Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 15

I won’t say it’s the absolute worst morning of my life, only because it sounds a little dramatic, and I tend to get pretty tired of superlatives after a while. But it’s certainly up there. I hardly sleep the rest of the night. I don’t think Thomas does either. I’ve never spent a night with him where he didn’t snore at one point or another, and yet, for hours on end, it’s silent as can be over on his side of the tent. I do fade a little from sheer exhaustion just as the sky starts to light up at dawn. Or anyway, that must be what happens, because I never see him leave the tent. I only notice he’s gone after jerking awake from some kind of stressful half-dream. I figure at this point, getting any more sleep is hopeless, and one look at the sleeping girls in the early morning light is enough to drive me out of that tent pretty quick.

He’s the only one outside. Everyone else is still asleep. He’s crouched over by the fire pit, poking the ashes with a stick. He glances over his shoulder, makes eyes contact, then turns back to the ashes. I haven’t seen him look quite this sad in a long time. I go over to him. I squat down on the opposite side of the pit.

“Probably best if we don’t talk much this morning,” he says under his breath. He has the blankest look on his face now. It’s freaking me out. “Maybe you should go do your own thing.”

“All right,” I say. “Good idea.”

I leave him alone. I stumble halfway down the hill and collapse on the ground, near the depression where I tripped and fell yesterday evening. I manage to pass out for an hour or so, until the sun rises and starts to bake me on the hillside, and I hear shouts and laughter coming from up above.

I spend most of the car ride back remembering, replaying the event over and over in my head. It would probably be a lot better for me to just stare out my window, stick my nose to the glass and try to think about other things. But I’m trapped in the middle again, so I don’t have a window, just a compromised view out the windshield, where all I see is a little dirt road that twists and turns for eternity. I swear to you, the road seems about a thousand times longer than it did yesterday.

What I remember most was our sad retreat, slowly back up toward the camp, past the cars, quietly into our beds on opposite sides of the tent, where we should have fucking stayed all along. It wasn’t just a retreat in the literal sense. It was also a retreat from our desires, from anything and everything we might have wanted from each other in that not-so-hidden little spot down by the creek. That’s how much the whole thing scared us. We didn’t say one word to each other the entire way back. He walked about ten feet ahead of me. Not once did he turn back to see if I was following him. I was terrified we might run into Driggs again at the top, by the tents, but we never did.

If you’re wondering what could possibly be going through Thomas’s mind right now, as his shoulder brushes uncomfortably against mine in the back seat of the car, I have no clue. I promise you, nothing in this entire world could be further from my knowledge. To be honest, I don’t care, either. What I care about is how this is all going to play out. I wish I could say I knew Driggs well enough to have some idea what he might do, but I don’t. Jesus, he must have been avoiding us as much as we were avoiding him this morning, because I barely remember seeing him at all. But there’s no doubt his truck’s still chugging along behind us, and that he’s the one behind the wheel.

Against my other shoulder: Lexie. I don’t dare turn to look at her, even though I feel her eyes on me a number of times. From that alone, she might be able to figure out something’s wrong. She’s just so smart, and good, and she deserves better. I’m trying to remind myself of the one good thing that will come from this: She’s not going to be stuck with me anymore. She won’t have me lying to her face every goddamn day of her life.

The rest of the ride back into town is sort of excruciating. My brain feels like it’s boiling in its own fluids, I’m thinking over all of this so hard. We all spill out onto the surface of the parking lot, near the other cars. It’s only eleven in the morning, but it’s already hotter than hell.

I will say this: I’ve never given Martin Driggs enough credit, for anything in his life. That one’s on me. As it turns out, he handles the whole thing with more grace than I ever knew he was capable of. He gets out of his truck and waits for the right moment when everyone’s distracted, moving their belongings and all that. He pulls us both aside. He’s talking under his breath. “I won’t say anything,” he says. “But you two better figure this out soon, and start getting honest about it.” He tosses his head toward Lexie and Madison. “Do it for them.”

Thomas is standing there with his arms crossed. You can tell he’s completely beside himself over the whole thing. “Don’t worry, we’re telling them today,” he says.

Driggs looks surprised to hear it, but he doesn’t say anything. He goes back over to his truck.

The girls haven’t come over here yet. It’s just Thomas and me. Thomas leans in and says, “Go home with Lexie. I’ll go with Madison. It’s time.” And then he walks away from me without another word.

I’ve never known Thomas to break a promise in his life, so when he made one to me over the phone the other day, I had every reason to believe he would follow through with our plan. But I’m not ashamed to say I had a backup, in the event he turned out to be a lying sack of shit. I was fully prepared to go rogue and tell both girls myself. I know that this whole thing with Driggs is the nail in the coffin and all that. There’s no question it’s accelerated things. But the way Thomas is taking charge now, letting me know how it’s going down…I guess I should never have doubted him.

It hits me now that we’ve arrived. This is what it feels like to come clean. The pieces are already in motion. For a few seconds, I get this feeling like I’ve pushed all the air out of my lungs and I’m sinking to the bottom of a swimming pool. I’m just standing there on the bottom. I can hear muffled voices at the surface, but I can’t tell what anyone’s saying. I take a step forward and feel the thick drag of water around me. It’s the craziest thing. Then I get my shit together. Voices become clear again. I go over to Lexie. I ask for a ride. She looks happy to have me go with her, just as Madison is happy to go with Thomas. Jesus Christ, this already hurts so bad I can hardly stand it.

Don’t ask me about the car ride. It’s the most sickening twenty minutes of my life. I have no other choice but to put a face on, because I can’t have Lexie thinking something major is wrong until she’s safe at home. I don’t want her to drive after what I’m about to tell her. There’s this moment when we’re crossing the bridge on Americana and she points out all these hot air balloons rising up out of the park, and I have to act cheery and full of wonder, and I’m just feeling like the biggest piece of shit who ever lived. When we finally do pull up close to the house, I tell her I want to stay in the car. She asks why and I say I need to talk to her about something.

“I guess I should stay too, then,” she says. She sees I’m not smiling. She rolls down her window, then looks at me. “What is it?”

“We can’t be together anymore,” I say. “It’s my fault.”

She’s not doing or saying much, at first. Her face hardly registers any emotion at all. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know what the hell to think. She focuses on one of my eyes, then the other, then back again. She moves around in her seat like she’s trying to get comfortable. Then she holds really still. She’s just staring out the windshield at the front of the house she grew up in. “What did you do?” she says.

I say it in the most simple terms I can come up with: “I slept with Thomas.”

She backs away from me a little. “What is this?” she says. She looks super confused. “What are you doing right now?”

“I’m telling the truth.”

It’s taking longer than I expected for her to realize I’m serious. We look at each other, and suddenly I’m trying not to cry. She sure as hell knows what that looks like. I think that’s when she finally accepts that I’m not kidding, that this isn’t some messed-up joke I’m playing on her.

“I don’t understand,” she says. She seems so goddamn calm, only I know she’s not.

“I’m so sorry, Lexie.” I feel my voice starting to break. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“I didn’t ask for an apology, Niko. I said I don’t understand. That means I need you to explain to me what the fuck you’re talking about.”

“Thomas and me—we’ve been together…in that way.” I don’t give her any details. I don’t think it’s fair to her, unless she really wants them.

She’s looking out her window now. “You and Thomas,” she says.

“Yeah.”

She’s shaking. I can’t see her face, but I can tell she’s starting to cry. She’s got this way of crying that’s completely silent. Slowly, she whispers the words, “What the fuck.” She’s saying them to herself.

I don’t know how I’m still holding it together. Maybe I’m some kind of sociopath. I roll my window down. The world outside looks very far away.

Then I feel her eyes on the back of my head. “Why did you wait until now to say something?” she says. “What made you guys think that was okay, when you both have girlfriends?”

“We didn’t think it was okay.”

She’s crying out loud now. “Well that’s such a shitty thing to do, Niko.”

I face forward. I don’t say anything.

“How long—wait.” She presses her hand to her mouth. Tears are dripping from one finger to the next. “It’s been happening since before we were together, hasn’t it?”

“No,” I say immediately. “Of course not. Lexie, I swear to god, it just started happening.”

“When?”

“A month ago.”

She doesn’t believe me at first, I can tell. Then I watch her start to think back. I know she’s zeroing in on that last week of school, when everything got weird for a while. The beginning of the end. She’s so smart, it’s scary. It’s all coming together in her mind, just as everything between us is falling apart.

“You need to go now,” she says. She’s facing forward again. Her eyes are closed and her face is completely soaked with tears.

“I know,” I tell her. I open the door.

“Don’t fucking talk to me. Don’t text me—don’t reach out in any way. If you haven’t heard from me, it means I don’t want to hear from you, understand?”

“Yeah.” I pull my bag from the back seat and close the door. And then I don’t look back.

We kept referring to it as a plan. Our plan to tell the girls—as if we had outlined some kind of procedure with multiple steps and safety nets and all that. Leading up to all this, I had gone so far as to envision us meeting up afterwards to debrief. But the crazy thing is, right now, he’s the last person on earth I want to see. This moment in time, it doesn’t involve him. What just went down was about Lexie and me—no one else. And guess what? Now she’s gone, and she might never talk to me again. I’ve never felt this guilty in my whole life. Maybe some part of me was holding on to the tiny sliver of a chance that she would somehow take it in stride. Looking back now, I know that was impossible.

I have no idea where the hell I’m going. I’m exhausted. My backpack is sweaty against my back. Don’t ask me why, but I just don’t want to go home. So you know where I go? I go back to those stupid balloons she pointed out. I walk all the way back to Ann Morrison park, which takes over an hour, and by the time I get there, they’ve mostly all landed and are deflated and being packed away. It’s a pretty big park, so I wander for a while toward its center, and I find a big tree with no one around, and I lie under it and go to sleep.

I wake up hours later with one strap of my backpack hooked around my arm. I mean it when I say I slept for hours. I got settled underneath this oak tree around one, and now my phone says it’s after four. I have two texts from Thomas. One says, “It’s done. Feeling pretty low. Not sure I want to talk right now. Just want to be alone.” I can’t tell you how relieved I am after reading it. Normally I wouldn’t be, it’s just that I had been feeling the exact same thing. The second text was sent ten minutes later, and it says, “Just let me know you’re okay.” He sent them almost two hours ago.

“I’m okay,” I reply.

I promise you, I don’t feel sorry for myself. Not even a little. I take full responsibility for every decision I’ve made that has led me to this point. Because that’s exactly what they were—my decisions to make. But being able to acknowledge it doesn’t help me feel any less alone.

Then I hear a voice. I look up, and you can throw me in the goddamn insane asylum if Owen isn’t walking right towards me. “What are you doing under that tree, Savic?” he says.

I stand and brush myself off. “Not a lot,” I say. “What are you doing here?” I’m trying to act casual. Boise’s not a big city by any stretch, but you don’t exactly expect to see people you know around every corner.

“My family’s over there.” He points behind him to some people gathered at the edge of a pond. “We come here on Sundays a lot, after church.” He’s just looking me up and down for a second. “Wow, dude. You still smell like the campfire.”

Give me any of the other guys from school, and they would probably leave well enough alone. But that’s just not how Owen operates. He’s got this look on his face like he’s trying to hide his concern. I know that look right when I see it.

“Whats going on, man?” he says. He’s laying the words down carefully, which has me feeling a little self-conscious. I’m sure he’s dead-on about that campfire smell, not to mention all the other smells associated with sleeping outside and walking for miles and not taking a shower.

“Didn’t feel like going home,” I say.

“Everything okay?” he says. “You’re not looking too good.”

Somebody should give him a medal for getting right to the fucking heart of the matter. I take one look at him, and I’m starting to feel pretty bold about the whole thing. There’s very little I have left to lose at this point. “Not really,” I say.

“Let’s talk about it then.”

Jesus Christ, he doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m not sure you want to hear about it.”

“Of course I do.”

I’ll say it again: There’s nothing to lose. Might as well lay it all down. So I take a breath and I say, “Thomas and I have been hooking up for about a month now. We finally told the girls today.”

He takes a step or two back, he’s so goddamn surprised. “You and Tommy Chu? Are you kidding me?”

“No.”

“Come on, man, you’ve got to be kidding.”

I just look at him. I’m pretty sure I look sad, and tired, and not at all in the mood to crack jokes.

I watch his face change. “Well, at least you told them. Didn’t go on lying to them like some people would.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m not saying what happened was totally okay—if you think about it from the girls’ perspective, I mean.”

“I know.”

“That’s actually some messed up shit.”

Just saying that alone, he’s really got me plunging back into the guilt and shame of it all. It’s what I deserve. “I know,” I repeat. The whole moment feels surreal to me. I’m still not quite convinced I’m talking to Owen about this. And would you believe it if I said he’s getting this huge grin on his face? I’m not sure I believe it, and I’m standing right in front of him. I can’t imagine what has him smiling like that.

“You know there were rumors about you two,” he says. “Don’t worry, I didn’t believe any of them.”

I’m looking at the ground. “Maybe you should have.”

I kid you not, his laugh sends about a dozen nearby geese honking and flying up into the air. “Now that’s funny, dude. You know I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to. You guys have always had that way of acting around each other—like you know all each other’s secrets. It’s goals, for sure.”

“Shut up.”

“I mean it, dude.”

We both look at each other, then away. “Well,” I say, “I wish we would’ve figured it out earlier.”

“Just wasn’t meant to be,” he says. “As fucked up as it is, I’m sure the girls will forgive you one day.”

“I hope so.” I sit down with my back against the tree trunk. “Shouldn’t you be with your family?”

Owen shrugs. “They’re tired of me.” He sits down in the grass. “Hey, so you know David’s gay, right?”

“No,” I say. David is his older brother. Honestly, I was wondering how the hell he was being so casual about all this. I know plenty of guys from school who would’ve turned and walked away the second the words came out of my mouth.

“Well he is. He’s not exactly wide-open about it, but he doesn’t mind if people know.”

I nod. I’m looking out at fountain in the distance. It’s shooting water thirty feet in the air, and there’s kind of a prism effect going on in the mist.

Owen grabs my knee and shakes it. “So when can we expect some little Thomases and Nikos running around, huh? Half babies can be real cute, if you didn’t know.”

“Shut up, dude,” I say. “It’s not like that.”

“Oh yeah? What’s it like, then?”

“I don’t have fucking clue, man,” I say. “He doesn’t either.”

“Well my money’s on you guys figuring it out. Any day of the week.”

“Don’t be so confident.”

He doesn’t say anything right away. I can’t seem to tear my eyes away from that stupid fountain, and for a while he’s staring at it too. He’s probably trying to figure out what I find so goddamn fascinating about it.

“Hey, man,” he says. “Thanks for telling me.”

I look at him. “Sure.”

“I know we were never that close in school. I always thought we could’ve been.”

“Me too,” I say. Maybe it’s the truth, or maybe I’m just telling him what he wants to hear.

“I’m sure you’ll figure this out. You’re the guy who always figures it out. Everyone knows that about you. And, uh,” he pauses. “Well, I think I speak for the rest of the guys when I say we’re all expecting big things from you.”

It’s such an absurd thing, what he just told me. But I’ve reached a point now where nothing can faze me. Not one thing. So I just look at him and say, “I’ll try not to disappoint anyone.”

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