Neil is on a boat. A tightly sealed little ark, dark and suffocating.
When it sways, he sways with it. When it rocks, waves crashing into the hull, his body rocks with it. There is a porthole, round and small, and all it provides is the view of the murky skies and the murky ocean, the line separating the two indiscernible.
The boat has no exit. He looks out of the thick glass pane again, tries to jimmy it open. The moment it does pops open, water rushes in. It submerges him, fills his lungs, his tongue heavy with salt. He thrashes about, struggles and gasps for air – and he wakes up.
Breath labored and back ramrod straight, he takes stock of his surroundings. The passenger next to him is asleep, and the cabin lights are dimmed. The sky is white, blinding, and he pulls the shutter halfway down the window. The screen in front of him says that it is another forty-four minutes before the plane lands.
He slumps back against the seat, his frantic heart rate decelerating, his limbs unlocking, muscle by muscle. He pushes the call button, and a flight attendant comes by his seat a few minutes later. In a croaky voice, he asks for a glass of water, then drinks it all down in one gulp after the attendant fetches one for him.
He wonders if the dream is a premonition. He isn’t superstitious, but being in the Witness Protection Program for the past few years hasn’t diminished the deep-seated paranoia that was programmed into him by a lot.
The last time he was on a boat, he was crossing the French Mediterranean coast from Marseille to Porto Torres and his mother was still alive, clutching his arm during most of the ten-hour journey.
By the time the plane lands, Neil has managed to shake off the memory of his mother’s protective grip and urgent hisses. The passengers deboard and the airline employees bid them all a chipper thank you, we hope to see you again.
Neil takes his time, dragging his feet across the washed-out carpets while other people move in big groups around him, talking loudly as they lug their tropical holiday paraphernalia and hop onto the travelator. It’s different, he muses derisively, than all the other times he’s been at an airport, leisurely instead of vigilant.
The airport is old and smells like coconut lotion, and some parts are closed off for renovation. The arrival hall is quiet and dreary except for the rainbow banner that says Welcome to the Aloha State!
He scans the area. A brown-haired woman dressed in business casual catches his eye, and raises a hand to wave him over.
“Neil Josten,” she says. “Agent Olson. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Neil nods at her. “They briefed me about you.”
“Good.” Olson points towards the baggage claim. “Let’s get your things and get out of here.”
“This is all I have,” Neil says, gesturing to the duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
Olson lifts an eyebrow. “You always travel this light?”
It’s a rhetorical question, because she doesn’t wait for Neil’s answer before she leads the way to the garage. Neil puts his bag in the trunk of a black Sedan and they drive away from the airport, heading towards the city. He watches the sceneries zip past them in a blur of high-rise buildings and scattered houses. Not really what he thought Hawaii would look like.
“First time here?” Olson asks as she gets off the freeway and onto an industrial road.
Neil gives a noncommittal hum. He’s never been here before, which is why he is here right now; he never goes to the same place twice. He also isn’t allowed to leave the country, so the next best choice he has is to go to the state that’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The other reason he chose Hawaii is because –
“You’ll like it here,” Olson says. “People usually do.”
“Only if you prefer rain and year-round sunshine.”
“You’d be an alien if you don’t.”
“I take it that you like living here.”
“I do. I’m living the dream - policing government protected citizens and sunbathing on the days that I’m not working overtime,” Olson says, sardonic.
At least you can sunbathe, Neil thinks.
“You plan on finding a job soon or are you going to take it easy for a while?”
“I’ll try to get one as soon as I can. It’s better than sitting around doing nothing.”
Olson grunts. “There’s nothing wrong with taking things slowly. I’m nobody to you, I know, but I just think that after all the crap you’ve been through, you deserve a break. You’ve already done your part, and you can move around more freely than you did before.”
Neil doesn’t say anything. Like Olson said, she is nobody to him, and her words don’t mean much to him, even if he knows them to be true.
The small town they’re heading towards is around forty minutes away from Kahului, and they spend the rest of the drive in silence.
“We’re here,” Olson announces as she puts the car in park. The building that houses Neil’s apartment is drab and inconspicuous, but the studio apartment itself is decent. It’s on the sixth floor, with running hot water, a small kitchen, a single bed, and a view of the neighborhood park. Definitely one of the better places he’s lived in.
Olson reminds him of some of the regulations he has to stick to as if he hasn’t been living under federal watch for the past seven years. After she leaves, he checks the locks on the windows and front door; the ones on the windows are sturdy enough, but he might need to install extra locks for the door. He then does a sweep of the floor and finds three exits: the elevator, the emergency staircase, and the window in the hallway that opens to a rusty fire escape ladder at the back of the building. He doesn’t have to do any of this - checking exit routes and door locks - but old habits die hard, and it helps him sleep better at night.
Feeling a little more secure now that he knows where all the exits in the building are, Neil returns to his suite and opens up the windows to let some air in, the room stuffy after prolonged disuse. The cool breeze that glides in doesn’t taste like sea salt, and he doesn’t know if he should be relieved or disappointed.
The first thing Neil does after his eyes snap open the next morning is remind himself of where he is. The bare mattress is lumpy, and it chaffs his skin when he rolls onto his back. The sun hasn’t risen yet, the room inked in blue. Through the blinds, he sees the white glow of the crescent moon.
He sits up, rolls his neck, and pads to the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face. Then, he stares at his reflection in the mirror, hands gripping the cool porcelain of the white sink.
He’s dyed his hair a lot while on the run, and as a result, his hair now has a slightly scraggly feel when he touches it. It doesn’t help that he goes swimming at the public pool a lot, the chlorine making it harder to repair the texture of his hair. He doesn’t even care to use conditioners, always deeming it a waste of money, so he decides that it’s all probably a lost cause.
It’s gotten easier though, looking at his reflection. The dark red strands of his hair, the glacial blue of his eyes, even the shape of his mouth - he inherited them all from his father. But he now knows that he isn’t his father, no matter how similar they look.
When he raises two fingers and presses them over the cuts on his cheek, the him in the mirror also raises two fingers and presses them over the cuts on his cheek. When he cracks a droll smile, the him in the mirror cracks the same droll smile. When he closes his eyes, he doesn’t see the image of his father smiling cruelly at him with a cleaver in his hand. He opens his eyes again, and the him in the mirror looks back at him with a solemn expression. He keeps his face muscles absolutely still, like he’s waiting for something to come oozing out of the him in the mirror.
Nothing happens. He cuts off the light, leaves the bathroom, slips on his running gear, and heads out.
He does some stretches outside the building as he studies his surroundings. It’s not completely dark, not with the street lights and the encroaching dawn, and he makes out the direction of the playground he saw through his window yesterday, with a bus stop right across the street.
He sets off on a slow jog, going at a more relaxed pace than usual in order to take in the landmarks and buildings and match them to the mental map he has laid out in his head.
Before he went to sleep last night, he had pulled up Google Maps on his phone and studied the area within a five-mile radius. Turns out that these smartphones have their uses after all. He feels his lips twitching in amusement as he recalls how he had staunchly refused to get one a few years back, insisting that he didn’t need something so expensive when he could always purchase a burner phone. It was also a matter of putting a target on his back; smartphones are too easy to track, and he didn’t want something as frivolous as that to be the cause of his downfall.
But he’s not a scared, helpless child anymore, and maybe that’s why the concept of owning a phone doesn’t rattle him like it used to.
About two miles into his run, he sees a public library. Before that, he had passed by Lawson - a 24-hour convenience store - and a laundromat.
A few cars trundle past him, a sign of a rousing town. The sky is a mixture of indigo blue and mellow orange, and he follows the golden streaks of the rising sun, heading towards the coast.
He hasn’t been to the beach in a while. He avoided it, the first few years after his mother’s death. It wasn’t like the circumstances permitted him to go to one anyway; when he first entered the Witness Protection Program, he was placed in a town in rural South Dakota, surrounded by mountains and forests and no beaches.
The restrictions grew less rigid over time, especially after his father died in a prison hit and the rest of his circle were convicted. The long series of trials ended, and it was decided that he would gradually be eased back into society. He’s not completely free - he probably never will be - but it doesn’t feel like his feet are bound in shackles anymore.
He knows he should be grateful. In another life, he would have been stronger and forced himself to keep on running. In another life, his father would have gotten to him before he could have gone to the feds. In another life, he wouldn’t have made it past twenty years old.
He winds down to a stop when he reaches the dirt road that leads to the beach. It’s one of the smaller ones on the island, and the closest to where he lives.
The sound of crashing waves greets him first. Then, it is the weight of sea salt on his tongue and the sting of wind against his face. He loses a few minutes staring vacantly at the ocean whitecaps and listening to the rumble of waves.
If he closes his eyes, he could probably taste the acrid smell of smoke and see the roaring fire of a burning car, so he doesn’t. He runs instead, his shoes hitting the hard, wet sand, leaving little cracks along the shoreline. The tide is low, thrumming in his ears, his feet a couple of inches away from the water.
Abruptly, he stops in his tracks, chest heaving. He realizes that he can’t do this, not today.
He turns and retraces his steps, and doesn’t look at the water.
The feeling he gets when he sees the ocean is inexplicable. He only knows that it is too heavily intertwined with the image of his mother, of burning her corpse and burying her bones.
Neil returns to his apartment to take a shower and change his clothes, then heads out again, toting a small foldable backpack that has some water and a few essential documents.
He stops by the Lawson that he passed by this morning to buy some sandwiches and a few granola bars. The store clerk is a big, friendly man who tells Neil all about his night shift and how unusual it is to see somebody Neil’s age in the store so early in the morning.
“Also, this is just a wild guess, but are you new here? This is a pretty small town, and my customers are people that I usually recognize - high school kids, blue-collared workers, and old ladies, like my grandma’s friends or something.”
Neil’s first instinct is to lie; having someone notice him always makes him nervous, and he has never liked it when anybody tries to pry into his business. His second instinct is to berate himself for being so paranoid and overthinking his answer to a harmless question.
“Yes,” he says, “I just moved here.”
“Oh, man! That’s awesome. We don’t get a lot of youngins moving here, you know? All we get are like, retired people and tourists,” the clerk rambles on, a wide grin on his face. “But it’s still a pretty diverse community. I mean, we’re not like the main island or anything, but the people here are decent.”
Neil nods, forcing his lips into the shape of a cordial smile. He’s usually good at this, at pretending to be someone he’s not and putting on fake personalities, but the need for it had lessened once he stopped running; it feels a little weird to do it now.
“I’m Jerry,” the clerk says, puffing his chest out and pointing his thumb to his name tag. “Jerry Ikeda.”
Neil nods again. “I’m Neil.”
“Nice to meet you, Neil,” Jerry says, extending a hand out for a handshake.
Neil takes it and tries not to wince at how much bigger Jerry’s hand is compared to his.
“Can I also get a pack of Camels?” Neil says, pointing to the shelf behind the counter, filled with cigarette boxes of different brands.
“Of course!” Jerry turns to unlock the glass door that encases the shelf and takes a carton out. “Can I see your ID?”
“Do I not look over eighteen to you?”
“I don’t know, man. You’re kind of bite-sized.”
Jerry bellows out a hearty laugh at Neil’s unamused expression. “I kid, I kid,” he says, adding the cigarettes into a plastic bag with the other items. Neil has to refrain from rolling his eyes as he pays for everything.
“See you around, man,” Jerry says merrily, lifting and shaking his hand with the fingers curled except for his thumb and little finger. A little stiltedly, Neil returns the gesture as he exits the store; he thinks it might be what people call the shaka sign.
He walks to the public library that he saw earlier. Only a black motorcycle is parked in the otherwise empty parking lot. Inside, it is also mostly unoccupied. He guesses it’s not surprising, since it just opened. He uses one of the computers to browse through job listings and catch up on the news.
After submitting PDF copies of his resume to a few places and jotting down a couple of other job titles and their locations in his battered notebook, he logs out and takes a tour of the library.
He’s not much of a reader, but he does like the feeling of walking between the bookshelves, of skimming his fingers along the book spines. Sometimes he feels that if he ventures deep enough into the bowels of a library, he would get lost and never be found, for better or worse.
Leaving the book stacks and passing by the front desk, he sees a bulletin board that has a few flyers and posters on it. One of them is advertising a job opening, and Neil takes a moment to read it and write down the phone number of the hiring officer and the address of the place. He’s putting his notebook back into his bag and zipping it up when he realizes that he’s being watched, the hair at the back of his neck standing.
He turns around to find the librarian behind the service desk staring at him, face as still as stone. Neil hitches his backpack higher up his shoulder and clears his throat. “Do you know how far this is?” he asks, nudging his chin towards the job flyer.
“Right,” Neil says. “Is there a bus that goes in that direction?”
Really, he’s only asking these things because he feels uncomfortable under the scrutiny and he’s trying to shake off the heavy silence. He is more than capable of orienting himself and getting to any destination he wants with nothing but a good old-fashioned map.
The librarian’s eyes sweep over him, traveling from head to toe then back up to his face. Neil thinks he’s probably ogling the scars on his cheeks.
“Do you not know how to use Google?” the librarian asks in a bored voice.
“Do you not know how to do your job?” Neil retorts. “You should be more courteous to your patrons, you know.”
Unfazed, the librarian pulls out a few pamphlets and a handbook for bus routes and times. Instead of handing them to Neil, he throws them over the counter.
“Very mature,” Neil says, bending down to pick the items up from the floor. He ignores the fact that he is still being watched and acts like he is unruffled by it.
The librarian isn’t very impressive overall; he’s shorter than Neil, which is a feat in itself since Neil is only five foot three, and he has blond hair, brown eyes, and pale skin. But his unreadable, apathetic stare is definitely unnerving, and looking at his outfit - black shirt, black armbands, black jeans - is enough to make Neil feel hot.
“Thanks for these,” he says, a sarcastic edge to his tone, before he hightails it out of the library. He hopes that the next time he comes, there would be a different person behind the counter. He really isn’t in the mood to deal with some weird asshole who is keen on staring at his disfigured face.
He checks the bus routes and makes his way to the first two jobs on his list. He’s in one of his better outfits and he has hard copies of his resume with him, so he thinks that there isn’t any reason not to begin his job hunt immediately.
They’re both retail jobs with decent pay, and they both call him in for an interview on the spot. He puts on his best behavior, affecting enthusiasm and dedication. The false pretenses come easier to him this time, but the fretful glances directed at his scars tell him that the promises of a callback are slim.
The third place he decides to try out is the one from the flyer on the bulletin board. When he checks the map, he discovers that it’s at the beach he visited this morning.
Swallowing down all sense of unease, Neil goes to the beach.
The beachfront shop is called For Fox Sake, and it doesn’t look like much on the outside. It’s built to resemble a shack, with its wooden stilts and thatch roof. Despite its shoddy and rickety appearance, it’s big and actually sturdy, and there is a steady trickle of people going in and out of the shop. Neil can’t believe that he didn’t notice it this morning.
He climbs the creaking stairs and enters the establishment just as a man ferrying a surfboard exits.
It’s cool inside, a reprieve from the sun. The first thing that greets him upon his entrance is the cash register, but it’s unattended, so he takes the time to look at the wall behind the counter, a row of surfboards leaning against it. There is a sign hung above it, stating the prices of surfing lessons and of renting surfing and diving gears by the hour. Neil realizes that it’s both a surf school and a rental place for water sports equipment. He rings the bell on the counter, and a dark-haired girl emerges from the backroom.
“Hi,” she says, “how may I help you?”
“I saw a flyer,” Neil says, “for a job opening. I’m here to drop off my application.”
“Oh, okay. Let me call my boss.” She points to the area where there are a few scattered tables. “You can sit at one of the tables while you wait.”
Neil chooses a seat in the corner, eyeing a couple of customers who are eating some snacks and talking at low volumes at the table next to his, their hair wet and feet sandy. Music plays from the speakers installed in the ceiling; it’s a song that he recognizes. He never knows the titles of the songs he listens to, because they’re usually playing as background noise - when he was driving long hours on the road with his mother, when he was forcing himself to focus and study for his online classes, when he’s working out at the gym - but he can somehow always recall the tunes.
He thinks he should get a radio for his apartment. He could put it on the microwave in the kitchenette, turn it on in the mornings so that it doesn’t feel too quiet.
“You here for the job?” a rough voice asks.
Neil looks up to find a middle-aged man clad in a wife-beater and jean shorts standing at his table, staring him down. Tribal flame tattoos crawl up his arms, and an unlit cigarette dangles from his lips. He looks old enough to be Neil’s father.
This thought would have triggered an automatic sense of disquiet in Neil a few years ago. Now, all he feels is a momentary clench of his guts before it fades away. A feeling of distrust pervades through him though - but then again, Neil doesn’t trust anybody.
“Yes,” he answers.
“Follow me,” the man instructs, and he leads Neil to what seems to be his office.
“Have a seat,” he tells Neil as he drops into a swivel chair behind his desk. Neil sits at the chair opposite from him and does a quick scan of the room. It’s a little cramped and messy, but it somehow manages to still seem organized.
“Neil Josten.” He extracts a copy of his resume from his bag and places it on the table.
“Call me Wymack,” the man says as he reads over Neil’s resume. The cigarette in his mouth bobs as his thick black eyebrows draw together over his nose.
“You sure you’re applying for the cashier job?” He scrutinizes Neil with narrowed eyes. “Says here you have an online degree in accounting.”
Neil considers putting on his overzealous, earnest applicant persona, but the look in Wymack’s eyes tells him that he’d see right through the bullshit, so Neil lifts a shoulder in a shrug and says, “I don’t have any working experience.”
“It also says that you’re fluent in –” Wymack squints at the paper “– four languages, including English.”
It’s actually six – seven if he includes his inchoate Mandarin. He had learned a couple more on his own after he had discovered that his aptitude for language acquisition is high and that he rather enjoys learning new languages. Besides, he had had a lot of spare time in his hands after he enrolled in WITSEC. When he’s not at the recreational center or out running himself to the ground, he’s conjugating verbs and memorizing vocabularies. But he’s not really inclined to go around telling people that he can speak in so many languages.
“It might come in handy, especially if you have a diverse set of clientele,” he responds.
Wymack grunts. “This isn’t exactly Waikiki beach, but we do get all kinds of people coming in, especially during the peak seasons.”
“How many people do you have on staff?” Neil inquires.
“Not a lot, not at this time of the year. I have a few high school brats working here part-time, but I need to hire more people for when it gets busier in a couple of months.” He pauses for a while. “You new here?”
Neil wonders how he could tell. “Yes.”
Wymack’s gaze flits over to the side of Neil’s face, but there is no trace of censure in his expression at the sight of the scars. It still makes Neil pull his sleeves over his knuckles on instinct, as if the marks on his arms can be seen through the fabric.
Wymack looks at Neil in the eye again. “The job is fifteen dollars per hour plus whatever amount of tips you make. Health insurance is covered, and you get a few sick days. Got any questions?”
Neil blinks. “You want to hire me.”
“The offer is on the table if you want it.”
“You’re offering fifty percent higher than the minimum wage,” Neil points out, tilting his head to the side. “Why?”
Wymack leans back against his seat and takes the cigarette out of his mouth, rolling it between his fingers.
“You’re overqualified, kid. I might have you do more than just manning the till.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Before I get to that,” Wymack says, “do you know how to swim?”
Shy of a week after he moves in, there is a knock on Neil’s door, almost inaudible. When he looks through the peephole, he sees an old woman in the hallway, and he has a moment of hesitation before he opens the door.
“Hello,” the lady says, a dish covered with aluminum foil in her hands.
“Hi,” Neil greets, keeping the uncertainty out of his voice.
“I live down the hall,” she says, her smile turning her eyes into friendly crescent slits. “I noticed that you moved in recently, so I made you some chicken pot pie.”
“Oh,” Neil says, accepting the dish when it’s handed to him, “thank you.”
“You can call me Mrs. Ikeda. What’s your name?”
“Neil,” he replies.
“Neil,” she repeats. Her accent has her pronouncing his name as Nee-ru, and he has to admit that it’s kind of endearing. “You know, I have a grandson who’s around your age.”
Huh, he thinks.
“Is his name Jerry, by any chance?”
“Yes, Jerry!” she exclaims happily. “You know him?”
“I just know him from the store. I’ve only talked to him a couple of times.”
“That’s wonderful! He comes over to my place a few times a week, for dinner. You should stop by too when you can.”
“Oh, yes, that sounds very nice,” Neil says, internally floundering at this sudden development. “Thank you for the invite.”
“You can knock on my door anytime if you need anything,” Mrs. Ikeda says.
“Yes, likewise,” Neil says, even though his apartment is essentially empty and he doesn’t know if he could really be of use to an elderly lady.
Mrs. Ikeda bids him goodbye, shuffling back to her apartment.
Neil locks his door and settles down at the small dining table pressed against the wall next to the stove. He removes the foil off the chicken pot pie and stares at it instead of eating it.
He has always found other people’s kindness bizarre, almost alarming. Before he found it bizarre, he found kindness something to be dubious of, something that people utilize to hide a more sinister agenda. His mother once said that he should never trust anybody, no matter how decent and friendly they seem on the outside, and he had never disobeyed her.
He hadn’t realized how tiring it was to live that way, not until she died.
The chicken pot pie is delicious, and Neil doesn’t remember the last time he had something that good.
He puts the leftover in the fridge, grabs his wallet and keys, and heads to the supermarket. He had done some grocery shopping a couple of days after he arrived, when he went out to buy some cleaning supplies and bedsheets. He thinks he might be able to make something, for when he returns Mrs. Ikeda’s glass dish bowl.
As he strolls through the spice aisle at the nearest Walmart, he thinks idly of the job he just got hired for. He knows he’s lucky to land one so quickly after arriving, but he is also tempted to say that it’s only because he’s become somebody’s charity case.
Neil has accepted the job and Wymack has told him to come in on Monday, a week after his interview. He still has his doubts about it, though. He’s mainly the cashier right now, but Wymack says that he should put his accounting degree to use and help with the financial side of things too.
Neil doesn’t mind that part. What he does mind is that Wymack has also asked him if he could lend a hand in their lessons department, when it gets busier during the peak surfing season. The good news is that this is contingent on whether Wymack can recruit another instructor before it gets too overwhelming. Neil is only asked to do the basics - teach people how to paddle and to tread water so they won’t be completely out of it when they progress further in their surfing lessons.
He’s fished out his swimwear from his duffel bag and put it on the dresser, but he feels that he shouldn’t do it. He swims regularly, sure, but it’s at public swimming pools and during hours where there’s hardly any people - he’s even broken into a couple of recreational centers to sneak in a few midnight swims. Swimming in open waters is going to be different, and teaching other people is going to be even more different. He’s never had to care about other people’s safety, after all.
The other issue is the swimsuit itself. It’s a full-body wetsuit, but it’s skin tight and the bumps and outline of some of his bigger scars can be seen through it. It’s already taken him years to start wearing short sleeves again, to shake off the discomfort of exposing the wrecked skin that makes up his arms – he’s definitely not at a level in his life where he’s comfortable with showing the rest of his scars. He still rarely deviates from his oversized long-sleeved outfits anyway.
Maybe he’ll land another job before it ever comes down to it.
Neil keeps himself busy. It’s not new to him, this obstinate way of distracting himself from his thoughts by constantly moving and exerting himself. He wakes up before the sun rises, goes for a run, dives into the ocean or the pool, clocks in at For Fox Sake, tries not to think about lighting up pyres by the beach. Sometimes he reads - or tries to - and sometimes he listens to the second-hand radio he bought at a thrift shop. He talks to his co-workers when they talk to him, studies the shop’s records when Wymack asks him to, and practices restraint when the occasional rude customers come in.
Neil has just flipped the sign to CLOSE on a Tuesday evening when the door opens. He parts his mouth to tell the visitor that they’re closed for the day, but clicks it shut when he looks up from counting dollar bills and sees who it is.
The librarian - Andrew, as Neil has begrudgingly come to know from his visits to the library - stares at him from the door, expression remote like it always is.
Ever since that first day, Neil has had to interact with him a couple of times - when he applied for a library membership card and when he checked out a Japanese copy of The Thief. They managed to complete the transactions without a word exchanged between them, and he hadn’t been stared at.
He had been able to glean Andrew’s name from the piece of paper that’s taped to the copy machine at the back of the library: Out of order. See Andrew at the front desk for assistance. It’s signed by a person called Bee, but so far, Neil hasn’t seen anybody else working at the place.
Neither of them say anything for a while, not until Andrew stuffs his hands into the pockets of his black leather jacket and leans against the wall.
“You,” Neil says.
“Yes,” Andrew says blandly, “me.”
“Can I help you with something?” Neil asks, an automatic query that escapes him before he could think about it. He almost regrets it, if only because Andrew hasn’t been as hospitable when their roles are reversed.
“I am here to collect payment.”
“Money extortion?” Neil guesses, wry.
Andrew‘s eyes move to a point above Neil’s head and stay there, and Neil accepts it as the dismissal that it is.
Wymack hobbles in a few minutes after Neil finishes balancing the cash drawer. Neil has noticed that he limps a little at the end of a long, tiring day, and Robin - one of the part-timers - told him that it’s because of an old knee injury.
“You’re early,” Wymack says to Andrew in lieu of a greeting. He gets no response, which he doesn’t seem surprised by, and brings Andrew to his office.
Admittedly, Neil is rather curious, but he closes up shop instead of indulging the part of him that likes to snoop around. Going down the stairs of the shack, he runs into Renee, one of the surfing instructors. He’ll be seeing her around more often once the school reopens, and he’s - not entirely keen on the idea.
“Hello, Neil.” She smiles, demure. Neil knows that she’s genuinely nice, but he doesn’t trust that omnipresent sharpness in her eyes. “Done for the day?”
Nodding, Neil gestures vaguely in the direction of the town. “I’m about to head home.”
“I don’t have a car, and I prefer walking over taking the bus.”
“That’s really considerate of you.” Renee’s smile takes on a slightly impish edge. “For the environment, I mean.”
“The environment,” Neil repeats blankly. “Right.”
Her long sundress sways as a light breeze tumbles by, the dusty pink of the fabric complimenting the pastel rainbow colors at the tip of her white hair.
Approaching footsteps have them turning towards Andrew, who’s lighting a cigarette as he descends the stairs, a plastic bag filled with something heavy dangling from the crook of his elbow.
“Hello, Andrew,” Renee says.
Andrew acknowledges her with a simple nod. Neil doesn’t know how he’s associated to either Wymack or Renee, but he supposes that it’s one of the perks of living in a small town - everybody seems to know everybody. The old him would have abhorred the very idea, getting restless at every minimal human interaction. He still doesn’t like anybody getting into his business, but he supposes that keeping your eyes and ears out for your neighbors can weed out the sketchy ones. It saves him the time and energy to do it himself, so he can’t really complain.
“Will you be heading directly to Shawn’s after this?” Renee asks Andrew, who nods an affirmative.
Renee’s lips quirk into a smile. “I would ask if we could go together but I don’t think you would want to leave your bike here.”
Then she addresses Neil with, “Which brings me to my next point - Neil, why don’t you join us for dinner after this?” At Neil’s frown of wariness, she explains, “We’re meeting up with some of our friends. One of them just returned from out of state - we haven’t seen him in a while.”
His brain-to-mouth filter prevents him from asking Andrew has friends? Instead, he says, “But you don’t know me. And I don’t know them.”
Renee’s smile grows. “All the more reason for you to join us. No pressure, of course.”
Neil clutches the strap of his backpack, an anxious tick. “Okay,” he agrees reluctantly, “I’ll come.”
“I’m happy to hear that.” Renee points to the shop. “I’ll be seeing Wymack for a bit, and then we can walk there together.”
When she’s out of sight, Andrew says, “You make it too obvious that you dislike her.”
Neil feels a stab of annoyance. “I do not,” he rebuffs, not sure if he’s denying the ‘obvious’ part or the ‘you dislike her’ part of the accusation.
Andrew taps the ash off his cigarette, acting as if Neil hasn’t spoken a word. Never one to back down from a chance to goad someone into a verbal showdown, Neil says, “Aren’t you hot in that?”
“I could ask you the same,” Andrew counters with a cursory glance at Neil’s long sleeves. “Something to hide?”
Neil almost laughs. “Probably the same thing you’re hiding under your armbands.”
The way Andrew’s expression shifts from looking disinterested to compromised then back to disinterested has satisfaction clawing at Neil’s chest, fleeting as it is; he hadn’t expected to hit anything with such a vague statement. As if to make up for this infinitesimal crack in his apathy, Andrew flicks the butt of his cigarette against Neil’s chest. It singes the material of his shirt before bouncing onto the ground, and Neil stubs it out with his sneaker when it rolls towards him.
“You should watch your mouth. There will come a day where you will get hit if you don’t.”
“I’m not afraid of you.”
“You should be,” Andrew says, blasé. “I know where you live.”
“Aren’t there laws that prevent you from abusing your power like that?” Neil asks, aware that Andrew knows his address from when he registered as a member of the library.
This quip is wasted, however; Andrew is already leaving for the beach parking lot. Neil’s eyes follow him to the metallic beast of a motorcycle parked across two car spaces.
So the bike that he’s seen at the library does belong to Andrew.
Renee emerges right after Andrew tears out of the parking lot, the cry of his engine reverberating in the dusk.
The walk with Renee to Shawn’s bar isn’t as bad as Neil expected, but only because she takes the hint and doesn’t force him into a conversation. The party, on the other hand -
“So, Neil, what do you do for fun?” Matt, whom he just met less than twenty minutes ago, drops next to him on the vinyl seat in one of the round booths.
Playing with the tab of his soda can, Neil answers, “I run, or swim.” He bites his bottom lip, then adds, “I like languages, too,” because he’s trying to be...more open. Less socially constipated. Whatever people want to call it.
“Sporty,” Matt comments, “and brainy. A dreamy combo.” He grins, blinking both eyes in a purposeful way. Neil deduces that it was his version of a wink. “I’m not much of a cardio guy, but I love swimming too.”
Neil slants him a flat stare. “You’d need to like swimming to some extent, I think, since you’re a lifeguard. Or at least be good at it.”
Matt chuckles. “True.”
His girlfriend shows up, sitting next to Neil. Danielle, if Neil remembers correctly from the successive, boisterous introduction he was foisted with when he arrived at the bar.
“What you boys talkin’ about?” She steals Matt’s drink and some of his fries, and Neil can feel them begin to play footsie underneath the table.
“Swimming, stayin’ afloat - the usual,” Matt says.
“Honey, you need to come up with more interesting conversation pieces,” Dan tells him. “So, Neil -”
Neil’s mouth twitches at the similar way she’s starting her conversation “- how are you liking the island? You’ve been here for a month, right?”
“Three weeks,” Neil says, “and I guess it’s alright.”
“‘Alright’,” Matt echoes, a little disbelievingly. “Can you believe this guy?”
Dan shakes her head, laughing. “You’re the second person I’ve met who’s not moved by the beauty of this place.”
Neil raises his eyebrows. “Who’s the first?”
She exchanges a look with Matt, whose smile turns a little strained.
“Him,” Matt says, jerking his head towards the bar. Neil’s gaze follows where he indicated and finds Andrew sitting on one of the stools, idly sipping some sort of scotch. Kevin, the one who just arrived from out of state and who is Wymack’s son and who is apparently a famous TV personality - information which was dumped on Neil by a sarcastic Matt during the introductions - breaks off a conversation with Renee and goes to join Andrew but is neatly ignored.
“I’m surprised he came,” Dan remarks.
“Well, everything is on Kevin’s tab,” Matt reminds her, “so I’m not too surprised he did.”
“Anyway.” Dan focuses on Neil again. “What do you think of the school? Wymack’s shop, I mean.”
“It’s a good place to work,” Neil replies, tearing his gaze away from the bar, where Kevin is making a cutting gesture at Andrew.
“Well, I was sort of asking what you think of it from an accountant’s point of view.” Dan looks at him with a serious expression, before it breaks into confusion. “Wait, that’s what you are, right?”
“I mean, I guess I am.” Neil shrugs. “I haven’t done much aside from looking over the inventory. Really, I’m just a cashier.”
Dan’s eyebrow shoots up. “That’s not what I heard.” She flaps a hand in a dismissive gesture. “Anyway, I guess it’s fine. The school’s reopening soon and peak surfing season is on its way too, so I guess there’s nothing much to worry about. Plus -” Her eyes dart to an approaching Kevin, indignation clouding his face “- we have our poster boy here.”
“He is insufferable,” Kevin announces, plopping down next to Matt. Renee has taken his place next to Andrew at the bar and is faring much better at striking a non-one-sided conversation.
“He gets that from you, I think,” Matt says dryly.
Kevin ignores the dig. “He is acting like a child. He refuses to say even a word to me.”
“He refuses to say a word to a lot of people,” Dan points out.
Gulping down the last of his drink, Kevin drops the empty glass on the table and crosses his arms over his chest. “But I went to college with him. I’ve known him longer than any of you have.”
“At least he came,” Neil inserts.
Kevin looks at him like he just realized that Neil has been sitting with them.
“You’re the new hire,” he says.
Narrowing his eyes, Kevin demands, “Do you surf?”
“Then what exactly do you do for the school?”
“I’m just the cashier,” Neil says, deliberately slow; he’s unsure why he needs to repeat this fact so many times. “You know, for the surf shop.”
“Wymack would have hired a child if that is your only duty,” Kevin argues. Neil doesn’t even know why he’s arguing about this.
“What do you want me to say?” Neil asks, a little angry now.
“You don’t surf, but you swim?” Kevin presses.
“Yes, I swim, and once again, no, I don’t surf.”
“Then this is a waste of time.”
Neil takes a deep breath to calm himself. “Look - Kevin, was it? I really don’t know why you’re pushing this. Are you saying that me earning a living as a cashier is a waste of time? Or that a minimum wage job is a waste of time since it’s a so-called unskilled labor?”
Kevin opens his mouth to defend himself but Neil doesn’t give him the chance.
“Your celebrity status may have given you an illusion of eminence and an extreme sense of self-importance, but please remember that your whole life would fall apart without the existence of us humble minimum-wage earners. To put it simply - just because you’re some big shot sports anchor doesn’t mean you can come here and shit on my job.”
Neil only notices that everybody’s eyes are on him after he finishes, the room enveloped in stunned silence. The stillness ruptures when Dan snorts, then throws her head back in laughter. Matt’s mouth hangs open in giddy astonishment, his eyes wide and amused. Renee has her head ducked a little, lips sucked in like she knows it would be impolite to even let out a snicker. Even Andrew’s attention is turned towards the table, his unreadable gaze heavy on Neil.
“And Wymack said that you were quiet,” Dan wheezes just as Kevin vehemently says, “That’s not what I was doing.”
“Yeah? Because you made it pretty clear that you were looking down on my job,” Neil says.
“I was just trying to see if you’re interested in surfing,” Kevin grits out, a flush on his tawny complexion.
“Unconventional way of doing it,” Neil comments, an eyebrow raised.
“He doesn’t have the best communication skills,” Matt says.
“Fuck you,” Kevin says.
“All that time on TV and he never gained more than the social competence of a ten year old,” Dan chips in.
“Fuck you too,” Kevin says.
They’re straying from the original point of whatever conversation they were having so Neil swoops in with, “If I said that I was interested, what would it entail?”
Kevin’s mouth parts, but he’s quiet for a while, like he isn’t entirely sure of the answer either. “I could – teach you, perhaps. To surf. If you’re interested.”
“A surfing proposition. How romantic,” Matt says with a sigh. Neil thinks he’s being sarcastic.
“Uh, you sure you won’t scare him off, Kevin?” Dan asks. To Neil, she elaborates, “He’s notorious for making the students cry. I can’t tell you how many times people come back to shore with more than just ocean water on their faces.”
“It might be interesting, I guess,” Neil allows, “to learn how to surf.”
It’s not like he has other pressing matters to attend to. Besides, he’s decided to try and experience as many things as he can, back when he realized that Neil Josten is going to be a permanent gig. His scars and his swimsuit might continue to be an issue for him, but he supposes that he’s going to have to deal with it at some point.
“Whoa,” Matt says under his breath, “I can’t believe Kevin just made a new friend.”
Kevin grabs a handful of Matt’s fries and chucks them at him.
Neil wakes up one morning to the sound of raindrops peltering against his window.
Munching on an apple for breakfast, he stares out at the playground and at the bus stop. Everything seems different through a flurry of rain.
Inexplicably, it reminds him of a conversation he had with Mrs. Ikeda recently. One thing had led to another and she began talking about the childhood that she spent in her homeland. She expressed a sense of nostalgia for it, this feeling that consumes her heart and makes it both heavier and lighter. Neil hadn’t understood that feeling when she said it, but he thinks he does now, which is weird to think about, because he doesn’t know what it is exactly he’s feeling nostalgic for. It’s an abstract feeling that settles at the bottom of his stomach like lead, a longing for something he can’t have.
He goes out for his run.
It doesn’t last long. The weather changes from a drizzle to a rainstorm, and Neil detours to the recreational center when he can barely see a yard ahead of him through the downpour. Fortunately for him, the locks are flimsy. Unfortunately for the administration, he is a break-in expert.
He meanders through the empty hallways and around the machines and equipment, trailing his fingers over whatever they can reach. It makes him think about walking through the bookstacks at the library, about being lost and never being found.
Somewhere at the back of his mind, he is aware that he is in a weird mood. Not a bad one, just - he feels a little untethered, like his feet can’t quite touch the ground. Like groundswell waves, he was generated from faraway storms and spat out into the sea, and he remains adrift, never reaching shore.
It’s this strange mood that propels him to strip down to his briefs and lunge into the pool.
The chill of the water puts his mind at ease. He dives to the bottom, and it feels as if his lungs are compressed like a tin can by the pressure.
When he floats back up, he starts swimming in earnest, his arms spearing through the surface, his legs kicking up bursts of water. He stops, once, and looks over the ladder on one side of the pool and almost expects to see his mother there, standing with her arms across her abdomen as she urges him to hurry up, a few more laps and then we’re leaving . He wonders why she had ever indulged him with this one thing.
He doesn’t know how many laps he’s done before his limbs begin to feel heavy, straining against the current. He comes up to inhale a mouthful of air, slicking his hair back with his hands, head tipped back and eyes closed. Heart racing from the exertion, he opens his eyes and looks over to the ladder and freezes.
For a moment, he thinks his mother has risen from the dead, but then the image fizzles out of focus and he realizes that it’s Andrew.
He ducks deeper until the water is lapping against his chin, but it’s too late; Andrew probably saw the horrors on his skin, all the ones that snake downwards to his chest - the looping scar at the base of his throat, the bullet wound on his collarbone, the hot iron mark on his right shoulder, and all the little slashes in between.
The only consolation he gets is how uninterested Andrew looks, a million miles away from all of this. His shoulders droop a little as some of the tension leaks out of his body. The only sound in the echoey space is the whirr of the pool filter and the indistinct patter of rain on the roof.
Much to his surprise, Andrew is the one to break the silence.
“The pool is not supposed to open until another two hours.”
It takes a few tries for Neil to find his voice. “I needed a place. To hide from the rain.”
“And you needed to break into the building to do that,” Andrew says, a question without the inflection of one. Neil wonders how he does that.
“I just - wanted to go for a swim,” Neil tries, jutting his chin out to aim for defiance. He probably achieved petulance at best. “And what about you? What excuse do you have for being in here?”
“You are not the only one trying to avoid being waterlogged.” Andrew lifts the motorcycle helmet in his right hand, water dripping onto the floor. His ridiculous leather jacket is wet too. “I did not expect to find the doors unlocked, much less to hear the sound of somebody thrashing around in the water.”
Neil must’ve forgotten to relock the doors when he entered. He’s gotten sloppy.
“I wasn’t thrashing around.”
“Hmm,” is all Andrew responds with before he turns on his heels and leaves.
Neil expels a shaky breath. He dunks his face into the water and tries not to scream. He climbs out of the pool and picks his clothes up from where he discarded them on the floor, pulling them on without bothering to dry himself. He pads out to the entrance barefooted, his shoes with his socks stuffed inside hanging from one hand.
He finds Andrew sitting at the steps leading to the main doors, striking the flint of his lighter sporadically. His bike is parked at the bottom of the stairs, a puddle growing around the back tire.
Neil settles next to him, leaving some space between them. When Andrew shakes a stick out from his carton of cigarettes, Neil wordlessly asks for one, extending a palm out. He didn’t bring his own. Andrew slips a lit cigarette between his fingers.
Neil cups the stick near his face, shielding it from the wind and the stray spatters of rain. When the flame almost dies out, he takes a drag to nurse it back to life.
“You don’t smoke,” Andrew observes.
“I don’t.” Exhaling a low stream of smoke and waving a hand to scatter it around, Neil says, “I just like the smell.” He doesn’t associate it with his mother as strongly as he used to, but he can’t seem to shake off the habit.
Andrew finishes his cigarette after a while, squashing the stub with his boots. Neil closes his eyes, letting the scent of tobacco and rain wash over him.
“You were right,” Andrew says. He sounds a little far away, like Neil is listening to him from inside a dream. “About the armbands.”
Neil opens his eyes, but Andrew is looking at the puddle near his motorcycle as if he was talking to no one.
Pulling his knees to his chest and resting his cheek on top, Neil studies Andrew’s profile. His pale eyelashes are rather long, his nose a little crooked as if it was broken once and the bone was never set right.
“Are you telling me this because you saw my scars just now?”
Andrew lifts a shoulder in a tiny shrug. Neil wants to believe that his nonchalance isn’t entirely true.
“It is only fair.”
Neil shifts, his chin over his knees, and gazes out at the abating downpour. When he offers his half-burned cigarette, Andrew takes it, the tip of his fingers brushing against Neil’s.
The rain stops. Andrew throws the stub into the gutter, trudges down the stairs, straddles his motorcycle, doesn’t start the engine. He hasn’t pulled the visor of his helmet down, so Neil can see the intensity of his gaze on him.
He doesn’t know what Andrew is looking for, but after taking his fill, Andrew flips the kickstand off the ground and flies away on his bike, splashing water from the puddle.
Neil watches him as he disappears into the morning, the clouds breaking.
A couple of months after he moves in, a cat follows him home.
It’s a dirty little thing, its ribs sticking out from malnourishment, and it’s missing an ear. Neil had been exiting the Lawson store on one of his day offs, a pack of tuna sandwiches in his hand. A loud yowl from around the corner had piqued his attention, and that was where he found the mangy orange tabby, growling at another cat from under a dumpster.
The other cat had scampered away when Neil approached, but the tabby had - much to Neil’s surprise - remained where it was, watching as Neil crouched down in front of it. Neil hadn’t thought too much about it when he tore off a chunk of his sandwich and left it for the cat, so he had been a little bewildered when it followed him down the street. He had chalked it up to the cat still being hungry, so he had left another piece of his sandwich on the sidewalk for the cat to eat. By the time he had arrived in front of his building, the cat had caught up to him, winding itself around his ankles as it purrs.
Neil had brought it up to his apartment.
He supposes it’s safe to assume that he is the owner of the cat now. He’s given it a bath, evidenced by the scratch marks on his arms, and he’s bought some cat food and litter. He’s never had a pet before, so he’s not sure what other animal essentials he needs for his cat.
Mrs. Ikeda comes around at some point, laughing delightedly at the way the cat warms up to her. She finds out that the cat is a he and leaves Neil with some lasagna, flea shampoo, and a suggestion to bring the cat to the vet.
“So, how’s it going?” Jerry asks him as he rings up Neil’s lunch.
“I think I have a cat now,” Neil says, handing him some money.
“You think you have a cat?” Jerry chuckles, giving him his change. “You’re so funny, dude.”
“Thanks,” Neil says drily. “Your grandma gave me some flea shampoo, but I hope he doesn’t have any fleas.”
“What’s his name?”
“Huh,” Neil says, “good question. He doesn’t have a name yet.”
“I’d be glad to help with that,” Jerry says, gleeful. “You have a picture of him?”
Neil does, so he shows it to Jerry, who hums in thought.
“Cabbage,” he declares. “There is no other name befitting of a cute little cabbage like him.”
“Cabbage,” Neil repeats.
“I love cabbages,” Jerry chirps. “And carrots. I don’t know, Carrot is a good name too.”
Neil thinks about it for a moment, then shrugs. Cabbage it is, then.
Cabbage is, to put it simply, a rockstar among Neil’s co-workers and…friends. Never mind that he’s missing an ear and looks constantly grumpy in the photos Neil has of him - they all gush and coo over the pictures.
Neil is just – glad. Glad that he doesn’t come home to an empty apartment anymore. He doesn’t quite know how to feel about being responsible for a life besides his own, but when Cabbage hops onto the bed at night and curls up behind his knees, it soothes something inside of him. It’s also fun, he decides, to fill his camera roll with pictures of his cat.
What’s not fun is being on the receiving end of Kevin’s yelling and ranting. When he’s not behind the cash register and teaching eight-year-olds how to paddle through open water, he’s learning how to balance himself on a surfing board, rolling his eyes at Kevin’s detailed, withering commentary, and trying not to think too much about the crunch of sand underneath his feet.
He also had to practice popping up on land a lot before Kevin even let him near the water, which was when Neil fully understood why the younger students are all relegated to Renee while only the older ones are left in Kevin’s care.
Some people stare at him for longer than he’s comfortable with, but aside from innocuous remarks from kids about his super cool wicked scars, he doesn’t get much flak regarding his unsavory appearance.
“’Unsavory’? You’re not very kind to yourself, are you, my guy?” Dan says when Matt drags Neil to her smoothie parlor one day.
“Neil,” Matt says very seriously, “you’re a beautiful little peanut. Don’t you ever forget that.”
“Thank you?” Neil says around his straw. The strawberry banana smoothie is ridiculously good.
“Oh, hey, did you get Allison’s text?” Dan asks Matt, taking out her phone from her back pocket. “She’s going to be coming in soon.”
“Finally got away, huh? I almost thought she wouldn’t make it this year.”
“Who’s she?” Neil asks, out of politeness more than anything.
“A friend. Also Kevin’s publicist. Her family owns this disgustingly fancy mansion with a private beach on the western side of the island,” Matt explains. “Every year she takes a few weeks off from work to chill there.”
Dan smirks. “It helps that Renee is here.”
“Kevin’s publicist,” Neil says. “Sounds like a tough job.”
“Eh, he knows how to behave in front of the camera, which is all that matters in the end, really.” Matt shrugs. “’sides, Allison is pretty bull-headed herself.”
“This whole surfing instructor thing was her idea in the first place,” Dan contributes. “She thought it’d be good for him to do it while he covers the surf competition that’s going on in the other beach.”
Neil gives a thoughtful hum. It explains why there are a few journalists hanging around the shop sometimes, snapping Kevin’s photos as he shows his pupils how to wax their surfboards or as he catches a few waves.
“Also a great way for him to spend some time with his dad,” Matt mumbles.
Dan doesn’t reply to this, but her expression has become softer somehow.
“The point is,” Matt says, perking up again, “when she inevitably throws one of her extravagant parties, you should come along.”
“I don’t think I should,” Neil says. “I don’t even know her.”
“Details, details,” Dan says with a wave of her hand. “She’ll love you, I’m sure. Now -” she rubs her hands together “- how’s my little Cabbage doing?”
This time, the whole group is waiting for him by the time he finishes work. Wymack had shooed him off with a gruff, “Don’t have too much fun, kid,” when he had tried to stay late and close up the shop like he usually does. He’s pretty sure Wymack had been joking when he said that.
They pile into Matt’s truck and head to Allison’s infamous holiday getaway location. The sky looks like cotton candy; voluminous clouds with dyes of salmon pink and apricot orange. Sunsets are beautiful, but they promise nightfall and darkness, which Neil isn’t entirely too fond of. The island is different though – because of the lack of light pollution, the stars are always visible, and it makes Neil feel safe, less alone.
The beach house is as magnificent as Matt said, all ornate alabaster architecture and panoramic windows, and Neil can’t help but be reminded of his childhood home in Baltimore. He might be conflating his trauma with his memories though, so he shoves the irrational unease to the back of his mind.
Allison, like the mansion itself, is beautiful and modern, with perfectly done make up and platinum blond hair. She looks over her sunglasses at Neil, assessing, then says, “As cute as they say you are. But you definitely need a haircut.”
Neil’s hand goes to the hair that falls over his face. She might be right; it’s long enough that he can tie it back into a short ponytail, which he does, when he’s working and running.
The party goes into full swing in the next hour, music pumping through the speakers and guests lounging around the bonfire on the private beach, mai tais and mojitos in their hands. Neil astutely avoids that area, the flames reminding him too much of an impromptu funeral he would rather forget.
Some are inside, talking and laughing, and Neil watches it all from the second floor, where Matt said he could find relative peace if he needed to. He needs to, but he can’t fully escape the music and chatter, not unless he jimmies one of the many doors open and sequesters himself away for the rest of the night. He doesn’t really have a choice but to stick around, since he needs a ride back into town.
Scanning the faces downstairs, his eyes catch onto a flash of gold and black.
He emerges from the sliding doors that lead to the beach and wades through the other guests towards the food. Neil watches him dip his fingers into a bowl of poi and stick them into his mouth, and Neil has to press the back of his hand to his mouth to stop himself from laughing. As if he heard the stifled sound, Andrew snaps his head towards the marble railing, and Neil blinks when their eyes meet.
Not knowing what else to do, Neil taps two fingers to his temple in a sarcastic salute. Somebody bounds up to Andrew right then, a tall man with a sunny grin, dark skin, and even darker hair. He came with Allison, if Neil isn’t mistaken, and somebody – he can’t remember who – mentioned that he’s related to Andrew. His name might either be Nicky or Mickey; Neil hadn’t been able to hear it properly over the blaring music.
When Andrew doesn’t respond to his badgering, Nicky-slash-Mickey follows Andrew’s gaze up to where Neil is. His expression is one of unfettered delight as he waves at Neil and gestures for him to come down. Neil declines with a shake of his head and gets a sulky expression in return.
After his cousin leaves with slumped shoulders, Andrew picks up a slice of pineapple upside down cake and stuffs it into his mouth, his eyes never straying away from Neil. After wiping his hand on the table cloth, Andrew tilts his head in the direction of the front door, and Neil takes it as the invitation that it is.
Something is – different, between them. Ever since meeting Andrew at the pool that rainy morning, Neil has talked to him a few more times at the shack and at the library. Their interactions consist mostly of barbed conversations, but sometimes they also consist of bartered truths, heavy gazes, and shared cigarettes.
Neil has figured out a while ago that if Andrew didn’t want to talk to him, he would have never spoken to him at all in the first place; Andrew never does something he doesn’t want to do.
When they get outside, Neil asks, “Where are we going?”
Andrew doesn’t say anything, guiding him to where his motorcycle is parked. He throws his helmet at Neil, who barely catches the heavy thing. When Neil shoots him a bewildered look, Andrew taunts him with a simple, “Scared?”
Neil huffs. He struggles with the helmet for a bit, and after it sits fully over his head, Andrew reaches up and smacks the top as if he’s saying a mocking good job . Neil hopes his neck can withstand the weight of the helmet – he never knew how hefty these things are.
It’s the only helmet Andrew has, Neil realizes, because he doesn’t put one on after he zips up his jacket, slips on his gloves, and motions for Neil to hop on behind him. Or maybe it’s not and he’s just self-destructive, because he drives his motorcycle like a demon, veering in and out of traffic and taking sudden turns.
“Sorry,” Neil says after Andrew kills the engine, “for touching you just now.”
He had reflexively clutched onto Andrew’s shoulders after a particularly sharp turn in his attempt to not get himself flung out of his seat. It’s another thing he’s noticed about Andrew: he doesn’t like people in his personal space or touching him.
Andrew studies Neil for a moment, his expression impassive but his eyes calculating. “You can touch my shoulders,” he says, “or my waist.”
For next time, he means.
“Okay,” Neil says.
He realizes that they’re at the parking lot near the beach where Wymack’s shop is. After Neil removes the helmet, Andrew starts heading in the direction opposite of the beach, and Neil trails after him. His legs feel a bit like jelly after all the adrenaline that pumped through him from the motorcycle ride, but he enjoys the stroll, the air cool against his skin. December in Hawaii isn’t cold, and it makes him miss winter, just a bit.
They walk for a while, going up a steep road that curves around a hill. Andrew stops when they reach a viewing point, a patch of gravel that’s circumvented by a guardrail. Neil can see the whole beach from up here.
“It’s so beautiful,” he says, the air knocked out of him as he watches the silver glow of the moon reflected on the surface of the ocean. He goes closer to the barricade and points down to the strip of sand that leads up to For Fox Sake. “I run there every morning.”
Andrew stands next to him, fishing out his pack of cigarettes and lighter. He lights one up, takes a drag, and blows the smoke out into the balmy air.
“I know,” he says.
Neil tips his head to the side. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Andrew doesn’t answer him, so he steals the cigarette.
He is rewarded with a stony look for the theft. Neil quirks an eyebrow instead of repeating his question.
Andrew looks at him for a while longer before turning away again.
“I come here to watch the sun rise.”
“Oh.” It makes sense, then, that Andrew knows about his morning jogs; he can see him clearly from up here.
Andrew takes his cigarette back. Neil scuffs his toes against the ground. “That first day, when we met at the library - you’ve seen me before.”
Andrew’s gaze falls to the cigarette in his hand. He takes a drag and doesn’t look at Neil when he says, “I thought I imagined it.”
Neil feels a crease forming between his eyebrows. “You thought I was a hallucination?”
“I still do.”
“And why is that? Because it’d be easier to deal with me that way?”
“Dealing with you is never an easy task,” Andrew replies, factual.
Neil rolls his eyes, but he feels the curl of a smile around his lips.
“I didn’t take you for an early riser.”
Andrew shrugs. “It’s quiet.”
Neil nods in agreement, staring out at the sea. “It’s nice, isn’t it? Everybody is still at home and the town is barely awake. It makes me feel so still inside.”
“But you don’t like the beach,” Andrew says, not really a question.
Neil is a little taken aback by the statement; he didn’t think that anybody would notice his complicated feelings regarding beaches.
“I don’t dislike it,” Neil says. “It’s just - I have both good and bad memories associated with them.”
“A man can only have so many issues, Neil.”
Neil arches an eyebrow. “Speaking from experience?”
Andrew finishes his cigarette and flicks the butt towards Neil’s chest, the second time he’s done it.
“Very rude,” he tells Andrew. He doesn’t get a response, so he says, “And what about you? You hang around the shop but you’ve never stepped foot in the water.”
Apparently, Andrew does some advertising for the shop via flyer distribution, which is why he comes by regularly to collect his payment of expensive alcohol from Wymack.
“Do you even know how to swim?”
Andrew tilts his head slightly to the side, like he’s thinking about what answer to give, but Neil can take a guess.
“You don’t, do you?
Andrew doesn’t confirm it, but he doesn’t deny it either.
Neil follows Andrew’s gaze, staring at the lapping waves.
“I can teach you, if you want.”
Andrew taps a finger against the guardrail.
“And what will you ask for in return?”
“Nothing, really. I’m not offering because I want something from you.”
Andrew’s eyes slide Neil’s way. “Everybody always wants something.”
Neil sighs. “Why is everything always a fight with you?” He tips his head back as he thinks of a form of payment. “How about you recommend me some books to read?”
Andrew continues to stare at him, like he can’t believe that that’s all Neil is asking for.
Shrugging, Neil explains, “I read because it helps me get better at a language. But I want to start reading some of the more - I don’t know - culturally significant books too. I just don’t know where to start. You’re a librarian - you should be able to recommend me some good ones.”
“I am allergic to books,” Andrew says, flat.
“You work in a library,” Neil says, equally flat. “You’re surrounded by books. Lots of them.”
“The last book you checked out is overdue.”
“I’ll return it tomorrow.”
Andrew doesn’t look convinced, but Neil trucks on anyway. “So, do we have a deal or not?”
Andrew stares at him, looking thoroughly unimpressed.
“Meet me at the swimming pool tomorrow at seven.” He steps closer, stabbing his index finger against Neil’s chest. “Do not be late.”
Neil isn’t late the next day, and he isn’t late in the weeks after, when they meet a couple days a week in the morning at the recreational center.
Sometimes, during his morning runs, he squints up at the hill that Andrew brought him to and tries to see if he can spot a shimmer of gold and black. He usually can, when it’s not misty. He doesn’t wave or anything, and neither does Andrew.
It’s not as frightening as it should be, being watched from afar. The old him would have been too paranoid to return to the same route, too scared to even run outside before the sun rises. The present him doesn’t mind it as much, and he likes to think of it as progress.
He likes to think that he’s been making progress in other areas as well, despite what Kevin says.
“I have told you numerous times before,” Kevin lectures, “after you grab the rails of your board, you need to bring your hands back down towards your ribs so that your elbows stick out.”
Heaving himself back up on his longboard, Neil slicks his hair back, closing his eyes against the glare of the sun.
“Did you even listen to me when I said it in the past?” Kevin harps on.
“I’m barely listening right now,” Neil says, shifting his legs on either side of the surfboard to find the perfect balance.
Kevin makes an affronted noise. “I beg your pardon?”
“If you don’t start listening to me, you will never learn how to turtle roll.”
“Oh dear. And where would I be then?”
“Stop being so childish. It’s essential for you to learn it since you’re using a longboard.”
Neil begins trying to kick Kevin off his surfboard, hooking his foot behind Kevin’s ankle and swishing his leg rapidly through the current to create turbulence.
Kevin catches himself in time, holding on to the rails of his surfboard with a yelp.
Renee paddles out to them on her board, her white hair drying in the breeze. She probably just sent her last student home.
“Hello, you two,” she greets, getting into a sitting position. “How are the lessons going?”
“The appointments I had today went fine,” Kevin answers in a waspish tone, “but this one refuses to cooperate.”
“’Fine’,” Neil mocks. “Aulani almost quit today. Maybe you should get some lessons on how to be a decent human being and stop yelling at people all the time.”
“I never yell!” Kevin yells.
Neil sends Renee a pointed look, and she returns it with an amused smile.
“Shall we return to shore?” Renee asks. “Allison said she would be coming with some food.”
Kevin gives her a puzzled look. “She cooks?”
Renee shakes her head, smiling fondly. “She bought them. We’re having a picnic.”
“I could use some food,” Neil says thoughtfully. “I’ve been out here all morning.”
Robin is manning the cash register today and he doesn’t have any more appointments with his students, so he’s in no rush to return to the shop.
They head back to shore, storing their boards in the shack before hunting Allison down. They find her easily enough among the thin crowd, decked out in a hot pink bikini. Renee sits on the edge of the chaise longue that Allison is stretched out on, greeting her with a pinch to her toes. Allison raises her head and tugs Renee in for a peck on the cheek. Nicky is beside her on the ground, trying to build a sandcastle, and he lets out a low whistle when he sees them.
“Nice abs, Kevin. And Neil! Seeing you in a form-fitting wetsuit is making me wet.”
Neil rolls his eyes. “It’s nice to see you too, Mickey.”
Nicky’s face morphs into a comical pout. “When are you going to stop calling me that?”
“When I decide to.”
“Neil, cupcake, do you wear sunscreen?” Allison asks after shooing Kevin away to where all the food baskets are laid out on a picnic blanket a few feet away from her.
“I do. Wymack makes us all wear it.”
“Such a dad,” Allison sighs, dramatic. “But anyway. Your freckles are adorable, but you need to take better care of your skin. I’ll tell you all about a healthy skincare routine later. For now –” she tosses her sunhat over to him “– wear this.”
It’s a wide brim hat with a huge pink bow, but Neil simply shrugs and obeys, putting it over his head.
“Cute!” Nicky squeals. He pats the spot next to him. “Go eat and then come build my castle with me.”
Neil does just that, listening to Nicky’s chatter as he fills a bucket with sand and places it upside down next to the tower Nicky is currently refining with a mini shovel. The sand is nice and moist, perfect for making sandcastles.
“Hubby’s out dirt biking, which is why I’m hanging out with the princess today.” Nicky grimaces. “I love that man, but I just don’t get his thing for bikes and all that outdoor sportsy stuff.”
Neil wordlessly agrees on the bike thing.
“Oh, have I told you that we went here for our honeymoon?” Nicky beams, a thousand watts bright. “We try to come back here every year. It’s a nice place to visit, and I get to see Andrew too.”
“You’ll be leaving soon, right? I mean, you can’t be on vacation forever.”
Nicky winks at him, conspiratorial. “You’re right, I can’t. But one of the perks of being a freelance graphic designer is that I can work from anywhere.” Then his expression dims. “Erik’s gotta leave soon, though.”
Erik had arrived sometime later than Nicky had, and he only has a couple of weeks off from work, so it makes sense that he needs to go back soon.
“It’s okay!” Nicky says, trying to console himself. “I have you to keep me company.”
“Uh, sure,” Neil responds, and Nicky laughs.
“I’m joking. It’d be nice if you can hang out with me all the time, but I know that you’re a busy little bee, so it’s fine.”
Absently, Neil thinks about how Andrew would have silently found the metaphor amusing; he calls the head librarian Bee and seems to like her, though Neil has yet to understand why. It’s probably because he hasn’t even met her.
He flashes Nicky a small smile. “I’ll come see you, when I’m free.”
Clasping his hands over his heart, Nicky gasps. “Neil, you precious nugget, that’s the first time I’ve seen you smile. I think I’m falling in love with you as we speak.”
“What?” Allison interjects into their conversation, “You smiled and Hemmick got to see it? That’s pretty fucking unfair, Neil.”
Neil ignores their exaggerated reactions. “What about you, Allison? Won’t your boss be pissed off at you for taking such a long break?”
Allison tosses her head back in a theatrical display of a hair flip. “Cupcake, I am the boss.”
“Must be nice, to be so rich and powerful,” Nicky remarks, sardonic.
“It is,” Allison replies loftily, inspecting her manicured nails.
Rolling his eyes and brushing sand off his hands, Nicky gets to his feet. “Ugh, this heterosexual glitter is getting all over me. I think there’s some in my trunks too.”
“Heterosexual glitter,” Neil echoes, levelling Nicky a deadpan stare. “Is that what you call sand?”
Being real, as Neil is coming to realize, is hard.
Being a real, properly functioning human being is harder.
He has no problem keeping his scarce apartment clean. Life on the run, and then on his own, meant that he had to learn how to be self-sufficient. Scrounging up food is also not a big deal. He was used to rationing his food and ignoring his rumbling stomach, and whatever food they ate usually came in a can or plastic wrapper, but there were times when they had the luxury of a working stove. He’s no gourmet chef, but he can whip up something decent with very limited ingredients.
He goes to work, pays the bills, reads the news, feeds his cat, does his and the shop’s taxes.
It’s the other things that stump him. Things like buying a clothes hamper instead of just dumping his clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor until it’s time to do his laundry, or things like having a different pair of shoes for different occasions instead of wearing his sneakers all the time, or things like putting up photos on the walls of his apartment instead of keeping them as bare as when he first moved in.
It’s hard, being real, being permanent.
Today, like all days, he wakes up before the sun does and stares at his reflection in the mirror, hands gripping the cool porcelain of the white sink.
Sometimes, the him in the mirror doesn’t feel like the him that calls himself Neil Josten. When he raises two fingers and presses them over the burns on his cheek, the him in the mirror also raises two fingers and presses them over the burns on his cheek. When he cracks a menacing smile, the him in the mirror cracks the same menacing smile. When he closes his eyes, he sees nothing, a vast well of unending darkness.
He opens his eyes again, and the him in the mirror looks back at him with a solemn expression.
Andrew had once pressed a thumb over his cheekbone, staring impassively at his face. They had been sitting at the edge of the pool after a swim, legs dipped into the water and droplets still clinging to their hair.
He had simply said, “A knife and a dashboard lighter.”
Andrew had simply hummed, tapping his thumb – once, twice – against Neil’s cheek, uncharacteristically mellow.
Neil sits by the window after he comes home from his run and takes a shower. The radio is on, playing a showtune from the sixties. Cabbage is by his feet, swiping his front paws in the air as he tries to catch the toy that Neil is mindlessly dangling and jiggling in one hand.
Olson called him the day before. It was the standard check-in - nothing he isn’t used to. But it’s left him feeling a little unmoored, a reminder that he isn’t exactly a normal member of society.
There is a knock at the front door. Neil checks the time and wonders if he’s supposed to be expecting someone that day. He hasn’t had a day off in a while, after all, ever since the peak tourist and surfing season started.
He looks through the peephole and sees Mrs. Ikeda.
“Neil,” she says after he opens the door. “And hello to you too, Cabbage.” She crouches down to scratch behind Cabbage’s only ear, cooing all the while.
“What can I help you with, Mrs. Ikeda?”
“I was wondering if you could accompany me today.”
Neil cocks his head to the side. “Where to?”
“You know about my book club, yes?”
“Well, sometimes we meet up for other things too. Like when we went hiking the other day, up to the crater.” She smiles, jowls webbing the corner of her kind eyes. “Today we’re making leis for a party one of us is hosting soon. Would you be interested in learning how to make them?”
“Oh, I –” he looks back at his empty apartment, then at Mrs. Ikeda. “Yes, I’d be very interested in that.”
Which is how Neil finds himself at the neighborhood community center, surrounded by housewives and elderly ladies who won’t stop trying to feed him.
“It’s wired into you,” one of them – Mrs. Iosua, if Neil isn’t mistaken – explains cheekily. “Once you become a grandmother, all you want to do is feed other people.”
“Forgive my tardiness.” A petite, plump woman with chestnut-colored hair and an immaculate knee-length dress bustles into the room with an office supply box. She pushes her glasses up her nose and goes around the room to greet everybody.
“Ms. Dobson,” Mrs. Ikeda says when she comes to their table, “this is Neil. He lives a few doors away from me and he’s friends with Jerry.”
“Hello, Neil,” Dobson says with a pleasant smile. “You can call me Dobson, Betsy, Bee, Hey You – whatever you prefer.”
“Nice to meet you,” Neil says quietly, studying the laugh lines around her mouth and eyes.
“Neil works at David’s shop,” Mrs. Ikeda supplies.
“Oh! You’re the new hire I’ve heard so much about.”
“You have?” Neil asks warily.
“Do you know Abby?”
Wymack’s wife. She’s invited them over for dinner a couple of times.
“She’s a good friend of mine, and she and David have mentioned you whenever they talk about the shop. They’re very fond of all of you. For Fox Sake has only managed to survive thanks to you, Kevin, Renee, and all the others, after all.”
Dobson is very honest and genial as she says this, her smile never fading.
“I work at the library, by the way,” she adds. “So if you ever need help with finding any resources, you know where to find me. One of my colleagues has told me that I am quite the nerd.”
Neil bites the inside of his cheek, trying to tie everything together.
“You’re Bee,” he says slowly, “Andrew’s boss.”
Dobson’s smile grows, impossible as it seems. “I am.”
“I come to the library regularly,” Neil feels inclined to say. “I usually see Andrew there, but not really any of the other librarians.”
“I’ve been doing more of the background duties recently, like cataloguing books and all our other resources, which might be why you haven’t seen me around much. I used to work the front desk often, but Andrew seems to enjoy doing it nowadays, so I’ve been leaving him to it.”
Neil raises a skeptical eyebrow. “He does?”
For some reason, there’s a twinkle of mischief in Dobson’s eyes. “I believe so.”
“Alright, everybody!” Mrs. Kelekolio – who seems to be the head of the group – says with a clap of her hands. “Betsy’s brought the rest of the supplies, so we can get started. The flowers are with Luana over at that table. We’ll go over it step by step, alright?”
“And Neil,” she says with a finger pointed in his direction. He tries not to shrink himself when all eyes swing his way. “Please take some of the food home and eat some more while you make your lei. We’ll force-feed you if we have to.”
Mrs. Iosua winks at him. “See what I mean?”
Of course, something has to go to shit at some point, because that’s just how Neil’s life is.
When Cabbage doesn’t hop off the bed and scamper after him to the kitchenette, he feels it in his gut - the same icy fear that gripped him after his mother collapsed on a beach in California, gasping her dying breaths.
A sigh of ragged relief shudders out of his mouth when he feels Cabbage’s heartbeat, soft and slow underneath his hand, but it doesn’t mitigate the cesspool of anxiety fermenting inside him like a sickness.
His heart is hammering against his chest, and he can’t breathe, he can’t think, he doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t know what to do, what should he do –
There is a pounding on his door, and it jolts Neil out of his downward spiral. He sucks in a stuttering breath and scrambles to his feet, Cabbage cradled against his chest. He unlocks and opens the door to find Andrew frowning at him, his hair wet from the rain and plastered to his forehead.
It would have distracted Neil, on any other day, making him think about how he’s seeing Andrew wearing something other than his blank mask. But today, he only manages a hoarse, “Andrew.”
Andrew’s gaze drops to Cabbage, then back up to Neil’s face. He grabs Neil’s elbow and closes the door behind them, wasting no time in leading Neil down the building. Neil lets Andrew guide him to his motorcycle and strap his helmet on Neil’s head, and when Andrew tells him to get on, he gets on.
Andrew goes faster than possible, swerving between cars and portholes. To shield Cabbage from the drizzle, Neil hunches forward until his helmet presses against Andrew’s back.
At the veterinarian clinic, Neil buries his fear and fills out some forms, denoting that Cabbage has been largely unresponsive all morning, how he’s been losing weight and drinking much more water than usual. His shaking hand makes his handwriting almost illegible.
A nurse technician takes his cat to a different room, and Andrew pushes him down to a chair in the waiting area. At some point, Andrew had taken off the helmet for him. Neil doesn’t notice until Andrew sits beside him and places it on the floor beside his own.
It’s never occurred to him until now how considerate it is, for Andrew to buy Neil his own helmet after that first time he rode on Andrew’s bike.
He’s a sopping mess - they both are, but neither of them move to do anything about it. Andrew probably doesn’t care; Neil himself is just too preoccupied at the moment, leg bouncing and mind jumping from one random puddle of thought to the next to avoid imagining the worst-case scenario.
The first thing that he is in charge of and responsible for might be dying in the next room and he doesn’t know what to do. Andrew rests his palm over Neil’s knee, a silent order for him to stop fretting. Neil’s leg goes still, but he starts picking at the end of his armbands, the ones that Andrew gave him not even a week ago.
Neil drags in a slow, deep breath. He closes his eyes for a while, and when he opens them, he murmurs, “Thank you.”
“There is nothing to thank me for,” Andrew replies in a monotone.
“Isn’t there?” Neil says. Then: “What were you doing at my place?”
Andrew remains silent. Neil thinks that he isn’t going to get any answer when Andrew says, “I did not see you this morning.”
Head tipped to the side in thought, Neil frowns a little. “Did you need something? You could’ve just called me.”
Neil pats his pockets, trying to feel for his phone. He must have forgotten it at the apartment.
“Sorry,” he says, “I haven’t checked my phone all day. What did you need?”
Andrew exhales through his mouth, something that sounds close to a sigh.
Something clicks inside Neil’s head though, after a few minutes.
“You were worried,” he guesses slowly, “about me.”
Andrew’s face remains indifferent. “You think too highly of yourself.”
“But you were. You didn’t see me on my run this morning and got worried,” Neil presses.
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Hmm,” Neil says, his shoulder brushing lightly against Andrew’s, a barely-there contact. “I’m starting to think that you might be a pathological liar.”
“The pot calling the kettle black.”
“So you admit that we’re both liars.”
“Neil,” Andrew states, “I think it is wise for you to shut up.”
A smile itches against Neil’s lips. He’s really glad he’s not alone right now. He doesn’t know how he would have handled it.
The technician calls for Cabbage’s owner, and Neil follows her into the examination room, Andrew a sturdy shadow behind him.
The vet has diagnosed Cabbage with feline diabetes, and her assurance that it can be treated with a proper diet and some medication has Neil almost sagging against the wall in relief.
“He’s not fat, though,” Neil says, brows scrunching together.
“But he’s rather old,” the vet says. “The disease is not uncommon among older cats.”
Neil accepts this with a somber nod. The clinic prescribes Cabbage some insulin with instructions for Neil on how to inject it and prepares a dietary regimen that would help combat the weight loss. By the time they step outside the clinic, Neil feels like he’s caught in a daze, head spinning from all the events of that day. The sun has come out now, bleaching everything white as if it hadn’t been raining all morning.
“You are aware that cabbage is a vegetable,” Andrew says, his detached gaze directed towards the cat carrier in Neil’s hand. The clinic was generous enough to lend him one.
“As much as I’m aware that you’re as tall as five foot-long sandwiches, yes. I’m still surprised that you can reach the foot pegs on your bike.”
Andrew’s gaze darts up to his face, severely unamused, and Neil bites back a smug smile.
They trod through mud to the motorcycle, Andrew wiping down the seat with a rag he dug out of the underseat storage compartment.
The sunlight makes the color of Andrew’s hair shine a light gold, almost translucent. A strand falls over his forehead, curling from the humidity. Without thinking, Neil reaches out to tuck it back. Andrew’s head snaps up, and Neil jerks his hand away.
“Sorry,” he says hastily, “I should’ve asked.”
Andrew stares at him with penetrating eyes.
“Then ask,” he says.
Neil bites his bottom lip. “Can I touch your hair?”
“Yes,” Andrew answers. He continues to stare at Neil, who gingerly combs his fingers through Andrew’s hair. It’s soft, almost silky, unlike Neil’s.
“Thank you,” he says again.
“I have told you already,” Andrew says, “there is nothing to thank me for.”
Neil thinks of his motorcycle helmet and his pair of armbands that matches Andrew’s. He thinks of lying on his belly on the plush carpet in the kids’ corner of the library while he reads, Andrew sitting beside him with a book of his own. He thinks of curling his hands over the rough material of Andrew’s riding jacket, right over his waist, the heat of his back plastered against Neil’s front as the wind whips around them. He thinks of floating on his back in the pool, Andrew wading through the water near him on a kickboard, looking displeased at the realization that Neil is a better swimmer than he is. He thinks of the calm way Andrew looked at him when he said my father killed my mother but failed to kill me, of all the truths they have shared between them.
“Not just for today,” Neil says softly.
Andrew is quiet for a long, long moment. He bats Neil’s hand away so that he can wear his helmet. Then he puts Neil’s on for him, yanking on the straps non-too gently. The fingers that linger under Neil’s jaw, though, are unbearably so.
They throw a huge party when it’s time for Allison, Nicky, and Kevin to leave. Surf competition season is over, and Kevin has other sports events to report on. Nicky has a husband to get back to, and Allison has a public relations agency to run. Neil doesn’t doubt that he is going to miss them all.
Conveniently, Nicky’s other cousin - Andrew’s twin - had arrived on the island with his wife to spend some time with Nicky a week before, both of them finally able to escape a tedious work schedule as cardiologists.
“I’m surprised you didn’t eat him in the womb,” Neil had said after finding out the existence of Andrew’s brother, sitting on the service desk with his legs dangling over the side where Andrew stood.
“I would have, if I had known how troublesome he would be,” Andrew had replied, scanning the barcodes on a pile of books and passing them over to Neil for him to place on a cart.
He’s met Aaron once, which is one too many meetings. Aaron’s scornful attitude is made worse by Neil’s own prickly behavior, but the twitch of Andrew’s lips when Neil told Aaron off during a petty squabble was worth it.
Neil’s met more people in the past six months of his life than he has in seven years – some he tolerates more than others – but he can’t say that it’s a bad thing.
The party is, once again, at Allison’s holiday home, and it is possible that she has invited the whole island. Among the throng of people, Neil sees Kevin mingling around with some surfers, and he flashes them the shaka sign when they notice him. He then ducks into the massive kitchen to find Nicky stacking pieces of beef and vegetables through some skewers.
“Neil!” he shrieks, outrageously happy. “You’re here already! Matt said that he was going to pick you up.”
“Oh, I came here with Andrew.”
Nearly dropping the plate of beef skewers, Nicky stares at Neil, eyes wide as saucers.
“He let you ride with him on his motorcycle?”
“Yeah,” Neil says, confused by Nicky’s confusion, “he did.”
“That’s - interesting,” Nicky says, laughing a jittery laugh.
“Why is it interesting?”
“Well, Andrew doesn’t normally let people ride with him on his bike - they’d have to hold on to him and be too close for his comfort. And the whole point of him getting a bike instead of a car is so that he doesn’t have to drive anybody around anymore, like he used to do back when we were in college.” Nicky rubs his neck, smiling a little self-consciously at the memory. “I mean, is it even safe to ride with him? He only has one helmet, doesn’t he?”
“He used to,” Neil says. “But he bought a second one recently, so I think I’m safe.” And his isn’t a full-faced one, unlike Andrew’s own, which is how Neil prefers it. He’s taken a liking to the way the wind feels, billowing against his face as they blow past the sceneries.
If Nicky looked stunned just now, he looks absolutely flabbergasted in this very moment.
Matt emerges before Neil or Nicky could say anything further, popping his head into the kitchen from the door.
“Hey! Just checking in on the - oh, hi, Neil! I was about to head out and fetch you.”
“No need,” Neil says, smiling a little.
“Yeah,” Nicky affirms, “no need for that.” He’s still staring at Neil as he tells Matt, “Andrew picked him up.”
Matt’s eyebrows climb up to his hairline. “On his bike?”
Neil really doesn’t want to go through this conversation again, so he leaves the kitchen and goes out to the patio where the rest of the guests are. Andrew had parted ways with him when they arrived, going up to the second floor with a wave of his hand to let Neil know that he doesn’t have to wait for him.
Before Neil could wonder where exactly he’d disappeared off to, Dan whisks him away to the beach to have him join her team in a volleyball match. He changes out into his swimsuit for lack of anything better to wear, pulling his hair back to tie it into a ponytail. From under a beach umbrella, Allison yells out a reminder for him to slap on lots of sunscreen before he dares to step foot on the sand.
The weather is scorching hot and the match is unnecessarily brutal for a friendly game, but Neil finds that he’s enjoying himself, feet buried in sand and arms stinging from receiving too many volleyballs. Their team wins by one point, and Dan pulls him into a tight hug and tousles his hair.
He extracts himself from his friends after a while, scouring the ice boxes for some water. When he finds nothing but beer and soda, he ventures into the kitchen. It’s where he finds Andrew, which isn’t unexpected, since it’s the only place in the mansion that has both food and no people.
Instead of the jeans and high top sneakers that he wore when they arrived, Andrew is in a tank top, basketball shorts, and sandals. In typical Andrew fashion, however, they’re all black, and he still has his armbands on. It’s similar to what he wears when they go swimming, but it’s still weird to see him in it outside of the privacy of the pool, empty except for the two of them.
The areas that are exposed - namely, his shoulders and neck - are turning a bright red, skin that is usually hidden from the sun. He must have spent some time outside before going to the kitchen. Neil wonders if he was watching the volleyball game.
It paints a rather amusing picture, with how stoic Andrew is in the midst of almost getting a sunburn. Neil turns his head and presses his mouth against his shoulder, trying to smother his smile.
“Not a word,” Andrew says.
“I’m not saying anything,” Neil says airily, his smile growing wider. He extracts a bottle of sunscreen from the bag he left near the patio door and tosses it at Andrew, who catches it easily.
Andrew levels him a stony stare, but slathers some of the sunscreen over his face and shoulders anyway.
“This part is uneven,” Neil tells him, pointing to his own jaw.
Andrew rubs at the spot Neil indicated, but doesn’t quite get it to blend in.
“Let me,” Neil offers.
Briefly, Andrew stills.
“Is it okay if I touch your face?” Neil asks.
There is no change in Andrew’s expression, but the look in his eyes is much more intense as he says, “Yes.”
Neil wipes his thumb over the streak of white on Andrew’s jaw until it disappears. He doesn’t linger, but Andrew catches his hand before he could move it away.
“Andrew?” His voice is smaller than he intended it to be. Andrew digs his fingers into Neil’s wrist, leaning closer, and Neil’s breath gets stuck somewhere in his throat.
“Are you going to kiss me?” he asks, almost a whisper.
“Do you want me to?” Andrew returns, just as quiet.
“I want you to want to.”
Andrew swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I want to.”
“Then kiss me,” Neil tells him, and he does.
Neil is at the beach. He is sitting on the white sand, knees drawn up loosely with his elbows resting over them, hands clasped together. The water inches up towards his toes, then ebbs back into the sea. His unruly hair is still wet from when he caught a few waves. His longboard is lying beside him on the ground. Kevin would pop a vein if he saw. The sun is low in the horizon, golden streaks glistening on top of the ocean crests. The line separating the sea and the sky is indiscernible. The breeze dances over him, gentle, familiar.
He came here because he wanted to chase away old ghosts, because he wanted to find peace and solitude, because he wanted to die in a place similar to where his mother did, if nothing else.
He stayed because he wants to live in a place that he’s come to love, with the people he’s come to care about.
So he’s not your average citizen. But he’s Neil Josten, and he’s real, and this is his home.
Something lands on his head, obscuring his view of the ocean. He tilts back the hat that’s pressed over his head so he can watch Andrew looking down at him with a bored expression.
“It was on the ground at the parking lot.”
“Oh.” Neil pulls the brim until the sunhat rests snugly over his ears. “It must have flown away. I left it with my towel over there.” He nudges a thumb over his shoulder, indicating where he left some of his belongings. It’s a careless thing that he would have never even thought of doing a few years ago. “I should be more careful.”
Andrew licks his ice cream - cookie dough, probably, since it’s his favorite - and offers some to Neil. Neil shakes his head, and Andrew finishes it all in another bite, shoving the rest of the cone into his mouth. Then he fishes out his pack of cigarettes, but he doesn’t light any up.
It’s for Neil’s sake, and it’s a concession that he has never asked Andrew to make, but he’s grateful for it. Maybe one day he’ll be able to sit by the beach and inhale the scent of tobacco and sea salt without being drowned in dark memories. Maybe he’ll even be able to sit by a bonfire.
Andrew sits cross-legged beside him, turning the carton between his hands. He’s discarded his jacket and shoes by Neil’s stuff. Neil, to this very day, is still mystified by how he can stand being in black all the time. The only sign that the heat is getting to him is the pink rising up his neck.
“What did they say about your bike?” Neil asks, pulling his legs closer against his chest, head turned so that his cheek is pillowed on his knees. Staring at the sea seems like a less appealing option when Andrew is right beside him, the sun casting a golden halo around his head, his eyes the color of honey.
“The coolant was leaking.” Andrew shrugs. “Fixed it easily enough.”
“Glad to hear that.”
Neil smiles. He doesn’t care about cars, less so about motorcycles; he only knows that Andrew’s is a Japanese model, sleek and black and expensive, in addition to being far too big and far too loud. But he’s grown fond of it, after enough rides along the coastline, his arms wrapped around Andrew’s waist. He’s most fond of it when they’re soaring down the freeway during sunset, the sea glittering like rubies beside them, the sky a warm tangerine.
Andrew returns his stare, neither of them speaking a word. He once told Neil that Allison’s hat looks ridiculous, but he never says anything about Neil keeping it and wearing it to the beach.
Right now, the flush on his skin has spread up to his cheeks and ears. He reaches out, tracing his thumb over Neil’s smiling lips. Holding the brim of the hat with both hands, he tugs Neil forward for a kiss.
Neil closes his eyes when Andrew’s lips press against his, his ears filled with the sound of breaking waves.