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Better to Live with Melody

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Grizz finds him in the curl of the vegetable garden, leaning against one of the raised boxes, his fingers a mess of bruises and blood. He’s breathing heavily, his long eyelashes dark against the blush of his cheeks, the tears that have left him, the sob that is caught somewhere in the middle of his throat, and he startles when he finally sees Grizz, when he sees the shotgun.

“This is private property,” Grizz says, and he watches the other boy’s eyes lift from the barrel of the gun to Grizz’s lips. Grizz had been pulling carrots when he had heard the crash of the underbrush, the flash of a gray coat against the falling leaves, had gone inside to grab the empty gun as a reflex, the only defense he allows himself to keep in the tiny cabin among his books. It had never come with shells; he had never needed to use them.

The boy moves his hand in a circle on his chest, and then says, in a stilted voice, “I’m sorry.”

There’s another cracking sound somewhere close – human, definitely, someone stumbling around where they don’t belong – and the boy doesn’t move, doesn’t turn his head to the sound, which is when Grizz realizes that he’s deaf. Grizz moves his hands, as if he could sign something, but then remembers that the only sign he knows is for bullshit. “Are you okay?” he asks instead, his eyes on the boy’s fingers, scraped raw and bleeding into the sting of the cold air. “Do you need help?”

Yes, the boy mouths, his voice smaller than a whisper.

“Yes,” he says again, and nods his fist. He looks over Grizz’s shoulder at the rustling trees, the red and orange and yellow, and Grizz connects the dots to whoever is roaming around in the woods, whoever did that to the boy’s hands, and he hefts the shotgun over his shoulder and tells him to follow, leading the way into the house.

He looks back once: the vegetable garden and the oak trees and this beautiful, pale boy who stands there a moment longer than he needs to, contemplating Grizz and the shotgun with this devastated, wet look clouding his face like a shadow. He looks behind him, towards the woods, and then follows Grizz inside.

***

His name is Sam, he says, after Grizz has washed and wrapped his shattered fingers with blue tape, after Grizz has taken a washcloth to the dirt of his cheeks, the sweat of his brow and neck and collarbone. Sam is cold to the touch, and Grizz settles him on the couch with a blanket around his shoulders and holds up a hand to tell him to stay there for a moment while he goes back outside to the woodpile, and Sam looks up at him with these bright, stunning blue eyes and Grizz bites his lip and thinks maybe this is exactly what he wasn’t signing up for when he decided to become a hermit.

Outside, the wind has picked up, and he can see a storm blowing in from over the trees, the dark clouds and the smell of snow on the horizon, and he listens to the leaves scratch and rustle across the ground for a while, but there’s nothing else – no one else – so he picks out two of the driest logs and takes them back inside the cabin. He packs the fireplace with newspaper and lights it, settling the grate back into place, his hands black with soot. He wipes them on his jeans, black fingerprints like stripes on his thighs, and turns to Sam and asks him if he’s hungry, and Sam sets his mouth, the barest amount of hesitation, before nodding.

There’s leftover stew in the fridge, and Grizz heats up two bowls and takes them to the couch, careful of Sam’s delicate hands when he hands one over. “Thank you,” Sam says, not looking at him, and Grizz gets back up and grabs the whiskey bottle from the kitchen table and swallows two, three, four fingers before he remembers his manners and holds a glass out to Sam.

Sam looks from the glass to him and then back again, and winces when the alcohol hits his taste buds. His fingers look foreign, wide and clumsy when he signs, words that Grizz would have a hard time understanding even if he knew ASL, and Sam’s voice is breathless when he speaks, wet and rasping and on the verge of tears, maybe from the alcohol, maybe from something else entirely, and Grizz asks, “What?” and watches Sam’s eyes as they study Grizz’s lips, as they follow Grizz’s tongue wet and inviting across his mouth.

“My brother,” Sam says again, and looks to the window, the shadows and shapes and things that move in the dark. “He did this.” His fingers, his native language, almost broken.

Grizz takes another shot of whiskey to dull the tightness of his throat. “You’ll be safe here,” he says, and can’t look at Sam as he says it. “If you want to stay here, I mean.”

Sam reaches out a swollen hand, warm against Grizz, warmer than he was when Grizz first found him, and waits until Grizz looks up to speak. “You don’t know what he’s capable of.” There were other marks on Sam when Grizz had washed his skin, old burns and cuts and bruises, the faint pink of a half circle, the letter C scratched into the crook of his elbow, as if someone had held him down and marked him as theirs.

Grizz knows what people are capable of, he knows just what people can do.

He says, “He won’t hurt you.”

He says, “Not here.”

He licks his lips and watches Sam watch him and says, “I won’t let him.”

***

Sam sleeps like the dead on the couch, these soft, shuffling breaths that Grizz can hear even across the living room, even in his bed at night, his fingers on the outside of his blanket, itching to slip over, between, beneath his clothes, fever warm on his belly. Grizz hasn’t slept with anyone since his half-assed attempt at college, since before that when he tried his hand at being straight in high school, girls who would kiss him and kiss him until he could pretend that he liked it. It had been a long time, too long, and he can feel the ache that starts low and tight inside of him, that starts to swell and spread into the shape of want.

“Fuck,” he says, in the dead of the night, the storm sounding wild outside, rattling the tin roof, rattling the window panes, wreaking havoc. “Fuck,” he says again, and bites his bottom lip hard enough to bleed.

This is not what he wanted.

This is the opposite of what he wanted.

This is exactly why he left the world in the first place.

***

In the morning, Sam is already up and in the kitchen when Grizz emerges from his room, and he pours Grizz a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove, and Grizz smiles tightly and thanks him with nothing more than a whisper. Sam looks sleep-worn, soft and shy and kissable in the dawning light, his smile creasing his mouth with ease. Grizz asks to look at Sam’s fingers mostly as an excuse to touch him, the rough, damaged skin and Sam looking from Grizz’s hands to Grizz’s lips and back again.

Grizz wants to taste the callus on Sam’s palm, wants to put his mouth where his hands have been, imagines the sweat and coffee and the way Sam would mold his fingers to Grizz’s lips, his tongue, imagines the sound he would make when he finally lets Grizz swallow him whole.

Grizz says, instead, “They’re looking better already,” the shallow cuts and the diminishing bruises, and folds Band-Aids around the worst of it. Sam smiles at him, and there’s that pool of warmth there, in the pit of his belly, the tightness of what he wants more than anything. He lets go of Sam’s hands, quivering from the loss.

Sam says, “I could help you,” and Grizz stills, for a moment his mind flashing with the press of Sam’s body against his, kissing, kissing, kissing. “In the garden,” Sam continues, and, “I mean, I don’t have any money, but I could pay for your help in labor.”

“Oh,” Grizz says, and then, “oh, no, you don’t have to.”

Sam shrugs and reaches out for Grizz’s wrist, two delicate fingers wrapping around his pulse point. “I want to,” he says, and Grizz is already finding it hard to say no to him, so he says yes instead, he says thank you, he says the harvest will go faster if there’s two of us. And it does, they do, working to pull the carrots and beans and lettuce that Grizz had planted in the summer, the pumpkins that have grown fat and colorful, the broccoli and cauliflower that later Grizz washes and cooks in the oven and smothers with fresh cheese from the farm up the road until they’re soft and edible and delicious.

Sam asks him if he makes all of his own food, and Grizz laughs and says no, admits to sneaking into town for supplies once in a while, meat that he can’t kill on his own for mostly logistical reasons, but also some ethical ones, describes the disastrous poultry fiasco from two years ago, when he tried to keep egg-laying hens but couldn’t figure out how to design a chicken coop that was fox-proof. He mentions the bears he’s seen sometimes, usually early in the morning, sniffing around his neighbor’s honeybee hives; he talks about the beautiful white-tailed deer that run wild in the woods; he talks about the raccoons and coyotes and the bobcat he’s nicknamed Bandit.

Sam smiles and laughs and touches Grizz with impunity, speaks in his stilted voice and uses his hands as a first language, the enthralling, illustrative prose. He works and drinks and eats and doesn’t talk about himself, about how he came to be here, and Grizz doesn’t ask because it’s okay to pretend for a little bit, to pretend that this is Sam and this is Grizz and this is how it’s supposed to be, this is how it was always supposed to be, them and the cabin and the garden and Grizz’s expansive library. Sam teaches Grizz how to say his favorite quote in ASL, the one from Cicero about everything he needs – almost everything – and Grizz practices and practices and Sam shapes Grizz’s fingers with his own, his breath tickling the underside of Grizz’s chin, the v of his chest, and Grizz aches and aches and aches until he can’t breathe.

Sam picks out a few books and reads while Grizz goes to shower off the dirt and sweat of a day’s work, Sam’s fine-boned fingers curled around the spine of Walden, a second-hand, notated edition that Grizz had stolen from his high school in senior year.

And he thinks about that underneath the spray of the showerhead, thinks about Sam’s fingers turning the pages and can’t help it, doesn’t want to, slides his palms down his chest, his stomach, down and down and down, leaning his forehead against the cool tile. He bites his lip to stop himself from crying out, even though it doesn’t matter, even though Sam can’t hear, his toes curling, the muscles of his stomach tightening and then relaxing, his breath escaping him like a ghost. He thinks, Sam, Sam, Sam, holds his fingers under the water to wash them off, forgets what it’s like not to be in lust like this, not to feel like he’s met the first person he can trust enough, to let them in, to let them be this for him.

Sam’s still reading when Grizz pads back into the living room, wet hair dripping down his neck and staining the collar of his shirt. Sam has made marks in the already poorly-lived novel, dirty fingerprints on pages with yellow highlighter and blue ink, fingerprints that Grizz wishes were on him. He looks up and smiles at Grizz, and Grizz asks him if he would like to use the shower, and Sam says something dumb like, “I thought you’d never ask,” and Grizz feels his stomach roll up and over, butterflies abound.

He jerks off again while Sam is in the shower, leaning against the bathroom door and listening to the water, to the rustle of Sam’s clothes slipping up and over and off, Grizz furiously tucking his fingers down his pants and wishing that he were braver, wishing that he could ask for this, just this once, wishing that he could stop wanting things he can never have. He licks his palm, feels himself rising and rising and rising and then falling all over again.

He says, out loud, “Stay.”

He says, out loud, but only because Sam can’t hear, “Stay here with me.”

***

There’s a knock on the front door after dark, when Sam has gone to brush his teeth, and Grizz opens the door to find a boy about his own age standing there in the cool air, smiling crookedly. “Can I help you?” he asks, watching the boy try to peer over his shoulder into the living room. Grizz slides himself in the open space, blocking his view.

“I’m hoping you can,” he says, his teeth sharp in his mouth. “I’m looking for my brother Sam. You haven’t seen anyone running around your property, have you?”

Grizz doesn’t say anything, his face set, immovable, stone.

“He’s deaf,” the boy says, pulling the corners of his mouth down, like this is what he thinks a sad face should look like. “So he really shouldn’t be out here on his own. It’s dangerous, you know.”

Grizz’s fingers tighten on the doorknob, hard enough that the metal creaks. He wants to smash his ugly face in, he wants to kick him until he bleeds, he wants to break each and every one of his fucking fingers, this pulsing, deafening hatred for someone that’s never even given him his name. His hands itch to grab the shotgun where it lies useless on the mantel, but he doesn’t, he wouldn’t, he’s never been that person.

“If you do see him,” he says, raising his eyebrows at Grizz’s silence, “can you let him know that I’m looking for him? And that I’m worried.” He smiles again, and it looks strange on his mouth, wrong. “He really needs to come home,” his eyes bright and predatory on Grizz, “I really need him to come home.” He turns, walking down the porch steps, his hands in his pockets, his hood pulled up against the wind.

And Grizz watches him until he hits the line of trees, watches him as he turns around once more, that fucking smile still on his face, as he gives Grizz a two-fingered salute – like he thinks this is funny, like he thinks this is all just a goddamn game – before disappearing back into the forest. Grizz closes the door and leans against it for a moment, a long, dark moment where he thinks about keeping Sam here forever, where he thinks he can do it, where he thinks he can keep him safe if only, if only.

Sam comes out of the bathroom, sees Grizz and the anger that lights the angles and planes of his eyebrows, his mouth, and signs, Okay?, always soft and kind and concerned.

Okay, Grizz signs back, smiling with only half of his mouth. “Perfect,” he says, out loud, and breathes in deeply, asking Sam to put another log onto the fire.

***

Sam asks, “How did you end up out here?”

He’s opening up the last bottle of wine Grizz could find in the back of the cupboard; they’ve gone through the rest, the last few nights that Grizz has fed Sam from his garden, the last few nights that he has poured him a drink and hoped that it would lead to something else, something like Sam’s fevered skin pressing tight against his, the blush that creeps deliciously up his neck. He wants to see how far that blush goes, he wants to know what Sam tastes like.

Grizz shrugs and says, “I don’t know. It’s a means to an end, I guess.”

“What do you mean?” Sam asks, his fingers elegant between them, almost completely healed.

Grizz makes a face. “I had just flunked out of college for skipping too many classes, and – I don’t know – it seemed like a good idea at the time. Go look after my uncle’s cabin in the woods, live off the land for a few years before I could decide what I really wanted.” He takes the glass that Sam offers, swallows the red wine to calm the buzz in his blood, the crawl of anxiety across his skin. “How I wanted to live, who I wanted to be.”

Sam smiles and nods. “I get it,” he says, with his mouth, with his hands. “I know what it’s like to keep yourself hidden sometimes. With Campbell,“ and Grizz guesses that this is his brother, the brother he met, “it’s not always easy being me.”

Grizz swallows more wine, this time to stop himself from saying something bad about this Campbell, something that he’s trying really hard to keep inside. It almost works. “How do you say motherfucker in sign language?” he asks, and Sam shakes his head, his teeth white and straight and shining as he opens his mouth to laugh, his fingers nimble as he shows him.

Grizz goes to stir the pot of chili on the stove, and he brushes past Sam on his way there, his fingers catching on Sam’s sleeve, accidentally on purpose. He turns, leans his face towards Sam so that Sam can read his lips in the dim light of the kitchen, taking a deep, gratifying breath before he says, “I didn’t come out until college. I have a bad habit of pretending to be something I’m not.”

“Oh,” Sam says, and it’s not fanfare, but it’s not repulsion either, Sam and his trusting, careful face. But he doesn’t say anything else, and Grizz turns back around to the stove and busies himself with the pot.

Fuck, he thinks, fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Did you have anyone?” Sam asks, and Grizz closes his eyes and then opens them again, turns around to watch Sam’s lips close around the wineglass, the bob of his throat as he swallows. “In college?”

“Not really. There were a few guys in my dorm, but I didn’t really date.” He’s watching Sam watch him again, and all at once he can’t take it anymore, moves away, goes to refill his wineglass, breathes in, breathes out. He knows himself, he knows who he is, he knows what he wants.

“Me neither,” Sam says, and Grizz must not keep the surprise off his face, because Sam laughs again. He’s wearing one of Grizz’s old shirts, and the sleeves keep dipping down to cover his hands, keep falling back when he holds his arms up to sign. Grizz had thought about that in the shower this morning, Sam wearing his clothes, had thought about the smell of him on Sam, the smell of Sam on him. Grizz had thought about that for longer than he should have. “I didn’t have much choice in high school, though, because there weren’t any other guys who were out.”

Grizz swallows, his chest suddenly too tight. He knows who he is, he knows what he wants. He knows who he wants. “I would have dated you,” he says, and it’s mostly soundless, mostly just his lips moving slowly, earnestly in the space between them, Sam’s face shy and pink. “I wouldn’t have been able to stay away.”

And Sam smiles brightly, and Grizz feels the endless rollercoaster of his insides, the tumble and fall, the climb. He stirs the pot to keep his hands busy, to keep his eyes away from Sam, and he thinks, Be yourself.

He thinks, Be brave.

He thinks, It’s there, it’s right there.

And Grizz reaches out to grab it before it can slip away.

“Can you teach me something else in sign language?” he asks, and Sam nods. He keeps his head down, he can’t watch Sam’s reaction, can’t watch what happens after this, just in case, just in case all of this is over, just in case all of this breaks his heart. “Can you teach me how to say kiss me?”

And Sam makes a sound that could be called a laugh, his fingers a pleasant weight against Grizz’s chin, lifting his eyes high enough so that Grizz can finally watch him lean in, lean close, Sam’s mouth hot enough to burn.

***

Grizz kisses Sam, and Sam kisses back, and they’re pressed against the counter in the kitchen, Sam sliding his hands into Grizz’s hair, and Grizz can’t breathe, can’t think, his skin alight with the pressure, with the taste of Sam. The pot of chili has started to burn, they can smell it, but neither of them move to turn off the burner, Sam’s fingers picking delicately at Grizz’s clothes, running them up underneath Grizz’s shirt, down into the crease of his pants. Grizz is making these half-caught, breathy noises that sound terribly needy, terribly wanton, but he doesn’t care, he won’t, he can’t, fisting at the back of Sam’s – his – shirt, desperate for more contact.

Sam’s eyes are closed, his eyelashes sharp, and Grizz slides a leg in between Sam’s thighs, and Sam moans, loudly, loud enough that Grizz can feel a shudder run straight down his spine, the roll and ache of his want. “Sam,” he says, even though Sam can’t hear him, and again, “Sam,” and again, again. Sam is solid underneath his palms, whole, and Grizz finally gets to the hem of his shirt, slips his hands up Sam’s chest, down his stomach, places where Grizz’s mouth desperately wants to follow. It’s hard, and it’s hot, and it’s Grizz finally allowing himself to chase what he wants, and Sam rewards him for his efforts, leaning heavily against him, tightening his hold, fitting closer and closer when they’re already impossibly close.

Grizz lifts Sam up and onto the counter, and something goes flying, he hears it crash to the ground, but he’s beyond caring, beyond rationality, and he moves himself in between Sam’s thighs, and Sam leans down and into him, his hands cradling Grizz’s cheeks, and it’s the hottest he’s ever been, the most open, and Sam kisses him wetly, his tongue slipping into his mouth. “Grizz,” Sam sighs, and Grizz can feel himself catch on fire, can feel himself burn and burn and burn.

He undoes the button of Sam’s jeans, unzips the fly, and Sam closes his eyes again, his palm on the back of Grizz’s head, his fingers curled in Grizz’s hair, and Grizz leans down and places his mouth on Sam, lets himself go, lets himself be consumed. Sam keeps saying Grizz’s name, softly, slowly, nothing more than a whisper, nothing more than a breath, and it’s the best thing Grizz has ever heard, it’s his favorite sound in the whole world. Sam’s fingers tighten in Grizz’s hair, a warning, but Grizz doesn’t move, his tongue and his lips and the way he wants to be here forever, he never wants to leave.

Sam comes and the hand on Grizz’s head falls back down flat on the counter, and Grizz leans up to kiss Sam, and Sam is boneless, beautiful, ready to be loved. Grizz leans back a little bit, far enough away that Sam can read his lips, “Okay?” he says, and Sam smiles with his red, swollen mouth, the freckles on his cheeks as bright as stars.

“Better than okay,” Sam says, and Grizz kisses him one more time.

***

They spend the night together.

After they clean up the disaster of a kitchen, turn off the burner and throw away the inedible chili, Sam pulls Grizz into Grizz’s room and lays him down on the bed and returns the favor, his mouth like a volcano on Grizz’s skin, past the point of eruption. Grizz cleans both of them off in the shower, kisses him until the water runs cold, until Sam’s fingers have pruned, until they’re both the only thing keeping each other standing against the tiled walls, Sam tucking his chin into the place where Grizz’s neck meets his shoulder, his eyes closed, Grizz’s fingers in his hair.

They change the sheets and get back into bed, and Grizz talks to Sam in the signs that he’s learned, telling Sam about his parents, football, the tap dancing class he loved but was pulled from, the ways he could have shown others who he was, but chose not to, chose not to be brave. Sam watches his fingers, his lips, and kisses him when Grizz pauses, when the tears sting the back of his eyelids, when Sam wants to show Grizz that he’s good, he’s enough, that he’s who he’s supposed to be.

Sam doesn’t talk about Campbell, but he does talk about the rest of his family, his best friend Becca, the bird he had as a child when his parents had refused to get him a dog. He talks about them as if they’re no longer around, as if they don’t exist, as if time has been suspended and it’s just them here, now, for as long as they want.

Grizz like the sound of that: a garden, a library, and Sam.

He runs his thumb along the apple of Sam’s cheek, the soft skin there, and asks him if he has everything he needs.

***

The next morning, Grizz wakes up to the smell of coffee wafting in from the kitchen. He turns over and curls into the cool, empty space next to him and closes his eyes, ready to drift off back to sleep, except that he can’t, except that he won’t allow himself to, because there’s this itch on the inside of his mouth, this burning need that starts in the pit of his belly and sears it way up and out of him. This need to see Sam and touch Sam and kiss Sam, this need to be here, to just be with him. He breathes the scent of Sam in deeply from the pillow next to him, the touch of the sheets, and he gets up and throws on his boxers and the long-sleeved shirt Sam was wearing yesterday and wanders out of the bedroom.

There’s the sound of voices in the kitchen, soft, hushed voices, and Grizz is puzzled for a moment until he rounds the corner and comes face to face with Campbell. He stops abruptly, and Campbell looks at him over Sam’s shoulder, the crooked, awful smile on his mouth, the raised eyebrow at the state of Grizz, at what he has figured out with just one look, seeing Sam and seeing Grizz and putting two and two together to make fucking four. Grizz stops in the doorway, the pounding in his chest loud enough that he thinks Campbell can probably hear it, and Sam turns and sees him and the set of his smile is somehow wrong, somehow not like him at all.

“Sleep well?” Campbell asks in that sycophantic voice of his, and Grizz’s hand closes into a fist by his side. He wants so badly to end this, he wants so badly to make sure Campbell never speaks another goddamn word, to him or anyone else. “Sam was just telling me about how you rescued him.” Campbell places a hand on Sam’s shoulder, and Sam winces before he can school his face back into this calm, collected mask, back into nothing. “It was so nice of you to patch him up and let him stay here.”

Sam doesn’t say anything, just watches Grizz watch him, watch Campbell. Grizz wants to remove Campbell’s hand from Sam’s shoulder, wants to make Campbell promise that he will never touch Sam again.

“Sam can stay as long as he likes,” Grizz says, and doesn’t move his eyes from Campbell’s hand, even when his voice betrays him. “He’s always welcome here.”

Campbell jerks Sam back against him, and Grizz knows that Sam can feel the rumble of Campbell’s chest, that man’s voice that Sam doesn’t remember, has never heard. “That’s so sweet of you,” he says, and smiles and smiles and smiles. His eyes are shark-like on Grizz, searching for blood in the water. “But Sam’s coming home with me. Right, Sam?” and here Campbell makes a sign with his fingers, prompting Sam to nod his head woodenly.

“Sam?” Grizz asks, and his voice catches in his throat.

Another sound Sam has never heard.

It’s okay, Sam signs, and he tries to smile, but his mouth doesn’t move very far. Really. I’ll see you soon.

And Grizz doesn’t watch them as they leave, Campbell gathering Sam’s clean clothes like he’s just here to help, his thumb on the top of Sam’s spine, pressing down until Sam has no choice but to lower his head. Grizz doesn’t watch as Campbell guides Sam out of the cabin, presses his forehead to the wood of the door instead, his fists buried in his own shirt, the shirt that smells like Sam, that smells like himself. He hears the wind outside the cabin rattle furiously across the roof, he hears the crunch of the leaves beneath Sam and Campbell’s feet, fading fast as they disappear towards the line of trees, he hears the birdsong out the window, clear and crisp as the sun rises over the horizon. He hears the sound of the wood settle beneath his feet, the clanking of the old pipes, the fire that Sam had lit in the fireplace just that morning, after waking up in Grizz’s bed, beside Grizz, after having spent the night with his mouth on every piece of skin that Grizz had to offer, and he hears the crackle of the newspaper and the splitting of the firewood being eaten alive, and all at once it sounds too loud, and all at once it sounds not loud enough.

And for one long moment, Grizz thinks he would rather hear nothing than the sound of his own heart.

***

Grizz cleans up the kitchen, pours the coffee down the sink and wipes down the counters and sweeps the floorboards with the frayed broom that had been here since he moved in. He changes the bedsheets again and wipes down the shower and he puts all of his clothes in the washing machine, even the ones that were already clean, pouring in too much detergent to ensure that he will never be able to smell anything else. He takes the trash to his truck and ties the bags down to the bed, makes a note to go to the dump later, whenever he trusts himself to drive.

He opens the bottle of whiskey they never finished and kills it, puts it out of its misery, the alcohol burning in his blood, racing through him like a sedative. He doesn’t let himself think, pretends to read instead, picks up Walden and ignores the dirt and ink and highlighter, pretends no one has ever touched this book before him. He gets through one page, two, before he realizes he’s been reading the words without understanding them. He throws the book into the fire; he’s never been much of a Thoreau fan.

He goes outside, later, when the sun has started to set and the cold has crept in from the trees, and he lines up the wine bottles along the stone wall his uncle had built once upon a time to keep the cows from passing through, throws rocks until he smashes every last one of them, the glass exploding, glittering in the moonlight. He hasn’t brought his coat with him, shivers with the chill of the wind, pretends that this is his punishment for being brave, pretends that this is what he gets. He goes inside when he can’t stand it any longer, his teeth chattering hard enough that he bites his own tongue.

The blood tastes metallic in his mouth, full of something he can’t quite name.

He turns on his phone, watches the service bar quiver, watches as a text pops up, and then another, and then another. It’s Sam, the only other person besides his parents who have his number, and Grizz wants to open the messages, but he can’t, not now, turns his phone off again without ever reading them.

He tries to make a casserole for dinner, starts to chop up the vegetables that he and Sam had picked, ends up slicing his fingers with the knife until the cutting board is filled with more blood than carrots. He washes his hands and carefully pulls out the first aid kit, wrapping bandages around his own hands like he did that first day when he found Sam out by the garden, when it was Sam and him and that look on Sam’s face when Grizz asked him to follow inside, that look like he’d never been saved before, and that’s it, that’s what does it, finally, the tears that start to fall without ever stopping. He’s crying over his own broken skin and it’s ridiculous, he knows it is, it’s more than ridiculous, it’s fucking crippling, this pain that he feels inside of himself like someone has cracked open his chest and removed his heart. This guttural ache, this absolute devastation, and Grizz hugs his knees to his chest and forgets what anything else feels like, forgets everything except this hurt, this sound, the hitch of his breath and the sharp, piercing sobs.

He knows what people are like.

He knows just what people are capable of.

***

Grizz sows the arugula and beet seeds, plants the onion bulbs in the soil, decides to trim back the kale and cilantro and spinach. He works with his hands for days, can’t quite wash the dirt from underneath his fingernails, can’t quite keep the sweat from the back of his neck. He forgets meals sometimes, working from sunrise to sunset, the slowly shortening days as it gets closer and closer to winter. He prepares himself for the oncoming snow, prepares himself for nights spent alone in the cabin, wondering what happened and why.

His mother calls him to ask him if he’s coming home soon, and that’s when he realizes that it’s almost Thanksgiving, that he’s stopped counting the days since Sam left. He says, “Sure,” the ache in his voice like something caught in his throat, but his mother doesn’t say anything, wouldn’t, hasn’t criticized his choices since he stopped dancing and started playing football. He agrees to come home the next week, packs some of his things into his backpack and starts the truck and sits in the driveway for a while, wondering what will happen if Sam comes back and he’s not here.

He doesn’t want to imagine it.

He can’t.

He drives home, past the train tracks, past the bridge, past the mansions on the hill, the big concrete foundations and brick exteriors and the sea of Porsches and Bentleys in the driveways. He drives past the church, the school, the football field, and it’s weird because he never thought he would miss these places, but somehow he kind of does, having been living in the woods for the better part of three years, having been lonely for longer than that, he misses his family and his old friends, he misses the parties and the games and he misses the comfortable skin he used to wear like it was his own.

He drives home and kisses his mother on the cheek and shakes his father’s hand, and he talks about the vegetables he’s grown and managed to sell at the farmer’s market in town, the meager savings and the crop for the next harvest, and he talks about the little things he’s done to fix up the cabin, the small adjustments to his uncle’s original plans. He eats turkey and pumpkin pie and cranberries and mashed potatoes and he thinks he’s never before felt like he was missing something as monumental as this, this chance at being friends, at something more, something like being in love.

After dinner, his father turns on the game, and Grizz watches without seeing, his hand cold around the sweating beer bottle. He thinks of Sam’s mouth and Sam’s fingers and of Sam’s nose buried deep into the crook of Grizz’s shoulder, Sam’s breath hot and wet against the side of his neck. He thinks he can still taste him, deep in the back of his throat, still taste Sam and what Sam was to him, what Grizz might have been to Sam. His father opens another beer for him, and Grizz takes it automatically, swallowing until it’s the only taste left in his mouth.

He goes up to bed and lays there in the too-small frame and catalogues the trophies still standing tall on his dresser, the posters he never took down, the computer he hasn’t turned on in years. His mother has kept his room like a shrine to the day he left, never moving anything from its rightful place. He smells the sheets and they smell clean, freshly washed, and it’s another ache inside of him, another break.

His phone makes a noise, and Grizz absentmindedly checks it, even though he already knows who it is. Sam has yet to get the hint, has texted Grizz every day since he left, every day since Campbell came to the cabin to bring him home, another message that Grizz has yet to look at, yet to delete.

Sam says, Happy Thanksgiving.

He says, Are you back home with your parents?

He says, I hope you are.

And Grizz frowns at the screen and forgets himself for a moment, forgets who and what and why he is, what he’s become, and types back, Why?

And there’s a moment, a long moment, where Grizz’s heart is beating furiously in his chest, where his pulse has risen up and into his throat, a moment where he’s forgotten how to breathe. Sam types and types, and Grizz feels like he’s about to burst into flames.

Because I would hate to be standing outside of the wrong house.

Grizz closes his eyes. Fuck, he thinks.

Sam texts, Can I see you?

And Grizz thinks, This is it.

Thinks, This is what you want.

Thinks, Finally.

He opens his eyes and breathes in and breathes out and places one palm against his chest as if he could stop the slow corrosion that has started in his heart and spread inside of him like wildfire. He bites his lip and then stops, decides that he doesn’t want to feel pain anymore, doesn’t want to feel what he’s been feeling for the last few weeks.

He thinks, Be brave.

***

Sam is standing outside on the porch, his coat fastened tight around him. His cheeks and nose are red; he must have been standing outside for a while, a long while, and Grizz feels something like an ache at the sight. He smiles when Grizz opens the door, smiles even wider when Grizz steps out onto the porch and closes the door behind him.

“Hi,” he says.

Hi, Grizz signs.

Sam’s smile turns sad, and Grizz almost forgets himself and places his arms around him, almost buries his face into Sam’s hair. Almost. “I wanted to see how you were doing,” he says, with his mouth, with his hands. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry that I left.”

Grizz nods, but doesn’t say anything. He looks down at his shoes, looks back up at Sam, can’t quite focus on Sam’s eyes, looks at the long, pale column of his throat instead.

“Campbell,” Sam starts, and then stop again, bringing his gloveless hand to his mouth. That’s when Grizz notices the new bruise, sloping from Sam’s wrist into his jacket sleeve, dark purple underneath the porch light. “He thinks that he knows what’s best for me, that I can’t survive without him. He thinks that he’s all I need.”

“Is he?” Grizz asks, surprising even himself. The trees are rustling along the street, the lights hanging heavy in the dark, the sound of the cars that drive through the neighborhood, slowing down to watch them talk, two boys standing there almost touching but not, two boys orbiting around each other, whole galaxies apart. “Everything you need?”

Sam closes his eyes and then opens them again. “No,” he says, and signs it, too, shaking his head. “I fucking hate him. He’s a monster.” His voice is a whisper, broken and hard to understand, if not for the fact that Grizz is fluent in Sam, that Grizz knows Sam better than he knows himself. “I might have needed him once, before this, before you,” and here he reaches out to touch Grizz’s jacket, his fingers digging deep enough that Grizz can feel the warmth burn through all of his layers.

Grizz looks down, looks back up, Sam’s mouth close enough to his that he can taste how much he wants him, how much he wants this. He doesn’t move, doesn’t say anything, won’t ruin this before it’s even begun.

“I don’t need him anymore,” Sam whispers. “You’ve shown me that.”

Grizz breathes in Sam’s breath, his lips open, wet and red and perfect.

“You’ve shown me how to be brave,” Sam says, and Grizz swallows back the lump in his throat, the tears that sting his eyes, that fall. Sam wipes them away, his thumbs on Grizz’s cheeks. “You’ve shown me who I want to be,” he says, leaning up and into Grizz, so close, so fucking close. “You’ve shown me how I want to live.”

Grizz nods. “Okay,” he says, nothing but a sound that escapes him. And then again in the space between them, his fingers slow and smooth and aching, wanting, ready to pull Sam close, Okay. Sam smiles at him then, wide and bright and beautiful, and the streetlights start to go out, one by one, a power outage in slow motion, and just as the one in front of Grizz’s house turns off, Sam presses his mouth to Grizz’s, something that Grizz has wanted before he even saw him standing out here. Something that Grizz has wanted before he even knew Sam’s name.

And Grizz pulls him in tight enough that Sam makes a soft, enticing sound that licks inside of Grizz, Sam’s lips and teeth and tongue, Sam sighing Grizz’s own name against Grizz’s own skin, and Grizz thinks that it’s the most beautiful sound he has ever heard.