Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 14

I wouldn’t say Lexie got mad at me over what went down. But she did get pretty sad, and I think that’s probably worse. We got back to her house and said goodbye in sort of a distant way, and I drove Thomas’s car home. Later that night, as I lay on my bed just looking up at the ceiling, I got this feeling I haven’t had in a long time. I was so uncertain of my next move, so afraid of what the fallout might be if I made one more wrong choice that I literally couldn’t move. Even the act of reaching for my phone seemed too risky, so I didn’t do it. I don’t know how long I went on like that, just frozen in fear, but I do know that after a while I got pretty freaked out, at that turned into panic, and finally I yelled out a little bit and flipped over and punched my pillow many times until I calmed down.

I text him the next day, during the afternoon lull at work. I say, “Sorry for not talking yesterday.”

“It’s fine,” he replies. “Didn’t mean to interrupt your hangout with Lexie.”

“How is the trip?”

For about five minutes, I don’t get anything from him. Then he says: “Can I just call you?”

“Sure.”

My phone rings immediately. I pick up and we’re just kind of greeting each other and shooting the shit for a minute, and then it gets quiet, and I can hear him breathing in and out. And then he says this: “I can’t stop thinking about you, Niko.”

“I’m the same as I always was,” I say. I lean my head out the serving window and I’m just taking in my surroundings, the greenest of greens and bluest of blues, and all that shit.

“I didn’t know you could be this for me,” he says.

“What’s that mean?”

“I didn’t know you could be this person.”

“What person?”

“The person I can’t stop thinking about.”

I take a breath. I’m going to say it. Someone has to. “What about Madison? Have you thought about her?”

Thomas pauses. A long sigh crackles through. “Come on, man, why do you have to bring her up?”

“You know why.”

Look, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, stirring up all this shit. I want this to be a nice phone call, where I get to listen to his voice and hear how he’s taking to this big new place I can hardly imagine. But I’ll tell you now, I just can’t seem to let it go.

“Of course I’ve thought about her,” he says. “How could I not?”

“Okay,” I say. The call falls silent again. I can just about hear the buzzing of his thoughts on the other end.

“How’s Lexie?” he says.

“Not good,” I say. “She wanted to have some fun yesterday and I said no. I’ve never said no before.”

“What the fuck did you do that for?”

“I don’t know, man, I just—I couldn’t.” I pause. “We were in your car…and I guess everything was just sort of making me think of you…and I couldn’t do it.”

More silence. “I’ve been thinking of you, too,” he finally says.

What a dumbass. I know that already. He fucking told me. “You’re the one who said this could never lead anywhere, remember?”

“Yeah, I know,” he says slowly. “That’s been on my mind a lot.”

I give him a moment, but he’s not elaborating. “And?”

“And I just don’t know how I feel, okay? I remember what I said. But that was before we…” He stops himself. “Come on, you let me put myself inside you, Niko. Jesus, dude, can you blame me for feeling a little different after that?”

Of course I don’t blame him. He’s not the only one who feels different. “I need to be honest,” I say. “All of this stuff—how we keep trying to do both and all that…it’s going to crash and burn. I don’t know when, but I know it will.”

“I know,” he says.

“Then why are we still doing it?”

“I don’t know, dude,” he says. “I don’t know.”

“We have to choose,” I say. “We can’t have both.” Shit, I’m really trying to keep it together all of a sudden. “What do you want?”

“Come on, man, it’s you and me. We tried to stop…but we couldn’t. Clearly it’s what I want.”

“Then we know what we have to do.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Lying to her all this time—it’s been tearing me apart.”

I don’t say anything else at this point. I decide I’m just going to let him figure out how to wrap up this conversation. Just leave everything in his hands. All of it.

“Tell you what,” he says. “We’ve got Markham’s camping thing this weekend. Let’s put all of this on hold until that’s over. Then we’ll just fucking deal with it. How’s that sound?”

I don’t answer him right away. It’s not like I owe him a punctual answer at this point—that much is for sure. He can wait. I’m thinking about it for a minute. I’m thinking that he’s right. it would help to at least know when the hell I can expect this mess to be cleaned up, to have some kind of timeline in mind. “Next week, we’re dealing with it,” I say.

“That’s right, dude,” he says. “It’s all about next week.” He’s sounding so goddamn eager that I want to throw up. “We’ll take care of this shit. I promise.”

We don’t say much else. I try to get a sense of how he’s liking life in the city, but he doesn’t have much to tell me about it. He says he’s been spending most of his time with his cousins in the next town over.

Before hanging up, he says, “Try texting a little more often.”

“Fuck you,” I say. “You try texting a little more often.”

He laughs. We say goodbye.

The sun’s just beating down on this dumb little booth. I’m thinking about Markham’s birthday now. I had completely forgotten about it, even though I fully confirmed my attendance a month or two ago. That was before all of this. The timing isn’t too great. That’s all I have to say about it.

His dad, Lester Markham Senior, owns about eighty acres of undeveloped real estate land in the low, brown hills just north of the city. Markham’s family has a lot of money—a fact I’m reminded of every year around this time. When we were all younger it meant swimming in the backyard pool, gaming on all the latest consoles, endless snacks and fancy door prizes. But for the last two years it’s been this all-expenses-paid night of drinking in a tucked-away corner of the foothills. Jesus Christ, even now, in the middle of all of this, I’m still looking forward to it. I guess if I weren’t, it would make me sort of ungrateful.

Eventually, Lexie does get mad. It’s because I don’t make much of an effort to follow up on what happened. She spends part of the week not talking to me. The truth is that I can’t work up the courage to discuss it. Who the hell knows what I might say? But by the time my shift is over on Friday, she’s forgiven me, and we meet at her place and I make the whole thing up to her.

It’s Saturday again, around four in the afternoon. I’m driving down the arrival lanes at the airport, kind of scanning all the people waiting. And then, from nowhere, Thomas leans out on one foot over the curb. He’s using his carry-on as a counterweight. He has this big, dumb grin on his face. It doesn’t hit me until that moment: Even at this busy airport in the honest light of day, I want him. This desire I’m feeling is probably the only thing in my life that’s gotten less complicated over time, easier to place, more acute than ever. But his dad and brother are here, too. I have no choice but to fight those feelings off.

Thomas drives us home, and everything’s gone back to the way it should be. I’m sitting in the back seat next to Alfred again. Thomas is arguing away with his dad about going up into the foothills tonight. His dad thinks he needs a night of rest after the trip and Thomas is just laying down his rebuttal in that low, husky voice of his: “There’s no way I’m sitting out, Dad,” he says. “There’s just no way.”

Anyway, we get back to the house and I help Thomas throw some shit together, and we head out to meet up with everyone else. They’re all waiting for us in the Albertsons parking lot along Bogus Basin Road. Madison and Lexie are standing like boards up against Lexie’s little car with their arms crossed, chatting quietly like they don’t know anybody else. Garrett is there with the same girl from the party. They’re both talking to Owen and that girl Chloe, who Owen’s apparently left his girlfriend for, based on the way he’s got his arm slung clear around her shoulder. Lexie tells me girls don’t like to be held by guys like that. She says it’s an act of aggressive possession at best, assault at worst. Markham and Driggs are chasing each other around the parking lot, yelling like idiots, occasionally going in for the tackle. That makes an even ten of us.

After heading into the store for some last-minute supplies, we divide up. Driggs drives this big old four-door Chevy truck that he inherited from his dad. The other two couples go with him. Thomas and me and the girls pile into Markham’s blue 4Runner, which he got brand-new for his birthday last year. Madison gets claustrophobic, so she rides in the front seat next to Markham. I’m in the middle of the back seat, squeezed at the shoulders between Lexie and Thomas. I know. That’s just the way the cards fall.

Anyway, we turn left onto a road called Cartwright and stay on it for quite a while. We pass by this large planned community out in the weeds called Hidden Springs, and then there’s not much else around. Cartwright turns to dirt, like so many roads out here do. After bumping and lurching through a rough potion of it, we get to Markham’s dad’s land and the campsite that’s nestled within.

It really is a nice little spot. There’s no drinking water, so we packed in what we would need for the night. There’s a flat area up on a hill where we park, and it descends into this little ravine clogged with bushes and small trees at the bottom. That’s the spot I remember liking best from last year. There’s a moment where I catch Thomas’s eye, and he gives me a quick, crooked smile. And then I take Lexie’s hand and she and I go down there. We go under the branches of this young tree, between a parting in the bushes and find a small runoff stream, still trickling along. It’s the kind that will run dry by August. We sit down next to it, and she seems happy that I took her down here. I tell her about the previous year, how Thomas and Driggs both got really drunk around midnight, and we convinced them that we found a little family of raccoons living near a spot where the water pools, and that they were super tame and friendly. I tell her how, when the boys got close enough, we pushed them in. I really paint the picture for her, and she’s laughing pretty hard.

We hear the distant thumping of music coming from one of the cars, along with some shouts and laughter.

She turns to me. “How about we don’t get too crazy tonight?”

The water’s making a really chill little trickling noise. “I don’t know,” I say slowly. “I was planning on getting fucked up.”

She smacks me on the shoulder. “Shut up.”

We go back up there to rejoin the others. It’s at her suggestion, not mine. When we get there, Thomas is practically humping the front fender of Markham’s 4Runner. He has an oversized can of beer in his hand. “Damn, I really need to get my hands on one of these,” is what he’s saying. “This has the four-liter six, right?”

Markham shrugs. He’s not the type to know what kind of engine is in his car. He’s strutting around behind Thomas, acting all proud as if he paid for it himself, which he certainly did not. “You’ll get there one day, dude,” he says.

They’re all holding drinks, so Lexie and I go around to the back of Markham’s car. He meets us there and shows us the spread, eagerly offering Lexie a whisky-coke. Everybody knows it’s her favorite by this point. She even lets him make it for her. Someone turns down the music and there’s a strange moment of peace where the heat hasn’t faded yet and people are only one or two drinks in, just standing around, sweating it out, rotating in an out of some shade cast by the cars and a single bent-up little tree. There’s ten of us up here on this dry hill, each heading for new places and new adventures and all that shit in another month or two. Nobody’s saying much during this in-between time. Personally, I’m sort of taken by the way these brown hills are turning golden in the late-day sun, as the ravines cutting between them slowly plunge into shadows. But maybe I’m the only one.

And then things pick up. It was just a matter of time. The music gets turned up again and more beers and mixed drinks get passed around. We dig into our provisions and the sun gets low in the sky. We’re acting like little kids, playing this lawless game of tag that spills over the edge of the hill down into the ravine. You should see the way Thomas chases me. I run for this depression about a hundred feet down towards the creek, and then my foot catches on some tangled brush and I fall in the dirt. I roll onto my back and he’s just towering over me, blanketing my whole body in his long shadow.

I’m inclined to say we have a moment. You’d think it would have happened earlier, when we were alone in his car on the way over, but it didn’t. He’s reaching his hand out to help me up, and I’m reminded of that night on Northview when he did the same, despite being completely shit-faced at the time. Back when we knew nothing. Damn, we’ve come a long way since that night. Anyway, the gesture wasn’t lost on me then, just as it isn’t now. We don’t break our eye contact as he pulls me up. He has this look that he’s giving me, and it says, “It’s just you and me.” And for a second, that’s how it feels. But all the others are still around, and it looks like the game has ended, and the girls are picking their way down the hill.

There’s no fire ban, so Driggs brought five or six pieces of chopped wood along. We pair off with our proper partners and collect whatever additional fuel we can find, from big dead pieces of sagebrush to dried-out willow branches at the base of the ravine. Lexie and I gather some rocks together and start forming a vague circular pit, and then everybody brings their folding chairs around. I will say this: once we get the fire going and the sun sets behind the hill, it’s a chill little scene we’ve managed to pull together. We’re all having a pretty fucking good time.

Maybe I’m sounding like a broken record. Maybe you’re thinking you’ve heard all this before. But I’m here to tell you, it’s different this time around. As the night moves along, as every last one of us continues to partake, and especially as the four of us sneak off to smoke this swollen joint Lexie rolled that morning, the ballad of Thomas and Niko is playing nonstop beneath it all. Once we’re back in our chairs around the fire, I’m just watching the moon, and it’s like, all these other people, all the shouts and the laughter and the innuendo—it’s all just layers of static. If you start stripping those layers away, one by one, you get down to that steady current running below. I can even hear it now, if I listen really hard through the gaps in all this noise. It’s just trickling away down there. And guess what? One look into Thomas’s eyes tells me he can hear it too.

Sometimes when I get extra high like this, I have the sense that I could fall fairly deep down the rabbit hole if I wasn’t the type to rein it in at the last minute. I always end up reining it in. Just tuning in to the antics going on around this campfire seems to do the trick. After relieving himself, Garrett returns with a powder-white cow skull that he’s holding at the jaw. He lifts it up over his head and dances around. He’s making some kind of tribal-sounding noise that he picked up from god knows where.

Lexie’s voice grazes my ear as it passes: “You’re appropriating.”

Garrett keeps dancing. He says, “Don’t even get me started on that.” He’s slurring up a storm.

Thomas gets up and steals the skull. He takes off running around the cars. Garrett goes after him, and I hear some muffled sounds of shouting and shoes scraping in the dirt fifty feet away. Thomas comes back victorious. He hugs the skull to his puffed chest, stands over the fire and says, “I am the king.” Garrett slumps back in his chair.

“A gift for the man of the hour,” Thomas says, presenting the skull to Markham.

“I said no gifts,” says Markham, laughing. “But I’ll take it.”

Lexie and Madison go with Chloe and the girl from Borah to mix more drinks. I hear them laughing under the back door of Markham’s car. The guys are going on about some baseball game that Thomas doesn’t seem interested in. He’s never been too into baseball. I look up at him. He’s the only one standing. His face is distorted slightly through the heat and the smoke. Tiny red embers flick up into the night like fireflies. One settles on the tan sleeve of his letterman’s jacket and he brushes it off.

For a second, he’s looking at me, too. Then he looks back into the flames. “Hey there, Nikola,” he says quietly. Thomas never uses my full name unless he means it.

The four of us share a tent that night. It’s rated for up to six, so there’s plenty of room. At first, Thomas tries sleeping alone out under the stars, but twenty minutes later, he joins us inside the tent. He lays his sleeping bag down on the opposite side from me. The girls sleep between us. I went to bed sort of drunk and I’m having trouble falling asleep, but I manage to fade in and out for a few hours.

At some point in the middle of the night, I hear Thomas get up, unzip the front of the tent and crawl outside. I sit up. The girls are fast asleep. I peer through the netting and see him crouched in the dirt, staring back at me. He’s not moving. I know he can see me looking at him. The moon is super bright tonight. He stays really still like that for a few more seconds, then stands and walks away.

I wait about ten seconds, then go out after him. The air outside is fresh and cool. The fire is still smoldering over in our makeshift pit. I look around and spot him between the two cars. I go over to him and we walk a little ways down the dirt road together.

“I got so fucking hot and sweaty in there,” Thomas says. He’s keeping his voice really quiet.

“Me too,” I say.

We leave the road and make our way down to that little trickling stream. We stand at the edge of it, under a tree. Thomas faces me and takes me into his arms. I breathe out, feeling up and down his back with both hands. His white cotton t-shirt is still damp with sweat where it stretches around his shoulder blades. Everything feels so fucking right, I could cry.

“It was killing me earlier,” he says, “wishing I could hold you like this.”

I kiss him. There’s no stopping us at this point, I’m telling you. We get aggressive about it, feeling each other’s faces and bodies and kind of whimpering quietly as we do it. Thomas seems to reach a point where he can’t take it anymore and drops to his knees. He undoes my belt and pulls my pants and underwear down. I’m just out there now, right up in his face. That warm, wet mouth surrounds me once again, and I hang onto a low branch to keep my balance. I’m facing back in the direction we came from, running my free hand through his thick black hair.

And then, from some shadowy place off to the right, Martin Driggs steps into view. The moon lights up his features. His pale blue eyes meet mine. I stumble back and almost fall into the water. I pull my pants up and fasten my belt. Thomas stands and wipes his mouth. He turns around to face Driggs and I come up beside him.

It’s clear by the way Driggs is staring back at us that he saw everything. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more shocked in his life. He’s not that drunk anymore, either.

Thomas takes my hand. It’s a bold move—one I never would have called, not in a million years. He says, “What are you doing here, Martin?”

“Just taking a piss,” Driggs says, recovering, standing his ground. “I followed the creek down here. You two maybe want to clear out?”

“Yeah, okay,” Thomas says slowly. He’s still gripping my hand, but his voice is shaking. “Yeah, we’ll get out of here.”

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