Third Place Winner of Voyage’s Best Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Soman Chainani
Calculus or boyfriend? It was a no-brainer. My first major calculus test of the year was in the morning, but I threw the textbook aside so I could sneak out of the house to meet my popular, jock boyfriend in the darkest corner of the town’s public park. Well, to be honest, we weren’t yet the true definition of boyfriends. In my mind, boyfriends meant he wasn’t closeted, and everyone knew we were a couple. So, technically I was sneaking out of my house to meet the guy I had feelings for. Apparently, he had feelings for me too. As I was already two minutes late crawling out my bedroom window, it wasn’t the best time to fully analyze the situation. Or even attempt to properly label the relationship we—Ugh!
Overthinking once again. I had a well-developed habit of clinging to a thought and recycling it until it drove me crazy.
I’d always been a hard-working student, so studying for the big calculus exam was a great reason to ask my parents not to bother me after dinner. That way I didn’t have to worry about them checking in on me before going to bed. As long as they still believed I was cramming for a test, I could crawl out my window, climb down the tree, then stroll down the street with them being none the wiser.
Although the window opened silently, I worried one of my parents would walk in and find me straddling the sill with one foot on the floor and the other on the roof. It would have been the first time I’d been caught sneaking out. The following conversation would have been awkward and highly embarrassing. First, I didn’t make it a habit of subjecting my parents to rebellious behavior. Second, they liked being the cool parents, as they’d demonstrated by forcing me to endure a never-ending list of their authority-defying antics when they were my age. But I didn’t want to hear that I was behaving like a typical teenager. I’d heard it too many times before, and I didn’t want to be a typical teenager. And third, they didn’t even know Matt and I were dating . . . flirting . . . crushing. Whatever. Ugh!
The thrill of being on the roof was short-lived because the shingles crunched underfoot like sheets of sandpaper scratching against each other. And the angle of the roof meant I had to carefully maneuver in a squat to the edge. Once at the corner of the house, I realized I needed to be careful about stepping off the roof to avoid damaging the gutters. I glanced at my watch and cursed. I didn’t have time to calculate the best method of scaling down the tree. Gripping the closest gnarled branch, I planted one foot firmly into the narrow crook of the tree, pushed myself from the roof, and then worked my way to the ground.
Athleticism at its finest, considering the extent of my physical activity consisted of gym class and biking around the neighborhood.
I creeped in the shadows alongside the house. The two main lamps were on in the living room. A sly peek through the window confirmed that my father still watched CNN before bed. Crouching low, I dipped my head and passed under the window to the front yard in record time.
A quick scan of the neighborhood confirmed the coast was clear of witnesses. I jogged to the sidewalk and then headed for the park six blocks away. Just casually strolling along like someone out for a ten o’clock loop through the neighborhood under a clear, starlit sky.
It was a pretty cool night, so I was glad I’d worn my favorite olive-green hoodie. Because it was the end of September, I should have changed my well-worn T-shirt for something warmer, but I’d been too preoccupied with calculus than I was with my escape from the house to think about it. Now I hoped the chill in the air wouldn’t cause me to sniffle and wipe snot from my nose as I tried to play it cool talking to Matt during our first meeting outside of school.
Three weeks had passed since Matt asked if he could talk to me. Nineteen days, to be precise. During the very first week of school, in biology, he whispered, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute after class?” Normally, I would have avoided sitting at the desk next to him, just like I avoided him and other hot guys in social situations. I didn’t trust my gaze not to betray me while I got lost in Matt’s beautiful hazel eyes. Nor did I want my body to publicly humiliate me by reacting in ways I couldn’t control. I mean, as a teen boy I’m often at the mercy of uncontrollable erections. And I didn’t trust my body in too close of a proximity to Matt Bentley.
That morning, I’d spent too much time talking to my best friend, Alyssa at our side-by-side lockers before class. When I finally rushed into biology, the only available seat was next to Matt, which caused my body to flutter with equal measures of excitement and dread. During most of class, I’d successfully imagined a brick wall separating us. However, his damn cologne constantly reminded me that he was on the other side of that wall. And then when he whispered at me, all those bricks crumbled onto the linoleum floor in one beautiful heap.
Like an idiot, I’d glanced around to see who he might be talking to. On my left was a wall mural of science lab instruments. On my right, Matt. Behind me, a blank wall. In front of me, Emma Johnson, who avoided nearly everyone because she was seriously committed to her goal of being class valedictorian. I actually looked at the mural again before gazing into his beautiful, captivating eyes.
“Huh?” I’d muttered like a well-seasoned idiot.
Matt’s smile widened, which revealed hints of dimples and caused his square jawline to twitch. “Can I talk to you a minute after class?”
“Um. Yeah, I guess so.” My mind flashed through a multitude of possible reasons for his request, but I didn’t understand any of them because the words were a scrambled mess. “After biology?”
He chuckled. “Yeah. In, like, a minute.”
The bell sounded, causing me to flinch and drop my pencil like a very well-seasoned idiot. Even though I tried to play it cool, I probably looked nervous or paranoid. Maybe both. Or just simply like an idiot.
I took my time shoving things into my backpack while everyone but Matt and me rushed out of the room.
Nervously, he asked, “Can I trust you with something?”
Matt and I were juniors. Although we’d been pretty good friends in elementary school, we hadn’t had a full conversation since eighth grade. At one time, he’d lived in my neighborhood, so there were lots of times we’d play together in the park or ride our bikes. One summer I’d sprained my ankle during a soccer game, and he’d draped my arm over his shoulder and helped me hobble eight blocks home.
I fully embraced my homosexuality during seventh grade. There were several childhood buddies I’d had crushes on, and Matt was one of them. In an attempt not to expose my secret, I avoided most of my friends, which was easy to do once we entered high school. Plus, after coming out of the closet at the start of freshmen year, I was too nervous to interact with Matt because, in my eyes, he was too good-looking. I had no faith I wouldn’t say or do something utterly stupid.
Now he was asking for my confidence.
Puzzled, I replied, “Yeah, sure. Is there something wrong?”
His smiled faded, and the silence lengthened to an unbearable five seconds. Leaning close, he said, “I was—I mean, if it’s . . .” He inhaled deeply as if gathering courage from oxygen. “I, uh, like you. And I was wondering . . . Maybe we can hang out.”
An invitation to hang out was not what I’d expected. Unless he was setting me up for a prank. “You like me?”
“Yeah, you know.” He rubbed his bottom lip and lowered his eyes. “I think you’re really cute. I mean, well . . . more than cute.” His quick glance around the room was likely to check that we were still alone. “Am I making you uncomfortable?”
Yes, I was uncomfortable. “No.”
Fast-forward nineteen days later. I was about to meet him at the park after sneaking out of the house for the first time in my life. It was also the first time I was meeting a boy who I was involved with on the down-low. Not to mention, the first guy who had ever told me that he liked me and thought I was more than cute.
Boondock, Indiana, was not a sprawling metropolis. I didn’t expect a steady stream of vehicles passing me, but I’d expected to see at least a car or two. Although, the lack of eyewitnesses was a stroke of good luck. No one would report seeing me to my parents. And no one would see the openly gay sixteen-year-old meeting the seventeen-year-old hot jock under the cover of darkness. If seen, word would spread at breakneck speed. A small scandal in town and likely a bigger scandal at school.
The playground seemed ominous at night without the benefit of sunlight, especially with the creepy mist hovering near the ground. The tall fountain—a wide bowl on a pedestal centered in a concrete-bottomed pond—did not trickle, and the koi fish maneuvered beneath the still water, the full moon reflecting on its surface. I immediately imagined a ghost-child lingering around with hopes that someone would push him or her on the swing. The spot near the woods to meet Matt was even darker and creepier. If I saw any spectral figures flitting about, I vowed to never meet Matt there again.
Hopefully, dark corners wouldn’t be a long-term routine.
Tucked into the far corner of the park was a small alcove situated next to a trail that snaked through the trees and along the creek that flowed through the center of town. It was dark, quiet, and safe. No Lovers Lane. However, it was better than our thirty-second encounters in deserted halls or the basement bathroom at school.
I sat on a moss-coated log, the cold dampness seeping through the ass of my jeans. I huffed a breath that undulated and faded in the chilly air. Briefly, I worried that Matt had changed his mind about meeting me. But a couple of minutes later, I tensed at the sound of approaching steps among the songs of crickets and birds. Matt appeared in the blue-silvery moonlight like the divine apparition of a Greek god.
Despite the darkness of the alcove, the happiness of seeing him probably brightened my face like a love-sick gay boy. “Hey.”
He sat on the log, his arm brushing against mine. “Hey. Thanks for asking me to meet you here.”
Whenever Matt laser-focused his attention on me, I didn’t want to blink for fear that I might miss something. My shoulders lifted with a deep inhale as I tried to swallow my nervous energy. “If I get caught sneaking out, my parents will probably keep me locked inside the house for a month.”
“Don’t worry.” He interlaced his fingers with mine and held my hand to his knee. “I’d figure out how to see you at night.”
Aside from a lingering touch on an arm or a playful nudge against a shoulder or the one time his fingertips skimmed mine, holding hands was our first true moment of physical affection. The warmth of his skin caused a flutter in my stomach and a tingle to other body parts.
“What about you?” I asked.
“What about me?”
“Will your mom ground you for, like, a month or something?”
“I doubt it.” Gazing into my eyes, he said, “If she does, this was worth it.”
I did my best not to grin but failed. “Oh, I’d be worth it, huh?”
“Well, unless she found out that we’re dating or whatever.”
He squeezed my hand and twisted his face into a goofy expression, which did nothing to diminish his good looks. Teasingly, he echoed, “Dating or whatever.”
I faced the park to conceal the embarrassment at my words and my unease with the lack of defining our whatever-it-was relationship. Thankfully, I didn’t see any ghost-children swooshing down the slide.
Matt nestled our hands between his knees. “I know this isn’t, like, typical dating. But it could be.”
The golden specks around his pupils sparkled despite the darkness of the alcove. “No, it’s okay. I get it.” His irises appeared more blue than green in the dim light. “You’re not ready to make a big coming out speech to the world.”
“Speech? I don’t wanna make a damn speech. I just wanna be me.”
I was about to say I understood his sentiment.
“We’re basically boyfriends,” he said. “I mean, if that’s okay.”
“If that’s okay? What about you?”
“Well, I snuck outta my house to come see you.”
“You could have sneaked out to see any of your friends,” I replied.
“Yeah, I coulda. But I didn’t. I came to see you.” Leaning close, he accidentally knocked his head against mine. “Sorry.”
I chuckled. “It’s fine.”
His eyes locked on mine as if I were the only person who existed. “So, you wanna be my boyfriend?”
An inappropriate urge to laugh at the thousand watts of happiness charged through me. Thankfully, I saved myself from embarrassment. “Yeah.”
“Can I kiss you now?” he softly asked, discarding the shyness he usually displayed during our secret meetings at school.
Nervous and excited, I tried to string together a sentence, but the words caught in my throat. I managed to say, “Uh-huh.”
Not only was this about to be our first kiss, but it was my first kiss ever.
I closed my eyes, surrendering to the moment. He gently cupped my face and slipped his tongue into my mouth. Lacking experience, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, what’s more my tongue. But as the kiss became more passionate my instincts kicked in, and I set my hand on the back of his neck and kissed with a power to match his.
I no longer felt the chill of the air invading my hoodie. Thoughts of calculus retreated to a far corner of my mind. I didn’t think about the dark alcove of the park or climbing the damn tree to my bedroom window. I didn’t even think about ghost-children or any possible punishment when I returned home. I was wholly present in the moment with Matt and his lips and his taste and his warmth and . . .
Hand to God, my body temperature rose. My eyelids were bathed with light, like an explosion of stars had swirled around our heads. The kiss had taken me into a heavenly orbit.
Suddenly, he flinched away from me.
Confused, I immediately registered his nervous energy despite his obvious attempt to appear calm.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Didn’t you see that light?”
“Uh. Yeah.” Standing, I wiped the dirt from my butt and muttered, “I thought it was the kiss.”
“It was really bright like headlights.”
I glanced at the empty parking lot along Main Street, hundreds of feet away. “The parking lot’s too far.”
He gripped my forearm and pulled me to sit again. “Maybe it was a really bright flashlight. A spotlight, even.”
Honestly, I felt rejected by the abrupt end to our kiss. “No one’s here. Just us.”
“Yeah, I know. Maybe it was the kiss.” He seemed to recognize my disappointment, and he chuckled while reaching for my hand. “I guess no kiss will ever compare to that one, huh?”
I tucked my hands into the pockets of my hoodie.
“What’s wrong? Are you mad at me?”
“No. Well . . . I mean, what if someone did catch us?”
Scooting closer, he wrapped his arm around me. “I’m sorry. But you gotta understand, this is a whole new experience for me. I’m not like you. You know, confident enough to just come out to everyone and . . . you know, be openly gay.”
Matt was right. People deserved to come out in the best way that was comfortable and right for them. When I opened up about my sexuality, I’d already spent years coming to terms with it. As a bonus, my parents were completely accepting of me. I didn’t know how long he’d been struggling with his sexuality or how his mom would react to his news. So, I needed to let Matt make his own choices without selfishly pushing him in one direction or the other.
Pouty-faced, he asked, “Do you forgive me?”
“Yes. And you’re right.” I leaned against his shoulder. “I know this is new to you. Just like having . . . a boyfriend is new to me. I mean, if that’s what you really want to be. Boyfriends.” My armpits seemed to spontaneously pool with sweat. Days ago, I had told myself I wouldn’t be the first to crave an official definition of our relationship. Big fail. I probably seemed too eager to Matt. “I’m going to stop talking now.”
He pulled me to my feet and wrapped his arms around me. “You’re so cute when you get flustered.”
I swatted the top of his butt. “Shut up.”
“No. Not cute. Sexy.” Tightening his embrace, he pressed his lips to mine. Then he smiled. “My sexy boyfriend.”
My lips tingled. “Now what?”
“We should get home,” he said. “It’s getting cold.”
Just the reference to the temperature caused my body to shiver. “I should have worn a coat.”
“Look at me. I’m only wearing a sweatshirt.”
I unzipped my hoodie and did my best to wrap it around his torso of impressive muscle. The effort pressed our bodies together. “Is this better?”
“Yeah. If we make out for like five or ten minutes, I’m sure the heat will keep us warm all the way home.”
“Oh, you think so, huh?”
Dimples. “Yep.” Taunting grin. “I know so.”
I was powerless and too tempted to resist.
Minutes later, the kissing and skin against skin and the blood flow to a certain appendage of mine was too much. I reminded him that we should head home. Holding hands, we lingered and glanced at each other with ridiculous, childish smiles. Then after one long final kiss, we said goodbye and parted ways.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d floated the entire six blocks to my house. I was on such a high I could have levitated to my bedroom window. Once I was in my room, I threw myself onto my bed and enjoyed the happiness and excitement that pulsated within me.
Boyfriend? I couldn’t believe it. Josh Cooper had a boyfriend. And it was Matt Bentley. It seemed impossible, but it was true.
Once Matt was finally comfortable enough to be open about his sexuality, we could be open about our relationship. Then I wouldn’t be the gay kid in school. The gay kid in Boondock. I could finally just be me. But with a hot boyfriend.
I spent ten minutes reviewing my calculus notes. Then I undressed and slid under the comforter with a smile firmly planted on my face. When I closed my eyes, I replayed our first kiss in my mind. Over and over. But I couldn’t fixate on it or I’d never fall asleep. Staring at the ceiling, I forced myself to remember what I needed to know for the exam in the morning.
* * *
When I awoke to sunlight, I rubbed my eyes and then stretched my arms as I marinated in the memory of kissing Matt the night before. I was certain that I’d dreamt about him, but I couldn’t conjure the dream. So I concentrated on the memory of our kiss. A flutter tickled my stomach. My heart swelled with happiness. The warm, tingly sensation returned to my body. If I didn’t force myself to get up, I’d spend another fifteen minutes in bed.
As I swiveled my legs to the floor, my phone notified me of a text message. It was a close-up photo of Matt’s lips. He’d used a filter that caused his lips to glow and shimmer. Probably a reference to my comment about the bright light during our kiss.
I cast all thoughts about calculus aside to snap a few photos of my lips. I had a limited number of filters to choose from, none of which offered the artistic flair of Matt’s filter. I finally narrowed my five shots down to one and replied with the image, which he hearted within seconds.
My lips were warm all night, he texted.
Mine still are, I replied and then sent a smiley emoji.
Even if I only scored an A– on the calculus exam, the disruption to my study-time was totally worth it.