I Will Follow
Brian Cooper was on the big tour bus, on the way to his first track meet, when he first met Tate Walker. He was sitting by himself, because he didn’t know anybody, and he felt like the only person on earth without an iPod or a cell phone that folded itself into origami and took a dump for you to boot. Tate came on late, and brother, was he a sight.
Half his face was taken up with a glorious tribal tattoo, one that extended down to the neck of his long-sleeved shirt and over his half-gloved hand. Later, Tate would get an entire sleeve tattoo there and stop wearing long-sleeved shirts, but the tattoo was not even the most amazing part of his look.
His right ear, the side with the tattoo, was pierced upward of a dozen times, and so was his nose, and his eyebrow, and his lip (although that one was the first to go). His inky dark hair was cut into a Mohawk, and the tattoo extended over half his scalp as well. Although the Mohawk was back in a ponytail for the meet, Brian had seen Tate around school, and very often he wore it in four-inch spikes, courtesy of Elmer’s glue and a lot of grooming, Brian assumed.
So he was scary-looking, and Brian was not oblivious to the fact that the kids on the bus talked shit about him—but Brian didn’t care. Because today, Tate eyed the spot next to Brian and smiled tentatively before he sat down. He had his earbud in one ear and was halfway dancing to the song playing for him and him alone. He tended to jerk sometimes, when he wasn’t out on the track—just twitch right out of his skin, it looked like—but he was looking at Brian like Brian wasn’t a freak, and for the first time since he’d started school the month before, something frozen in Brian melted.
Oh, thank God, Brian wasn’t alone on the goddamned bus.
He was sitting on the left side of the bus, so he didn’t get to see Tate’s tattoo, and he had to admit, he was curious. It didn’t matter—someone was sitting next to him, someone was talking to him… and brother, was that kid talking.
“Hey—hope you don’t mind if I sit. I know, the other kids talk about me being gay and shit.” (They did—they weren’t nice about it, either.) “But I swear that’s not catching or anything. Here—I’m listening to this band called The Doves—you want to listen? “Kingdom of Rust” is such an awesome song—sad, but you know, awesome. But if you’re not in the mood for sad, I’ve got something really rocking—rocking helps for pumping you up for a meet. Although, I don’t know….” He hesitated. “You tend to do a lot of throwing. Do you need to Zen out or do you need to get all pumped?”
He finally stopped and looked at Brian as though he expected an answer. Brian blinked and tried to come up with one. “I don’t know music,” he said, embarrassed. “But I’d love to listen to whatever you’ve got.”
The kid with the tattoo and Mohawk had grinned then, his smile shining and pure (and a little crowded—not a lot of dental work here), and handed Brian his earbud.
“I’ve seen you throw, right? And you can run too. No wonder you got a scholarship!”
Brian flushed. “I had to sort of audition,” he mumbled. “I was homeschooled—it was the only way I could get into college.” His shoulder was already giving him twinges. He’d started thinking about how to pay for school when it gave out.
Tate nodded as though this happened every day. “See, I used to be a skater, right? But the second, third, sixth time I broke my wrist, one of the coaches at my school threw me on the track in my running shoes and told me to keep my feet on the ground. He helped get me my scholarship, so we’re, like, you know, the same.”
Brian looked at that vulnerable expression, a sort of “please, please let us be the same” expression, and wondered that someone who would ink the side of his face and shave his head and wear pipe-cleaning, hip-dropping skinny jeans and sparkly sequined T-shirts would need to be “the same” as anyone. But that was only because he’d just met Tate, and was sitting on his left side.
But the boy seemed to be waiting for an answer, and Brian dredged up the only one he could think of.
“You broke your wrist six times?”
Tate was lacing up his running shoes when he told Brian about his new hobby.
Brian thought very seriously about throwing up. He changed his mind and thought about throwing his fist through the wall. But Tate kept talking, as blind as bacterium to Brian’s complete emotional supernova, and by the time he was done, his innocent question about why Brian looked like he’d swallowed a poisoned rat elicited a three-word answer that had Tate cringing.
Fuck you, asshole.
It rang between them for a stunned moment, and Tate let the façade of “tough-tat-boy” drop. “What’s wrong?” he asked, genuinely hurt. It was hard to see hurt on his face. For one thing, the tattoo tended to mask his emotions, which Brian was pretty sure was what Tate had intended in the first place. It was also difficult to see Tate hurt—so much about Tate was like a crumpled ball of brittle cellophane, transparent and broken.
Brian had learned not to see the tattoos anymore, or the piercings or the hair, and he’d learned to really love the way Tate always bounced on his toes or twitched, even when he was standing still.
That was Tate—always hearing fantastic strains of alien music and succumbing to the urge to dance.
So even though looking at Tate was an exercise in misdirection—the carefully designed hair, body (he’d finally had his sleeve tattoo done), clothes, face—all of it was made to attract attention, to draw it away from the things he didn’t want people to see. Brian had made a study of looking beyond that.
Which was why this new “hobby” scared the shit out of him.