JIMMY SLID a little farther down on his seat, his half-eaten, half-squished peanut butter and jelly sandwich ignored on the table in front of him. An open can of Coke sat next to it, equally ignored. Behind those, his American History textbook sat propped open to a page he had tried several times to read but had yet to register a single word on.
Instead, he peeked, over the top of the book, at the table next to his. His fascination held a 0.5 mm mechanical pencil, and the hand it was in flew over the large white page. It didn’t seem human, how fast the pencil moved, how sure the strokes were. Yet the hand never faltered, never paused to flip the pencil over and erase, never set it down to pick up a separate eraser, never turned to the next page to begin again.
They weren’t always beautiful, what Jimmy could see of the drawings. They were sometimes messy, often sketchy, and most of the time, Jimmy never saw the complete version. His eyes darted up to the clock above the lunch line to see they had ten more minutes left, so he went back to watching the drawing unfold.
But, as they’d done every day for the last three months—since the first day he’d seen the artist a week after school started—his eyes didn’t stay on the paper. His gaze drifted up over long, thin fingers, past a wrist wrapped in a narrow leather bracelet, and along a lean but defined arm. The arm was currently covered in blue plaid flannel, but Jimmy knew how defined it was from watching it before the weather turned cold. He let his eyes travel farther, over a slightly stubbly, strong jaw and sharp cheekbone to the long, floppy blond hair. Jimmy knew the other side of the head was shaved over the ear, but this side was full and long, covering the left ear and part of the face.
He tried to force his attention back to his textbooks. Midterm exams were in two weeks, and if he didn’t manage to get his studying done, he wasn’t likely to pass the tests. His parents would kill him, especially since he was the one who had insisted on taking the advanced placement classes. He’d sworn he could handle it, it would help him in college the following year, and despite their reservations, they’d encouraged him.
But he found it very difficult to focus when the view beyond his textbook was so beautiful.
Every so often, the artist—Jimmy hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to even ask the guy’s name—would stick his tongue out as he worked on a particularly complex bit of the drawing. The first time Jimmy had seen that, he’d wanted to laugh. But as the weeks passed, it grew on him, and somewhere around a month ago, he realized the first thing he thought when he saw it was Cute, instead of Funny.
The guy’s faded blue flannel draped over one of his comic book T-shirts—they came in just about every color of the rainbow, even if Jimmy had never seen a full rainbow on him at any given time—and he wore jeans that frayed at the edges and Converse sneakers that had seen better days. His bag looked like it was probably the same one he’d carried all through high school and had rarely, if ever, seen the inside of a washer.
Not that Jimmy cared. His own backpack had definitely seen better days. He’d drawn on it in Sharpie, pinned buttons on it, sewn patches on it, and replaced all the zipper pulls with safety pins, to his mother’s dismay. But it was his and he loved it. So his mother helped him sew it when a new tear appeared and gave up trying to buy him a new one.
When the bell rang and Mr. Artist put his pencil in his pocket and closed his sketchbook—yet again before Jimmy could get a glimpse of the subject of the drawing itself—Jimmy sighed and scrambled to gather his own books and stuff them in his bag. He shoved the last bit of his sandwich into his mouth and swallowed without chewing, drinking as much of the Coke as possible as he hurried out of the cafeteria.
He’d have to run to his next period; he always did, but he didn’t care. It was a small price to pay to watch his artist at work. With effort, he pushed the guy out of his mind and tried to remember what he’d studied for Latin class as he jogged down the hall to the warning bell.
JIMMY HAD passed, but only by the skin of his teeth. He’d tried moving to another table in the cafeteria, but he’d only found himself facing a different direction and watching from farther away. By the Friday before exams, he’d given up trying to study during lunch and dedicated an hour after school to make up for it. Since it was his senior year and nearly half of his classes were AP, he already knew many of his leisure activities were rare to begin with.
He finally admitted to himself he had a problem when he realized he was trading his Xbox time for spending his lunch period watching his artist.
As Jimmy boarded the bus for home, he considered the two weeks of Christmas break stretching before him. Normally he loved the holidays. He got to see his sister, Amy, and her husband, Dirk. And his parents, while not rich, did their best for him every year. In fact, they probably spent more than they should, but Jimmy had a long list of good Christmas memories to show for it.
This year, however, despite the good things coming, he had two problems. Not only was he faced with two weeks without his artist, but he was also going to have to either fend off his mother’s attempts at setting him up—again—with her best friend’s sister’s kid, or finally admit he was more likely to want to go out with the woman’s son than her daughter.
His parents hadn’t made much of an issue of him dating, leaving him to his not-entirely-comfortable closet. It was more comfortable than the alternative, anyway. He’d always been into video games, reading, his few friends, and academics, and for the most part, they’d left him to it. Over his summers he’d made himself scarce when he wasn’t spending time at the bookstore he worked at, claiming he was getting ahead on the following year’s reading or just hanging out with the guys. And it’d worked. Until about a month ago when his mother started making noise about him finding someone for prom.
He’d managed, thus far, to remind her he had plenty of time to find a prom date. But the last few nights, she’d given up on her previous heavy hinting.
“So, have you met anyone new this year?” his mom asked, and the casual tone did not fool Jimmy for a minute.
Jimmy considered trying to not answer, but she’d never let him get away with it before. He sighed. “Not really. Same people every year.”
“So… no one new, you know… no one you might want to ask out? Like… to prom?”
“Mom.” He wasn’t going to whine, but he knew his voice teetered dangerously close. “I’ve got time.”
“It’s almost winter break. There aren’t going to be many options left, Jimmy.”
Jimmy sighed and closed his eyes. She had no idea how few options there were. “I’m sure I can find someone to go.”
“Listen. No, listen,” she said when he opened his mouth again. “Sunny’s sister has a—”
“Mom, please, I can get my own dates.” Jimmy was fairly certain his face was bright red by this point.
His mom sighed and gave him “the look,” and he knew he was facing a decision very soon, but he just couldn’t bring himself to say anything yet. He knew he’d never get away with telling her he didn’t want to go. She’d waxed poetic on too many occasions about how wonderful her own was. If he couldn’t find a date, he knew he’d end up showing up with his best friends, and that would just suck. He’d figure it out, but he wasn’t quite ready.
With any luck his mother would accept the excuse that he’d been assigned homework over the holidays, and he’d be able to avoid another conversation like that. He didn’t have hope it would last for too much longer, though.
He wasn’t sure how they’d react, which was part of the problem. Neither his mother nor his father had made any homophobic remarks. Rather, both were quite liberal in their attitudes. But Jimmy had known more than one kid in school whose liberal parents turned into raging assholes when confronted with the fact that it was their kid who was gay. So Jimmy put it off and stayed in his closet, not ready to find out which side of that his own parents were on, because if they were anything but accepting… well, he just couldn’t quite face that terror yet.
Jimmy settled into his normal seat about halfway back on the bus and stared out the window at the sea of students streaming through the doors and into the lot. Most cheered and laughed, excited for the start of break. A few looked unhappy, and Jimmy guessed they hadn’t liked the exam scores they’d gotten.
Just as he was leaning his head back, ready to nap on the trip home, he caught a glimpse of blue out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head, and sure enough, his artist was sitting on the wall in front of the school. Jimmy sat up a little to get a last look when he realized his artist’s gaze was on him.
Before Jimmy could do anything—though he had no idea what he’d do—the buses revved their engines and started the slow movement along the front of the school to leave the lot. Jimmy twisted in his seat, unable to look away from the other guy even as the bus pulled away. His artist’s green-eyed gaze remained on his until the bus turned at the end of the driveway. He tried to glimpse the guy again when they’d made the turn onto the street, but he could no longer pick the blue out from the crowd.
Jimmy sat back and stared at the seat in front of him. Did he know I was watching him? Heat crept up Jimmy’s cheeks at the thought. He’d always figured the artist guy hadn’t even known he was there. He was generally pretty invisible in school except to his few close friends—unless someone needed help with homework—and had just assumed he’d been equally invisible to his artist. But if not, if his artist had seen him….
Jimmy closed his eyes in mortification. There was no way he’d be able to face the cafeteria after break. He’d felt safe watching when he was sure his artist hadn’t known he was there. What must he think of me?
“DUDE, COME on! I know you don’t have to do your homework yet. You’ve got two fucking weeks!” Ronnie, his best friend, whined from the other end of the phone line. “It’s The Hobbit for Christ’s sake. I know you’ve only seen it once.”
Jimmy sighed. “Fine, fine, I’ll go. But I can’t drive. Mom’s working tonight.”
“No, that’s cool. Sean’s driving. We’ll be there in twenty!” And before Jimmy could say another word, the line went dead.
Jimmy groaned and rolled to a sitting position on his bed, sending a slightly mournful look at the bottle of lotion on his bedside table. But even he realized how pathetic it was to spend the night in his room beating off instead of hanging out with his friends. He could always fantasize about his artist later. He snatched up his keys, wallet, and “got precious?” hoodie and headed downstairs.
Sean and Ronnie showed up ten minutes later, not twenty, but Jimmy had expected it. He’d already guessed they were on their way when Ronnie called, knowing he’d go. Jimmy called to his dad that he was going out and when he expected to be back, and when his dad’s reply sounded vaguely affirmative, he headed out to the car.
“See? Isn’t this better than beating off to some hot guy’s picture?” Ronnie teased.
Jimmy just flipped them off as he climbed into Sean’s ancient Volkswagen Rabbit behind Ronnie. “Fuck you, man. Just fuck you.”
“Nope. I don’t play for that team. Sean, on the other hand….” Ronnie paused to wait for Sean to punch him. Right on cue, without even looking, Sean’s right hand left the gearshift long enough to form a fist and connect with Ronnie’s left arm. “Right, forgot, he doesn’t either. Guess you’re out of luck.”
Jimmy had long since gotten used to Ronnie’s teasing. “Beating off to pictures of hot guys is better than your bullshit, any day.”
Ronnie snorted. “And yet you’re here.”
“Yeah, I don’t have any new pictures or vids tonight. Only picture in my room is the one of you, which just makes my dick shrivel.”
Sean laughed, earning himself a punch from Ronnie this time. “Fuck you, man.”
“I thought you didn’t play for my team?”
Ronnie gave up and flipped on the stereo. He hit a few buttons and My Chemical Romance drowned out Jimmy’s laughter.
WITH TICKETS, ginormous buckets of popcorn, and huge cups of soda in their hands, the three of them waded through the sea of people toward theater seven. Jimmy led the way, his six-and-a-half-foot frame easily making a path for them. They paused at the bottom of the stadium seating tiers to look for seats.
“Shoulda taken the next show,” Ronnie muttered.
Jimmy shrugged. “We’re here now. How about up there?” He pointed to the row three from the top. “Higher than we usually like, but….”
“Yeah, well, some of us aren’t used to the thinner air up there.”
Jimmy snorted, too accustomed to Ronnie’s height envy to take offense. Ronnie, who was one of those guys who couldn’t gain weight to save his life, was cursed with also being short. He also had one of those young faces that put one more in mind of a devious fairy than a hot guy, and Ronnie never failed to bemoan the fact. His dark hair refused to be tamed, sticking up in no less than five different places, and his equally dark eyes twinkled, letting you know in no uncertain terms that he was always up to no good.
By contrast, Sean cleared six feet, though only by one inch. His sandy brown hair, honey-colored eyes, and warm, lightly tanned skin would have been gorgeous—if Jimmy didn’t think of him firmly as a brother. And Sean wasn’t gay. He was also Ronnie’s antithesis in that he kept quiet. He made his comments now and again, and Ronnie never questioned Sean’s opinion on something, but Sean was usually content to let Jimmy and Ronnie carry the brunt of the conversation.
Jimmy started up the steps, leaving Ronnie and Sean to follow. About halfway up, he glanced over into the audience and stopped dead, causing Ronnie to run into him.
“What the fuck, man?” Ronnie grumbled.
Jimmy ignored him for a moment, too busy staring at blue flannel and blond hair. Then the green eyes belonging to his artist turned his way. His artist’s eyebrows went up, and the guy’s lips spread into a small but beautiful smile.
Without even meaning to, Jimmy smiled back, but before he could say or do anything more, Ronnie elbowed him in the back, hard. “Move, man!”
“Sorry,” Jimmy mumbled, cheeks coloring. He looked back at his artist, who gave a small nod that Jimmy unconsciously returned, then forced himself to move.
“What the fuck was that all about?” Ronnie asked when they’d taken their seats.
“Nothing,” Jimmy said, stuffing his face with popcorn to avoid talking.
“Bullshit. See something that got your dick hard?” Ronnie asked, sitting up and craning his neck, obviously trying to see the people in the row Jimmy had stopped at.
Jimmy scowled. “Do you always have to be so fuckin’ crude?” He shook his head. “No wonder you can’t get a girl.”
“I can get a girl if I want.”
“Planting a video camera under her bed is stalking, asshole, not ‘getting a girl,’” Sean pointed out.
“Yeah, I’m not even interested in them and I know that.” Jimmy laughed when Ronnie elbowed him.
Ronnie scowled. “It was just a fucking joke. Even Bailey laughed. Fuck you both.”
The lights dimmed then, and Jimmy turned his attention to the previews, though his eyes kept straying to the middle of the theater, no matter how hard he tried not to let them. He couldn’t see much, but every so often, the screen lit up enough for him to see blond hair.
When the last of the previews ended, the cell phone warning had played again, and the dancing Coke cup had finally cleared the screen, Jimmy managed to get himself to pay attention to the movie.
Two-plus hours of elves, wizards, dwarves, and a dragon with a bad attitude were enough to keep Jimmy fully occupied. But as soon as the credits started rolling and people stood, Jimmy’s mind turned firmly back to the middle of the theater. He couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away from where he’d last seen his artist. A moment of patience rewarded him, and the blond head turned toward him.
And to Jimmy’s shock—though why it should shock him, he couldn’t explain—his artist raised a hand and waved. Jimmy waved back, then regretted it when Ronnie stood on tiptoes and said way too loud, “Ooooh! He’s the one that got your dick hard!”
“You’re a real asshole some days,” Sean said, poking Ronnie in the side. “That’s not something to fucking shout.”
Ronnie seemed to realize just how loud he’d spoken. He winced. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
Luckily, it didn’t seem like his artist had heard Ronnie’s comment. Unfortunately, several others did, and Jimmy caught a few really disgusted looks thrown his way. That was one of the few times he really hated his height. He’d have liked very much to disappear into the crowd, but that was difficult to do when he was taller than most of those around him—including the row of people behind them.
Jimmy jerked one shoulder in a half shrug, trying to ignore his hot face. “I’m used to it.”
By the time they got out of the theater, he’d lost sight of his artist. Jimmy kept looking everywhere, but there was no blue flannel to be seen.
When they stepped outside into the cool air, Ronnie held a hand up. “Sorry, man. That was uncalled for. I sometimes forget some people give a shit when I don’t.”
Jimmy blinked at Ronnie. “It’s okay, man. Buy me a frap at the bookstore.”
Ronnie nodded. “Only because I was a bigger asshole than usual. Let’s go.”
The Waterfront in Homestead was an open-air shopping complex that, most of the year, was nice to walk through. Unfortunately, in late December it wasn’t quite so pleasant. But Jimmy and Ronnie traded barbs as they walked, Sean laughing at both of them, and they managed to ignore the near-freezing temperature for the short distance to the bookstore.
Still, the warm bookstore was welcome. Jimmy sniffled and made a beeline for the Starbucks in the corner. “Forget the frap. I need something hot.”
“Like that blond guy you were eyeing?” Ronnie asked, but at least this time he was a little less crude and a lot quieter.
Jimmy rolled his eyes. “Shut up, asshole.”
“Dude, I think he’s got a crush!” Ronnie said to Sean.
“Grown men do not have crushes,” Jimmy nearly growled.
“You’re not grown yet,” Sean pointed out.
Another eye roll. “I’ll be eighteen in two months. I’m close enough. Now shut up and get me a white chocolate mocha.”
“Yeah, cause that’s what ‘grown men’ drink,” Ronnie said, sniggering.
Jimmy ignored him, plucked the latest issue of X-Men off the comic book rack, and sat down at one of the tables.
Sean followed Ronnie to the line at the counter, and Jimmy did his best to simply read the comic. Except before he got through three frames, he caught the color blue out of the corner of his eye and looked up. Sure enough, on the opposite end of the café, his artist sat at a table, talking with three other guys. Well, they were talking. His artist simply stared in his direction.
The guy’s friends were all dressed similarly to him. Two of them had spiked hair and skateboards leaning against their legs. The other had a shaved head and plugs in his ears. One of them—a skinny guy with blue and purple spikes—snapped his fingers in front of his artist’s face. The guy turned his attention back to his friend, nodding at something one of them said.
“He’s stalking you,” Ronnie said in his ear, plunking a cup down onto the table in front of him.
Jimmy glared. “He is not. I don’t think he even really knows who I am.” He took a sip of his drink, then regretted it when it almost burned his tongue.
“Yup. Crush,” Sean said, grinning. Jimmy punched him and Sean grinned wider.
“Go say hi to him.” Ronnie turned to look.
Jimmy shook his head. “No.”
Ronnie scrunched his eyebrows up, puzzled. “Why not?”
Jimmy turned his attention to his friend. “Why not? He’s surrounded by his friends, for one thing. For another, he probably thinks I’m some kind of nutcase, watching him. Besides, he’s probably straight.”
“He’s been watching you. I don’t know any straight guys who’d be caught dead doing that.”
Jimmy did not appreciate Sean’s logic. “No.” He refused to admit half of it had to do with the fact that he was pretty sure by now that his artist knew he’d been watching all these months. Or at least for some of it. How the hell was he supposed to explain without sounding like a stalker?
“Let it drop,” Jimmy growled, and Ronnie, for once, obeyed. “So. Is your family going to your grandparents’ in Texas this year?” Jimmy asked, turning to Sean and effectively dropping the subject.