Dylan parks out by the football field; it’s quieter there, usually, and nobody can see him from the road. For example, the cops can’t see him from the road, if they’re doing slow cruises around town looking for people sitting on their cars drinking beer.
The sun is still high and the football team is loading up on the bus when he settles on the hood of his car and cracks open the first can. The kids hoot at him out the bus windows, and he raises his drink in a lazy salute before downing half of it in a long swallow, which makes them yell and carry on more. Kids don’t change, apparently. They’re all just the same as when Dylan was the one on the bus.
One of the assistant coaches detaches himself from the group around the equipment truck and walks over to Dylan’s car, dust rising around his knees as he crosses the dried-out dirt of the lot. “Larks.”
Dylan raises his can in another, smaller salute. “Fil.”
Fil Hronek stops a few feet away, hands on his hips. “You know you can’t do that here.”
“It’s after school hours.” Dylan takes another sip. “I checked.”
Fil turns and takes a pointed look at the bus. “The kids are right there, Larks.”
“Half of ‘em are eighteen. They’re adults.” He fidgets with the can, trying to think of another argument. “And it’s a public school, so it’s public property, and my tax dollars pay for it. I think I can sit on what I pay for.”
Fil shakes his head. “You can’t do that here.”
“All right, all right.” Dylan sighs and slides off the hood, pouring the last of his beer out in the dust. “I actually came by looking for you and Mo. Wondered if you wanted to come out to Bertuzzi’s with me.” He holds up his hand before Fil can look at the bus again. “I forgot you had a game. It’s cool. I’ll go by myself.”
“That’s a shock.” Fil glances over at the equipment truck, where the other coaches are locking up the back. “Maybe you could try just going home and taking it easy for once, yeah? One night out of the week?”
Dylan frowns at him and tosses the empty can into the weeds at the edge of the lot. It’s a good ten-foot toss, and he hits just where he was aiming, not that Fil seems to notice. “No, I don’t think I can do that, bud.”
“Surprise.” Fil sighs and steps back, then turns on his heel and goes to pick up the beer can. “Well, be careful, then, Larks. Have a good night.” He throws the can underhand back at Dylan, and Dylan catches it reflexively. “And clean up your trash. Be a good example for the kids.”
Dylan stands there by the car until the bus pulls out of the lot. One of the kids moons him from the back windows; he probably deserves that. The equipment truck pulls out next, Mo and Fil both ignoring him. He probably deserves that too.
When the dust settles again, he throws the can in the back seat of his car and gets behind the wheel. Deserved or not, fuck them and their football game. He’s going to Bertuzzi’s.
Bertuzzi’s is a low, beaten-up looking building out by the highway, which probably was painted blue at one point but has faded into a vague smear of gray against a cluster of pine trees. The neon light above the door had been dead for almost a year now, but someone had hand-painted a plywood sign that declares OPEN from four in the afternoon til around two AM, when it gets turned around and laid against the wall.
Dylan parks right in front and walks inside, pausing to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. The bar only has a handful of windows, and they’re small and up high, only letting in a little bit of light even though it’s still not quite twilight out. It smells permanently like smoke, stale beer, and grease from the fryer. For once he’s gotten there early enough that there isn’t a game at the pool tables, and the TVs are still off. That’s unusual for this place, and makes it feel eerily quiet.
Tyler’ss behind the bar, though. One of the constants in Dylan’s life is Tyler behind the bar at Bertuzzi’s.
“Larks,” Tyler says, grinning at him and reaching for a glass. “You’re here early.”
“Yeah.” Dylan doesn’t really have anything to follow that up with. He is early. He’d left work early, sat in the lot waiting for Fil and Mo, got blown off, came to the bar directly. There isn’t a good story there. “But here you are.”
“Always am.” Tyler’s at peace with that, as far as Dylan can tell. That’s kind of Tyler’s thing, being at peace with his existence. “What are you drinking?”
Dylan opens his mouth to order beer, then closes it, for some reason seeing the empty can coming out of Fil’s hand and whipping toward his head. “Start with a Coke, I guess? I should eat, too. Been a long time since lunch.”
Tyler takes that in stride; Tyler takes everything in stride. “Sure. Robby’s got the fryer going, so whatever you want, as long as it’s fried.”
That’s another constant in life, at least. “Chicken strips and fries, then.”
“You got it.” Tyler fills the glass with Coke, slides it down the bar to Dylan, and wanders off toward the back to put the order in with Robby. Dylan takes a drink and closes his eyes, letting the sweet and cold cut through the fog in his head.
How long has he been carrying that fog around, anyway? Since—
“You hear from Hank lately?” Tyler’s back, with a handful of limes for some reason, holding them tucked between his long fingers. Dylan stares at them instead of Tyler’s face, like the question will suck less if he doesn’t see Tyler react to his answer.
“No.” Not that it’s much of an answer, or giving much to react to. Not much to say. “Not in a while now.”
“Oh.” Tyler drops the limes on the counter and pulls a knife out from under it. “That sucks. Andreas texted me the other day, if you can believe that. Outta nowhere.”
Dylan tries to smile. It feels like he’s dragging rocks around under the skin of his face, grinding on the bones. “Oh yeah? Where’s he, now?”
“Somewhere out west. In Canada.” Tyler slices the limes quickly, neatly. “Sounds like he’s doing okay for himself.”
“That’s good. Good for him.” Dylan feels like the floor’s going to drop out from under him. He takes another sip of his Coke and wishes it was beer. “What about Zadina, you heard from him?”
Tyler laughs softly, dumping the limes into a plastic bin. “You’d be more likely to hear from him than me, right?”
“Not really.” At least Tyler’s gentle about the reminder that Dylan has had two people not only leave him, but leave town and the whole damn state. Tyler’s a gentle guy in general. People don’t think so, with his whole look and his missing tooth and the whole Bertuzzi name behind him, but he is. Tyler’s a good guy.
Robby emerges from the back with Dylan’s food, deposits the plate unceremoniously in front of him, and ruffles Dylan’s hair, all in silence, before he retreats to the back. Tyler watches him go with unmistakable fondness.
“Love that guy,” he says to no one, and starts wiping down the counter where he cut the limes.
Dylan’s out late, at Bertuzzi’s and then the parking lot outside the little red party store halfway between Bertuzzi’s and his house. He needs Folgers and toilet paper for in the morning, and they won’t sell him anything until he sobers up, because Greener, who owns the place, has known him for too long and can boss him around like that.
“I’m mostly sober,” he tells the bored-looking kid behind the counter. “Tyler cut me off for, like, an hour before I left.”
The kid is not impressed. “Another half an hour before I’ll sell you anything. Mr. Green said.”
“Don’t call him that. He’s not that important.”
“He’s my boss.” The kid shrugs again. “You want a Mountain Dew?”
Dylan doesn’t. He goes to wait in the parking lot.
When he wakes up the next morning, at home in his bed with the Folgers crystals and toilet paper sitting on the floor by his bed, he lies there for a few minutes, wondering if there’s any way to make today better than any of the days that have come before, lately. Since Z left, if he’s being honest. He won’t even hope for actually good days; those haven’t happened since Hank left. Christ. His life is a wreck.
He lies there until he has to pee badly enough that he has no choice but to get up and shuffle to the bathroom. He takes the toilet paper with him. When he’s done, he comes back for the coffee and heads for the kitchen. Look at him functioning. Maybe it will be a better day after all.
He doesn’t go to Bertuzzi’s that day—a full Saturday without hitting the bar. He gives himself credit for that. And the next day is Sunday, which is when the bar is closed; not because of any laws, but because Tyler’s uncle, who opened the place, had believed in taking the Lord’s day off, and Tyler never really bothered to change anything his Uncle Todd had set up unless the health code required it.
Dylan isn’t a churchgoer himself, but he gets up at a decent hour, makes himself a real breakfast, and cleans up around the house on Sunday morning, keeping himself busy until he gets a text from Mo around noon, telling him to get over to the middle-school playground for basketball.
Probably it’s weird that they hang out on a playground on the weekends, but it’s the easiest and most central place to go that has a court, even if it is a half-sized one and the hoops aren’t regulation height. It’s good enough for them, as a group that is not even a little bit good at basketball.
Mo and Fil are already there when Dylan pulls up, and Tyler shows up a few minutes later, grinning at them out the open window of his truck. The A/C’s been dead in that thing for as long as Dylan can remember, and instead of fixing it Tyler just keeps the windows rolled down and sweats a lot.
“The four of us?” he asks after he parks and walks over to join them. “Two-on-two? Or are we waiting for somebody else?”
“I texted Greener,” Mo says, dropping into an exaggerated calf stretch. “But he didn’t answer, so I don’t think he’s coming.”
They looked at each other for a minute, the silence underlining how many of their old group of friends have left town, moving on to bigger and better things, or at least things a hell of a lot further away. Dylan remembers the last time he saw Hank and Z, different days and different places but both of them getting in their cars and driving away without a look back, and his stomach twists into a knot that makes it hard to breathe.
“Two-on-two,” Mo says, bouncing the ball off the asphalt. “Let’s go. Me and Fil against you two dirtbags.”
“I’m not a dirtbag,” Dylan protests, but there’s not a lot of heat behind it. And god knows Tyler is one; he doesn’t even bother arguing, just grins his missing-tooth smile and jogs down the court after Fil.
They play for a few hours in the sticky early-September heat. The summer’s hanging on this year, digging its fingers in deep, and Dylan doesn’t mind, really. He wishes he could store up this sunlight, the particular shade of gold, the way it slants through the humidity in the air, and be able to pull it up again during the dense cold wet of winter, when it’s dark all the time and there’s nothing to think about but whether it’ll rain, snow, or the miserable sleet in between.
Mo and Fil win, in that they’re ahead by two points when Dylan chucks the ball off the court and flops down on his bag in a wordless forfeit. Tyler lies down next to him, limbs spread-eagle, sweat dripping off his hair onto the asphalt.
“Good game,” Mo says, standing over them and scuffing his heel along the ground. “Want to get pizza now?”
Tyler waves his hands in the air. “Give me a few minutes, though, if I eat a bunch of grease right now I think I’ll die.”
“What about tacos?” Dylan asks, resting his own hands on his chest and looking up at the sky. “I could do tacos.”
Bickering about that takes another twenty minutes or so, until they’re cooled off enough to load into Mo’s car and go into town to one of the restaurants that serves pizza and, if not tacos, a taco salad that’s close enough for Dylan. Plus it means he ate vegetables today, if his mom asks or something. It’s a win.
They sit there for another hour, until Mo and Fil have to leave to finish grading or lesson plans or whatever they do to prepare for the week. The school isn’t good enough at football to hire a dedicated coaching staff; Mo teaches math and Fil is the assistant band director. One of the other assistants is the gym teacher, Dylan thinks, or something like that. Dylan thought about going into teaching; if he had, he would probably be out there coaching the team, too, right alongside his buddies. Football in the fall, track or soccer in the spring.
“Earth to Larkin,” Tyler says, bouncing a bit of pizza crust off Dylan’s nose. “You headed home, or you want to screw around some more?”
Dylan rolls his eyes at him. “Define screwing around.”
“Back to my place? Video games? And you’ve got sauce on your nose, dude, sorry.”
He offers a napkin and Dylan takes it, wiping his face off and considering the offer. He hasn’t gone over to Tyler’s place for video games in ages. Or anyone’s place, for anything, really. Shit, he’s turned into a real hermit since Z left. Both of his Zs.
“Yeah,” he says after probably too long a time, but Tyler is still just sitting there, waiting on him. “Yeah, for sure, let’s go to your place.”
“Cool.” Tyler digs his wallet out and waves at the waitress. “You want to swing by the party store on the way, or are we good?”
“Probably shouldn’t. Sunday night and all.” Not that it matters for Tyler; he runs a bar. And Dylan’s job has never once noticed when he stumbles in hungover, whatever day of the week it is. Still. He feels like that’s the kind of thing people say, and anyway, if they don’t drink tonight he can say he went two whole days dry.
Tyler nods and waits for the check, drumming his fingers on the table, and Dylan is just, suddenly, super glad that he’s there.
For all that he had two dry days and he’s proud of them, Dylan ends up back at Bertuzzi’s on Monday night. It was a shit day at work, and anyway Fil is the one who texted and asked if he was going to be there. Dylan didn’t have to think about it much before saying yes, but it wasn’t his idea.
There’s a baseball game on, so the place is slammed and Tyler doesn’t have time to talk. He waves when they sit down at the end of the bar, though, flashing them a big grin, and sends Glenny down with their usual brand and to take their order for the kitchen.
They drink slowly until their burgers and fries arrive, then eat fast, breaking it up with mumbled half-conversations about work. Fil’s stories about what the high school kids are up to these days aren’t all that interesting, but Dylan’s stories from the office building IT trenches are even worse. He wishes Abby were here, or Helmer. They both work road construction, and if nothing else happens all day they’ve always got stories about almost being clipped by trucks.
That reminds him, belated-slow, that Abby actually did get clipped by a truck, a few weeks back. Broke his damn leg. “Have you heard from Justin?” he asks, picking up the last of his fries. “We should go over there for a poker night, if he’s feeling better.”
“Oh, yeah!” Fil digs his phone out and clicks around. “He’s home and on leave and bored as shit. He said we should do something, I’ll see if a poker night’s what he had in mind.”
“Maybe Wednesday,” Dylan says, squinting down the bar at one of the TV screens, where the Tigers are setting themselves up to blow a three-run lead. “I’ve got a shift at the food bank tomorrow night.”
Fil frowns at him for a minute, before his brows lift and his eyes go a little wild. “Oh yeah, how’s that going?”
“It’s fine.” Community service for disturbing the peace is fine. The judge called it a wake-up call but Dylan is extremely awake, he has been awake for years, that’s why he’s so tired all the goddamn time.
Fil nods slowly and looks back at his phone. “How much longer til you’re done?”
“Six more weeks.” Dylan wants another beer, but he can’t order one now. Not after that topic, and not with Fil looking like that. “I might keep taking shifts after that, though, you know? It breaks up the week. Helping people.”
“Helping people is good.” Fil nods again, tapping at the screen. “And Abby says Wednesday works for him if we can round up a few more. I’ll get Mo to come. Can you ask Greener?”
“Sure.” Before, it would’ve been easy—Dylan always brought one of his Zs, if not both. But he can swing by the store on his way home and ask Greener if he wants in on a poker night. Dylan needs to stop for half-and-half and chips anyway.
Greener is wearing a Nickelback t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, showing off his tattoos. It should look stupid, but it works for him. Most things do.
“I’ll be late, but I can swing by.” He eyes Dylan’s purchases and shakes his head. “You want to consider adding something from an actual food group?”
Dylan looks slowly around the store. “Do you sell that here? Should I go with beef jerky or Snickers?”
“Snickers. The nuts are better for you. Jerky’s got too much sodium.”
Dylan shakes his head and adds a Snickers to the pile. “You should be running a health-food store, man, not this place.”
“Yeah, because there’s a market for that here.” He doesn’t sound annoyed. It takes a lot to move Greener’s needle off calm. “But yeah, I’ll see you tomorrow night, and I’ll bring beer but not for free. You guys gotta pony up.”
“Fair enough.” Dylan hands him his credit card.
Greener scans it and hums to himself, and Dylan is so close to making it out of the store without Greener asking shitty questions, and yet so far. “You heard from Hank or Zadina lately?”
Dylan thinks about throwing the bottle of half-and-half right through the window. “No. Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“Because you guys were close.”
“Yeah, well, they both left me, so…”
Greener’s eyebrows are up somewhere around his hairline, but he still can’t take the hint to shut up. “That doesn’t mean they won’t keep in touch.”
“Apparently it does, because I haven’t heard from either of them.”
“Shit. That’s hard, man.” He hands the card back and leans on the counter, studying Dylan thoughtfully. “Was that weird, at all? Going from an older guy to a younger guy like that? The student becoming the teacher, or whatever? That whole vibe?”
Dylan clenches his teeth so hard they hurt. Why does he still live in this fucking town. “There was no vibe. It wasn’t, like… fuck. It just happened. It wasn’t related, I didn’t plan it.”
“Just went from one Z to another.” Greener nods slowly. “You want a bag for your stuff?”
“No.” Dylan gathers it up in his hands. “See you tomorrow.”
Once he gets to the car, he drops the half-and-half and chips in the footwell in front of the passenger seat and eats the Snickers bar in three bites. His teeth hurt from the sweetness and a shard of peanut immediately lodges between two of his teeth. Just his fucking luck.
At least poker night is good. Helmer brought beer, too, so they don’t have to wait for Greener to get there before they can start getting their buzz on. Abby can’t walk but there’s nothing wrong with his ability to order pizza. And Dylan contributes the bag of chips he forgot to bring in from the car the night before.
They don’t play for money, an unspoken agreement lasting from back when Glenny lost his rent money on a bad night and lived in his car for two weeks in fucking November because he wouldn’t let any of them help him out. Abby digs a big ziplock bag of plastic chips out from under his couch and dumps them out on the table, and they all work together to get them sorted by color and divided out evenly while they wait for the pizza.
“Someday,” Helmer says, “we’ll remember to just put them in different bags, by color, when we clean up at the end of the night.”
“No we won’t,” Abby says, “because who’s going to bother doing that after we’ve been drinking?”
And he’s right, so what is there to say?
They eat and shoot the shit and play a few hands for nothing, waiting for Greener to get there, and when he does there’s more hugging and shit-shooting. Dylan stays on the couch, half-melted into the cushions, nursing his beer and just letting the sound of his buddies carrying on settle around him like a warm blanket. He loves these boys. Not that he’d ever tell them that, the bunch of hooligans, but he does. They’re always gonna be his home.
Friday night Dylan’s back at Bertuzzi’s, with Tyler sliding another burger down the bar to him. “Larks,” he says urgently, leaning over the bar to talk close, right in Dylan’s ear. “Are you busy tomorrow?”
Dylan blinks at him; with Tyler this could go a whole lot of places, and some of them would end up kind of weird. “No, I don’t think so. I’ve got nothing this weekend. Why?”
Tyler looks around like he’s checking for spies. “Well. My uncle told me I can take tomorrow off. He wants to come in for a day. He’s either bored, nostalgic, or gonna torch the place for the insurance money, I don’t know which, but I’m not gonna pass up the chance for a day off, you know?”
“Sure, man.” A bartender getting a Saturday off is kind of a big deal, Dylan knows. “Did you have something in mind?”
“Fuck yeah I do.” Tyler leans in even closer, he’s basically laying across the bar. “It’s getting late in the year, Larks. We gotta get out to the lake while we still can.”
The lake. Dylan starts to grin, and Tyler grins back, eyes crinkling up and all but fucking glowing, electric blue. “We haven’t made it out to the lake in ages, man.”
“Robby and me went after the Fourth,” Tyler says, wiggling around on the bar like a fish. “But you were visiting your dad or something, right?”
“Yeah. His birthday.” Dylan’s slipped into looking back, remembering how back in the day all of them, the whole crew, went out to the lake almost every weekend all summer long. He remembers fishing with Tyler and Robby, cruising in pointless circles on Fil’s dad’s boat, drinking beer on the muddy edge of the water, in the strip of sand that the state hauled in every year to try to pretend the lakes had beaches and that washed away over the course of the season, probably clogging things up somewhere in the creeks that fed the lake in the first place.
He remembers lying out on the float with Hank, too, both of them getting sunburned and not giving a damn, running hands over stinging skin and under the waistband of each other’s shorts, teasing sun-warmed hair and swapping kisses that tasted like lemonade and vodka. Little Z wasn’t so much for lying out, but he loved to kayak; Dylan remembers a long day out on the Huron River and then loading the kayaks back into the bed of Z’s truck, followed by the two of them climbing into the backseat of the truck and making out until the sun was low in the sky and they had to hurry up if they were going to make it out of the park before the gates closed at dusk.
Shit. He takes a gulp of his beer and looks at Tyler, who has an expectant look on his face, like a dog waiting for permission to chase the ball. “Yeah,” Dylan says, hoping it’s the right answer to the question he missed. “Let’s go to the lake tomorrow.”
“Fuck yeah.” Tyler slaps him on the shoulder and slides back off the bar and onto his feet. “I’ll pick you up at eight.”
“How are you going to be up and moving at eight, man, you don’t get out of here til three at the earliest.”
Tyler just laughs and shakes his head. “Don’t worry about me, Larks, just be in front of your house and ready to go.”
Dylan is in the driveway at eight, as ordered. He’s got his trunks on, a backpack with towels and clean shorts for later, sunblock, a water bottle, all the basics. He also has a cooler with beer, vodka-lemonade, and sandwiches. He’s prepared for this. Tyler’s gonna be so proud.
He’s surprised when Tyler’s the only one in the truck; he’d just assumed that Robby and maybe Greener or some of the other guys would be coming along. “Hey,” he said, climbing into the cab and twisting to put his bag and cooler in the back. “Are the rest of them meeting us there?”
“No rest of them today, Larks.” Tyler’s got a baseball cap pulled all the way down to the rim of his sunglasses. Dylan can tell at a glance that they’ll be stopping at the first McDonalds they see for coffee. “Just me and you, brother.”
“Just the two of us?” Dylan feels like he missed a step and he’s currently hurtling toward the ground, not sure what body part will absorb the blow but very sure it’ll hurt.
“Is that a problem?” Tyler pulls out of the driveway and starts down the looping route toward the highway. “I thought you liked hanging out with me, man.”
“I do! Of course I do.” Dylan shakes his head, trying to clear it, and rolls his window down for some air. “We just haven’t hung out one on one in… I don’t even know. Ages.”
“Yeah, well.” Sure enough, Tyler changes lanes and angles for a McDonalds. “You’ve been kinda gun-shy about one on one time with anybody since Little Z left town.”
Dylan doesn’t know what to say to that. He digs a five-dollar bill out of his pocket and hands it over to Tyler. “Coffee and a bacon egg and cheese bagel.”
“Bagel,” Tyler mutters. “Who orders the bagel instead of the muffin or the biscuit at McDonalds. Only you, Larks.”
Dylan waits until they’ve gone through the whole process and have their food in hand before he speaks again. “You’ve been paying attention to who I hang out with?”
Tyler’s still got the sunglasses on, but his eyes are presumably on the road as he gulps his coffee. “Uh, yeah,” he says after he swallows. “You turned into a fucking ghost, we all paid attention to what was going on with you so maybe we’d be able to catch you before we found your fucking body in your car on the side of the road somewhere.”
“Jesus, dude. I wouldn’t…”
“Not on purpose.” Tyler shakes his head and stomps on the gas. “But a lot of the guys who get found in their car and the autopsy says booze plus pills didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Jesus.” Dylan can’t think of anything else to say. He drinks his coffee robotically, and Tyler gets on I-75 northbound, and neither of them says anything for a while.
“You seem to be doing better now,” Tyler says finally. “Like, we’re not worried about that anymore. But you’re still a ghost, man. We miss you.”
“I’m sorry.” Dylan doesn’t know what the fuck he’s supposed to say. “It was just—it was really hard. Him leaving. After Hank left.”
“I know, dude. Being dumped sucks. Being dumped twice in a row… double-sucks. And having them leave town. And Andreas leaving too. And fucking… I mean, things have hardcore sucked.” He glances sideways at Dylan, his eye painfully blue in the little triangle of space Dylan can see between parts of his sunglasses. “But the rest of us are still here. And we still love your dumb ass.”
Dylan swallows hard. “So this isn’t really a trip to the lake? It’s an intervention?”
“It’s a trip to the lake. We are going to have a fucking good time at the lake.” Tyler glances in the rearview and changes lanes. “The intervention part is only on the drive up, because radio reception sucks out here.”
Tyler is true to his word; once they reach the lake there isn’t any more talk about the past or any of the missing people hanging around their memories. They unload the coolers and blankets on the sand, leave their keys in their shoes, and take matching running jumps off the end of the dock.
The water is cool and feels thick against Dylan’s skin. He’s always careful not to think too much about the algae and whatever else grows in the lakes; all that matter is that coming up here lets him be a kid again, splashing and diving and finally swimming out to the float and hauling himself up to lay out in the sun.
Tyler joins him there a little while later, and Dylan smiles with half-closed eyes at how Tyler takes care not to splash him. “Hey, man,” he mumbles, and Tyler hums in response, stretching out on his stomach with his arms and legs stretched out above and below him like Superman.
Dylan’s on his back, and he throws one arm across his eyes to protect them from the slow-climbing sun while time winds away. It’s so good out here, peaceful, and he wishes he’d thought of this sooner, that he’d come up here earlier in the summer, even by himself. The aching, miserable knot in his chest has eased, and if he could’ve had that sooner...
Well, he probably wouldn’t have been so much of an asshole to everyone he knows. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t have been ready any sooner. He knows he’s stubborn, that he has a tendency to hang on to stuff longer than he should, and to punish himself when maybe he could let stuff go. Enough people have told him that over the years, everyone from his mom to his manager, and all the coaches and teammates he ever had.
“Shit,” he says out loud, and Tyler’s foot immediately presses against the side of his calf, rubbing carefully.
“What’s up, Larks?”
Dylan moves his arm so he can look down his body and see Tyler’s foot. His toes are wiggling against the swell of Dylan’s calf muscle now, like a weird little massage. “Just that I've been a real dick to all of you guys.”
“Nah, man. Don’t do that.”
“It’s true, though, everything you said in the car was true, and I—”
“Dylan. Quit it.” Tyler props himself up on his elbows and glares at him. “No talking about heavy shit at the lake.”
“Maybe I just wanted to say thank you, Tuzzi, did you ever think of—”
“You wanna thank me, you can shut up and enjoy the damn lake.” Tyler sprawls facedown again. “Or you can wait til we get back and then you can S my D. Whatever.”
Dylan blinks a few times, but Tyler doesn’t sit up again. There’s no tension in his shoulders, either, like he’s bracing himself for a reaction. He said what he said and that’s... it, apparently. Dylan gets to sit with it now, wonder what it meant, if Tyler meant it, or—or anything. Or maybe he wasn’t supposed to notice it at all.
He lies back on the float and covers his face with both hands. He wishes he had a towel or a t-shirt or something to cover his face with. He’s going to burn strawberry red, with how long he’s going to spend out here thinking about this.
Eventually they swim back to the dock and walk back to their blankets, where they crack open the coolers and eat in the midday heat. The humidity is heavy the way only Michigan late-summer afternoons can manage, like a thick blanket between the sky and the ground.
Tyler digs his toes in the trucked-in sand, admiring the ridges they make. “Maybe we could stay tomorrow, too. Sleep in the truck tonight.”
“The backseat, or the truck bed?”
“One of us in each. Paper-rock-scissors for who gets what.”
Dylan laughs and shakes his head. “No way. I wouldn’t be able to walk if I end up sleeping in the bed.”
“Are you saying you don’t think your luck is up to it, Larks?” Tyler smiles and shrugs. “Fine, we’ll go home tonight. Whatever.”
“We should stop at one of those super-sketchy roadside places for dinner, though.” Dylan feels like he needs to offer something in exchange for turning the overnight plan down. “They always have food that’s, like, awful but so good. And it’s an adventure.”
Tyler’s eyes crinkle more at the edges, so Dylan knows he got it right. “I know exactly which one we’re gonna stop at. You won’t believe it. The whole place is so gross but the burgers are to die for. And the fried fish is either, like, the best thing you’ve ever had or you get food poisoning halfway home. How brave you feeling?”
“I think you just said not brave enough.” Dylan kicks some sand at him. “We don’t have to leave yet, though.”
“Nah.” Tyler looks around. “I think there’s a horseshoe pit over that way, do you remember? Let’s go look.”
They walk down the shore and poke around for a while until the find the pit; the sand is mostly overgrown and the horseshoes are real metal ones, so rusted that Dylan and Tyler’s hands turn orange just from throwing them a few times. Dylan wants to keep walking and see what else they can find, but a snake comes up out of the grass and crosses their path barely an inch ahead of Tyler’s bare feet, and that’s the end of that.
“I don’t fuck with snakes,” Tyler says, louder than he needs to for Dylan to hear him. “Let’s go back, dude.”
“There might be snakes back there, too,” Dylan points out. “The grass is just shorter.”
Tyler rolls his eyes. “That’s good enough for me. Come on.”
They go back out in the lake again, splashing around and swimming lazy circles, but the next time they come back to the sand Dylan can tell they’re both about tapped out. They don’t say anything about it, but they put the vodka-lemonade back in the cooler without drinking more, finish a water bottle each instead, and start the slow process of alternating lying around on the blankets with packing things up.
The drive back is as promised: stopping for good burgers at a roadside place even more questionable than Bertuzzi’s, then driving the rest of the way home in the gathering dusk, window rolled down to let that heavy air inside as the truck cuts it into a breeze.
“Hey,” Dylan says when they’re a few exits from home, the sun low enough that fireflies are blooming in the tall grass at the side of the highway. “We’ve still got all the drinks and stuff. Let’s go to your place and have a bonfire.”
“Yeah?” Tyler glances over at him, grinning broadly in that way he has that makes Dylan grin back, even though his face is so sunburnt that smiling hurts like he’s cracking the skin all the way across. “Invite the guys over?”
“Nah. We don’t have enough drinks for that, man.” Dylan reaches over and punches him on the thigh, a little awkward but hopefully saying what he wants it to say, that he wants to just hang out, like they have been all day. “Just me and you, dude.”
Tyler’s grin gets even bigger, which shouldn’t even be possible and definitely has to hurt, since he’s as burned as Dylan is. “Well damn, Larks. I didn’t know you cared.”
“Of course I care, you fucker.” Dylan punches him again, then settles back in his seat, looking out the window as they roll up to their exit. “Today was good, you know? Not ready to be done with it yet.”
He waits for Tyler to say something smart-ass, but instead there’s just a quiet “I hear that” as they take the exit and slow down for the light.
Dylan drinks more of the vodka-lemonade than the probably should, but it’s different than drinking at the bar. Out in Tyler’s scrubby little yard, under the stars, a little fire going in the chopped-down burn barrel set in the middle of a dirt patch with lawn chairs around it—drinking here isn’t a problem, it’s more like some kind of ritual, one that goes back to when they were kids and will probably keep going until they’re old, if they both stick around here. If they don’t take off like Andreas and Dylan’s Z’s did.
Then again they’re both still here now; if they were going to leave, probably they would’ve done it already.
Tyler is sprawled in one of the lawn chairs, bare feet stretched toward the fire. He’s got a beer in one hand that he’s been nursing for what seems like a long time now, and a dreamy half-smile on his face. The radio’s playing in the house, spilling out the screen door and across the porch to reach them with a hits of the 80s-90s-and-now station. Dylan is lying on his stomach in the grass, buzzed all the way through. He doesn’t want to be anywhere else in the world, for as long as he lives.
“Larks,” Tyler says after a while. Dylan can’t be bothered to answer, so Tyler says it again— “Larks”—and Dylan waves a hand at him.
“I’m glad we did this today. Hanging out and stuff. I’ve missed you, man.”
Dylan wants to brush it off, say he didn’t go anywhere, he’s been right here all along, like he always is. He’s never gonna leave this town. But he knows what Tyler means, what he’s really trying to say, and right now he’s buzzed and relaxed and comfortable enough to look it in the eye. To look Tyler in the eye, even, sitting up so he can look right at him and smile when he answers.
“Me too. Definitely.”
For some reason he doesn’t look away right away, and the moment just keeps stretching out, getting more charged. Tyler’s smile wavers, then fades, his eyes widening, and he licks his lips, sitting up in the lounge chair. “Hey, Larks?”
Dylan licks his lips, too, some kind of without-even-thinking-about-it mimicry. “Yeah.”
“You mind if I come over there?”
“It’s your yard, Tuzzi.” It could be sarcastic, but instead it’s soft—not making a joke but just stating the truth. “You can go anywhere you want.”
“Yeah, but.” Tyler stops and blinks, then gives a little huff of breath. “Okay, fine, then. I’m gonna…” Getting out of the chair is tricky, and he ends up on his hands and knees in the grass, but he shakes it off and crawls over toward Dylan like he meant to do that, like this is the most purposeful thing in the world. And Dylan doesn’t want to laugh, not at all. This isn’t funny.
It’s kind of beautiful. That’s not a word anyone’s ever thought of first when they look at Tyler Bertuzzi, as far as Dylan knows, but it’s what’s coming to his mind now, and the only thing that is. Tyler is beautiful, and moving toward him with purpose in his eyes, and Dylan knows what’s about to happen well before Tyler closes the space between them.
He’s happy about it, too. He wants what’s about to happen to happen faster, so he meets Tyler halfway.
They’ve never kissed before, not even drunk nights in high school when everybody went out to the gravel pit on Saturday nights. Dylan had kissed pretty much everyone else he knew on those nights, but Tyler always managed to slide past him, laughing in the dark, dancing stupid when they were younger and when his baby fat finally started to go, leaning against things and spitting tobacco in the dirt and going for the whole dangerous, mysterious thing. The missing tooth and the way he could slick his hair back with its own grease if he let it go a few days really helped with that.
If Tyler kissed anybody on those nights, as far as Dylan can remember, it was Robby. He slid by everyone else like smoke. Dylan wonders why, now that he’s finally got his mouth pressed to Tyler’s; Tyler is good at this. Careful with his teeth, teasing with his tongue, making warm little noises that make Dylan feel praised and welcomed at once.
“Damn, Larks,” Tyler sighs, sitting back on his heels. “We waited long enough, didn’t we?”
Dylan has to laugh, flopping down on his back again and looking up through the bonfire smoke at the sky. “I was just thinking that exact same thing. Like. Why didn’t we, before?”
“Stupid, I guess.”
“You always ran off with Robby. Didn’t give the rest of us a chance.”
Tyler rolls his eyes and stretches out next to him. “You weren’t even looking at me, bud. You always had a thing for older guys.”
Dylan can’t even argue with that. He was always chasing upperclassmen until he was a senior, and by then he only had eyes for Hank, living for the weekends he was home from college. God. He mostly remembers his senior year in pieces, flashes, the moments when Hank was there. He’ll never call it a waste, but maybe—maybe a loss. A little bit. A loss of options.
“Was Robby at least a good kisser?” he asks, instead of dragging all that up and fucking up the night. He’s getting better, as he gets older.
Tyler giggles, and Dylan’s startled to feel his hand moving through the grass, taking hold of Dylan’s and squeezing a little. “Robby is good at everything, dude. We definitely didn’t stop at kissing. He gave me my first bj in the locker room after track practice, sophomore year. I figured everybody heard about that.”
“Maybe everybody did, but I didn’t.” It sounds right, though, sounds like the kind of thing that was going on back then. “Well, you gotta tell me if I can compete with him in kissing before I try the other thing. Gotta know if it’s even worth giving it a shot.”
Tyler goes still for a minute, his hand going slack in Dylan’s before suddenly squeezing again. “Is that a joke, Larks? I wasn’t angling for a bj, if that’s what you mean. I didn’t, like, bring you over here to get you drunk and take advantage of you, or whatever.”
Dylan rolls his eyes and swings his free hand, thumping Tyler solidly in the stomach. “Dumbass. You know I would never think that about you.”
“I’m just checking!” Tyler kicks him in the ankle, then lies still again. Dylan can feel his pulse in his fingers. “So… are you saying you do wanna do it, then, because I’m still not sure what you’re trying to…”
“Dude!” Dylan lets go of his hand and sits up, laughing. “You gotta tell me I’m better than Robby, first. And then we gotta go inside, because the mosquitoes are getting bad and I’m not gonna have you think I’m bad at blowjobs because you got a mosquito bite on your balls during one.”
“On my balls? Fuck you, Larks, don’t put that evil on me.” Tyler unfolds himself to his feet, grinning that wild, gremlin grin of his, and offers Dylan both of his hands. “C’mon, let’s put the fire out and go inside.”
“Robby,” Dylan says again.
“And once we’re inside I’ll tell you all about Robby. Jesus. You’re so demanding.”
Putting the fire out takes a few minutes; dragging the coolers and chairs and junk up onto the porch takes a few more. Tyler stands closer to Dylan than maybe he really needs to, helping him make sure stuff is stacked so it won’t fall over if the breeze picks up. Dylan stands on the steps for a minute, looking out into the newly dark yard. There are eyes gleaming back at him from the bushes—raccoons or maybe feral cats.
“Did you bring the trash cans in?” Dylan asks, watching one of the pairs of eyes move closer. “I think you’ve got raccoons out here.”
“Yeah, they’re in the garage.” Tyler comes up behind him and hooks his elbow through Dylan’s, tugging him back toward the house. “Everybody’s got raccoons, man, they live here too.”
Dylan lets Tyler get him inside, lock the door behind them, turn off the outside lights. He stands in the little strip of hallway between the kitchen and what should be the dining room, where the door leads out onto the porch. Tyler doesn’t have a dining table there, just a few old chairs around an empty space where they set up a card table if he hosts poker night.
“Are you ever going to get real furniture?” he asks, leaning back against the wall while Tyler walks past him to lock the kitchen door.
“Probably at some point.” Tyler frowns at him and throws the bolt. “Why?”
Dylan shrugs. “Just wondering.”
“You want to take me shopping, Larks? We’ll go to Art Van together and pick out a living room set?”
“I wouldn’t aim that high. Thrift store, maybe.” Dylan shrugs again. “I mean, I don’t care, I just wondered.”
Tyler watches him for a minute, eyes stony and unreadable, and Dylan wonders if he’s actually managed to make the guy mad at him. Nobody’s seen Tuzzi really mad since, like, junior year, that he can remember. Wouldn’t it just be his luck to manage it after a whole day of them getting along like real people, and Dylan actually feeling like a person for once.
Before he can get too deep into a panic, though, Tyler smiles, his eyes softening and the gap in his smile somehow managing to look extra friendly in the kitchen light. “You need some water, Larks?”
“Nah, I’m good.” Dylan smiles back; maybe they can get this back on track. “Are you gonna tell me about Robby or what?”
“Okay, okay. Robby.” Tyler leans on the counter, looking up at the ceiling. “I don’t know, man, Robby is Robby. He’s my guy. My other half. My soulmate.”
Dylan’s stomach does a weird twisting thing. “Well, shit.”
“No, let me finish.” Tyler shakes his head, a few strands of hair slipping from behind his ears to flop over his face. “We’re soulmates but not, like, in the in-love sense. We’re always gonna be bros. What’s the Jay and Silent Bob thing? Heterosexual life partners. Except neither of us is heterosexual. But you know. In relation to each other, we are.”
“You’re friends,” Dylan translates.
“Friends but on, like, a soul level, man. Not the same way I’m friends with Glenny or Greener or anybody. Not the same way you’re friends with Mo. But also not the same as you were with Z or the other Z. Get it?”
“Not really.” Dylan chews at his lip for a minute. “But I think I’m hearing that we’re cool to hook up, and it won’t be a, like, competing with Robby thing? Because I don’t want to compete with Robby. But I do want to suck your dick.”
Tyler thinks for a minute, his hair still hanging in his face. “Yeah,” he says finally. “That works. I don’t know if it’s actually where I was going, but it works. Let’s go.”
Tyler’s bedroom is as questionably furnished as the rest of the house, but he has blackout curtains and an absolute nest of really soft blankets on the bed. Dylan could camp out here for days.
They both flop on the bed and kiss some more for a while, squirming around on top of the blankets and losing their clothes piece by piece. Their skin is coated in layers of dried sweat, lake water, and smoke from the bonfire, but somehow it tastes good, probably because of the booze. Dylan closes his eyes and sucks at a spot just above Tyler’s hip, where the skin is soft and covered in the barest layer of fuzz. It’s a protected spot, covered up by a shirt or a waistband almost all the time, and he leaves a mark there to show he found it anyway.
“Larks,” Tyler groans, tangling his fingers in Dylan’s curls and pulling a little. “C’mon. You promised.”
“I’ll get there.”
“Get there now.” Tyler tugs again and Dylan gives in, pulling back to position himself between Tyler’s knees and push his thighs apart. Tyler’s dick is curved up against his stomach, flushed nice and red, and Dylan rubs his thumb along the underside of it while he takes a breath and licks his lips.
“Okay?” he asks, grinning at the glare that gets him, and then leans down to trace Tyler’s length with his tongue before he takes him in his mouth.
Dylan’s never considered sucking dick to be, like, a meditative exercise; he doesn’t rush it, but he’s got a goal in mind. Tonight he slows down for Tyler, though. Tyler’s been—he was so nice to Dylan, all day, brutally honest and super cool about everything in turn. He’s put up with Dylan’s shit for a long time, actually, and never complained or told him to fuck off. A good blowie is the least Dylan can do to thank him. Really he should probably offer to, like, work for free at the bar. Or buy him a table. Trap the raccoons and take them down to the river. Something like that.
Tyler’s hips rock up slowly, not thrusting roughly into Dylan’s mouth but not letting him put things on cruise control either. He’s let go of Dylan’s head, keeping his hands fisted in the blankets while Dylan works at him. He’s so quiet, just little moans under his breath. Dylan wouldn’t have expected that. It’s—sweet, honestly. He wouldn’t have expected to think that about Tyler, either, most of the time, but now that he’s let the word into his head it’s just echoing there and feeling right. Sweet, sweet, sweet. Sweet Tyler Bertuzzi.
Dylan’s stomach flips again, not with anxiety this time but with something else. Oh man. He’s got a couple of feelings for Tyler. He isn’t going to put names on them, not yet, but they’re definitely there.
He closes his eyes and takes Tyler deeper, letting instinct kind of take over and make things fit. Tyler makes a rough little sound and then falls quiet again, and Dylan takes it as a cue to keep doing what he’s doing. There’s a little stretch at the edges of his mouth, and it makes his eyes prickle. He leans in to that, too, chasing the little bit of discomfort to keep himself focused.
“Larks,” Tyler sighs, and then one of his hands comes up, pawing clumsily at Dylan’s hair. He doesn’t hold on or push, just... pets him for a little, then drops his hand back to the bed. Dylan can feel the shake in his thighs, on either side of him, and tries to go harder for him, hollowing his cheeks and sucking tight. He wants Tyler to like this. He’s not, like, trying to get Tyler to date him or anything, but—
Not that he would say no if Tyler did want to date him. Apparently. That thought just got into his head without him thinking about it at all.
He’s so surprised at himself that he doesn’t hear Tyler telling him to pull off, and so Tyler plants his palm right in the middle of Dylan’s forehead and pushes him back, then jizzes all over Dylan’s throat and chest.
“Fuck,” Tyler mutters, flopping backward. “Sorry. I told you to move.”
“I was focusing.” Dylan scrubs the back of his hand across his mouth and pulls his t-shirt up to wipe his neck clean, then scrunches it up so he can pull it over his head without making more of a mess. “Was that okay?”
“That was rad, man. Thanks.” Tyler looks at him with half-lidded, sleepy eyes. “You want me to get you back or what?”
“Uh.” Dylan looks down at himself, like he can’t fucking tell that his dick’s soft unless he checks in in person. It is. He had a lot to drink and sucking dick doesn’t tend to turn him on in and of itself. “In the morning, maybe?”
“Works.” Tyler nods and smacks the bed beside him. “C’mon and crash, then. The couch will kill your back.”
Dylan’s slept on Tyler’s couch before; he’s right, it’s murder. He crawls up the bed and stretches out next to Tyler, shirtless but still in his shorts, and blinks up at the ceiling. It’s the old-fashioned, ugly popcorn kind. There’s a hole in the corner where bees came in earlier in the summer; he remembers Tyler screaming about it one night at poker, and Glenny going home with him to spray it and plug up the part that went through to the outside.
“How are the bees?” he asks, but Tyler’s already fading out. He just gets a grunt in return, and Tyler’s arm thrown across his bare chest like he hit the brakes while they’re driving down a busy road.
Dylan closes his eyes and concentrates on the weight of Tyler’s forearm. It’s nice, actually. Comforting.
In the morning, Tyler spits on him and gives him a handjob there in bed, accompanying it with equally sloppy kissing. Dylan thinks about making a joke about feeling like he just got attacked by a golden retriever, but instead he just showers while Tyler makes coffee, and then eats cereal with him on the couch.
He has to borrow a t-shirt to drive home, but that’s no big deal; Tyler swaps everything he owns with all of his friends all the time. “You’ll get it back to me at some point,” Tyler says, waving his hand dismissively. “Just try not to spill anything major on it.”
It’s an old Red Wings t-shirt—really fucking old, actually, it has Vladdy Konstantinov’s name and number on the back. Must’ve belonged to Uncle Todd. “This is like an inch from falling apart,” Dylan points out.
Tyler shrugs. “Might as well fall apart on you as me. Hey, do you want me to just take you home, or do you wanna go to Meijers with me?”
Dylan can’t think of a reason not to go with him. It’s Sunday morning, coming up on Sunday noon, and he’s got nothing waiting at home.
“Why do we call it Meijers?” he asks when they pull into the lot. “You ever wonder about that? It’s right there on the sign that there’s no S. Just Meijer.”
Tyler shrugs and parks. “Just one of those things, I guess. We say Krogers, too. K-Marts.”
“Weird. We’re fuckin’ weird around here.”
“You can always go somewhere else.” Tyler sounds philosophical, but also a little sad, and Dylan shakes his head. He’s not going anywhere, if he can help it. It’s okay if other people want to, he gets it, but that’s not—him.
Tyler shoulder-bumps him while they walk inside, so Dylan knows he caught that moment. It’s good not to have to say shit out loud.
They know the store like the back of their hands; it’s the only 24-hour operation around. When they were in high school they spent a lot of nights driving to Meijer, wandering around, buying snacks they didn’t need, and then sitting in the parking lot for hours, just shooting the shit and screwing around until the cops did a slow cruise around the lot and suggested maybe they go home. Those were good nights, Dylan thinks, glancing down the bulk candy aisle where they did most of their damage. He doesn’t want to go back, exactly, but he’s got no regrets.
Tyler grabs a couple of grocery type things, then veers over toward the home goods part of the store, and Dylan follows along obediently. They go past kitchen stuff, bedroom stuff, weird decorative throw pillows, and then to Dylan’s surprise they turn toward the tiny furniture section. “What’re we looking for, Tuzzi?”
Tyler glances back at him with an awkward grin. “You got to me last night, talking about me not having a table. I’m gonna step up, man. I’m gonna do it. Adulthood in table form.”
“Shit.” Dylan grins back. “I was just thinking I should buy you one.”
Dylan shrugs. “I don’t know. Being such a good bro.”
Tyler shakes his head. “You don’t have to buy me shit for that. I do that for free, Larks.”
“I know. You’re good to all of us.” Dylan swallows hard, his eyes suddenly prickling again. “Thanks, man.”
Tyler makes a face, glancing around like anyone else is hanging out in the furniture aisle during prime church hours. “Just help me pick one out, okay? And then come back home with me and help me put it together. Then we can call it good.”
“That’s fair.” Dylan steps up next to him, squinting at the photos on the boxes lined up along both sides of the aisle. “I’ll even buy you doughnuts, if you ask me nice.”
“If you buy me Boston cremes I’ll jerk you off again.”
Of course that’s when an old lady comes around the end of the aisle, stares at them in bewilderment, and rolls her cart away again. They both stare after her for a minute.
“Oops,” Tyler says finally, and Dylan starts to laugh. He can’t stop once he gets going; he keeps laughing until he loses his footing and sinks down to the tile floor, flat on his ass, laughing til he chokes, laughing til he cries.
When he finally pulls it together again, he looks up to find Tyler standing over him, arms folded over his chest, looking down with a grin that stretches ear to ear. It’s the best fucking thing Dylan’s seen in a long time.
“I haven’t laughed like that in years,” he says, smiling up at Tyler.
“I know you haven’t.” Tyler shakes his head, still grinning. “It wasn’t even that funny.”
He offers his hand, and Dylan lets him pull him up. He holds on for an extra minute, too, palm in palm, hoping Tyler knows what he means. “I don’t know, man. I guess it’s just you.”