IN HIS two years on the Foster Grove High hockey team, Caleb Carter had faced off against some of the biggest and baddest players in the state of New York. But nothing he’d ever encountered on the ice could prepare him for what he was about to do.
Alone in his bedroom, Caleb tried to control the sudden, sickening panic that gripped him. Why was he freaking out so bad?
Because he had zero experience talking to guys the way he wanted to talk to Aaron tonight.
Practicing the positive visualization technique that Coach had taught the team, Caleb inhaled deeply, gulping down what should’ve been a calming breath. He glanced at the digital clock on his bedside table and knew he’d wasted enough time. It was now or never.
He reached for the doorknob, then paused, brought his hand to his face, and breathed into his palm. Deeming his breath acceptable, he headed downstairs.
Caleb stopped on the stairway landing and peered through the railing at everyone assembled in his family’s living room. Balloons and a giant banner hung above the fireplace mantel. Only a few pieces of the graduation cake his mom had made were left.
Earlier that afternoon, Caleb and about a dozen members of his extended family had sat in the bleachers at the high school’s football stadium and watched his older sister, Pam, and her best friend, Aaron Price, graduate with honors. The ceremony seemed to go on forever. But when Pam took the stage in the middle of the field and gave her valedictorian speech, even he had to admit it was pretty inspiring.
Afterward, everyone came back to the Carter home for a joint family graduation party. Caleb had hoped to find a moment to talk to Aaron alone, but Aaron and Pam dealt with a seemingly endless array of relatives. Each one had to congratulate them and discuss college plans and their respective futures.
Aaron now stood at the bottom of the stairs, laughing at something his uncle was saying. When the older man eventually turned away, Caleb called down, “Hey, Aaron, do you have a second?”
“Sure,” he answered before bounding up the steps to where Caleb stood. “What’s up?”
“Can I talk to you?” Caleb asked, gesturing for Aaron to follow him into his room.
At the end of the hallway, music blared from behind Pam’s bedroom door. Pam had escaped the party to change out of her dress. She and Aaron would be leaving soon for the Safe and Sober Grad Night party.
Aaron stood expectantly in the middle of Caleb’s room, hands in the pockets of his dress pants. He wore a nice button-down shirt and tie, his dark hair combed neatly and parted on the side. Caleb thought he looked great.
“You okay? You’ve been acting strange all afternoon,” Aaron said.
Caleb’s mouth went dry. He tried to casually shrug off the question, but all that came out of his mouth was an aborted squeak.
He had to get a grip. This was Aaron. His sister’s best friend. He had to be cool.
“So, I, um. I got you something.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yeah, I did.” Caleb went to his desk, opened the drawer, and pulled out a brown paper bag. “Something to say thank you. Sorry I wasn’t able to get it wrapped. We only had Christmas paper and that seemed weird.”
Aaron took the package Caleb offered and looked inside. A huge smile spread across his face, and it warmed Caleb far more than he’d expected.
Aaron removed a small trophy from the bag. It was a cup, with handles on either side. The wood base had a gold plaque that read: Aaron Price—World’s Best Tutor. Caleb had bought it at the pro shop located next to the ice rink where he practiced every morning. He even spent the extra money to have it specially engraved.
“I wouldn’t have made it through geometry without you, and if I’d flunked, I’d be off the team.”
“You’re the one who did the work.”
“But you spent all those hours helping me, drilling it into this thick skull of mine.”
“Caleb, I wish you wouldn’t say things like that. You’re a lot smarter than you give yourself credit for.”
“Anyway, you’re the reason I know the difference between equilateral and isosceles triangles. I wanted to give you something to show you how much I appreciate it. You’re a seriously good teacher.”
Aaron held the little trophy up, admiring it, turning it so it glinted in the late-afternoon light that shone through the bedroom window. “I love it.”
Before he could second-guess himself, Caleb stepped toward Aaron and gave him a hug. He’d intended for it to be a quick embrace and clap on the back, but to Caleb’s surprise, Aaron wrapped his arms around him and didn’t let go.
Time seemed to momentarily stop. He wanted to squeeze Aaron and hold on tight, but fear threatened to overwhelm him. His stomach summersaulted and he didn’t want Aaron to get the wrong idea.
Caleb needed to let go.
But he liked the warm feel of Aaron’s body underneath that dress shirt.
What was happening?
A moment later Aaron began to pull back.
As Caleb stepped away, without thinking, he turned his head a fraction of an inch and brushed his lips across Aaron’s cheek.
Caleb immediately jumped back, his face burning hot with embarrassment. “So yeah, thanks… for the tutoring, I mean,” he blurted out. “You really helped me a lot.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad I could.” Aaron smiled, his eyes warm and kind. He absently pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. If he felt any of the awkwardness Caleb did, he didn’t let on.
There was a loud knock. Caleb glanced over his shoulder as Pam opened the door and poked her head in. “Come on, Aaron. We need to get going.” She disappeared down the hall, leaving his door open.
“Be right there.” With the little trophy in hand, Aaron turned to leave but paused briefly in the doorway.
Caleb’s heart pounded in his chest as he waited expectantly for Aaron to do something, say anything. The moment stretched out for what felt like an eternity. It had taken every ounce of courage Caleb had to give Aaron that trophy. If he gave the gift back, Caleb knew he would literally die of embarrassment.
“Thank you, Caleb,” he finally said. “I’ll see you later.”
Caleb stood by himself and listened to Aaron’s footsteps as he returned downstairs to join Pam and take her to the after-hours Grad Night party.
Caleb unconsciously brought his fingertips to his lips. Had he really just done that? Had his lips actually touched the skin of another guy?
Caleb had kissed Aaron Price.
He’d never been so happy in his life.