John Jefferson Maybank, scrapper, loose cannon, and born-and-bred Pogue, had never really considered college to be part of his plans for the future. In fact, the concept of any future at all hadn’t been very high on the list of immediate concerns for most of his life. College in particular seemed incredibly out of reach even if he’d wanted it, too pretentious, too expensive, too far from the water that ran in his blood. Something that Kooks did so they could get internships at the governor’s office or some shit. JJ didn’t need an internship at the governor’s office and didn’t want one. If you’d told JJ a year ago that what he did want was to attend lectures with names like “Introduction to Developmental Psychology”, he would have asked you to let him know what your asshole looks like from the inside. Because your head’s up your ass, get it?
So JJ had been surprised to end up at this point. More surprised than Kie, who had insisted on using her membership and not JJ’s kitchen staff ID to get him into the computer room at the Island Club and helped him pick his class schedule. More surprised than John B, who had drilled SAT words while surfing for hours at a stretch. But definitely less surprised than Pope had been — though he’d still been ecstatic about the whole thing, tutoring him and editing his Common App and keeping him from blowing his brains out over Calculus. Sarah thought the whole thing was an elaborate prank for about a week, but had bounced back quickly with every tabloid story ever written about JJ’s school. She was okay, for a Kook princess.
It burned a little, going down. Whatever was in the cup. It burned going down. Like a good burn though, not a bad burn. Not like a burn that you’d get from, like, an oven or something. Or the sun. Sunburns. Like, one of those really bad ones that you get on your back and then you can’t sleep on your back for like a week. Man, those sucked.
“You’re not gonna get a sunburn, dude,” Pope said. “It’s nighttime.”
Apparently, he’d said all that out loud. JJ dropped an arm around Pope’s shoulders. “And how do you know moonburns aren’t a thing, Pope?”
The world lurched as Pope stumbled a few steps to the left, taking JJ with him. Whoops.
“Did you bring your moonscreen?” JJ could barely get the words out through his laughter. “It’s very important, chief. Safety first.”
Kiara tucked herself into JJ’s other side, giggling. “You’re such a weirdo.” The wind blew a few strands of her hair into JJ’s face. She had piled it up on top of her head, but neither hail nor sleet nor rain nor wind could stop Kiara’s hair from getting in and on everything.
JJ tugged on a piece of it. “Hey, what if we just buzzed off all your hair?”
Kiara shoved him away, lifting a finger off her Solo cup to point it at him. “You stay away from my hair, JJ.”
“Nah, it’d look good!” JJ insisted. He didn’t really think so, but it was fun to see Kie’s eyes roll that far back in her head. “New look to impress all them college bros.”
JJ would be a college bro himself in a few days. Tomorrow, right? Was it Saturday right now? Either way, he still had time to put the last of his stuff into a backpack. Pope and Kie would bitch at him for procrastinating, but that was okay. He only had so many bitchings left, so he had to hold onto the ones that were a sure thing. Maybe there’d be surprise bitching on the way down to South Carolina. You never know. He could get lucky.
They were sitting on an overturned kayak now, bonfire in front and ocean behind. JJ was a little fuzzy on the point-A-to-point-B of the last few minutes. Didn’t matter, he felt good. Buzzy and warmed and confident he knew where the ends of his limbs were, even if he couldn’t muster up a lot of energy to control them.
JJ slid down the side of the boat until he could feel the squish of sand under his ass. If he tilted his head back, he could see the stars. The ocean roared behind him.
It was a good night.
Out of the corner of his eye, JJ could see Sarah duck out from under John B’s arm. The motion pulled at John B’s shirt, obnoxious and Hawaiian-patterned and hanging on by a singular button as usual. Because God forbid John B miss an opportunity to get a moonburn all over his carefully cultivated abs. What a tool. JJ loved him.
Sarah hopped over a branch in the sand and made her way closer, so that the miles of her tanned legs were most of JJ’s field of view for a second. JJ couldn’t even see that they were tan in the dark; he just knew that. He spent a lot of time politely avoiding looking at them, usually, but the plausible deniability was really going his way at the moment. Sarah was gorgeous. You know, if you were into blondes or, like, had eyes. Sarah’s wrist clinked as she reached across JJ, the shiny silver heart attached to her bracelet glinting in the light. She tugged Kiara to her feet.
“I’m stealing her,” she announced. It was impressive, the way she managed to scream “KOOK” with every syllable that came out of her mouth without ever raising her voice. Undeniably Sarah Cameron, princess of the island and queen of John B’s pathetic little heart. Gag.
Only about five seconds (five minutes? Who knew anymore?) after the girls had left the circle of light thrown off by the bonfire, John B turned to JJ and said: “I wanna dance.”
JJ craned his neck sideways so hard he nearly gave himself whiplash. “Sarah!” he called, letting half-real panic ring out clear in his voice. “Sarah, come back!” But Sarah and Kie were already off doing secret girl things that JJ would never be smart enough to understand, no matter how many colleges he went to.
John B pouted. He looked ridiculous, all stuck-out lip and flopped arms and, like, a tiny little bit of a stomp into the sand.
“JJ…” he pleaded. “Come dance with me. You never dance with me anymore.”
JJ ostentatiously turned back to the fire. “Don’t whine, John B, it’s not ladylike.” He let a little bit of Carolina sneak into the vowels.
It wasn’t that JJ didn’t want to dance. JJ was pretty good at dancing, and he liked dancing. Dancing with girls, though. With the guys from the kitchen at the Island Club. John B — especially when drunk — danced like a fish that had recently been liberated from a net, only to end up on the deck. He didn’t know what to do with his limbs and just threw them everywhere. It was practically a hazard.
“But JJ…” John B plopped down beside him. He’d overshot both Carolinas and landed square in the middle of Georgia. “If ah don’t dance, how will ah aevuh win the pageant? Ah’ll neavuh fahnd a husband and ah’ll just crahh and crahh.”
JJ hooked John B’s neck in with his elbow and squished his cheeks together with his other hand. “Aw, John B, you’ll always be a pretty girl to me, no matter what those pageant ladies say.”
“I’m embarrassed to be seen with you,” Pope grumbled. Quietly, so John B wouldn’t hear and decide he’d made a better dance partner than JJ.
But JJ was inevitably a better dance partner than Pope — just plain facts, y’all — so he found himself hauled to his feet and dragged away from the fire towards the part of the beach that had become the dance floor. As he watched John B flail around, he realized he’d been duped into this role by way of nostalgia, a sticky, overrated emotion that JJ had no use for. But if anyone could turn it on on the night before JJ left for college, it was John B. So he might as well indulge in it for now.
They used to both be John, way back when. JJ was a name for a little boy, not a third grader, and JJ had insisted on leaving it behind. They had become enemies on the spot as a result. There could only be one John in their class at Andrew Jackson Elementary. Law of the jungle, survival of the fittest. Calling them John B and John J only lasted a few days. JJ vividly remembered the scuffle on the playground. He’d knocked out one of John B’s teeth with his tiny, inexperienced elbow, and John B had said “Awesome.” JJ had said “fuck yeah” and received a lengthy time-out that John B snuck him out of fifteen minutes in. They were caught, and in the longer time-out that followed, John B had traded JJ the bloody tooth for his name.
The song changed. Florida-Georgia Line followed by Doja Cat, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but then, a full-island party was the embodiment of chaos anyway.
When JJ brushed aside the low-hanging branch that separated the yard from the road, it was nearing 4 a.m. The only sounds were the low murmur of the water, the cry of a distant bird out in the marsh, and cicadas. John B’s house was dark and silent save for a single weak bulb on the outside, and Kiara was sitting on the porch.
She looked up when the branch gave him away. She had changed out of her party outfit, and she held a giant hoodie around herself that she’d definitely stolen right off the porch. JJ stopped just out of range of the light.
“What are you doing out here?”
Kiara’s face was carefully neutral. “Well, if you weren’t back in an hour, I was going to call the cops.”
JJ could feel the bitter twist to his own mouth and a corresponding twist somewhere down in his guts. He’d never had a curfew, but he imagined this was what it felt like to break one. “Why would you do that?”
“Because I had an idea of where you might be.” She pulled the hoodie tighter around her shoulders and shifted on the ancient couch. Jesus, there were probably imprints of all of their asses on that thing.
“John B wanted to stay up too,” Kiara said, “but I made him go to bed.” That was sensible; John B had to drive tomorrow.
They stood there staring at each other for several long seconds like gunslingers at high noon. But someone had to break first, and it was going to have to be him. There was no fucking point. It was late, he was tired of being fucking conscious already, and she clearly already knew. The longer he waited, the worse it was going to be. Rip off the fucking Band-Aid, JJ.
Slowly, he stepped up to the porch. He never took his eyes off Kiara so he got to see the nice little roller coaster of emotions that went across her face, all of them familiar and shitty. He broke the contact and sank into the couch next to her, staring out at the darkness beyond the porch screen.
“Oh, JJ…” Kiara’s fingers barely brushed his skin as she gingerly moved his hair away from his left eye. So carefully, like he might explode.
“I don’t think he took it very well, Kiara.” JJ’s voice felt detached from him, not his own. “I don’t think he was happy at all.”
Kiara’s hand dropped down to her lap, and she let out a sigh that she’d probably been holding since JJ had left the party on his own.
“Why did you go over there?”
JJ knew that tone. It was the what the fuck were you thinking, JJ tone. The you’re so dumb, JJ tone, the actions have consequences, JJ tone. The I know better than you do, JJ tone.
JJ fucking hated that tone.
“He’s my dad, Kie,” he snapped. “I couldn’t just up and leave without telling him.”
He was expecting her to snap back. He wanted her to. It was usually a pretty foolproof plan: snap at Kie, she snaps back, the snapping continues until everyone’s yelling and slamming doors and the whole thing gets dropped. But she didn’t. Maybe it was the hour, maybe it was the state of his face, maybe it was the whole summer and the creeping hangovers and the fact that he was leaving tomorrow.
Kiara placed a careful hand on his arm. She said, very softly: “This is a good thing, JJ. Going to college, it’s really good for you. You put in so much work.” She squeezed his arm a little tighter. “You want this, remember?”
JJ didn’t want this. This conversation, Kiara’s calm, understanding tone, he didn’t want it. He wanted a fight, he wanted to be angry. He could feel his fucking eye swelling and he was going to move into college looking like a goddamn victim and he hated that.
“What if I don’t?” He shot back. “What if I want to live in The Cut forever, and race boats around and catch fish and shit?”
Kiara looked taken aback. Good. “You can do that.”
“That’s a perfectly good life, Kie.”
“It is, but — “
“It’s respectable, it’s—it’s fucking traditional.”
“That’s true — “
“Working in an office somewhere isn’t any better. If you’re an office person you’re not any better than a fishing person.”
“I’m not arguing that.” An edge was creeping into Kiara’s voice now. Even better.
“It’s what you do in The Cut.” It’s what his dad had said. “It’s what I was born to do.”
“Nobody’s born to do anything,” Kiara said. “That’s bullshit.”
Her voice was hard and fierce now, her eyes flashing in the dim light of the porch bulb. It was the fuck you I’m right tone, all conviction and fire and righteousness. It was the one she used on Republican campaign canvassers and people who threatened turtles. It was the one that meant every word coming out of her mouth was on a direct line from her heart. JJ’s resolve lost painful momentum, and he tried to make up for it by getting up from the couch. If he didn’t look at her, maybe she’d be less right.
“You make your own future,” she told his back. JJ stared into the marsh and swallowed hard. “That’s the point of going to college. So you can do whatever you want. You can come back and race boats till you die on one. It doesn’t matter. But you have choices, so you should make them.”
JJ spun around.
“Why?” he spat.
“Because it’s okay to do something for yourself.” Kiara stood slowly, all the dials dropping lower as she let that sink in. For a horrible second, JJ was positive he was going to cry.
“It’s not a bad thing,” Kiara said. She didn’t reach out to him again, but the look on her face was so open and earnest that JJ felt like she had anyway. The conviction was still there, but there was no fire, just warmth. “You have a chance to do something else, and you should go see if that something else is what you want. Otherwise you’ll spend all that boat racing time wondering if you would have been happier with it.”
He tried to look away. He wanted the record to show that he tried.
“You shouldn’t let it go, JJ, and you shouldn’t let your dad take it away from you. Because you earned it.”
JJ wasn’t sure if she was right, or if he wanted to believe her so badly that it didn’t matter. Either way, she’d won, and she seemed to see it in his face. He buried his face in her hair and let her hug him, because then he wouldn’t have to look her in the eye.
“It was stupid to think he might be excited about it.”
Kiara sighed, and he felt it on the back of his neck. Her arms squeezed tighter.
“You’re a good person, JJ,” Kiara said. “You want there to be good in other people.”
“No, I don’t,” he retorted, just to disagree. “People are shitty.”
Kiara pulled back to fix him with a raised eyebrow that meant he was a dumbass.
“You’re not shitty,” he admitted.
Kiara screwed up her face into a fake-scholarly expression. “Really glad I cleared that exceptionally low bar. Thank you, JJ.”
She offered him a smile and he offered one back, even though it made his split lip sting.
But Kiara wasn’t done yet, because she had to fully break his heart before he left for college, like an asshole.
“Look, we’re your family. Right? That’s what you said.” JJ nodded, struck dumb. “We’re your family, and we’re so proud of you.”
Kiara’s face broke into a real smile, and she shook her head in amazement. “I mean, you fucking did it, JJ. You made it. You did the work, and you signed the papers, and all you have to do now is get in the car tomorrow and let us take you there.”
Then she stared at him with a look that flayed his fucking chest open. “OBX will always be home, JJ,” she said. “You can always come back.”
She leaned up then and placed a careful kiss on his cheek. The right cheek, with no bruises, but she was careful anyway, because she was Kiara, and she thought things through ten times more than he did.
“No Pogue-on-Pogue macking, Kie.”
Kiara rolled her eyes, but she was fighting a smile. Maybe things really would be okay.
“Whatever, loser, let’s go get some sleep.”
John B was snoring softly on the futon as JJ eased the door closed behind them. Kiara waved as she turned down the hallway towards the guest room she’d probably commandeered earlier.
If JJ were a philosopher like John B or a scientist like Pope, he might have sat up a while to dissect his emotions, to plan some things, to think, whatthefuckever. But he was JJ, and he was bone-tired, so he carefully turned John B over to make space and pulled the threadbare quilt over himself.
Soon enough, he was asleep.
JJ woke up overly warm to the sounds of things going clunk in the kitchen. The sun was streaming in from the window behind him that faced east towards the water, there was an arm draped over him, and there was a solid mass smushed between his shoulder blades that was almost definitely John B’s face. John B was a compulsive cuddler. Leave him asleep next to anything long enough and he’d end up clinging to it like a goddamn life raft. Needless to say, this was not the first time JJ had experienced this facet of John B’s personality, and also needless to say that several past pranks had definitely involved putting gross things in the path of John B’s sleeping habits. It never stopped being funny.
Glancing over John B’s arm using the least amount of effort possible, JJ could see Pope rooting around in cabinets. There were a few bowls and a carton of eggs on the counter already.
JJ closed his eyes again, assessing his hangover. He didn’t usually dissect things Pope-style, but he was a connoisseur of the hangover. It wasn’t that bad. Carbs and water would probably do the trick. Maybe aspirin if Pope could find it in one of the cabinets. His face was definitely going to be another story though — how the fuck did he manage to sleep on that side all night? Definitely a problem for after he ate something.
Fuck, he was moving into college today. Maybe the knot in his stomach wasn’t actually hunger.
Kiara’s words from the night before floated into his mind: all you have to do now is get in the car tomorrow and let us take you there. One foot in front of the other would be enough until OBX was in the rear-view.
Because Kiara probably had a sixth fucking sense, JJ’s thoughts summoned her from the other room. He heard a soft “Morning, Pope”, and then a snort, which made him open his eyes. Kiara was staring at him — well, at him and John B — clearly very amused.
“Aww,” she cooed. “Aren’t you adorable?”
JJ raised a middle finger at her. She did not look impressed at all, and went to go join Pope in the kitchen.
JJ elbowed John B softly in the side.
“Time to get up, dude.” John B groaned and pulled JJ in tighter towards his chest. His face nuzzled into JJ’s back.
Because JJ’s idea of this day had not included spending it being aggressively spooned by six feet of surfer bro, he twisted around as best he could and flicked John B hard in the forehead. John B groaned a different, higher pitched groan, and seemed to finally wake up.
“John B, my brother. Let’s go.”
John B rolled onto his back and dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Ugh, okay. I’m up.”
“Welcome to the land of the living!” Kiara called. “Sarah’s going to be here any minute so get pretty or whatever.”
“I’m always pretty,” JJ huffed.
Pope let out a low whistle. “Your face is definitely a lot of nice colors. Did you get in a fight with Kelso again after you left?”
“Yeah,” JJ lied easily, not looking at Kiara. “Bitch-slapped the bastard halfway to Georgia. We’ll probably see him on our route today.” He dug the carton of milk out of the fridge and drank some.
“Ew, JJ, that’s disgusting. Use a glass.”
“Hey, we are family, Miss Kiara. Mi microbes es su microbes.”
“Actually, microbes —“
“Nope.” JJ clapped a hand over Pope’s mouth. “No science before noon.”
John B bellowed something incomprehensible from the bathroom; he was brushing his teeth so he could kiss Sarah the millisecond she entered his field of view.
Sarah waved a yellow cardboard box in her hand, catching Kiara’s eye across the room. JJ caught sight of the image on the cover before Sarah tossed it to Kiara. She had good aim, but JJ was closer.
“You brought us pancakes?!” JJ cried. Damn, this morning just got so much better.
“Yeah, asshole,” Sarah drawled. “Almost like it’s a special occasion or something.”
JJ held the box high over his head so he wouldn’t have to contemplate the implications of that on an empty stomach and shot up on his tiptoes while Kiara swiped at it.
The pancakes took approximately a year to make given the five of them tripping over each other in the kitchen and spilling flour and yelling at each other. Kiara and Pope decided to be bros and not rat JJ out about the milk, so JJ made sure the chocolate chips were evenly distributed throughout each pancake because Pope was weirdly religious about that. He and John B were eventually banned to the futon for causing trouble, where they sat until they were allowed to grab pancakes off the plate on the kitchen table. They pulled them apart with their fingers, as was their custom, and Kie called them heathens, but like, affectionately.
JJ kept the moment alive and warm in his chest as he wriggled under John B’s shitty shower spray. The shower head only leaked out a weak stream most of the time, so you had to maneuver your body in weird contortions to get water over all of it. Not ideal, but maybe if JJ became a stellar student athlete he’d move up in the world of showers.
He scrubbed shampoo out of his hair and his eyes, and then disaster struck. JJ froze, spitting out water. God fucking dammit! He pulled the curtain back a bit and stuck his head in the direction of the door.
“What!” The walls were thin.
“You’re out of conditioner, man!”
“So what?!” JJ was offended.
Kiara’s voice rang out to join John B’s. “JJ, you usually wash your hair with fucking seawater, what’s the problem?”
True. Unfair, but true.
“But it’s my first day of college!”
“Actually” — Pope, obviously — “your first day of college is on Wednesday, and you should have plenty of time to shower between then and —“
“Shut up, Pope!” This was no time for Pope-logic. Bad enough he’d show up with a black eye. JJ was not a vain person…okay, maybe he was a little, but this was important! He wanted to show up at college looking like someone cool. Someone not to be messed with. Cause a few swoons, make a few friends, not look like he’d crawled out of a swamp. Of course, he totally was crawling out of a swamp where college Kooks were concerned, but they didn’t need to know that right off the bat.
“Shut up, all of you!” Sarah was putting her foot down. “JJ, finish up and get out of the shower. I got you.”
JJ paused. Sarah had Cinderella-ed John B more than once before. She did good work. “Really?”
He took another moment to weigh his options.
He emerged from John B’s guest room a few minutes later wearing cargo shorts and a short-sleeved button-down he’d dug out of one of his bags. The navy one that Kiara said made his eyes look extra blue.
John B smiled as soon as he saw him. “Aww, you’re all fancy!”
“Shut up,” JJ grumbled. He let John B clap him on the back and looked at Sarah. She was digging around in her bag.
“Come here and sit down,” she ordered, nodding at the chair next to her. JJ sat down.
Sarah pulled out a soap tubey thing with sleek, shiny lettering on it and squeezed some of the contents out onto her hand. She tossed the tubey thing onto the futon and rubbed her palms together. Then she made for JJ’s head. He dodged — plain old self-preservation instinct.
Sarah smirked. “Relax, princess. It’s not gonna bite you.”
“Is that gel or something?” Pope asked.
“It’s anti-frizz stuff,” Sarah told him. Kiara was studying the tube now, and Pope leaned over to look.
Sarah began running her hands through JJ’s hair, pushing it and combing it with her fingers into something she considered presentable. It felt kinda nice, actually. John B watched with interest.
“I can makeup your face too, if you want,” she said. She was studying the top of his head still and she said it off-hand like she didn’t care, which meant she was definitely trying to do something nice.
JJ shook his head. “Nah. I’m good.”
Quick as a cottonmouth, Sarah’s hand shot out and pulled his face back into alignment. She stuck her fingers back in his hair.
“I thought it was a myth that girls carried hair stuff in their bags,” John B said.
“That’s hair dryers,” Pope corrected. “It’s a myth that girls carry hair dryers in their bags.”
Sarah and Kiara’s eyeroll could be seen from space.
JJ shoved a bag on top of the pile. “That’s fucking stupid.”
“It’s not fucking stupid!” Pope argued. “It’s the rules of the universe, JJ.”
“No, it’s not!”
“Yes, it is.”
They’d been having this argument since John B had looked at his watch and announced it was noon.
“Look,” Pope said, slamming the trunk closed, “if it says it in the series, that’s the way it is. You can’t just choose to believe some facts and not other facts.”
“We’re not talking about facts here, Pope, God! There is no scientific evidence to back up the existence of midichlorians!” JJ slammed himself into the seat, angrily pushing the strap of a duffel bag out of his way. “They just up and invented it in the prequels.”
“Of course they invented it!” Pope was slamming things too. “They invented all of it. It’s fictional.”
JJ held up a finger. “First of all, rude. Second of all, the whole point of the Force is to be a mystical power that no one can predict. Anyone can be a Jedi, it’s random voodoo witchiness.” He had to raise his voice now over the engine. “But now it’s like this fucked-up Force eugenics shit where if you’re O-negative, congrats, you can air-bend.”
“The fact that you’re bringing in references from an entirely different series is really not good for your argument.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure all my topic sentences ladder up to my thesis,” JJ said sarcastically. Pope grinned. They’d drilled that shit for ages. But he was getting sidetracked. “But it doesn’t matter, because making everything about the Skywalkers is stupid and makes no sense.”
“That doesn’t relate to your argument!”
“Yes, it does!” JJ stabbed a finger down onto his hand to make his point that much harder. “They invented the genetic bullshit so everything would stay within the Skywalker family and take all the randomness out of everything. Now you have to be a Skywalker to be cool, which makes no sense, because who the fuck are they to be so special?”
“They’re people with really high midichlorian counts is who they are,” Pope said seriously. The way he said it made JJ 100% certain he’d done it just to piss him off.
JJ threw up his hands. “You are so annoying right now.” He pointed a warning finger at Pope’s nose. “When I become Darth JJ, you will fear me.”
Pope laughed. “Yeah, okay, sure.”
“Yes!” JJ grinned at Kiara, who was tapping out to the beat of the song playing onto JJ’s headrest. He dropped his voice dramatically and held out an evil claw hand of power-grabbing. “When I lead the galactic Pouge-Empire to defeat the weak and puny planet of Kooklandia.”
“Okay, pretty sure we all count as part of the Pogue-Empire,” Kiara said.
“What about Sarah?” Pope asked.
“I’m a spy.” Sarah winked at John B.
“Fine,” JJ allowed. “You can be a spy. And it doesn’t matter,” he told Kiara. “I’m Darth JJ. I can Force-choke all y’all if you don’t do what I want.” He shook his head, because it really was a pretty fucked-up state of affairs. “No one is safe.”
“Don’t all Sith have to have dumb names with negative words?” John B piped up. “I think you have to be Darth Shithead or something.”
“Gotta be an S.A.T. word,” Pope told him. “Darth Insouciance or something.”
“Wow, Pope!” JJ pretended to be impressed. “I didn’t think you could get any nerdier, but that word has proved me wrong.”
“You literally just yelled about midichlorians for, like, fifteen minutes,” Sarah said.
JJ decided it was about time to pout out the window. They were coming up on the Edgewater Club Road now and — wait.
Edgewater Club Road?
What the fuck?
They were already on their way! They weren’t even in The Cut anymore! He’d been so busy arguing with Pope that he hadn’t had a chance to take a last look at The Chateau, or process the fact that he wouldn’t see it for months, or analyze his emotions or…talk himself out of going. Suddenly, the fact that Pope had resurfaced an argument about Star Wars science that they’d already hashed out many times made a whole lot more sense. Maybe Kiara had talked to him this morning, or more likely, no one had needed to tell him. JJ liked to think of himself as a pretty locked box, but he definitely wasn’t locked to the people in this van. Funny that he couldn’t remember giving them keys.
A jaunty piano tune cranked up to an obscene level of noise knocked him out of his own head. He recognized it, sure, but Pope, Sarah, and Kiara were beaming like they’d won the goddamn lottery. None of them had great singing voices, but it was going to get exponentially louder in a few seconds anyway.
And why not? They were all, as the lyrics would clearly tell him, 100% that bitch.
JJ’s dorm room was small, but he didn’t have to share it with anyone. There was a desk and a chair and a bed made out of the same shitty fake wood and his window didn’t stay open properly and he couldn’t remember the last time he had a solid door between him and the world that no one could open. It was a totally private place, and he had no idea what to do with it.
Only John B was left in the room. Kiara, Pope, and Sarah were loitering outside the door, looking JJ’s dorm mates up and down like Secret Service agents.
“I’m only a few hours away,” John B reminded him. Or maybe he was reminding himself. “So’s Sarah. Kiara’s even closer at Duke, she can come by all the time. Pope will be up north with the real Kooks, but we’ll cure him when he gets back.” He smiled a crooked smile at JJ.
John B rolled his eyes. “Come here, asshole.”
John B gave good hugs. Maybe it was something to do with his natural cuddling abilities, but it was a talent and no mistake. Just tight enough to be snug, just long enough to tide you over till the next one. Fuckin’ nice.
John B sniffed, and JJ couldn’t till if it was a normal sniff, or a JJ’s-going-to-college-and-I’m-a-proud-mama-bear sniff.
“I’ll miss you, brother.”
“Yeah, you too, John B.”
A solid weight slammed into his back then and flopped two arms out to hold him in. Pope. Kiara and Sarah joined in till they were all awkwardly swaying there in the middle of the tiny room.
Families. Fucking embarrassing. What can you do?
When they all let him breathe finally, John B clapped a hand over his shoulder blade and pulled back. “Use your phone, okay?”
“Yeah, I will.”
John B shoved his hands in his pockets. “You gonna be okay, man?”
“Yeah,” JJ said. He looked around at all of them and was surprised to find it was true. The panic he expected to be filling up his chest was much smaller than he thought it would be. He had to really search to find it, and JJ was not really much of a soul-searcher anyway.
“Yeah,” he repeated. Stronger this time.
“Pogue lyfe never ends,” John B reminded them all.
JJ felt his own trademark grin spring to the surface so fast it nearly made a splash.
“Damn right it doesn’t.”