Finalist in the 2020 Voyage YA Short Story Award
I was listening to the new Say Anything album when I saw Kyle McCormick for the first time. I didn’t mean to stare when he walked into the school library, but there was something about him that made me feel off-balance. He was chewing gum in a way that I could tell was loud, even though I couldn’t hear him over my music, and his trucker cap was barely clinging to the top of his curls. Everything about him seemed open and easy and like he enjoyed being noticed, which was the exact opposite of me.
“Whatcha listening to?” Kat snuck up behind me and lifted the earphone from one of my ears.
I clicked my Discman open and the CD slowly spun to a stop: …Is a Real Boy.
Kat shook her head, “Judey-Jude, you and your weird music.”
“Somebody has to be the music pioneer. Otherwise you’d still be listening to Avril Lavigne.”
She wrinkled her nose at me. “Please don’t disrespect Avril like that.”
Her eyes wandered up to where mine kept slipping. “Who is that guy?” she said.
It was a simple statement, but it made something inside my stomach twist.
“Juuuuuuuude!” Kat leapt down the last flight of stairs in a single bound. Only a few days into freshman year and we’d already gotten into the routine of meeting by her locker after school to walk home together. Usually, she didn’t arrive with so much exuberance, though.
“Hey, Kat.” I was leaning against her locker, but I pushed myself off it to stand up straight as she bounced up to me.
“I talked to him!”
“To who?” I said, even though I already knew.
“That new boy. His name is Kyle. Kyle McCormick.”
“Cool.” I fell into step beside her as we walked down the hall and out the heavy front doors.
“It is cool. It’s very cool. And you know what’s even cooler?”
“I invited him to eat lunch with us tomorrow.” Kat bit her lip like she was trying to hold back her next words, but they spilled out anyway. “He said yes!”
“Cool,” I said again. Because what I was feeling couldn’t be put into words. Not yet.
“I think I’m gonna wear eyeliner,” Kat said, “and maybe my plaid miniskirt. Do you think I’m cool enough to wear fishnets?”
“You’re cool enough to wear whatever you want to wear,” I told her, because it was true.
She turned her head to smile at me. Kat has the warmest smile. Most of the time her face is guarded, defensive, like somebody waiting to hear bad news. When she smiles, though, all of the uneasiness melts away, and her face opens up like it belongs to someone who’s never been hurt by life. “Jude, what did I do to deserve a best friend like you?”
I just shrugged because you can’t convince someone that they deserve good things when good things are usually the exception to the rule in their life.
At our lunch table the next day Kat was on edge. Chewing on the cuticle of her pointer finger, her fishnetted knee bounced up and down, as we waited for Kyle to join us. I didn’t show it, but I was on edge, too. I was hoping that he would forget to eat with us and hoping that he wouldn’t forget, both at the same time.
“Hey!” Kyle called, hand in the air, walking toward us.
Kat jerked her finger from her mouth and sat up straight. “Hi, Kyle!” Her voice squeaked in this way it always does when she’s nervous and her eyes flickered to me, knowing I picked up on it. The edges of my mouth twitched upward and she wrinkled her nose at me.
“Hey,” Kyle said again as he slid into the seat next to Kat.
“Hey,” I said back. Kat had clamped her mouth shut tight, probably hoping to avoid another squeak.
“So you guys eat in here? Like every day?” Kyle’s lunch tray was full, but he didn’t touch anything on it. It sat in front of him like a movie prop.
“This is the cafeteria,” I said, “so yes.”
I didn’t mean for it to be a joke, exactly, but Kyle laughed. “No, I mean, like in Florida we used to eat outside when the weather was nice. Like in the quad.”
“This is Pittsburgh,” I said. “The weather is never nice.”
Kyle laughed again.
“You’re from Florida?” Kat said, like he’d announced he was from Buckingham Palace or something. “I’ve always wanted to go to Florida.”
I had to swallow a laugh. I wouldn’t say that I know how to flirt, per se, but I know you don’t flirt with someone by lying about wanting to go to Florida.
Kyle pushed his hat down onto his head, smashing his curls down. “Really? I didn’t think anyone really wanted to go to Florida.” He let go of his hat, and his curls sprang back up, his hat in a precarious position once again.
Kat turned her can of Monster around in her hands—that and an unopened package of Nutter Butters from the vending machine were her daily lunch. I’m always trying to get her to eat real food, but she never gives in. “I run on sugar, caffeine, and adrenaline,” she always tells me.
“Disney World is in Florida,” she said, a sense of uncertainty in her voice now. She was trying so hard. She was trying too hard.
“Disney World and Florida are two different places,” Kyle said. He picked up a fry from his tray, examined it a moment, and then dropped it back down.
I was the only one actually eating my lunch. A packed lunch. At our school, you can tell a lot about people’s home lives by what kind of lunch they eat. Packed lunch kids have parents who care. I try not to think too much about this stuff when I’m eating with Kat, but my mind usually slips there anyway. I know my mom would happily pack a lunch for Kat, but Kat would never let her.
“But still…” Kat pressed on. “You were close to Disney World. That’s pretty cool.”
“I guess.” Kyle shrugged. “I’ve never been.”
“Oh,” Kat said. “I’ve never been either. I just figured if you lived so close…”
She trailed off and the table fell into an awkward silence. I don’t mind awkward silences, but I could sense Kat deflating next to me.
I put my sandwich down. “So why’d you move here?”
“Short answer? My family’s fucking nuts.”
Kat gave a nervous titter, like she wasn’t sure whether she was supposed to laugh or not.
“It’s fine.” Kyle glanced at her and then back at me. “I have my coping methods.”
“Like what?” I said.
Kyle smirked. “I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
“Is murder one of your coping methods?”
Kyle laughed again, and this time it was the sort of laugh that makes you want to laugh, too, so I did. I liked that Kyle found all my jokes funny, even if he maybe found them funnier than they actually were.
“Let’s skip lunch today.” Kyle caught us in the hall as Kat was about to get her Nutter Butters.
The three of us had been eating lunch together for several weeks now, but I use the word “eating” loosely. Kyle never touched his school lunches. Kat always choked down her Nutter Butters after lunch, on our way to class.
“I can’t eat in front of him,” she told me at least three times a week, as soon as Kyle had parted ways with us and the two of us were left to walk to history together.
“I mean, he knows you eat, probably.”
“I look gross eating, though.”
“You don’t look gross eating.”
“I do. Anyway, he makes me too nervous to eat. If I ate in front of him, I’d probably puke.”
“You don’t look gross puking,” I said.
Kat gave my arm a shove. “Staaaahp.” She was laughing, though.
Now Kat hesitated with her hand above the vending machine button. Kyle punched the return change button and her money clattered back out.
“Come on,” he said. “Lunch is overrated.”
Kat shifted her hesitation into a casual shrug. “Agreed. I run on sugar, caffeine, and adrenaline.”
Kyle laughed, and I felt a twinge of annoyance. Why, though, I wasn’t sure. Was I annoyed with Kat for sharing her joke with Kyle when it’s usually something she only says to me? Was I annoyed with how hard she was trying to impress Kyle with her coolness? Was I annoyed with Kyle for laughing when it wasn’t really that funny?
“I like lunch,” I said.
“Jude, quit being a fucking square,” Kyle said, meeting my eyes with a playful grin.
I felt my annoyance slip away a bit.
“Yeah, Jude, quit being a square,” Kat echoed, and the annoyance was back.
“Fine.” I shoved my hands into the pockets of my hoodie. “If we’re not eating lunch, then what are we doing?”
“I’m gonna show you one of my coping methods.” His eyes were still on mine and they were still playful. I was intrigued in spite of myself.
Kat and I followed Kyle down the hall and out a door towards the football field, but we didn’t go to the football field. Instead, Kyle led us into a corner, between a dumpster and the back wall of the school. Even as a freshman, I knew this was where the bad kids hung out and smoked cigarettes and maybe smoked other things. The scent of garbage made my empty stomach turn. Cigarette butts littered the ground and graffiti littered the side of the dumpster. This wasn’t my scene. But, comfortingly, it wasn’t Kat’s scene either. The two of us exchanged glances, and the frustration I’d felt with her melted away. After six years of friendship, we could trade a thought without saying words.
Kyle reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He slid one into his mouth. “Coping 101,” he said as he flicked a lighter. He took a drag then offered the pack up. “You guys smoke?”
As I started to shake my head, Kat said, “I’ve been meaning to start.”
I turned to give her a look of disbelief. What a stupid thing to say. I could tell she thought she sounded really cool, too, which made it worse. She pulled a cigarette from the pack and let Kyle light it for her. She took a drag and, surprisingly, looked like she knew what she was doing.
Kyle turned the pack toward me.
“No thank you,” I said, dryly. “I’ve been meaning to never start.”
Kyle started to laugh, but Kat pulled her cigarette from her mouth, blew out a stream of smoke, and said, “Come on, Jude. Don’t be a fucking square.” Then she broke into a coughing fit, which, honestly, was satisfying to watch.
“Juuuuuude.” Kyle was still holding the pack out to me. That playful look was back and with his curls and lopsided cap, he looked so harmless. Like anything he did couldn’t really be a bad idea. It wasn’t like me at all, but my hand was suddenly reaching out and taking a cigarette, letting Kyle light it for me.
As soon as I inhaled, I knew I’d done it wrong. My throat burned, and I started coughing hard enough that tears sprung to my eyes. Kyle patted me on the back. “There, there. You’ll learn how to inhale. Watch me.”
So I watched him, avoiding eye contact with Kat. I tried again, and it went better this time. I felt a small rush. I guess it was the nicotine, and I guess this was why people got addicted to smoking.
“See?” Kyle said, patting me on the arm this time. “You’re a natural.” He grinned at me. I inhaled again and the rush turned into a buzz that vibrated through my entire body.
I could feel Kat watching me, and even though I didn’t want to look at her, my eyes went to her of their own volition. The expression on her face wasn’t what I expected. Her mouth pinched tight around her cigarette, and her eyes studied me in a wary way. I’d seen Kat look at a lot of other people that way—teachers, other kids, and, especially, her parents—but she’d never looked at me that way. As I sucked in another breath, something went wrong. The rush was still there, but it turned sour. My stomach swirled as the cigarette smoke and the smell of old garbage mixed together.
I shoved my half-smoked cigarette into Kyle’s hand. “I have to go.” That was all I could get out. I clamped my mouth shut and speed-walked away from the dumpster and through the metal doors back into the hallway. Thankfully a trashcan waited just inside.
I guess it was dumb, but as I was emptying the contents of my stomach out onto soda cans and crinkled up school assignments, part of me expected Kat to come find me. There’s no way she didn’t know I was about to barf.
She didn’t come find me, though. Not even when the bell rang, and it was time for us to walk to history together. I walked to class by myself, and Kat showed up several minutes late, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes carefully avoiding mine.
On the walk home from school that day, the air between us felt weird, like there was more space in it than usual. We walked in silence for several minutes before Kat finally said, “Hey.” She sounded almost shy.
“How was the rest of your dumpster hang-out?” I asked, trying to sound casual, but failing.
“Good.” She played with the straps of her backpack. “We just smoked and talked and stuff. It was cool getting to know him better, you know?”
The silence swelled around us until finally Kat popped it. “Are you pissed at me?”
I thought about lying, but I hate lying. “Kind of,” I said.
“I don’t know.”
We both stopped walking and turned to look at each other.
“Do you not like Kyle?”
“No. I like Kyle.”
“Well, do you not like me liking Kyle?”
As soon as she asked the question, I knew that she’d put something into words that I hadn’t been able to put into words. I didn’t like her liking Kyle, but I didn’t know why.
Kat took my silence as a yes. “Do you think I’m not good enough for him?” She swallowed and blinked hard in a way that meant she was holding back tears.
“No,” I said. “There’s nobody you’re not good enough for. You’re one of the best people I know.” It was true. She was. No matter what happens to Kat, she always stays hopeful and kind.
She tilted her head at me, frustration starting to take the place of upset. “Well, then what is it? Why don’t you want me to like him? Are you jealous?”
“Jealous?” I felt my heartbeat go askew.
“Yeah. Are you jealous that I like another boy?”
“What?” I exhaled in relief. “No.”
Kat was looking at me funny, though. Like maybe she didn’t believe me. “Okay,” was all she said.
The next day at lunch, Kyle invited us outside to smoke by the dumpsters again, but I shook my head. “No thank you.”
“I’ll smoke with you,” Kat said, eagerly.
So the two of them went outside, and I was left to eat my packed lunch by myself. As I bit into my sandwich, I couldn’t help picturing the two of them smoking and talking and laughing at Kat’s bad jokes together, and I felt a dark gnaw of jealousy. Kat was right: I was jealous. But why? I’ve never minded her liking other boys, so why was this time different? I tugged my Discman out of my backpack and slipped on my headphones to drown out the questions I didn’t have answers for yet.
As the bell rang and I crumpled up my empty lunch bag, there was a hand on my shoulder. I turned, expecting Kat, but it was Kyle. I slid my headphones down around my neck.
“What are you listening to?”
I pulled my Discman from my hoodie pocket and clicked it open.
“Great album,” Kyle said.
“You’ve listened to it?”
“I’ve listened to everything. Pirated music is free.” He grinned at me.
I smiled back, even though I didn’t believe in pirating music. “Where’s Kat?” I said.
“She got sick from smoking and went to the nurse’s.” Kyle smirked. “Can you believe it? I thought people only threw up from smoking in the movies, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“So what’s the deal with you two anyway?” Kyle asked.
“What do you mean?” I said, even though I knew what he meant.
“I mean, are you two fucking or what?”
I stared at him. I know boys our age are supposed to talk that way, so I wasn’t sure if it was a genuine question or if he was trying to sound cool or whatever.
“Or do you want to fuck her?” Kyle toned down his approach slightly when he realized I was just going to keep staring at him. “Are you into her?” He toned down his approach again.
“Not like that,” I said finally.
“Why not? She’s hot.” He said it casually, but he was watching me carefully.
“Are you into her?” I flipped the interrogation around on him.
He shrugged. “Her taste in music isn’t great.”
I gave him a half-smile in spite of myself.
“So, like, are you gay or something? Is that why you’re not into Kat?”
Kyle’s question caught me off guard, but my own response caught me even more off guard. “I just don’t get into people that often.” People? “Girls,” I quickly corrected myself. “I don’t get into girls that often.” It’s true. In the time Kat’s liked double-digit amounts of guys, I’ve only liked two girls.
Kyle gave me a long look.
I felt my skin getting warmer and warmer as he looked at me. I wasn’t lying about liking girls, though. It would make sense to lie because there was only one out gay kid in our school, but I wasn’t lying. I don’t fall for people often, but when I do, I fall for them fast and hard.
I fall for girls fast and hard.
“Okay,” Kyle said at last, but he was giving me the same sort of look Kat had given me during our walk home the afternoon before.
Kat chewed her lip in silence for half our walk home that day, and when she finally spoke, her voice was quiet, uncertain. “I’m not sure Kyle likes me.”
“Really?” I said. I realized I sounded more curious than sympathetic and I quickly added, “How could he not like you?”
“It’s just a vibe I’m getting.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“So you don’t think he likes me either.” Kat kicked at a crumbling brown leaf on the sidewalk, her voice defeated.
“I’m…I’m not really sure.”
“I thought maybe you could tell. You know, since you’re a boy. I thought maybe you had some sort of insight.”
“I’m not great with that sort of thing, Kat. You know that.”
“I mean, do you think he likes someone else?” I asked, trying to keep the eager curiosity out of my voice this time.
Kat shook her head quickly, though. “No. He told me I’m the only girl he talks to here, then I asked if he had a girlfriend back in Florida, and he said no.”
My heartbeat sped up. “I mean…” I said slowly, feeling the words out, “maybe he likes someone who isn’t a girl.”
“Huh?” Kat blinked, then turned to look at me.
“I mean, you know…maybe he likes a boy.”
I wanted to see her reaction. Her reaction wasn’t what I hoped for, though.
“What?” She frowned. “Why would you say that?”
“It would explain why he doesn’t like you.”
“He’s not gay.”
“How can you tell?”
“He doesn’t seem gay.”
“What does that even mean? How does someone seem gay?”
“Jude.” Kat rolled her eyes. “Come on. You know what I mean. He’s not like Cody.”
Cody. The one out gay kid in our school.
“Not all gay people are like Cody,” I said. “And also…”
“Also, it’s not like gay and straight are the only two options. Maybe Kyle likes girls and boys.”
I was on the brink of telling Kat the truth—the truth that I’d only just realized myself. Kat and I always told each other everything. I’d told Kat about the girls I’ve liked, so this shouldn’t be any different.
Kat sighed in a way that immediately pushed my confession from the tip of my tongue, back down my throat. “I would know if he were gay, Jude. I’m not an idiot—I can tell when a guy is gay.”
I wanted to ask if she can tell when a guy is bi, but I didn’t. I already knew the answer.
Kyle and I had gym class together. Most days the class was split up into the two sides of the gym to play basketball or volleyball, but today it was nice out and our gym teacher had all of us together, running laps around the track. Kyle slowed his pace so that I caught up to him and then he ran alongside me.
“Aren’t I supposed to be the slow runner?” he teased. “I’m the smoker.”
“My healthy lungs can’t make up for being half a foot shorter than you,” I told him.
“Fair enough.” He grinned. Gradually, the rest of the class passed us, until we were running with just the sound of our breaths and our footsteps. I’d slowed down a little on purpose, and he had slowed down, too, to match my pace. When I stopped to tie my shoelace, he stopped, too.
“So…” he said, as I knelt down on the track. “You said you don’t get into people often. “Are you into anyone now?”
The surface of my skin suddenly tingled. I looked up at him, but his face was impossible to read.
I stood and matched his neutral expression with a shrug. “Maybe.” I picked up running again.
As he ran next to me, his curls flopped in and out of his eyes. My heartbeat was fast, but it wasn’t just because of the running. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Are you into anyone now?”
“Maybe.” He shot me a quick look out of the corner of his eye. There was still something hidden in his face I couldn’t quite read.
The sky was turning dark gray above us, which I hated because I didn’t want the rain to end our run together. A rumble of thunder in the distance gave me a sense of urgency that pushed the words out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“I think I’m bi.”
I don’t usually blurt—actually, I never blurt, but I blurted this time, and it felt good and right. It felt good to get it out of my brain and put it out into the world, and it felt right to tell it to Kyle.
Kyle’s footsteps slowed to a stop. I turned to look at him, and he was looking back at me. His face was part surprise, but part…something else. Something that made me feel hopeful.
Before he could say anything, though, the distant rumble of thunder turned into a crack and rain started pouring down from the sky. “Everyone inside!” our gym teacher yelled, blowing his whistle, frantically, as if it didn’t rain every other day here.
Everyone started running, cutting across the grass towards the doors, so Kyle and I started running, too. He hung back, though, slightly behind me, and as everyone else was already racing through the doors, he suddenly grabbed my arm. “Jude.”
I turned back to him and he leaned down and kissed me. It only lasted a second, maybe, but I was aware of everything in that second: his hand gripping my t-shirt sleeve, the goosebumps breaking out on my cold, wet skin, and, most importantly, his lips pressed against mine, tasting like sweat and rainwater and cigarettes.
As quickly as it happened, he pulled away. I only caught a glimpse of his face for maybe half a second before he turned and burst into a full-speed sprint back to the gym. It wasn’t even enough time to register the look in his eyes, but for now, that didn’t matter.
For now, I just stood there, letting myself get drenched by the rain and by the full realization of what had just happened. Kyle McCormick kissed me. It felt surreal, but it happened. Kyle McCormick kissed me, and just thinking those words filled me with a rush that nicotine could never compete with. I took off running, my skin warm despite the icy rain. Instead of following Kyle into the gym, though, I ran to the door that leads to the hallway.
I burst inside, wet sneakers squeaking against the tile floor, then I kept running down the hall, toward the library. Kat always spends her free period in the library. Our last conversation may not have gone exactly the way I wanted it to, but Kat was still my best friend. I couldn’t keep something like this from her. Anyway, I didn’t want to.
I pushed open the door to the library, and there she was, sitting at the table we always sat at. The table I’d been sitting at the first time I saw Kyle. My heartbeat propelled me forward, and I walked over to her.
“Kat!” I spoke in a loud whisper, which for me was basically like yelling.
Kat didn’t notice my excitement, though. Her flip phone lay open in her hands, and she was staring down at it in disbelief. She looked up at me as her ears registered the sound of my voice. “Kyle just asked me to be his girlfriend,” she said.
“Yeah, he just texted me and…I mean, I really thought he wasn’t into me, but I guess I was wrong.”
My ears heard what she was saying, but my brain couldn’t process it.
“Jude?” Kat tilted her head at me.
“Kyle asked you to be his girlfriend?”
Kat gave a confused giggle. “I mean, do we know any other Kyles?”
I shook my head. My throat felt thick. “What…what did you say?”
“Are you kidding?” Kat spoke loudly enough to get a shush from a librarian. Her face shifted from disbelief into happiness and excitement and all the good things she never seems to believe she deserves. “I said yes, of course.” She gave a little bounce in her seat. “Jude, I said yes!”
A cold feeling settled into my stomach. The image of Kyle’s face as he turned away after kissing me popped back into my brain. Panic. His eyes were full of panic.
“Hello? Aren’t you going to say anything?” Kat was still bouncing in her seat.
“That’s great, Kat. Congrats.” My mouth was so dry, I could barely get the words out.
“Thanks!” As Kat beamed at me, she fully took in my presence for the first time since I’d stepped into the library. Her face turned inquisitive. “Why are you still wearing your wet gym clothes?”
I shrugged. “I should go change before next period.”
“Yeah, probably a good idea.” Kat was back to looking down at her open phone, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
I turned and left the library. In the hall, tears pricked my eyes. I walked until I found an empty hallway, then I leaned back against the wall and slid down to sit on the floor. I was sitting next to the trashcan I’d thrown up into only a few days earlier.
“Hey, you okay?” It was Cody, the one out gay kid at our school, approaching me the way someone might approach a stray cat.
I wiped my eyes on the sleeve of my t-shirt and shrugged.
He hesitated, like he wasn’t sure whether he should stop or keep walking. “Girl problems?” he said, shifting from one foot to the other.
Now I was the one to hesitate. “Boy problems,” I said at last.
“Oh.” He stopped shifting in place. “I didn’t realize…”
“I’m bi,” I said.
“Oh.” He laughed, then quickly said, “Sorry. But yikes. So much opportunity for heartbreak.”
“I don’t get into people very often, at least,” I said, resting my arms on my knees and my chin on my arms.
“Doesn’t that only make it worse when you do, though?”
When I didn’t answer, he gave me a small smile, “I know how it feels. It’ll get better, though, eventually. I promise.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “And Jude?”
“Welcome to the club. It’s nice to know I’m not the only non-straight kid in this school who isn’t afraid of who they are.”
As he walked away, my still-wet eyes followed the pink triangle pinned to his backpack. Maybe I was sitting alone on the dirty linoleum next to a trashcan in my wet gym clothes, but something inside me felt bold and loud and don’t-give-a-fuck as the punk music I was always listening to. For a moment, that feeling drowned out everything else.