When I found him, he was wet, sopping wet, his hair plastered to his head. Twigs and branches, pine needles, everything a five-nine height could grab running through the woods, Danny wore it like a crown.
Not a royal crown.
A crown of shame.
Shame for being Danny.
Shame for being outside when inside ached to be in.
I wondered at that. What it was like to be Danny. To be brave like Danny. To break the circle like that…
He walked up to the fire, walked close enough to singe and we all watched the boy watch the fire and Jules said Hey Danny sit over here and made this spot on the dirt and leaves, nudged a couple making out, nudged them over and patted the ground with it’s okay I don’t bite.
Of course she did but Danny didn’t know that, didn’t know he was a test, a test for Jules … another pet project she’d play with and discard.
It was what she, they, did with the new ones, the strange ones. Puffed them up, made them special until they weren’t, and when it was done, when they were done there was laughter, always laughter.
A person could die of laughter, die from laughter, laughter that wasn’t kind.
Danny shrugged, his five-nine making that blank spot, him between the fire and the dry spot on the ground next to Jules, next to the couple making out, though they’d stopped. Not exactly stopped. Their mouths moved, mobile mouths, greedy mouths, tongues darting, but it was the eyes, the eyes of a girl I didn’t know, not well, those eyes darted. Darted from Jules to the blank spot in front of the fire and when Danny shrugged and moved back, a step, then two, backing into a parking spot on the ground, he eased down with the eyes of Jules and the girl looking at each other. Not at him.
Nodding at each other…
Danny couldn’t see that, wouldn’t know what I knew and ignored, because it had nothing to do with me and I reached into the cooler and turned to someone in the shadows hey man did you see and the words flowed, the cool chill of lager flowed and it wasn’t until later I saw movement again, movement past the fire, the fire drawing down now. Nobody tended it, let it die, let it fend for itself and when the dark shape darted away into the dark night I thought I heard something.
The skies opened. A waterfall. Squeals. Jules, the others, laughed and ran, ran for the trucks and the vans and the borrowed SUVs, peeling out, peeling away.
I looked at the blank spot, the spot that had been lit, backlighting a boy, a boy who wasn’t there. But he was somewhere, and there was my bike and his and nothing else.
I don’t know why, but I followed, followed a path that wasn’t, the waterfall parting enough to see, almost. Pondered the words I’d need when I found him, if I found him, but I did. He hadn’t gotten far.
When you’re like us you never get far, you’re always who you are, you wear it inside out, hoping no one sees the pattern, the seams, the imperfections.
He knew I was there. Don’t…
The mist ebbed and flowed, it still carried the echoes. It didn’t matter what she’d said, her and the others. Once said you didn’t unsay it, it was forever, words are forever in your heart.
It’s okay, they didn’t mean it, shit fuck, that’s a lie, they meant it, Danny…
When you’re sixteen, when you’re half a man, half something else, it’s the hard words, the mean words, the cutting words that stay, that take root and grow and grow and grow and you wish oh fucking hell you wish you were him or that one, the one who swaggers, not minces, but you aren’t. You pretend.
Some are better at it than others.
I’m one of them.
That’s why I didn’t hear the laughter. But now I do. I hear it through Danny, through his heart, stabbing him in the heart.
Can I sit?
We’re both wet, sopping wet, and I squish and the sound makes us smile.
He has a beautiful smile, it’s sad and sweet and kind and crooked, tilting up at the corners. His teeth flash in the dark. I want I want I want oh god I want…
His name is Danny, the stranger is Danny, the stranger who’s like me. And I don’t have the words to tell him, to say it’s alright it will be alright…
When you’re sixteen the soft words, the kind words don’t stick, nothing sticks but pain and hurt and wanting.
I used to be sixteen.
The words still don’t stick.
But a kiss…
…a kiss is what sticks, lingers, and it’s soft and tender and then it isn’t … then it’s hard and rough like the words but different, so fucking different, and my Danny is brave, so very brave.
I was seventeen when I found my Danny in the woods.
I was seventeen when I found myself.