THE LAST weekend before school started was always a bitch of a letdown. This year was no damned exception, even if Jenson Thackerson didn’t have to go back. He’d graduated in May, maybe not with honors or nothin’, but with enough to get him a decent job, if his mom and dad decided to kick his ass off the little ranch they owned.
No, the letdown came from all of them taking Sandy Kinder’s big van down to Corpus and tearing it up for a long weekend. There, he could pretend that nothing was gonna change, that Mike Simon wasn’t going to leave in three days and go off to North Carolina to go to acting school.
“UNC has an acting school?” he’d asked when Mike had gotten the letter.
Mike had snorted, his blond hair all wild as he set to pulling out this big-assed book from the school library, and there it was. UNC. North Fucking Carolina. That was a twenty-four hour drive away from Podunk, Texas. Twenty-four hours and forever, might as well be.
Jenson wasn’t doing no more school if he could help it. Oh, if he got his ass kicked out and couldn’t get a job cowboying, he had the grades for trade school. He was okay with cars, decent with putting in a new light switch. He’d go for mechanic or electrician.
Mike had called about an hour ago, asked him to meet out at the cemetery after dark and bring some smokes, and he did it. Of course he did it. Daddy was already swimming in the bottle, and Momma was in her room with the dog-eared book she’d stolen from the library and her Marlboros, dreaming of a life that didn’t involve cow shit and washing stains out of boys’ underpants.
He parked his old Chevy out on the maintenance road and watched the last rays of the sun go down. He pulled out the pack of smokes and tapped the end against his palm a few times before pulling off the plastic. He’d have one while he waited.
The humidity made everything lazy, even the mosquitos, and he couldn’t help but think that tomorrow he was going to be out here, just another redneck driving down gravel roads acting like that was something special, and Mike would be in his perfectly clean little Toyota with his boxes and his books, heading to the East Coast.
It wasn’t fucking fair.
Oh, not that Jenson wanted to go back East anywhere. What he wanted was Mike. The trip to the beach had given them some stolen kisses and a few quick gropes, but Jenson wanted more.
He wanted full-on naked. He wanted to fuck. He wanted to hear Mike beg for it. He knew Mike would.
The very thought made his dick hard in his jeans and made him curse when his cigarette burned his fingers.
He heard a husky chuckle. “You ever going to learn how to smoke, man?”
Jenson turned to see Mike wandering over, coming to sit next to him on the tailgate. On the wrong damned side.
“Scoot, man,” Mike said, and he did, because he was always willing to do for Mike.
“What’s up, Mike?”
“Been a long couple days. You?”
“Been trying to decide if I have to apply for jobs.” He sighed. “You all packed?”
“I am. Yeah. I wish you were coming. It looks like a kick-ass campus.” Mike took a smoke, lit it, and the flame shuddered in the wind.
“I ain’t smart like you.” What else could he say?
“I’m not all that. I just….” Mike shrugged. What was Mike going to say? That Mike had tried? Because that was the God’s honest truth. Mike fought for it, worked hard.
Jenson did too. It just didn’t matter. He wasn’t school material. He lit another cigarette, trying not to cough. Lord.
“You think you’ll stay at home?”
Like it mattered. Neither one of them could afford long-distance phone calls, and Jenson, well, shit, he wasn’t much of a letter writer. Maybe postcards, if he remembered to buy stamps.
Jenson nodded. “If they’ll let me. If not, I’ll try cowboying out with the C Bar.” Mr. Carlson ran a huge Beefmaster operation.
“Such a cowboy.” Not like Mike. He was gonna be something bigger than a shiftless drover.
“I don’t know what else to do. Be a drunk like my dad, I guess.” He laughed, trying not to sound so damned bitter.
“I vote for cowboy over drunk, I think. Drunks are a little creepy. My mom knows lots.” Mike’s momma was a bartender over at the Rail. She scared him a little, being so hard and fierce, always broke and always fighting. She loved Mike, though, more than life.
“So does mine.” He gave up on the smoke, grinding it out on the old toolbox at the foot of the truck bed. “I wish you didn’t have to go, man.”
“I know, but I can’t stay here. It’s over for me here.”
“Why?” He was about to get his begging on. “Stay, Mike. Please. Just stay.”
“I can’t, Jen. They’re going to kill me.”
“What? Who? What the hell are you talking about, man?” He turned to look at Mike, finally, and reached out for his best friend.
Mike was staring away from him, out over the gravestones.
“Mike? What are you talking about?” Who would hurt any of them? They were just kids.
Mike turned to face him, and Jenson gasped, jerking back in pure surprise. A huge set of stitches stretched from eyebrow to chin, the skin raw and sliced to hell. Mike’s eye had this metal thing over it, and for a second it looked like his best friend was a robot. One of them kind that went berserk in the movies and shot sparks.
“Jesus. What happened?” He didn’t know what to do. His hands fluttered with the need to touch.
“Got jumped out at the fairgrounds. Said they wanted to make sure they never saw my fag face on the big screen.”
His mouth fell open. “Oh fuck. Oh God, Mikey.” He hadn’t called Mike that since grade school.
“I can’t stay here. Everyone knows about me. Everyone. I’m not like you, you know?”
What did that even mean? “Mike. I’m like you, and you know it.”
“I do, but no one else does. You got Allie at the dances. You can pass. Me? No one ever looks at me and thinks ladies’ man.” Mike touched his face, winced. “Now for sure I can’t be the romantic lead.”
“I’m sorry.” Had he done something? Had someone told about them kissing at the beach? Christ. “Mike….”
“Yeah.” Mike reached out, touched his hand.
He grabbed on, not daring to move any closer or do nothin’ else. He might hurt Mike if he tried anything else. “Promise me you’ll keep in touch somehow. I know it’s corny and all, but please.”
“I swear to God. I’d take you with me, if I knew how. I would, but….”
But he was still safe here, and Mike… Mike would always be queer, always be running. And what was a guy like him, like Jenson, going to do at a fancy college back East?
“That ain’t gonna happen. You need to be safe.”
“It isn’t. Once I figure it out, though, I’ll bring you. Show you everything.”
“I’d like that.” Hell, he’d even get an extra part-time gig and save his pennies, if he could go see Mike at school.
“It’s a promise.” Mike squeezed his fingers. “Can we sit here until morning, together? I’m heading out at 8:00 a.m., and I’ve never… you know. It’s a long way by myself.”
“We can.” He wanted more than just sitting, but he knew Mike needed strength and quiet, not grappling and groping and possibly getting caught doing crazy shit. He held Mike’s hand and waited for the sun to come, knowing he was losing something incredibly important, but not knowing how to keep it. Or even say it.
“It’s supposed to be amazing, man, growing up, right?”
“It’s a gyp.” He was convinced of that. Totally overrated.
“Yeah? Then when’s the good part?”
“I don’t know.” Jenson took a deep breath and squeezed Mike’s hand. He needed to cowboy up and be positive. Mike needed his good thoughts. “Maybe after you get out of college?”
“Maybe. I’m so fucking scared, man. These guys in the program are trained, good. They’ve done more than playing Li’l Abner in Mrs. Fincher’s yearly musical. And now there’s this.” He waved at his face. “I’m going to be a freak.”
“Is…?” Jenson swallowed hard. “Your eye, I mean. Is it…?”
“It’s got a scratch, that’s all. The cup deal is to keep the blood out of it.”
“Keep you from itching it too, huh?” Jenson chuckled, the sound dry as a bone. “You’ll be dashing.”
“I’ll be the scary serial killer, maybe. Mom says if I’m lucky, it’ll only be a thin scar.”
“Just take care of it.” He rubbed his thumb over Mike’s knuckles.
“Yeah…. I’ve never not lived in the same town as you before.”
“I’ll miss you.” Now they were just getting sappy. Jenson looped his fingers around Mike’s wrist, turning back to the sky.
At some point Jenson fell asleep, leaning on the wheel well of his truck, and when he woke up, Mike was gone, the sun was up, and it was over.
They’d said they’d call and shit; Mike had said they’d visit somehow. Jenson wasn’t sure how it was possible, let alone probable. He felt more alone than he had in more than ten years, since him and Mikey had become inseparable.
He couldn’t imagine how Mike felt. Jenson couldn’t even try to know.
All Jenson could try was to go to the ranch and get to work.