LOREN SMITH could clearly remember the first time he met Eliot Devlin, and it was because his mom made him.
“Go next door and say hi to the new neighbors, Loren,” she said, pushing him out the front door. “I hear they have a little boy. Maybe he’ll be someone you can play with. You need friends, honey. Go try.” She shut the door firmly behind him, so firmly he knew going right back inside would be a bad idea.
So Loren made his way down the sidewalk to the house next door and stood tentatively near the huge moving van. There were no kids around that he could see; in fact, he didn’t see anyone except sweaty moving guys who said bad words under their breath as they pushed little carts stacked with boxes and furniture up to the house. He wondered how long he should stand there before going home and telling his mom he’d tried, he really had.
Loren’s mom and dad worked all the time. He was proud of his dad, uncle, and two of his older brothers, who were all cops. He loved seeing them in their uniforms, knowing they were out arresting bad guys. That’s what he was gonna do someday, just like them. He wasn’t sure what his mom did, but she wore a pretty suit and went to work every day, not coming home until sometimes after Loren was in bed. He knew deep down his family loved him—they told him that all the time—but they were so busy. And he was lonely.
Since there were no other kids in his neighborhood, he was a little excited at the thought of having someone to play with. Loren nervously tugged his Pokémon T-shirt down over his pudge and peered up at the neighbors’ house. He hoped the kid would be nice, not like that jerk Bobby LaMotte at school who called Loren “piggy” while he made oinking noises.
The moving-van guys unloaded what looked like a kid’s bike, a cool bike with Transformers stickers on it. That was promising. Loren liked Transformers, although his favorite was Pokémon. Maybe the new kid liked Pokémon too.
The hissing whisper in his ear made Loren jump and scream a little. He hoped it didn’t sound like a girlie scream. He whirled around, and there stood a skinny little blond boy, hair sticking up everywhere, dirt smudged over his face.
“’Sup?” Loren tried to be cool like his big brother Chase, who was in college. The kid grinned at him, showing several missing teeth. The boy was so thin he looked like he might blow away in a storm, and Loren had never seen such big green eyes before.
“I’m planning a trip to the moon,” the boy confided, leaning in close. “Do you want to go to the moon?”
Before Loren could answer, the kid went on. “A big spaceship to the moon. Sometimes the moon looks orange. I bet it’s made of cheese, orange cheese. Do you like pumpkins? Ghosts are scary, and I like whipped cream, but not bananas. Maybe we could fly to the sun!”
Loren stood there with his mouth open.
“I’m Eliot and I’m six,” the kid said at last, hopping up and down. “What’s your name?”
“Loren,” he mumbled, not quite sure what to think of this strange, beautiful boy.
“C’mon, Loren!” Eliot beckoned to him, and after a moment’s hesitation, Loren followed him into the woods behind their houses.
“What’s back here, dude?” he asked, still trying to act cool and unafraid, even though he was a little afraid. Eliot danced ahead of him, spinning and turning, flinging his arms out.
“My spaceship, stupid!”
Loren bristled at that but Eliot grinned at him, and he decided the way Eliot said it, it didn’t sound mean, like when Bobby LaMotte called him names. Loren’s nervousness evaporated, and he scuffed through the leaves a little slower than Eliot did, but he kept following.
When they reached a tall tree, before Loren could say anything, Eliot had climbed up real high and was sitting on one of the branches, his feet swinging wildly back and forth.
“I’m so close to the moon!” Eliot shouted, reaching his arms up like he could touch it. Loren looked up in confusion; it wasn’t even dark. What moon?
“C’mon! Climb up! I don’t want to go to the moon alone, not without my best friend!”
Best friend? This kid was really weird, but still, Loren found himself struggling to climb the tree, heaving himself up from branch to branch, his T-shirt riding up again. Eliot kept shouting at him, telling him to “Keep going!” and “Don’t let the tree beat you!” until Loren perched next to Eliot on the branch, out of breath and sweaty. It dipped and groaned a little at the added weight, but it held.
Loren looked down and felt a wave of dizziness, followed by feeling like he could pee his pants; they were way higher than it had looked from the ground.
“See the moon?” Eliot said in gleeful tones, looking up. Loren looked up too. He couldn’t see squat except white and fluffy clouds, but he said, “Yeah, dude, I see it.” Eliot froze, then turned his head and looked at him, green eyes huge in his thin, dirty face.
“You do?” he whispered. “You really see it?”
Loren stared back at him, and in that instant, despite the weirdness that was still freaking him out a little, he saw a lonely boy too, a boy who didn’t quite fit in where he’d been planted. A frisson of understanding went through him, and he whispered back, “Yeah, I do see it, Eliot.”
“Touch it,” Eliot said, lifting his hand up toward the bright blue midday sky. “Touch the moon.”
Loren turned to stare upward, squinting against the sun, and he lifted his hand slowly. “I’m touching it.”
They sat there, both of them still reaching toward the sky, and Loren heard Eliot whisper, “You’ll be my best friend forever.”
IN ALL his short life, Loren had never had a best friend before, but now he did. He and Eliot were inseparable. Playdates, sleepovers, dinner at each other’s house. One day Loren’s mom said he didn’t have to go to after-school care anymore and ride that stupid little bus that said Nana’s Playhouse on it, that she and Eliot’s mom had decided to “share the expense of a nanny,” whatever the heck that meant. He soon learned what it meant was that, after school, he could go straight over to Eliot’s house and Mrs. Garcia would make them a snack and watch them until someone came for Loren, although a lot of times he’d just end up sleeping over.
He didn’t mind, though. Eliot’s room was huge, and he had every sort of Transformer, and yes, Pokémon toy imaginable. Not that Eliot played with them all that much; he rarely sat still long enough to play with toys. Loren was happy to play with them, though, and he did while Eliot jumped and tramped about his room making up stories about pirates who took over the world, and monsters, and his favorite topic, the moon.
The only times Eliot was still was when he would hunch over a sketchpad for hours, drawing. Sometimes Loren fell asleep, crashed out in one of Eliot’s twin beds. When he’d wake up to pee, a little before dawn, Eliot would be in the same place, still drawing. He’d fill sketchpad after sketchpad with pictures of the moon and stars, pictures even Loren—who didn’t care at all about the stupid moon; he just pretended he did—had to admit were very good. Even after staying up all night, Eliot never seemed tired, and sometimes he did that two or three days in a row.
After a while Loren got used to Eliot’s weirdness until it didn’t even seem weird anymore; it was just Eliot. Sometimes the kids at school made fun of him, but Eliot didn’t care. He still talked fast and about lots of different things that didn’t make sense, although they seemed to make sense to Eliot. Sometimes Loren could even follow what he was saying, and that made him feel good because Eliot would always hug him and whisper what a good friend he was.
One day, though, when they were in seventh grade, Eliot got really, really weird, so much that even Loren was alarmed. Eliot couldn’t sit still, and for once his energy had a kind of meanness to it. He called some kids names, and yelled at their teacher. The principal, Mr. Wartman, or Wartface, as the students took gleeful delight in calling him behind his back, came to the room and took Eliot away. He didn’t come back the whole rest of the day, and Loren walked home alone, heading to Eliot’s house like he always did.
When he got there, Mrs. Garcia said Eliot’s dad had picked him up from the school office and taken him to the doctor. Loren didn’t think much of it, and later that night, when he was eating fish sticks in front of the TV, Eliot swept into the room and announced, “I have ADHD.”
“What’s that?” Loren asked, stuffing some fries in his mouth. Even though he still ate a lot, he’d gotten a lot taller, and tramping around with Eliot out in the woods so much instead of watching TV had caused him to lose his pudge. Now his clothes fit better, his favorite T-shirts not riding up anymore and showing his fat. Bobby didn’t oink at him, and Loren even knew a couple of girls liked him. He still thought they were gross, though.
Eliot shrugged. “Some weird”—he looked around cautiously—“some weird shit”—they both giggled at Eliot’s daring—“that makes me do weird shit things,” he hissed. Loren must have looked suitably impressed because Eliot said with a touch of importance, “And I gotta take something called Ritalin.”
“Whoa, what’s that?” Loren asked, swirling his last fish stick around in the ketchup and eating it.
“Some pills,” Eliot said. “Gotta take them every day, even at school. The doctor told my dad they would calm me down.”
“Cool. You acted like a total psycho today, El,” Loren said.
Eliot looked affronted. “Hey, it wasn’t me, it was the—” He looked around again, and Loren waited with breathless anticipation for another curse word, but what Eliot hissed sent a little shiver down his spine. “It was the black demon.”
“The what?” Loren asked, his voice cracking a little. He hated when it did that.
“The black demon that talks to me,” Eliot muttered, his voice grim. “He tells me to do stuff sometimes. Sometimes it feels like he’s taking over my body.”
Loren didn’t know what to think. It scared him a little, so he laughed it off.
“Now you sound super mondo crazy, just so you know.”
Eliot stared at him flatly for a moment then shrugged. “Maybe the pills will make him shut up.”
That night Loren lay awake for a while in the twin bed across from Eliot’s. He wasn’t afraid, not really, but what Eliot said about demons had freaked him out a little. Neither of them liked scary movies, but one Halloween night they’d run across a showing of The Exorcist.It scared both of them so much they ended up sleeping together in the same bed, huddling under the covers like the quilt could protect them from supernatural forces. Loren was amazed at how comforting it was to sleep next to Eliot, to feel his warmth and hear his quiet breathing.
Now all Loren could think about was how creepy and scary that possessed girl in the movie was. Was that what Eliot was talking about, a demon who lived inside him and some freaky church guy would have to do stuff to him to get it out? Loren lay there, watching and waiting for Eliot to maybe float above his bed or do some whacked-out demon stuff, but of course he never did.
He did get weirder, though. In Loren’s opinion the medicine that was supposed to help him made him way, way worse. He didn’t calm down; he talked faster and crazier, losing weight and getting even skinnier. He didn’t sleep better; he hardly slept at all. And when he did sleep, he sometimes had horrible nightmares. Loren couldn’t count the number of times he’d woken up in the night to find Eliot huddled in a corner of the bedroom, shaking, rocking, afraid to go back to sleep.
When that happened, Loren would get up, dragging his comforter off the bed with him, and just sit on the floor next to Eliot, listening to his crazy talk about the moon. Eliot seemed to like it best when he could see the moon after a nightmare, so Loren would make sure the blinds were open. If they were super lucky and it was a clear night, the moonlight would flood in and bathe them both in soft brightness. Loren would often fall back to sleep, curled up on the floor next to him, Eliot’s rapid-fire slurred speech, about anything and nothing, a white noise in the background.
But sometimes, very rarely, Eliot would lean his head on Loren’s shoulder and drift off into an exhausted sleep himself, sitting up. Loren would wrap them both up in his blanket and get comfortable against the wall as best he could, and let Eliot sleep. He didn’t mind giving up a night’s slumber here and there if it would help him get some rest. It was one of the very few ways—pretty much the only way—Loren knew how to make it better.
He wished with all his heart he could do more.
“THIS IS it, Loren!”
Loren grinned at Eliot, adjusting his shoulder pads one more time and grabbing his helmet from the locker-room bench. The coach was calling for all the football players to get their butts out to the field for pregame warmups on the double.
Eliot followed him out, chattering with excitement. “Your first game as starting lineup, Loren! That’s so cool! And I made some signs: one for me, your mom, and your dad.”
“You’ll save seats for them too, right, El? They might be a little late, but they said they’d be here.”
Loren could barely contain his own excitement. After spending almost his entire eighth-grade year as second string or on the bench, during summer training camp he’d worked hard, tried out, and been selected to start as a freshman. Tonight was the first home game of the season.
“I’ll get seats right down front for all of us,” Eliot promised. “You’ll hear us cheering louder than anyone!”
Loren grinned, then jogged after the rest of the team, leaving Eliot to make his way to the stands. As he warmed up, Loren could see him front and center, jiggling his leg, holding some large poster boards on his lap.
Loren felt a wave of pure affection sweep over him. Eliot came to all of Loren’s after-school practices, sometimes hanging out and talking to their friends, sometimes sitting alone, busily drawing in his notebook or doing homework. After practice they’d walk home together, every now and then stopping for a burger if one of them happened to have a little money in his pocket.
Loren was for all intents and purposes living at Eliot’s house by now, and neither set of parents seemed to mind. It was like having a brother, only—more. Loren didn’t feel like a brother toward Eliot at all; in fact, he had found himself surreptitiously watching his friend change clothes a time or two, feeling guilty and ashamed at the way his groin tightened when he looked at Eliot’s body.
It wasn’t the same as watching the cheerleaders’ bouncing breasts in their brief little tops, although he enjoyed that too. That was a very pleasant sight indeed, but glimpsing Eliot’s bare stomach or maybe a hint of wiry blond hair peeking out over the waistband of his low-slung underwear—well, it was a different kind of pleasure, deeper, sharper.
Loren tried not to think about it.
“All right, Warriors! Let’s huddle up!”
The coach’s shout broke Loren’s train of thought, and he looked toward the stands, seeing Eliot waving to him, holding up one of the signs he’d made. Loren shook his head in rueful amusement and gave him a thumbs-up. As usual Eliot had gone way over the top. No simple sign for him, no, sir, but an elaborate thing covered with fancy letters and puff paint. Loren would bet he’d stayed up all night making them while Loren snored nearby in peaceful oblivion.
He didn’t see his parents yet, and he craned his neck toward the crowd shuffling to the bleachers, looking for them. No sign of them, and he tried not to worry; they’d said they might be a little late, but they’d be here. They knew how important this night was to him.
The coin toss, the decision, and it was time for the game to begin. Loren was immediately swept up in the exertion of play, focused, concentrated, the roar of the crowd and rhythmic chants of the cheerleaders fading into the distance. Grunts and shouts, along with the crash of helmets and pads ramming together, rang out into the crisp night air.
Before Loren knew it, it was halftime, and he ran off the field with the rest of the team, all of them high-fiving each other while grabbing bottles of Gatorade, enjoying the adrenaline rush and the high of competition.
As Loren took off his helmet and slung back his sweat-soaked hair, he looked with eagerness up into the stands, searching the faces. His heart fell to his toes.
His parents still weren’t there.
Eliot was, and when he saw Loren looking, he waved his sign high above his head, Loren’s jersey number and “Go Warriors” drawn out with painstaking care and glittering under the spotlights in school-colors puff paint. He grinned at Loren brilliantly, proudly, but his eyes were filled with an understanding sympathy. Loren tried to smile and couldn’t, the waves of disappointment and hurt punching him right in the gut.
He turned away, watching but not really seeing the marching band and dance team’s halftime show, and just before he took the field of play again for the second half, he looked once again toward the stands, trying not to hope.
No Mom and Dad, but Eliot had switched his signs out, and he held up the one he’d made for Loren’s mom to wave. It had a big red puffy heart painted in the middle with Loren’s jersey number underneath, some smaller hearts shooting off from it. The message was clear: I love you.
Eliot faced him and lifted it high, his eyes steadily holding Loren’s, and Loren’s own eyes filled. He blinked the tears back with determination and slammed his helmet onto his head, running back onto the field.
The second half flew by, and when the game was over, Loren jumped around on the field with the rest of his teammates in an impromptu victory dance, punching his helmet up high, shouting the school song. He was caught up in the moment, whooping and hollering as he ran into the locker room, but as he stood for a long time under the spray of a hot shower, he couldn’t stop his disappointment from overwhelming him again.
They’d promised to be here.
When Loren emerged from the locker room, dressed in loose jeans and a T-shirt, his gym bag slung over his shoulder, he saw Eliot slouched against the outside wall, arms crossed, one leg drawn up. He didn’t move as Loren approached him, just watched him, and Loren dropped his bag and sagged back against the wall next to him.
“Good game,” Eliot ventured, and Loren just shrugged.
“You made some great plays,” Eliot tried again, and Loren turned his head away, muttering, “Let’s just get the fuck outta here, man.”
Loren grabbed his duffle again, and they made their way toward the parking lot, both of them realizing at the same time they didn’t have a ride home. It wasn’t all that far to walk, but it had been a long day, and Loren was exhausted. Since he had taken so long in the shower, most of the other spectators had already gone, and the parking lot was empty.
With resigned sighs, they started walking until Loren sank onto a bench at a deserted bus stop and dropped his head into his hands. After a moment he felt the heat of Eliot’s body as he perched on the bench next to him.
“I’m sorry, Loren,” Eliot whispered, resting one hand tentatively on Loren’s back.
Loren shrugged. “I just wanted them to be here, that’s all.” Even he could hear how ragged and hoarse his voice sounded, and he cleared his throat with defiance. He was too old to cry.
“And they would have been if they could, Loren. I know they would have,” Eliot said, his voice gentle. “Murders ain’t scheduled around football games.”
Loren gave an unwilling snort of laughter. As a homicide detective, his father was at the whims of how his cases ebbed and flowed. There could have been a key witness successfully located who had to be interviewed right away, for instance. Loren had grown up with this, and he knew in his head that or something similar had happened.
Still. “For once I just wish I mattered more than a stupid fucking job does,” Loren said with bitterness. “That I could come first.”
There was a moment of silence.
“My dad had a friend in the Marines once,” Eliot said at last, “and he always used to say, ‘If the Marines wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one.’”
Loren gave another subdued snort.
“I bet it’s the same way with cops,” Eliot continued. “When he’s gotta work, he’s gotta work, Loren. It sucks, dude, in a big way, but what can he do?”
“I know all this, El. But it was such a big night for me, and I wanted them here.”
At that Loren lifted his head from his hands and looked at Eliot, whispering hoarsely, “Yeah, you are. And I’m so glad you were, stupid signs and all.”
Eliot’s lips quirked in a half smile, his green eyes shining with sympathy and affection. Loren gazed at him, noticing for the first time how beautiful Eliot looked in the moonlight. His thick blond hair was haloed around his almost delicate face, his mouth pink and full. A shivery sort of heat tightened Loren’s belly, and he drew in a swift breath.
Eliot’s look grew questioning, and Loren dropped his eyes to Eliot’s lips again, watching them part a little as he licked them almost nervously. Eliot swayed toward Loren, and Loren thought, Jesus fuck, I’m going to kiss him. He wanted to. He wanted to kiss Eliot, feel those moist lips against his own.
Just then a horn honked and a sleek SUV pulled up to the curb. Loren’s mom jumped out and rushed to them, distress written all over her face.
“Oh, honey,” she cried. “Oh, Loren, I’m so sorry.”
Eliot stood up and moved out of the way so she could sit down next to Loren. She put her arm around him, and Loren hunched his shoulders, drawing in on himself, trying to get her to stop touching him.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am that I missed your game,” she whispered, leaving her arm where it was despite Loren’s actions. “I had someone else lined up to give that ad presentation, and at the last minute the client demanded I be the one to do it. I couldn’t let a multimillion-dollar client down, not when he’d traveled all the way from Tokyo.”
Loren shrugged, and she leaned down and kissed his temple softly. “Loren, all I can say is how very sorry I am that I let you down, and please forgive me.”
This is how it always was, beg forgiveness after the fact. He knew his parents had important, well-respected, and vital jobs. But like he’d told Eliot, just once he wished he could come first.
He glanced over at Eliot, who stood with his hands in his jeans pockets, scuffing at the ground with his toe, trying to give Loren and his mom some privacy but unwilling to leave Loren alone when he knew Loren needed him.
He always came first with Eliot, always. There wasn’t a doubt in Loren’s mind. No matter what Eliot was going through, the bursts of weirdness or sadness that seemed to buffet him like the winds of a hurricane, Loren knew he was as much the center of Eliot’s world as Eliot was his.
The ache in his heart was replaced by a warm glow. As long as he had Eliot, he’d always be okay.
His mom was looking at him, her eyes full of genuine remorse. Loren sighed. She had planned to be at his game, and circumstances beyond her control had forced her hand. Eliot was smiling at him with encouragement, and Loren did what he had to do.
“It’s okay, Mom,” he murmured. “Next one?”
Her face crumpled with relief and she hugged him tight. “Next one, darling. I promise. No, not promise.” she amended. “I’ll do everything within my power to be there.”
He nodded, and asked, “Where’s Dad?”
She smiled, but it was full of apology. “He got called to a scene,” she replied. “He left me a text, and by the time I saw it, I had already missed your game too.” She hugged him again, burying her face in his hair. “I can’t imagine your hurt and disappointment tonight, baby. I’m so sorry.”
He finally wrapped his arms around her and hugged her back. “I know you would have been here if you could have, Mom. It’s okay.”
She pulled away and wiped her eyes. “Are you two hungry? We can go for burgers and shakes if you want.”
“Sure, that sounds awesome. El?”
“Hell yeah. I mean, heck yeah, Mrs. S.,” Eliot replied enthusiastically, and he winked at Loren as he climbed into the backseat of the Smiths’ SUV.
Loren tossed his duffle in after him and then folded his long body into the front passenger seat, all of a sudden remembering how close he’d just come to kissing Eliot. He could feel his face grow hot, and he pressed his cheek against the cool glass of the window.
It had to be the emotional overload he was experiencing and the gratitude he felt for his friend’s loyalty, that’s all. It had to be.