On the first day of summer break, Aaron took a walk around town and Andrew trailed silently three steps behind him. It was a hot and dry June afternoon, and Aaron had scowled at Andrew’s black armbands and ripped black jeans before they left, and Andrew had wiped sweat off Aaron’s brow and flicked it at him in retaliation.
Nicky was at work. The twins left their phones at home. They did not lock the front door after they stepped out onto their street and began to wander, aimlessly, for something to do, with the sun soaking into their clothes and burning their skin and turning the world bright yellow with heat and lethargy.
They walked five blocks out of their neighborhood, stomped ten blocks along the busy street that lead downtown, and weaved five blocks around the tight, decaying roads of their decrepit downtown scene until, thirsty, hot, bored, the twins scrounged up a measly three dollars from loose change in their pockets and random coins on the street and walked, side-by-side, to the ice cream parlor.
The parlor, Cone Sold Stober, was nestled between a sketchy jewelry shop and a crime-scene themed sandwich place called The Un-Sub. The bricks of the commercial building were as old as the town and dying with the rest of it: the white and pink paint of the storefront’s banner flaked off with each summer storm, and the loud bells on the door jingled less and less with each gust of wind. The door, swollen with water and rot, could only be opened with excessive force and finagling, and there were at least five loose floor tiles that came dislodged every time the door opened.
But the ice cream was good.
As the twins approached the storefront, they saw two ice cream employees standing outside, as given away by their pastel work uniform: a pale pink hat, a pale pink apron, pinstripe pale blue and white pants, a pale blue shirt, and a royal blue kerchief, tied into a satiny knot around their necks.
One of the employees was the owner, a stooped old man with leathery skin and a high-pitched voice. The other employee looked about the same age as the twins, with dark red hair and horrific scars carved into his cheeks and arms. The young employee was staring into the distance, arms folded, as the owner pointed a finger in his face and said, “You’ll have to fix that attitude, young man, if you intend to keep working in my store. I know it’s only your first day, but if you keep treating customers this way, it will probably be your last.”
The twins slowed to eavesdrop.
“I’m done for the day,” the young employee drawled. He was still staring into the distance, ice blue eyes not focusing on anything specific. “Are you firing me now, then?”
“What?” The owner seemed baffled. “No. I just want you to understand—”
“Then I guess today isn’t my last day.” The young employee finally turned to focus his attention on the owner, but his eyes snagged on the twins first.
Aaron favored the young employee with an unimpressed scowl before grabbing the doorknob of the parlor and shoving his way in. Andrew continued to stare at the young man—the blue eyes, the ropey scars, the attitude in the tilt of his chin—and impulsively raised his hand and tapped a salute to his temple before grabbing the edge of the heavy door and sliding into the shop before the door closed.
A few seconds later, the door opened again, admitting the owner. “And how are we today, boys?” he greeted in a flourish, his face flushed from heat and whatever annoyance his new employee had kicked up.
Both boys stared up at the owner in a stony silence.
The owner’s smile dropped, and he didn’t try to hide his softly muttered, “God save me from moody teenagers,” before grabbing two cones and asking what they wanted.
On their way home, licking sticky ice cream off their wrists and wiping sugar cone crumbs off their cheeks, they once again came across the young ice cream parlor employee. He was still wearing his pinstripe pants and blue shirt, but he had taken off the hat, apron, and kerchief. His sweaty hair was slicked out of his face, and his scarred cheeks were a glistening red from the summer sun as he slowly thunked his way down the middle of the road on a battered and tattered longboard. His shoes were an ugly yellow. He had a giant sucker in his mouth, lips orange from the syrup and pursed around the stick, and as soon as he was beside the twins, he looked right at Andrew and took the sucker out of his mouth to tap it to his temple in a mocking salute while he rolled down the street and past them.
Andrew and Aaron turned to watch him veer onto the sidewalk, the longboard bowing under his weight as he swerved around people and ignored their affronted exclamations and glares.
“What a fucker,” Aaron said once they had turned around to continue home.
Andrew hummed in agreement.
On the second day of summer vacation, Andrew snuck into the movie theater and Aaron snuck in, too, three steps behind him. They sat together in the back of a rated-R horror film and threw smuggled candy up and over and into their mouths, and down at people in front of them, and in front of the movie reel, black little dots over a woman’s face, over a killer’s knife, over a haunted house.
When they left, Andrew led them to the river at the edge of town, both of the brothers sprawling on the muddy bank, in the thicket and the weeds, and letting the softly lapping water and slight breeze over the stream lull them into a catnap in the middle of a hot summer day.
“I want ice cream,” Aaron said eventually, smacking another bug off his arm.
“Okay,” Andrew said.
Cone Sold Stober had five inside tables and two outside tables and twelve possible ice cream flavors. Customers had a choice of ten different toppings. The shop had been running for over fifty years.
Andrew and Aaron joined the line creeping outside the front door in the midafternoon sun, Aaron staring into space and Andrew trying to catch a glimpse of the employee working behind the counter.
When it was Aaron’s turn, he asked for a plain chocolate cone and moved on.
When it was Andrew’s turn, he stared at the young ice cream employee, the one from yesterday, with the red hair and the attitude problem, and didn’t say a word.
The young ice cream employee took one look at Andrew and soundlessly began preparing a cone—strawberry.
Andrew did not reach for it when the employee held it over the counter. “I didn’t ask for that,” Andrew said.
“This is what you had yesterday, right?”
“How the fuck d’you know that?” Aaron asked, standing by the register and waiting for Andrew so they could pay for their ice cream together. “You saw us for, like, two seconds on the street.”
The employee shrugged. Andrew reached out for his cone, his hand going overtop the employee’s to get a firm grip. The boy’s hand was cold and covered in clammy condensation. Andrew did not flinch at the whorls and ridges of the burns and scars riddling the boy’s hand. The young employee stared at Andrew until Andrew finally pulled his hand away. He could still feel the phantom press of scars under the palm of his hand as he pulled his cone closer to his face, the soft scent of sweet strawberry washing over him, cooling his face.
“I don’t eat the same thing every day,” Andrew told him. He lightly licked at the ice cream.
“Looks like today you do,” the employee said, a small grin on his face, and the owner, standing at the register, said sharply, “Neil.”
Neil’s face cleared to indifference, and he immediately moved on to the next customer, his smile pasted on, his movements mechanical. Andrew took another lick of his ice cream while Aaron paid and the owner apologized for Neil’s behavior, blaming it on the lunch rush and the hot sun.
Andrew and Aaron left the ice cream parlor.
“I don’t like that guy,” Aaron said, slurping at his melting chocolate.
“Hm,” Andrew agreed.
On the third and fourth days of summer, Nicky took the boys out to the dilapidated cemetery in the middle of town and taught them how to drive in the cab of his run-down, beaten-up 1980 Ford pickup. The truck didn’t have a backseat. They all three sat in the front seat of the truck when they went anywhere together. Andrew and Aaron usually fought over who would sit in the middle.
For the first driving lesson, Aaron won roshambo, so Andrew decided to wander amongst the graves while Aaron started and stopped and lurched his way through the gravel roads between decaying tombstones, overgrown weeds and fake flowers, flags and crumbled rock.
Andrew kicked a pinecone and it hit the tombstone of Hank Hinkley. Hank died when he was seventeen years old. From down the road, across the field, Aaron cursed as the truck rattled through him throwing the clutch too soon. Nicky’s laughter echoed through the cemetery.
Andrew sprawled on top of Hank’s grave and closed his eyes, waiting for his turn to drive.
On their way home, Nicky drove them to the corndog truck for dinner. They passed Neil on his longboard, drifting down the middle of the street in a neighborhood far from the ice cream parlor, far from anything. He was alone at dusk, and he was wearing a tank top and leggings and ugly teal shoes. He looked up at their truck as it drove passed, and when he recognized the twins, he raised a hand and waved. Andrew and Aaron did not wave back. Neil did not move out of the middle of the street.
“Is that one of your friends?” Nicky asked.
“No,” Andrew and Aaron answered at the same time. Andrew stared at Neil through the rearview mirror. It looked like Neil was staring back, but he was too far to tell for sure.
On a night with a summer storm, the sun hidden behind thick gray clouds and a hot breeze pelting their skin through sheets of rain, the twins walked to the ice cream shop in identical outfits of gray hoodies, black basketball shorts, and striped slides with no socks.
Neil was alone at the counter, alone in the shop, tossing clumps of Snickers in his mouth, and didn’t look over at the twins until all the candy in his hand was gone.
“Oh,” Neil said, when he finally looked over and realized who his customers were. “The twins.”
They both walked up to the counter, but before Aaron could open his mouth to order, Neil rinsing the ice cream scoop in warm water, his back turned, Andrew pinched Aaron’s wrist until he kept his mouth shut, so when Neil turned around with a raised brow, he was met with two silent twins staring at him expectantly.
“Is this a test?” Neil asked eventually. The twins only blinked. Neil sighed. “At least make it a challenge,” he grumbled, before scooping out a chocolate scoop and handing it directly to Aaron, no thought, no hesitation, no worry at all. He then turned to Andrew with raised brows.
Andrew stared back. Neil’s eyes gleamed in triumph.
“Don’t pout,” Neil said.
“I’m not,” Andrew said.
Grinning now, Neil pulled out a waffle cone and put two scoops of chocolate ice cream in it. Aaron, at the register, protested meekly.
“I don’t want that,” Andrew said.
“I think you do,” Neil answered, holding out the cone.
“I’m not paying for that.” Andrew reached for the waffle cone and avoided touching Neil this time.
“I’m just giving it to you,” Neil told him. Aaron protested again, a little louder.
“You’re terrible at this job,” Andrew said.
Neil shrugged. “It’s just for the summer.”
“If you make it that long.” Andrew took a bite of his cone. Neil’s grin returned.
“It’s on the house, twins,” Neil said, but only looking at Andrew. “Since you walked all the way here to see me in the pouring rain.”
“No, we didn’t,” the twins said at the same time. Neil said nothing, grabbing another handful of ice cream toppings—gummy bears—and returned to throwing them in his mouth. Aaron left the store first, Andrew three steps behind him, shooting one last look at Neil behind the counter, who had missed his mouth and dropped a gummy bear in his eye.
On a nameless, blurry, summer day, Aaron went to hang out with his other friends and Andrew went to the ice cream parlor alone. He walked in, and found Neil behind the counter, and a girl on the other side, and the girl was twirling her hair, and asking Neil about his scars, and Neil was staring back at her and saying nothing at all.
“Were you in a fight with a bear or something?” the girl asked. Andrew stood in line behind her. Neil did not notice him right away. Andrew took a step closer. The girl went on, “And, like, the burns? What happened? They look cool.”
Neil cocked his head. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he asked. He still had not noticed Andrew. Andrew peeked around the girl’s shoulder.
Neil finally looked over at him.
“What?” the girl squeaked.
“Why are you asking how I got my scars?” Neil asked, turning back to her. “Do I even fucking know you?”
“Um!” the girl said, taking a step back. Andrew was so close to her she ran into him. She yelped, shuffling out of his space. Andrew stared at her discomfort. Her gaze floundered between Neil and Andrew and the door. She said, hesitant, “I don’t think you can say things like that to customers.”
“Okay?” Neil said. His arms were crossed now. “And I don’t think you can just ask people what’s wrong with their face.”
“Okay,” Neil said, cutting her off. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“Um,” the girl said, her face flushing red with embarrassment and anger. “No,” she huffed, and scurried out of the parlor. Once the door slammed closed behind her, Neil blew out an annoyed sigh before turning to Andrew.
“Hey,” he greeted.
Andrew studied Neil’s face for a moment—the slashes, the burns, the bags under his eyes, the anger in his expression—and tapped the glass above the ice cream and said, “Sample.”
Neil raised a brow. “Which one?” he asked.
Andrew tapped on the space above the chocolate. Neil’s hostility dampened, and he offered a small smile. “You want to try chocolate? The most basic flavor?”
Neil’s smile grew. He grabbed a tiny sample spoon and filled it with chocolate. Andrew took the offered spoon and hummed around the taste he knew so well. Neil dished up vanilla next. Andrew hummed again. He tapped the glass above the strawberry, chewing on the sample spoon, and Neil grabbed another spoon.
Another customer came in. Andrew tapped above the sherbert tub. Neil dug out a sample.
“Um?” the person asked, after Andrew had tried five more samples.
“I’m with a customer,” Neil told them.
Andrew, a litter of spoons at his feet, a spoon in his hand, a spoon in his mouth, looked back down at his options of ice cream and said, “I think I want to try the chocolate again.”
“Where is all your money going? I literally gave you five dollars yesterday.”
“Andrew won’t stop buying ice cream.”
“I don’t fucking know.”
“Interesting. Well, sorry, chaps, but if you want more money, I think it’s time to get a job.”
On a hazy day of summer, so early, too early, Andrew and Aaron walked together out of their neighborhood, down the busiest street in town, through the downtown roads, until they made it to the storefronts of Cone Sold Stober, a sketchy jewelry shop, and a sandwich shop named The Un-Sub.
Andrew turned to his brother and snapped the strap of Aaron’s new work uniform: a white shirt, black pants, and suspenders that looked like crime scene tape.
Aaron, scowling, twisted the pastel pink kerchief around Andrew’s neck and tugged as if to choke him.
“See you in a few hours,” Aaron said, trudging up the steps to his new job. Andrew went through his own door.
Neil was grinning all through Andrew’s training, all through Andrew’s first customer, all though Andrew’s first reprimand from the owner three hours into his first shift.
“I know you boys were raised better than this,” the owner had said. Neil scratched his neck. Andrew dug a sample spoon into the fresh vanilla tub and took a bite, maintaining eye contact with the owner.
The owner, after a pause, batted the air in front of him and moved toward the back, muttering under his breath. When Andrew turned to Neil, Neil was still scratching his neck, but he immediately snickered when he met Andrew’s gaze.
“Stop that,” Andrew said.
“Stop what?” Neil asked.
Andrew filled his sample spoon again—mint chocolate chip—and shoved it in Neil’s mouth.
Neil hummed around the spoon, the taste, the feel of Andrew’s fingers pressed lightly to his lips due to the tiny spoon, and continued to smile.
“I hate you,” Andrew said, releasing the spoon, taking a step back.
“Not as much as you could,” Neil said. The front door opened, and Neil gently nudged Andrew in the direction of the register.
“But just enough,” Andrew replied, batting Neil’s hands away from him, standing at the register, watching Neil scoop ice cream onto cones with mottled fingers, a scary face, a violent attitude—a delicate touch, soft fingers, a warm smile.
They left together out the front door, Neil carrying his longboard under his arm, Andrew turning his head to see his brother fumbling through a conversation with a girl through the window of the sandwich shop. Aaron’s shift had ended an hour before Andrew’s.
Andrew turned back to Neil. Neil, removing his hat, said, “You want to ride with me?” He held up his board in offering.
“I don’t know how,” Andrew said.
Neil grinned. “I’ll show you.”
On a warm summer night, on an quiet road filled with abandoned houses and gutted cars, Andrew stood on a longboard in the middle of the street, wearing a pale pink shirt paired with pale pink and white pinstripe pants, and ugly orange shoes, with Neil’s hands braced lightly on Andrew’s hips. Andrew’s hands were holding the space around Neil’s neck, fingers curling into the damp fringe of the hair at the back of his neck, thumbs cradling the skin underneath his ears. The sun was going down. The cicadas had stopped crying just a few moments ago, or maybe hours, or maybe days.
Andrew was staring at Neil as Neil explained how to keep balance on the board. Neil dropped his hands from Andrew’s hips, moving as if to take a step back, but Andrew kept his hold on Neil’s neck, his head, Andrew’s fingers grabbing Neil’s hair a little tighter than before. He did not let go.
Neil looked up, cocking his head. The setting sun made his skin look gold. His lips were chapped.
“Aren’t you here to learn?” Neil asked, but his voice was a bit husky, a bit parched. He didn’t rest his hands on Andrew’s hips again. They dangled, limp, at his sides.
Andrew tipped and tilted Neil’s head, chin, face, this way and that. His balance on the board was impeccable. He had a skateboard at home.
“That’s not why I’m here,” Andrew told him. He tilted Neil’s face closer, turned his chin up. Andrew had never been taller than anyone in his entire life.
Neil’s eyelids drooped, and his smile turned sleepy, but his tone was challenging when he asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? I have a bit of an attitude problem.” His breath, sweet like mint, dark like chocolate, washed over Andrew’s face.
Andrew moved one of his hands off Neil’s neck, sliding up and around his cheek, cupping his face, a thumb tracing the outline of Neil’s lips. “It’s just for the summer,” Andrew said, pressing against Neil’s teeth until his mouth opened, and Andrew’s thumb slipped inside the warm and wet heat. Everything was so hot. Sweat slid down Andrew’s neck, his back. His cheeks were sunburnt. He wanted water. He wanted something to eat. He wanted ice cream.
Neil smiled around Andrew’s thumb, smiled at the taste of him, smiled under Andrew’s lips a moment later, and murmured, “If you make it that long.”