Finally, Jack recognizes danger. Better late than never, Alex supposes.




                Three days after moving in, it’s Friday and Zack finds himself sitting in the basement of Garrett Nickelsen. He’s…an interesting kid, Zack decides. He came over to his house the day before with a box of chocolate chip cookies and claiming that his mother is ‘the best baker on the block’ and then proceeded to open the box up and eat one of the cookies inside. With him was his ‘best friend in the world’ Pat Kirch who was also very strange but from what Zack could tell, they were both nothing but nice.


“When did Mat say he was getting here?” Martin asks from his spot on the couch. He’s sitting beside Paul who has both arms around him and his head leaning on his shoulder. “I’m fucking bored.”


                Martin’s a lot more pleasant today, really, Zack decides. He’s not as…depressing as he was the first day they met. Yes, he’s sarcastic and a little bit rude (the first thing he did when Zack and Sierra walked into the room was clap unenthusiastically wearing a bored expression) and his hands are shaking and he can’t seem to sit still but Zack just figures it’s because of the drugs Sierra told him about.


“He said in a half hour so…soon,” Pat shrugs as he digs through a box of DVDs. “New kid, have you seen Mean Girls?”


                Although now he’s wondering who this Matt person is and why Martin wants him to get here so badly, Zack pushes the thought away and nods, “Of course I have.”


“Oh. We’re going to watch it anyway.” He places the DVD into the player and then closes it, sitting back on his knees. He brushes his long hair out of his eyes as he stands up, shoving Garrett to move over. He places himself between Garrett and Martin. Martin seems absolutely horrified by this and tries to move even closer to Paul.


“Aw Martin,” Garrett coos, leaning over Pat to get a better view of him. “What did you and Paul get up to last night? You know we called you like, ten times to see if you wanted to go to the movies.”


“Garrett, I’d advise you to shut up,” Paul says, glaring at both him and Pat.


“But what were you guys doing? I swear, I just wanna know.”


                From her spot on the floor beside Zack, Sierra gives him a good punch in the leg, telling him kindly to, ‘shut the fuck up because the movie is starting’. Needless to say, the two of them snap their mouths shut and turn to the TV, not uttering another word.


                Zack has seen this movie about a million times, he thinks as the opening scene plays out on the TV. He and Alex used to watch it a lot and that thought makes his heart twist painfully but he ignores it, wrapping his arms around his legs and resting his chin on his knee and keeping quiet. Alex needs to be at the back of his mind right now. He’s still pretty mad about what happened and thinking about him will not help things at all.


                The movie only gets up to the part where Regina George asks Cady to sit with them at lunch before Martin is getting up from the couch, mumbling something under his breath about going outside. Zack knows Paul well enough by now to not be surprised when he also gets up and follows the older boy up the steps, leaving Garrett and Pat giggling on the couch.


“I bet they’re actually going to have sex in your bed,” Sierra says smartly, tilting her head as she watches the movie. Her smirk tells Zack that she’s just saying this to get Garrett upset – and it works.


“Fuck now I have to make sure they’re not,” The younger boy says, hoping up and jogging up the steps, pushing past the two people that happen to be walking down them.


“Where ya goin’, Gary?” one of them calls out, laughing through his question. “We just got here!”


                They both appear fully at the bottom of the stairs, one tall and carrying a brown bag from Macy’s and the other short, arms empty. Zack looks at the taller one, taking in his dark hair and lip ring and kind of sort of adorable smile and then his gaze rests on the second boy. He’s got a baseball hat on backwards and he’s looking back up the steps, probably still wondering why Garrett left. 


“Okay, don’t look so excited,” the tall one says, walking forward and putting the paper bag on the table in front of Zack. “I only bring you alcohol that you otherwise could never get. No big deal.”


“Aw, Matt, I’m excited you’re here!” Sierra gushes, her eyes lighting up as she looks at the boy who Zack now knows is Matt. Clearly somebody has a crush, he decides.


                Matt smiles, the hint of a blush creeping up on his cheeks and Zack almost wants to vomit from the cuteness of it all but he refrains and just nudges Sierra with his elbow to introduce him.


“Oh,” She says once she feels the nudge, biting her lower lip. “Matt this is Zack Merrick. He just moved here a few days ago. Zack this is Matt Flyzik.”


“Sup,” Matt nods in his direction, barely even looking over at him before reaching into the paper bag and pulling out cans of beer and putting them on the table. Sierra is quick to get up and help him out, her smile bigger than he’s ever seen it yet.


                The other boy approaches Zack next, sitting himself down on the floor right beside him. He smiles and Zack feels comforted by it. “Hey. I’m Rian Dawson.”


                Zack shakes the hand he’s holding out to him, “I’m Zack.”


“I heard a lot about you from Sierra yesterday. I’ve been super busy with my summer classes and shit, so that’s why we haven’t met before today. Same goes for Matt – he’s been working like crazy lately.”


“Oh. You’re taking summer classes?” Zack questions, trying to sound somewhat interested. He’s also trying to block out the sounds of Sierra giggling like a seventh grade girl at whatever Matt just said.


“Yeah, at UCLA. Just an engineering course, but I figured it’d help me get ahead. I’m gonna be taking over my dad’s job so I need to get out of there as soon as I can.”


“Oh.” Zack bites his lip. He knows that asking Rian what his dad does would be a bad idea but he’s really curious. So instead he just asks, “So what are you majoring in?”


“Electrical Engineering,” Rian responds, reaching out and grabbing one of the cans of beer off the table. He offers it to Zack, who shakes his head, declining the offer. “It’s something I’m really interested in. I mean, I might change my mind later on down the road but right now I’m pretty into it.” So his dad is definitely involved with the computer designing, or something along those lines, Zack decides. “How old are you?”


“I’m gonna be eighteen soon-”


“College? Or no.”


“Um. No. I don’t really know what I wanna do…”


“Your parents aren’t going to make you major in something like political science or engineering?” Rian laughs, “That’s good though. Martin’s dad is forcing him to go to USF and Paul’s just following him there really.”


“Oh. My parents never really cared what I did after high school…” Zack trails off, not mentioning the fact that his parents didn’t give a shit about him at all really up until he broke up with his boyfriend. Now, though, at the mention of Martin’s father, he finds himself a little curious about why the boy lives with his aunt.


“You’re lucky, then. Most of the families in our neighborhood are like that. We’re kind of like…the rejects, I guess. Well, not me. I’m normal. But I mean Sierra and Matt…neither of them will go to college so most people see them as failures, or whatever.”


“I’m not a failure,” Matt interjects, sinking down onto the sofa that Zack is leaning against. “I’m just saving up so I can go back to New York.”


“You’re never getting there,” Pat says, smacking the back of Matt’s head. “I’m going upstairs to grab food from the kitchen. Anything specific? Garrett’s mom went shopping yesterday.”


“Yeah dude – Doritos,” Rian requests as he pulls out his cell phone. “Don’t come back without them, twerp.”


                Pat glares at him, clearly not liking the not-so-fond nickname, and heads up the stairs by himself.


“So, dude,” Matt says, speaking to Zack for the first time. Sierra sits down on the couch beside him, closer than any normal person would. “What’s your issue?”


                Zack blinks. “My issue?”


“Yeah. I can tell you have one. You’ve got that ‘kicked puppy’ sort of expression.”


                Frowning, Zack is about to protest, but Sierra laughs, opening her big mouth to say, “He misses his boyfriend.”


                At this new information, Matt smiles and laughs softly while Zack finds himself blushing. He’s never telling anybody anything about himself ever again.


“So what happened? Between you and your boyfriend,” Matt pushes, leaning forward and resting his arms on his knees. “Don’t even try to deny it, dude. I can tell.”


                After much more prodding and poking and just general irritation, Zack finds himself telling Matt, Rian and Sierra the entire story – beginning to end – about what happened between himself and Alex before he moved. Re-telling the story was a little more difficult than he expected it to be but he manages to do it without crying which is definitely a plus, he thinks. Sierra frowns and pats him on the back in all the right parts of his story and Rian and Matt just sort of stare at him, occasionally nodding to show that they’re listening.


 It’s not a very long story and pretty soon he’s caught them up to date, ending with, “And I haven’t talked to him since then.”


“You can’t just ignore him!” Sierra blurts out, reaching forward and grabbing onto his upper arm. “Imagine how hurt he must be!”


“Sierra, let go of him,” Matt says softly, prying her fingers off of Zack. Zack’s not sure if he’s doing that to help Zack or if he really just didn’t want her touching him. “Anyway. I can relate. Sort of. I mean, I’m not gay but I did leave someone behind when I moved here from New York two years ago. He was my best friend. His name’s Alex too, actually. But everyone called him Grieco.” Matt stops, looking down at the beer can in his hands. “We lost contact a few months after I left. I regret it now. And I’m saving up to move back there. But anyway, what I’m trying to say, is that you really shouldn’t let what you and your boyfriend have go. When you care about somebody, whether they’re your best friend or boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever, you should put the effort in to keep them that way.”


“Yeah…I know…” Zack shrugs, avoiding everyone’s eyes and instead looking at the floor. “I’ll call him when I get home. I don’t have my phone on me.”


“You better! And we wanna know what happens.”


“Sierra, mind your own business. Why don’t you go get that song we were working on the other day?” Matt suggests, giving her a gentle shove towards the staircase.


                Her eyes light up, just like they seem to do every time Matt touches her, and she nods eagerly. “Okay. It’s at my house so I’ll be back in a few.”


                Matt laughs, watching her run up the steps. His smile tells Zack that he feels just as strongly for her as she feels for him and he kind of wonders how long it’s been going on for. He wants to ask, but he feels like that would definitely be pushing it. He barely knows these people.


                Later, when he is the privacy of his own room and the shades are drawn and the door is locked, Zack digs his cell phone out from under his pillow. He’s been keeping it there since he moved in, turned off so that it would be easier to ignore Alex. But now that Matt has encouraged him to stop the silent treatment, saying that he’ll regret it, he’s going to turn it back on and call his boyfriend and attempt to work things out.


                The screen lights up, displaying his wallpaper. It’s of him and Alex on their graduation day and it makes him smile, makes his heart skip a beat and he knows that calling Alex is so obviously the right thing to do. He ignores the few text messages he has waiting in his inbox and goes right to dialing Alex’s number, pressing the phone to his ear.


                Instead of ringing, though, the call goes straight to Alex’s voicemail and Zack frowns. Alex never has his phone off. It’s usually always on and always in his sight. It’s concerning that suddenly he has it off. Especially since he had been bugging Zack for days after he moved.


                Sighing, Zack moves the phone away from his ear and goes to open his messages. He finds two from his mother, which are probably ones that just tell him he should be home soon or that they’re going out to dinner, and there’s one from Alex. Zack quickly deletes the two from his mom and then goes to opening Alex’s.


                His heart sinks when he realizes it’s from a few days ago, but at the same time it makes him smile because all it reads is, ‘I love you’.




“I’m so hungry. If I had the opportunity, I’d eat a cow right now.”


“That’s nice, Jack.”


“I’m serious. I just. Fuck, can we stop for food soon?”


“I told you if we see somewhere, we’ll stop. But so far, we haven’t seen anything other than signs for motels and gas stations.”


“Gas stations have food. Come on, Alex!”


                Alex sighs and rolls his eyes as he reaches out and turns on the stereo, keeping the volume on a reasonable level. He ignores Jack’s whining about food and flicks through the stations, not finding anything worth settling for. Of course, he’s not paying too much attention. His head is sort of a mess right now. It’s been three days since he left Maryland, a little more than two since they ran into Bryan and Kennedy and Caleb and for some reason, he’s got this confident feeling inside of him and he kind of hates it. It makes him nervous.


                He’s never been one to walk into lucky situations like they did the other day. It’s always been the opposite – him having to run from whatever trouble he’s managed to land himself in. And, if Zack was involved, then he always just got into even more trouble. Because he was never going to just let someone push Zack around. Even if it meant nearly getting put into the hospital.


“If we’re not going to get food,” Jack interrupts, reaching forward in his seat and opening the glove compartment, “then can we at least listen to some decent music?” He rummages through the compartment, pulling out tissue packets and extra straws that he got at fast food places until finally he produces a CD case that looks way too familiar to Alex. “I don’t know if you like them, but I have a Blink-182 album and-”


“Dude.” Alex says before he can finish, reaching out and grabbing the case out of Jack’s hands, “This is my fucking favorite CD I think I have ever owned. We’re listening to it.” He takes one hand off the wheel and manages to flip the case open, pulling the CD out and sticking it into the player. He glances at Jack, who’s now staring at him with wide eyes and a sort of confused expression. “…What?”


                Jack, realizing that he’s been staring, bites his lip and turns so he’s sitting straight in his seat again as he says, “I dunno… You just surprised me, that’s all.”




“I just…didn’t expect you to like them. I thought you would be like, ‘oh they suck don’t you listen to real music?’ or something like that…”


“What? No, dude, they’re one of my favorite bands. They’re amazing.”


                Jack grins and leans back in his seat. “Well. Now we know at least one thing we have in common.”


                Alex can’t help himself. He smiles back, because seriously. Okay, Jack’s not all that bad. Sure, he’s stupid and naïve and irritating but. That’s something that Alex can get used to over the next couple of days.



                By the time Alex actually gives in and agrees to stop so they can eat, they’re somewhere in Kentucky and just at the beginning of the fifth day of their road trip. He pulls into the parking lot of a rather large diner and Jack practically throws himself out, landing on the blacktop with a soft ‘ooff’.


“Jack. Calm down. Don’t embarrass us before we even get into the diner.”


“I’m sorry. I’ve only been starved for a day and a half. No big deal Mr. ‘I can go days without food’.” Jack scoffs and brushes the dirt off his knees. “I’m ordering food to go, also. I’m not risking it.”


“Whatever. Come on. The faster we eat, the faster we get back on the road. I wanna make it into Missouri by tomorrow night.”


                They start walking away from Jack’s car, Jack babbling about how close they are to the border of Kentucky and that it will take them less than a day to cross through the bottom parts of Indiana and Illinois into Missouri. Alex just lets him talk, kicking at whatever rock he sees in his path. He’s learned over the past few days that Jack just likes to talk and doesn’t necessarily need responses.


                As they get closer to the diner, though, Alex notices someone. She’s leaning against the wall, her eyes set on him and a small smirk on her face. She looks around their age, maybe a year or two older, but the blonde streaks in her hair make her look childish, Alex decides. He really doesn’t like the way she’s looking at him and he tries to ignore her as they pass, but she doesn’t quite let that happen.


“You boys aren’t from around here, are you?” She says with a high, whiny voice, pushing off the wall and stepping into their path. She brushes her bangs out of her eyes and Alex kind of wants to cringe at the amount of makeup she’s got on. She’s wearing a short skirt that really doesn’t leave very much to the imagination and her top is so low cut and seriously. She’s trying way too hard. Her appearance makes him feel dirty.


                Jack snaps his mouth shut, suddenly realizing that there’s another presence with them and he stares at the girl for a few seconds before asking, “Where exactly are we?”


                Alex isn’t surprised by the things that come out of Jack’s mouth anymore. He grabs Jack’s arm, laughing awkwardly at the girl before saying, “We know where we are. If we can just…” He tries to push past her but she moves back into his path, preventing him from getting any closer to the diner than he was and she puts her hand on his arm, showing off her too-long nails that make his skin suddenly start to crawl.


“Are you guys lost?” She asks, her voice sickeningly sweet. As she speaks she presses up closer against Alex and her boobs are touching his arm and okay this is nowhere near his comfort zone thanks. “I’m a really good tour guide. My name’s Cass.”


                He manages to shimmy out of her grasp, taking three steps away and laughing awkwardly once again as he tells her, “That’s…That’s nice. But, we’re not lost. We’re just really hungry so we want-”


“You should stick with me. I can show you a good time.”


“What kind of things are there to see around town?” Jack butts in, pulling his arm from Alex’s hold. “Sightseeing would be cool, dude,” he says to Alex, eyes wide.


                Well, there’s a whole new level of idiocy that Jack has reached today, Alex decides. He shakes his head, “No Jack. You know what, I’m not really hungry anymore so we’re going to get back in the car and continue driving. It was really, really lovely to meet you,” he lies through his teeth, grabbing back onto Jack and pulling him backwards.


“Alex! You can’t do this to me!” Jack complains, struggling in Alex’s hold. “I want food!”


                The girl, Cass, pouts and watches them go, leaning back against the wall again. Alex doesn’t take his eyes off her until they get to the car, shoving Jack towards the passenger’s side and unlocking it. “Shut up for two seconds, please?” He requests as he slides into the front seat. “We’ll get food from somewhere else, my God, can’t you be intelligent for once?”


“I don’t understand why we can’t just go here!”


                Alex backs out of the lot and pulls onto the main road, headed back towards the highway. He shakes his head and glances at Jack with an irritated expression. “I’m sorry if I didn’t exactly feel like being harassed by a prostitute Jack!”


She was a prostitute?”  is the older boy’s shocked response. “How do you know?!”


“Well, I’m only assuming. She was dressed like a slut, standing outside a diner at two in the morning. Plus, she tried to get us to go ‘sight-seeing’ with her. She said she could show us a ‘good time’. Jack, seriously,” Alex slams his hand down on the dashboard out of frustration, causing Jack to jump up in surprise, “Can you be any more clueless?”


Jack’s eyes are wide, the shock still evident on his face. “I thought she really wanted to take us sight-seeing.”



                As Alex wanted, they pass into Missouri in the early hours of the sixth day, driving with a very low tank of gas and a snoring Jack in the backseat. They took a small rest stop the day before, using some of the money that they were given from Bryan back in Maryland to pay for a cheap hotel room. The shower he had felt amazing and those few hours of sleep did wonders but now he’s starting to fade and he knows he shouldn’t be driving for much longer. So he gets off at the next exit, finding the first gas station and punching Jack in the leg to wake him up.


“W-where are we?” Jack asks through a yawn, stretching his arms out in front of him.


                Alex looks at him through the rearview mirror as he puts the car in park in front of the only free gas pump. “We’re in St. Louis. We came into Missouri while you were asleep.”


“Sweet. I need to pee.”


He opens the door and gets out, heading into the small store a few feet away. Alex follows slowly behind him with his wallet, heading right to the counter to pay for half a tank of gas. He doesn’t want to waste too much money at one time. Besides, the gas might be cheaper in another state so he’d rather wait.


While he’s standing at the car, watching the numbers on the gas pump go up, Jack comes back outside, looking more awake and carrying two paper cups of what Alex assumes to be coffee.


“This will keep you awake until we stop at a motel or something,” the older boy says cheerfully, handing the cup over to Alex. “Unless you want to sleep in the back while I drive-”


“If you fucking expect me to trust you with the driving while I’m asleep, you must be delusional,” Alex snaps, sending Jack an eye roll before putting the paper cup to his lips.


                Jack stands there with a rather hurt expression, but before he can defend himself, someone standing on the other side of the gas pump does it for him.


“Dude, you are an asshole.”


                Alex peers around, coming face to face with a tall man with red hair and another shorter man with thick black rimmed glasses and short darker hair. They’re both staring at him with horrified, shocked expressions and Alex feels like those words could pretty much describe his entire road trip so far.  


“I’m sorry,” Alex responds coolly, “I missed the part where it was any of your business.”


                The short one with glasses sends him an evil glare and the tall ginger shrugs his shoulders. He says, “Dude, no need to be a bitch. Just observing.”


“Whatever.” Alex turns back to Jack who’s still standing there looking like a puppy that’s been kicked. “You watch the car while I go to the bathroom.”


                With Alex gone, Jack takes his place at the gas pump, watching the numbers but not really registering them. He knows it’ll turn off once it reaches the amount they’ve paid for so he doesn’t have to worry too much. He leans against the car, sipping his coffee, oblivious to the two men now staring at him.


“Does he always talk to you like that?”


                Jack jumps, the liquid in his cup sloshing over the top and spilling on his hand and he yelps in pain, dropping the cup completely. His other hand comes up to wrap around the injured one as he looks up with a sheepish expression. “Sorry,” he says quietly, not even really sure what he’s apologizing for.


“Uh. Right. But seriously, your friend’s an asshole,” The short one says, eyeing Jack curiously.


                His appearance is a little funny, Jack notices. He’s wearing a scarf, even though Jack is fairly certain it’s about eighty five degrees and it’s only four thirty in the morning. It’s going to get steadily hotter throughout the day. His jeans look a bit weird, too. They’re like skinny jeans, but there’s something a bit weird about them. And the taller one, Jack decides, is the sane one out of the two. He’s wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt and sunglasses are sitting on top of his head.


                Realizing that they’re still waiting on him to respond, Jack shrugs. “He’s not that bad. He’s been driving for a while so he’s just tired, I guess…”


“Oh. Well then I guess that’ll explain it…My name’s Nick, by the way,” the tall one holds out his hand as he introduces himself, shaking Jack’s hand firmly. “And this is Vinny,” he adds, pointing to his friend.


“Cool. I’m Jack. My friend is Alex,” Jack responds, smiling now just as the gas pump turns itself off, printing out a receipt for him to take. He closes up the gas tank on the car and shoves the receipt into his pocket before turning back to his new acquaintances. “Alex and I are on our way to California.”


                Vinny’s eyes get wide, “You are? You’re driving there?” He looks shocked and kind of like he’s just seen a ghost for a second, before he suddenly shrugs. “I did that once. A while ago,” he adds nonchalantly, his facial expression suddenly returning to one of disinterest. 


                Nick laughs, “Ignore him. He’s a hipster wannabe. Anyway, you’re sticking to the highways and shit right? That’s the best way to get there honestly.”


                Jack nods, folding his arms across his chest and leaning more against the car. He’s kind of wondering why Alex is taking so long, but he figures he’s just trying to calm down and relax before he comes back outside. “So far we’ve only taken highways. We printed out directions at a library in West Virginia. I think we’re pretty set on how to get there.”


“Good. Sometimes those maps tell you to go all these different ways and a lot of people around here try to say that they’re better than the highway, but don’t buy into that. The highway’s the only safe bet. Because if you break down, you’ve got plenty of rest stops and gas stations to get help at. The other ways…they’re not so reliable, even if they prove to make your trip shorter. If you break down, there’s no guarantee that there’s gonna be someone around to help you out, you know?”


“Oh. Right, I’ll remember to tell Alex that,” Jack responds, repeating the information in his head. Maybe if he can give Alex something useful that will actually help them on their trip, he won’t be so quick to write Jack off as useless. It’s worth a try, really.


“Alright, well, good luck getting to California, man,” Nick says when Vinny elbows him in the ribs. “Hope you make it there safe.”


“Thanks. Me too,” Jack mumbles, watching Vinny get into the driver’s seat and Nick get in on the other side. They’re a weird pair of friends, he decides, but for some reason he can tell that they just get along really well.


                It’s a few minutes after Vinny and Nick leave that Alex comes back outside. He’s smiling now, Jack notices, which is a good sign and he hopes that maybe Alex won’t be too angry and irritated when they get back in the car. He usually always is when Jack’s the one driving but…maybe this time will be different.


                But instead of going over to the passenger’s door, Alex walks around the car, passing Jack and throwing the older boy off guard. “Get in the car,” the younger instructs, sliding behind the wheel. “Let’s get going.”


“I thought I was driving?” Jack questions, but still listening to what Alex told him to do. He slides into the seat, his feat immediately going up to rest on the dashboard before looking over at Alex with a curious expression. “Aren’t you tired?”


“The coffee woke me up a bit. I’m fine to drive. The guy working in the store gave me new directions. We’re avoiding the highways for a little while.”


                Jack widens eyes, shaking his head quickly. “Dude, we shouldn’t do that.”


                Alex frowns as he starts the car, “Uh. Why not?”


“Those guys that we met before – the ones that said you’re an asshole – they said not to go off the highways-”


                Laughing and interrupting Jack’s words, Alex shakes his head and puts the car in drive, his foot pressing on the gas. “Okay if you think I’m going to listen to you right now, you’re even stupider than I originally thought. The guy in the store said if we go with his directions, we could shave up to an hour off our trip so that’s what we’re going to do. Alright?”


“But they said –”


“Stop talking, Jack. Just let me drive in peace. My God. How about this,” Alex suggests as he pulls back onto the main road, heading in the direction the man he spoke to told him to. He glances over at Jack, who’s pouting and looking at the front windshield. “Dude, let’s play a game. How about ‘I went to the store’?”


“I’ve never even heard of that,” Jack mumbles childishly.


“Basically, you have to think of something you can buy, like…Okay, say I pick an apple. I would say, ‘I went to the store to buy an A’. You would have to guess and ask questions about it until you guess right. Like, can I buy it at a food store, or…Is it red? You know?”


                Jack smiles, “You’re shit at explaining things. But I think I get the basics. Can I go first?”


“Go for it.”


“Okay,” Jack nods, seemingly forgetting all about his little argument about the highways being a better idea, and he gets this concentrated look on face as he stares out the window. “Okay. I went to the store to buy a…B.”


“A Blink-182 CD,” Alex responds immediately.


                Jack gasps, “How the hell did you know that?”


“You’re too easy, Jack.”


                They continue with the game for a while longer, driving along back roads according to the directions that the man gave to Alex. Jack’s doing a fairly decent job at reading them out loud, which helps Alex out a lot.


                It’s when they’re driving along what seems to be a deserted dirt road at seven in the morning, with road signs popping up only every half hour or so, that it happens. A little red light lights up on the dashboard, catching Alex’s attention.


“Fuck,” he says, interrupting Jack’s questioning. “Fuck, the gas light just came on.” He reaches forward, tapping on the light as if that would make it change its mind and decide to turn off. But it doesn’t. It stays on, red and obnoxious and Jesus, he knew they should have stopped for gas at that last gas station they saw.


“Uhhh…” Jack draws out, leaning over to see for himself. “Oh yeah. It is. Um. What are we gonna do?”


“Hopefully there’s a gas station coming up soon…” Alex says quietly, pressing on the gas a little more. The last road sign they saw said a rest stop was coming up, but he’s pretty sure that it was just a bathroom stop. Not a gas station. He’s not going to tell Jack that though, because that would kind of mean admitting that maybe Jack was right and they should have stayed on the damn highways. Fuck.


“I’m sure we’ll make it there,” Jack says optimistically. “I mean, the light coming on is just a warning. We probably have a little while left before-”


                Suddenly there’s a spluttering noise and the needle on the gas gage that had been pointing on E, finally moves past the E and the car starts to slow down. Jack groans and Alex presses his head against the steering wheel, wondering maybe if he slams it against it hard enough, he’ll just pass out and when he wakes up everything will be fine again.


                Jack shifts in his seat, getting onto his knees and turning around to look out the back window. “There’s nobody behind us. Um. Shit. We’re screwed.”




“I’m sure he’s not ignoring you on purpose,” Sierra says softly, leaning across Matt’s kitchen table and putting her hand on Zack’s arm. “Maybe he’s busy.”


                Shaking his head, Zack disagrees. “The only thing he could be busy with is his job. Other than that, he doesn’t do anything.”


“Or maybe he’s moved on and gotten a life and forgotten about you,” Martin says indifferently, his eyes boring into his cell phone and his fingers moving along the keys a mile a minute. He’s been sitting there at the head of the table with a frown, clearly not enjoying himself. Zack’s not entirely sure why he’s here when Paul isn’t, but he doesn’t ask questions.


“Shut up, Martin,” Matt snaps. He glares at the younger boy from where he’s standing, although it goes unnoticed. “If you’re going to just be an asshole, you can go home.”


                Without looking up from his phone, Martin responds, “I can’t. My aunt changed the locks and I have to wait until my cousin gets home to let me in. Trust me,” he looks up from his phone, finally, his blue eyes piercing and cold as they settle on Matt, “If I could be anywhere else, I would be.”


“How come she keeps changing the locks?” Sierra asks, “What have you done to piss her off this time?”


                Zack sits there silently, listening to the conversation and not getting involved. He watches as Martin smirks, and even though he hasn’t known the boy for very long, he does know that what he’s about to say is more than likely going to be something Zack doesn’t need to hear.


“Paul and I-”


                 Before he can even finish, Matt interrupts, shouting, “Okay! Okay, I don’t actually want to know anymore. You can keep that to yourself.”


“You asked. I was just trying to respond,” Martin snaps, folding his arms across his chest. He goes back to looking at his phone, probably to text Paul who’s visiting family out of state for the weekend.


Matt rolls his eyes. “Anyway, I’ve been in this situation before dude. Like I told you, I left my best friend in New York and I should have tried harder to stay in contact with him.”


                With slight apprehension, because he’s not entirely sure how his new friends will take what he’s about to tell them, Zack says, “I kind of…really just want to go back home and see him.”


“Then you should!” Sierra exclaims, raising her hands and Martin flinches, leaning back in his chair as if he expects her to hit him. “Why don’t you just get on a plane and go back home?”


“Because my parents would kill me,” Zack explains. “They would never let me. They’d force me to come home.”


                The girl frowns and slumps back in her chair. “I forgot you’re only seventeen. What if you can like, convince them that we’re all just taking a road trip? Just tell them it’s for fun. Would they fall for it?”


“No. They’d see right through that plan. I may have told them that Alex and I were over but they definitely aren’t stupid enough to believe that I’m completely over him. A road trip would just make them suspicious. It’s not worth the trouble.”


“That sucks,” Sierra says, glancing over at Matt who hasn’t’ said anything for a few minutes. “When do you turn eighteen? Is it soon, at least?”


“On the twenty second-”


“Of this month?” Matt interrupts, leaning forward.




“Well then that’s in like, a week. Today’s the fifteenth. What if we all chipped in together and got you a plane ticket back to Maryland for the day of your birthday? You’ll be legal, and your parents wouldn’t be able to do anything about it-”


“No, dude, I can’t let you guys do that. You barely know me-”


“Yes we can, Zack! Seriously, we may have only known you for a little over a week, but you fit in with us pretty well. And besides, if it’s gonna get you back to your boyfriend, I don’t see why we can’t. And I’m sure the guys – and Sierra – will have no problem pitching in.”


                Zack frowns. “What if it’s too late and he doesn’t want to be with me anymore? Then it’d be a total waste of your money.”


“You told me you love him, didn’t you? And that he pretty much would do anything for you and was super over-protective and shit? Then I really don’t think he’s going to move on from you in the time span of two weeks, to be honest.”


“I…well…I guess…”


                Matt smiles and Sierra makes some weird hand movement and Martin just kind of sinks further into his seat as he says, “I have no money. Don’t ask me.”




“Um. Maybe we can try calling someone?”


                Alex rolls his eyes and presses his head harder against the steering wheel. “Do you happen to know anybody who happens to live in…wherever the hell we are, Jack? Do you happen to have the number of a gas station, or something similar?”


“No…” the older boy responds, dragging the word out. “But I can just call like…911, can’t I?”


“I…I don’t know. I guess so. Go for it.”


                Alex waves one hand dismissively and he hears Jack open the car door to get out. Why he needs to get out of the car to make a simple phone call, Alex doesn’t know. But he’s not going to waste him time in asking because more than likely, Jack will just keep talking about something completely irrelevant to the matter at hand.


“Wait,” Jack says before he can shut the door behind him. He leans back into the car and shoves the phone in Alex’s face. “Dial the number for me?”


                Groaning, Alex lifts his head and takes the cell phone out of Jack’s hands. It’s an old phone, one that he would expect his mother to have, or someone equally as technologically illiterate. He flips the screen open and looks at the display, only to find that the phone has no service.


“Jack,” He says with a sigh, “Go walk around over there and see if you can find a good spot with service, or something.”


“Oh. Okay.”


                Alex hears the car door slam shut and he sighs again, louder this time, as he rests his head against the back of his seat. He’s stuck in a car without gas with Jack Barakat in the middle-of-nowhere-Missouri with a cell phone that doesn’t have service. If he thought he was screwed before, now he’s just completely fucked.


“I don’t know,” He hears Jack say through the open window, “I can’t find any.”


                Looking over and out the car window, he finds Jack walking around in circles with the phone held high above his head. Alex gets this overwhelming feeling of dread. He’s stuck with a moron. He opens his own door and steps out onto the dirt road, frowning the entire time. Before he has the chance to walk over to Jack, though, he gets a glimpse of what looks like a car coming towards them. He narrows his eyes and his hopes lift as it approaches.


“Jack,” He calls out, waving the older boy over, “Jack get over here.”


                Jack stops walking in circles and waving the phone in the air. “What?”




                Jack’s eyes follow the direction Alex is pointing and they widen. “Shit, that’s a car.”


“Yeah, very good, Jack. Do you think they’re gonna stop?”


                The older boy wanders over towards Alex, going a little further past him so that he’s standing in the middle of the dirt road. “They’ll have to or else they’re going to hit me.”


“I’d hit you,” Alex muses.


“Shut up.”


                The car gets closer, and they both acknowledge that it’s actually a pickup truck and it seems to be slowing down. Alex hopes it is because he really doesn’t actually want Jack to die, as much as he might have wished it in the past few days. That would suck. Jack’s not that bad of a guy really. And then he’d be alone and stuck with Jack’s car and then what would he do? He’s pretty certain that-


“Alex! They’re stopping!”


                Jack’s obnoxious shouting breaks him from his thoughts and he re-focuses on the truck, finding it to be slowing down as it pulls over to the opposite side of the road they’re on. He eyes then fall on the car trailer attached to the back and seriously, there has been nothing but luck on their sides lately.


                There are two guys in the pickup truck, and the one driving opens up his door and steps out and walks around the side so that he’s now looking at Alex and Jack. He’s tall – taller than both Alex and Jack – and he’s got the body shape of Jack. Thin and lanky. Alex isn’t sure how his legs are holding him up, they’re so thin. But whatever.


“You guys okay?” He asks, hand reaching up to pull his sunglasses off his face. Alex isn’t quite sure how to describe his accent. He kind of sounds southern but at the same time, definitely not. No, maybe it’s Midwestern. Or…not. It’s weird.


“Uh. We kind of ran out of gas,” Alex says before Jack can jump in and say something stupid. “And we don’t have cell phone service.”


“Aw dude that sucks,” The guy expresses, one hand making some weird snapping motion. “Where ya headed? Maybe we can give you a lift?”


“Well we eventually need to get to California but right now all we need is a gas station.”


“Well that’s convenient. We’re headed for Arizona so you guys can jump in with us. I have a friend in Tulsa, Oklahoma that can give you a discount on gas. The few before that are a little sketchy. Is that okay?”


“That’d be way more than okay,” Alex says, his eyes widening. “But seriously a discount isn’t necessary. We just need gas.”


“Aw don’t worry about it. My name’s John. John O’Callaghan.” He reaches forward and holds his hand out to Jack, who’s the closest to him. “And the other guy in the truck, his name’s Eric but just call him Halvo.”


“Halvo?” Jack questions as John shakes Alex’s hand. “That’s weird.”


“Well it’s just a nickname. Based on his last name. He doesn’t like the name Eric very much.”


                Alex shrugs and keeps close to Jack as John talks about something to do with the weather. He’s not paying much attention, instead just watching John walk over to the front of the car and bend down, seemingly inspecting something. What, Alex has no idea and actually, he really doesn’t care to find out. As long as they can get the car on their car trailer, then everything will be okay and he will never complain about anything ever again. He swears. Really.


“Okay so this will definitely work out,” John announces a few seconds later, getting up from where he had been crouched down. “Let me go tell Halvo what’s going on. He’s probably confused.”


                With a sigh of relief, Alex leans into Jack’s side. “This is working out nicely,” he says and he hears Jack laugh. “We seem to have good luck. Clearly we’re a good pair.”




                Alex looks at Jack and can’t help but smile at the way his eyes are lit up. “Yeah. You’re not as bad as I act like you are. And, I’ll admit – I should have listened to you when you said we should stick to the highways. I was wrong.”


“Aw, Alex,” Jack pulls him close, wrapping him up in a bone-crushing hug and Alex has to remind Jack that he needs to breathe before he suffocates to death. “You do like me!”


“Yeah, yeah whatever. Let me go.” Alex shoves at Jack’s bony, lanky body until he releases his grip and steps back. “I still haven’t forgotten how you got us lost within the first half hour of our trip. Okay?”


                Jack doesn’t seem to care, though. He continues wearing his goofy smile and assisting John every now and then. Alex won’t say it out loud, but it feels kind of nice actually making Jack smile like that. He’s never had a friend other than Zack before and he’s starting to realize what he’s been missing out on. Someone to just laugh with and not care. It’s easy to do that around Jack and Alex can accept that maybe he’s going to want Jack sticking around in the future.



                John was right when he said that the next few gas stations were a bit sketchy. As they pass them, Alex can honestly say that he feels like his skin is crawling. He’s almost glad that they broke down and that John found them. Otherwise, he and Jack would be unknowingly stopping at a rundown gas station and Jack would have likely gotten them into all sorts of trouble just by opening his mouth. He’s good at that kind of thing.


“What if I said I wanted to go to college?”


                Alex looks up from the spot on his knee that he was focusing his attention on when Halvo speaks up from the front seat. He’s staring at John with an amused expression, waiting for the other boy’s response. Alex isn’t quite sure how to describe Halvo. He’s shorter than John is and he’s a lot quieter. He barely said ‘hi’ to Alex and Jack when they got into the back of the pickup truck. But still, he seemed nice enough and Alex couldn’t find any fault in him. Other than that, though, Alex can’t really tell what his personality is like.


“Well, do you?” John finally responds, turning his head and looking at Halvo instead of the road. Alex wishes he wouldn’t.


                Another thing Alex isn’t so sure of, is the relationship between John and Halvo. Are they friends? Are they together? It’s a little difficult to tell, but Alex is leaning towards deciding that they’re together. The way that John looks at the other boy and talks to him kind of reminds him of the way he looks and talks to Zack. But not quite the same.


“No, I don’t,” Halvo responds. “I’m just wondering what you would say.”


“I’d say, ‘where do you want to go?’ You know I would support you, doofus.”


                Alex feels a little weird listening in on what is really a private matter between them and when he feels Jack sift in the seat beside him, he looks over, finding the older boy with his head resting against the glass window. Not quite sure if he’s asleep or just resting his eyes, Alex just decides to follow his lead and get some sleep, considering it’s been a considerable amount of time since he’s gotten any and it’ll likely be quite some time before they stop.



                It’s about three hours later that Alex wakes up again. The sound of Jack’s laughter is what does it, jarring him from his sleep and bringing him back to reality. He sits up straight, wincing at the stiffness he feels in his back. He’s going to have to do some serious stretching before he starts driving again later.


“Oh, Alex!” Jack exclaims loudly when he notices that his friend is awake. “I was telling them about that girl you said was a prostitute at that diner! They know who she is!”


                Alex smiles awkwardly as John looks at him through the rearview mirror. “Yeah,” he says, “We’ve been to that place a few times. She’s always there. Gotten pretty good at ignoring her, though.”


“Yeah last time she really didn’t even bother talking to us,” Halvo adds in.


                Alex notices now that they’re holding hands over the middle console.


“Where exactly are you guys from?” Alex finds himself asking, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees.


“Arizona,” Halvo responds, turning around in his seat to look at Alex. “But we travel a lot because of John’s job. He delivers cars to people, basically.”


“Oh. Well that’s cool,” Alex says even though he doesn’t really think so. He really thinks that sounds absolutely awful but he’ll keep that to himself. “You spend a lot of time together, then?”


                John nods, “Yeah. But sometimes he flies home earlier. He gets homesick easier.”


                He’s teasing Halvo and Alex can tell by the way he nudges the boy in the side with his elbow. They’re cute together, sort of, he decides. Kind of odd, but still cute. He can see easy similarities between him and John – the way he treats Halvo is the same way Alex treated Zack before he moved. They can easily be compared to magnets – they get as close as they can but they can never completely come together, which is what Alex thinks keeps their relationship solid.


                It’s not too much longer before they’re in Tulsa and they’re pulling into the gas station that apparently belongs to one of John’s friends. They park alongside it and John gets out first, saying that he’ll go and get his ‘friend’ who he hasn’t given the name of yet. Jack gets out next, opening the back door and literally falling out onto the pavement in typical Jack fashion. It scares Alex that he actually knows what ‘typical’ is for Jack. But he pushes the thought away. They’re friends. It’s okay to know that.


“Get up,” He grunts as he kicks at Jack’s form on the ground. The sun is almost completely down and according to Jack’s cell phone, it’s nearing seven at night. After they get a full tank of gas, they can drive for a little while longer before stopping at a hotel for the night. Alex needs to lie down in a real bed. And soon.


“So you guys are still heading for California?” Halvo asks as he steps out onto the pavement as well. He glances down at Jack, who’s still on the ground, but he doesn’t say anything.


“Yeah. I’m hoping we’ll be able to get there by the twentieth,” Alex says, still looking down at Jack’s cell phone. Today’s the seventeenth. According to John, it’ll take about a day without stopping to get from Tulsa to Los Angeles. So, including rest stops, Alex thinks they’ll make it in two days, give or take. That would be ideal.


“I think you guys can do it. Just stick to the highways and don’t make mistakes.” Halvo smiles, his eyes filled with unvoiced laughter and Alex can’t help but smile back.


                Soon John is back with his friend who he introduces as Alex Lipshaw (he prefers just Lipshaw, thank you very much). He’s not very friendly and he barely says more than a few words to Alex or Halvo and he completely ignores Jack on the floor – which, of course, is not all the surprising. Alex would ignore him too.


                He fills Jack’s car up, muttering things under his breath and continuously sweeping his blonde hair out of his eyes. John tries to have a conversation with him but he mostly just ends up talking to himself.


                Alex pays for the gas (and, as John said, it was discounted) and then heads back out to the car, finding just John.


“Where’d Halvo and Jack go?” he asks, shoving his wallet back into his pocket as he walks closer. “Did Jack get run over or something?”


“No,” John says with a laugh. “Halvo went to call the airline service and Jack went to the bathroom. Said he’ll be right back.”


“Oh. Why’s he calling the airlines?”


“He’s gonna fly back to Arizona and I’m just gonna keep driving.”


                Alex sucks in air, shifting from one foot to the other before asking, “And you’re okay with that?”


“Um…Of course I am?”


“I mean…Him traveling by himself. You don’t get nervous?”


                A look of understanding crosses John’s features. “Well, of course I get nervous. I worry about him all the time. But if I keep him from doing things, what kind of person does that make me? I can’t keep him in a bubble.”


“Right.” Alex sighs loudly and runs a hand through his hair. He’s been wrong all this time – wrong when it comes to Zack. He’s been controlling and overbearing and ridiculous and it took a long road trip and countless encounters with strangers to make him realize that. “How do you deal with the thought that he could get hurt when you’re not with him?”


                John shrugs, “I dunno, man. I guess I just put a lot of faith in the fact that he can handle himself. Sure, we need each other but we can survive on our own for a little bit, short term.”


                The whole ‘magnet’ comparison jumps into Alex’s brain again and he nods. “Right.”


                He knows now that he’s been wrong – for all the right reasons, of course. Keeping Zack safe is important but he’s been doing it the wrong way. It’s sort of the main reason why Zack is in California and Alex is chasing after him, trying to get him back. They need to be more like magnets. Revolving around each other but never fully clashing.




                There’s only three days now before Zack turns eighteen. It’s a weird feeling, finally turning eighteen. It’s like…he’s going to be ‘legal’ and he’s supposed to be more ‘mature’ but he’s pretty sure he’s not going to feel any differently. Even when he gets on the plane to Maryland, he’s just going to feel anxious and nervous. Not ‘mature’ and ‘responsible’.


                He’s currently sitting at the dinner table in the dining room, across from his mother and next to his father. They’re both talking about something to do with work – about how his father has to travel to Washington DC for a meeting next week. Zack just sits there quietly, pushing his food around his plate. He feels weird that he can just sit here now, without having them making snide comments about his sexuality or having something rude to say about Alex. He knows he should like this new treatment, but he doesn’t. Even with their sudden approval, this doesn’t feel like home. Home is where Alex is, no matter what relationship with his parents may be.


“So, you’ve been hanging out with the Kusterbeck’s daughter a lot recently,” His mother says, turning to him suddenly. She gives him a pointed look as she takes a sip from her wine glass and Zack has to remind himself not to say anything dumb.


“Well, she’s nice, yeah…” He trails off, putting his fork down.


“She’s a very pretty girl.”


“Uh…Yeah. Yeah she’s um. Nice looking, I guess. Her and Matt Flyzik are sort of…together…”


                His mother frowns, looking truly disappointed at this new information. “Oh, well. Maybe she has a cousin you can meet one day.”


“Yeah, maybe. Um. Can I be excused? I’m not very hungry anymore.”


                Zack stands up before she can respond, walking quickly from the room. He feels both of his parent’s eyes on him as he does so, but he doesn’t turn to see their reactions. They’re starting to suffocate him with all their ‘caring’ bullshit.


                Instead of going up to his bedroom like his parents probably think he is, he leaves the house and heads across the street to Paul’s house. He knows the other boy’s home – he texted him earlier and asked if he wanted to hang out with him and Martin and Sierra. Zack probably wouldn’t have gone if Sierra wasn’t – he doesn’t want to be around Martin and Paul alone. They get awkward to be around really fast. Especially when Martin decides to just stop speaking and practically glue himself to Paul’s side.


                While he’s walking up the front pathway, he sees the two boys next door playing basketball in their driveway. Their names are Connor and Riley – seventeen and fifteen years old, respectively – and Zack finds himself walking a little bit faster because he doesn’t want them to see him. If they do, they’ll bombard him with questions about Matt, asking him where he is and what he’s doing and when they can hang out with him. They’re kind of like Matt’s own personal stalkers.


                Thankfully, Paul’s father opens the front door quickly, greeting him warmly and telling him that Martin and Sierra are down the basement, and Paul just went up to his room for a minute. Zack thanks him, feeling kind of sort of intimidated. He’s not sure why, but Paul’s father just scares him a little bit.


“Zack! We were just talking about you!” Sierra exclaims when Zack appears at the bottom of the steps of the basement. She’s sitting on the floor, surrounded by what seems to be the contents of her bag. There are sticks of eyeliner and lip-gloss by her feet and a hairbrush among other things Zack can’t quite classify.


“What’s up?” He questions as he sits down beside her. Martin is sitting on the couch, an unpleasant look on his face, as usual. Zack’s starting to think that that’s just his default expression whenever Paul’s not next to him.


“We’re pretty sure we have enough money to get the plane ticket,” the girl explains, her excitement barely containable. “Martin just gave us a hundred bucks and-”


“Hold on,” Zack interrupts, looking back at Martin and shaking his head, “Why would you do that? I can’t accept that.”


Martin glares and leans forward, one hand rubbing at the back of his head. “Shut up and just take it, okay? I don’t need it and you clearly do and – whatever; don’t make me explain myself.” He rolls his eyes and then collapses backwards, eyes trained on the steps. He’s probably waiting for Paul to reappear from wherever he is.


“Anyway,” Sierra continues, pulling her wallet out from the pile beside her left foot. “Paul just went upstairs to get his laptop. We’re going to look into flights and try and book one now.”  

                Zack smiles, not really sure how else to react. He can’t believe that in the time span of less than a week, these people that he barely knows have banded together in order to help him out. He’s never had friends that weren’t also his boyfriend. It gives him a nice feeling, knowing that he has some now. He’s not going to forget about them, and he’s sure that they’re not going to forget about him, either.


                Paul comes back down to the basement a few minutes later carrying his laptop. He smiles and says hi to Zack before sitting himself on the couch next to his boyfriend, who’s wearing a much friendlier facial expression now.


                It doesn’t take long to find and book a flight that’s in their price range and gets into BWI in Maryland at a decent time. Reading the confirmation email off the screen makes it all more real. He’s going home. To Alex. He just hopes Alex will want to see him after everything that happened. He’s still ignoring Zack’s phone calls so…Zack’s a little worried about what’s going to happen.


“Aw, this is so exciting!” Sierra exclaims, hooking one arm around Zack’s shoulders. “We’re gonna miss you though. You fit in so well with this group.”


“Well… I mean, it’s not like we’ll never see him again, Sierra,” Paul says slowly, one hand resting on Martin’s knee. “I mean, Matt’s going to try and go back to New York in the winter if he can scrape up enough money for an apartment. And Martin’s thinking about telling his dad he wants to transfer out of state to New York so…I mean, seeing him again isn’t that far out of the question-”


“Wait so you’re all just going to leave?”


                Paul nods. “At some point…yeah. You knew that. You even said you were thinking about leaving too.”


“Well…I guess I didn’t really think it’d be happening so fast,” She says quietly, leaning back against the couch. She looks sad. For the first time since Zack has met her, she seems vulnerable and he feels awful that he can’t do anything to stop that.


“Please,” Martin says suddenly, standing up and stretching his arms above his head, “We all know you and Matt are going to move to New York and shack up together. In a year, I’ll be getting an invitation to your baby shower and I will be telling Paul ‘I told you he’d knock her up before they got married’. Don’t even pretend that Matt’s just going to leave you behind.”


                With that said, he starts walking towards the stairs, ruffling Sierra’s hair as he passes her. She watches him go, eyes wide and an amused smile on her face. She doesn’t say anything, though, until he disappears up the steps completely.


“He’s such an asshole.”




“So…What exactly happens when we get to Los Angeles?” Jack asks from the driver’s seat, looking in his rearview mirror before switching into the left lane. “I mean, are we going to go straight to the address he gave you? Or…”


“Well. I figure he’s probably living in a gated community kind of thing. Like before he moved. His parents are involved with the government and they like to keep everyone who works together in the same general area, apparently. So we’re going to have to figure out how to get in there. Which hopefully won’t be too hard.”


“Right…I hope so too. I mean…We can ask around, right?”


“We’ll be fine,” Alex assures him, turning back to playing with Jack’s cell phone. The battery is low and the service is non-existent. Come to think of it, Alex can’t recall a single time that the phone has actually had service. The only time they tried to make a call, they were stranded in the middle of nowhere and Jack told him he couldn’t find a signal. “Hey Jack…” Alex says, trailing off and pushing a few random buttons. “Do you um. Do you remember when the last time your phone bill was paid?”


                Jack furrows his eyebrows, still staring out at the road. He thinks for a few seconds and then nods slowly, clearly not exactly keen to respond. “I think…two months ago…?”


                Alex snaps the phone shut and drops it, his lips pressed into a thin line. “Well that’s great. No wonder we never have any fucking service!”




“Yeah. Oh. Great fucking job, Jack. Really.”


“At least we didn’t really need it-”


“I was going to call Zack once we got to LA and tell him everything that’s going on. Now, I can’t do that. Because you are an idiot who can’t remember to pay his phone bill.”


“Well you know, it’s not exactly easy, is it Alex?” Jack snaps, and it’s the first time Ale has heard the older boy sound even remotely unhappy. “I’ve been on my own since I was eighteen and considering the fact that I was living out of my car for the past three weeks, I don’t think my cell phone bill was the first thing on my mind, alright?”


                Alex swallows and pushes himself down in his seat. He’s been an asshole to Jack pretty much the entire trip. No wonder the boy just snapped like that. “Right,” Alex mumbles, nodding slightly and avoiding looking over at Jack. “Okay. Sorry. I was wrong. I’m just nervous.”


                Neither of them speaks again until they stop at a motel just outside of Western Los Angeles, eight hours later. Alex gets them a cheap room, calls the shower first, and that’s all the conversation they have for the rest of the night. While Alex is staring up at the ceiling, at the peeling white paint, he finds himself being overridden by guilt. Jack’s been nothing but nice and somewhat helpful to him over the past week. He’s only always wanted to help. And Alex has treated him horribly. He needs to fix that tomorrow. He can’t go find Zack without fixing this…weird friendship first.



                The motel-provided alarm clock goes off at six am, a good ten hours since they set it. Alex sits up and stretches his arms above his head, his brain already coming up with ways to apologize to Jack. But when he looks over at the other bed, he finds that Jack isn’t there. There’s actually no evidence that he was there at all.


                Panicked, Alex stands up and slips his shoes on. He grabs his backpack and throws the motel room door open and steps out onto the pavement, finding Jack standing there conversing with the man who checked them in the night before. Heartbeat slowing down, Alex sighs. He should have more faith in Jack. Plus, Jack wouldn’t last on his own – and he knows that.


“Morning Alex,” Jack mumbles when the man walks away, their keycard in his hands. “I got you coffee.”


                Alex takes the coffee cup Jack is holding out to him tentatively, not really sure what he should say first. ‘Thanks’ or ‘I’m sorry’?


“It’s the way you usually get it,” the older boy adds, bouncing on his feet anxiously. “I mean, I hope it is. I might’ve uh… fucked something up somehow but-”


“Jack,” Alex interrupts, shaking his head, “It’s fine. Great, actually. Thanks.” He takes a sip, swallowing the lukewarm liquid down. He’ll admit, it’s not quite the way he likes it but whatever. He won’t say anything. “Anyway, I’m really sorry about what I said to you yesterday. I was out of line and just… I’m sorry. You don’t deserve any of the shit I say to you and I don’t know why or how you put up with it-”


Jack lets out a small laugh, his lips curling into a smile as he says, “We’re friends, Alex. Friends put up with shit they shouldn’t have to. You know?”


“Friends,” Alex nods, looking down at the cup in his hands. “It feels weird saying that. I’ve never had one of those before.”


“No wonder you’re so fucked up,” Jack teases, stepping forward and looping his arm around Alex’s shoulders. “I’ve never had a friend either, though so… I know how you feel.”


                Alex grins as they walk to the car alongside each other. “Yeah. And, when you meet Zack, he’ll be your friend too. You’ll like him. He’s perfect.”


“Perfect for you, maybe.”


“Perfect for me. Right.”



                ‘Ocean Acres’ is exactly what Alex expected it to be. It’s a small gated community that’s extremely similar to the one Zack lived in back in Maryland. Of course, in Maryland, Alex didn’t really need ID to get in and here he clearly does. There’s a small booth at the gates, obviously for guards to make sure nobody’s trying to sneak in. This place is so much more serious about security than the old place.


“How are we going to get in?” Jack asks quietly from where he’s standing beside Alex. “I don’t think it’d be possible to sneak in.”


“No,” Alex agrees, “We have to convince someone to let us in with them. Hey, look.” He points to the left where two boys are walking down the sidewalk. One has a basketball tucked under his arm and the other is walking along beside him. They’re talking, but not loud enough for either Jack or Alex to hear them. “I’m gonna ask them if they know Zack.”


“Okay…Be careful…”


                What Jack is telling him to be careful for, Alex isn’t sure. They’re two boys who are clearly under the age of eighteen. They’re harmless. He walks up to them before they reach the security booth, trying his best to look normal and not like some creepy pedophile. That would cause unnecessary setbacks in this plan.


“Hey, can I ask you something?” He says, and the boys stop walking, looking at each other with confused expressions.


“I guess so?” The taller, blonde one says, “Depends on what it is?”


“Do you happen to know a Zack Merrick? He’s a really good friend of mine and I –”


“We know him!” The short one exclaims, pushing forward in front of the other. “He’s the new kid that hangs out with Matt Flyzik!”


“Uh…Right. Okay – Can you maybe take me to where he lives? I can’t call him because my phone’s broken and he’s not-”


“Sure,” The blonde agrees. “I’m Connor, by the way. And this is my brother Riley. Just come with us and we’ll get you in.”


                Alex grins, not believing how lucky he just got. It’s seemingly becoming a pattern. This entire road trip, he’s had nothing but good luck and good circumstances. He motions to Jack to join them, giving him the thumbs up while Riley and Connor have their backs turned. The older boy grins back at him as he jogs over. They’re so close to being done with this – so close to getting what they came for.


                They get through the gates without any problems. The guards don’t even give him and Jack a second glance. Riley and Connor just flash them their ID pass and they let them in. Easier than Alex thought it would be.


“Zack lives near Paul,” Riley says as they walk down the sidewalk, passing house after house that looks exactly the same. “But I think this morning I saw them near the pool so they’re probably still there.”


“Are he and Paul…friends?” Alex finds himself asking, frowning as he does. “Good friends?”


                Riley nods, “Yeah and he’s friends with Matt and Sierra. And Rian and Garrett and Pat. Oh…and Martin, too. But nobody likes Martin very much.”


“That’s not true,” Connor argues. “They all like Martin. But everyone else doesn’t. Anyway, look. They’re right over there. I think he’s the one-”


                The rest of Connor’s words are ignored by Alex. His voice is drowned out by the blood rushing through his ears. There are quite a few people hanging around by the pool, one of them definitely being Zack. But he’s smiling and laughing and everything Alex thought he wouldn’t be. Alex didn’t expect the boy to be depressed, lying in bed all day. But he definitely didn’t think he’d be out laughing with a group of people and seemingly not caring about where Alex is or how Alex is doing.


                He wants to go over and talk to him and maybe he’ll be proven wrong – maybe Zack does care and maybe he does still want to be with Alex. He can go right up to Zack, tell him just how feels for him and how much he’s gone through just to make it to California. With this in mind, Alex takes roughly two steps in the direction of the pool area, but then he sees something that makes him stop in his tracks. He watches as some girl drapes herself all over Zack, both of them smiling and laughing. She’s thin and pretty (as far as Alex can tell, at least) and her brown hair falls in waves and yeah. He can see how someone would find her endearing.


Alex watches them ignore the other kids in their group in favor of their own whispered conversation, looking perfectly at ease with each other. When the girl plants a kiss on top of Zack’s head, Alex’s stomach does flips and he thinks he feels a little sick. The sun overhead suddenly seems way too hot and overwhelming and Alex is suffocating and it’s just. Too much. He can’t help but think that this is exactly what Zack’s parent’s wanted and they apparently got it.


                “Alex, what—”


                Disregarding Jack’s question and concerned glance altogether, Alex turns and robotically makes his way back to the car. The scene he’d just witnessed is playing over and over in his mind and he thinks he’d give anything to make it end, just to forget it. His breathing is shallow as he makes it past the guards at the gates, ignoring Jack calling after him. He fumbles for his wallet in his pocket, his palms sweaty and his mind numb.


                He reaches the car in what seems like no time, closing the door behind him. It’s sweltering inside and he feels drops of sweat beginning to roll down the sides of his head, but he ignores them in favor of extracting all the money he has from his wallet. It’s completely obvious that this entire plan was a mistake. He shouldn’t have come, Zack doesn’t need him. He’s found a new life, a better life, without Alex. Zack is happier without him. Alex should have just let him go, just to save himself the humiliation and heartache.


                Alex’s heart races as he counts out the money, leaning his head on the steering wheel. The passenger seat’s door opens and Jack slides in. He’s saying something, trying to talk Alex through this – whatever this is. But Alex isn’t having any of it. Zack’s over him and starting a new life with new friends. Alex shouldn’t have come. He shouldn’t have been so stupid to think that Zack would pick him over this new life in California.


“Seriously, Alex, stop for a second and tell me what happened!”


Alex doesn’t stop what he’s doing, but he offers Jack a brief explanation. “It’s over. He’s over me and I shouldn’t be here. You saw him with that girl.”


“You really should have tried to talk to him,” Jack is saying, “You might have just misinterpreted what you saw!”


“Jack,” Alex says softly, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose as he lifts his head, “Jack please shut up. I don’t want to hear your voice ever again and I’m trying to make sure I can make that happen.”


“Wait- what? Alex, I’m going back with you. I-”


“I don’t want anything to do with you anymore, Jack. This whole fucking thing – it was a dumb idea. I’m going home alone. I’ll give you your money and I don’t care what you do with it but please don’t fucking follow me. I want to forget this entire trip, and that means forgetting about you.”




“You’re eighteen!”


                Sierra’s voice echoes through the room, high pitched and much too obnoxious for this time of day. Actually, Zack’s not even sure what time it even is. He blinks sleepily, eyes catching Sierra moving about the room quickly, talking to herself. He groans as he reaches blindly for his cell phone that he knows he left right on the floor next to the couch he’s sleeping on in Matt’s basement. His fingers find it, lift it up so it’s in his line of sight and he cringes when he sees the time. Six am.


“Sierra,” He says, voice raspy and he kind of sounds like an eighty year old man. He coughs, clearing his throat, before repeating himself.


                The girl turns to face him, rolling her eyes when she sees he’s not even really awake. “You need to get up. Your flight leaves at four and you need to make sure you have all your stuff packed and you also need to spend some time with us before you go. Because I said so.”


“O-okay,” Zack says through a yawn, flopping back onto the couch cushions. He hears Sierra leave for the bathroom and he finds himself starting to slip back into sleep. He knows he shouldn’t, because he really does need to make sure he has everything. But he’s just really tired. They stayed up late last night, playing video games and laughing and even Martin seemed to be enjoying himself for once. As much as Zack hates to admit it, he kind of doesn’t want to leave. He wants to see Alex but he also wants to keep these guys as friends and wants to hang out with them and…Yeah, he knows he can’t have both right now. It sucks, to say the least.


                Rolling over onto his side, he finds Martin and Paul not too far away. They slept on an air mattress that Matt blew up for them because Martin flat out refused to sleep on the floor. Zack smiles, noticing the way Paul has his arms wrapped protectively around Martin. If Zack was ever skeptical about true love, there’s no way he possibly could be anymore. He doesn’t know their back story, how they got together, but he can tell they’re right for each other. Martin’s an asshole on his own. But when he’s with Paul he’s tolerable. Still unpleasant, but not as bad.


                Sierra takes her sweet time in the bathroom. Zack can hear her drying her hair and she’s probably going to be in there for a while so he sits up slowly and stretches, deciding that he might as well go upstairs to use the bathroom. He steps on Matt on the way to the stairs (on accident, he swears) and he walks up the steps with a chorus of unpleasant words being shouted after him.



                It’s around one in the afternoon when they get to the community pool. Garrett and Pat and Rian are there, so Sierra insisted that they spend a half hour there so Zack can say goodbye to them. Matt’s parents are letting him use the car today, and the trunk is packed with both of Zack’s suitcases. They only hold a small amount of his belongings, because he’s fairly certain his parents would be a bit suspicious if they went into his room while he was out and found that all of his stuff was gone.


If Zack is honest, he kind of just wants to get this whole thing over with. Just get on the plane without saying goodbye to anyone. He wants to treat the goodbye like a band aid – just rip it off and not drag out the pain. 


“Dude, Maryland and New York aren’t that far,” Rian says, leaning back in his lounge chair. He shoves at Pat, pointing to the snack bar and the younger boy rolls his eyes but gets up anyway and heads over to get Rian the soda he’s been asking for since Zack got here. “I mean, Flyzik and Sierra and Paul and Martin will be there by the spring semester of college if things go according to plan. They could easily visit you. So it’s not like you’ll never see any of us again.


“Yeah, I know,” Zack nods, smiling slightly. He never really got to know Rian very well, other than the fact that he’s dating a girl named Kara and he really, really loves her. But he seems like a genuinely nice guy. “Besides, if everything goes the way I want it to, my boyfriend and I will be moving to New York at some point. Just gotta save up enough.”


                Sierra grins and hops up and down lightly on her feet, her hair swishing back and forth and looking as pretty as she always does. Zack catches Matt staring at her. He seriously wishes he would just admit how much he likes her. It’s almost painful watching them sidestep each other all the time.


“What time’s your flight?” Garrett questions from his spot on the concrete floor. He’s sitting on a towel, dripping wet from just getting out of the pool. “I asked Martin four times but he refused to tell me.”


                Martin huffs from beside Paul, clearly not happy about being called out like that.


“It leaves at four,” Matt responds for Zack, “And we should probably get going.”


                Zack breathes in deep as Paul gives him the typical ‘guy hug’, telling him he’ll be seeing him again soon. Garret hugs him next and Zack is careful to keep a decent enough distance between them so he doesn’t get his clothes wet. Rian fist bumps him, tells him to have a safe flight just as Pat comes back with his soda. Pat hugs him tightly, almost making it so that Zack kind of can’t breathe, and tells him how awesome it was meeting him and hanging out with him, and that hopefully when he goes to college in New York next year, they can hang out again.


                Martin surprises Zack. He smiles sheepishly (it might be the third smile Zack has seen out of him this week) and steps forward, wrapping his arms around Zack’s frame tighter than Zack would have ever expected from someone so thin. “Bye, Zack,” He mumbles before he pulls away, quickly hiding himself half behind his boyfriend. It all happened so fast that Zack almost thinks he imagined it. But the look Paul gives Martin tells him all he needs to know.


                And then there’s Sierra. She attaches herself to him, squeezing him tighter than anyone had and saying quietly, “I’m gonna miss you, Zack. You’re fucking awesome.”


                Zack grins, hugs her back as he says just as softly, “Well I’m gonna miss you too. But we’ll see each other again. And by then, you and Matt seriously better be together.” She blushes hard and ducks her head for a few seconds, and Zack laughs as he ruffles her hair. “I’m serious. Get on that.”


“Whatever,” She responds when she looks up at him again. She leans up on her tip-toes and kisses his forehead, messing up his hair in return. “Don’t forget to call me once in a while.”


“I won’t. I’ll call you as soon as I find out if going back to Maryland was worth it or not.”


“Of course it’s worth it,” She assures him, “Everything’s going to be perfectly fine.”


“I hope so.”



                Ten minutes later and Matt is urging Zack that they need to go if he wants to be sure he’s going to make his flight. Zack bites his lip, wanting to say one more goodbye to each of them. But, before he can say anything else, he’s interrupted by Matt who curses loudly and shuffles himself over to hide behind Martin and Paul. Everyone looks over at him, confused and curious as to why exactly he’s acting so strangely. He nods in the opposite direction, where Riley and Connor, his next door neighbors, are walking through the pool gates. This time, though, there’s another person with them. A tall, lanky boy in black skinny jeans and a white t-shirt and he looks extremely awkward and out of place as he wrings his fingers together as he follows behind them.


“They saw me already,” He groans, “Someone make them go away.”


“If you want I can push them in the pool,” Garrett suggests, barely containing his smile. “But I feel like their mother wouldn’t be very happy with me if I did that.”


                Before Matt can respond, Connor is within earshot and he waves excitedly. “Hi guys!”


“Hey, Connor,” Rian responds, friendly as ever. His mom is friends with Riley and Connor’s mom so he sort of has to be extra nice. “What’s up?”


“Nothing. But actually, this guy wants to talk to Zack.” He jerks his thumb at the guy behind him. “His name’s Jack and he says he has something important to say.”


                The stranger, now known as ‘Jack’, steps forward, looking at Zack with worried eyes and a strange sense of urgency hovering around him. “I um. I know this is going to sound weird but I came here with Alex, your boyfriend, today and –”


“What?” Zack interrupts him, moving closer. He’s not sure if he heard this guy correctly or not. “Alex is here?”


“No. I mean, he was. Yeah. But not anymore. He um. He and I drove here from Maryland and he wanted to talk to you and bring you back home. But when we saw you, you were kind of…Well, he saw some things and reacted before he talked to you and now he’s in a cab to the airport to catch a flight to Maryland.”


                Zack can’t quite wrap his mind around what this guy has just told him. Alex is here. Alex is in California. He fucking drove from Maryland to California just to get him back. He feels Sierra’s hand on his shoulder. “I don’t…Why didn’t he come and talk to me? Why’d he just leave?”


                Jack grimaces. “He saw the girl next to you hugging you and just generally being all over you and he decided you’re over him and that coming here was stupid.” His statement is blunt but Zack can tell that he means no offense by it. “I tried to convince him to come back and actually talk to you but he left. And I think he’s making a mistake.”


“Of course he is,” Zack manages, “He- I…I have a plane ticket for a flight home to Maryland at four. I was going back to him…Do you still have the car you drive here in?”


“I do, yeah…But maybe it’d be better if someone else drove us…” He blushes for some reason that Zack doesn’t care to find out. “Someone who knows the area.”


                Zack turns on Matt, who’s come out of his hiding spot. “Matt, we need to go now. And you need to drive as fast as you can. I’m serious.”


“Dude I’ve been trying to get you to leave for the past twenty minutes!” He exclaims, clearly slightly irritated. “Let’s get in the fucking car and keep your boyfriend from flying back to Maryland without you.”




                Los Angeles International Airport (commonly known as LAX) is crowded and loud and impossible to maneuver through without somehow accidently stepping on someone’s belongings. Zack refuses to slow down, though. He’s not sure what flight Alex is going to get on and he refuses to let him get on that plane by himself. He can’t let Alex slip through his fingers like this. Not when he’s so close.


“I think it’s this way,” Matt says suddenly, gripping Zack’s elbow tightly and pulling him roughly to the left. “I’m pretty sure Gate 11 is at the end down there.”


                Zack follows close behind Matt. Jack is by his side as well and Zack has quickly learned that his new acquaintance is awkward and uncoordinated and just generally…extremely, painfully awkward. But he manages to keep up just fine, following them like a lost puppy. He hasn’t given his opinion on where he thinks Gate 11 is, opting to keep his mouth shut and let Matt and Zack direct them through the airport.


                Gate eleven is exactly where Matt said it would be. There’s a small sitting area right in front of the check-in desk. Zack sucks in a sharp breath when his eyes land on the figure standing talking to the woman behind the desk. It’s Alex. He knows it is by the way he’s standing and the color of his hair and the way it’s styled and the way he’s wearing his jeans. Yeah. Definitely Alex.


“Go,” Matt says harshly, shoving him hard between the shoulder blades and pushing him forward. “Go before you’re too late and you’ll hate yourself.”


                Zack walks, knowing that even if Alex did get on the plane without him, he’d still have another chance. He’d fly home later, on his four o’clock flight, and track Alex down and get him to see reason. But it’s easier to do this now. It’s better to get this over with. He’s spent so long being away from the one person he loves and needs more than anything that it hurts. His heart aches just from looking at the back of Alex’s head and he knows that if he has to wait any longer to talk to him, it’ll be a hundred times worse.


                Alex turns around from the desk, fiddling with his ticket and putting it away safely in his jacket pocket. When he looks up, his eyes meet Zack, who’s only standing about four feet away from him now. He doesn’t react. Just stares with a blank expression before asking, “What are you doing here?”


“To stop you from going home without me,” Zack says softly, only loud enough for the older boy to hear him. He takes a tentative step forward. “Can you listen to me for a minute? Can you let me explain what you apparently saw back at the pool?”


                Alex shakes his head. “You don’t have to. I was stupid to just drive here without talking to you about it first. You’re better off here and I can learn to be okay with that-”


“No, Alex!” Zack moves even closer, finding it difficult to be this close for the first time in weeks and not being able to actually touch him. “That’ snot true at all. I love you. I want to be with you. Yeah, I made friends and I had fun while I was here but that’s nothing compared to everything I have, and will have, with you. The girl you saw? That was Sierra – she’s just a friend,” He stresses the word, trying hard to make Alex understand what’s going on. “She’s pretty much in love with my friend Matt and there’s no way she’s into me. Besides, you’re the only one I’ll ever want to be with. So can you just…Can you forget about what you saw? Push it away and-and let me hug you, or something? Because seriously, that’s all I’ve wanted to do since I left Maryland.”


                He’s crying now and he’s fully aware of the people who are staring at him. But he doesn’t care. All he cares about is if Alex believes him or not. If he doesn’t, Zack’s not sure what he’ll do. He’s never thought about being without Alex permanently. The thought never entered his brain, not even when he was pissed off the day he moved.


                Seeing Alex’s unchanging facial expression, he shoves his hand into his pocket, desperately looking for a last shot at making him understand. “Do you see this?” He asks as he pulls his plane ticket out of his pocket. “This is my plane ticket back to Maryland. For four o’clock this afternoon. Does that make you realize that I want you and only you? That I was coming home to be with you again?”


                Alex widens his eyes as he reads the words on the paper Zack is holding out. His eyes are watery and he blinks away tears. He’s never been one to let himself cry in front of Zack. But this time, a few tears do fall and he lurches forward, his arms tightly wrapping themselves around Zack’s smaller frame for the first time in what feels like years.


“I’m sorry I was such an asshole to you,” He says quietly in Zack’s ear, “I was being controlling and you had every right to be so mad at me. But I get it now. I know that I need to trust you to be okay without me. The past week and half is proof of that.”


                Zack threads his fingers into Alex’s hair, breathing in his scent and trying his hardest not to start crying too. Someone needs to keep themselves under control as far as emotions go. “It’s fine; I don’t even care anymore. I’m not mad. I just want you to take me home and we can go back to saving for New York and everything will be okay again.” And then he kisses Alex hard and yet soft at the same time, putting all of his feelings into that one kiss. He wants Alex to know how much he loves him and that there’s never going to be anyone else. He deserves to know it.


                By the time they pull away from one another, both Jack and Matt have come closer to them, standing there with un-amused looks on their faces. Zack laughs, reminding himself to ask exactly how Jack and Alex came to be friends while they’re in the car.


“Are we gonna get your flight bumped up?” Alex asks, clearly confused when Zack starts pulling him towards the exit sign. “I thought-”


“We are going home, Alex. But I want to tell my parents in person that I’m leaving. You drove across the country for me. I should be able to tell them exactly what’s going on. I’m proud of you and I want everyone to know it.”




                The car ride back to the community is long but eventful. Alex explains every single thing that happened n the car ride across America and Zack finds himself laughing harder than he has in a long time. Everything he’s saying seems so ridiculous that he almost doesn’t want to believe that they actually happened. But Jack backs him up, so Zack really has no reason not to believe it.


“We almost got trapped by a prostitute. But I didn’t know she was a prostitute until Alex told me. Now that I think about it, it should have been obvious…” Jack trails off as Matt pulls the car into Zack’s driveway.


                Zack laughs again but his heart’s not as in it as before. It’s racing, now, as he looks at his front door. Both of his parent’s are home and when he tells them what’s happening…They’re going to be pissed off. But he has to do it. He has to stand up for himself. And they can’t stop him. Because he’s eighteen.


“So, if I don’t come back out within ten minutes….They’ve probably killed me,” Zack says when he steps out of the car and stands beside Alex. He’s only half joking.


“Maybe I should go with you.”


                Zack shakes his head. “No. I think I’ll be okay?”


                Alex frowns, one hand resting gently on Zack’s hip. “You sure? Cause I can go in.”


“Alex. I’ll be fine.”


                At first Alex seems a bit unsure. As if he’s going to say no and just go in with Zack anyway. But then he takes the younger boy by surprise. He shrugs his shoulders and steps back so that he’s standing closer to Jack as he says, “Okay. Come get me if you need me, then.”


                If they were still in Maryland, before Zack moved, this wouldn’t be happening. Alex wouldn’t be letting him out of his sight. But the road trip clearly did him some good. All those people that he met along the way? They’ve taught him something. His boyfriend has clearly grown and changed over the past week and a half. And he’d be lying if he said he didn’t like it.




Six months later. January 24th. New York City.


“What if I just became a stripper instead of going back to school tomorrow? I feel like that would be a good plan. What do you think?”


Zack looks up from the book he’s reading on the living room couch. His eyes first land on Martin, who’s standing in the middle of the room holding a pile of textbooks. He’s staring at Paul, who’s sitting on the opposite end of the couch as Zack and staring at Martin with an amused expression.


“Well,” Paul muses, sitting forward and crossing his legs, “That depends. Would you only do private shows for me and nobody else?”


“I think that would defeat the purpose,” Martin argues, “I’d be dropping out of school and taking the stripping job so I could make money to support myself. If I only strip for you, where is my income?”


“I could sacrifice a few singles every night, I think.”


“But again, that would defeat the purpose cause your money is my money and my money is yours.”


                Zack rolls his eyes as Paul responds again. The fact that the two of them are taking this conversation seriously is amusing but yet slightly concerning at the same time. He tries his best to drown them out (he’s gotten fairly good at that over the past three months of living together) and concentrates on the book he’s reading. Sierra suggested it to him a month ago so he figured he should start it. The noise of the city traffic outside does nothing to distract him. It’s something he’s grown pleasantly used to.


“So…I guess I should just stay in school and get my degree and start a business,” Martin decides after a few more minutes of back-and-forth arguing between them. “I hope Alex changes his mind and wants to start a cool business. A cupcake store isn’t cool. It’s gay.”


                Zack snorts, “Yeah, like you.” He looks up from his book, finding Martin glaring at him. He might be a bit friendlier now that he’s out of his aunt’s house and been drug-free for nearly a year, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have witty lines and rude responses when he’s been insulted.


“Not as gay as you. At least I don’t walk around and let people take pictures of me in my underwear.”


“It’s called ‘modeling’ and at least people want to take pictures of me in my underwear.”


“It’s only because you suddenly have abs and a decent looking face. Oh, and because you have friends in high places.”


“Okay enough before you two strangle each other,” Paul interferes, standing up and taking the pile of textbooks out of his boyfriend’s hands. “How about I start dinner and you both stay in separate corners.”


“Fine,” both Martin and Zack respond at the same time.


                Martin throws one last glare in Zack’s direction before retreating back to the bedroom he shares with Paul. The door slams behind him and Zack winces.


“He’s stressed,” Paul says softly, “His dad’s been calling him all week and he’s been ignoring him. He doesn’t mean what he says.”


“It’s fine,” Zack waves him off. “I’m not really offended by what he says, ever. Besides, I wouldn’t call Rian’s girlfriend a ‘friend in a high place’. All she did was get me an interview with her boss.”


                Paul smiles as he moves in towards the kitchen. “Dude you don’t have to defend yourself to me. I know you worked hard to get where you are. And so does Martin. He just gets defensive.”


                Zack nods and sinks back into the couch. He glances at the time on the TV cable box and smiles. Alex will be home soon from work. He works with Sierra and Matt at a record label. They all are pretty low on the food chain but they’re working their way up. Sierra’s trying hard to get a record deal and Matt’s her manager/boyfriend. Zack’s sure everything will work out for them soon.


                Alex is just working to pass the time before Martin graduates college with his business degree. He’s been wanting to start up his own business, using his ‘awesome’ baking and cooking skills and with Martin’s knowledge on doing that, they could have a successful store in no time. Of course, Alex just has to convince Martin that a bakery isn’t ‘gay’. Easier said than done.


                Paul works at a publishing agency. Again, he’s really just an assistant, but he’s hoping to get an internship and work his way up. He works strange hours, though, which is the only bad side.


                Ten minutes later, Paul has a pot of water boiling on the stove when Alex walks through the front door, a huge smile on his face. He leaves his shoes by the door, shrugging off his coat and brushing the light snowflakes off to the floor.


“It’s so fucking cold,” he says happily, walking further into the apartment. “But guess what I found out today.”


“What?” Zack asks, leaning up just as Alex leans down to kiss him ‘hello’.


“Sierra’s got a record deal. But you can’t tell her! I’m really not even supposed to know. They’re telling her tomorrow at her meeting.”


“Shit, that’s awesome!” Paul exclaims, lowering the flame on the burner as he dumps a package of noodles into the water. “She’s going to freak. And so is Matt. They both deserve it.”


                Alex nods and sits himself beside Zack on the couch. “Maybe tomorrow night we can all go out and celebrate.” He wraps his arms around Zack’s waist, and rests his head on his shoulder. “It’s been a while since we all got together and hung out.”


“I’m gonna go tell Martin. Make sure the noodles don’t burn okay?” Paul requests, heading down the hallway towards the bedrooms.


                Zack watches him go, relaxing into Alex’s side and reveling in the fact that they’re finally alone for a few seconds.


“How’d your photo shoot go?” Alex questions, pressing his nose against Zack’s cheek. “Did you get everything done?”


“Yeah,” Zack sighs, “I think so. It went decently. I had to walk home, though, which sucked cause it’s so cold.”


“Next time you should pay for a cab. I know you don’t like spending money on things like that but seriously, I’d rather you be in a cab than walking forty blocks home.”


“I’m going to be nineteen years old,” Zack teases, “I think I can handle myself in New York City in broad daylight. I thought we were over the whole ‘over-protectiveness’.”


                Alex shakes his head. “I’ll always be worried and always be thinking about if you’re okay or not. But I know you’re capable of handling yourself.”

“I love you,” Zack says quietly, grinning as he lifts his legs and drapes them over Alex’s lap. “When will Jack be home?”


“I think he said his class ends at seven. He has a late night.”


“Oh yeah. Forgot.”


                Jack’s studying at the same school as Martin, but going for a History major instead of business. He’s been doing surprisingly well, but Zack assumes it’s because he’s got quite a few tutors helping him get through all the work. Dyslexia’s a bitch, especially when you’re in college and everyone expects you to read through things quickly. But Jack’s managing and that’s all that matters.


“So um. Your mom called after you left for work this morning,” Zack says, watching Alex’s reaction. “She left a message. It’s on the machine if you wanna listen to it…”


                At first, Alex says nothing. His lips form a thin line and he almost looks angry. But then he sighs loudly and shakes his head. “I’m just going to delete it. I don’t want to talk to her.” He rubs his hands over Zack’s legs, smiling slightly to himself. “I’ve got you and as long as that’s always an applicable statement, I don’t really need anyone else.”

♠ ♠ ♠
AHHH so what'd you think!?
I hope you guys liked it!!
If you're interested, I am in the process of writing a little spin-off about Martin and Paul.