Something had taken a dump in Shaw’s mouth. He rolled, felt the familiar crease of his buckwheat pillow, and instantly regretted it. The mouse that had taken a dump in his mouth was currently burrowing up into his head. It was trying to gnaw through his skull. Cold sweat flashed out along his entire body, and Shaw knew he was going to be sick.
“I put your popcorn bucket by the bed.”
The words landed like a hammer, practically shattering Shaw’s head, but they were still a godsend. He flopped onto his stomach, found the bucket blindly, and fitted it around his mouth. Then he puked. And puked. And puked.
When he’d finished, he gently set the bucket down. And then he tried to die.
“It was one whiskey sour.” North’s voice moved closer, and the bucket’s plastic chirped against the floor as North picked it up, and then North’s voice moved away again. “It’s not like you were trying to outdrink some asshole in Dogtown.”
From the adjoining bathroom came the sound of running water and then the flush of the toilet. North’s footsteps came across the room. Those strong, rough hands gathered Shaw’s hair and wound it into a loose knot, and North pressed a cool, wet cloth against the back of Shaw’s neck.
“Here.” Two ibuprofen. “And here.” A glass of water. “Drink all of it.”
“I’m going to die.”
“It was one whiskey sour.” But North didn’t sound confused. He sounded amused. Shaw was used to that by now, the gently mocking amusement that North found in every idiotic thing Shaw managed to do. It used to bother him. That was back in the early days, freshman year, when the only thing that mattered in Shaw’s universe was gaining North’s approval.
Shaw’s first glimpse of North, from the far end of the dorm hall, had totally, utterly ruined Shaw for anybody else. At least, that was how it felt at the time. When Shaw saw North’s thatch of messy blond hair and his blue work shirt, complete with an oval that spelled Mick across his well-developed chest, and the jeans sculpting a magnificent ass and the boots—Timberland, back then, instead of the Red Wings he wore now—Shaw had been lost. Obliterated. And that was before—Shaw groaned again, and this time it was only partially due to the whiskey—that was before Shaw learned that North was smart and funny and kind. Shaw had never had a chance.
That was before, too, the night Shaw had sat on the Sigma Sigma roof and listened through the window and heard North shatter all his dreams with a single sentence.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something,” North said. A chair squealed across the floor, and the sound went through Shaw’s brain like an anti-aircraft shell. “It happened again last night.”
Shaw didn’t dare roll over—he was convinced he would puke if he moved anything more than his eyelids—but he wanted to burrow under his pillow. No, forget the pillow. He wanted to burrow through the bed, through the floor, through the basement, and just keep going. If he somehow managed to dig his way to China like in a cartoon, that would be ok. If he evaporated inside the Earth’s molten core, that might be better.
Shaw’s stomach lurched, and he concentrated on not barfing. Last night. Lord, why had he been such an idiot last night? All of North’s needling about drinking, that had been fine. North liked to give Shaw a hard time. North liked to tease. Most days, it was fine. But yesterday had been a storm of things. It had started with North asking how the date had gone—Hank? Harry? Harold?—and with the disappointment in North’s face when Shaw told him the truth: it had ended the same way, with a slow build of heat all evening and then a flash freeze that left Shaw standing awkward and embarrassed and fumbling for a way to get home, alone, as fast as possible. North’s disappointment had been bad enough.
But then there had been Matty. Matty’s unruly wave of blond hair. Eyes like gemstones—a clarity of color that was sapphire or amethyst when the light shifted. There was—not that Shaw could have admitted it, not that the thought even quite reached the surface—the fact that Matty could have been North’s younger brother, albeit without all the muscles and with slightly more refined features. There was the way Matty had clutched Shaw’s hand, and that familiar rumble of fire in Shaw’s gut. And of course, there was the fact that North didn’t like Matty, which made perfect sense in this universe.
But if Shaw were honest, most of that stupid decision had been about the pretty boy with the cuffed sleeves on his tee and the low-cut white sneakers and the bare ankles. It had been about the way he had leaned across the bar, just a fraction of a degree, toward North and the way he had shifted the towel over his shoulder when North smiled at him, a nervous, totally unselfconscious gesture that only made Shaw hate the kid more because it was so transparently honest. And there had been the moment North called the kid beautiful.
Shaw groaned; his fingers scraped blindly at the floor. “I think I’m—”
“Bucket’s right here.” North’s hand lifted the rat’s nest of hair and refolded the cold cloth. “But try to breathe through it first.”
North was right, as he so often was, and the need to barf passed. North’s hand hadn’t left Shaw’s neck. His fingers coiled Shaw’s long hair. Every once in a while, just accidents of chance, his thumb would scrape the side of Shaw’s neck. It was so wonderful that it was much, much scarier than barfing into the popcorn bucket again.
“What I wanted to talk about—” North began.
And here it was. This was the moment when they had to confront the truth they’d both danced around since freshman year. They’d never talked about it—thank God, Shaw thought with a bubble of clarity through the pain, thank God I didn’t open my mouth five minutes earlier when we were out on the Sigma Sigma roof; thank God I was a coward and I got to hear what he really thought. But now North was going to say something about how he was worried Shaw had feelings for him, and that was ridiculous of course, that was totally impossible, Shaw had moved on, Shaw had gone out with a lot of guys since then, Shaw had basically forgotten, almost totally forgotten what it had felt like to see North for the first time at the end of the dorm hall. But North wouldn’t believe him; North was going to make a big deal out of nothing.
But all North said was, “—is that I think you’ve got a drinking problem.”
Relief went through Shaw like a hailstorm, cold and pinging all over him, almost painful with how hard it hit. He flattened his face in the pillow and laughed, and he didn’t even feel like he needed to puke. Not yet, anyway.
“I think you might need time for detox. Maybe some recovery time in a treatment center.” North’s thumb kept scraping that hot line up the side of Shaw’s neck.
“Of course,” Shaw said into the pillow.
“We’ll have to make some pretty big lifestyle changes.”
“That would really help.”
“If you want, Pari and I could do an intervention.”
“I think Pari would only like an intervention,” Shaw said, “if it was for her.”
“Well,” North said, “I’ve got a list of grievances.”
Shaw lifted his head, and even though the whole room looked like it was under water, he could see that typical North smile lightening those ice-rim eyes, crinkling the corners, without ever touching his mouth. North had matching black eyes today, and a fresh split across the bridge of his nose covered by tape. Shaw wanted to ask when North had found the time for more boxing, but all he said was, “I don’t think you’re supposed to call them grievances.”
“I’m running this intervention. I can call them whatever I want.”
Shaw dropped his head into the pillow again.
“I’d like to take you all the way back to Labor Day, freshman year.”
“Please don’t,” Shaw said. “I’m not ready for time travel.”
As North spoke, he peeled back the wet cloth, and his fingers took up a light massage: kneading the sensitive flesh at the base of Shaw’s neck, the touch dry and rasping—workman’s hands, the thought flashed along Shaw’s synapses like brushfire. “The setting: your dad’s lake house at Innsbrook,” North said. “More specifically, the docks. The characters: Kingsley Shaw Wilder Aldrich, North McKinney—”
“North Ebenezer McKinney,” Shaw said groggily into the buckwheat.
“That is not my middle name, but a very nice try. Tucker Laguerre, Rufus Johnson, and a host of Chouteau bros that you decided to invite for some reason I will never understand.”
“They were cute. And we were all trying to make friends.”
“Well, there was that one Ladue boy you wanted to lick the sunscreen off.”
“Percy was cute.” Shaw found himself dragging the word out in response to the pressure of North’s fingers. “And he read me a poem by Lord Byron.”
“Well, you are a slut for poetry.”
“I would say I’m a—”
“Slut. For poetry.”
Shaw had a brilliant rejoinder, but then North’s fingers dug deeper, and he moaned into the pillow.
“And,” North said, “if you’ll recall, after the equivalent of approximately three-quarters of a wine cooler—”
“I’d been pregaming. I had a big glass of orange juice that morning, and it was old. I think it was kind of fermented.”
“—you managed to wind up naked, in the bathroom, puking into one of Tucker’s shoes. A very, very good first impression, by the way, on my future husband.”
“His shoes were white.”
The deep tissue drag of North’s fingers was hypnotic, and Shaw was surprised that the worst of the hangover was receding. “Anybody could have mistaken them for the toilet. And anyway, Tucker was being a total asshole to you that day, and he kept trying to get his hand down Percy’s swim trunks because he said he wanted to find out manually if Percy was cut or not.”
Then Shaw heard what he’d said. He froze.
North’s hand froze.
“You need a shower. And then we need to get going. Unless you’re not feeling up to it?”
Shaw couldn’t bring himself to look up from the buckwheat where he was burying his face. “North, that was a million years ago, and I wasn’t—”
North’s Red Wings stomped toward the stairs so hard that the whole house seemed liable to fall. Then down the stairs. Then through the galley kitchen. Stomping like he meant to test every floorboard’s structural integrity.
“Shit,” Shaw whispered into the pillow. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”
And then he threw up once more in the popcorn bucket.
About the Author
Gregory Ashe is a longtime Midwesterner. He has lived in Chicago, Bloomington (IN), and Saint Louis, his current home. Aside from reading and writing (which take up a lot of his time), he is an educator.
Learn more about Gregory Ashe and forthcoming works at www.gregoryashe.com.
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